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Sound Horizons competition exposes risks and rewards of the creative process

By Scott MacClelland

REMEMBER WHEN you were a kid and your parents and teachers told you could be anything you wanted to be, even president of the United States?

President, maybe, but what about composer? With that specific encouragement, you might have been a composer today.

That's what Carl Christensen, music professor at Hartnell College in Salinas, discovered, almost by accident. Only after being solicited two or three times to have his students submit scores to an annual competition called Sound Horizons, run by the New Music Works, did Christensen take the idea to heart.

This Saturday, seven of his students will have their compositions played at the Sound Horizons concert.

As NMW artistic director Phil Collins explains, "The project developed as a sidebar to our season and year by year has grown more formidable, a project in and of itself, and needing its own financing."

The Hartnell entries have forced an additional growth spurt for Sound Horizons, which this year also represents UCSC and San Jose State. Along with other audience members, students will hear their compositions played (and in some cases sung) by the professional musicians of the NMW Ensemble. (The winning score will be included in the NMW concert on Feb. 23 and its composer given an honorarium of $500.)

How the NMW competition became part of Christensen's consciousness could be described as serendipitous. "Last year I had my theory students do projects as part of the class, including composing pieces four phrases long. Using people in the class who play instruments, we had a reading of student compositions to accompany an art gallery opening on campus. It was a logical extension of their efforts to send the scores off to NMW where, hopefully, they would be read by the members of the professional ensemble. Last year they had one semester of theory. Three or four came back this year, for more advanced theory, and their fall projects are on the program this weekend in Santa Cruz."

At the receiving end, Collins says, "We had a surprising response from Carl and his students. At first, they reflected basic harmony. This year, the pieces are much more evolved. The works are very disciplined, follow the rules, and are more melodic than harmonic, even more than I have seen in some university level work. Carl's approach reminds me of my own teacher, a protégé of Roy Harris, in terms of light and dark, inverted chords and study of Bach chorales."

Described as a "salon performance by NMW Ensemble, with discussion, of juried scores," Sound Horizons promises full exposure of the creative process. Although some of the submissions are from deeply dedicated university student musicians, others are by people who are willing to follow some basic rules and embrace the risks--and in this case rewards--of creativity.

Of Christensen's students, he says, "Half are re-entry, housewives, one guy who took early retirement from a tech company, a singing student who has sung in local choral groups. I get the people who've been through middle and high school band, choir and orchestra, who enjoy playing." He also gets those who only do rock, "young people who make their own music, who we can occasionally coax into piano class or to learn harmony, some theory, even a little counterpoint. They're the ones who find it odd that their seniors are content playing other people's music."

Collins launched the Sound Horizons project in 1997, picking up ideas from the American Composers Forum and the American Music Center, but on a smaller scale.

"Santa Cruz is a fertile place to try such a thing," he reflects, adding, "Before this school year is out, we plan to contact all the [Santa Cruz County] high schools and, depending on fundraising, begin with them next academic year."

In the meantime, and in response to a suggestion from Christensen, NMW will reschedule its Sound Horizons for early fall, making the previous June the deadline for entries. "It's so much more sensible and gives us extra time to prepare," says Collins. With obvious if understated enthusiasm, Christensen has become champion of the project in Salinas.

"It's been a good motivator for our students," he says.

New Music Works performs Sound Horizons on Saturday (Feb. 9), 10am-1pm, at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa Cruz. Admission is free.

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From the February 6-13, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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