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Grad student 'hollerin' for joy at winning music prize

October 14, 2010

No one can say that Jacob Adler, a master’s candidate in composition in the ASU School of Music in the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts, doesn’t have a vivid imagination and sense of surprise.

How else could he have written a prize-winning musical work that combines North Carolina hollerin’ – a unique musical form that started when boatmen “hollered” at each other on the rivers – with piano music, organ music, and a laptop computer – to be performed at an “organ park” in Amsterdam?

Adler won one of the major prizes – the Organ Prize, worth 4,550 Euros – at the 2010 international Gaudeamus Music Week in Amsterdam, a music composition competition that started just after World War II and focuses on composers under 35.

Serbian German composer Marko Nikodijevic won the other major award, the Gaudeamus Prize, for his orchestral composition, “cvetic, kucica.../la lugubre gondola.”

Nikodijevic and Adler were chosen from a field of 21 composers nominated for the prize.

In September, Adler premiered his composition, “Hollerin’ in the OrgelPark,” at the organ park – a church converted to a concert hall that has four pipe organs in varied styles and several pianos, and obviously named OrgelPark – to rave reviews.

“The piece was written for this specific place,” Adler said. “It was a lot of fun, and I got to work with some great musicians.”

Adler studied organ at the Amsterdam Conservatory from 2006 to 2008, so he was familiar with Gaudeamus Music Week. He wrote “Hollerin’” about six months before the 2010 contest started.

“I wrote it pretty quickly. I wanted to generate complexity through very simple means,” he said.

Adler calls the piece a “structured improvisation.”

“The audience sits in the middle, and there is no conductor. Some measures are 30 seconds long, in which the musicians improvise, based on the same scale. The piece has a dreamlike quality to it, and it’s also humorous.”

Using his laptop, Adler “performed” the electronic part he had written for the piece. He took samples from a 1975 recording of the National Hollerin’ Contest winners in Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina, and re-tuned them “to harmonize with the spatial and kaleidoscopic textures created by organs, pianos, and sine waves.”

Gaudeamus jury member Willem Jeths commented that Adler’s unusual use of hollerin’ was like “putting the tradition in a glass jar to preserve it.”

According to various websites, hollerin’ – which is neither yodeling nor hunting call – goes back to the 1700s, when workers transported logs on rafts along North Carolina rivers. The men “hollered” back and forth so they wouldn’t crash into each other.

Sampson County, N.C., where the famous yearly contest is held, has a unique ‘holler” made by shifting between natural and falsetto voices.

Adler, who has tried a little hollerin’ – “but not the way they do it in North Carolina,” said he learned about hollerin’ “ from my habit of checking out random CDs from libraries.”

Since the Gaudeamus prizes are intended to be commissions to write works for next year’s competition, Adler has to begin facing the music soon. He’s tossing ideas around, but hasn’t put anything on paper yet.

“It will probably be scored for organ, electronics, and an amazing vocal ensemble called VocaalLab Nederland,” he said.

Adler will receive his master’s degree in the spring, and plans to continue doing what he’s been doing for the past few years – teaching, writing and performing.

To hear a recording of “Hollerin’ in the OrgelPark,” go to: