Tag: Chicago

Poultry Jam: A Chicago Thanksgiving Playlist

Thanksgiving Turkey
Ah, Thanksgiving: a holiday as rich in calories as it is in cultural significance. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either the greatest culinary day of the year, a twisted celebration of American colonialism, or the annual site of uncomfortable conversations with that conservative uncle of yours. For the turkeys, it’s mass carnage. For the vegetarians, it’s slim pickings. And for retail employees, it’s the beginning of the end. What’s the proper soundtrack for a day that means so many different things?
I’ve always loved This American Life’s annual Thanksgiving episode. They call it the “Poultry Slam,” and cobble together a bunch of stories that have some tenuous connection to poultry. Why reserve the tenuous connections for public radio alone? Why not canvas the work of Chicago composers for music that’s as complex as Turkey Day? Ira Glass, eat your heart out:

For the selfish and gluttonous: Are your niece and nephew fighting over the last piece of pie? Feel a pang when your spouse polishes off the last of the stuffing? James Blake can relate. Check out Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s arrangement of his song “I Never Learnt to Share,” written for and performed by the Spektral Quartet.

For the anxious and ambivalent: Alex Temple, The Travels of E.C. Dumonde. With its mysterious incidents taking place in Oklahoma cornfields or advertising-obsessed towns in California, this eerie piece is perfect for those who experience ambivalence (to say the least) when road-tripping to their towns of origin.

For the hunters: Jenna Lyle, How To Accidentally Kill a Crow. This stylish, humor-filled chamber work was inspired by the composer’s adventures shooting crows in her grandfather’s backyard in Georgia. There’s nothing quite like spending time with family.

For the argumentative: If the two saxophones in Eliza Brown’s Apart Together are sparring relatives, you’ve got a ringside seat for their brawl. The composer writes: “Like an ill-fated family gathering, it begins with a burst of energy and connection, periodically erupts into conflict, and peters out in a state of mutual alienation (the decoupling of the instruments from the performers’ mouths).”

For the birdwatchers: There’s a wintry Americana stillness to Luke Gullickson’s 2014 EP To Evening Lands. (Full disclosure: I played and sang a bit on this album.) It’s thankful music in any season. Check out the final track, Daedalus and Perdix.

For the spiritual, part 1: James Falzone, With Notes Almost Divine. Just when you thought this wide-ranging clarinetist and improviser couldn’t surprise you anymore, he has an original Advent hymn available as a downloadable PDF score on his website. Why can’t I download more composers’ work to sing with my friends around the table after a few glasses of wine?

For the spiritual, part 2: Augusta Read Thomas, Prayer and Celebration: a warm, gorgeous, brief chamber orchestra piece originally composed for a high school orchestra in Concord, New Hampshire.

For the Polish, and for those who miss Lee Hyla: This year’s holiday marks the first Thanksgiving that the late Boston/Chicago composer’s many admirers will spend without him. Listening to Hyla’s brilliant Polish Folk Songs is both pure delight–evoking an important Chicago ethnic community–and a reminder of someone deeply missed.

For the nervous host: Are you anxious about producing a holiday spread for, say, five adults and two children for the first time? Or is that just me? Well, one of the most crucial Thanksgiving decisions one can make is what music one grooves to while chopping, peeling, simmering, and stirring. I’m going with Chicago trumpeter Marquis Hill, who just made the city proud by winning the Thelonious Monk Competition, one of jazz music’s most prestigious prizes. While you’re looking forward to the major-label release that’s part of his winnings, any of his gorgeous SoundCloud tracks are sure to soothe your nerves.

For anyone with a soul: Imagine if, in the year 1825, Beethoven was at your Thanksgiving table. When it was his turn to say what he was thankful for, he would grunt, “I’m grateful I’m still alive” and then compose this. It would be–and still is–kinda hard to compete with the Heileger dankgesang.
Happy Thanksgiving!

Chicago: The Unbearable Intimacy of Wandelweiser

From September 20-22, 2014, Chicago concertgoers had the rare opportunity to experience the music of the Wandelweiser group, the John Cage-influenced artistic collective based in Germany. An exciting example of Chicago arts institutions working together on a project too ambitious to spearhead alone, the Chicago Wandelweiser Festival was a joint endeavor between Nomi Epstein (composer and artistic director of a.pe.ri.od.ic) and Peter Margasak (music writer and organizer of the Frequency Series at Constellation), with support from the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago and the Swiss Cultural Institute.
In spite of the relative aesthetic unity of the Wandelweiser collective, all three evenings of the festival offered something quite different. On the first evening, a.pe.ri.od.ic performed three works of Jurg Frey, celebrating the release of their new all-Frey disc, More or Less, with the composer in attendance. On the second evening, University of Chicago musicologist Seth Brodsky moderated a panel discussion between Frey, Epstein, composer Eva Maria Houben, and pianist Andrew Lee. After the discussion, Lee offered a solo recital featuring works by a variety of Wandelweiser composers. On the final evening, Houben gave a fascinating recital of her solo organ works in the amazing Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago.

Wandelweiser composers are known for embracing silence, fragility, and spontaneity. In preparing to attend the festival, I knew that it would demand a special kind of coverage. I wanted to create a sense of intimate dialogue about the music — the same kind of dialogue, perhaps, that these composers have with each other about their work.

But in order to have a dialogue, there has to be more than one writer. So I asked my friend and colleague Andrew Tham to join me in attempting to create a new kind of concert review: one that embraced, rather than attempted to deny, our subjectivity; one that could be a bit rough around the edges.  What follows is the story of our experience of the festival.

Exhibit A: Scared to Write About Music
When: September 20, 2014, 8:27 p.m. – Concert #1
Where: A seat in the back row of Constellation / A stoplight at Belmont and Western, Chicago, IL
What: During an exchange of text messages, McSweeney follows up on Tham’s earlier email which mentioned that he’s been “scared to write about music lately.”
tham1 tham2

Exhibit B: Armrest Etiquette 
When: September 20, 2014, 8:41 p.m.
Where: Two seats in the back row of Constellation, Chicago, IL
What: Copies of the authors’ notes as the concert begins. Tham muses about who should get which armrest in a concert seating situation, while McSweeney notices the presence and absence of ego in Frey’s music.
Soundtrack: Jurg Frey, More or Less Normal, performed by a.pe.ri.od.ic

Exhibit C: Felt Like We Were Trapped
When: September 21, 2014, 8:58 p.m.
Where: Two seats in the back row of Constellation, Chicago, IL
What: As the concert continues, things get tense.
Soundtrack: Jurg Frey, 60 Pieces of Sound

Exhibit D: CRUNCH
When: September 27, 2014, 1:35 p.m.
Where: The authors’ laptops in Edgewater/Humboldt Park, respectively
What: During a post-festival gmail chat, Tham reveals having had an accidental Wandelweiser sonic performance experience with a paper cutter.
Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 12.24.24 PM

Exhibit E: At Least We Tried
When: September 30, 2014, 9:30 a.m.
Where: The authors’ laptops in Edgewater/Humboldt Park, respectively
What: Tham expresses his aspirations for this article.

Chicago: Enter the Dollhouse—Colombine’s Paradise Theatre

Although I ostensibly attended eighth blackbird’s performance of Colombine’s Paradise Theatre—the new commedia dell’arte-inspired “fantasy” with score by Amy Beth Kirsten and direction by Mark DeChiazza—as a writer and art observer, I could not help absorbing it with the mind of a performer.

A 60-minute tour de force, performed completely from memory and without pause, Colombine’s Paradise Theatre is a stunning display of physical and musical virtuosity on the part of its performers. It is also a testament to eighth blackbird’s commitment to going the extra mile in the creation of new work. Only a mind-boggling amount of labor—memorizing the score and learning elaborate physical staging and choreography—could have produced such a performance.

Colombine demands significant risk-taking and courage from the ensemble. All six players must deliver physical movement and hissing speech parts with panache. Violinist Yvonne Lam, darting and dancing all over the stage as one of the Harlequins, sang frequently and admirably. Pianist Lisa Kaplan, in the role of Colombine, gave an utterly natural, unaffected performance of a cabaret-style song at the piano. Flutist Tim Munro was perhaps pushed furthest, completely abandoning the comfortable mask of the instrumentalist poker-face. He shrieked, sang, sobbed, and hissed his way through the role of Harlequin. When he exited, wailing his final falsetto lines, we had the sense that he had left his soul onstage.

Flutist Tim Munro. (All photographs courtesy of eighth blackbird)

Flutist Tim Munro. (All photographs courtesy of eighth blackbird)

Kirsten’s score evokes diverse environments and moods, from cabaret to Sprechstimme, from witchy incantations to sparse percussion solos. Colombine is quite lyrical at times—particularly in the cello solos, played with great seriousness by Nick Photinos as the Harbinger. Yet the piece is dominated by scherzando whimsy and plenty of humor. Kirsten’s inventive use of doublings keeps the score full and lively at all times. She makes particularly effective use of nonsense syllables and percussive sounds to create spooky rhythmic patterns and textures.

The music is often organized to sound as if characters are inventing the musical material on the spot—repeating it in a testing, probing way, finally landing on a gesture that sticks. It sounds organic and improvisatory, but is completely notated. The pacing of each instrument’s “speech” allows Kirsten to create distinct musical characters in dialogue with each other.
The staging and direction by Mark DeChiazza is one of Colombine’s greatest strengths. It was clear both in the production itself, and in the post-concert discussion, that DeChiazza had generously embraced Kirsten’s inspirations and aesthetic. He has produced a visual and physical world which, while supporting the score, also has complexities and resonances all its own. Particularly ingenious was the way the set allows for a visual imitation of the instruments themselves: percussion setups hanging like chandeliers; metal tubes silently wielded as giant flutes.

While Colombine does not have a clear narrative, it is held together by an interesting set of potential questions. As the protagonist Colombine feels the tug of her various puppet-masters and suitors, we are encouraged to reflect on the power dynamics onstage: Who has agency? Who is excluded? Who has control over another? And what kind of contemporary commentary might the piece be making about commedia dell’arte?

For me, Colombine’s main limitation is that it doesn’t always offer a satisfying perspective on these questions. In particular, the choice to simply reproduce, rather than critically reimagine, the gender dynamics of the stock commedia characters feels like a missed opportunity. Contemporary listeners are quite familiar with the love triangle of two male characters “seducing” their puppet-like female ingenue, and it would have been exciting to experience a more contemporary twist on these patriarchal tropes. The virtuosic, erotic four-hands piano duo between Yvonne Lam and Lisa Kaplan—which helps Colombine pass the proverbial Bechdel test—is a promising moment. But their relationship never becomes thematically important, and in the end, the show doesn’t evince much more gender sophistication than the 16th-century texts that inspired it.

Lam and Kaplan at the piano

Lam and Kaplan at the piano

It might also have been fascinating to see the piece acknowledge—or better yet, dance with—the inevitable historical shadow of Schoenberg. But when asked during the post-concert discussion if she had been influenced by Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Kirsten seemed surprised. She firmly said no, and mentioned that she had made a point of not listening to the Schoenberg during the creative process of Colombine. Yet with a character named Pierrot, Sprechstimme scenes, a dark and moonlit set, and an almost identical instrumentation, it will be hard for the piece to make its way in the world without evoking Pierrot.

Lisa Kaplan with Matthew Duvall as Pierrot

Lisa Kaplan with Matthew Duvall as Pierrot

With its dazzling visuals, sumptuous score, and stunning performance, Colombine is a game-changer and a standard-bearer for the world of new music and interdisciplinary collaboration. It is sure to inspire an ambitious new crop of staged contemporary chamber music. This is perhaps why I wanted more to chew on theoretically and why I wanted it to be more than a fun, spooky confection. But when audiences enter Colombine’s macabre musical dollhouse—with a sensual surprise in every cobwebbed corner—they will probably, like me, be more than happy to play by her rules for the night.

All Up In Your Space: Billie Howard on How Artists Live

I’ve been a fan of Billie Jean Howard’s blog By Measure ever since I noticed her profile of violinist Austin Wulliman not long after I moved to Chicago. In each post on By Measure, Howard photographs the home/studio environment of a Chicago musician and asks the artist a few questions about life, work, and space. Although the photographs are never posed, and Howard states unequivocally that she is not a photographer, By Measure has a stylish, sun-splashed, unfussy aesthetic that’s drawn me back as a reader for years.

A studio shared by eight Chicago musicians.

A studio shared by eight Chicago musicians.

By Measure also offers the voyeuristic pleasure of vicariously poking around another artist’s home. Is there a mess on the desk? Evidence of vice or obsession? A disruptive cat or two?

Howard essentially created By Measure as a way to inspire herself and others–to find and document positive role models of functional, working artists. “I do this project so I can understand what motivates musicians and composers to keep producing,” she explains. “I like to see how they work with what they’ve got, since many of us don’t have a big budget.”

Howard photographs not only airy Chicago apartments but also the dark practice rooms of rock bands. “I especially wonder about bands who have tiny, drab rooms with no windows. How do they write songs and not get into fights?”

When I spoke with her, Howard was vacationing at her grandparents’ home in North Dakota, fresh from a week volunteering at the Girls Rock! Chicago summer camp.

Ellen McSweeney: So, you do this project in order to see what motivates people to create. What kinds of things have you walked away with, in answer to that question? What are some of the things that motivate people to keep working?

Billie Jean Howard: I think some people might just have this inner need to create, so they just keep doing it. Or, in the case of classical musicians, always striving to be better. There’s this innate thing—to keep on going. For other people, it’s just where they get their enjoyment. They have day jobs, and they spend their free time doing it.

EM: What drew you to photograph artists in their home environments?

BJH: I felt like there weren’t many options to see how musicians actually work. You see them on stage, performing, but that’s not where they spend the majority of their time. So I wanted to see how people spend the majority of their time, how they work, to motivate myself—and take away more positive ways that people work with their space, or work with whatever situation they’re in, to stay motivated. And I’m also always interested in little details: what art they have on the wall, what little trinkets they have collected. Everything has a little story and it’s just interesting to see what people surround themselves with.

EM: Yeah! The blog sort of has a delightful Pinterest-y, Apartment Therapy quality—except for real people.

BJH: That’s what I wanted—to get away from this sense of Apartment Therapy or Dwell, or those really high-end interior publications where everything looks so pristine and you wonder how long they spent staging it. I like to come in—sometimes I’ve never seen the space before—and start taking photos; I don’t change anything. I’m interested in seeing how people live and work, rather than some floral arrangement.

I was really inspired by The Selby blog. It’s blown up—he has books now, and it’s quite posh—but the early posts are my favorite.
EM: Have you ever photographed an idea on your blog that you ended up really wanting to take back into your own space?

BJH: Recently I went to Fred Lonberg-Holm’s place, and it was like you could feel the layers of the years of his performing and working in that space. I loved how cheerful it was—he had so many posters and things on the wall, and a setup for him to play cello with all his pedals. But he also has a little table with a sewing machine on it! I guess that’s what he does when he’s listening to music. He has a space within his creative space to get away from his own music. That showed me that it doesn’t have to be all about work, or practicing.

What I want in my band practice space is to have a little area to sit that’s not at our instruments. Sometimes we don’t want to play—we just want to talk for a long time.

Fred Lonberg-Holm in his studio.

Fred Lonberg-Holm in his studio.

EM: I love the picture of Matthew Shelton sort of squatting in a room that looks like he just moved into it. I’ve read a lot of conflicting things about whether a messy workspace is a good sign or a bad sign for an artist. What has been your experience with artists whose space is messy?

BJH: When I started the blog, I was hoping to get more of those messy shots. I get the feeling a lot of people, when I come to their space, they’ve cleaned up. Or we hang out for an hour while they’re cleaning. And I’m always a little disappointed, but I understand they don’t want certain things on the Internet. Matthew doesn’t live in that space I shot—that’s just his studio—so maybe he feels more free to make a mess.

Matthew Shelton

Matthew Shelton

EM: When you’re photographing those small details that capture the musician’s personality, what kinds of things do you look for?

BJH: I like to get shots of the desk—usually there’s a desk, or a surface, that has a laptop and then tons of other little trinkets, or things that they need for their instrument, or books or CDs that they happen to have out. That shows what they’ve been thinking about or listening to: what’s been influencing them. Whether they have lots of little tiny toys from Kid Robot or they have more folky things, I find it usually goes along with their music. And then I try to get a photo of the space as a whole, which is maybe the hard part. Sometimes the space is small and I can’t back up far enough to get the whole room in.

Detail from the studio of Ronnie Kuller

Detail from the studio of Ronnie Kuller

EM: How about artists who share space with others, whether a partner or roommates? Have you noticed differences there? I feel like this photo of Jeff Kimmel immediately suggests that he lives with a very neat person. Or else, he’s a neat freak improviser. Do you remember which it is?

Jeff Kimmel

Jeff Kimmel

BJH: Right! Sometimes they’re married or they have a roommate, and so the living space—which might be where they practice—is shared. In Jeff’s case, I think he always just puts his stuff away. He’s got a small instrument that he can just pack away, so you don’t notice it. If the musician is a pianist, the piano is always out—you can tell it’s a musician’s space.

There’s other situations I’ve seen where they clearly split up the room, because the other half belongs to another band. Sometimes I’ll photograph the “other artist” because it looks so neat. Emma Dayhuff is a jazz bassist. She was sharing a space with a harpsichordist who also repairs harpsichords, so there were bits and pieces of harpsichord everywhere, and a workbench, and tools. She’d play her bass in the middle of the room and there were these harpsichord bits everywhere.
EM: I loved how Alex Temple, in your interview a few years ago, described having a U-shaped desk because she needed to go back and forth between different media, between keyboard and manuscript. It’s so evident in these portraits that artists are floating back and forth between digital and analog.

A detail of Alex Temple's studio

A detail of Alex Temple’s studio

BJH: Yes. Many people have a computer out. Seems like everyone is trying to record themselves, whether to release it, or for a demo, or to hear themselves.

EM: Do you feel like there’s anything distinctly Chicago about your blog? I do.

BJH: I’m curious that you think that, because I’m not sure about whether there’s anything distinctly Chicago about it. Except that most apartments do have the same layout, and most bands do rent these little tiny rooms. People have more space than New York.

EM: That’s exactly what I was thinking. People in New York would probably marvel at the amount of space we have, while people in the suburbs or other parts of the country might feel like we are living in cramped quarters. It’s that sort of sprawling Midwest urban happy medium.

BJH: That is a nice thing about living here—you can find affordable places and the space.

EM: I think it’s also very Chicago in the way that so many of these musicians exist in multiple scenes: pop and classical, notated and improvised, acoustic and electronic. There’s an unpretentious, non-dogmatic way that the musicians conduct their careers, and it’s evident in the photos.

BJH: That’s true! And I’ve been trying to branch out and photograph older musicians, with more established careers. But I get shy.

New Foundation Will Support Performance and Commissioning of American Music

Amy Wurtz

Amy Wurtz

Chicago Classical Review founder Lawrence A. Johnson has announced the creation of American Music Project, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting performances of American classical music and the commissioning of new work. The foundation’s first announced commission is Amy Wurtz’s Piano Quintet.
A post on Chicago Classical Review offered further background:

As a “facilitator and encourager of American music,” Johnson said the foundation will fund musical organizations, orchestras, opera companies, chamber ensembles and presenters who take on American repertory for events starting in the fall of 2015. They can submit proposals for American projects and, if they meet the foundation’s criteria, will receive financial support.
“If, for example, somebody wants to put on a festival of American string quartets, or a cycle of American symphonies, we would provide a check to underwrite some of it,” said Johnson.
He hopes to give music organizations room to challenge current conventional wisdom about what kinds of classical music audiences will pay to hear. He said the American Music Project wants to step in where presenters may feel constrained by their budgets and by the risks associated with selling too few tickets to a concert with less-familiar American repertory.

According to the project’s website, the “interim goal for the first year is to raise $500,000 from individuals and foundations with an ultimate aim of creating a standing endowment of $1 million.”

The foundation will officially launch with a concert of American music performed by the Chicago Q Ensemble in Chicago’s Ganz Hall on October 5. Wurtz will join the ensemble at the piano for the performance of her piece.

The Roar of the Crowd: Freelance Musicians Speak Out on Non-Payment

Last week, NewMusicBox Regional Editor Ellen McSweeney launched a discussion surrounding non-payment and musician vulnerability in Chicago (“The Deafening Silence of the Beethoven Festival Musicians,” 6/24/14).

Though the issue at the heart of her story related to the Beethoven Festival’s ongoing failure to fulfill its financial obligation to freelance musicians after the 2013 event (even while contracting for the 2014 festival), McSweeney’s nuanced post provoked an intelligent and lively debate about both the incident at hand and the broader problems faced by freelancers negotiating work without much of a safety net beyond trust. (As McSweeney noted in her article, “Much of the most artistically adventurous work in Chicago isn’t unionized, and we take a leap of faith every time we work for each other.”)

Commenter Ethan Wickman took the point further with this anecdote:

Several years ago I received a grant/commission from a prominent organization. Upon completing the piece, and hence fulfilling my contractual obligation to the commissioning organization, it seemed like I waited weeks to receive the final installment of my commission. I finally called the office and was greeted by a younger employee who, when I asked when the check was going to be sent, snarkily offered to airlift some food to my house, if necessary.
I think that as artists we sometimes have a kind of guilt about money–like we should be above wanting it, needing it, or feeling motivated by its acquisition. The fact is, money liberates us to be able to do our best work in the most unrestricted way. Intense financial pressures can absolutely crush a creative will–as lofty, artistic ambitions plummet into panicked survival mode.

The discussion also underscored that the Beethoven Festival situation was in no way an isolated incident and further illustrated how discomfort and unspoken ideas about what is “appropriate” when nailing down financial parameters set up additional roadblocks. The topic inspired additional posts and social media commentary around our corner of the internet.


Silent Chicago Musicians

The musicians of Chicago may have kept silent on this issue for nine months, but the community is definitely talking now! McSweeney’s post was NMBx’s most widely read and shared of the year so far.

And though this festival was not a union gig, the conversation reached such a pitch that the Chicago Federation of Musicians issued letters to both Festival President and Artistic Director George Lepauw and the Chicago Community of Musicians over the weekend, “urging all musicians to decline employment with the 2014 Festival, or, if they have already accepted employment, to withdraw. The CFM will also be calling for the public to boycott the Festival until last year’s musicians are paid.”
Beyond the serious financial plight of the unpaid 2013 Beethoven Festival musicians, the larger conversation drives home that both performing artists and their employers need to be educated and held accountable by the community at large, and there is some serious work to do on that score. Trust, care, and respect are vital to creative endeavors, but that stream of support must truly flow both ways. It doesn’t muddy the music to be clear about money matters upfront.

Chicago: The deafening silence of the Beethoven Festival musicians

I was recently hired to play a daylong ensemble engagement. In my reply, I gladly accepted, and asked what the compensation would be, since the initial email had not included that information. The contractor, an admired mentor with whom I have a frank rapport, told me the number, but also offered that I might want to refrain from such questions in the future. Asking about pay, he suggested, could make me look like money was all I cared about. In his mind, I’d violated a norm. It was almost as if he were surprised I didn’t trust him. And sure enough, when I arrived at the gig—which was well-paid—the check was on my music stand.
When it comes to money and music, it seems we aren’t in agreement about what the norms are. How much is enough? What questions are we allowed to ask? And what do we do when the check never comes? That discomfort has reared its head in a particularly dramatic way this month in Chicago. The Beethoven Festival recently announced its fourth annual event, happening this September. But for local musicians, the announcement was stunning: the festival has not yet finished paying the people who played for them last year. I personally am owed in the neighborhood of $1,000. This is, of course, the complete opposite of having the check on your music stand when you arrive.

Given the number of musicians owed money—and the number of musician who know someone owed money—one would think that the festival’s 2014 announcement would’ve been a lit match in a dry barn. But it wasn’t, quite. A single Facebook post from violinist Austin Wulliman yielded fifty comments from prominent local musicians, including members of eighth blackbird and professors at the University of Chicago. A post on Slipped Disc—which, depending on whom you ask, is widely perceived as either essential rabble-rousing or venomous clickbait—broke the story publicly, but comments from named musicians are scarce. Media stories followed from Chicagoist (where writer Drew Baker had difficulty getting anyone to go on the record) and even the Chicago Reader. But these stories weren’t as widely shared on social media as you might imagine, given the profound violation of norms that the story represents for the Chicago freelance community.

Why were the wronged musicians and their friends still so quiet? And, come to think of it, why did we maintain silence for nine months as we awaited sums of money that, to us, make or break our ability to pay the rent?

For me, the story of the Beethoven Festival is a story of vulnerability: my own individual vulnerability, that of my colleagues, and that of our entire musical community. Much of the most artistically adventurous work in Chicago isn’t unionized, and we take a leap of faith every time we work for each other. Usually, that trust is rewarded, and professional and collaborative bonds are formed that allow us all to thrive. Horn player Matt Oliphant’s blog post on this matter is aptly titled “Beethoven Festival and Respect.” The community is indeed held together by trust, respect, and not much else. If circumstances like these are kept secret, it threatens the security and well-being of every musician in our city.

The unpaid musicians began receiving apologetic emails from Beethoven Festival Artistic Director George Lepauw in early October. As the festival’s dire financial circumstances became clear, a tacit agreement quickly developed that we would not take to social media or the press. We were never asked to remain silent, but we did. I suspect that the other unpaid musicians were, like me, nervous that any public complaint might have resulted in an even longer delay of their payment. After all, for many months it was unclear what logic had been used to determine who would be paid first. (Lepauw described the payments as happening “on a rolling basis.”) At a Christmas background music gig three months after the festival, I had an awkward encounter with a friend.
“Too bad about that Beethoven Festival money, huh?” I said to him as we set up.

“Oh…uh…yeah,” he said, looking at the ground. It took me a moment, but I realized that he’d been paid. We laughed about the bizarre situation. But the truth was, he was personally closer to the festival’s organizers, and his insistence on being paid had helped. (Lepauw told the Reader that 15 of the 60 orchestra members have been paid in full, but there’s been no discussion of how they were selected.)

When the festival sent out small checks to everyone in February—around 30% of what we were owed—one colleague posted a cryptic Facebook status about receiving a fraction of his pay, six months late. A few musicians left grumbling comments, but the offending employer was never named. It makes sense that so many musicians opted to preserve the festival’s reputation and quietly wait for their checks. Musicians were not only concerned that public complaint might have monetary consequences, but also about their own reputations. To complain about the missing funds could be construed as unkind or malicious towards a beleaguered, near-bankrupt organization that was reportedly working hard to right the situation.

Perhaps that’s the biggest reason we kept quiet about the unpaid bills: Compassion. Sympathy. Love, even. We hoped things would get better. No one wanted the Beethoven Festival to fail. No one wanted fewer performance opportunities for Chicago musicians. No one wanted to see a musician’s reputation destroyed, nor an ambitious and idealistic venture go down in flames. I would not wish such a spectacular public relations disaster on any arts organization.
But was it the correct choice for us to remain silent, ostensibly to help the festival right itself? In his official response to Slipped Disc, George Lepauw said, “I have always been, and still am, a musician’s advocate, and am extremely grateful to all the musicians who have been patiently waiting for their dues, and who have been supportive of us throughout this difficult period and have not complained on social media about it.” Lepauw posits that this silence was the noble thing to do—unlike, of course, musicians such as Wulliman, whose lone post Lepauw described as “a campaign of misinformation and blurring of facts that is counterproductive to the intent of repaying musicians.” The implication I perceive in his statement is that silence will be rewarded, and speaking out will only result in further delays of payment. And yet Wulliman had the freedom to voice his dismay expressly because his ensemble, Spektral Quartet, was paid in advance for their performance. Wulliman could speak out, in other words, because he had less to lose.

And it’s a good thing he did. The consequences of our silence go beyond when, or whether, we ever get paid. While we were being nice and patient and quiet, a whole new roster of musicians from throughout the U.S. agreed to play for the 2014 festival. At the very least, the national community should have known that these debts remained unpaid, so that they could have made an informed decision about whether to participate. These individuals, met with the uproar of the past weeks, now face the difficult decision of whether to withdraw. While it is uncomfortable to call our fellow musicians to task here, they have unfortunately agreed to perform for an employer who, in a story about this debacle, actually described the festival’s skyrocketing budget as “an incredible story of success.”

It’s not fun to publicly admit how much a $900 check might matter to us, but the truth is that our position is precarious. This fall, I placed a nervous phone call to an employer about a check that hadn’t yet arrived. It was only two days late, but things were tight for me and it mattered. “I understand,” the woman on the phone said, “I used to live hand-to-mouth.” I cringed and just hoped she could help me.

As tax time approached this year, I owed $2,500 on my $25,000 income. That’s another aspect of the vulnerability of self-employed artists: our social safety net isn’t very strong. Without the security of a full-time employer, we must be particularly diligent in setting aside money for taxes, retirement, and emergencies. Around March 1, I received an email from George Lepauw:

It is likely that within the next week, we will…be able to start issuing checks. However, we may not reach the total needed to pay everyone at once, so we have decided to issue what we can to each of you as we receive funds. After much internal discussion, we feel that this would be a better system than paying some of you but not others. You will therefore get several checks in the course of the next weeks until we are back in the black.

I felt hopeful. Perhaps the check would arrive by April 15; perhaps it would enough money to help with the taxes. But as it turned out, I received only one check for about $300. The other promised payments never came. When tax day rolled around, I couldn’t send an email to the IRS explaining my lack of funds and the noble work of being a musician.  I simply wrote a big check and hoped the next month would be better.

Chicago: The ancient future-music of Sam Scranton


Photo by Dan Mohr

The premiere of Sam Scranton‘s Detritivore, presented in the tucked-away space of Experimental Sound Studio, felt like a major art event. It is an evening-length ensemble work that is both theatrical and restrained, simultaneously epic and intimate, and was so absorbing that I could not write about it without participating in the reverberations of the piece itself. Scranton’s music is richly layered, allowing dense textures of live spoken text to coexist with folk percussion instruments and found sounds. His compositional voice, drawing on the willingness of minimalism to sit with one sonic idea for a courageously long time, is also utterly his own. It is a rare treat to hear a work that feels both contemporary and timeless, presented by an artist taking wholehearted risks.

Experimental Sound Studio, under the leadership of Lou Mallozzi, has what Mallozzi calls “a long history of presenting work that makes innovative use of text.” Detritivore uses texts that feel both futuristic and ancient, and the work’s humor and humanity make it a true standout. Performed by Scranton along with Andrew Tham, Deidre Huckabay, and Bill Frisch, the piece was originally intended to be performed by a small army of performers. After the premiere performance, Scranton described to me an enormous downtown Chicago food court as a potential space for a repeat performance. Stay tuned, for someday soon you too could read your secrets into a time capsule.


May 9, 2014 A.D. 20:03 hours. I see the trees and houses of Ravenswood Avenue moving quickly in and out of my field of vision. I hear my gasping breath and the pounding of my feet on the sidewalk. I think maybe I shouldn’t have gone to yoga before this concert; shouldn’t have tried to do so much today.

20:07 hours. I see the man at Experimental Sound Studios holding programs. I hear him telling me admission is ten dollars. I tell him I’m on the press list. I think I maybe should’ve bought a ticket anyway, but I also think I’m broke. I think thank God these things never start on time.

20:12 hours. I see the patch of floor where I will stand through the entire hour-long work. There’s nowhere to sit. I hear the conversation of the people next to me; one of them is moving to a new city. He says he sold everything but his patio furniture and his couch. I think it might be hard to stand up through this whole thing.

20:15 hours. I see the stage and the instruments: tall vases, light bulbs, bricks, clay tiles. Plastic cassette players sit beside animal-skin drums. I hear the audience applauding. The performers aren’t coming onstage. I hear the man behind me say, “We’ll just have to clap again louder next time.” I think he’s wrong and that the ensemble is doing this on purpose.

20:16 hours. I see the four performers coming onstage in white v-neck t-shirts and jeans. I see the contact mics and headphone cords attached close to their necks by white tape, like bandages on a wound. I hear the long silence that is the beginning of this piece. I think I love my friends, the performers, all four of them now sitting cross-legged on the floor, about to play music that’s never been heard before. I think I’d like to be up there with them.


The piece had five parts. This is what I imagined during each part.

In the first part of the piece the performers were a lost pilot on a long, long flight. They read hours, minutes, altitude, azimuth. They were a lonely astronaut in outer space, except that they had drums. They were a forest-dwelling man on a strange military assignment. They read the numbers for a long, long time. I worried the pilot wouldn’t make it. I wondered how long his flight would be. I think I heard them count to twenty hours.

In the second part of the piece the performers were praying for the astronaut. They were on the ground, sending prayers and smoke signals to their family member in the sky. Their lips moved and I didn’t know what they were saying. By the end of this part it felt like a burial ritual for the lost pilot.


Composer Sam Scranton
Photo by Dan Mohr

In the third part the performers became themselves again. They all spoke at once, reading stories from their day into tall glass tubes, as if making recordings for a time capsule. I craned my neck to try to get closer to them and hear what they were saying. One performer said, “I think about having a full time job.” Another said, “I think about taking a shower but I don’t really want to.” The composer said, “I think Edie is being very sweet and good today.” I knew that Edie is his daughter. In the silences, it was awkward and intense. I was afraid one of them would say something embarrassing, or something I didn’t want to hear.
In the fourth section, each performer read a different chronology. Deidre read the history of Blockbuster Video. Andrew read the history of Detroit. Sam read the history of the creation of the universe. At the end of the section, Sam was left alone, his history catapulting forward into the future. He said that in the year 1 trillion A.D. the universe would enter a dark period. I thought about how the tragedies of Blockbuster, or the city of Detroit, felt smaller and sadder to me than the end of the world.


Photo by Dan Mohr

In the fifth section, the performers gathered cross-legged in a circle on the floor. They took their time-capsule vases and bowed them. I think they were having a funeral for the universe, which by the end of Sam’s oral history, had pretty much been destroyed. At the end of the piece was a silence longer than I’ve ever heard at a concert.

Chicago: For Practically Everyone—New Label Finds Our Musical Soft Spots

About halfway through my interview with Matt Pakulski, the founder of new Chicago record label FPE, I asked him to describe the music of one of his label artists, the Miami Dolphins. By coincidence, Pakulski was actually wearing one of the band’s t-shirts.  “They’re kind of noise-rock,” he began excitedly. “They’re from Minneapolis…do you want to hear them?!” He sprang up from the sofa in his Oak Park home—strewn with big tiger stuffed animals and craft supplies for his daughter, Frances—and started looking for the album. “I’m going down to the basement,” he declared, and disappeared for a moment.

Pakulski’s home, and head, are filled with a dizzingly diverse and quirky music collection—and, now that he’s got his record label off the ground, everyone can start listening along. Pakulski is a musician, a largely self-taught composer, and a record enthusiast. Although he now has a work-from-home job in the corporate world, he once owned his own record store and has developed close relationships with Chicago record stores like Dusty Groove and Old School Records.
Matt Pakulski
The acronym FPE—For Practically Everyone—embodies Pakulski’s wide-ranging tastes, as well as his enthusiastic, happy-go-lucky approach to the curation and creation of musical objects. Although his work with FPE means he has less time to blog now, Pakulski’s online persona still reveals his unique passion and unpretentiousness as a record collector. His presence is equal parts perplexing and endearing: at his old blog, Frances Picks, he would regularly let his daughter pull a record off the shelf and then write a blog post about it. One recent post includes photos of the record posed with Pakulski’s pet turtle. Another post begins: “The records pile up. Every month more records. … Listen: each one is special. Each and every one was made for you. I’m lucky I’ve got someone to help me choose: a small person.” His new tumblr, Records are Fun, is a collection of unfussy portraits of records with scraps of commentary that are alternately goofy and rhapsodic.

Pakulski is utterly unique in Chicago’s music scene, and I sat down with him last week to talk about the new label and its first release from Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble. (The Miami Dolphins, and several other acts, have releases forthcoming on FPE.) We were surrounded by several boxes of the album, which had just arrived on Pakulski’s doorstep the day before.

So your first vinyl release is a live recording of Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, in a performance they presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Nicole just won the Jazz Journalists’ award for Flutist of the Year for the fifth time in a row, isn’t that right?

Nicole just keeps doing amazing things. She’s really a force of nature. Her vision is so broad and well-defined at the same time, it’s amazing. There’s a great video that really embodies that: at UC-Irvine, where she teaches, they had a speaker series called “What Matters to Me and Why.” She spoke on the series, and it’s fantastic. It’s really interesting to watch her in an academic context. She has this philosophy she calls “limitless possibility.” She talks about where she came from, and how the likelihood of her addressing a group of 100 students at UC Irvine was about .00001%—but hey, it happened. What I found interesting about that video is that her style of speaking in an academic context is very similar to the way she expresses herself creatively and musically. There is, actually, a solo improv in the middle of the talk—and it’s quite seamless, from talking to improv to talking. Like she just expressed an idea, but in a different language.

Why did you want to be an advocate for Nicole and her music?

Because “jazz flutist” doesn’t encompass Nicole at all. She is a brilliant jazz flutist, but the totality of her talent and vision is much more comprehensive. She’s got multitudes. Being known as a jazz flutist is, in some way, a limitation on her audience: people who don’t know jazz, or don’t pay attention to jazz, might not be aware of her. But I feel she has a potential to cross over, like a Sun Ra or an Art Ensemble of Chicago. People who aren’t jazz people were interested in what they were doing, and I think she has the same kind of potential.

I really hesitate to call it a jazz record. The soloing is minimal—it’s almost all composed. It’s a composition for a chamber ensemble, coming from the jazz world, in the same way that a lot of new music incorporates a jazz language in the statement that it makes. This is maybe a jazz piece that uses the language of new music.

Mitchell Intergalactic Beings
Dropping music into genre buckets is a challenging necessity for record labels. What does genre mean for FPE?

Genre is only a concern for me inasmuch as I’d try to avoid doing two things in the same genre. I think a lot of the time, musical expression is silenced because people don’t think it’s for them. Just because you say you’re a rockabilly person doesn’t mean that you don’t have some Herb Alpert records that you like! Everyone’s got their soft spots. People have their guilty pleasures: “I really love this Madonna song but don’t tell anyone.” And I say no! You shouldn’t be afraid to say if you like it.
I’m always debating with people on Facebook about pop music versus serious, versus underground, versus punk. I’m having these debates about authenticity. What I want to do with the label, and the roster I’m selecting, is to find artists that are doing their own thing and expressing it, in some cases, in terms of genre signifiers—but not in a way that is pandering to, or trying to be cool in the eyes of, specialists.

Nicole’s record is your first vinyl release, but you’ve already signed several groups for forthcoming albums. Tell me about some of FPE’s other artists.

I’ve got this great band, Zigtebra. The story is that although Joe and Emily are brother and sister, they didn’t meet until their twenties. They grew up separately, not knowing about each other, and ended up in a dance troupe together called Pure Magical Love. They went out on a date after they met and discovered that they were siblings. At first I wondered if it was a White Stripes thing? They were pretending to be siblings? Anyway, they formed in late 2011 and started making music together. Their first project was a musical about Leonard Cohen. They did a lot of weird performance art when they first started—papier-mâché masks and little operas with a storyline. They have since honed themselves into a brilliantly catchy pop songwriting machine—songs that are nothing but hooks. They have dispensed with everything that isn’t a hook. They’re earnest in a way that I often wouldn’t be able to appreciate, but they’re so damn charming that it’s hard not to appreciate them and kind of love them.

You’re a self-taught composer and a new music lover. Do you plan to have more contemporary classical ensembles on the label eventually?

I’d love to increase the amount of that on FPE. There’s this tension between the stuff that’s really challenging, provocative, and weird and, frankly, sales potential. But I firmly believe that with music that is important, one of the things that makes it vital or important is its ability to communicate to more than just a small group of people.
The ensembles I’m really into have a raw, visceral sound and a very intuitive way of playing. And a way of bringing people in, rather than distancing people.

Another thing which is really important to me, which is a criterion #1 for a band being on the label, is that they have to be energetic self-promoters. It can’t be a group that’s going to break up. They need to be there in two years when I’m still trying to sell the record.

What’s next for you and FPE?

The day after tomorrow, I’m going to Ethiopia to be with this other band on my label, Qwanqa, while they record. My friend in the band, Kaethe Hostetter, is from Massachusetts and she moved to Addis Ababa to start a music school. She’s also in Deboband, an Ethiopian-style brass and funk band from Boston, and they’re incredible live. I can’t wait.

A Qwanqwa tape, photographed in Pakulski's living room.

A Qwanqwa tape, photographed in Pakulski’s living room.

Nicole Mitchell performs her Liberation Narratives in Chicago on May 2. Meanwhile, you can buy Black Earth Ensemble’s new release at the FPE website, as well as in Chicago record stores like Reckless Records. A limited edition of 30 records, with a special art print inside, was created exclusively for Dusty Groove records on Record Store Day. There are reportedly a few copies left.

Chicago: Relearning to Listen–New Piano Music for Children

Joann Cho

Joann Cho

For her most recent commissioning project, composer and pianist Joann Cho invited a large group of composers to write a solo piano piece for her. The restrictions for the commissions were fairly simple: each piece needed to be between one and three minutes long, and use the keys of the piano rather than the inside. Most importantly, Cho asked the composers to compose their piece “for children.” The resulting volume of seventeen pieces — called Elaeth Songs in honor of Cho’s infant son -– will have its premiere this Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center. Appropriately, Elaeth Songs will be presented by the Chicago Cultural Center’s Juicebox series, which has the unusual mission of presenting cutting-edge contemporary art in a toddler-friendly setting.

When I heard about Cho’s project, I was moved by the idea of commemorating the birth of a child with a set of commissions. I thought about Bartok’s beautiful set of pedagogical piano pieces for children, Mikrokosmos, and the many other ways that music for children has manifested itself in our art form. I chatted with Cho from the Oak Park home she shares with baby Elaeth and her husband, composer Jonathon Kirk. She was making final preparations for the performance and looking forward to the September release of the Elaeth Songs recording.

How did you initially frame this call for children’s pieces, and how did the composers respond?

I asked composers who had strong compositional identities, many of whom I knew personally. Although at first the project was a little amorphous, when I presented the idea to the composers, they were all very receptive. The restriction of writing for children is a fun idea. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything — you don’t have to change the way you’d compose a piece of music. Some people did [alter their usual language], and some people didn’t. Everyone took something slightly different away from what I asked them to do.

Could you highlight some of the pieces, perhaps ones that had a particularly interesting take on this prompt?

Although I asked for solo piano pieces only, I did have one composer ignore me. And it’s beautiful! The Belgian composer Thomas Smetryns has written a piece that is accompanied by a recording of Swiss cowbells. He wrote a piece that is completely open notation. He’s creating timbres on the piano that are bell-like, combined with the bells of the recording.

My advisor and main teacher at UC-Santa Barbara, Clarence Barlow, wrote me a piece that’s probably one of the more unique pieces in the bunch. Clarence loves to use extramusical ideas, and since Elaeth is half Korean, he started with four traditional folk tunes for children — “Rockabye Baby,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and two traditional Korean children’s tunes. He ends up creating two hybrid melodies throughout, combining the American and the Korean folk tunes. You get this sense throughout the piece where you recognize small motives and phrases from your childhood — you have this strange experience listening to it, exactly because of the juxtaposition.

I understand that Elaeth’s father, Jonathon Kirk, and his grandmother, Linda Kirk, wrote pieces for the collection!

Yes! And Jonathon wrote his piece, Fireflies, before I even prompted him. We were listening to one of Bach’s chorale preludes in the nursery, and Elaeth fell asleep. It’s this beautiful, slow, stately melody. Jonathon was listening to it — and falling asleep himself — and he got the inspiration to use this melody as a basis for his piece. It’s sort of structured like a theme and variations — he has one part in the style of Ligeti, once with a jazz harmonic progression. He places the melody in eight or so different contexts, with these nice transitions between each iteration of the melody.
Elaeth was born into a family and a world of composersI love the fact that I can include works by Elaeth’s closest family members. Jonathon and I are both musicians — we both started out as performers and began composing, we met in music school — so it’s a natural progression for Jonathon to have written a piece for him.

What a lovely family moment to have as a jumping-off point for a piece.

Anytime something like that would happen, we’d have to write it down for the scrapbook. It’s still like that. It’s amazing with a baby how you really notice those moments of calm and quiet. The moment they fall asleep, you finally see things, and you wake up for the first time — you notice.

The concept of time as a series of moments seems particularly important in a set of miniatures – and also in the experience of parenthood.

One thing that I have learned is that I really value time — my time with Elaeth, and also my time alone. All these little ways of compartmentalizing time in my life are really different than before he arrived, and I think doing a project like this also really reminded me that music is something that can transcend that feeling of having less time or more time. You can experience music apart from time.

Did the prompt to write children’s music seem to bring out anything special from the composers you chose?

I think it forced the composers to reflect on their own artistic and creative ideas in a way they hadn’t thought about in a while. Instead of trying to do something new, a lot of them reached into their previous experience. They imagined what they’d want to listen to in its purest form, from a child’s perspective. I don’t see any techniques here that are trying to be something they’re not. The composers worked with elements like harmony and rhythm — these things that we often overly complicate – in a pure and basic way. It reminded me of how children experience harmony and rhythm and form.
Every single piece that I received is completely unique. I was shocked at the diversity of the pieces I received. Even looking at the lullabies – I got several — each one is completely different from the last. These composers, who have established their careers, style, and sound, still have the ability to write a piece, listen to it, and experience the music exactly the way music is experienced by children.

What was the process of preparing these pieces like?

It felt like I was learning how to listen to myself play again for the first time. It was a rediscovery of using my ears to discern how I wanted to play some of these pieces. I was not practicing based on conveying a performance, but with a lot more thoughtful reflection on the music itself.
I was playing a lot for Elaeth — he’s amazing; he responds to all kinds of music — but it’s hilarious because sometimes I’ll play a lullaby. Scott Scharf wrote me this high, ethereal, floaty lullaby and Elaeth started dancing and screaming to it. You never know what kind of effect this type of music will have. I’m not necessarily running the pieces by him, but they were meant to be listened to by him.

Right! How do you imagine this collection, which is kind of a gift to him as well as to yourself, landing with him when he’s old enough to understand?

Actually, my plan is to do this again several more times — not necessarily with the same prompt, but to work with other chamber ensembles and continue to write new music for children. My biggest goal with this project, and doing another volume, would be to allow listeners of new music to be introduced to it without the idea of having to analyze the music. To sort of learn a perspective — not to be afraid of it because it’s in the contemporary classical idiom.

It sounds like your vision for this project expands well beyond what it means for your own family.

I’ve always wanted to include more people in the world where I studied music. I was so inspired at Northwestern when I took my first experimental music class, when we learned about content, and techniques, and zooming in. The course prioritized not only things that were new and edgy and avant-garde, but also an idea of inclusiveness. I’m not saying all contemporary music has to be accessible, or like mainstream popular music. But the first step towards getting to know something is lots of exposure.

Teaching at a community college, I notice now that students are only exposed to what they choose to get exposed to. And people like me are responsible for being advocates. To be exclusive as a contemporary musician or composer seems to me very much against the ideals of the whole reason why we got into it. The idea of including children, including newcomers to this music, is an important concept that’s close to my heart.