Our TenFourteen Project

When Rob Amory, a Trustee of the Jebediah Foundation approached me in February 2011with an extravagant proposal to commission ten composers for our 2014-15 season—a cycle he calls Project TenFourteen—he made one thing crystal clear.  The composers were to confront, each in his or her way, “the human condition, common to us all.”

Initially, I was dubious about our prospects for success.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t imagine ten composers, especially these ten gifted artists, taking the challenge seriously and composing music about the human condition.  The problem was that I couldn’t imagine any worthy composer making music that was not about the human condition.  How would these compositions be different?  But Rob’s point of departure was not to be easily shunted aside. In the nearly four years it has taken to prepare Project TenFourteen, I have often mused about what it might mean explicitly to confront our human condition through music.  Many of the composers must have wondered too.  I have fielded such questions from them as, “Does this mean we should compose some kind of political music?”  “Should I use voice so that a text can make my point of view clearer?”

Non-guidance has always been my favorite kind of guidance; it shapes without instructing. So, in the manner of psychotherapists (and conductors) everywhere, I asked in return, “And, how do you feel about that?”

With an invitation as ample as “reflect on being human,” the first logical step would be to make things as concrete as possible, beginning by narrowing the options.  Indeed, the composers quickly imposed restrictions on themselves. They limited the number of instruments or the kinds of special techniques they would use. They put boundaries on matters as sophisticated as their harmonic and melodic palette and as simple as overall duration.  And as options narrowed, compositional points-of-view became more focused. A composer who creates a limit does two things: she enforces a restriction that impedes exploration in a certain direction. She also releases pressure in the opposite direction, making exploration more likely along that potentially fruitful, and now depressurized, area. Thus, as in Bernoulli’s Principle, an acceleration in the stream of ideas follows in direct relation to a considered limitation, but along the vector opposing it.  Before any of us knew it, ideas were surging and roiling, gathering both density and velocity.

The unfolding of a musical composition is always fascinating, but I wondered whether this special set of commissions inspired a different process.  In other words, was the process of composition itself—as distinct from the resulting piece of music—able to respond to the human condition? Among the many things that Project TenFourteen has demonstrated to me is that the act of composing music—the thinking, planning, scheming, and imagining—reveals a distinctly human dimension in creativity.

Let’s start with a personal axiom of my own: music does not consist solely—perhaps not even mostly—of the presentation of musical sounds.  For me it is first and foremost a web of interactions.  These interactions link composers and performers, to be sure, but they also reach out to listeners, concert presenters, music critics, and beyond.  A piece of music can even reach people who have not heard or read about it, but are nevertheless buoyed along on the waves and eddies it created.  It was marvelous to see each TenFourteen composer confront creation, not as the employment of a skill set involving sonic choices, pitch matrices, or the blueprints of form, but as the response to the essential question: How does this music enrich the lives of those for whom it is intended?  This simple criterion supplanted the commonplace metrics of success in the world of classical music—style, popular appeal, ticket and record sales, outreach potential—and replaced them with the only standards that count:  Might someone be moved by this music? Would someone’s life be made richer?

My conversations with Project TenFourteen composers in the early stages of their work illuminated for me the importance of a composer’s avenue, that is to say the path by which a composer connects his first fantasies and ideas about a piece with the sounds and ideas that eventually reach his listeners.

A composer who creates an effective avenue can use it to enhance both the beginning and the end of the compositional process. Imagine this: the buzz of an idea fascinates a composer. This idea passes via an avenue or avenues through compositional stages of increasing refinement and artistic rigor.  Eventually the idea is realized as a piece of music, experienced in a concert by an audience member. But this moment of active, conscious listening is not “the end.”  In fact it is just the mid-point of the process. A listener reverses the progression, first examining the piece as sound, and then, through reflection, extracting a world of ideas from it.  Perhaps with the passage of time (and if a composer has constructed his avenues well), what will remain in the memory of the listener will be some version of the original buzz that motivated the composer in the first place. Project TenFourteen focuses our attention on the way the buzz of an idea traverses the avenue a composer has created for it.

In fact one view of music history involves tracking shifts in composers’ preferred avenues—interpolations in the buzz cycle, if you will.

For example, until Kant, Beethoven, and the other late 18th century zealots of the Enlightenment came along, the Church and the landed aristocracy held a virtual monopoly on what we considered “serious” music.  Compositional avenues of that period dictated that “classical music” was to be written for the rich, the Godly—or preferably both.   But a radical tidal wave of new thinking, fomented by Beethoven and his contemporaries, forged by the French Revolution and furthered by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, smashed the ecclesiastical hegemony—redirecting art along three new meridians: liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Talk about the human condition!

The egalitarian precepts of the Enlightenment continue to guide our attempts to extract meaning from music. Even after the complex codicils of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we still take comfort in music that treats humanity as more strongly bonded by its commonalities than split by its differences.  But arguably Beethoven and his cohort cared more about humanity than about people. Such thinking might have been acceptable two hundred years ago, but to a contemporary composer seeking to communicate with individual human beings and their messy lives, the broad application of classical-era bromides seems aloof and insufficient.

This brings us to the present, where we rightly expect music to respond honestly to us and not to a conveniently packaged collection of human qualities.  In short, we expect new avenues.  Composers have begun to listen to us as much as we listen to them, and to compose music that reflects our broad and unwieldy spectrum of personal histories, intellectual orientations, and stylistic preferences.  But herein lurks a danger: in our desire to personalize the experience of listening to music, we risk creating the music of autobiography.  As we seek a music that responds to each of us, we risk sacrificing music that speaks to all of us.

It was just as we were balancing tenuously on the tightrope of these distinctions – between music as something universal and aspirational and music as a force that is personal and with shifting relevance—that Rob Amory tossed us a weighted medicine ball in the form of Project TenFourteen.  To the best of our abilities we have kept our balance, but of course the ultimate judgment will be yours.

Listen to what we have learned so far.  The Polish composer, Agata Zubel, wrote about the view of historical time in her new work, where to: “synergy [among diverse peoples] … makes it possible to look both sideways… and back.”  I smiled when I realized that I was not the only one who obsessively picks at loose threads in the historical weave.  Gabriela Ortiz took a more direct route in her Corpórea when she declared it to be, “about the duality between the mind and the body.” The work is dedicated to the Mexican diplomat Gilberto Bosques Saldívar, who rescued tens of thousands of Jews and Spanish republicans, saving their bodies and minds from the destruction of the Second World War.  In the last concert of our season, Koji Nakano will use the symbolism of the Mandala in his eponymous piece to represent, in his words, “the religious chart and geometric pattern of both Hinduism and Buddhism, as the focal point to get into my own inner and outer world of equilibrium.”  George Crumb’s Xylophony, the first piece solely for percussion by this great American composer, looks both forward to new chapters in the lexicon of the percussive art and backward to the wood nymphs of Wagner.

Finally, for me, the heart of Project TenFourteen comes not in the form of a piece, but from a conversation I had with the venerable composer Chou Wen-Chung about the techniques and meanings of Chinese calligraphy.  The key to calligraphy, according to Professor Chou, lies in the contraposition of multiplicity and singularity: a calligraphic character is comprised of many intertwined and mutually reinforcing brush strokes that must be made in a single movement, propelled by a single breath.  It is both many and one at the same time. It projects both objective meaning and indefinable poetry. A brush stroke is simultaneously a single object that breaks down under examination into layers of fine, individual lines, and the reverse, a collection of independent lines that, in the right light, meld together as one. I will leave you to apply Professor Chou’s thoughts to the music you will experience in Project TenFourteen.  But for me his model is powerful: any art that can merge the individual and collective, the personal and the universal, offers a vital new avenue for us all.

My thanks at this moment are to Rob Amory and the Jebediah Foundation for the invitation to participate in Project TenFourteen, to Matias Tarnopolsky and his wonderful staff for making us at home under the umbrella of Cal Performances, to my colleagues at the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, and of course, most importantly, to you, our intrepid listeners.  As we imagined this music from its inception, and imagined the conversations that would ensue, it was always with you we were speaking.

– Steven Schick


Elena Ruehr began it’s about time immediately upon receiving the TenFourteen Project commission, completing it in the month of her 50th birthday in August 2013. Ruehr intended it, in part, as a birthday present to herself; it’s prevailingly optimistic, the title referencing her birthday milestone as well as the work’s dynamic focus on rhythm and meter, patterns and their transformation. The piece is modeled loosely on the Baroque (particularly Vivaldian) concerto. The violin has a sometime concertante role supported by “continuo” of clarinet, guitar, harp, drum, and cello, but the continuo textures frequently become the true focus of the piece. In contrast with the buoyant outer movements, the introspective middle movement was triggered by a catastrophic world event whose echo suffuses its mood.

In addition to the two world premieres this evening, George Crumb’s Xylophony, written for Steven Schick, is slated for premiere in March. The composer writes, “The sense of YESTERYEAR is implied by François Villon’s Ballad of the Dead Ladies: ‘Where are the snows of yesteryear?’ ” In Yesteryear, “a Vocalise for Mezzo-Soprano, Amplified Piano, and Percussion,” the instruments provide a shimmering and resonant atmosphere for the voice; in a real sense the voice expands into this non-vocal sound-world. At the same time the voice is in itself a kind of hyper-voice, beyond everyday communication, beyond singing and speaking. This is enhanced by characteristic theatrical elements. The Yellow Moon of Andalusia is a cycle of six Lorca settings for voice and amplified piano. Imagery of clocks’ inexorable machinery rubs against the wild sounds of cicadas and fundamental expression of song.

Crumb’s Five Pieces for Piano are an early (1962) example of the composer’s penchant for extending instruments’ basic idioms into new worlds of sound. These pieces also reveal a succinct, direct control of musical gesture and the creation of a highly individual musical rhetoric.

Georges Aperghis produces highly exploratory and experimental work in the service of the most immediate expressive content, with particular focus on vocal and theatrical works. His Récitations series for voice is somewhat in the vein of Berio’s Sequenza III or Ligeti’s Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, along with other linguistically structuralist (/deconstructionist) works of that era. Composed in 1977-78, the Récitations pieces crowd vocal and emotional actions into such densely packed moments that they elude any possible sense of “completion,” instead suggesting a landscape of layered meanings—musical, semantic, emotional, instinctive, all centered within, and emerging from, the performer herself. Récitation 9 weaves together a placidly uttered sentence with a repeated vocal fragment like a displaced loop. Récitation 10 creates a simulacrum of realistic communication via a “sentence” expanding via fragments of quasi-words, interposed with sung phrases.

Gabriela Ortiz’s TenFourteen Project commission, Corpórea, is dedicated to the Mexican diplomat Gilberto Bosques Saldívar, whose actions as consul in France during World War II allowed thousands of Jews, exiles from Franco’s Spain, and others to escape the Third Reich during the years 1940-43. As its title suggests, the music of Ortiz’s four-movement work is strongly centered on the physical, fragile nature of the human body, as well as the body as foundation for human thought and spirit. The first and third movements are ethereal and airy: the first, “Air,” is virtually a miniature flute concerto, with that instrument frequently recalling the very sound of breath, of wind. The second and fourth are more concretely rhythmic and pulsed, representing “primitive and earthy aspects of life” (Alejandro Escuer).


George Crumb was born in West Virginia in 1929 into a musical family, and studied at various schools in the Midwest as well as at the Berlin Hochschule as a Fulbright Scholar. He eventually joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, where he composed and taught for three decades. His highly intuitive approach to composition, with its emphasis on texture, timbre, and line, bore substantial fruit during the 1960s, including the Madrigals (1966-1969), Eleven Echoes of Autumn (1965), and, inspired by the Apollo 11 lunar landing, Night of the Four Moons (1969). Echoes of Time and the River, one of Crumb’s rare orchestral works, earned the composer the Pulitzer Prize.

Gabriela Ortiz Torres was born in Mexico City of parents who were folk musicians. She learned folk music at home, and then studied in Paris at the Ecole Normale de Musique. She returned to Mexico City due to the illness of her mother, and studied composition there with Mario Lavista at the National Conservatory of Music. She continued her studies at the Guildhall School with Robert Saxton, and with Simon Emmerson at the University of London where she received a PhD in 1996. After completing her studies, she took a position at the National School of Music at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. She also taught at Indiana University in the United States.

Elena Ruehr says of her music “the idea is that the surface be simple, the structure complex.” An award winning faculty member at MIT, she is also a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow and has been a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute and composer-in-residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which performed her major orchestral works as well as the opera Toussaint Before the Spirits(Arsis Records). Three of her six string quartets were commissioned by the Cypress String Quartet, who have recordedHow She Danced: String Quartets of Elena Ruehr. Her quartets have also been performed by the Biava, Borromeo, Lark, ROCO and Shanghai string quartets. Her other recordings include Averno(Avie Records with the Trinity Choir, Julian Wachner, conducting),Jane Wang considers the Dragonfly (various artists on Albany) andShimmer (Metamorphosen Chamber Ensemble on Albany).

Born in Greece in 1945, Georges Aperghis has lived in France since 1963. He has pursued a broadly independent career the core of which is music composition, but which also embraces expansive multimedia and theatrical elements. Among his influences have been the musique concrete of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry and his mentor Iannis Xenakis, whose iconoclastic approach served as a model for Aperghis’s development of his own compositional methodology. Among his most important pieces are the watershed La tragique histoire du nécromancien Hiéronimo et de son miroir, the Récitations series for solo voice, and Die Hamletmaschine, based on Heiner Müller’s drama; he has also created a substantial body of instrumental works. In 2011 he received the Mauricio Kagel Prize.

Guest Artists

Since becoming the first-prize laureate of the both the 2001 Gaudeamus International Competition (NL) and the 2001 Louise D. McMahon Competition (USA), Tony Arnold has collaborated with the most cutting-edge composers and instrumentalist on the world stage. She has premiered over 25 new works written expressly for her as soprano of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and has premiered over 200 new works, extensively touring the US and abroad. Ms. Arnold is a member of the George Crumb Ensemble, and has more than two dozen recordings with major labels to her credit. to date. In 2009, Ms. Arnold was the first performer ever invited to be the Howard Hanson Distinguished Professor of Composition at the Eastman School of Music. Since 2003 she has served on the faculty of the University at Buffalo. In 2014, she will serve as artist-in-residence at both the University of Indianapolis and the University of California at Davis. Read more about Tony Arnold at her website.