Symphony of talent: COCOA Music puts spotlight on local composers

The Composers of Ohio Collaborative Organization for Acoustic Music (COCOA Music) has a big goal: To be a platform for composers to get music performed and professionally recorded.

COCOA Music is a nonprofit, noncompetition-based collaborative effort. Composers submit pieces to the board, where they are fairly evaluated internally and with an outside perspective, based on playability, quality and musicians’ rehearsal schedules. While it’s not a competition, not everything gets performed; though feedback, particularly with fledgling composers, is often offered.

The accepted pieces are compiled into concerts performed by some of the top brass local musicians: from members of the Dayton Philharmonic to professional instructors to independent virtuosos.

Every year, COCOA Music tries to put on at least two live concerts — one in late spring, one in early fall — each having its own unique “challenge” for composers.

The challenge for A Living Composer’s Concert, which was performed earlier this month, was to write for a 13-member chamber orchestra, featuring a string quartet, winds, brass, harp and piano. Two vocalists were also added to the roster.

COCOA Music eventually allowed submitting composers to write for smaller ensembles with the pool of musicians available.

The concert was simply acoustic, using only the natural resonance of a church hall to project the blending of instruments. No lights, no dancers and no frills of a modern stage production — just music.

The idea behind COCOA Music started as an informal discussion between three composers — Moira Levant, Chris Berg and Amanda Roberts — at a coffee shop in Oakwood around 2011.

“We were discussing how difficult it is to find venues and organizations to program our compositions,” said Berg, a bassist who just retired after 20 years with the Columbus Jazz Orchestra. “You can submit your compositions to various state-wide and national competitions, but there are anywhere from a hundred to a thousand other applicants competing for the same thing.”

COCOA Music’s formation directly responded to their frustrations about the competitive field.

“It’s hard for a composer these days to have anything performed,” said Levant, a violinist. “We provide that platform.”

Since 2011, COCOA Music has provided that for nearly 30 emerging composers from the Greater Dayton area and beyond — founding members included.

Both Berg and Levant first started composing around the age of 10. Berg has a Master’s in Theory Composition from Montclair State, and Moira studied Music Composition at Carnegie Mellon. They’ve both racked up decades of teaching, performing and composing, including their time with COCOA Music. Berg has two pieces to be performed in A Living Composer’s Concert, and Levant has one.

COCOA Music also encourages young composers. One previously featured teenage composer went on to study composition in college, and another is set to perform her own piano piece at the upcoming concert.

“My hope is that we encourage composers of all ages and abilities to write music merely for the fun of writing music,” Levant said. “Unlike art, portraits or statues, you can’t experience music without somebody else performing it.”

Trey Stone, a local pianist, has performed at previous COCOA Music concerts.

“It’s been a very rewarding experience because we’re playing new music, which always has a sense of adventure to it,” Stone said. “It’s not that this music exists outside of the need to entertain, but when people are trying to push boundaries… this format gives composers a bit more freedom.”

COCOA Music started with the three original composers and blossomed into a thriving and collaborative community, one that offers something new — for the audience and the musicians.

“When an orchestra plays Beethoven, they already sort of know how to do it,” Berg said. “But when it’s unfamiliar… the musical approach of a brand new, unknown composer, it usually requires some extra rehearsals.”

Though COCOA Music doesn’t often have that luxury.

Since their musicians are paid for their time, the group can only afford one or two rehearsals per concert, whereas three or four is ideal. But even if an oboe comes in a half beat early, the musicians might hear a level of detail that the audience may not.

Patrick Reynolds, Dayton Philharmonic’s associate conductor, donated his time for the most recent COCOA Music performance.

“To be there when live musicians are performing… it rests on its ability to communicate and reach people,” Berg said. “It’s just an incredible experience that sticks with you.”

COCOA Music is just as much for the audience as it is for the composers, offering a fresh musical experience for all parties.

“It’s what we kind of dreamt about back in 2011,” Berg added. “It’s everything we hoped it would be. You feel like you’re performing an important service, to the cultural and musical health of the community.”

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