During FeNAM, Sac State Music students learn from and engage with top U.S. composers and artists
November 06, 2023
Tanya Plescia sat quietly in the front of the classroom. Next to her was David T. Little, an acclaimed composer and librettist. Plescia, a graduate music composition student at Sacramento State, had just performed two of her piano pieces for Little, and now it was time for him to share his thoughts.
“I was just present for the moment, thinking about the music and letting it flow through me,” he said.
After praising her work, Little spent roughly 15 minutes providing feedback, offering suggestions on everything from tempo to page notations.
“I can say I feel sad in a really wonderful way, because the sinking quality works so well,” Little said of her piece, “Szomorúság,” which means sadness in Hungarian.
For 90 minutes in Capistrano Hall on Nov. 2, Plescia and four other Sacramento State music students had the unique opportunity to take part in a “master class” where their compositions were critiqued by one of America’s top composers. It was one example of how students are woven into the fabric of the Festival of New American Music, a week of performances and educational events held on campus annually.
The festival, also known as FeNAM, took place Oct. 29-Nov. 3. Now in its 46th year, the event is the longest-running free festival featuring contemporary music composed and performed by American citizens or residents.
“It really is that empowering sensation of, if you have an artistic vision and the will to get it done, amazing things can happen, and you can bring people from all over the world together.” -- A. C. Sullivan, Music Theory and Composition student
Organizers, though not understating the importance of bringing some of the country’s top musicians to Sacramento for the public to enjoy, say it’s crucial that the festival is an opportunity for Sac State’s music students to engage with and learn directly from the artists.
"I am particularly excited about the breadth of genres and styles our students are exposed to, offering a holistic view of the contemporary music scene,” said Shuying Li, an assistant professor of Music who co-directs FeNAM with Music Lecturer Tim Stanley.
Over the festival’s six days, students interacted with performers and composers at 16 events and classes. Students also performed at several of FeNAM’s eight concerts, including the Student Performers Competition on Oct. 30 and the closing concert on Nov. 3 featuring the Sacramento State Wind Ensemble and the University Chorale.
Along with Little, the festival also featured the sextet Kaleidoscope, made up of musicians from around the U.S.; clarinetist Joshua Anderson; and saxophonist Michael Hernandez, who presented a program of work from Latine composers. The Sac State jazz faculty combo and Citywater, the campus’s “ensemble-in-residence,” also performed, as did Sac State Music faculty Robin Fisher, Julie Miller, and John Cozza, and Sacramento-based musicians Shinae Kim and Omari Tau.
This year’s festival included the inaugural “Call For Scores,” an open competition where any composer could submit their work for a chance to have it performed at FeNAM. Organizers received 546 submissions from across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
FeNAM concerts are free to the public, making them accessible to the entire community, including people who usually may not be able to afford concert tickets. In addition, organizers have in recent years invited and featured musicians and composers from groups not traditionally represented in classical music, including women, Black, and transgender artists.
"We hope the community sees FeNAM as a vibrant reflection of our society's creative pulse and leaves inspired by the transformative power of contemporary music,” Li said.
Story continues below the image.
Earlier on Nov. 2, about 60 students filled a Capistrano Hall classroom for an artist forum with Little, who played selections from his nearly two-decade-long career, talked about his creative motivations and interests, and shared advice.
Little has received critical acclaim for his operas, concert pieces, and other work, and is known for exploring and blurring the boundaries between rock and classical music. The master class included a preview of his most recent opera, “Sin-Eater,” which will premiere in fall 2024.
A. C. Sullivan, a Music Theory and Composition student, said they have attended FeNAM for several years and called the artist forum with Little one of their favorites. Being able to listen to and learn from Little and other composers during the artist forums, they said, has been “really enriching and rewarding.”
“It’s encouraging. It’s fortifying,” Sullivan said. “It really is that empowering sensation of, if you have an artistic vision and the will to get it done, amazing things can happen, and you can bring people from all over the world together.”
Little said he was impressed by the energy and engagement of the students who attended his forum, and that he was looking forward to hearing some of them perform his work the following day.
A child of educators and now a professor at The New School in New York, Little said as a young composer, he benefited from mentors who gave him freedom to “do all of my crazy ideas” and he appreciates the opportunity to pass his knowledge and experience to the next generation.
“It’s always great to see what people are up to and how different young composers are writing around the country,” Little said. “It’s always interesting to see, and inspiring.”
Plescia said she participated in the master class because it was a great opportunity to “get feedback and advance my composing techniques by learning from a master composer.”
“I thought his feedback was really helpful and insightful,” she said. “It was great to hear how his mind works when he is composing, and to compare that to how my internal creative process works.
“It was amazing, and it will help my career by opening my mind to new ideas and collaboration.”
Looking for a Faculty Expert?
Contact University Communications