5 Questions to Nathanael May (Artistic Director, soundSCAPE)

The soundSCAPE Festival is heading into its 13th season and going strong. From June 25 through July 8, 2017, 50 festival participants will convene with noted faculty and guest artists in the small village of Maccagno in the Italian Alps to immerse themselves in “creating the music of tomorrow.” We spoke with festival founder and Artistic Director Nathanael May to learn more.

What is the history and mission of soundSCAPE?

soundSCAPE emerged from a desire to share the transformative experience of creating new music. Its growth and success has been due to the collective vision and devotion of the faculty at its core. My own introduction to new music was a revelation. Having emerged from graduate school like countless tradition-conditioned pianists, I was in search of an identity. A teaching post on the island of Cyprus provided an opportunity to experience new music-making firsthand with the guitar and violin ensemble Duo46. A few years later, I submitted a proposal for a chamber music workshop in Italy, and was invited to debut the “Cortona Contemporary Music Festival.” Our modest beginnings (one composer attending in 2005) have blossomed into hosting 50 participants annually, moving from Tuscany through Pavia and now to Maccagno. We also adopted a name that better represents our focus on Sound, Composition And Performance Exchange. Nestled in a clime of mediterranean fauna and sweeping alpine vistas, soundSCAPE thrives upon the juxtaposition of cultures old and new, the exchange of music both bold and novel.

How would you characterize the typical participants and what they experience?

Participants range in age from 18 to mid 30s, attracting individuals in bachelor through doctoral degrees, and emerging professionals. The wide ranges in experience and ability are what make the soundSCAPE experience unique. We embrace the spectrum of contemporary music practice with an emphasis on quality and variety in performance. We care deeply about the music that is created at soundSCAPE. For composers, commissions feature traditional instrumentation, and are expertly realized by peers from leading institutions. For performers and conductors, we provide the opportunity to coach repertoire and to perform major works of the modern canon in various ensembles. The essence of the festival is of process and collaboration — soundSCAPE has been the starting point for new music initiatives that have flourished far beyond the festival, all around the globe. We actively track and promote festival commissions and highlight career development of over 400 alumni, who represent a growing base of musicians at the vanguard of new music creation.

soundSCAPE Sinfonietta conducted by Tim Weiss, performing participant composer Pierce Gradone’s Bizarre di Figure (2016)

Who are involved in the festival faculty?

The soundSCAPE faculty — composers Marcela Pavia and Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon; soprano Tony Arnold, flutist Lisa Cella, violinist Mark Fewer, percussionist Aiyun Huang, pianist Thomas Rosenkranz, cellist Felix Fan, and guitarist Dieter Hennings  never cease to amaze me! They are the lifeblood of this organization. They return year after year, working intense fourteen-hour days in the middle of their summer holiday, with no pay (and no air conditioning). As we age, it often becomes a challenge to recapture the spark that first ignited our passion as young adults in new music. I believe soundSCAPE is as much a halcyon experience for the faculty as it is a summer camp for the participants, a brief period during our lives in which we can be surrounded by people who inspire and motivate us to produce art of special significance. Faculty even seek out opportunities to perform together in our “off season”, with residencies and performances at conservatories and universities throughout North America during the academic year. Several positions on the faculty are rotational, allowing us to maintain a balance of perspective; recent guests have included conductor Tim Weiss, and composer/performers Jennifer Walshe and Lukas Ligeti. Our upcoming 13th season will present conductor Michael Lewanski (Ensemble Dal Niente) and composer Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, among others.

What other teaching initiatives do you employ?

We are creating the music of tomorrow, by giving voice to the musicians of today. It’s a mantra we strive to address at every level of the experience at soundSCAPE. When on tour, faculty invite alumni to perform with them, and feature festival commissions prominently in their programming. We had previously awarded prizes in performance and composition, but found it more advantageous to participants if we extended an invitation to return to the festival as a guest. In this capacity, Fellows coach and lead small ensembles in performance, mentor participants in various aspects of composition and career development, assist in the administration of performance and composition areas, and receive performance opportunities to showcase their work. Our resident ensemble, Eastman BroadBand, mirrors this model on a professional level, melding current students and recent alumni of the Eastman School of Music (University of Rochester). We also recognize a mid-career level composer. Through faculty nomination selected individuals receive a commission for faculty ensemble and teach lessons at the festival. This year’s recipient is Chris Paul Harman of McGill University.

Eastman BroadBand with Tony Arnold performing Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon’s Sones de tierra fría (2012/2015)

What’s on the horizon for soundSCAPE?

We achieved 501c(3) non profit status in late 2015, allowing us to pursue growth in significant areas. We are excited to have Jamie Leigh Sampson (of ADJ•ective New Music, LLC) join us as our Executive Director, a newly created position of organizational leadership. We are working to increase donations, which will enable us to offer multiple full scholarships for performers on select instruments for the festival sinfonietta. Our long term goal is to expand the number of these scholarships to cover every participant attending the festival. As of 2016, we have capped the number of composer participants at 20 or fewer, and increased the number of accepted performers to 30. Finally, festival faculty will be recording our second CD of commissioned works this summer, followed by a North American tour celebrating its release in 2018. The album will feature music by Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon (our director of composition), 2015 composer-in-residence Jesse Jones, and Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, performed by Tony Arnold, Lisa Cella, Mark Fewer, Aiyun Huang, and Thomas Rosenkranz.


The 13th annual soundSCAPE Festival convenes on June 25, 2017, in Maccagno, Italy. Applications are open for performers and conductors until March 1, 2017.