Sounds of Enchantment
Symposium spotlights Nuevo Mexicano composers
“I think his real legacy was his enormous curiosity,” say Christopher Shultis, artistic director of the John Donald Robb Composers' Symposium since 2001. “He was just curious about what kind of music gets made in New Mexico, so he went to the reservations and made recordings.” Shultis says much of what he captured is now considered essential historical documentation of a period that's gone. “One of the great things about being here in New Mexico is that—if you have that curiosity to show up—there's an endless amount of things going on.”
Back in 1989, then symposium co-director Scott Wilkinson came up with an idea to highlight the work of UNM composition students, inviting more 40 alums back to coincide with the university's centennial festivities. In planning this year's events, Shultis took inspiration from that model but expanded the criteria to allow for a fuller representation of contemporary composers who have been influenced by New Mexico's culture, history and landscape.
This year’s symposium presents 55 contemporary composers with meaningful connections to New Mexico. Themed with the state's centennial celebration in mind, all the featured artists live here, studied at UNM or lived in New Mexico for at least a year.
This is Shultis' last year at the helm of the proceedings. He retired from his UNM Regents' Professor of Music position at the end of 2011 to dedicate himself full-time to composition and performance. Although he’s since relocated to Pennsylvania, his appreciation for New Mexico's physical and cultural landscape is evident. Shultis says he believes that Albuquerque's divergence from the niche “scene” mentality of other cities inspires artists to cultivate distinctive voices and fosters collaboration over exclusivity.
“I'm hoping that we all bring each other to these concerts,” Shultis says, “that the Keller Hall crowd comes over to Kosmos; Kosmos people maybe come over to Keller.”
Connections through both academia and locale exemplify the spirit of this year's symposium. One of Shultis' former composition students, Raven Chacon, is participating as a composer and curator. In 1988, a 10 year-old Chacon attended the symposium with his piano teacher, Dawn Chambers, and met sonic pioneer John Cage.
This year, Chacon has two solo compositions slated for performance. Italian classical pianist Emanuele Arciuli will play Chacon’s composition for overly amplified piano, “Nilchi’ Shada’ji Nalaghali (Winds That Turn From the Sun).” And the Chatter A Chamber Ensemble take on his “Biyán (Song),” a composition for flute, violin, clarinet, cello and percussion. The Southwest-based interdisciplinary artist collective to which Chacon belongs, Postcommodity, will make a rare Albuquerque appearance at the Small Engine Gallery showcase, performing a “generative composition based on game algorithms.”
Over the years, the symposium has brought a number of compositional heavy hitters, such as Pauline Oliveros, Cecil Taylor, Robert Ashley, Michael Colgrass and George E. Lewis. There's no headlining act hierarchy this time, but notable guest ensembles include the Robb Musical Trust’s artist-in-residence Del Sol String Quartet (San Francisco), percussion ensemble Gamelan Encantada (Albuquerque), digital arts collective localStyle (Chicago) and saxophone group Iridium Quartet (Illinois / Louisiana / New Mexico).
The scale of this year's symposium is larger, with the typically three-day festival expanding over more than a week of composers' talks, master classes and concerts. Daytime and nighttime events at UNM proper are free and open to the public. Events at satellite venues have varying prices ranging from $7 to $20. A UNM student ID gains free admittance to ticketed concerts at Outpost Performance Space.
There's no one concert or showcase Shultis is most excited about experiencing. “If you really love music, this would be the week to immerse yourself,” says Shultis, “This is going to be something that will be hard to duplicate. I'm going to be at everything.”