24, No. 14, Feb. 3, 2005
hits musical ‘target’ with local premiere Feb. 17
Melissa Mitchell, News Bureau Staff Writer
photo to enlarge
by Kwame Ross
Makan, a professor of composition/theory in the
School of Music, collaborated with singer Laurie
Rubin on a composition titled “Target,”
which will be performed at Krannert Center for the
Performing Arts on Feb. 17. The composition explores
various aspects of the U.S. military’s presence
in the Middle East and received its world premiere
at New York’s Carnegie Hall last October.
composers, painters, poets and other artists have gone to the well of
current events and politics to draw inspiration for their art. Times
of revolution and war have yielded particularly powerful works, from
Beethoven’s “Fidelio” to Picasso’s “Guernica.”
Current world conflicts – notably, U.S. military intervention
in Afghanistan and Iraq – were on Keeril Makan’s mind last
year when he was tapped to participate in a highly competitive and innovative
workshop sponsored by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. So
the UI professor – who joined the School of Music’s composition/theory
faculty last fall – embraced the opportunity as a means of contributing
to the ongoing cultural and political discourse about the United States’
military presence in the Middle East. The result was an intense and
emotionally charged 13-minute composition for soprano, clarinet/bass
clarinet, percussion, violin and cello titled “Target.”
The piece received its world premiere last October at New York’s
Carnegie Hall; locally, it will be performed on a program presented
by the New Music Ensemble at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 17 at the Krannert Center
for the Performing Arts.
Makan was commissioned to create the piece as one of eight participants
– four of them composers, four singers – in the John Harbison/Dawn
Upshaw Workshop for Composers and Singers. Harbison, one of the nation’s
best-known contemporary composers, and Upshaw – a world-class
soprano – are longtime collaborators. The pair launched the experimental
workshop to serve as an incubator of sorts for a select group of emerging
composers and singers. In effect, they hoped to serve – by example
and experience – as cheerleaders for the collaborative creative
Harbison and Upshaw initially spent a few days listening to audition
tapes of more than 250 singers and composers before whittling the list
down to eight. In May, Makan and his “match,” mezzo-soprano
Laurie Rubin, joined the other three pairs in New York, where they spent
several days working together, observing, and soaking up tips and practical
advice from the masters. The composers had been asked to bring a short
draft of their proposed compositions to the first meeting. Makan, who
had traded e-mail and recordings with Rubin prior to that first face-to-face
meeting, brought along a complete draft of his score.
Despite being somewhat over-prepared for the assignment, Makan concedes
that he arrived at the workshop harboring some trepidation, mainly because
“I hadn’t done voice before … I’ve been mostly
an instrumental composer.”
Before coming to the UI, Makan – who has a doctorate in composition
from the University of California at Berkeley – lived for two
years in Paris, where he studied with Philippe Leroux. Makan has received
commissions from numerous ensembles, including the Kronos Quartet, Bang
on a Can All-Stars, Paul Dresher Electroacoustic Band, Left Coast Chamber
Ensemble and Del Sol String Quartet, and has received prizes and grants
from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Fromm Foundation,
Meet the Composer, ASCAP, and the Gerbode and Hewlett foundations.
On his journey into terra incognita – composing for voice –
and his quest for the right text for “Target,” Makan sought
comfort in the familiarity of Jena Osman, a poet he had met a couple
of years earlier at the Djerassi Resident Artist Program in California.
“In embarking on this project, I was searching for a text that
resonated with me, both through its commentary on our contemporary situation
and through a creative use of everyday language,” he said. “Ideally,
I was looking for a living writer whom I could work with, whose artistic
goals and viewpoints would make for a promising collaboration.”
Ultimately, he set Osman’s poem titled “Twister,”
which the poet has described as “playing off of the exchange for
possible confusion between a military formation and a Wall Street ticker-tape
parade.” Sources for the composition’s other three songs
are “found” poems; “every sentence comes from other
sources that Osman excerpts and rearranges,” Makan explained.
For instance, texts for the songs “Leaflet I” and “Leaflet
II” are appropriated from language used in leaflets dropped over
Afghanistan after 9/11 by the U.S. government. The text for “PsyOps:
Know Your Target” is based on military psychological operations
written by a former U.S. army officer.
“These texts illustrate how a colonial/imperial mind frames and
dehumanizes the “other,” as well as how the language strategies
of military invasions are closely tied to the language of advertising,”
the composer wrote in the Carnegie Hall concert’s program notes.
“What these found texts reveal is that every war on some level
must be a war of words.”
Appropriately, the music that accompanies the text is edgy and intense,
reflecting the anger, anxiety, apprehension, violence and fear associated
with war. To evoke the raw emotion embedded in the music, “Target”
employs what Makan called “unusual vocal techniques” such
as inhaling while singing. And, he said, “some parts border on
As a result, the piece would be challenging for any singer. Its complexities
presented perhaps even more obstacles for Rubin, who is blind. “Pitch
she could learn by ear, but rhythmic notation is more cumbersome …
that took more time because she couldn’t see the score, though
in the end she did a phenomenal job,” the composer said.
After the May workshop sessions, the collaborators continued to communicate
with each other from a distance before reconvening for a few days in
October prior to the Carnegie Hall performance.
“Overall, the piece worked out much better than I would have expected,”
Makan said. “I really enjoyed the experience, and probably learned
the most from Dawn Upshaw from observing her vocal coaching.”
He said he also was surprised by how easy it was to work with a vocal
component. “If you have text,” he learned, “it helps
structure the composition for you. It was a very positive experience
that made real for me the expressive potential of the voice.”
Both halves of the composer-singer team will be reunited on Feb. 17,
when Rubin visits the UI to reprise her performance of “Target”
during the Krannert Center performance. She also will be performing
UI music professor Erik Lund’s piece “ … And where
you are is where you are not.”
Is this initial collaboration the first of many? Will Makan and Rubin
follow along the same path established by mentors Harbison and Upshaw?
“We’re discussing it … hopefully, we can work more
collaboratively in the future,” Makan said.
Meanwhile, the wheels of the UI composer’s latest collaborative
project are already in motion – but in a slightly different direction.
Last month, he met with choreographer Benjamin Levy to discuss plans
for a dance project commissioned by San Francisco’s ODC Theater.
Work on the project will continue this summer, with the premiere set
for next December.