By Adam Reece
Scott Pender was seized by music at an early age, calling the phonograph his first teacher and his family’s eclectic record collection his lessons. Along with this fascination came an impulse to create, beginning with tinkering on his piano and eventually turning his musings into full-blown compositions. That impulse still drives him today.
Graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Georgetown University with a B.A. in philosophy—before moving on to Peabody Conservatory and receiving his graduate degree in music composition—Pender exemplifies the liberal arts tradition. For him, his background in philosophy is crucial to focusing on and working towards “the real goal of music-making (and other creative arts)—reaching out to communicate in a non-verbal way with others.” A proud member of the society, Pender still remembers his Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony in 1982. In his words, “More than anything, ΦBK makes clear the value of a well-rounded liberal arts education in today’s specialized society.”
Pender recently came out with two new CDs, and I was lucky enough to talk with him about his music.
The first of these CDs, 88+12 (chamber music for strings and piano) collects four previously composed pieces. At various times exuberant and at others mysterious, the featured tracks are always beautiful. As the instruments alternatively push each other forward and draw each other back, the music feels like a dialogue the listener is invited to join.
The first track, Veil of Ignorance, draws upon Rawls’ concept of the same name—each movement varying and transforming a common theme. This is an interesting intellectual concept, but I could not always detect the variations. That said, the second movement “Andante comodo e cantabile” is one of my favorites on the album.
The second track, Rhapsody, Elegy, and Finale for Violin and Piano, is an elegy dedicated to Pender’s late teacher, Jean Eichelberger Ivey. In some ways, music can preserve memory, and Pender says that “although the movement starts and ends quietly, it features a strong, forceful middle section, and it has a questioning, seeking character which reminds me of Dr. Ivey.” The instruments probe forward before trailing off, leaving the listener wanting more.
Sonata for Viola and Piano is the third track—a series of movements that draw on old notebook material from Pender’s time abroad in the United Kingdom. Drawing on fragments that seemed deserving of new life, he found that “some of them fit together very well with others, and the result is the piece you hear. Most of them share a very lyrical quality, almost like songs without words.”
While all gripped me in some way, the final track, Sonata for Cello and Piano, is, perhaps, my favorite on the CD. Between haunting melodies mingled with romantic piano sections, a series of calls and answers between the two instruments, and a sense of always folding back in on itself—the piece exudes an irresistible quality.
The other CD, Foothills (string orchestra and piano), will be featured as the soundtrack on the upcoming documentary film Pieced Together. Originally commissioned by the North Georgia Chamber Symphony as a concert work, Pender created alternate versions of the movements to provide extra material for the film. When asked about the difference and potential difficulties of composing for film, Pender explained that “in some ways, I find it easier [to compose for visual projects] since many of the parameters are already decided, and for me, that eliminates choices which I would otherwise have to make.”
I would encourage anyone with even a passing interest in chamber music or orchestra to check out these compelling albums. And, if, after listening to them, you find yourself craving for more, you’re in luck. Pender is currently recording an album of chamber music for wind instruments set to release later this year.
Adam Reece is a junior at Hendrix College majoring in English Literary Studies. Hendrix College is home to the Beta of Arkansas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.