Mission Commission: demystifying the art of creating music at the source

United StatesUnited States Bettison, Iyer, Soper, Mission Commission Season Two: Kate Soper (vocalist/narrator), Vijay Iyer (piano), Parker Quartet, Melissa Smey (host), Golda Arthur (producer). Podcasts from Miller Theater at Columbia University, New York, 19.4-24.5,2022. (RP)

Vijay Iyer, Kate Soper & Oscar Bettison © Miller Theater

Oscar Bettison – all keens and slow airs
Vijay Iyer – Room for Ghosts
Kate Soper – Telephone

What was the composer thinking? It is a question asked repeatedly: sometimes merely out of curiosity, at others in wonder, and every so often due to a total lack of comprehension of what has just been experienced. Through Mission Commission, the Miller Theater at Columbia University seeks to demystify the art of composing by probing into a composer’s creative processes.

Curated and narrated by Melissa Smey, Associate Dean and Executive Director at Columbia University School of the Arts, Mission Commission is a fascinating, engrossing and highly entertaining series of interviews with three composers, culminating in performances of the works whose progress had been documented over six weeks from inception to fruition. Smey has the benefit of a trio of particularly engaging, compassionate and articulate composers – Oscar Bettison, Vijay Iyer and Kate Soper.

The three have established track records as composers, including heaps of awards and commissions. Two are academics: Bettison is chair of the Composition Department of Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute, and Iyer teaches at Harvard University in the Department of Music and the Department of African and African American Studies.

Bettison began as a violinist, but veered off the path of a traditional classical training to the world of rock ’n roll and composers such as Igor Stravinsky, György Ligeti, George Crumb and Steve Reich. His talent was recognized and acknowledged early: he won the first BBC Young Composer of the Year award in 1993 at age of 18.

Largely self-taught as a pianist, but proficient enough to be a Steinway artist, Iyer likewise started on the violin as a child. He has been voted Jazz Artist of the Year four times by Downbeat Magazine and received a MacArthur Fellowship, unofficially known as the ‘Genius Grant’, in 2013.

Both as singer and as composer, Soper is known for her exploration of the dramatic possibilities of the human voice through the integration of drama and rhetoric into musical structure. She was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her chamber opera, Ipsa Dixit, which has been hailed as ‘a twenty-first century masterpiece’.

Smey is a not only a skilled interviewer who compels the composers to reveal as much about themselves as their profession, she is also skillful at fashioning a compelling back story to the podcasts through reoccurring thematic threads. The specter of the pandemic hovers over the project. Soper, in particular, focuses on the uncertainty of being and asks how one can be better prepared for the unexpected. Personal loss is a recurrent theme.

For Iyer, the recent death of Greg Tate, an American music and culture writer and musician known as the ‘Godfather of Hip-Hop-Journalism’, haunts him. Iyer is also anticipating the delivery of a new piano to replace the Steinway that he has had since the 1980s. It is the instrument on which he became a pianist but, nonetheless, he has a love-hate relationship with it. The new piano will be the late and legendary jazz pianist Chick Corea’s nine-foot Yamaha, which will immerse Iyer in an entirely different soundscape in the midst of composing the piece for Mission Commission.

Even family matters can complicate, if not derail, the creative process. With the deadline looming, Bettison and his entire family come down with the flu which, he is quick to point out, was not the coronavirus. Nonetheless, he is solo parenting that week, and must juggle child care, remote schooling and the lot at crunch time. The pressure works for him, though, and propels him forward in his work.

The reward comes in the final podcast where the three works are performed by the Parker Quartet. It is the moment of which Soper spoke, when inspiration becomes real by becoming music.

Parker Quartet © Olivier Roller

The four string players who have the primary responsibility in transforming the composer’s intentions into sound are the only ones who did not utter a word during the podcasts. The haunting, crystalline purity of Bettison’s all keens and slow airs, the surprise of melody in Iyer’s rhythmically driven Room for Ghosts, and the mysterious sonic backdrop to Soper’s quest for knowledge of what the future holds in Telephone are their work, and inspired it is.

If Mission Commission doesn’t actually crack the code of the composer’s creative process, the podcasts do provide real insights into what make them tick as musicians and human beings. More importantly, however, is the music that was created, which will resonate far beyond the digital format.

Rick Perdian

Listen to Mission Commission Season Two  here.

Leave a Comment