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Gerald Carpenter: Senior Composition Recital a Crash Course on Musical Evolution

Composer Chavadith Tantavirojn wielding his ax of choice.
Composer Chavadith Tantavirojn wielding his ax of choice.  (Tony Mastres photo)

By Gerald Carpenter, Noozhawk Contributing Writer |

Musical talent, rare in any given population — except, possibly, the Welsh and the Maoris — nevertheless often makes a startlingly early appearance. Wolfgang Mozart is unique mostly in the magnitude of his gifts, not in them becoming manifest before he was 10. Still, it is such an uncanny experience to hear a teenage composer or instrumentalist showing mature, finished artistry that we are bound to hail the youngster as "a new Mozart."

This is both good and bad — good because it is always good to recognize and encourage talent whenever we encounter it; bad because it tends to establish the beginning of the career as its high point, the peak against which all further achievements are measured, usually to their detriment. (The success of a child actor, and the subsequent failure to make it as an adult in the same profession, is a much different phenomenon. The success of a first novel, and the critical reception of subsequent works, is similar to the career difficulties experienced by the musical prodigy, but we find next to no novelists who publish books when they are 5 — or 10, or 15.)

Casting about, the other day, for arts events I might preview for Noozhawk, I came across the announcement of a "Senior Composition Recital featuring Chavadith Tantavirojn" out at UCSB at 6 p.m. Saturday in Karl Geiringer Hall (Music Building).

The program, all Tantavirojn compositions, consists of: Bursting Spring, for Marimba Duet, (2011), with Aaron Jones and Chavadith Tantavirojn; "The Night is Darkening Around Me" for Voice & Piano, text by Emily Bronte (2011), with soprano Kajsa Nelson and pianist Chris Davis; "O Mistress Mine," for Voice & Piano, text by William Shakespeare (2014), with Nelson and Davis; "A Starry Night," for Percussion Ensemble, adapted from Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite "The Planets" (2013), with percussionists Michal Ciaszczyk, Robert Deichert, Nick Diamantides, Ben Donlon, Sabastian Johnson, Aaron Jones and Tantavirojn; Clouds for Brass Quintet (2012), with Elizabeth Cowder on trombone, Michael Kallin on trumpet, Bradley Moller on tuba, Jarrett Webb on horn and Jae Yi on trumpet); and Innué for Marimba Solo (2012) with Tantavirojn; and "A New Age" for Chamber Ensemble (2014), with Sara Bashore on violin, Ali Chamas on euphonium, Jones on marimba, Larissa Fedoryka on cello, Laurie Ho on clarinet, Robert Johnson on bass, Andrew Manos on drums, Cindy Shen on piano and Azeem Ward on flute.

I copied the composer's name and went to YouTube — where you can find just about anything, no matter how new, or obscure, or eccentric — and was soon listening to several works composed by Tantavirojn while he was still a student at Mountain View High School. I was more than impressed; I was delighted. Tantavirojn is himself a percussionist, and so his imagination's default field of exploration is the percussion section, but even in high school he had begun to produce highly accomplished works for all the other food groups as well.

After contacting the Music Department and expressing my interest, I received an email from the young composer himself, and this led to an exchange. "It has been such a journey," he wrote, "looking back now on what I wrote in high school, and the pieces that are being premiered at my recital on Saturday. The composition and the musicianship are almost night and day."

There is to be heard in the YouTube postings a perhaps inevitable influence of minimalism — a medium and environment friendly to percussion — but not direct immitation. To be sure, all young artists start out imitating the artists they admire. It is the best way of internalizing the grammar of the language they wish to speak, but even by the time of these early composition, Tantavirojn had begun to speak in his own voice, his own personal dialect. His principal mentor at UCSB has been that worthy maestro, Joel Feigin, with help from those other brilliant stars in UCSB's firmament Jeremy Haladyna, JoAnn Kuchera-Morin and Jonathan Nathan.

"The recital," Tantavirojn continued, "culminates with the premiere of A New Age — a piece for chamber ensemble for nine performers. The piece depicts the the essence of music throughout history — its constant increase in complexity, then to the explosion and break down of itself to the most simplistic form, only for the cycle to recur. We see this cycle most clearly within the past century where composers begin to look for ways to diverge oneself from what has been established by his/her predecessors — this gave a rise to atonality, jazz, electronic music, and music of aleatory and indeterminacy, all of which are complex in their own ways as in harmonies, rhythm or structure. However, following this era was the rise of minimalism, which exemplifies the desire for music to be simple again. In A New Age, the structure of the piece is very much that — it explores this very particular cycle. In doing so, I incorporated different genres of music from electronics to Gregorian chant to rock/dupstep to jazz. This will surely get the audience's toes tapping and perhaps even introduce them to a genre of music that they may have never heard of or appreciated. I realize this is a challenge for myself and the performers and even the audience members, but in my opinion art and music is all about pushing the envelop and taking it to the next step, not constraining oneself to familiarity and merely 'playing it' safe.'"

Considering that the recital is free of charge, one has very little excuse for not attending. Considering that it takes place in Geiringer Hall, one should take care to avoid being late.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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