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Summer 2002

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Complete Composure


Complete Composure
Beth Wiemann uses technology to create electronic music full of texture and tone

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Beth Wiemann says that composing a piece of music is like solving a puzzle.

The final product comes to the listener as an integrated whole, a collection of sounds built one upon the other to create a unified message. But if that music was deconstructed piece by piece, it would be revealed as stunningly complex.

"I'm attracted to the sound aspect of problem solving," Wiemann says.

Wiemann, an assistant professor of music at The University of Maine, has been composing classical music for more than 20 years. She also is a concert clarinetist.

But most recently, it's her electronic musical compositions, incorporating computer-generated sounds with the music of a live performer, that have received critical acclaim. Her works have been performed in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.; in England, Cuba and elsewhere by orchestras, ensembles and singers. Her compositions have won awards from the Colorado New Music Festival, American Women Composers, Marimolin and the Orvis Foundation. This summer, she has a fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Wiemann describes her work as abstract and full of texture with tone-color combinations. She admits that it is not conventional, but she does not consider it experimental.

She uses electronic sounds to construct a "sound environment" in which live performers adjust and interact. The electronic sounds, she explains, perform the same function as the supporting instruments in a full acoustic composition.

Beth Wiemann
"Young composers have to learn the building blocks of traditional music. If they don't have a good foundation in traditional music, they wind up spending a lot of time trying to make electronic music sound traditional."
— Beth Weimann

Wiemann did not begin composing electronically until the early 1990s, when new technologies made it more accessible. Electronic composing was part of her required coursework at Oberlin College and Princeton University.

"When I was studying, the technology at that time was not ‘real time' — you had to wait a long time to hear what you had done. It was not gratifying. When the software became desktop publishing-style, and you could hear what you had done right away, I got back into it," she says.

Wiemann uses sampling, digital signal processing and notation programs to generate electronic sounds. That technology has enabled her to direct her creative energies in a rapidly developing field that is pushing the boundaries of contemporary music.

It may start with a single sound. A bird's call. A harmony. A line from a poem. For Wiemann, these are the building blocks for what becomes a musical composition.

"It's trial and error," Wiemann says of the composing process. "I assemble sounds and piece them together in a problem-solving way. I don't go into the process with the shape of a piece set to go."

Wiemann often accepts commissions. She says that working at UMaine, where many members of the faculty are performers, has provided additional opportunities for her music to reach audiences.

For instance, in 1998 she wrote Swan Song for associate professor of music and violinist Anatole Wieck, who requested a piece using bird calls. She also produced Italy for UMaine's Women in the Curriculum program, a song premiered by soprano Nancy Ogle that set the poetry of English professor Constance Hunting to music.

Other commissioned works include Moose Next 5 Miles, premiered by the Howlin' Winds Flute Choir at the National Flute Convention in Arizona, So Suave and An Immorality for the Composers Ensemble at the Dartington Festival in England, and Logic and the Magic Flute for the New York Camerata.

Currently, Wiemann is working on compositions for students at the Asa Adams Elementary School in Orono, Maine, requested by music teacher Jan Smith. Wiemann also is writing an opera at the request of Ron Singer of New York.

Wiemann says that when she is immersed in the composing process, she doesn't try to "guess" what her listeners will like.

"If you are a composer, you have to write for yourself. It's nice if the listeners appreciate what I do, but that's a secondary issue. I'm more concerned with if the performers enjoy doing it," Wiemann says.

Susan Narucki, a Grammy Award-winning soprano from New York, has performed Wiemann's work in the U.S. and abroad. Night Thought for voice and piano was selected for recording by Narucki and Alan Feinberg for Americus Records in 2001. Narucki also will record Poem and Postlude for tape, voice and clarinet in spring 2003.

"The way Beth sets poems for the voice is fantastic. She's imaginative, very moving and witty. She picks texts I love and makes the poems live," Narucki says.

"Every single time I perform her work, people want to know who wrote the pieces. There is something in her work that people are responding to. She has a very fresh approach — modern but accessible. She's a voice for our time."

Wiemann credits much of her effectiveness as an electronic composer to her early training in traditional classical music. Today, her compositions are still split nearly evenly between electronic music and more traditional acoustic pieces.

Wiemann, who was in high school when she decided she wanted to be a composer, received a Ph.D. at Princeton. There, she was one of just three students accepted to study composition, and one of the few who both composed and performed music.

Wiemann has been at UMaine for the past five years, where she teaches clarinet, orchestration, tonal counterpoint, 20th-century musical techniques, composition and graduate-level theory seminars. She continues to perform, and has been the principal clarinetist for the Bangor Symphony Orchestra.

This spring, Wiemann toured with the Empyrean Ensemble on the West Coast, performing a concerto written for her by David Rakowski, her husband and a professor at Brandeis. Previously, she has premiered works in the Fellows Concert Series of the American Academy in Rome, and recorded pieces by Robert Ceely of the New England Conservatory and Ross Bauer of the University of California at Davis.

She premiered her work for clarinet and tape, Canto Compleanno, at the Spring in Havana 2000 Festival in Cuba.

Wiemann strikes a delicate balance as teacher, performer and composer. During the academic year, she devotes about two-thirds of her time to teaching and one-third to playing clarinet. She uses vacation time to focus on her compositions.

And she expects her students to exhibit similar dedication. For most of the young artists, composition is not their specialty. But many are intrigued by contemporary classical music techniques. She also teaches her students that a basic understanding of composition is necessary.

"If you want to be a good musician, you have to think about the music on the page and how it's related to how it's performed.

"In my composition class, students write regularly and plan toward four medium pieces. They learn to know how all the little bits need to fit into the larger piece," Wiemann says.
It's her way of helping her students learn how to put their own puzzles together.

by Gladys Ganiel
Summer 2002

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