Conductor and educator Tim Weiss is at the epicenter of a contemporary music hurricane at Oberlin Conservatory. As director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble, he has played a key role in fostering the formation of eighth blackbird and ICE and the development of many highly regarded individual contemporary performers. Fresh on the heels of an eighth blackbird visit to campus and the announcement of a new Master of Contemporary Chamber Music program he will head, we had the chance to sit down with Tim and find out more about the Oberlin contemporary music scene.
During eighth blackbird’s recent visit (pianist) Lisa Kaplan told a student workshop “Tim formed us!” That’s a pretty powerful statement. What is your role here at Oberlin Conservatory and how does contemporary music fit into the conservatory’s programs?
I am Director of the Division of Contemporary Music, which includes music composition, TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts), the Contemporary Music Ensemble (CME), and our new Master of Contemporary Chamber Music program. Contemporary music is vitally important here at Oberlin. Several years ago we realized it needed to have a prominent, integral place in the curriculum, rather than be treated as a separate entity. The entire faculty agrees it is critical for all students to have experience performing contemporary music. We have four large ensembles at Oberlin – the Symphony Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra, the CME, and the Sinfonietta. Students play in all four of these over the span of their training here and they play in smaller ensembles as well. We believe it is essential for all students to learn a large, diverse amount of repertoire. Even students who end up having a career playing in a symphony orchestra and mostly the classical canon are going to be confronted with new music. Also, to keep their lives balanced and interesting as artists, as musicians, they’re going to play chamber music and likely be teaching as well. It would be irresponsible for us to only provide students with one performance perspective when they face such a diverse musical world out there.
What can you tell us about the new Master of Contemporary Chamber Music?
Many music schools have been adding graduate programs in contemporary music practice. We know Oberlin excels in this area, but we don’t offer many master degree programs. So we set out to design something unique. Starting in the 2014-15 academic year we are offering a tuition-free, two year Master of Contemporary Chamber Music for preexisting ensembles of three to seven players. You can’t enter this program as an individual; you have to enter this as a group. The ensemble will audition before a panel of faculty and each member will audition individually on his or her instrument. This is a full rigorous master’s program with music theory and musicology requirements in addition to performance elements. The ensemble will give three public recitals over their two year residency. At least one of these will be off campus, so there is also an outreach and entrepreneurship aspect to the program, with help and guidance from faculty of course. Essentially we want to help young ensembles incubate and use Oberlin and this degree program as a launch pad for artistic and professional success. It’s the incubation not only of their musical skill and artistry but also their mission as an ensemble.
eighth blackbird, which was formed at Oberlin, recently visited to play with the CME. Do you have visiting artists often and what is the value to the students?
Not every concert has a guest artist, per se, but we frequently feature a visiting composer, performer, or ensemble. We are premiering new works all the time, so when I can host the composer, I will, depending on availability and budget. It’s always terrific for the students to have these direct interactions with established performers, ensembles, and composers. Several things coalesced for the eighth blackbird event. In addition to their legacy here in Oberlin, they have an ongoing residency at the University of Richmond where composer Ben Broening chairs the music department and directs the Third Practice Festival for electroacoustic music. Ben was our composer-in-residence here two years ago when we premiered and recorded his clarinet concerto, and from that experience he asked CME to be the house band for this year’s festival. As the house band we played 15 pieces in five concerts over two days. Ben and I thought this would be a great opportunity for collaboration between eighth blackbird and CME. Of course, we can’t just go to a festival and throw pieces together. So we brought eighth blackbird here to workshop and perform four pieces we took to the festival: Ben’s What the Light Was Like, Six Ways Through a Glass of Absinthe by Peter Swendsen (Oberlin professor of computer music and digital arts), Skipping Stones by Tom Lopez (department chair of TIMARA) and Kaija Saariaho’s Amers. The first three had the additional excitement of being world premieres. There was a nice diversity among the pieces, though all feature electronics. Ben’s was for the CME alone, Saariaho’s for CME and solo cello (played by Nicholas Photinos of eighth blackbird), and the two pieces by Oberlin faculty were matched sextets with eighth blackbird and six Oberlin students on the same instruments.
You mentioned your composer-in-residence program. How does that work?
George Lewis, Professor of American Music at Columbia University, is our composer-in-residence this year. We have had many people in that role over the years. The structure we have settled on is that, at a minimum, the composer will be on campus for one long week in the fall and another long week in the spring. If we can get them here longer, great, but that’s the minimum. When he was here in October and we were planning his week in the spring, George agreed to write a new piece for CME, which is just fantastic. He told me when he was here that he’s written more music in the last three years than he has in the entire rest of his career. So, this is a very prolific period for him and I am thrilled we’ll be getting a new work. It’ll be great.
In addition to eighth blackbird and ICE, very visible, successful ensembles, there are Oberlin Conservatory graduates everywhere creating great music. To what do you attribute this success?
I don’t know. I think it’s some kind of magic. One reason is that Oberlin is primarily an undergraduate institution and it is isolated. It’s a place where students can experiment with their art and their craft without the distractions and the pressures of the big-time artistic world. In many schools, there is a dark cloud over students’ psyches in relation to the profession. How am I going to get a job? How am I going to get into the industry? And I don’t think students at Oberlin are too concerned about that. Of course, as they approach their senior year, they start to think about it, but not as much as at schools where 30% of the students are graduate students. It’s very fertile ground, an amazing musical playground. Our students are freer to focus on developing great performance skills and forming important bonds with other artists. There is a chamber music requirement, including working in new music ensembles. What’s important is to work intensively together.