When asked to identify a successful musician, many people (musicians and non-musicians alike) will respond with famous names like Bach or Beethoven, often overlooking present-day artists and their work. Dan Welcher, professor of composition and director of the New Music Ensemble, and the students in the ensemble are working tirelessly to combat this mentality and educate UT and the surrounding Austin community on the growing genre of new music.
“The New Music Ensemble is unique in that it only plays music that is less than 20 years old, with a few historical exceptions,” explained Welcher. “So, the music we end up playing is not quite orchestral, but it’s not quite wind ensemble either. This leads to a mix of instruments, singers and soloists that don’t ordinarily play together which fosters independent playing, bravery and confidence among the students.”
Q Langman, a senior majoring in Piano Performance, has been playing with Welcher and the New Music Ensemble for two semesters, and he echoes this mentality of collaboration. “(The ensemble) operates in a true collaborative fashion,” Langman said. “Every player really and truly matters, and this has an impact on the level of playing Welcher and the ensemble produces.”
Within the New Music Ensemble, students not only grow as musicians, they also are exposed to opportunities they may not have otherwise. Since the ensemble only plays pieces created by living composers, Welcher is constantly looking for the most difficult music for his students to play. Students, faculty members and alumni can send their pieces to Welcher for consideration. “I only want to bring pieces forward that are worthy of the time being spent by the best players in the school,” Welcher said.
Another incredible opportunity for student musicians is the New Music Ensemble’s Visiting Composers Series. Founded in 1993, the series invites composers of the pieces the New Music Ensemble plays to teach a master class for composers, participate in the rehearsals involving their work and host a public lecture on their music.
“I never bring a guest composer in just to talk to student composers and give a class—it’s about furthering the cause of living new music which is an experience that can’t be replicated easily,” Welcher said. The Visiting Composer Series not only benefits both the student composers and players, but the visiting composer often leaves UT with a new appreciation for all the Butler School of Music has to offer.
“I often say that the Visiting Composers Series has done more to advance the reputation of the Butler School than anything else that happens here,” Welcher said. “These famous people will go on to tell their friends and associates about their experiences here, and that kind of publicity simply cannot be bought.”
When playing with the New Music Ensemble, students can bet they will be tested and pushed in such a way that they will leave the ensemble not only as better players, but also as better musicians.
“Everyone communicates differently while playing, and it’s fascinating to watch the way everyone does it,” Langman said. “It takes a lot of focus and concentration to not only play your own tricky rhythms correctly, but to also line those up with other peoples’ tricky rhythms.”
When asked why he has stuck around with the New Music Ensemble for so long, Welcher cited his daily interactions with students.
“They keep me on my toes, and they keep me young,” Welcher said. “These students are wonderfully lively people. They’re very talented, open-minded and eager, and I’ve found that working with them gives me more pleasure than anything else I do in life.”
Story by Trinity King. Photos by Philip LeConte.