Tag: anniversary

How to Exist: 20 Years of NewMusicBox

An interview takes place in a study-type room, with a man sitting on a couch, another man with his back to us sitting in a chair, and a woman in a blue dress behind the camera filming

Forgive me if I begin this look back at twenty years of NewMusicBox and its times by opening a different, older, but resolutely print magazine. In October 2000, about 18 months after NMBx’s founding, The Wire, the UK-based magazine for new and exploratory music, reached a milestone of its own: issue number 200. It marked the occasion with a directory of 200 “essential websites”: sites for record labels, venues, artists, discussion groups, and more. Nearly two decades later, the idea of trying to write down any sort of meaningful index to the web seems extraordinarily quaint; but at the start of the century, before Google transformed how we think about information, such things were not uncommon. Back then—and I’m just about old enough to remember this—it still felt as though if you put in a few days’ work, you could pretty much get a complete grasp of the web (or at least of that slice of it that met your interests).

Within The Wire’s directory, among a collection of links to 18 “zines,” sits NewMusicBox. Here’s Christoph Cox’s blurb:

Run by the American Music Center, an institution founded in 1942 [sic] “to foster and encourage the composition of contemporary music and to promote its production, publication, distribution and performance in every way possible,” NewMusicBox’s monthly bulletins do this admirably, and, with recent issues exploring topics as various as the relationship between alternative rock and contemporary classical, the funding of new composition, and the world of microtonality, regular visits are worthwhile.

NMBx’s presence on this list isn’t surprising. (Although I hadn’t looked at this issue of The Wire for many years myself, I was confident the site would be in there.) The online magazine of the AMC (and later New Music USA) has always been close to the forefront in online publishing. What is surprising—and just as telling—is that aside from a few websites devoted to individual composers (Chris Villars’ outstanding Morton Feldman resource; Eddie Kohler’s hyperlinked collection of John Cage stories, Indeterminacy; Karlheinz Stockhausen’s homepage-slash-CD store-slash-narrative control center stockhausen.org), almost no other sites in The Wire’s catalogue are devoted to contemporary classical music or modern composition. The sole major exception is IRCAM, whose pioneering, well-funded, and monumental presence (especially through its ever-expanding BRAHMS resource for new music documentation) gives an indication of the level NMBx was working at to have achieved so much so early on.


Although NMBx was at the forefront of online resources in 1999, the idea of an online publication for contemporary American music had been circulating at the AMC for some time. A long time, in fact. In 1984—just two years after the standardization of the TCP/IP protocol on which the internet is built, and when the web was still called ARPANET—the AMC’s long-range planning committee wrote, “The American Music Center will make every effort to become fully computerized and to develop a computer network among organizations concerned with contemporary music nationwide.”[i] This seems like an almost supernatural level of foresight for an organization that was still at that time based around its library of paper scores. That is, until one recalls the number of composers, especially of electronic music, who were themselves at the forefront of computer technology. One of these was Morton Subotnick, a member of the AMC board and one of new music’s earliest of early adopters. Deborah Steinglass, currently New Music USA’s interim CEO, but back then AMC’s Director of American Music Week (and soon to become its Development Director), recalls a meeting in 1989—the same year that Tim Berners-Lee published his proposal for a world wide web—in which Subotnick introduced the potential of computer networks for documenting and sharing information to the board, whose members were astonished and incredulous.[ii]

From its beginnings, NMBx was about making composers heard.

Yet they were moved to take it seriously. Carl Stone, another composer-board member who was involved from an early stage, reports that early models were an ASCII-based Usenet or bulletin board-type system that would allow users to exchange and distribute information nationwide.[iii] This idea evolved quickly, and ambitiously. A strategic plan drawn up in 1992 and submitted in January 1993 states that during 1994, the Center would “create an online magazine with new music essays, articles, editorials, reviews, and discussion areas for professionals and the general public.” Alongside Stone and Subotnick, the early drivers of this interest in technological innovation included fellow board members John Luther Adams, Randall Davidson, Ray Gallon, Eleanor Hovda, Larry Larson, and Pauline Oliveros.

This is not to say that everyone at the AMC was an early adopter; Stone says that one of his main tasks was “to keep driving the idea of an online service forward. While it might seem obvious today, there was significant resistance to an online service in some quarters. Some people felt it would be dehumanizing, expensive. They couldn’t see the coming ubiquity of computers in our daily life.” A key role in maintaining this drive, Steinglass tells me, was played by the AMC’s Executive Director Nancy Clarke. Clarke, a music graduate from Brown University, had worked as a music program specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts before coming to the AMC in 1983. According to Steinglass, Clarke was very interested in technology and was sympathetic to the predictions of Subotnick and others. It was she as much as anyone who pushed for and implemented an online presence for the AMC.

The fruit of these discussions (and several successful funding bids written by Steinglass) was the launch of amc.net in the first half of 1995: the same year as online game-changers such as eBay and Amazon, but months before either. In fact, the AMC’s website (designed by Jeff Harrington) proved to be one of the world’s first for a non-profit service organization, a testament to the vision and ambition of Clarke, Stone, Subotnick, and the rest of the AMC board. By June 12, according to a letter from Clarke to the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust (one of the site’s funders), it was already receiving a respectable 20,000 hits a month.

Yet the goal of a web magazine devoted to contemporary American music—meaning all sorts of non-commercial music, from jazz to experimental, as well as concert music—remained incomplete. In that same June letter, Clarke lists the services amc.net was providing: they include a catalogue of scores held in the AMC’s library; a compendium of creative opportunities (updated daily); listings of jazz managers and record companies; a forthcoming database of composers, scores, performers, and organizations; and that mid-’90s online ubiquity, the guestbook. But no mention of a magazine.

The idea was reinvigorated in 1997. Richard Kessler arrived as the AMC’s new executive director and amplified the need for the AMC—and indeed other music information centers like it—to do more than offer library catalogs and opportunity listings. “We’re supposed to be about advocacy,” is how he describes his thoughts at that time. “And not just [for] composers, but also performers and publishers and the affiliated industry.”[iv] To achieve this, Kessler reasoned, the AMC needed to switch its attention away from its score library and towards ways to give a voice to composers across the spectrum, particularly those working at the margins of the established scene. “There are composers out there who, if they’re not published, people don’t know who they are or what they’re doing,” he says.

Planning documents and funding applications produced shortly after Kessler’s arrival in July 1997 discuss the development of “a twice-monthly web column” that would provide “first person” perspectives on American music by experts and practitioners within the field.[v] At this stage an online magazine does not seem to have been in anyone’s mind, although it was suggested that these columns would be supported by chat forums, links, and other materials. Kessler was clear about what he wanted this publication to do, whatever form it might finally take: it should give “a palpable, well-known voice to the American concert composer, broadly writ. I also wanted it to affirm the existence of those artists. Can you play a part in ensuring that those artists will exist in that [online] space? Not only for people to discover them, but also for the artists themselves to feel like they do exist.”[vi]

By late spring 1998, the “American Music: In the First Person” proposal had evolved into an idea for a multi-part online newsletter. Planning documents from May of that year introduce the idea of a monthly internet-based publication “serving as a communications and media vehicle for new American music.”[vii] These documents are aimed more generally at creating an “information and support center for the 21st century,” but the presence of the magazine is regarded as the “linchpin” in that new program.

After this, things moved quickly. On July 1, a conversation between Kessler and Steve Reich was published on the AMC’s website. This was the first of a series of interviews entitled “Music in the First Person” (and which still continue under the title of “Cover”): it is interesting to note how the “first person” of the title shifted from the author of a critical essay or column, as proposed in May, to the (almost always a composer) subject of an interview. In the same month, Frank J. Oteri was approached—and interviewed—for the job of editor and publisher of the planned magazine, a position he took up in November. NewMusicBox published for the first time the following year, on May 1, 1999, featuring an extended interview with Bang on a Can, an extensive history of composer-led ensembles in America written by Ken Smith, “interactive forums,” news round-ups, and information on recent CD releases.

NMBx has grown up alongside the internet itself, and often been close to its newest developments.

NMBx has grown up alongside the internet itself, and often been close to its newest developments. The original “Music in the First Person” interviews that began in 1998 were published with audio excerpts as well as text—a heavy load for dial-up era online access. A year later, the April 1, 2000, interview with Meredith Monk introduced video for the first time. And on November 22, 2000, NMBx released its first concert webcast(!). This was a recording, made by then-Associate Editor Jenny Undercofler a week before, but the first live webcast came only a little later, on January 26, 2001—almost eight years before the Berlin Philharmonic’s pioneering Digital Concert Hall. The innovations continued: with its regularly updated content, comments boxes, and obsessive (and often self-referential) hyperlinking, NMBx was a blog almost before such things existed, and certainly long before anyone else was blogging about contemporary concert music. Composer and journalist Kyle Gann and I started our respective blogs in August 2003, although it was a little while before I wrote my first post about new music; Robert Gable beat us both by a month with his aworks blog. In fact, Gable introduced our particular blogospheric niche to the wider world in a post he wrote for NMBx in October, 2004; within weeks, Alex Ross had joined the fun, and the rest is …

Many early innovations were brought to the table by Kessler, who saw potential in webcasts, discussion groups, and more, but this is not to say that the early plans for NMBx didn’t also feature some cute throwbacks. Among them, plans for link exchanges (links to your work having a great deal of currency back then), and elaborate content-sharing schemes with external providers before YouTube, Spotify, and Soundcloud embedding made such things meaningless.

From its beginnings, NMBx (and the wider organization of AMC) was about making composers heard. In the late 1990s what this meant and how it might be achieved was still seen through a relatively traditional lens. One funding application mentions that in spite of recent advances in technology and society, “many of the challenges that faced the field decades ago remain more or less unchanged.” It goes on to list them:

  • the need for composers to identify and secure steady employment
  • the need to educate audiences and counter narrow or negative perceptions of new music
  • the need to instill institutional confidence about the importance of new music—whether from orchestras, opera companies, publishers, media, or record companies
  • the need to encourage repeat performances of new music
  • the need to secure media coverage of new music[viii]
At this stage, the internet was still regarded by many as a tool for amplifying or augmenting existing models of publication. The editors had to field questions about whether the magazine would ever be “successful” enough to launch a paper version.

At this stage, the internet was still regarded by many as a tool for amplifying or augmenting existing models of publication and information sharing. In the same year as NMBx was launched, I joined the New Grove Dictionary of Music as a junior editor and ended up part of the team that oversaw Grove’s transition from 30-volume book to what was then one of the world’s largest online reference works. For several years after 1999, we were focused on making a website that was as much like the book as possible. (This was harder than you would imagine: Grove’s exhaustive use of diacriticals, for example, made even a basic search engine a far from simple task.) As far as maximizing the opportunities of the web went, this extended largely to adding sound files (that were directly analogous to the existing, printed music examples) and hyperlinks (analogous to the existing, printed bibliographies), along with editing and adding to the existing content on a quarterly basis.[ix] My experiences at Grove were echoed in NMBx’s office. The editors had to field questions about whether the magazine would ever be “successful” enough to launch a paper version; one planning document (perhaps trying to assuage the fears of the screen-wary) reassures that “anyone who wishes to download a copy of the magazine for printing and reading at a later date will be able to do so free of charge.”[x]

Clip from Billboard, 2001

Just a few years into the new century, however, things began to change in ways that hadn’t been anticipated, even by those at the forefront of technological application. Blogging in particular had revealed two powerful and unexpected abilities of the web: to complicate our understanding of truth and to amplify the functions of style, personality, and connections within the new media economy. In the second half of the decade, these were supercharged by the arrival of social media.

This changed what it meant to be heard. Continuing to exist as a composer was no longer about accessing authorial gatekeepers—becoming audible through major performances, broadcasts, and publishing contracts—but about telling personal stories of identity and representation, and about shining a light outside of the mainstream. These changes were anticipated early on at NMBx—the forum discussions from that very first “Bang on a Can” issue centered on the subject of audience engagement—and continue to be reflected in its features.

Continuing to exist as a composer was no longer about accessing authorial gatekeepers but about telling personal stories of identity and representation.

Oteri and Molly Sheridan, who replaced Undercofler as associate editor in 2001, have guided NMBx to its 20th birthday—a remarkable continuity of leadership for any publication, online or off! Along the way, they have directed many stages in its evolution—including several site redesigns—and launched many innovations. The major facelift came in 2006, and with it a move from monthly “issues” to a rolling schedule of articles and blog posts that was more in line with the stream-based style of the growing web. By now, NMBx was essential online reading for anyone interested in contemporary American music, and hot on the heels of this redesign came another enduring innovation: the launch of Counterstream Radio in March 2007. Advertised on its press release as “Broadcasting the Music Commercial Radio Tried to Hide from You,” Counterstream caught a mid-noughties trend for online radio stations, but has endured better than some others.

Sheridan at work on Counterstream Radio

Sheridan at work on Counterstream Radio

Yet although Frank (currently composer advocate for New Music USA, in addition to his NMBx work) and Molly (now director of content for the organization more broadly) have always had a strong idea of the best direction for NMBx, the debates in its pages are often sparked by practitioners themselves. (From the beginning, readers were invited to participate in forum discussions around a wide range of field issues or tied directly to individual posts; some of my strongest early memories of NMBx are of the lively conversations that would take place below the line.) To that extent, the site remains focused on what composers want to read; and judging by some of the recurring themes in NMBx’s 20-year archive of articles and blog posts, what composers want to read seems to be: how to get your work heard; how to create (even write for!) an audience; and how to engage with modernity and/or technology.

Even more importantly, there have also been, from the start, debates about representation. Concert music has been slow to confront its problem with race, for example, but it has been part of the conversation at NMBx for years: perhaps appropriately, since as changes in representation have come, one must hope that new music will lead them. Musicologist Douglas Shadle’s recent article on “Florence B. Price in the #Blacklivesmatter Era” is a valuable contribution, but even more pertinent has been the voice NMBx has given to living composers of color—from the early interview with Tania Léon in August 1999 through to the most recent of all featuring Hannibal Lokumbe, with many opinion pieces like Anthony Greene’s “What the Optics of New Music Say to Black Composers” along the way.

NMBx has been led by the compositional community, but it has been able to reflect that community’s concerns as they have played out in the wider world as well.

In areas like these, NMBx has been led by the compositional community, but it has been able to reflect that community’s concerns as they have played out in the wider world as well. As someone involved in the world of new music not as a creator but as a critic, observer, and occasional programmer, features like these are immensely valuable to keeping an eye on my own privilege, and to pushing me to open up the margins of my own understanding. Greene’s observation that “new music has done very little to change the expected optics of classical music, which is why new music’s identity problem is what it is today” is a powerful caution against complacency.

To take another example of those optics, the subject of gender representation and the problems faced by women in the contemporary music world were first addressed pre-NMBx, beginning with Richard Kessler’s February 1999 interview with Libby Larsen. They have remained in the foreground ever since, suggesting that the question remains current, but very much unresolved. A search for “gender” in the NMBx archive brings up almost 200 items, yet this isn’t even everything—it leaves out Rob Deemer’s widely read 2012 list of women composers, for example. (Forty-one items have also been tagged with the word “diversity,” though this list is not a free-text search, and only goes back to 2012.) The debates at NMBx wove in and out of conversations in the wider world. In 2002, guest editor Lara Pellegrinelli—who had recently written for the Village Voice about the lack of women musicians involved in Jazz at Lincoln Center—published a series of posts by women musicians, each headed “How does gender affect your music?” (Jamie Baum’s response: “When asked if gender has had an influence on my compositions, my reaction was of surprise—surprise that I hadn’t been asked that question before, not in 20 years of performing.”) Blogger Lisa Hirsch’s extended article of 2008, “Lend Me a Pick Ax: The Slow Dismantling of the Compositional Gender Divide,” added essential concert and interview data to the debate, highlighting the difference between post-feminist fantasy and harsh reality; and composer Emily Doolittle, with Neil Banas, offered an interactive model to highlight “The Long-term Effects of Gender Discriminatory Programming.” A widely derided column in the conservative British magazine The Spectator of 2015 (“There’s a Good Reason Why There Are No Great Female Composers”) prompted a suitably damning response from blogger Emily E. Hogstad (“Five Takeways from the Conversation on Female Composers”) that deftly drew together several moments across both new and historical music, and in the wake of 2012’s International Women’s Day composer Amy Beth Kirsten enriched the discussion with a call for the death of the “woman composer.” This last article attracted more than 100 comments and extensive debate, but the one that attracted so much interest it briefly crashed NMBx was Ellen McSweeney’s “The Power List: Why Women Aren’t Equals in New Music Leadership and Innovation,” a nuanced response to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and its applicability to the world of new music. Tying questions of both race and gender together was Elizabeth A. Baker’s remarkable intersectional cry, “Ain’t I a Woman Too,” from August last year.

Perhaps most indicative of all was Alex Temple’s 2013 piece, “I’m a Trans Composer. What the Hell Does That Mean?” Temple’s article (originally published on her own website) is explicitly a follow-up to other NMBx contributions on gender, two of which are mentioned in its opening paragraph. It adds layers of nuance to the debate, both around the question of male/female binarism, as well as the question of whether compositional style can be gendered. No, says Temple to this latter, but:

I have noticed that certain specific attitudes toward music seem to correlate with gender … While I don’t think of my work as specifically female, I do think of it as specifically genderqueer. Just as I often feel like I’m standing outside the world of gendered meanings, aware of them but never seeing them as inevitable natural facts like so many humans seem to do, I also tend to feel like I’m standing outside the world of artistic meanings.

In its combination of raw experience and careful self-reflection, Temple’s article is exemplary but not unique to NMBx; an equally honest and unmissable piece, this time on musico-racial identity, is Eugene Holley, Jr’s “My Bill Evans Problem.” For those of us—including me, I confess—who have found ourselves under-informed about trans issues, Temple’s article provided a welcome introduction: not only to the terms of that discussion, but also for its possible ramifications for artistic creativity and self-expression (articles published since, including Cas Martin’s “An Ode to Pride Month,” have added layers of their own).

The continuing presence of articles like these brings us back to the core purpose of NMBx as the AMC envisioned it back in 1997: to allow composers to feel like they exist. In 2019 that is not only a question of allowing composers to feel like they exist as composers, within the framework of institutional support and recognition, but as people, within the framework of a more humane, more complete understanding of what we are as a society. In recent years, one or two online publications have found ways to discuss difficult social questions within the context of contemporary music; it’s rarer still to see it done with the same level of peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge and experience. NMBx, built in the best days of the web, was there before them all.

In the twenty or so years since we started to pay attention to it, the internet has concatenated every part of our private and public lives. Art, culture, sport, business, and gossip no longer appear separately, like supplements in our weekend newspapers, but together, on the same screen as dinner plans, memes, and conversations with our friends. Since the advent of Twitter, different things have become even more closely braided within the same scroll-stream, units differentiated only by the volume at which they declare themselves from our screens: #ClimateCatastrophe, #FiveJobsIHaveHad, #WorldPenguinDay read three hashtags in close proximity on my TweetDeck right now.

This is not altogether a bad thing. In the 1980s and ’90s, before this whole online thing really took off, musicologists and critics would fret about the disassociation of classical “art” music from life, and of musicology from society. Popular music was better at inserting itself into and complementing people’s lives. Film, literature, and theater were also good at it. Yet music, it was argued, was somehow still regarded in the abstract. It was partly in response to this that the scholarly movement that came to be known as New Musicology was born, having as its aim the study of music within its social context, music as a social creation. Today, music inhabits very much the same space as everything else in our lives (just as music is increasingly made out of the components of those lives). NMBx’s blogs and features, which place the day-to-day stories of actual new music composers at the center of the discussion, are a perfect reflection of this. The internet, with its indifferent reframing of everything as #content, has played no small role in this change in how we see the world. Few people talk of New Musicology now. Not because its premises were wrong, but because they have become standard practice. In this, as in so much else, NewMusicBox has long been ahead of the curve. Here’s to existing, always.

Thanks to Jeff Harrington, Richard Kessler, Debbie Steinglass, and Carl Stone for sharing with me their recollections and documentation of the early days of NMBx and amc.net.

[i] Quoted in American Music Center, 1992: “The Arts Forward Fund: Request for Proposal,” n.p. (“Proposal Summary”).

[ii] Deborah Steinglass, email to the author, April 5, 2019. According to Steinglass, Subotnick “also talked about the future of transportation, and how the US would have highways filled with electric vehicles none of us would actually have to drive.”

[iii] Carl Stone, email to the author, April 10, 2019.

[iv] Richard Kessler, Skype interview with the author, April 5, 2019.

[v] I am grateful to Richard Kessler for sharing these and other documents with me, and for permission to quote from them.

[vi] Kessler, Skype interview.

[vii] American Music Center, 1998: “An Information & Support Center for the 21st Century: An Action Plan.”

[viii] American Music Center, 2000: “A Proposal to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to Support an Online Information and Communications Infrastructure for New American Music,” page 10.

[ix] I am happy to report that since my time at Grove – or Oxford Music Online as it is now known – these ambitions have expanded greatly.

[x] American Music Center, “An Information & Support Center for the 21st Century,” page 5.

San Antonio: SOLI chamber ensemble—20 years of new music

SOLI chamber ensemble - photo by Jason Murgo

SOLI chamber ensemble. Photo by Jason Murgo

Founded in 1994 as the PRISM quartet,[1] SOLI chamber ensemble has for the past twenty years served as a guiding light for contemporary concert music in and around San Antonio. Winner of the 2013 CMA/ASCAP Adventurous Programming Award, SOLI has commissioned forty new works and premiered each of them for audiences in San Antonio. Though their long-running concert series at Trinity University will continue to be their main base of operations, their recent appointment as resident chamber ensemble at the new Tobin Performing Arts Center (in downtown San Antonio, just a few blocks from the Alamo) puts them in a prominent position to share their music with an even wider audience. In addition, SOLI is also presenting their first CD which features several of the works they have commissioned over the years. This season’s concert series had three distinct programs—Past, Present, and Future—out of which I was able to catch the last. When Caroline Shaw is the senior composer on your program, you know you’re dealing with new music, so I was quite curious to see what SOLI had programmed for the show.
The concert, held in the Ruth Taylor Recital Hall of Trinity University, began with Scott Ordway’s Let there be not darkness, but light. The work was a study in multiple moods which evolved over six or seven minutes. A clangorous opening with chirping single-note sixteenth figures gave way to a slower section with staid and paced piano chords under long lines traded between the strings. The clarinet emerged over this material while hints of the chirping appeared and echoed in the piano. This lead to another section featuring violin, cello, and clarinet exclamations bouncing off of and rising from the piano’s arrhythmic accompaniment, morphing into a sort of ululating texture with everyone (save piano) moving in step before remnants of the opening material closed out the piece.

Guest artist mezzo-soprano Tynan Davis joined the ensemble (sans clarinet this time) for Caroline Shaw’s Cantico delle creature, a work based on text by Francesco d’Assisi and one of the first poems written in the Umbrian dialect of Italian in the 13th century. The work had a calm clarity throughout and seemed in no rush to get from A to B, a quality that felt not static but comfortable and somehow meditative. Often intoning a single pitch, Davis’s performance enhanced these qualities with round pure tones and beautifully shaped lines. It was a work that luxuriated in form more than surface activity, one in which looking for the point of the piece in each line was less successful than letting the whole thing wash over you.

Niccolo Athens’s Piano Trio was a study in tradition, and the three movements were rigorous for both player and listener. The calm, flowing, and wholly tonal opening of the Preludio served well as a bridge from the Shaw, though it upped the ante as it progressed with aggressive tremolo in the strings and deft interplay between strings and piano. The Passacaglia sat large and imposing in the center, occupying the lion’s share of the work, and Athens made good use of its repeating line, often masking it so deftly that, as the movement progressed, I lost track of it. The Scherzo-Finale came along attacca with a strong nod to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra both in harmonic language and rhythmic vitality, streams of sixteenths interrupted by tutti announcements of the theme. Taking on these well-worn forms can be a daunting challenge for even the most experienced composers, and my first thought when I saw the program was, “Interesting…this title does not scream ‘new music’.” Having said that, it was very well written, exciting, and enjoyable, and reminded me that new music is, of course, many things.
Following the intermission was Yvonne Freckmann’s Switch. Originally programmed as the closer for the first half, a technical glitch forced a shuffling of pieces, one that could really throw a wrench in the works of a carefully curated evening. However, it was a refreshing change from the formality of the first half, and once the technical issues were squared away (by way of an iMac procured from the bowels of the university) the work commenced. Featuring clarinet and live electronics, Switch also used pre-recorded clarinet, occasionally showing up in choirs to add to the drama. Freckmann joined clarinetist Stephanie Key onstage, occasionally cueing the electronics via the iMac as Key moved across the stage reading the spread-out score. The piece was populated by melodies awash in delay and reverb, occasionally pulling away for an excursion into overblown notes and similar extended techniques[2]. Certainly we’re well past the point where electronic pieces are assumed to be de-facto experimental, but too often I hear works in this world that feel wandering and self-indulgent; pieces in which the material and surface dominate. Fortunately, Switch had a satisfying arc and thoughtful attention to form that kept it out of that category.

Davis joined the entire ensemble for the final work of the evening, the world premiere of Matthew Aucoin’s SOLI-commissioned Celan Songs. In seven movements (three of which were instrumental “fragments”), the songs were each of their own world. The first movement had a disjointed march-like rhythm from which a tutti emerged among the instrumentalists while the second put Davis through her paces in terms of range. Much of the work was somewhat dark and a bit angular, its language and sensibility recalling a European pre-war character (speaking perhaps to Paul Celan’s experience as a holocaust survivor) until the fifth movement. Fully of this century, the bubbling arpeggios and long lines wholly contrasted the other movements while somehow connecting with them via Davis’s voice. My first thought was all raised eyebrows and “what’s all this then?”, but Aucoin made it work. Initially slightly disorienting, this most different movement was in many ways the star of the show (or at least this particular piece) and put me on my toes as a listener.

Achieving the high level of performance and commissioning that SOLI has is one thing, but maintaining it for twenty years is quite another. While we live in a world populated by more and more new music groups, it’s worth noting that SOLI got its start around the same time the internet became a thing. It’s difficult (even for those of us who grew up in those dark days) to remember what it was like to operate in a world without the immediate connectivity those tubes afford us, not to mention the fact that without a great deal of precedent, groups like SOLI had to make it up as they went. Even today there is no boilerplate for making your new music group work, but if you’re looking for a model, SOLI has one for you.

    1. Not to be confused with the saxophone quartet! And when did groups start moving from names in all caps to all lower-case? This is a dissertation waiting to happen folks.

  1. I suppose we’re moving away from calling these techniques “extended”?

2004: Keys to the Kingdom

NewMusicBox @ 15 logo
Sure, Mark Zuckerberg and pals launched Facebook in 2004, but NewMusicBox was already cruising into its 5th anniversary by that point. For the traditionalists in the house, the appropriate gift is wood, which we needed because the year was rife with arguments over fences. That’s right—I’m talking about of the blurring of genre lines.

The launch of New Amsterdam Records was still four years off, but the chatter surrounding this muddying of artistic indicators had already turned our heads. Of course this wasn’t exactly an original concept way back in 2004 either, but technology and easily accessible programs such as GarageBand were changing the landscape. With the broader availability of basic tools, gates were opening and an increasing number of music makers were walking through. Could the cost of and aptitude for lengthy training (which limited participation in certain kinds of music making) be circumvented, or at least mitigated, by software? This seemed to get everyone thinking.

NewMusicBox in 2004

NewMusicBox in 2004, back when we still posted “issues.” This one covered the ethics of borrowed materials.

We here at NewMusicBox were certainly thinking about the opportunities that rapidly developing tech and web interconnectivity offered. When the site launched in 1999, it was meant to serve as a national gathering place and resource for an industry often siloed in discrete geographic pockets. It might be difficult to rewind to a time when personal music blogs were still considered “experimental” now that we’re ankle deep into a discussion of their decline, but there was an energy and excitement to these new and strengthening virtual relationships. Though this was also the year that the performing arts pooled their knowledge under a single convention center roof in Pittsburgh for some real-world problem solving, music makers and fans were sharing their sounds and ideas with one another regardless of zip code in ever-growing numbers—fueled by passion and linked by an internet connection.

Paul Moravec and Fran Richard

2004 Pulizer Prize-winner Paul Moravec greets ASCAP’s Vice President & Director of Concert Music Fran Richard at the American Music Center’s annual meeting. The joy captured in this picture sticks with me even a decade later.

The field may have drawn some strength from this increasingly connected community of colleagues, but there were still lines in the sand—even if the winds of change were making them harder to see. There was an appreciation by an impressive list of thinkers for music that was personally important to them even though it remained professionally “other.” There were those ready to pull down the barriers between pop and classical, but there were still those defending the disappearing divider. For those so up-close-and-personal with the music that it was difficult to label anything accurately, there were guidelines for that. Still, whether we liked it or not, the music seemed to be telling us that the new common practice was no common practice at all. Even the Pulitzer Prize board admitted that it was time to make some adjustments. There were rules, and they were being torn up and rearranged in the quest for new music. But if we were expecting pop music to enter the new music arena and save our industry from obsolescence, we were strongly advised not to hold our breath.

Partyin’ Like It’s 1999

You’re not delirious; it really has been 15 years since NewMusicBox published its first “issue”! So much has changed about the internet since then, but our dedication to the music of our time and those who bring it to life has remained as strong as ever. Please join us in celebrating 15 years of NewMusicBox by making a gift today.

At the time of NewMusicBox’s launch (on May 1, 1999), we were faced with a somewhat daunting task. We were the only national publication focused specifically on new music created by Americans; we created NMBx because there was nothing else. Back in November 1998, I was hired with the express goal of making this thing happen by Richard Kessler who was then the executive director at an organization called the American Music Center. (AMC merged with Meet The Composer to form New Music USA in November 2011.) It took six months, but—with the help of then-associate editor Nathan Michel and our first web designer Stacie Johnston of SomePig.com (which is still around)—we actually did it!

3 Photos of first NewMusicBox public demo on May 3, 1999

Two days after the launch, yours truly (with significantly shorter hair) gave the first public demo of NewMusicBox at the American Music Center’s 1999 Annual Meeting and Awards Ceremony (Monday, May 3, 1999) at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse. Karen Chester is in the photo on the left; Kitty Brazelton and Tom Talbert are in the photo on the right.

While we didn’t have to worry about stuff like galleys and distribution arrangements (since we were, after all, a web-based publication), we were still madly scrambling to get all the articles and photographs in place literally minutes before we went live, and then we immediately had to start over again to work on the next issue. “Issue?”  Yeah, back in 1999 our primary models were still print-based publications and so our plan was to publish once a month, every month, on the first of the month. Though, of course, the internet was pretty much 24/7 from its inception, it wasn’t yet an always-present part of most of our lives at that point. In fact, most folks in our scene (and anywhere else for that matter) weren’t completely sure what the potential of the internet could be and many weren’t even online. Plus those who were had dial-up connections. But we didn’t know any better, so we plunged ahead. Less than eight months after launching, we received the first ASCAP Deems Taylor Internet Award on December 8, 1999.

Plaque of Deems Taylor Internet Award

The plaque for that award still hangs in our office.

From the very beginning we recorded our in-depth conversations with folks on video. (What we now call “Cover” we called “In The First Person” back then, but it’s still pretty much the same idea.) But bandwidth was extremely slow and the quality of the video we initially recorded also wasn’t very high, so we actually didn’t start posting video content on the site until the following year.  Yet despite not really having models to emulate other than print publications, we initially conceived articles to be multi-tiered narratives that readers could explore in non-linear ways. Ironically, fifteen years later in a world where practically everyone eats, sleeps, and dreams online, most folks still read articles—the ones they finish anyway—from the beginning to the end rather than playing the kinds of hopscotch games that seemed more appropriate to the medium at the time.
But one thing that hasn’t changed in all these years has been our goal to always be inclusive of the broadest range of music that could be considered “new” American music whether it was notated and reinterpreted by other musicians, improvised in a club, assembled in a studio, or found sound. Another one of our models from the very beginning, because of its voracious inclusivity, was the Bang on a Can Festival. So our very first published conversation was with the three composers who created it and still run it to this day—Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Lang. In that talk, there were reference made to music by everyone from Milton Babbitt and Steve Reich to Stevie Wonder and Sonic Youth.

FJO and Nathan Michel

The original NewMusicBox team–FJO (left) and Nathan Michel (right)–in the “box” at the American Music Center office on 30 West 26th Street in NYC. (Photo by Richard Kessler.)

While we’ve never really actively pursued the folks who wind up on the Top 40 (and admittedly back in 1999 I thought that such a category of music would cease to exist 15 years into the future), we have never had a litmus test for style or pedigree and welcome any music that gets people listening and thinking in new ways. Back then I liked to call this stuff “dotorg” music, but I’d nevertheless be thrilled if any music we featured wound up on the Top 40, and–ever an optimist–I still believe that it can. (A side note: early on we actually tried to get to Prince to talk with us for NewMusicBox—one of the few folks we’ve wanted to feature on the site whom we failed to successfully track down. I’m still open to the idea; what better way to celebrate 1999 than with the guy who wrote the song!)

NewMusicBox @ 15 logo
Despite how much our world has changed, it’s surprising how many of the conversations we were having back in 1999 are still going on today, though sadly not everyone involved with those conversations is still with us today. I remember the late Bill Duckworth’s prediction that “the boundaries currently separating composer, performer, and listener will become increasingly blurred.” We’re not quite there yet, but I still hear folks making the same prediction. And, to this day, whenever I hear entrepreneurial composers describe why they do what they do, in the back of my head I hear the words that the recently deceased Fred Ho said to Ken Smith in the very first article ever published on NewMusicBox:  “If there was an ensemble playing the music I heard, I would never have created my own.” That article was a massive compendium offering detailed background on a total of 24 composer-led new music ensembles and collectives (12 of which are still going strong to this day). We followed it up with a similar compendium of 19 recording labels by Steve Smith (no relation). Despite the claims of pundits who were opining that the record industry was dead even before we launched NewMusicBox, more than half of those labels are still around and issuing vital new music in 2014.
What are your musical memories of 1999? Were your reading NewMusicBox yet back then? We’d love to hear from you.

NewMusicBox @ 15: Reflections on Change, Challenge, and Music in the 21st Century

NewMusicBox's 15th Anniversary
With life hurtling us forward at what often feels like an ever-increasing speed, it can take all available energy just to keep pace. The fear of missing out runs in cruel parallel to a world of information and experience that is expanding exponentially before our eyes, one that we cannot hope to consume even a decent fraction of.

And in the midst of so much that is new and shiny, there is rarely the opportunity to stop, let alone turn around and examine the path that has brought us to where we are currently standing.

But when we fail to engage in this reflection, we’re actually missing out on something else—the chance to measure our progress and to better comprehend the lessons the journey has taught us along the way. Such study can bring new meaning to what we have encountered and re-align where we want to head next.

For NewMusicBox, May 1 marks our publication’s 15th anniversary. Since 1999, we have been sharing the stories and sounds of new music in America with the world through the internet—initially a wild new frontier and still a slippery (if more sophisticated) one. To mark the occasion, we decided to stop looking forward toward new music for a moment and instead consider the lessons of what we’ve heard so far. Year by year, we sifted through our digital (hard yet corruptible) archives and our organic (malleable yet fallible) memories and contemplated what we might best take away from the past before we take any further steps toward the future.

Admittedly, we uncovered broken links and some dated graphics, but much larger messages transcended those cosmetic wrinkles—lessons from the artists we’ve spoken with about success and frustration, cash and creativity, living to make music and making music to make a living. Now, for the next few weeks, we’ll advance the clock a year at a time and call out the mile markers that still shine for us. (And we’ll index each of those posts below on this page.)

But this is an exercise made richer and more complete through collective action. How has American music influenced your life over the last decade and a half—in whatever roles you have played? What were the high points? What were the pitfalls? We hope you’ll reach back into your memory and share your takeaways with us as we travel back to…



As you join in the conversation to mark the 15th anniversary of NewMusicBox, please consider celebrating this milestone by making a gift to New Music USA, the non-profit organization that publishes NewMusicBox. Whether you are a loyal reader or are new to these pages, chances are you care about the dissemination of new American music and the vibrancy of the communities that create it. Our editors work hard to help you share your music, stories, and ideas with the world. Whether you donate $1 per month or $100, your gift is an endorsement of our work, one that enables us to more powerfully advocate for the needs of this community. Our cause is advanced far more when we are united.

New England’s Prospect: The Second Hand Unwinds—A 45th Season for Boston Musica Viva

Boston Musica Viva

Boston Musica Viva
Photo by Robert Harding Pittman

It is a bit of a tightrope for a new music group to celebrate an anniversary, if you believe Henri Bergson. The French philosopher located the source of much of the philosophical angst surrounding free will and causality at the difference point between experienced duration and measured time. “Sometimes we think particularly of the regular succession of physical phenomena and of the kind of inner effort by which one becomes another,” he wrote, “sometimes we fix our mind on the absolute regularity of these phenomena, and from the idea of regularity we pass by imperceptible steps to that of mathematical necessity, which excludes duration understood in the first way.” In other words: sometimes we intuitively sense a progression of events through time, sometimes we measure it with a clock. “And we do not see any harm in letting these two conceptions blend into one another, and in assigning greater importance to the one or the other according as we are more or less concerned with the interests of science.” But the clock’s precision distorts: “to apply the principle of causality, in this ambiguous form, to the succession of conscious states, is uselessly and wantonly to run into inextricable difficulties.”

Boston Musica Viva, the city’s oldest new music group, is marking its 45th season with, it would seem, a somewhat Bergsonian regard for the arbitrariness of that round-ish number. The group might have been tempted to, say, recapitulate its first concert (from February 1970: Bolcom’s Session III, Huber’s Askese, the Webern Pierrot-ensemble arrangement of Schonberg’s op. 9 Chamber Symphony, and Foss’s Time Cycle). But even institutions can’t claim absolute regularity—indeed, conductor Richard Pittman is the only performer remaining from that 1970 edition of the group. So instead, the year’s concerts are filled with relatively recent music, with a premiere for each—the kind of inner effort, one might say, by which new music stays new.
Their concert on November 16, at the Longy School of Music, had an added layer of temporal consideration. Charles Zoll’s Bailes encima del escritorio de nuestra juventúd (“Dances atop the school desk of our youth”) was the winner of this year’s Rapido! composition contest (started by the Atlanta Chamber Players and administered by a consortium that includes BMV, Fifth House Ensemble, Voices of Change, and the Left Coast Ensemble). The rules are all about speed: composers get a theme (dance, this time around), an ensemble (oboe, violin, cello, piano), and two weeks to deliver a score. The results might be predicted from the parameters: Zoll’s piece, in five movements, had lots of ostinati, lots of instruments imitating other instruments (cello as string bass, oboe as clarinet, and so on), lots of filled-out ABA forms.

The Bailes were unremittingly pleasant, though almost frictionlessly so; a busy-but-circumscribed bit of flamenco, a moody-but-smooth tango, a bit of awfully well-behaved jazz, even with Geoffrey Burleson working the inside of the piano with a couple of mallets. The performance (Burleson with violinist Jae Young Cosmos Lee, cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws, and oboist Miri Kudo), skittish at first, settled into a groove of such easiness that the only real drama was a page-turning snafu (which warmed my heart). I had heard some of the other Rapido! entries in a preliminary round; I can’t really say that Zoll’s winner (of which the first two movements formed his original entry) was more striking than any of those other pieces, just perhaps more finished—a tribute to the virtues of watching the clock.

The world premiere on Saturday’s concert, Fabrication 15: Amplification by Andy Vores, was a more discursive roam through the temporal workshop. Eventually, there will be 32 Fabrications, for a variety of forces, each built around a particular notion or metaphor; Fabrication 15 is all about speeding up and slowing down, alternately emphasizing the local and the global from both a performing and listening standpoint. At its center is an older Vores piece, Slow Peacherine Rag, a Scott Joplin deconstruction inspired by his overhearing such music being practiced at half-speed on a hot, half-speed-ish sort of day: the bouncy rhythms and cadences are stretched out, sliced up, interspersed with longueurs and languors. The Rag takes its place at the center of Fabrications 15, arranged for the instrumental sextet—Lee, Müller-Szeraws, and Burleson joined by Lisa Hennessy (flutes), William Kirkley (clarinets), and Robert Schulz (percussion)—but the frame, a riot of clockworks in and out of sync with each other—imperceptible steps to mathematical necessity, maybe—grows into a thick, busy impasto. The constant here is the sense of curiosity, the way Vores so manifestly loves his sounds: the piano’s decay, the clang of metallic percussion, the possibilities of fast, running flute lines and needle-nosed altissimo clarinet. Vores has a knack for music that feels determined without feeling deterministic.

The concert’s nod to retrospection only went back to 2000 and Thea Musgrave’s one man, one act opera The Mocking-Bird (an adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s short story) originally commissioned by BMV. During the Civil War, Private Grayrock (baritone David Kravitz) strays behind enemy lines; firing his rifle out of fear, he unwittingly precipitates a skirmish, causing him to muse bitterly on the incompetence of his officers, the vagaries of his life, his long-lost brother—the dividing lines of class and conflict and the vagaries of causality. The music (scored for the same ensemble as the Vores) is both romantically old-fashioned and modernistically fluid. Musgrave is not afraid of obvious symbolisms, be they illustrative (snare drums and piccolo reveilles) or structural (minor-key present versus major-key memories, flatted sixth and seventh scale degrees constantly weighing down the tonality, dragging it away from resolution and a tonicized home). And what little plot there is is both conspicuously exposited and eminently predictable.

But, like all ghost stories (and The Mocking-Bird is a ghost story, the specter of the past forever haunting Grayrock’s present), the juice is in the telling, and this performance’s telling was big, straightforward, sincere. (Kravitz was especially good, surmounting the part’s wordiness and unabashed expressive escalations with conviction.) Musgrave gives the proceedings a formal richness and efficiency that don’t so much plumb the drama of the story as amplify the insistent necessity of its reiteration. If humanity is determined wantonly to run into the same old inextricable difficulties, Musgrave’s opera hints, the same old stories will never see their time pass.

New England’s Prospect: Anniversary Waltzes—Kronos @ 40 in Providence

The end of Kronos Quartet’s concert in Providence on November 8 was almost designedly apt. At the close of Kareem Roustom’s A Voice Exclaimed (a world premiere), Kronos—surrounded onstage by faculty and students from Providential superheroes Community MusicWorks—began sending snatches of Middle-Eastern-tinted melody out into the Rhode Island School of Design Auditorium. These melodies were promptly echoed back by a sudden ingress of even more MusicWorks students, processing in from the back and sides of the hall. Kronos, the pied pipers of contemporary string quartet music, had enticed another crowd into their circle.

Kronos Quartet is celebrating its 40th season, a significant milestone; having that on the brain might be why I kept hearing the concert, on the whole, as a musical version of one of those married couples who grow to look like each other. Kronos played mostly recent works that all, nevertheless, had a kind of essential Kronos-ness about them: making reference to specific international vernaculars, utilizing Kronos’s flair for using extended techniques and intonations to evoke indigenous instruments, wrapping the whole thing up in a package of rock-and-roll energy and curated cool. I wouldn’t begrudge them any of it. After four decades, Kronos is still a new music group that takes its citizenship in the new music community seriously: show me another ensemble that has given more composers both the opportunity and the benefit of a meticulous, passionate performance. They’ve withstood their share of personnel changes, particularly on the cello—Sunny Yang is now there, joining violist Hank Dutt and violinists John Sherba and David Harrington—but their performance standards remain impeccable. The music they cultivate might be geared to what they do well, but what they do well, they do better than anyone.

Kronos Quartet

Kronos Quartet
Photo by Jay Blakesberg.

That said, the sort of genre-play at the heart of a lot of Kronos’s commissioned repertoire is not without its compositional perils. Roustom’s new work, the evening’s centerpiece—an expression of hope for his Syrian birthplace in the face of appalling violence—was the most effective of the evening’s Kronos commissions, mainly, I think, because his crossing of genres, his strategy of adapting Arabic musical materials to Western forms came with a certain clarity of purpose. When it works, Roustom’s use of familiar, firmly outlined formal patterns makes it easy to tune into the rhetorical novelties of the unfamiliar modes. This was especially beguiling in the second movement, “Consolation,” a call and response derived from a Syrian Christian hymn: Kronos would play a phrase in Arabic temperament, and the MusicWorks players would answer in Western equal temperament, a pattern that actually brought out additional, unexpected expressive subtleties in both intonations. And Arabic rhythmic cells made effective, Beethovenian motives threading their way through the outer movements.

The mix of expectations didn’t always play out: the mismatch between Roustom’s slow, static harmonic rhythm and developmental structures that, in the classical tradition, rely on increasing harmonic momentum meant that often the music was stuck at a low simmer just when it seemed necessary to boil over into the return of a theme or a section. Still, Roustom’s managing of the needs of both the forces—a triple quartet (one of which was expanded with additional players) of varying abilities, plus the extra theater at the end—and the needs of the occasion was skillful. A Voice Exclaimed provided a showcase for Kronos, the exceptional work MusicWorks is doing, and the sense of community involvement and pride that MusicWorks has fostered. That theatrical ending tied together the whole package—the piece, the players, the production, the process.
The first half of the concert was all Kronos, a mix of commissioned originals and arrangements, the provenance neatly dividing into music that imposed elements of genre and music that inhabited them. The commissioned works alternated between folk and pop costuming. Bryce Dessner’s Aheym reworked the musical colors of Eastern European Jewish immigrants into aggressive ostinati. Nicole Lizée’s Death to Kosmische looked to deconstruct the heavily synthesized Krautrock of the early ’70s—Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream—going so far as to have the players put down their strings and pick up, periodically, a stylophone and an omnichord, redolently obsolete. Alexandra Vrebalov’s …hold me, neighbor, in this storm… had even more going on: Harrington and Sherba doubling on a Balkan gusle and double-headed drum, respectively; a recorded overlay of bells and thunder and calls to prayer; the full toolbox of Kronos’s imitative skills—microtonal inflections, expressively widened vibrato—brought to bear.
The arrangements were a similar old-and-new playlist. Judith Berkson’s transcription of Alter Yechiel Karinol’s “Sim Sholom” turned its pre-WWI cantillation into a fluid, florid solo for Yang’s cello, barely and simply accompanied by the other three. Jacob Garchik’s version of Laurie Anderson’s “Flow” used the instruments’ long-bowed abilities as a canvas for the song’s wisps of gently jostling triads. For an encore, Kronos slipped into Garchik’s arrangement of Greek-American chanteuse Marika Papagika’s 1918 “Smyrneïko Minore,” a slyly woozy bit of romance that turns briefly, bracingly frisky.

The programming was clever—while the arrangements were all bunched together, each seemed to have its counterpart among the original pieces: “Sim Sholom” and Aheym surveying the diaspora; “Smyrneïko Minore” and …hold me, neighbor, in this storm… a yin and yang of Balkan life; “Flow” and Death to Kosmische paying tribute to pop influences. Roustom’s piece had its programmatic partner, as well: another Garchik arrangement, of Omar Souleyman’s “La Sidounak Sayyada,” envelope-pushing Syrian pop music at its finest.

That sense of invention—Souleyman’s rhythms so happily furious as to threaten to overrun the meter—was, in the end, stronger in the arranged pieces than in the originals: they had the ebullience and fizz that comes with working within a genre rather than merely with it. Part of that is Kronos’s skill at curation, certainly; but part of it is also the difference between aiming for a style and inhabiting one—even, perhaps, looking to get out. Aheym was energetic and accomplished; but “Sim Sholom” was something considerably more mysterious and sublime. Lizée’s dismantling of very particular pop tropes, halting and dreamlike by turn, was diverting; but that Anderson/Garchik “Flow” was simply one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever heard.

Prior to A Voice Exclaimed, Kronos and the MusicWorks players joined for an older Kronos commission, John Oswald’s 1990 Spectre. The music grows out of the sounds of the instruments tuning up; at its height, Oswald—drawing on his Plunderphonics proclivities—brings in 1001 pre-recorded quartets, a jet-like din over which the live players then exaggeratedly mime a performance. As the recorded quartets shift into pizzicato, the live players again join in, and the piece winds down in a plucked fog. It’s a deftly, almost daftly simple piece, a gag, an idea, a trajectory, and not much else. But it’s concise enough not to wear out its welcome, and the execution has flair. Its arranged complement? Kronos’s final encore, Raymond Scott’s familiar-from-cartoons classic, “Powerhouse.” It could have been a reminder that, if you’re going to play with genre, you shouldn’t forget to also play.

Celebrating Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music’s 50th Season

Cabrillo cello section

“Thank you, celli,” Marin Alsop said in her understated way when she finally took the podium at the penultimate concert of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music’s 50th season. Somehow it felt entirely appropriate at this festival, which is unconventional in so many other ways, that the cello section had interrupted the orchestra’s tuning by barging onstage wearing party hats and blowing party favors, with a banner marking the anniversary. (The cello section apparently has a long history of using costumes and props.)

Last year was Alsop’s 20th season as the festival’s music director (succeeding Dennis Russell Davies, who had served for 17 years). During her tenure, the festival—which included Rameau in its first season in 1953—has focused its programming entirely on contemporary music. In just the past two seasons, Cabrillo has commissioned 12 works, three of which I heard during the concerts I attended on August 4 and 11. The new pieces written for this anniversary season included a major work by James MacMillan and an evening-length project titled Hidden World of Girls: Stories for Orchestra involving four women composers: Clarice Assad, Alexandra du Bois, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, and Laura Karpman (lead composer).

Post-performance cake and Prosecco reception on the street outside the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium

Post-performance cake and Prosecco reception on the street outside the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.

The festival took its name from its initial sponsor: Cabrillo College, a community college based in Aptos, the small seaside town in Santa Cruz County that was Lou Harrison’s home for many years. By the mid-1980s, the festival had moved ten miles up the coast to Santa Cruz, where it remains. For those unfamiliar with Northern California geography, Santa Cruz is not particularly difficult to get to from the San Francisco Bay area by car, but it’s still an hour and a half drive over the Santa Cruz Mountains, which formed along the San Andreas fault. Originally developed as a beach resort, Santa Cruz is separate enough that it feels like a different region, more a part of the agricultural areas to the south than the cities to the north. One influential board member from the festival’s early years, Ruth Frary, was quoted in the program book as saying, “It was very exciting to me to have our county involved in exploratory programming. There was no thinking that they had to play just the war horses here in the hinterlands.”

The festival orchestra’s musicians are drawn from around the country, and some have been coming for decades. (There has also been a consistent through-line in the festival’s administration, which has been led for over two decades by Ellen Primack and Tom Fredericks.) The musicians are housed with local host families, and the resulting connection with the community is obvious. When Alsop addresses the hall, her relaxed tone indicates that she’s speaking among friends. In return, concertgoers unabashedly approach the musicians and composers to talk about the music. Both of the concerts I went to in the thousand-seat Civic Auditorium were very well attended. Though “hinterlands” might be an overstatement, these concerts certainly were proof that there can be an enthusiastic audience for contemporary music in a smaller community.

The thousand-seat Civic Auditorium

This year’s anniversary festival expanded the usual format from two weekends to three, to accommodate the performances of Hidden World of Girls on the first weekend. I attended the Saturday night orchestral concerts in the Civic Auditorium on the two latter weekends, missing out on the Sunday events which included a recital by the San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet and orchestral performances further south at Mission San Juan Bautista. The programs at the concerts I heard looked back at the festival’s history, including Lou Harrison’s Third Symphony, originally written for the festival in 1982, and the second work ever commissioned by the festival, Carlos Chávez’s Discovery from 1969. (Chávez was the festival’s director for four years in the 1970s.)

Composer and vocalist Huang Ruo introducing Shattered Steps, saying that his training as a "karaoke singer" gave him the confidence to sing his vocal improvisation at the top of the piece loudly and boldly.

Composer and vocalist Huang Ruo introducing Shattered Steps, saying that his training as a “karaoke singer” gave him the confidence to sing his vocal improvisation at the top of the piece loudly and boldly.

The most substantial new work I heard was James MacMillan’s Woman of the Apocalypse, an expansive and gripping half-hour long tone poem inspired by representations in visual art of the title figure from the Book of Revelation. MacMillan’s relationship with Cabrillo extends back to 1996, and includes performances of 11 of his compositions. Dynamic extremes were used to great dramatic effect in the new work, with intensely charged crescendos abruptly silenced or juxtaposed with barely audible pianos. Likewise furious string writing was contrasted with the lyrical solo string quartet passage that emerged. The orchestra’s set up, with the percussion battery on one side of the stage and the brass on the other, allowed for antiphonal dialogue in a piece that I suspect was great fun for both sections to work on.

Cristina Pato (Galician bagpipes), Kayhan Kalhor (kamancheh, seated), and David Krakauer (clarinet) performing Golijov’s Rose of the Winds

Cristina Pato (Galician bagpipes), Kayhan Kalhor (kamancheh, seated), and David Krakauer (clarinet) performing Golijov’s Rose of the Winds.

The August 11 performance, with the partying cellos and outdoor cake reception, was appropriately celebratory. The program opened with a world premiere by 21-year-old Bay Area native Dylan Mattingly that revealed in its large gestures the deep influence that his mentor John Adams has had, and the concert closed with Osvaldo Golijov’s Rose of the Winds, a collage of five works that have been used in other forms in pieces such as Ayre and in arrangements written for the Kronos Quartet.

Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismo, with concertmaster Justin Bruns on the far left and principal second violinist Matthew Albert on the far right

Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismo, with concertmaster Justin Bruns on the far left and principal second violinist Matthew Albert on the far right.

a cardboard cutout of Alsop in a display case wearing a commemorative t-shirt featuring four more Alsops

A cardboard cutout of Alsop in a display case wearing a commemorative t-shirt featuring four more Alsops.

In between were the Third Symphony by Harrison, a voice familiar to this audience, and Andrew Norman’s improbable tour de force for eight violins, Gran Turismo (2004) which opened the second half. Gran Turismo has received a number of other performances—an audio recording of the full nine-minute piece is available on Norman’s website, and videos can be easily found online—but hearing the piece live allowed for moments where individual personalities emerged from the perpetual motion machine of eight otherwise identical voices. Amidst this almost unceasingly propulsive hive of bowing activity, which had the audience laughing at points at the impossibility of what they were hearing, Alsop seemed to play the straight man—until just before the end of the piece when all eight violinists abruptly stopped and Alsop kept conducting madly through the silence, giving her the punch line after all.