Category: Articles

Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

Ken Smith
photo by Melissa Richard

For a composer, the urge to assume creative control in your own musical matters is as American as…well, Aaron Copland. But whether your frame of reference is literally the Copland-Sessions Concerts of Contemporary Music, a four-season project from 1929-1932 where American composers first took charge of bringing their music to the public, or the broader history of that tradition stretching back to Bach and Beethoven, the very breadth of composer-led or -affiliated ensembles is American to the core.

Since colleges and conservatories are the easiest places for composers and performers to interact, it’s no surprise that ensembles that met there (like Musicians Accord, eighth blackbird and the California EAR Unit) often continue the association after graduation. The members of other more experimentally-oriented groups, like Essential Music, Newband, or the American Festival of Microtonal Music, have found each other far from the halls of academe.

Once embarking on this mission, ensembles have a choice in what they perform. They can largely support a certain compositional school (The Group for Contemporary Music) or geographic location (Chicago Composers Consortium, Dinosaur Annex), or even a specific composer (Fred Ho’s Afro-Asian Music Ensemble), while other groups purposely break such categories (North/South Consonance and Composers Concordance). Some groups that originally formed around a single composer (like the Paul Dresher Ensemble) are now actively commissioning a variety of composers.

While the instrumentational resources of many of these groups is frequently what determines the kinds of pieces composers can write for them, some groups have been formed specifically to suit the whims of the composers (Music for Homemade Instruments, Bang On A Can All-Stars) But there are still composers who have found such standard ensembles like the string quartet to be their perfect medium for self-expression although their own conception of the genre has made them form their own groups (Soldier String Quartet, Turtle Island String Quartet).

The sound of much American concert music is largely shaped by the fact that composers are writing for specific ensembles. It is certainly easier for a composer to get a work performed by a small ensemble of his or her own creation than by an orchestra where the odds are generally stacked against both living composers and Americans. In fact, the American Composers Orchestra was created to try to remedy this and show that you can still have enormous musical diversity even if you focus exclusively on 20th century American music.

There is always the danger of being pigeon-holed in a new music ghetto. Groups like Sequitur and the Common Sense Composers Collective add to their own tradition trappings and inspirations from theater and dance. The Da Capo Chamber Players used to perform new works more than once in an evening to give audiences a greater familiarity with the music. They now frequently combine new pieces with works from the standard repertoire on their programs.

Usually, at some point, even the newest music falls comfortably on the continuum, as conductors such as Parnassus‘s Anthony Korf and Present Music‘s Kevin Stalheim have found. Music never exists in a vacuum, and at some point, even our most radical views and expressions of the present come to terms with the past. After all, what Copland began is now 70 years old.

The Ensembles

What makes you attend a music event? George Steel

George Steel
Photo courtesy of George Steel

Conductor and Artistic Director, Miller Theater (Columbia University)

The Elements of Style: What attracts me to a new music concert

  • Free drinks: A concert is a celebration. It should feel like one. Any gesture of hospitality is always a lure.
  • Unapologetic programming: Nothing makes a program more drab more quickly than the sense that works are being played out of duty or for the sake of appearances. Play music you are crazy about.
  • An ensemble of flexible size and instrumentation: There is too much music for the Pierrot + percussion band. If a group has more than ten players, it is manifest that they have the will and desire to explore more interesting repertoire. It follows that if a large number of players have been persuaded to play a piece, it is more likely to be persuasive music.
  • Not too many solo works: Unless the concert is Berio’s Sequenzas, a string of solo works is seldom inviting. Variety is a prime attractant.
  • Truth in packaging: Marketing materials should make plain the composer’s dates, the date a piece was written, and, if possible, the size of the ensemble. Composerly mumbo-jumbo about pieces should be avoided. Also, any brochure that uses the word “kaleidoscope” is a veiled cry for help. Nothing invites an audience better than a good photograph of composer and ensemble.
  • No Beethoven: I don’t know why Beethoven crops up on so many new music concerts. No composer, no matter what influences they claim, will withstand comparison with Beethoven. The practice of putting a common-practice-era work on the second half to make the audience stay to listen is an admission of defeat. I hate it.
  • Music I don’t know: I go to new music concerts to hear new works.
  • I care if I listen: It is a tautology that needs repeatings — a composer whose work ignores the audience will seldom attract an audience. A concert is a public event, not a private devotion; every advancement in the science of music is not cause for a concert. Precompositional design that is concerned more with structure than affect tends to yield works better seen and not heard.
  • A sense of fun: What more need be said?

What makes you attend a music event? Eugene V. Carr

Eugene V. Carr
Photo courtesy of CultureFinder

Former Executive Director, American Symphony Orchestra & President, CultureFinder (The Online Address for the Arts)

Whenever I go to a modern dance performance I’m usually thrilled by the air of expectation in the house. People are eagerly waiting to see what their favorite dancers and choreographers are up to. I go to new music concerts with the same mindset. I try to be open to new things and look forward to being surprised and challenged.

What makes you attend a music event? Jessica Lustig, President, 21st Century Music Management, Inc

Jessica Lustig
Photo courtesy of Jessica Lustig

When I attend new music events I feel a sense of adventure and hope. The adventure comes when I’m not sure what the music will sound like. The hope is that I may be lucky enough to be among the first to hear a work that will make a lasting impact on many people. If I am familiar with a composer’s music, when listening to a new piece I’ll look for what has changed, as well as what has been integrated into the composition from older works.

When I hear music of a composer who is unfamiliar to me, I’ll listen for a distinctive voice that grabs and demands my attention. Although nothing matches the thrill of being a witness to a new musical creation at a premiere, and it is also very satisfying to hear a work a few years after the premiere, knowing that with each subsequent performance, its chances of entering the repertory increase.