The University of Southern Maine Composers Ensemble is releasing a new full-length album: Will There Be a Spring?
When the great Coronavirus pandemic struck in early 2020, the University of Southern Maine Composers Ensemble had just completed writing repertoire for their Spring 2020 concert, and was preparing for an April performance of all world premieres. Instead, social distancing took hold, school went on-line, and ensemble performance became impossible.
The Composers Ensemble is dedicated to writing and performing new music. The makeup of each semester’s ensemble is unique and rather specialized, with repertoire custom-tailored to the membership of the moment. So the loss of the spring concert was particularly painful, since this exact combination of players and instruments will never be duplicated again. This semester’s ensemble was 20 members strong, including two bass clarinets, accordion, two guitars, penny whistle, and other oddities, alongside more traditional wind, brass, strings and percussion sections.
The solution to the problem of what to do with all this unperformed new music, as so many others in the performing world have discovered, was to go virtual. Instead of performing a concert, the Composers Ensemble decided to record an album. The goal was to accurately and musically represent 45 minutes of contemporary music written for this small, unusual chamber orchestra, with as much participation from the ensemble membership as possible given each performer’s capacities when working from home. Midi realizations of each piece were created, and members took it upon themselves to overdub as many instrumental or vocal parts as they could, using only the equipment they had on hand in their place of residence. In some cases, parts were recorded directly into a phone or the mic from a pair of earbuds. The original midi renditions were created by ensemble director and USM professor Daniel Sonenberg, along with two students, René Damen and Heather Franklin. Mixing and mastering was done by Sonenberg, Franklin, Damen and ensemble member Clifford Cameron. As live instrumental and vocal tracks were submitted, they were inserted into the mix, replacing their midi-generated counterpart. In addition to relying on the Composers Ensemble members, composers solicited extra help from performing friends outside the group. The resulting album, appropriately titled after Sigrid Sibley’s haunting opening song, “Will There Be a Spring,” captures the diversity and spirit of experimentation that often guides the USM Composers Ensemble’s work. With pieces ranging from Irish- influenced folk songs, to contemporary concert music, to jazzy musical theater numbers, to lush, choral compositions, a wide range of musical styles and proclivities are represented. In the final product, midi performances coexist with live performances as seamlessly as possible. The album is a hybrid that is absolutely tied to the reality of the current moment. We intend for this album to be a bold positive statement about the value of musical expression in the face of extreme adversity. In troubling times, it can be tempting to view the arts as secondary; but in truth we need the arts to make sense of our lives and our realities. Will There Be a Spring is dedicated to the essential workers, medical and otherwise, who have kept our society running through the unprecedented calamity of the Coronavirus, as well as to the countless musicians and arts organizations facing an uncertain future. We must stick together, and we must continue to create.
Composers on the album are Blaine Bickford, Clifford Cameron, Sean Conover, René Damen, Mel D’Anci, Jonathan Hatch, Katie Lind, Matthew Nelse, Ethan Paquet, Christopher Pettersen, and Sigrid Sibley. Additionally, Professor Sonenberg wrote a new
“Prelude for Composers Ensemble” for the project. The album will be released on Bandcamp in conjunction with a live Zoom release party on Wednesday, May 27, at 7pm.