BU New Music Ensemble in Iceland

The BU New Music Ensemble at HARPA Concert Hall in Reykjavik. (BUNME / Brandon University)

This past January, the Brandon University New Music Ensemble (BUNME) travelled to Reykjavik, Iceland to perform at Dark Music Days 2013, a world-renowned contemporary music festival.

Alongside their director, Professor Megumi Masaki (who has been on sabbatical since January), seventeen student members of BUNME were given the opportunity to travel to Iceland and perform in the festival, forming the only student-based ensemble. The ensemble members were able to further learn and explore a global perspective of music and culture in what became an invaluable experience.

First established in 1980 by the Society of Icelandic Composers, Dark Music Days is a music festival devoted to new compositions and exploration in areas of modern and divergent contemporary music. Since its inception, the festival has gathered an average of over three thousand people to the Dark Music Days musical festival every year.

From January 31st until February 3rd, 2013, thousands of the brightest composers and performers from across Europe and Iceland came together to celebrate contemporary music. The festival featured nineteen concerts, ranging from symphonic, sinfoniettas, solo performances, choirs, chamber music, electro-acoustic music, and a children’s program.

BUNME performed six pieces, which all made their Icelandic premieres at the 2013 Dark Music Days festival: “This Heat”, composed in 2006 by Nicole Lizée; “Maquette X”, composed in 1996 by Brent Lee; “Howe Sound”, composed by Brent Lee in 2008; “Discrete Stains”, composed in 2012 by Brent Lee and Sigi Torinus; “Ocean”, composed in 2012 by Kjartan Ólafsson; and “Homages”, composed in 2012 by Christopher Byman of BUNME.

Chris Byman composed the piece “Homages” especially for Megumi Masaki and BUNME. He is himself a member of Brandon University’s New Music Ensemble and second year graduate clarinetist with a minor in composition.

Byman began composing formally in his last year of undergraduate studies. He began composing “Homages” in September 2012 and completed it by mid-October, which happened to be the fastest writing experience of Byman’s career. He stated that the timely composition of this particular piece was attributed “to the fact that it was an exciting chance to premiere a work at not only our own New Music Festival, but also at an internationally recognized New Music Festival in Reykjavik, Iceland. The opportunity was too good to pass up.”

Byman wanted to create a piece that would be enjoyable for the ensemble to play and rehearse. He stated, “I strove to write something that would be accessible to the members of the ensemble but also challenging to them technically. This is where I faced my most criticism (at least to my face).  Some of the members found a few of the lines to be too challenging.  However, I like to think that these challenges and ‘trials’ made us an even better ensemble.”

“Homages” is a sonata for chamber orchestra that drew inspiration from three central sources.  Byman identified closely with American mythologist Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theory, or the hero cycle, as the piece gained “its movement titles directly from Campbell’s theory and blends them into the familiar sonata.” This source of inspiration came from the religion course, Introduction to World Mythology, taught by Dr. Susan Medd, and Byman chose to reflect BUNME’s journey to Iceland through the narrative feature of the monomyth.

Byman also noted inspiration from American composer Steve Reich and the revolutionary use of phasing in his compositions. “The first movement sees the work begin out of phase. The second brings the musical material to work itself out and ‘learn’ the concept of phasing until finally, in the third movement, the enlightened material becomes balanced,” says Byman.

The BU New Music Ensemble. (BUNME / Brandon University)

Lastly, “Homages” drew stimulus from Byman’s adoration for electronic and techno music, with the music of Daft Punk and MUSE proving to be especially inspirational.

The opportunity to hear his composition performed at Dark Music Days was surreal for Byman. He stated, “My heart was beating out of my chest by the end of the piece.  It was a ‘high’ that I want to experience again and again.  However, that was an easier and less stressful experience than performing the work in front of my peers for the first time!”

Byman received an extremely positive reception from individuals in both Iceland and in Brandon. The reaction that he gathered was extraordinary because “There isn’t a greater feeling or reward to a composer than knowing that both the audience and performing musicians enjoyed their music.”

The opportunity to perform a piece composed by a peer in the ensemble was special for the other members of BUNME. Fourth-year pianist and BUNME student Sarah Engen stated, “Performing a piece by one of our own members was especially exciting away from home.”

BUNME received rave reviews for their performances from individuals across the world. After the festival had concluded, Professor Masaki received a letter from two audience members, Ingo Koehn and Claudia Eschenbach of Germany, applauding the ensemble for the quality of their performances and Byman on his composition.

Koehn and Eschenbach praised BUNME for an experience that was “truly overwhelming: Innovative, unconventional, varied, emotional, very creative and just plain beautiful up-to-date music, performed by young people who played this non-mainstream genre in a professional way, yet with so much personality shining through and emotionally very much involved.”

They went on to complement BUNME for their fantastic performance as it earned their respect and admiration for the ensemble members’ musicianship. The performance “reinforced [their] trust in the ability and willingness of young people to take possession of the heritage of classical music and the possibilities of contemporary music.”

Dr. Kjartan Ólafsson, a professor of composition and theory at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, chair of the Society of Icelandic Composers, president of the Icelandic Section of the International Society for Contemporary Music, and inventor of CALMUS, spent time as a composer-in-residence at Brandon University.  During this time, BUNME celebrated the music and culture of Iceland and the north. During his time at BU, Ólafsson supplied teaching and lectures of Icelandic musical performance and heritage. Two new works were commissioned by Ólafsson for the New Music Ensemble and Professor Masaki and Dr. Wood.   He then invited the New Music Ensemble to attend and perform at this year’s Dark Music Days festival. Ólafsson composed “Ocean”, a piece for chamber orchestra and CALMUS electronics inspired by the Atlantic Ocean which encircles Iceland, especially for BUNME’s performance at the festival.

Ólafsson had previously stated that he had “always wanted to visit this part of Canada and this is interesting — a small festival within a university and produced by the faculty and the students with a great interest in new music. The interest here in Canada for music from Iceland and Icelandic culture is also valuable.”

Since last March, Professor Masaki has worked tirelessly to secure financing for BUNME to travel to Reykjavik. With the generous support of Brandon University President Dr. Deborah Poff, Dean of Music Dr. Michael Kim, the parents of students, and the students themselves, the ensemble was able to attend the festival.

BUNME was formed seven years ago when Professor Megumi Masaki came to Brandon University in 2006 from Germany. Since then, the New Music Ensemble has grown into an excellent ensemble. The ensemble is composed of both graduate and undergraduate students, comprising all programs, years, and instruments.

BUNME presents the annual New Music Festival at Brandon University, in addition to often performing at the WSO New Music Festival in Winnipeg. The ensemble is devoted to a repertoire of various contemporary living composers. Many prominent international artists have been hosted by and have worked with BUNME, including Brent Lee, Sigi Torinus, Kjartan Olafsson, Jorge Cordoba Valencia, Kaija Saariaho, John Corigliano, John Psathas, Nicole Lizeé, Jorge Cordoba, Nico Muhly, Gary Kulesha, Steven Stucky and T. Patrick Carrabré.

“Our ensemble is special because it is small but there are students from every program, year and instrument,” stated Engen. “Some are studying performance, others jazz and a few are in the music education program.  We had first year students through to graduate students, all excited to discover music written by living composers.”

The trip to Iceland gave the ensemble members the opportunity not only to perform, but also to meet local students from Icelandic Arts Academy, participate in master-classes, and experience the Icelandic new music scene. Collaboration both in rehearsals and performances, dialogue and interaction with Icelandic peer-musicians and students in Reykjavik from January 27th until the concert performances of the festival were also key experiences for the Brandon University musicians. This experience will hopefully be the beginning of a bridge between BU and the Iceland Academy of the Arts.

BUNME members also had the opportunity to explore the sights and sounds of the city of Reykjavik and the surrounding area. The ensemble was taken on a guided tour to see various tourist attractions, observe the awe-inspiring landscape including the Golden Circle, and eat the exotic foods that Reykjavik had to offer.

For Byman, an important aspect of the trip was the striking, atypical Icelandic cuisine. Some of the more noteworthy Icelandic fare included the internationally-acclaimed hot dogs, various varieties of soup, dried fish, grilled whale, and fermented shark that was buried in the ground for over two years.

This experience will not be lost on the Brandon University community and the New Music Ensemble. Interest in BUNME has grown significantly within BU’s music department since the ensemble’s return from their performances at Dark Music Days 2013.

While in Iceland, Professor Masaki taught a piano master-class to very gifted pianists of the Iceland Academy of the Arts. Two Icelandic students that performed in that master-class have already applied to the BU School of Music’s graduate program to study with Professor Masaki.

The trip to Iceland was an all-around success for Brandon University, the BU School of Music, and BUNME. This experience will most likely be a once-in-a-lifetime event for some of the students, thanks to high expenses, as well as the time-consuming organization and planning required for a university ensemble to perform overseas. The international exposure and experience, however, was invaluable, so hopefully another international performance tour will be possible for BUNME in a few years.

Republished from The Quill print edition, Volume 103, Issue 26, March 26, 2013.