College Town Grand Forks on grand display
Seventh UND Piano Fest shows city, University at their cultural best
Recently, Grand Forks was named one of the Top 5 College Towns in America. And on Saturday, an event on the UND campus helped show why.
The event was the Seventh UND Piano Fest, and as it unfolded in the Hughes Fine Arts Center’s Josephine Campbell Recital Hall, it brought to the audience hours of exceptionally high-level piano performances. And more: Susan Tang, associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University, not only gave a master class in piano, but also lectured on – and played the music of – Florence Price, Margaret Bonds and Betty Jackson King, three especially inspiring Black female composers of the 20th century.
And more: The event also saw the world premiere of an original work, UND faculty member and composer Christopher Gable’s 24-movement piece titled “Polyptych.”
And still more: Each movement in Gable’s piece was played by a UND piano student, thus giving those students the rare chance of performing a completely new piece of commissioned piano music that never before had been heard by the public.
“I am very excited to take part in this festival, along with my students, and share performances with the campus and local community,” said the Piano Fest’s host, UND Associate Professor of Music and Piano Nariaki Sugiura, in advance of the event. “Given the work we’re premiering, it’s not an exaggeration to say that this will be a historic event,” and one that would be long remembered by students, faculty and audience members alike.
Expanding our cultural history
During her talk, Tang, who taught at UND from 2008 to 2011, introduced the audience to three remarkable composers – all of them, interestingly, from the Midwest. Tang told stories of Price, Bonds and Jackson King’s lives, noting not only how hard it was for Black female composers in the mid-1900s to break into the then-overwhelmingly white-and-male field of classical music, but also how the recent rediscovery of their work has opened up whole new horizons for scholars and music lovers.
For example: In 2009, as Tang related, an abandoned house near St. Anne, Ill., was found by its new owners to contain stacks of musical manuscripts and other documents, many of which bore the name of Florence Price. Price died in 1953, and the house had once been her summer home.
So the discovery – and the owners’ subsequent decision to turn the collection over to a university – saved dozens of Price scores and other compositions from destruction, Tang said. At the same time, the fact that the papers had wound up sitting for years in a dilapidated house testifies to classical music’s neglect of its own. As the New Yorker magazine put it in a story about the incident, “that run-down house in St. Anne is a potent symbol of how a country can forget its cultural history.”
Tang interspersed her anecdotes about the composers and analyses of their music with samples, playing excerpts from Price, Bonds and Jackson King’s pieces on the rehearsal hall’s grand piano. “My hope,” she said, “is that you’ll hear some music that maybe you haven’t heard before – great pieces that are so rooted in American history, in our country and in our music, and are written by Black women composers who happen to be from the Midwest.”
It’s wonderful that the world now has access to this music, she said. And to the performers and music educators in the audience, she added, “I hope you can find one or two pieces here that you can use to expand your repertoire, bringing in a different audience and connecting with people maybe in a different way that we traditionally have done.”
‘Composition is hard’
When Gable spoke, he first told a story of a composition student who had just learned about the surprising complexity of scoring percussion music. “You mean I have to decide all of the notes that I want them to play?” the student asked in amazement.
“Man,” the student concluded. “Composition is hard.”
Yes indeed, Gable told the audience. “Composition is primarily a lot of work. Coming up with the actual notes is of course a big part of it. But there are so many other things that must get done along the way before a composition is complete.”
For example, “the composer must take their half-formed messy scribblings; fragments of tunes, textures, or sounds that they hear inside their heads; fleeting piano improvisations that always seem to sound best when we first have them, then the rest of the time, we spend trying to capture that first magic. …
“The composer will take all of this raw material and try to fashion it into something that other people might actually want to listen to.”
In Gable’s case, that meant spending hours and days and weeks at the piano, supplementing jotted-down melodies from years ago – his own “half-formed messy scribblings” – with other inspirations to craft his 24 pieces.
“Polyptych” was the result. A polyptych, Gable explained, is a multipanel group of individual paintings, commonly created by Renaissance painters as altarpieces in churches. At the suggestion of his colleague Nariaki Sugiura, Gable had set out to write a musical variation on that form: one piece for each of the 24 major and minor keys of the chromatic scale, a familiar tradition in classical music.
“So, regarding this current piece, even the act of writing a set of pieces in all 24 keys is in itself a traditional thing to do,” Gable said.
“But I hope that the way I have approached this project is new, and that it brings something unique to the piano repertoire.”
Peerless on the prairie
Sugiura himself, the event’s host, was delighted with the result – not only Gable’s finished work (although especially that, Sugiura said), but also the way the Piano Fest as a whole brought students, the UND community and Grand Forks up-close-and-personal with the full richness of music.
Take composition, Sugiura said to UND Today: “For me, it’s very important for students to interact with a composer. That’s because most of the time, classical musicians are playing a piece by a composer who already is dead.”
At Piano Fest, in contrast, the composer still is very much alive, and that offers a rare opportunity for students and audience members. “Not only are the students performing those pieces for the first time, but also they can talk to the composer, hear his ideas and add their own,” Sugiura said.
Likewise, members of the audience who heard Gable speak asked him a number of questions during his talk’s Q&A.
“And people probably don’t realize it, but composers also get inspired by this process,” Sugiura said. Professor Gable still is changing his work, and after the Piano Fest, he may revise a piece after thinking, “Oh, this might work better.”
In other words, the performers and speakers as well as the students and audience members came away enriched by the Piano Fest, Sugiura said.
Not bad for a town of 60,000 on the windswept Northern Plains.