In the Spotlight

News & Features
AudioStoking up some songs (story audio)
More from MPR
Your Voice
DocumentJoin the conversation with other MPR listeners in the News Forum.

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
Stoking up some songs
Larger view
A warning sign in the Zeitgeist studio (MPR photo/Euan Kerr)
Every year Zeitgeist, the St Paul-based new music ensemble, challenges Minnesota's amateur composers to enter a song contest. There is some money for the winners, but the real prize is a chance to hear Zeitgeist perform the piece in concert.

St. Paul, Minn. — The contest is named for Eric Stokes. He was a composer and mentor for the Zeitgeist. As percussionist Heather Berringer puts it, "He loved agitation."

Larger view
Image Zeitgeist musicians

The band was horrified when he first suggested staging the contest and just playing the entries. The band members were sure it would be a disaster. Berringer says they worried about handing over their program to people they didn't know, to play pieces that might be really bad.

"We are going to have Aunt Betsey going in there and pulling out old pieces that she wrote fifty years ago," Berringer says. "Pulling them out and submitting them and, God forbid, we would be performing them in our concert. And exactly that happened and it was wonderful!"

The band was amazed at the depth and breadth of the material it received. Zeitgeist was hooked. It's been staging the contest every year for the better part of a decade.

Larger view
Image The judges

The judges assembled on a Saturday morning in the Zeitgeist studio in St Paul's Lowertown. There was composer Carol Barnett, Dale Warland Singers Associate conductor Dwight Bigler and composer David Evan Thomas.

Heather Berringer informs them there are 11 youth entries and 20 adults. Some sent scores, other sent tapes. She warns them they may well hear a little bit of everything.

"Just listen to these pieces with an open mind and consider the joy and the passion and the care that went into making each one of them," she says. "You don't have to choose the most finely crafted composition."

And so it begins. With little or no discussion the members of Zeitgeist divide up the parts, try a couple of complicated bars, and then just play.

The judges listen intently, following the score if there is one, just sitting back and listening if there is not. The tunes come thick and fast. After the band has played through all the scores, the judging moves on to the tapes and CDs.

Larger view
Image Instruments at rest

The judges fall into a rhythm, listening and then rating each song, and scribbling a few comments on each tune. All three carefully follow the request not to compare notes.

It takes a little more than an hour to listen to all the pieces. A few last minute scribbles, and the youth category is done.

Again, Heather Berringer delivers instructions.

"Make sure you are happy with your scores," she says, "Then pass them in and take a break."

The tension becomes too much for Dwight Bigler and Carol Barnett: they swap papers and are pleased by how much they agree.

"Karma!" Barnett exclaims

As the judges tuck into bagels and orange juice, she explains what she was looking for. "An integrity of voice, even in ones so young," she says. "And it was there, and whether the concept fit the title, which it did in most cases."

Dwight Bigler agreed and said he was interested in how the composers used harmonic language, and their rhythmic ideas.

"I doubt if any of them are thinking this way," he says. "But it is neat to see how as they are developing the way it comes out."

When asked about the breadth and quality of the entries David Thomas says there are more people out there composing that you might expect.

"I think you would be surprised by the number of people who play a little piano who are carrying their tunes around in their heads," he says.

Then the door opens and Heather Berringer announces the winners: Derek Remes for his composition "A Passing Storm" and Leah Kaye for "Clouds of Heaven".

Then it was back into the studio for more judging. The adult compositions are are even more eclectic. There are a couple of rock songs, some jazz, a piece apparently inspired by "Lord of the Rings", and another featuring the sampled sound of someone taking a bite from an apple. (The score specifies it should be a Granny Smith.) One piece is entitled "The man with the dark glasses has just disappeared", another is called "Anthrax Conspiracy Song".

Two hours later there are two more winners: Shirley Paterson for her piano composition "Love Lines", and Paul Kovacovic for his "Catastrophic Variations"

Three days later 17-year-old Derek Remes is sitting in the Zeitgeist studio listening to the band playing his piece "A Passing Storm" He flushes slightly as the music begins, then sits with his eyes glued to the score as the musicians play on. This is the first time he has heard his piece. It's clear he is going through an intensely emotional experience. The question is: what kind?

The music ends and there is absolute silence in the room. It seems like an eternity before he speaks.

"Wow!" His face braks into a huge grin. "I don't know what to say."

He quickly thinks of something though. He begins suggesting a few changes in emphasis for the performance.

After another run-through, he is clearly pleased.

"This is the first contest I have entered and the first I have won, so I plan on entering some more and hopefully doing well in them," he says.

Back in the studio Heather Berringer says she would have given anything for a picture on Derek's face. She says the Eric Stokes song contest is all about encouraging people just to try composing and maybe have a little fun along the way. She hopes too that the contest will make people a little more sympathetic to composers struggles.

"Because you have walked a few miles in those shoes you have a better understanding of the music of our time."

Respond to this story
News Headlines
Related Subjects