New Music Ensemble performs Music in their Words project

GVL / Claire Fisher

GVL / Claire Fisher

Claire Fisher

Music and words seem to go well together but for the composers commissioned for the “Music in their Words” project, combining the two presented a unique challenge. Grand Valley State University’s New Music Ensemble recently commissioned six composers to write a piece of music and include spoken words of a composer they admire.

“We commissioned six composers to write works with the speaking voice of a composition hero of theirs,” said Bill Ryan, director of the New Music Ensemble. “We were looking for them to choose the voice of someone who impacted them in some way: a mentor, a teacher, there was no limitation on that.”

The New Music Ensemble is a GVSU group that plays music written in the last 25 years. Founded in 2006 by Ryan, the undergraduate ensemble promotes a variety of new music through commissions, tours, recordings, educational events, workshops and videos.

The composers commissioned for the Music in their Words project were chosen by Ryan, who said he was looking for people whose work he admired. He said the variety of the results coming in from each composer was interesting to him.

“I chose people who I admired,” Ryan said. “They had to be someone whose music I enjoyed, but also a person that would be pleasant to work with. It was interesting to me just how each of the composers incorporated the words; they all interpreted it in different ways.”

Marc Mellits, a composer commissioned for the project, wrote his piece, “Processations,” using the speech of Steve Reich, a composer and friend of his. The piece has Reich’s speech interspersed throughout the music.

The voice recording sounds old and distant, and many of the words aren’t clear enough to understand. But through the confusion, the audience can clearly hear Reich say the words: “Pieces of music are like processes.”

While the New Music Ensemble performs the piece, cellist Kevin Flynn sits at a control board and must cue the words in time to play in the piece where the composer wrote them to overlap with the music.

“Marc (Mellits) cut up these little snippets of speech of Steve (Reich) talking and these sentences are triggered by our cellist,” Ryan said. “(Flynn) has a score and a part to follow. That’s his instrument for this piece. And he hits the button, we hope on time, and then the speech goes through some processes.”

Flynn said one of the challenges for the musicians during pieces that contain recordings, such as the Music in their Words pieces, is staying in time.

“You don’t have any flexibility when you play with a recording or a video,” Flynn said. “The challenge is staying right on the beat. There’s no room to bend the (tempo), for us to fall behind. We have to stay with it because otherwise the whole thing is off.”

At their performance on Feb. 13 at the Mason First United Methodist Church, the New Music Ensemble performed pieces from the Music in their Words project along with other pieces from its repertoire.

2014 alumnus Joshua Shomsky attended the performance and said he thought the Music in their Words project was an interesting exploration of new music.

“It’s a creative thing; it’s something you don’t often hear,” Shomsky said. “I think it explores the idea of music being more than just instruments playing. It’s sound. Where is the line between music and sound? Or is there a line? It’s a good way of being creative and pushing the boundaries.”

Member of the church and 1967 graduate of GVSU, Chris Bement, said she was impressed to see groups from GVSU like the New Music Ensemble performing in her community. She particularly enjoyed the piece “Baby Chicken” by Marc Mellits in which the ensemble plays alongside a short video.

“I’m just so impressed when people can absolutely be spot on accompanying something that is on the screen that’s already been done because that’s not easy to do,” Bement said. “Grand Valley has grown exponentially since 1967. It was just really a fun performance. There is so much work involved in putting this concert all together. I really appreciate all the effort. It was so fun and cleverly done.”

The New Music Ensemble is celebrating their 10th anniversary. They will be performing a celebratory concert at 4 p.m. on April 2 at the Peter Martin Wege Theater in Grand Rapids. The performance will be free and open to the public.