What do a D.H. Lawrence poem, a letter from Paganini, an image by French Illustrator J. J. Grandville of an apocalyptic ballet and an old folk tale have to do with music?
Just about everything for composer Karim Al-Zand. Al-Zand's piece, Imaginary Scenes for violin and piano, is featured on the Musiqa program this Saturday at Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
"Each movement is inspired by a somewhat whimsical literary source," says Al-Zand, who's an associate professor at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music. "The plan is for the poem/quote/image to be projected on a scrim behind the players as a kind of backdrop for the music."
Musiqa, a collective of five composers, (two from Rice University and three from University of Houston) are all about expanding the notion of music and the imagination. It's not usual to have some compelling visuals to accompany a work, as in the case of Al-Zand's piece. "Everything on the program is united by a narrative or descriptive thrust," says Anthony Brandt, artistic director and associate professor at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music.
Brandt and his composer tribe, Al-Zand, Rob Smith, Pierre Jalbert, and Marcus Karl Maroney, are dedicated to making new music audience-friendly. "We place a special priority on creating interdisciplinary events. We program horizontally and include the other arts as a way to enhance not to distract," Brandt says. "We want to place music in an atmosphere that is more complete, and that is central to our identity. Music always forms the core, but is engaged with something else."
Karlheinz Stockhausen's The Little Harlequin for solo clarinet is perfect for a Musiqa program, as the piece requires the musician to be that something extra. In Stockhausen's iconic work, the clarinetist, in full costume, plays while he dances about the stage. "The piece is exceptionally hard to pull off, and demands a certain level of virtuosity to perform," Brandt says. "It's always a huge hit with the audience and a complement to the dance to come."
Also on the program is Rob Smith's Hot Seat for saxophone and piano, a world premiere. Smith, an award-winning composer, is an associate professor at University of Houston Moores School of Music. "Rob has written a pithy musical depiction of what it means to be on the hot seat," Brandt says. "The interplay between the saxophone and the piano is uncomfortable and agitated. It has a lot of fire, and propulsive tension."
For that extra art form, Musiqa adds dance to the mix, specifically the young dancers of Houston Ballet II, who be dancing Stanton Welch's dynamic Fingerprints. Set to Nubian composer Hamza El Din's music, Welch's ballet combines earthy movement with classical technique in a highly spirited ballet that really shows off the versatility of his training team. " We leave our fingerprints everywhere we go It's like the butterfly that flapped its wings in chaos theory," says Welch, Houston Ballet's artistic director.
Welch is more than happy to show off Houston Ballet II. They are stars in their own right. The company boasts three finalists including the top prize at the Prix du Lausanne.
"I fell in love with this music when I first heard it on the Kronos Quartet Pieces of Africa album," Welch says. "But this will be the first time this music has ever been played live in Houston, and of course, a first for the Houston Ballet II dancers. Created for The Cincinnati Ballet, Fingerprints has gone on to enter the repertory of several other ballet companies across the U. S. Houston Ballet performed the first movement during the the last gala.
Welch welcomed the opportunity to work with Musiqa, especially when plans for a collaboration at Discovery Green was rained out. He's also on board with Musiqa's inclusive and multi-disciplinary approach. "We all live in this great big city and we need to bring as much attention to the arts as possible," he says.
Rounding out the program is Wynton Marsalis' Blue Lights on the Bayou and Hellbound Highball for string quartet, excerpts of a larger work inspired by the culture of New Orleans' social clubs. Brandt adds, "It's very accessible and the images are so clear."
After a Musiqa evening we might jump to the conclusion that music is not so abstract after all, and in fact, is quite tethered to today's world.