The University of Illinois is home to many talented artists and ensembles, but none quite like the Illinois Modern Ensemble. From its diverse repertoire to its focus on student and faculty compositions, audiences can always expect something fresh from this group. I spoke with Erik Lund, professor of Composition-Theory at the U of I, as well as students Joe Meland and Erik Opland (also of local band Feral States) to get some insight into the Ensemble’s upcoming concert.
Smile Politely: What makes this upcoming concert particularly exciting? How does it contrast from other performances thus far?
Erik Lund: Each IME concert should be unique, presenting new creations, often receiving their premiere performances. This concert will feature faculty composer Carlos Carrillo’s “Four Postcards,” a setting of Joseph Heithaus’s poems, set for two tenors, strings and piano. The second work will be guest composer-conductor Armando Bayolo’s “Hesychasmos,” for full chamber ensemble, which Bayolo will conduct. The concert will close with a collaboration between the Illinois Modern Ensemble and the local band Feral States, presenting a new piece by Joseph Meland, a senior in music composition at the UI.
SP: How long have you been involved with this ensemble? What are some of your favorite parts of directing this group?
Lund: Presently, I am guest producing this concert on February 11, and also guest conducting. The ongoing director of the IME is my colleague Stephen Taylor, who is on sabbatical leave. He does an excellent job running this group. I did direct the ensemble for about five years or more in the 1990s, under the previous name, the New Music Ensemble. The name has changed, but the mission is the same.
The overall impression I was left with was: everything the Illinois Modern Ensemble does leans toward the future, toward innovation, all in what Lund describes as the “spirit of avant-garde”. It’s a safe bet that nothing on this program will be predictable, especially when this year’s student composition will feature a real live rock-band, sharing the stage with traditional classical instrumentation.
SP: Feral States always performs with a classical influence, but how did this particular arrangement come to be? Tell me a little bit about this piece, and how you got where you are.
Joe Meland: Every school year, a number of student composers are selected for a commission to write for the IME. I was lucky enough to be selected last year, and planned on writing a piece for just the IME. [Main director Stephen Taylor] suggested to me that I write for the ensemble with Feral States. I was like, “I can do that? That’s allowed?” Needless to say, I was very excited!
As far as the actual concept for the piece goes, I’m always inspired by the combinations of different genres with contemporary classical music- specifically by composer Alfred Schnittke, my favorite band Mr. Bungle (I don’t think I can do an interview without talking about them), and Frank Zappa’s Yellow Shark album. That album is particularly inspiring to me because of the way Zappa approaches rock music from a classical perspective. I wanted to write a piece that exhibited sharp juxtapositions between what might be typical of a certain genre (like Bungle), as well as combining elements from different genres to create new sounds.
SP: That is very exciting! Were there ever any moments of stress preparing for this event, or has it all been smooth sailing?
Meland: It was actually incredibly stressful. I had a lot of trouble figuring out what direction I wanted to take the piece, and I spent a lot of time writing down ideas and throwing them away the next day. Trying to begin writing a composition without feeling inspired by a certain musical idea off the bat is really hard, and I was going through some serious writer’s block…there were definitely some all-nighters involved.
Meland’s Feral States bandmate, Erik Opland, gave me his side of the story.
SP: What was the preparation like on your end, as a musician in the band?
Erik Opland: The rehearsal process has been incredible. I’ve never been part of anything like this. Feral States has been rehearsing almost every day on our own, and we’ve had a couple rehearsals with the Illinois Modern Ensemble. It’s pretty awesome hearing it all come together. As for the piece itself, I wasn’t surprised with its complexity. I’ve been playing with Joe for about two years now, and I’ve grown accustomed to his style. It’s always challenging, but it’s in the best way possible.
SP: It is clear that there is a great amount of excitement brewing for what’s to come. What can CU expect in the future from the Modern Ensemble, that is, after this concert is over and done?
Erik Lund: Two more concerts this spring term. In March a concert featuring prominent German composer Mathias Spahlinger, and in April a concert featuring several premieres of recent commissions from our own U of I student composers — very exciting.
Audiences will not want to miss this intriguing program featuring variety as well as the interesting fusions of instrumentation and style. The Illinois Modern Ensemble and Feral States perform Wendesday night, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 public, $7 senior, and $4 student.