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Going for the Grammy: UCLA music professor commissions Grammy-nominated classical piece

A work that was commissioned by UCLA alumnus and composer Mark Carlson is now nominated for a 2017 Grammy award for Best Classical Compendium. (Kristie Hoang/Daily Bruin)

By Artiom Arutiunov

Jan. 19, 2017 12:00 a.m.

UCLA faculty, staff and alumni have contributed musical works that are nominated for the 59th annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 12, 2017. Their talents, ranging from playing the saxophone to composing songs to performing in an opera, have been recognized with nominations in five different categories.

Mark Carlson was troubled by the lack of opportunities for classical composers when he moved to Los Angeles 42 years ago.

“I was intently aware of how much the Los Angeles classical music scene was ignored compared to New York and the East Coast in general,” Carlson said.

Carlson, who became a doctoral student in composition at UCLA in 1982, decided to help bolster classical music by providing more opportunities for composers to receive commissions – requests by an ensemble for a composer to write a piece for them to perform.

Carlson founded the Pacific Serenades, a nonprofit ensemble of local classical musicians to commission work for composers in Southern California. He believed Los Angeles had a lot of musical talent, diversity and skill in the classical genre to showcase.

“I wanted to help create a community of musicians that were connected to each other and had certain things aesthetically in common,” said Carlson, now an adjunct professor of music theory and composition at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.

In 2013, Carlson commissioned Gernot Wolfgang, an Austrian composer, guitarist and previous guest lecturer at UCLA, to write a 15-minute piece for the Pacific Serenades ensemble.

The commissioned piece “String Theory” appeared on Wolfgang’s 2016 album “Gernot Wolfgang: Passing Through,” which is currently nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Classical Compendium.

[Related: Pacific Serenades debuts chamber piece ‘Cave Paintings’]

Carlson’s own experience as a composer and desire for other composers to explore their creativity influenced his decision to give Wolfgang free reigns in writing “String Theory” in any style he chose. And Wolfgang wanted to do a string quartet.

“He knew my style and based on that, I was free to do what I wanted,” said Wolfgang.

Wolfgang composed the piece over a period of seven weeks, he said. With several different harmonies and styles of classical music in mind, he decided to split the composition into four separate movements.

The first movement “Béla” is named after the 20th-century Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, whose contributions to classical music are still influential today to composers such as Wolfgang. The second – titled “Cartwheels” – is performed entirely using the pizzicato technique, which involves plucking the strings of an instrument to produce a sound, instead of using the bow.

Roland Kato, a violinist who performed the original iteration of “Passing Through” with the Pacific Serenades ensemble in 2013, served as the inspiration behind the third movement, titled “Northern Lights.” Kato’s description of his visit to Scandinavia to see the Northern Lights gave Wolfgang the idea of capturing the experience of seeing the Northern Lights through music.

“Gernot wrote a really, really high viola part to the movement,” Kato said. “He basically wrote a violin part to the viola to symbolize the altitude of the Northern Lights.”

The fourth movement, “Nashville,” bears a hint of country music in its melodies, and is named after the namesake ABC television series that Wolfgang is fond of.

[Related: TV review: Season five premiere of ‘Nashville’]

Wolfgang struggled to come up with a title for the overall piece to tie all of its themes together.

But one day while walking around Griffith Park, he came up with the title of “String Theory,” based on a parallel between his finished album and the string theory of theoretical physics. Wolfgang saw the musical devices in the four movements of his piece as different interpretations of the same underlying musical harmonies. He realized the movements were analogous to the string theory’s idea of two different mathematical descriptions for the same process in nature.

After helping to arrange the ensemble’s performance of the finished piece in May 2013, Carlson said he was impressed with the way Wolfgang integrated different styles of classical music into “String Theory.”

“‘String Theory’ was a big leap forward for Wolfgang,” Carlson said. “It was very strong and adventurous.”

Beyond nurturing the talent of composers he has commissioned, Carlson said his true passion in life remains in composing his own music and teaching.

His job as artistic director of the Pacific Serenades has granted him the ability to nurture musicians’ talent and ambitions, such as Wolfgang’s, while treating his own devotion to classical music as an evolving, explorative process, he said.

Ultimately, Carlson hopes to continue his 34-year career expanding the opportunities for classical musicians in Southern California by teaching college classes, giving individual lessons in composition and commissioning work for composers.

“Composers need a reason to write for,” Carlson said. “I grew up in an age where you would compose music and hope it is performed – in the history of music it hasn’t been that way.”

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Artiom Arutiunov
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