Twenty years ago, Charles Argersinger founded the Festival of Contemporary Art Music at Washington State University to celebrate the work of talented composers and has been its tireless advocate ever since. A composer of contemporary art music himself, the WSU professor of music has been, some would say, evangelical in his support of the genre.
Charles Argersinger. Photo courtesy Festival of Contemporary Art Music.
For Argersinger, “contemporary art music” is music that nurtures the soul and engages the heart, speaking to the full range of human emotion. It is music that is multilayered and complex. It transcends time and language to make manifest the daily and epic struggle to find meaning. It is music written for the heart and the mind, not an abstract theory, and it sounds simply beautiful.
On Saturday, February 7, during the 20th anniversary of the festival, Argersinger’s own music will fill the Bryan Hall auditorium. From the opening triumphal notes of the brass “Fanfare” to the richly layered, hopeful melodies and harmonies of “Sonnets Upon Music,” WSU faculty and students will be performing some of the most well-crafted, technically challenging, and beautiful contemporary art music in the world.
From chamber music to symphonies and from piano concertos to choral music, Argersinger creates critically acclaimed concert music that puts him firmly in the tradition of the masters of classical music. Indeed, for a performance of the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, there were three composers on the program: Johannes Brahms, Wolfgang Mozart, and Charles Argersinger.
Alecksander Sturnfeld-Dunn, a former graduate student and now a colleague at WSU, says he was an undergraduate when one of his professors played him a recording of Argersinger’s “Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra.”
“I just knew I wanted to study with this guy,” he says.
Another former student, Austin Schlichting, says he was compelled to attend WSU for his undergraduate education after hearing Argersinger’s piano piece, “…Between Scylla and Charybdis.” Now, as a graduate student in music at Ithaca College, he says he continues to be inspired and awed by Argersinger’s music and can see Argersinger’s influences on his own compositions. “I keep a recording of his first piano concerto with me wherever I go so I can show people,” he says. “In fact, I have a copy in my backpack right now.”
“His compositions are incredibly well crafted and constructed,” says Jeffrey Haas, director of Indiana University’s Center for Electronic and Computer Music and the featured festival composer in 1991. “Charlie has a breath-taking clarity of thought. You really understand what he’s thinking about the music as you hear it.”
Michael Schelle, the festival’s first guest composer back in 1989, also speaks about Argersinger’s clarity, marveling at “the clarity with which he presents his material as a teacher and the clarity with which he presents his music as a composer.” There’s an economy to his work, he says. “He writes to share rather than to show off.”
But for all that clarity of thought, Argersinger is anything but single-minded, especially when it comes to music.
What his friends know, but many people don’t, is that Argersinger is equally skilled at creating˜and performing jazz charts.
“He’s a phenomenal jazz arranger with an extraordinary voice, melodically, harmonically, in every way,” says Sunny Wilkinson, a jazz vocalist and music professor at Michigan State University. Wilkinson, who met Argersinger when they were both undergraduates at Arizona State, says Argersinger may compose award-winning symphonies, but he also “swings like crazy.”
For most musicians, says Martin Rokeach, the festival guest composer in 1998, “You can’t walk both sides of the street.” But in fact, Argersinger does. “I’m really jealous of his jazz side,” Rokeach says. “I’d flaunt it if I could play like that. To me it’s a testament to a powerful talent.”
“It’s like being Kobe Bryant and Kurt Warner at the same time,” said Jim Linahon, a professional trumpet player who has been creating award-winning music for television, film and special events for 25 years. Linahon and Argersinger have collaborated on dozens if not hundreds of projects, but he still remembers the first Argersinger composition that he ever heard, “Imagination Flight 5:15,” written when he was a master’s student at Arizona State.
As Argersinger tells it, he wasn’t impressed with the music his student group had been practicing for a jazz competition in Las Vegas, and he said as much to his conductor. The conductor challenged him, on a Friday, to write something better, so on Monday he showed up with his own chart and it premiered at the competition.
“It was brilliant,” says Linahon. But also brilliant, he says, was the music Argersinger wrote for “Gradus ad Parnassum,” a CD of contemporary art music featuring Linahon on trumpet.
“Charlie is an absolute omnivore,” says Todd Gustafson, who first met Argersinger when he was teaching jazz studies at DePaul University in Chicago. “Whatever he’s going to do, he’s going to do it to the hilt.”
Argersinger’s love of both classical music and jazz started at an early age, nurtured by his parents. Nancy Hass, his sister, a professional oboe player and wife of Jeffrey Hass (Argersinger introduced the two at Interlochen music camp), says her older brother spent hour after hour listening to works by the masters–Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi–and to Dixieland jazz.
Dixieland? “Yes,” Argersinger says, smiling. “Dixieland is pure unadulterated happiness, and that’s a good part of the emotional spectrum to address.”
In fact, he says, while he’s still most powerfully affected by the classical music he first loved as a child and still loves today and by the contemporary music that grows from that tradition, he’s come to appreciate just about all types of music.
“It used to be I had no interest in country music,” he says, “but even that has been accepted into the hall of possibilities.” It’s honest music, he says. People are talking about what they feel in a language they understand.
“I’ve often thought I might compose a country song,” he says, completely deadpan. “It’d say, ‘I’ve lowered my standards, now up yours.’”
But Argersinger isn’t lowering his standards. Next month he will be joining the ranks of emeritus faculty at WSU, a move that will allow him to concentrate more fully on composing. Several years ago he was a fellow at the prestigious Yaddo artists retreat and made substantial progress on a second piano concerto. With two movements finished, he’s working on the final movement.
“Every note counts,” he says. “The choice of every note has to be thoughtfully deliberated on.”
It takes time to write music for the ages, but that’s the music that speaks to him most powerfully. Hear it for yourself this Saturday at the Festival of Contemporary Art Music.
You can also listen to recordings of Argersinger’s music at http://libarts.wsu.edu/music/audio/composition/index.htm, or at Argersinger’s website: http://www.charlesargersinger.com/Audio%20Files/Audio%20Files.htm
Festival of Contemporary Art Music
Charles Argersinger’s web site