Mixed Media

Forty Years, No Intermission

June in Buffalo has become one of the world’s premier celebrations of new music

Photo: Iene Haupt

“You can find almost anything from improvisation, where there’s actually no score at all, to people who are doing DJ mixes.”
David Felder

By Michael Flatt

New music, or contemporary classical music, is by definition an ever-changing genre. The University at Buffalo has been at the vanguard of that evolution.

During the first week of June, students, faculty and the public had the opportunity to hear some of the world’s most cutting-edge compositions at UB’s annual June in Buffalo festival. This year also marked the festival’s 40th anniversary, as well as the 30th anniversary of David Felder’s tenure as artistic director.

Felder, a SUNY Distinguished Professor and UB’s Birge-Cary Chair in Music Composition, doesn’t sell the achievement short. “Sustaining anything that long in American culture is pretty astonishing,” he says.

Then-professor of composition Morton Feldman (1926-1987) founded June in Buffalo in 1975, and Felder revamped the festival in 1985. Part symposium, part performance fest, June in Buffalo pairs up-and-coming composers and established masters with professional performers of new music, all of whom participate in lectures, seminars and open rehearsals, as well as public concerts.

The primary purpose of the program is to serve as an incubator for experimental compositions, but as one might imagine, what constitutes new music has changed quite a bit in three decades. “It’s really a mash-up today, to use a contemporary term,” Felder says. “You can find almost anything from improvisation, where there’s actually no score at all, to people who are doing DJ mixes.”

Felder says the main impetus behind starting the festival was to provide a venue for young composers to hear their work played by professionals. Thirty years ago, these opportunities were few and far between. “Maybe three dozen young composers from around the country got the benefits of having really excellent performances of their work,” Felder says. “I like to tell my students that I don’t think I had a really good performance of my work until I was 28 or 29.”

Without hearing one’s music played by first-class musicians, it’s difficult to discern what could be improved and to learn how to evaluate one’s own work. “Students, no matter how good they are, learn the most about their work in the immediacy of confronting how musicians play it,” Felder adds. “That’s what I wanted to give to them.”