Thursday, February 8, 2001
Salinas resident Mark Connor deftly balances his first love, composing music, with his duties as director of the Palma High School music program. As he leads his charges through the rigors of learning and performing music, he also focuses on his own growth as a composer. In fact, he recently has combined these two pursuits-his newest composition is a work for high school concert band.
While most Salinas men his age define themselves through the MTV/Wu Tang/country western cultures, Connor looks to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven--as well as Palestrina, Debussy and Schoenberg--for inspiration. These classical giants are his models as he continues studying musical elements such as orchestration, arranging, conducting and, most importantly, rhythm. But his rhythm is not of the hip-hop variety.
"I am writing this piece for high school concert bands to push the genre," explains Connor. "High school music tends to be programmatic, to tell a story or it''s a transcription. Programmatic music is all right because the kids can understand it, relate to it, but to me the transcriptions available are less successful. I''m trying to make my aesthetic come through for this age group in an original composition, neither programmatic nor transcription."
Connor notes that transcription--that is, music that has been rearranged to accommodate the instrumentation and skill level of a high school concert band--doesn''t retain the soul of the original composition.
His composer''s sensibility is offended when he looks over the myriad scores of transcriptions. "I don''t like transcription--it''s not being true to the composer. Something is written for specific instruments. Take Rimsky-Korsakov''s Sheherazade, for example. The transcription doesn''t have the same effect. It''s not written for violin--it''s not fair to go back and rework it in the name of accessibility. Concert bands should play music written for concert bands."
The Polyrhythm Method
After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in music at California State University at Chico, Connor completed his Master of Music degree in composition at the University of Colorado''s Boulder campus. His training and activities as a developing musician and composer include stints with the CSUC Wind Ensemble, as well with the school''s Jazz Ensemble and Choir. He also paid his dues as a professor''s assistant in music theory.
So with a predilection toward atonal music heavily laced with polyrhythms, Salinas composer puts the finishing touches on his composition for concert band, whips his high school concert and jazz bands into shape for their winter and spring concerts, attends various competitions with them, all the while steeping himself in the musician''s life.
The aesthetic that Connor brings to his music was richly displayed last year when the Chico Symphony performed his composition Incantations. Basically a slow/fast/slow structure, the 11-minute work takes the listener on a journey that conjures up images of time and place. It begins with a pastoral passage during which one senses the earth and its layers of geology.
A trumpet announces a human presence, while a subsequent rush of winds and strings belies turmoil and trouble. An ecstatic eruption of percussion populates the landscape with tension, after which a tenuous resolve is reached by the interaction of strings and winds again.
"Incantations was inspired by a landmark in Central Europe," explains Connor. "It was settled by the Celts and has been a place of human drama ever since. You still see remnants of the Iron Curtain. I wanted a sense of history and the continuum. It''s polyrhythmic, with swirling passages, a mixed bag. It''s a good piece--maybe a little ostentatious."
Overcoming a Hostile World
With such a musical sensibility, Connor lives in a hostile musical world. His Schoenberg-fueled atonal approach is just the sort of music that puts many audiences on edge. Audiences shun anything new, anything that deviates from the old warhorses of traditional symphonic programs, and directors and conductors of American symphonies know this. To avoid offending anyone and keep selling tickets, they routinely schedule performances laden with familiar symphonic works while shunning living composers.
So, what are the prospects for a contemporary composer?
Some adventuresome conductors introduce contemporary symphonic music into their programs, but it is invariably in small doses--always with a healthy antidote of Vivaldi, Mozart or Dvorak.
As the younger generation grows into the concert-going generation, perhaps their multicultural/multidimensional backgrounds will affect their taste. Perhaps, they will embrace more demanding sounds and accept the music of a "living composer."
Connor devotes his time these days to his student musicians'' growth and to refining his craft. "I think for me to be successful, I have to dedicate myself to craft. If I want to express myself effectively, the composition has to be rooted in craft," he says. "And all the things I am doing right now are contributing. I am working on my conducting chops, learning how instruments interact in a practical way--the nuts and bolts of my craft."
As Connor writes the coda to a piece for solo flute, he weighs whether the work balances the three elements he considers important in composing: be yourself, satisfy the sensibilities of the musicians, and challenge the audience.
"All the best compositions have these qualities," observes Connor, as he looks across the lettuce fields toward the horizon.