Moments of memorial and contemplation: UMKC’s latest Musica Nova was both touching and thoughtful

Joey Hill

Musica Nova’s performance last week showcased a collection of contemporary pieces by composers in UMKC’s Conservatory.
The compositions shifted conventional expectations of how certain instruments are typically played. The first piece by Paul Rudy, “Jacked!” was powerful and featuredJennifer Fox on trumpet. The composition began with an experimental jazz tempo, but progressed into an experiment to see the highest notes Fox could play.
Reynold Simpson’s “Pain Meds” was a nauseating,disorienting work that reached dizzying heights of sound as the ensemble, consisting of clarinet, violin and cello, seemed to attempt to outdo one another in volume and ferocity.
Simpson said the work was inspired by feelings he experienced while trying to heal his bad knee with pain killers.
“I’m the kind of guy who, with enough prodding from his wife, makes it to his annual check-up every six or seven years. My wife, suffers under that rational delusion that if there is something wrong, the sooner the doctor discovers it, the better. I, however, subscribe to a different philosophy: if you don’t go to the doctor, there’s no way he can find something wrong; if you step into that office, then he’s going to find something, you know.”
He continued, “I learned a lot, foremost being that I make a lousy drug addict. Whether they didn’t work, made me sick, gave me the shakes or did the trick, the pain medication felt like a trap. For two months, my mind said no, but the body said yes and made my life miserable if I tried to stop.”
Musica Nova marked the Conservatory’s 16th performance this academic year, and was dedicated to Xu Zhou, a doctoral student at the Conservatory who passed away in July before finishing her degree.
Before performing her Dissertation, “The Sketching of Xiao Xiang,” composer Rudy delivered a speech.
“I am here this evening, with Dr. Chen Yi and our colleagues in composition to honor the memory of a former student Xu Zhou,” he said. “Everyone who interacted with her and knew her as a person was drawn to her positive and playful spirit.”
He spoke of the improvisational ensemble she created with undergraduates. “This ensemble pushed the boundaries of those young students musically, inspired graduate students to question their own assumptions and stepped into an adventuresome, unknown musical territory with community leading courage. She personally reminded me that we call it ‘playing’ music for a reason-a reminder that has inspired me in my own work of late.”
Rudy displayed Zhou’s diploma, which the composition faculty chose to present posthumously, and gave it to Dr. Chen Yi to deliver to Zhou’s family in China.
The three musicians who performed Zhou’s work placed three flowers t the center of the stage before playing. Using violin, cello and piano, “The Sketching of Xiao Xiang” was a mesmerizing and beautiful work. The piano and cello seemed to meld together, echoing one another.
In her notes Zhou remarked, “Xiao Xiang is a geographical term that means the south of China, Hu Nan Province, in which my hometown is located. In this piece, I chose a tune from ‘Hua Gu Xi’ and a folk song from Hu Nan. The work’s three short movements portray three characteristics of Hu Nan-er: deliberated by pleasing, diligent but blank and dedicated but cunning.”