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Mannes Enters the Modern Era

With its centennial just a few seasons away, Mannes College The New School for Music has redefined its relationship to music education. MATTHEW SIGMAN reports.

Mannes Enters the Modern Era hdl 813
Illustrations: Janusz Kapusta
© Janusz Kapusta 2013
Mannes Enters the Modern Era lg 813
© Janusz Kapusta 2013

When the subject turns to opera, Richard Kessler leaps out of his chair. As dean of Mannes College, the elite music conservatory on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Kessler is elated at the potential for collaborating with the sibling colleges with which Mannes coexists under the aegis of the New School, New York City's longstanding university committed to creativity and progressive ideas. Long a guardian of Bach-to-Brahms tonality (Renaissance music has been considered as heretical as Minimalism), Mannes, under Kessler's leadership, is now implementing a plan that will not only broaden the curriculum and repertoire for its consummately talented performers and composers but perhaps enable them to make a living, too. 

A cross-disciplinary opera production would be emblematic of the results Kessler hopes for in guiding one of America's great conservatories into the modern era. "Just imagine the possibilities if we do Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking," Kessler says, respectfully eschewing canonical masterpieces in favor of variations on a theme of capital punishment. A coproduction designed by students from the New School's Parsons School for Design would present dazzling possibilities for innovation in costumes and scenery. Development of symposia through the New School's Eugene Lang College for Liberal Arts would offer the opportunity for scholarship and campus engagement. Music, drama, design, politics, social science, education, and community outreach with a downtown aesthetic — it doesn't get more "New School" than that.

The prospect of such innovation is inevitably ruffling the feathers of students, faculty and alumni. Conservatory training, particularly for performance majors, is a zero-sum game: there are only so many hours in a day for classes, lessons, orchestra rehearsals, chamber rehearsals, recitals, gigs and, of course, practice, practice and practice. To fortify its offerings of contemporary music and add coursework in entrepreneurship requires that the school dial down some of its famously intensive requirements in traditional core skills such as ear-training and theory. The "old" Mannes minted performers for the stage. The "new" Mannes will nurture "citizen artists" who perform in multiple genres, compose in various styles, teach in higher education, work as arts administrators and chart their own careers without the luxury (or necessity) of an agent, a manager or a publisher. 

Among the catalysts recruited by Kessler are composers Lowell Liebermann, who joined the Mannes faculty last fall, and Missy Mazzoli, who comes on board this September. Liebermann's highly tonal works have long been embraced by mainstream performers; he is the rare composer who maintains a steady stream of commissions in all genres — orchestral, chamber, solo and opera (Miss Lonelyhearts, Picture of Dorian Gray). He has avoided academic positions but was lured to the Mannes composition faculty last year when Kessler offered him the opportunity to start up the Mannes American Composers Ensemble (MACE). "My goal is to play contemporary, living composers and expose the students and the audience to as broad a spectrum as possible," he says. "I'm trying to give them a sense of the variety of what's out there." Programming has ranged from established composers such as Michael Daugherty, William Bolcom and Paul Moravec to thirty-somethings such as Andrew Norman and Mason Bates, the composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, whose works for orchestra and electronica have received rave reviews — and whose alter ego DJ Masonic inspires raves of a different kind with his club-scene electronic-classical fusions.

MACE filled up immediately in its first year, and Liebermann already anticipates the need for auditions for the coming year. "People want to be in the group because they have curiosity," he says. "They are motivated. They want to learn new music." Reactions from other faculty have been positive, as have reactions from students, who have told him that enhanced exposure to performing contemporary music has improved their sight-reading at auditions and their ability to grasp new scores. Might the study and performance of contemporary music be linked to enhanced job prospects? Liebermann hastens to add that opportunism is not part of his philosophy for composing, teaching or programming. "I don't think about career things," he says. "I just think about the music." But, he allows, the study and performance of contemporary music does expand a student's capacities. "They are dealing with rhythmic and technical difficulties that you just don't encounter in older music. You are going to be confronted with new ways of playing and styles. It forces you to be flexible."

Missy Mazzoli, whose compositions are equally at home uptown at Carnegie Hall, in the form of orchestral works, or downtown at the Kitchen, as electronic–vocal collaborations, has no qualms about fitting her decidedly non-conservative pedagogical approach into the Mannes environment. "People in academia often see an artificial divide, as if teaching new music is going to edge out the classical and somehow threaten the amount of time we can spend on the music of the past," she says. On the contrary, she believes the past and the present are inextricably linked, and that it is the teacher's responsibility to help germinate the ideas of students without adherence to any particular era or school of composition. She is excited about explorations of electronica, Auto-Tuning and sampling. "School is the time to expand and fail without consequence," she says.

And yet to tinker with tradition at Mannes creates a legitimate concern for an institution where pedagogy is provenance: the poetry of inner voicing that today's Mannes piano-performance major learns from the hands of faculty member Richard Goode is no more than an arm's length from Goode's teacher, the legendary performer and pedagogue Mieczyslaw Horszowski, a student of Theodor Leschetizky, who studied with Carl Czerny, the prodigious student of Beethoven. Such profoundly intimate degrees of separation exist throughout the Mannes faculty, many of whom have been on the roster for as long as fifty years. Their grievances are not old-guard nostalgia. They are passionately committed to the foundations and techniques that have established the careers of mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, tenor Yonghoon Lee and myriads of leading vocalists, instrumentalists and composers.

But Kessler doesn't see rigor and innovation as mutually exclusive objectives. He cites journalist Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 Hour Rule" — such is the number of dedicated hours required to achieve outsized excellence — as a barometer of the new Mannes approach. "Do we know how many hours of training it takes to be an opera singer? Does it take 10,000 hours? And what if we provide 9,000 hours for vocal training and use the other time to teach communication?" Global stardom on the opera stage is still the stuff of dreams, but blogging, press releases, creating program notes, writing grants, producing concerts and performing music of the present are the solfège of reality.

Kessler is backed with the full support of New School President David Van Zandt. "Virtuosity is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success," says Van Zandt. Musicians, he believes, are no less subject than others to a changing world economy that requires and rewards innovation in every field. "They have to have a way of relating to audiences, understanding their audiences," he says. "They have to create their audiences."

Increasingly, the satchel of professional skills necessary for today's conservatory-trained performers and composers must include the ability (and agility) to combine digital and acoustical instrumentation. Say the word "electronic" even to the youngest musician, and the immediate association, with reverence, is Milton Babbitt's Philomel, the landmark 1964 work for synthesizer and live and recorded soprano voice. Mason Bates had numerous interactions with Babbitt at Juilliard and admired him greatly, but to Bates such early electronic forms were exercises at best, lacking in emotional quality. "For serial composers, electronics were this incredible thing you could control with precision," says Bates. "For me, electronics is not a means of control. It is an extension of the imagination." 

Bates's imagination extends far and wide: The B-Sides for orchestra and electronica offers an aural guide to surreal landscapes, linking ground control to major chords by mixing the voices of NASA with the instruments of the orchestra. In Rusty Air in Carolina, electronically-derived katydids are conjoined with the blues by way of a chamber orchestra. For Alternative Energy, performed at Carnegie Hall by the Chicago Symphony under Riccardo Muti, recordings from the FermiLab particle collider are presented alongside percussive use of junkyard objects.

Jason Freeman, who studied at Yale and Columbia and now teaches at Georgia Tech and leads its contemporary-music ensemble, Sonic Generator, is also at the forefront of acoustical-digital composition. As much at home in the computer lab as in the concert hall, he establishes his priorities clearly: "I'm a composer first and a computer musician second. I am not a computer scientist." Sketching breaks down the wall between performers and audiences, using mobile devices that enable a feedback loop between listeners and musicians. ETHL, for string quartet and laptop quartet, integrates pre-recorded samples with real-time composition.

Despite his embrace of technology, Freeman says his focus is "much less on creating new sounds than on creating new experiences." Technology offers new ways to engage musicians as well as engage audiences. Yet Freeman says there are limits: "Electronics open the possibility to create any conceivable sound, but most sound horrible. The challenge becomes learning how your ear works and how we perceive sound, how we create sounds that are truly new and interesting. The overwhelming majority of electronic music you hear does not accomplish that."

Just as communicating with audiences is a necessary requirement for today's composer, so is effectively communicating with musicians, especially singers. "It's a very particular kind of animal, compared to talking to instrumental players," says Bates. "Their instrument is their body." Adjustments in vibrato or pitch, particularly in works that involve fixed electronic rhythms or tonality, have to be conveyed in a manner that enables interpretation without simply requiring mimicry. Freeman agrees that when it comes to singers a higher degree of respect is in order: "Their control is more direct and more personal than any other instrument can be. It's a bit more mysterious. I can understand how a cellist plays, or a flutist. I can sing, but I can never sing the kind of things that real singers sing." Missy Mazzoli's SALT (a wryly titled tribute to Lot's wife) is written for voice with both live and pre-recorded cello. "It's a strange environment to put a singer into," she notes, but she was grateful to have as vocal soloist for its premiere Helga Davis, a pillar of the new-music scene whose longstanding association with director Robert Wilson prepared her for the compositional challenge.

Mazzoli, her new Mannes teaching responsibilities included, is perhaps emblematic of the citizen musician/composer/performer that the New School hopes to forge in order to take the conservative out of conservatory: when not composing, teaching and promoting the works of others, Mazzoli gigs at bars, clubs, "alt" venues or concert halls with Victoire, the band she founded that fuses traditional instruments with electronics.

A "band"?

"Even in 2013, if you tell people you are a composer, they think of Beethoven or Mozart or someone dead for 100 years," she says. "If you say, 'I'm in a band,' they understand you are going to stand up and play music you wrote. There is an immediate understanding without the barrier of telling people you are a 'composer.' People are more open to the music. And it's not dumbed-down or simplified."

She is also a student herself: in a program funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, she is spending three years as composer-in-residence with a consortium including Opera Philadelphia, Music-Theatre Group and Gotham Chamber Opera. The program offers her the opportunity to observe rehearsals and performances, study scores, and workshop an opera of her own. "It's a total immersion in opera — something you don't usually get in a conservatory," she says.

Among the teachers who have inspired her, Mazzoli singles out David Lang of the Yale faculty for his "omnivorous" tastes and his active engagement with music of the past as well as performers of the present. "My goal with my students at Mannes is to give them a real-world education — to bring them into rehearsals, to watch ensembles working, and to introduce them to performers who in ten years will be playing their music." spacer

MATTHEW SIGMAN is editor of Opera America magazine. A three-time winner of the ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism, he has written for American Theatre, The Voice and Symphony, and his work has appeared on American Public Media's Performance Today.

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6