Can the Mizzou New Music Initiative Turn Missouri Into the Next Vienna?

alarm will sound_opt.jpg
Photo by Justin Bernhaut
Tomorrow, Alarm Will Sound (pictured) will take on the original work of eight composers as part of the Mizzou New Music Summer Festival.
Patrick David Clark uses the word kaleidoscopic three times in a single discussion about the field that has become his life: music composition. It's a great word but an even better image, one he tacks to his most recent composition, "Ptolemy's Carousel," the Mizzou New Music Initiative that supports it and the summer festival where it will be performed live tomorrow in Columbia.

This last part -- the ability to see a piece fully realized through a full orchestra -- is rare, and it's one of the foundations of continuing the art of composition. It's also kaleidoscopic.

"It's music with memory," Clark says of his style of composing. "By memory, I mean there are references, quotations, found objects. You'll hear bits and fragments of other pieces. It's often a deconstruction of the memory people have of other music."

Clark, a St. Louis native, is one of eight composers whose original work will be played tomorrow at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts by Alarm Will Sound, a 20-person chamber orchestra known for quick and dynamic interpretations. In the field of music composition, most people think the problem is coming up with the music, but the real issue is finding a way to actually see it realized. If music programs can often be the stepchildren of public universities, composers can be the stepchildren of those programs.

For this reason, to strengthen the vitality of an art that might otherwise die, Dr. Jeanne Sinquefield and her husband, Rex Sinquefield, have contributed significantly to efforts to resuscitate it with funding for Mizzou's New Music Initiative, the festival's parent program. The initiative searches out and encourages musical talent in students, and the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation awards the Sinquefield Composition Prize every year. This year, it went to Clark.

"Think about it like little league," says Jeanne Sinquefield, who plays upright bass and has been involved in orchestras for 50 years. "You have hundreds of kids who play little league. They eventually get to semi-pro or maybe even pro for the lucky ones. But in order to have a pro league, you have to have little league. You have to make an effort to find and grow these composers. They're out there, but you have to find them."

Composers who become involved with the initiative are not limited in the scope of their pieces by adherence to a single genre. They need only create music that can be interpreted by an orchestra, though previous winners of the Sinquefield Prize have focused on choral arrangements. The applications for this year's summer festival numbered around 120 people, eight of whom were selected to receive the attention of Alarm Will Sound and work with composition phenoms Anna Clyne and Roger Reynolds, a Pulitzer winner. Since the initiative's beginning, it has commissioned more than 100 pieces.

"There was a period when all the great music was coming out of Vienna, this really small place in the world," Sinquefield says. "They just happened to have a structure of patrons where you could successfully go and make this happen and be created and performed. I want Missouri to become that place for classical music today."

Clark, who holds a degree in composition from Mizzou, is using his Sinquefield Prize to study conducting at the graduate level at the same school. He entered school as a journalism major and changed his mind too late to become a musical performance major, a natural progression that veered an eerily straight path to the composition side of the art. When asked why he made the decision - and why he continues to support it today -- the 43-year-old pauses.

"I love these questions because they're not easy to answer," he says. "There are many levels of depth that are not touched on in popular music. We have to make sure we keep these institutions, otherwise the art will die and there will be only commercial music. We don't ever want that to happen."

It took Clark only six weeks to finish "Ptolemy's Carousel," and it will take less than an hour to hear it realized by Alarm Will Sound, a description one composer likened to driving a Ferrari. That's not the comparison Clark uses. "I'm hoping it will be kaleidoscopic, like stained glass," Clark says. "I hope the audience will realize that this is important, that music and art need to be explored in this way. And that's what this festival is all about."

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