Tag: Chicago

Scratch That: In Sickness and In Health

Spektral Quartet violinist Aurelien Pederzoli opened up on the quartet’s blog yesterday about taking some time off for injury. Spektral is now the second Chicago quartet to go blog-public this year about a member’s performance injury. (The first, full disclosure, is Scratch’s own quartet; we’ve been without our founding violist since May of last year.) Both these musicians have shown tremendous honesty and vulnerability in their public writing—which, given the widespread ignorance and unfortunate prevalence of career-threatening injury, is a public service. Scratch wishes both of them speedy healing.

Unfortunately, the contemporary music program that Baroque Band was putting on—yes, you read that right—at the Museum of Contemporary Art has been cancelled due to “a sudden illness within the ensemble.” This cancellation only emphasizes the fact that while it’s possible to sub someone in last-minute on baroque rep, it’s less easy when you’re playing three brand new commissions. This was quite a big event for Baroque Band and Scratch hopes that recovery is swift and we’ll get a chance to hear the program soon.

If the above two items are any indication, Chicago musicians are feeling a bit beaten up by winter. The lengthening days are tempting us to think about spring, but we know it’s a long way off. There are a bunch of concerts this week to bundle up for and enjoy, including Mabel Kwan’s recital on Saturday; Maverick Ensemble on Sunday; and MusicNOW on Monday. Also on Monday is the Chicago Chamber Musicians—whose audience, according to young whippersnapper Allegra Montanari, is among the most blue-haired in the city—in a program featuring the music of Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Creative Expo header
Cheer up, everyone! Musicians, in Scratch’s opinion, count as artists. And we’re all officially invited to the Chicago Artists Resource Creative Expo on March 1 and 2. We’ve heard great things about the learning and networking that happens at the Expo, and we’re delighted that this arts service organization exists in our city. Workshop topics include board-building, fundraising, business plans, and copyright issues; keynote speakers include a leader in “design discourse,” a chef, and the President of Pitchfork magazine. If you’re more into cocktails than keynotes, you could just go to the Chicago Artists Resource’s “re-launch” party—which hints excitingly at a newly energized organization, in addition to the spiffed-up website—on February 27.

Also, lighten up! Now that Scratch is moonlighting as a folk musician, we’re spending more time in the world of Chicago’s non-classical music blogs. Did you know there are lots of them? And that some of them are quite fun? We’ve especially enjoyed reading Windy City Rock, Loud Loop Press, and Faronheit. It’s interesting to observe the differences between the rock music media and the classical music media. Perhaps the biggest difference is the sheer enthusiasm, the shameless fandom of the rock blogs, their identity as an engine of discovery rather than criticism.

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More delightful proof that Chicago musicians don’t take themselves too seriously.

(Next week, Scratch will take a week off from the regular column and delve into George Friedrich Haas’s In Vain, which Dal Niente performs February 28. But don’t forget, Chicagoans, that you can email Scratch That with concert tips, news, gossip, and jokes.

Scratch That: He Said, She Said

Without a doubt, my favorite new musical activity of the week was browsing the LP bins at Reckless Records in Wicker Park. I know it’s criminal that it’s taken me this long to get to it. But I’ve finally discovered a reason to browse those bins, even though I don’t own a turntable. The staff-written record descriptions, printed on humble adhesive labels and stuck onto the LP’s shrinkwrap, are awesome. Take this description of an Aesop Rock record: “Never really liked this sort of left field Hip Hop, but what stands out to me here is that despite the density of the lyrics and the dark feeling of paranoia, the soundscape has a groove to it.” Or this one: “The kind of dudes you’d expect to see performing at a bowling alley on a Monday night in 1982, playing outdated AM funk, singing unintelligible lyrics to a sad discoball backdrop and a bad teenage makeout session. And they’re totally sincere and it’s the most endearing thing I’ve maybe ever heard.” It’s like having your cool, music-savvy friend stand over your shoulder and give you tips while you shop. Maybe I have room for a turntable after all…and maybe these little labels can teach us a thing or two about how to talk about the “weird” music we’re all working so hard to make.

It was a lot of fun to get some response to my column last week about a national conference devoted to issues and performances in new music. Rob Deemer engaged a few of the potential problems and benefits of my idea, and lots of others piped up in the comments, on Facebook, and in emails to me. Be sure to check out the conversation and contribute to it if you’d like.
There’s a new music-happenings website in Chicago! It’s called chicagomusic.org and it’s a joint venture between scrappy neighborhood organization Elastic Arts and a little corporation called Boeing. The site’s managing editor is Elastic’s Paul Giallorenzo; last year Elastic won a $150,000 grant from Boeing to run the site. Already, chicagomusic.org casts a wide swath— current featured artists include hip-hop groups, improvisers, and a whole page devoted to classical/new music. The page has some great interviews, previews, and other interesting content. We’re excited to see such a vibrant new resource for discovering Chicago artists, and can’t wait to find out what will appear on those pages in the coming months.

While some Chicagoans are headed to New York— Ensemble Dal Niente’s date with Marcos Balter and Deerhoof  on the Ecstatic Music Festival is fast approaching—some New Yorkers are also traveling to us. Nadia Sirota is coming to town for a show with the Anubis Quartet on February 11, and ICE, Carla Kilstedt, and Phyllis Chen will play what looks to be a fascinating show on February 17.
Finally, a note of intention. One of the most important issues raised in my entire experience at the Chamber Music America conference occurred during the panel Steve Smith moderated on presenting the work of women composers. The panelists pointed out the abysmally low numbers of women being programmed by major cultural institutions, and then the low numbers of women on the faculty of composition departments, and the low numbers of women in doctoral composition programs. And that’s when Missy Mazzoli talked about perhaps the most important statistic: the number of young women applying—or, more to the point, not applying—to composition programs at all. The giant question in the room seemed to be: What’s happening to young women between the age of 14 and 18? Why are they less likely to see themselves as composers? Are their talents being properly nurtured, encouraged, and developed? It’s a monumentally complex question, and one very dear to my heart. Over the next few months, I’d like to devote some of my NewMusicBox energies to exploring the issue of creativity and confidence in young women. If you have ideas or resources around this question, please share them in the comments.

Two Concerts, Two Audiences

It’s always a good thing to have a trip correspond with some good new music concerts, and my week-long adventure to northern Illinois this past week allowed me to take Ellen McSweeney’s advice and attend two concerts in Chicago. Both events–the Chicago Composers Orchestra concert at the Garfield Park Conservatory and the Third Coast Percussion concert at the University of Chicago–were very successful and demonstrated why new music concerts can be diverse in content, in venue, and in audience to great effect.
Amidst Lush Plantlife
The Chicago Composers Orchestra is a relatively new group in Chicago, having been formed in 2009 by Roosevelt University grads Brian Baxter and Randall West, with a mission for “performance and advocacy of orchestral music by living composers.” The event was entitled “Amidst Lush Plantlife,” reflecting their decision to perform at the Garfield Park Conservatory, a two-acre botanical conservatory with several large rooms filled with many species of trees, ferns, and assorted flora. The entire concert spanned no less than three separate rooms, starting off with Occupy Orchestra by Seattle-based Byron Au Yong. Yong spread the musicians around the enormous Palm Room and allowed the audience to move freely through the space, casually chatting while the performance took place. It was hard to miss how many families were in attendance during this first portion, as there were many small children with their parents eagerly walking up to each performer and listening with open ears.

Once the first work was finished, the audience was shepherded into the Fern Room where Baxter’s Spring Song for strings and percussion was performed; also spatial in nature, the room was the complete opposite of the first–whereas the big room allowed one to walk up to the performers easily, the Fern Room shielded the performers altogether from my vantage point and made for a completely different listening experience. The remainder of the concert was held in a slightly more traditional setting, with the Horticulture Room set up with folding chairs both for the performers and audience. Works by Chris Fisher-Lockhead, Bruce Saylor, and the world premiere of Pos Metaphonos by Lawrence Axelrod (which featured Chicago Symphony bass clarinetist J. Laurie Bloom) filled out the rest of the program.

Three things stood out for me at this event. Obviously the venue is about as non-traditional as you can get–sight-lines are rarely marred by cacti or cycads in other halls–and once you got used to the slight ambient hum and the occasional choir of crickets, acoustically it was actually quite good. The ensemble itself, consisting of Chicago performers primarily in their mid- to late-20s who volunteer their services (ably led by guest conductor Stephen Squires, filling in for music director Matthew Kasper), played every work with an intensity and passion that proved their serious commitment to the music. Finally, the size and makeup of the audience really caught me off guard; here you had a concert of contemporary works for chamber orchestra by not-famous composers and there were over 250 people in attendance on a Wednesday night. There were obviously a good number of other composers and musicians there, but they were outnumbered by families with kids and other community members who seemed to really enjoy themselves. There were several details that showed that CCO was being smart in generating and keeping a good audience, including serving beverages and forgoing a ticket price as well as cultivating a strong relationship with the conservatory.
Third Coast Percussion
Two days later I had the good fortune to attend Third Coast Percussion’s concert in the International House at the University of Chicago. Since their formation in 2005, Third Coast has become one of the most well-known percussion ensembles in the country. The concert, simply titled “Metal,” covered four works written for a wide variety of metal instruments by established composers from across the spectrum of percussion ensemble literature. Utilizing two additional percussionists (Ross Karre and Greg Beyer), Third Coast took the audience through a thoughtful and well-balanced program, from John Cage’s First Construction (in Metal) and David Skidmore’s mind-blowing performance of David Lang’s The Anvil Chorus to James Tenney’s Koan: Having Never Written a Note for Percussion (my favorite performance of the evening) and Philippe Manoury’s massive Métal. Groups like Third Coast demonstrate why the percussion ensemble has become one of the staple instrumentations of contemporary music today.

The venue, compared to the CCO’s conservatory digs, was much more traditional in nature, though both groups utilized the spatial opportunities of their venues well–Third Coast’s performers began on stage and surrounded the audience by the third piece. As much as alternative venues have been celebrated over the past few years, one could not imagine this concert being as effective in a space that wasn’t as quiet and acoustically solid as the International House; the subtle interactions of timbres and harmonics in the Tenney would have been completely lost in a space with more ambient noise. The audience for this concert differed in several ways from the one at the conservatory. In general, they seemed to be relatively older and more formal than at the CCO concert; let’s say the number of bearded academics with horn-rimmed glasses had gone up considerably for this event. That being said, the size of the audience was practically the same and they were equally supportive in their ovations throughout the evening. This was not an event that audience members stormed out of, rather they seemed to either know what they were getting themselves into or were open enough to enjoy whatever was presented to them.

As there has been a fair amount of vitriol recently about the worth of one composer or another from within our own ranks, it was heartening to see two dramatically different and yet completely viable and successful concert events that were both celebrating contemporary concert music…especially in a city with a relatively young and emerging contemporary concert music scene. Both concerts had taken care of business as far as cultivating audiences, promoting their concerts, and making sure that the listeners were both involved and invited into the music-making process. The result of that hard work was an audience that was form-fitted for the occasion and ultimately a successful evening of music for all involved. This is not rocket science, as they say, and the more we focus on what is important and ignore the petty distractions of the here and now, the better.

New Music for New Ears

Our bows hovered in stillness for as long as the ethereal, haunting feeling of Marcos Balter’s Vision Mantra lingered in the air.  Slowly lowering our arms, the audience began to applaud, and then—the moment of truth—we broke down that fourth wall that formalizes the relationship between listeners and performers and asked the audience what they heard in Balter’s piece.  At first, no one spoke.  My body tensed as I thought, Oh no, they didn’t get it.  And then, with a confident air of nonchalance, a three year old in the second row raised her hand.  “Bumblebees!” she announced.  “Yes!!” we agreed.  We had joked in rehearsal about how the piece, with its pianissimo tremolos, did indeed resemble some sort of insect mating call.  A few seconds later, a parent in the back tentatively spoke up.  “Yellowstone,”  she volunteered, explaining that her family had gone on vacation there a few years ago and the sounds in the piece reminded her of the beauty of the national park.  Now that the ice was broken, kids and parents alike became more and more eager to share what they heard.  “Wind chimes!” offered a nine year old.  All the adults in the room oohed and aahed in agreement.  After the concert, we asked several kids what their favorite piece was.  Out of Haydn, Borodin, and Balter, all chose Balter.  Note to self, we all thought, we should always program new music on kiddie concerts

A performance of Marcos Balter’s Vision Mantra

A performance of Marcos Balter’s Vision Mantra

I have often noticed that kids have a greater attention span and much more curiosity about classical music than adults give them credit for.  Performing this outreach concert at the Music Institute of Chicago not only confirmed my hunch, it also convinced me that children are incredibly open-minded and receptive to challenging music, not just the fluff on the “Mozart for Kids” CDs (What’s that?  It will raise my child’s IQ??  I must buy it!).  Furthermore, a child’s interest in a particular kind of music can influence their parents’ perspective.  If that three year old, sitting on her papa’s lap, hadn’t made it known that she knew exactly what kinds of sounds Marcos Balter had been envisioning in his piece, the other adults in the room may not have thought up their own imaginative responses.  In this case, the children inspired their parents to look at the concert experience in a more creative way, as opposed to the stiff and formal way adults have been programmed to think of classical concerts.

It’s exactly these thoughts that the City of Chicago’s recently appointed deputy commissioner for arts programming also seems to share.  Angel Ysaguirre, formerly the director of Boeing’s global community investing, joined the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events just about a year ago, and is the driving force behind a new series at the Chicago Cultural Center.  The Cultural Center already presents a multitude of free concerts for the public several days a week.  Come February, they will begin offering a new series with a somewhat unprecedented concept.  Its target audience is—wait for it—toddlers.  And the gist of the so-called Juicebox series is to present high-quality avant-garde arts programming of all kinds—new music (both contemporary classical and jazz), theater and puppetry, and modern dance.  Starting February 1, and continuing every two weeks at 10 a.m. on Fridays, the performance space under the Cultural Center’s beautiful Tiffany Dome will be transformed into, well, something that probably will resemble a preschool classroom.  Kids will be invited to sit, lay on the floor, or, according to the folks from the Cultural Center, “roaming around the room is totally cool with us.”  With snacks and juiceboxes on hand, they will have the opportunity to experience an art form that most parents would never think to introduce their kids to because they assume it’s just too difficult to understand.  Parents and grandparents will be encouraged to bring their toddlers, and preschools will be invited to bring in entire classrooms.  Lucky for me, I’ll have the honor of observing the small listeners from a very special perspective when my quartet performs on the series next month.

The way Ysaguirre sees it, children don’t really develop their own preferences for art and music until after they turn 8 or 9, and at that point, their tastes are shaped by their surroundings and social environment.  For instance, if eight-year-old Mary’s older sister is always blasting the Jonas Brothers from her room and their parents think classical music is boring, Mary will probably develop a taste for pop music and have no interest in ever going to a symphony concert.  This concept is reflected in several research studies, all based on David Hargreaves’s “open-earedness” theory.  Hargreaves’s hypothesis—and the conclusions of most of these studies—states that the younger a child is, the more open-minded she is to unfamiliar music.  Furthermore, if children are not exposed to unfamiliar music early in life, they are significantly less likely to respond positively to it the older they become.  The age that their open-earedness disappears seems to be, at latest, nine years old.  Ysaguirre’s hope is that by offering the Juicebox concerts, he can help shape kids’ preferences and give them a taste for new music, a taste that they will not lose because they were exposed to it during a crucial time in their development.  Ysaguirre has witnessed for himself that, contrary to popular belief, kids actually enjoy listening to highly complex music just as much as simple music.  Besides, avant-garde music, theater, and dance are adventurous, just like kids are.  And unlike adults, kids are content to let the experience of a piece of music or dance wash over them, thinking about how it makes them feel, rather than searching for narrative or meaning within the work.

Miss “Bumblebees!” checks out the cello at an instrument petting zoo after the show.

Miss “Bumblebees!” checks out the cello at an instrument petting zoo after the show.

This idea that young children enjoy complex music is something I also heard from Germany-based clarinetist Sacha Rattle, who performed in an avant-garde production of Little Red Riding Hood set to music by Georges Aphergis through National Theater Mannheim’s Children’s Opera.  When four and five year olds were asked what they thought of the production, their reactions were overwhelmingly positive.  In fact, they didn’t even seem to notice the fact that the music was microtonal; they were mostly just psyched about how loud it was.  One child even likened the production to The Magic Flute, which he had seen the week before and had enjoyed just as much.  The difference in open-mindedness was huge, however, when older kids came to the theater.  The fifteen year olds, in particular, couldn’t stand the production.  According to Rattle, the story was too childish for them but the humor was too complex, and they despised Aphergis’s music.  One group even jeered that the musicians must not know how to play their instruments.  Rattle said that, more than anything, the whole experience taught him about people’s perception of new music, and more importantly, “how it should be, and could be perceived.”
As music and arts programs continually seem to be cut from school curriculums, it becomes ever more important to make sure that kids are exposed to the arts so that they remain as open-minded at fifteen as they were at five.  While the Tubby the Tuba CD is certainly one tool when it comes to teaching kids about classical music, could it be that we’re underestimating children?  When we assume they wouldn’t like or understand a challenging piece of music, we don’t even give them a chance.  As Angel Ysaguirre told me, investing in the contemporary version of an art form is what keeps the arts exciting and relevant.  Likewise, investing in new music is a way of perpetuating classical music in general.  This being the case, why on earth wouldn’t we want to expose kids to new, exciting, adventurous forms of art, while they’re just starting to develop their own tastes and perceptions?

When Ysaguirre shared with me a bit about his own introduction to classical music, I learned that it wasn’t Brahms or Beethoven that first drew his attention, it was a performance of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha.  He is well aware that for him, new music was an introduction to classical music as a whole, and it is this experience that he is hoping to invoke in the young children that attend a Juicebox performance.  One of his main priorities is to provide the highest quality programming by bringing in the best artists in Chicago.  The lineup this spring will include free performances by the Spektral Quartet, Chicago Q Ensemble, RE|Dance, Jim Gailloretto’s Jazz String Quintet, Jeff Parker, and Jason Adasiewicz with Frank Rosaly, among others.  And beginning in April, Juicebox will expand from the Cultural Center to partner with the Chicago Park District in providing additional avant-garde performances in unlikely locations around many Chicago neighborhoods.

Just as I was thrilled by the realization that the kids at my outreach concert had fallen for the sounds of Marcos Balter, I can hardly wait to see the reactions of the toddlers who come to the Juicebox Series at the Chicago Cultural Center.  At the very least, the series will expose children and their parents to some crazy and exciting performances in a uniquely kid-friendly setting.  At most, the Juicebox series has the potential to turn a few of today’s toddlers into tomorrow’s contemporary art patrons.  Who knows, this might just be the first step towards creating a generation of young people who recognize the importance of keeping the arts alive and relevant, and who will one day grow up to become the new music advocates of the future.


Sara Sitzer

Sara Sitzer
Photo by Julisa Fusté

Sara Sitzer is a freelance cellist in Chicago. A member of string quartet Chicago Q Ensemble and the Elgin Symphony, she also performs regularly with the Milwaukee Symphony and the Firebird Chamber Orchestra in Miami. Sitzer is founding artistic director of the Gesher Music Festival of Emerging Artists in St. Louis.
She holds performance degrees from the University of Wisconsin and Boston University, and completed a three-year fellowship with the New World Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.

Scratch That: It’s Over!

Vacation's Over!Musical Chicagoans have emerged from their holiday slumber with mixed feelings, and frankly we don’t blame them.
As our friend Drew put it, there’s just no easy way to do January. It’s cold, it’s dark, and your husband made you take the Christmas tree down two weeks before you were emotionally ready. There’s only one thing that’ll get you through it: concerts. Especially concerts in warm greenhouses filled with green, living things. That’s right: it’s time again for Amidst Lush Plantlife, Chicago Composers Orchestra’s second annual romp at the Garfield Park Conservatory, happening this Wednesday night.

In the non-greenhouse show category (please, no booing), Third Coast Percussion is in town for a show at University of Chicago on Friday, and on Saturday the NbN Trio presents AMBEDO to cap off their High Concept Laboratories residency.

Did anyone else hear that re-run of This American Life called “Mapping”? With the story about the guy who researched the emotional quality of intervals? He discovered that the combination of his office heater, computer motor, and phone dial tone created an unhappy pitch cluster that (he believed) was contributing to his bad mood at work. It’s simultaneously a really dumb idea and a somewhat interesting one. We hate musical pseudo-science as much as the next gal, but it’s not every day that This American Life nerds out about tritones. (Best pop culture discussion of keys/moods ever: below, obviously.)

Before the break, we enjoyed this lively behind-the-scenes post by Chicago Civic Orchestra violinist Katie Klocke. CSO artist-in-residence Yo-Yo Ma is, apparently, helping to mount an unconventional performance in which Civic will perform Beethoven 6 under a tree, from memory. (This is in the spring, of course; they don’t treat Civic musicians THAT badly!) Ma’s presence in Chicago is deeply felt and enthusiastically received. But are we alone in feeling like a cranky old lady seeing all these twenty-two year olds getting on a first-name Facebook basis with “Yo-Yo”?

Scratch That is probably very late to this party, but we’re really excited about The Yard, a sassy and vibrant Juillard student-run paper and website. While the paper is admittedly focused on a very small demographic–that is, music students at Juilliard–it also has a broader mission to “serve the next generation of performing artists.” The paper has a very able crew of comedy writers who are creating a body of satirical work to rival The Onion, as well as insightful columns from young performers and a brave article about Fashion’s Night Out in which the author confesses to having left her bra at Michael Kors. The whole thing is a fun, exciting development in musician-centered media and we need more sites like it.

A lot of our friends are getting knocked up. Oh, yours too? Are any of them freelance musicians? Nope, ours neither. We’ve been thinking a lot about the challenges of having kids as a musician. Google doesn’t yield a lot of encouragement, but there is this piece about (rock/pop) musical mamas. And this article about the benefits of being raised in a frugal home. So it’s a good thing! Low income is a good thing, right!?!

ensemble dal niente: Hard Music Hard Liquor

As the performers stepped onstage for the seventh of nine pieces on ensemble dal niente’s Hard Music Hard Liquor program Friday night, I whispered to my husband: “This is going to be a really hard concert to write about.” By the end of an evening this aesthetically diverse, your head is spinning a little.

The show was called Hard Music Hard Liquor–a boozy celebration of new music virtuosity–but the challenges that it posed went beyond the realm of technique. Many of the pieces asserted strong and provocative ideas about the dynamic between composer, performer, and audience. These pieces asked us to consider important questions such as: How far can a composer push a player? Can a composer continue to assert himself in the performance of a piece, long after he’s handed over the score? What role do we play as observers, and how do our previous listening experiences affect the we hear these new works?

In Ray Evanoff’s Negotiating the Absolute Location of Buoyancy, we heard growls, groans, and whimpers–an arresting, ultra-subdued mad scene for solo French horn, spoken like a captive struggling to speak through a gag. In this case, the gag was the horn. At times I felt Matt Oliphant was locked in mortal combat with his instrument. Given the horn’s notorious difficulty, this piece sets the audience on edge, with Evanoff challenging us to hear music in the guttural, unpredictable sound palette that can sometimes characterize “mistakes.”

Stefan Prins’s Piano Hero #1, for midi-keyboard, video, and live electronics, performed by Mabel Kwan

Stefan Prins’s Piano Hero #1, for midi-keyboard, video, and live electronics, performed by Mabel Kwan. Photo by Ryan Muncy

Stefan Prins’s Piano Hero #1, for midi-keyboard, video, and live electronics, also opens in a way that terrifies the listener. The video–a man dragging pieces of wood and metal across a piano frame–seemed to be skipping and malfunctioning. But as it turns out, the “scratched DVD” sensation is one of the most important elements of Piano Hero’s sonic assault. The piece contains a particularly unsettling moment in which the live camera fixes on pianist Mabel Kwan–so we finally focus on her, rather than the man in the pre-recorded video–but as she continues to play, the keyboard makes no sound. Before our eyes, the performer is silenced by the composer and the system he created. (Indeed, Prins’s website describes the pianist in this piece as “a mere operator in a world of bits and bytes.”) But if the piece was a battle between the performer and the composed system, it appeared that Mabel Kwan eventually won, silencing the muscular video man with a long “game over” buzz while he continued to flicker powerlessly.

Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Shredhaus is endearingly titled, given its tiny, lean-forward-to-catch-every-moment sound world. I was reminded of an electric guitarist practicing without an amp as I watched Jesse Langen “shred” on his acoustic without the help of his right hand. In the piece’s amazing (anti)climax, Langen’s left hand climbed closer and closer to the guitar’s pegs–the opposite direction of typical guitar heroes. The piece felt like a rock guitar solo turned delightfully inside out.

How far is Ferneyhough from Schubert? In Lemma — Icon — Epigram, Winston Choi played with an elegance and panache that made me feel that they’re closer than ever. How do we reconceive the virtuoso violin showpiece in the 21st century? Austin Wulliman presented the instrument’s brilliant colors and hard edges in Lee Hyla’s Passegiata.

Malin Bang’s Turbid Motion, performed by ensemble dal niente. Photo by Ryan Muncy

Malin Bang’s Turbid Motion, performed by ensemble dal niente. Photo by Ryan Muncy

After more than an hour of solo (and one duo) performance, it was a joy and a relief to see nine members of the ensemble gather onstage together for Malin Bang’s amazingly textured Turbid Motion and Fisher-Lochhead’s fantastic, zany arrangement of Frank Zappa’s The Duke of Prunes. Watching the ensemble interact with each other–smiling, cuing, provoking–was a stark contrast from watching them engage in lonely battles with ultra-challenging scores. It was a testament, I think, to the huge difference between what a solo piece can convey and what music scored for an ensemble can deliver. After a night of intense soliloquy, the evening ended with the sounds of a party.

Scratch That: Chicago Unites, Beck Composes, and Dale Clevenger Hangs On

New York Times music writer Steve Smith reportedly “leaned on” his editors and got them to fly him out to Chicago this weekend, where he caught the (Re)New Amsterdam benefit show at the Empty Bottle and Anna Clyne’s new Double Concerto at Symphony Center. At the Empty Bottle, members of Chicago’s musical community nursed their beers and politely waited to shake his hand. Okay, maybe that was just us.


The morning after (Re)New Amsterdam–which was amazing–event co-curator Marcos Balter was effusive, saying: “I am incredibly touched by the generosity and camaraderie displayed by the Chicago new music scene yesterday. The fact that many of our highest bidders and donors were musicians themselves only solidifies what I already knew: we are indeed a family, and we are better artists and individuals for supporting one another.”


In other (Re)New Amsterdam news, we’d like to share that during the event we spent perhaps fifteen minutes in the Empty Bottle green room. The green room couches carry the alarming scent of two decades of legal, indoor Chicago smoking. Upon our return home, our spouse declared that we smelled “like my granddad.” #rockstarlife


Veteran journalist Michael Miner–best known for tackling Chicago’s plentiful political and journalistic scandals–turned his attention to the horn section of the Chicago Symphony this week. His article about the mounting criticism of 71-year-old principal horn Dale Clevenger contained some heart-wrenching anecdotes. Apparently, critic Andrew Patner has not spoken to Clevenger–a former friend–since he made his first critical statement about Clevenger in the Sun-Times in February 2010.


In a review in the Telegraph, British theater critic Charles Spencer valiantly resisted comparing an all-female production of Julius Caesar to “dogs walking on their hind legs”–while still managing to use that exact phrase in his review. Bad-ass British violist Jennifer Stumm called the article “sexist drivel” on Twitter. You go, girl!


High-level nerds celebrated the auspicious date 12/12/12 by turning the day into a tribute to twelve-tone serialism. It was also our Dad’s birthday. Happy birthday Dad!


Beck’s long-awaited album of sheet music, Song Reader, has arrived. For composers, whose music usually exists in printed form before it exists in sonic form, this is a revealing moment about the state of sheet music in our digital society. These are the top comments over at The Atlantic:

Comments from The Atlantic

Scratch That will return in January after a holiday hiatus.

Sound Room: The Humans and the Machines


The basement of the SOUND ROOM installation is where the bass frequencies live. Down here, at the bottom of a three-floor brick building on an industrial side street in Chicago, there is almost no light. As you walk through the dark space, you can begin to make out the shapes of hulking speakers, some large enough to lie down on. If you stay in the basement during a surge of bass and volume–like the one during Mike Gillilan’s electronic work Tonar—you’ll swear that the sound is coming from the giant wooden beams in the ceiling, roaring out from the walls. If you sit on the cold cement floor and close your eyes, it is as if you are inside an enormous subwoofer.

As you leave the basement and head for the stairwell, you’ll feel a blast of cold air. The heavy metal door is slightly open to the fall night. But this cold zone of SOUND ROOM is also its most resonant spot: tall, narrow, and enclosed, it’s where the bass frequencies downstairs meet the dynamic sounds happening above them.

Upstairs is where most of the human beings can be found. The composers, the improvisers, and most of the audience are here. Upstairs, the sounds move quickly, like tiny creatures on light feet. This is where, during Kyle Vegter’s Interiors 2: The Actions, we feel surrounded by an enchanting, energetic cacophony of bells. This is where, during Daniel Dehaan’s Speaker Symphony No. 1, simple intervals played on a piano seem to collide with each other in mid-air and break into gorgeous fragments. And it is where Ryan Ingebritsen, holding an optical theremin, makes music with the air around him by leaping, diving, and dancing.


SOUND ROOM was an evening-length performance of electronic music hosted by High Concept Laboratories, an arts service organization which incubates some of the most forward-thinking art in the city. The show was a collaboration between composers Ryan Ingebritsen, Kyle Vegter, and Daniel Dehaan–multifaceted artists and sound designers who, while very different stylistically, share deep roots in electronic music. Vegter studied composition at the University of Florida, where electronic music is strongly emphasized; Ingebritsen was responsible for, among other things, calibrating several of Steve Reich’s early tape pieces for the massive sound system of Millennium Park; Dehaan teaches electronic music at Columbia College’s Digital Music Lab. Together, they created and installed a complex, multi-channel speaker system throughout HCL’s three-story building. They also created custom designed software that makes SOUND ROOM a uniquely responsive performance environment, “a three-dimensional sound spatialization system, specifically tuned to the acoustic nuances of the High Concept Laboratories space.”


For the culmination of their fall residency at High Concept Labs, the composers programmed an evening of their own work, as well as electronic pieces by composers Mike Gillilan and Claire Tolan. Ingebritsen’s three works were all improvisations, including one in which improvisers James Falzone, Jenna Lyle, Glenn Rischke, and Ingebritsen himself interacted with the system to create restrained, timbrally fascinating textures. Dehaan’s forty-minute Speaker Symphony No. 1 was a fully electronic work, performed by the composer at an Ableton controller. Vegter’s works did a bit of both: his delicate, spare Interiors 1: Bingo Yen was fully electronic while Interiors 2: The Actions, included a live element, with haunting vocal work from Maren Celest.


Because the programming for SOUND ROOM was so innovative and diverse, and because I’m not fluent in the electronic music idiom, it is a struggle to write about the fascinating and often deeply moving concert experience that was SOUND ROOM.

As I walked around the space, examining the music from different vantage points, the experience reminded me of John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit in Millennium Park. The difference, of course, was that I was not strolling around listening to individual musicians as they struck their triangle or wood block. Instead, I was paying visits to electronic things: a big black speaker, a small white one, a stray wire tucked under the leg of a chair.

The speakers may not be alive, but as 21st-century listeners, we know their capabilities intimately. These are the sounds of our lives; the sounds of great pop, the essence of great film soundtracks, and the obliterating foundation of a great live rock show. As clueless as we may be about the computers, software, and hardware that bring the sounds to life, once we hear them, we find that they are familiar creatures. These booming bass frequencies and the jangling electronic bells are our friends, our family. Speakers are, in a way, the ultimate vessel for realizing a composer’s precise vision. They are (comparatively) predictable, they do not get tired, they do not resist certain tasks.

Is it obvious why I’m trying to give human characteristics to amplifiers and cables? It’s because I’m a performer, and in electronic music, the absence of a clear performer can be disconcerting. A performance of composed electronic works is not like a string quartet performance, in which the music plays itself out on the musicians’ bodies and faces like a story, and in which you can relate each sound you hear to a physical movement by a human being. Instead, the makers of electronic music are more like Oz behind the curtain, their faces illuminated a little by a laptop screen, the tiniest movement of their hands producing a sea change in a massive wall of sound. If there’s anything that my experience at SOUND ROOM showed me, it’s that electronic music is not about what is seen, but what is heard. And even more so, what is felt.

In the work that closed the program, Dehaan’s Speaker Symphony No. 1, there was a great deal to feel. For me, the emotional center of the piece came in the second movement, in which a fragment of dialogue played over and over. “Are you the poet?” a stern headmaster voice demanded in a British accent. “I shan’t tell you,” a small boy’s voice replied. “Are you the poet?” he repeated. “I shan’t tell you,” the soft voice came again.

Here, power appeared to be in dialogue with powerlessness. As my heart gravitated towards the voice of the child, I remembered the delicate and gorgeous piano samples that had dominated the first movement. My memory now registered them as the improvisations, or perhaps the musical dreams, of an intelligent and lonely child. As the third movement approached, with the frightening sounds of hail thrown onto a tin roof and a steadily growing roar that threatened to obliterate us all, I felt I was listening to the sound of pure power–human and inhuman.


The author and her husband consider the music.

The piece, in other words, immersed me in a human story, told through deeply expressive musical gestures and the subtle power of psychological suggestion. It’s quite likely that the composer’s psychological narrative of the piece is different from my own. But as with any great symphony, the epic scale and emotional depth means that the hero is no longer the composer. The hero—as Alex Ross put it in Listen to This—is you.

As I listened, I occasionally caught glimpses of Dehaan, his gaze fixed intently on the screen, his hands touching small square buttons as they lit up. These were the only human hands shaping the sound. When the piece was over, and the last electronic gasp faded, I found myself staring at the speaker closest to me. It was on the floor: an unremarkable black rectangle. It emitted a distinct buzz. I stared at it in a kind of disbelief that I can’t wait to feel again.

**All photos by Daniel Dehaan

Now Hear This: The Nick Mazzarella Trio

Nick Mazzarella Trio

Nick Mazzarella Trio: Mazzarella (alto saxophone); Anton Hatwich (bass); Frank Rosaly (drums)

To hear Nick Mazzarella play the alto saxophone is to hear a well-honed connection between his creative impulse and the horn that becomes an extension of his musical identity.  It is a creative instinct steeped in jazz history and brimming over with a passion for free improvisation.  In Chicago’s community of aggressively original talent and dedicated musicianship, his ability stands out. His trio has become an important vehicle for realizing his musical ideas, and it has become a significant presence in the local jazz circuit.

The Nick Mazzarella Trio performs often in Chicago and has achieved a rare level of near telepathic interplay between three deeply accomplished musicians that translates into sets where the trio simmers and frequently catches fire.

Nick Mazzarella’s alto saxophone playing consistently takes on the vocal and intervallic qualities of Ornette Coleman in ways that are startling when performing with his trio.  His music is not an emulation of the free jazz master as much as it is an ability to channel the energy and magnetic excitement that was present with Coleman’s trios in the 1960s,  a comparison completed by the harmolodic interplay between Anton Hatwich on bass and Frank Rosaly on drums.  It’s an influence that Mazzarella acknowledges via email correspondence:

What I find inspiring about Ornette is his genuine creative impulse. He arrived on the scene with a fully formed concept that was innovative and completely honest, playing the way he did because that was just how he heard music. The integrity of that approach, let alone the nature of the content of his art, is something I think all creative people aspire towards in some way. I’m influenced by Ornette as a saxophone player and an improviser coming from the jazz tradition, but I’m not really interested in sounding just like him or recreating what he’s already done. The truth Ornette’s sound and concept represents to me has helped me to identify what’s true within myself. If my music bears some resemblance to Ornette’s for some people, I think it can be attributed to my working through these external truths that have validated and unlocked some internal ones that are distinctly mine. As time goes on, I hear myself developing my own style, and the process of working on music like this is a lifelong pursuit.

Mazzarella has managed to make his way into the heart of that tradition and found plenty of room to develop his own identity as an up-and-coming jazz musician.  While the roots in Coleman’s music are strong, Mazzarella also cites Eric Dolphy, Henry Threadgill, Julius Hemphill, and John Coltrane as equally significant influences.  These aren’t just names for Mazzarella: the resonance with this tradition is tangible in his music.  His performances frequently draw upon the sonic language of these composers while offering an evolutionary counterpoint to the free jazz movement of the 1960s.  It is possible to close one’s eyes during a live Mazzarella performance and be transported to the same energetic sound that marked Henry Threadgill’s Air trio.  His resonance with Eric Dolphy’s harmonic approach is striking.  His ability to aurally reference these giants without laboring to emulate them is what sets him apart.  This is a living tradition and he is breathing fire into it.

Nick Mazzarella Trio

Nick Mazzarella Trio: Mazzarella (alto saxophone); Anton Hatwich (bass); Frank Rosaly (drums)

Mazzarella earned his master’s in jazz composition at DePaul University in 2009, though he brings an approach to composition that transcends his academic bona fides.  He primarily composes the music for his trio on the saxophone and occasionally at the piano, working out rough sketches and refining ideas while also leaving space for ideas to flow when they require less “working out.”  He then takes relatively fixed versions of his pieces to the trio and further refines his ideas through rehearsal, often relying on the group’s collective sensibility.

“I asked these particular people to be in my band because I want them to sound like themselves,” Mazzarella explains, noting that Hatwich and Rosaly each bring strong individual sensibilities to the music.  “They sound great individually as soloists, and they sound great together as a rhythm section. Over time, I think we three have built a unique and recognizable collective sound. The written material I provide is really just a vehicle for that collaborative effort to take place.”  Hatwich and Rosaly have developed into a creative pair that have set a new standard for rhythm sections in the Chicago scene.

The trio’s debut recording: Aviary, released in 2010 on Thought to Sound Records, offers a glimpse into the melodic constructions of Mazzarella’s pieces.  “Pistachio (for my bird)” in particular is a catchy tune that is practically an ear worm that doesn’t wear out its welcome.  Its Latin beat and circular melodic phrases that resolve into short repetitions over an understated harmonic progression become a launching pad for an approach to improvisation that balances delicately between restraint and blistering freedom.  The collaborative interaction and refined approach to this music is recorded with remarkable clarity on this studio effort.  At just over half an hour, it’s a tantalizing set that merely hints at where this trio can go.

Mazzarella album covers

The follow up release, 2011’s This Is Only A Test: Live at the Hungry Brain, explodes with a full set that reveals the electricity this group brings to their live performances.  The trio was at the top of their game for this particular performance (I was one of the lucky ones present) and their energy is remarkably well documented.  The searing, plaintive wails that make up the melodic line of “For Henry” is a particularly rewarding listening that shows off Mazzarella’s ability to channel a soulful approach to his material along with improvisations that deftly explore the extremes of register and emotional range.

Both of these recordings are highly recommended, even if they are just a hint of what’s in store as Mazzarella continues to develop his personal style and further refine his materials.  The collaborative role of his excellent rhythm section pushes this music up several creative notches, and shows The Nick Mazzarella Trio to be a creative force that should leave a lasting impression for some time to come.

Reverberant Celebration of Sofia Gubaidulina

As Sofia Gubaidulina joins the ranks of octogenarian composers, ensembles find themselves with a wealth of compositions to choose from when celebrating her irresistibly transcendent body of music—a catalog that promises to leave an indelible impression for generations to come.  Gubaidulina’s international renown, accolades, and concert celebrations are well deserved.  Chicago’s contribution toward applauding this Russian composer came in the form of an honorary degree from the University of Chicago and an evening of her music performed by the Contempo Ensemble at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.  While Contempo was unable to present a new collaborative piece by the composer due to health and time constraints, the three works offered on the program presented a glimpse into an oeuvre of devastatingly beautiful works that speak to both a profound sense of humanity and spiritual aspirations.

The celebration continued Contempo’s 46-year tradition of performing works by living composers at a high level of excellence.  The University of Chicago-based ensemble is regarded as one of the anchors of the new music community in Chicago and one of the premier ensembles in the country.  Their love and dedication to both the emotional and cerebral qualities of Gubaidulina’s music was on full display for their celebration concert.  The spoken introductions before each piece spanned a range of personal anecdotes and brief academic presentations were a thoughtful and heartfelt match to the brilliant aesthetic that reverberated within the composed works that were performed from the same stage.  The passion that Gubaidulina inspires was communicated along multiple levels over the course of the evening and it was easy to recognize why her music is so inspiring.

Tim Munro (flute), Alison Attar (harp), and Masumi Per Rostad (viola)

Tim Munro (flute), Alison Attar (harp), and Masumi Per Rostad (viola)

Garden of Joy and Sorrow (1980) is a work that scales toward the heavens upon the pitches of the harmonic series.  The wispy appearances of that “natural” sequence of intervals found itself balanced delicately against a dissonant field of minor seconds.  It achieves its resonance through sparse textures and a brilliant use of restraint.  Composed for viola, harp, and flute as a single-movement work, it is a clear expression of the balance between formal structure and intuitive detail that is found in much of Gubaidulina’s music.  The harp often takes on the qualities of a koto, suggesting a balance between Eastern and Western sensibilities in this music as well.

Stanislav Venglevski (bayan)

Stanislav Venglevski (bayan)

In Croce (1979) is a startling synthesis of multiple compositional impulses found in 20th-century composition.  This duet for cello and bayan (a Russian accordion) makes use of a singular sense of form through process, while leaving plenty of space for unexpected details in its realization.  The piece begins with the Bayan playing a tremolo of notes at its highest register over drones from the cello at its lowest register and eventually works toward a reversal of these two roles between the instruments, forming a study of crossing registers.  Like Garden of Joy and Sorrow, there is a striking clarity of the intervallic content that allows the listener to trace its harmonic logic throughout.  The way the music moves seamlessly between notated material and structured improvisation using graphic notation is a testament to both its compositional polish and the considerable talent cellist Brandon Vamos and bayanist Stanislav Venglevski brought to its performance.  These were further enhanced by the soaring crescendos that highlighted the timbral interplay between these two instruments. In Croce shows off one of Gubaidulina’s most startling qualities with the range of textural diversity found within the relatively narrow constraints of its formal structure.   The way it shifts between moments of contemplative meditation and moments of explosive energy maintains a sense of unpredictability within a clear formal shape, offering up a compelling coexistence of intuition and system within a single work of music.  Sofia Gubaidulina makes use of deft brush strokes along her canvas with an ear for sublime contrasts.

Tony Arnold (soprano), Masumi Per Rostad (viola), Yvonne Lam (viola), and Ricardo Rivera (baritone)

Tony Arnold (soprano), Masumi Per Rostad (viola), Yvonne Lam (viola), and Ricardo Rivera (baritone)

The highlight of the evening was Perception (1983), a large-scale work for soprano, baritone, and strings featuring poetry by Francisco Tanzer and excerpts from the Psalms.  Again, this piece showcased Gubaidulina’s sense of textural variation with music that could shift from glassy to dramatic in an instant while maintaining a strong sense of compositional continuity.  With the larger ensemble, she expands this technique to allow for dramatic shifts between instrument combinations and exposed vocal solos.  The textural qualities of the piece were even further enhanced by the addition of pre-recorded materials performed by the same ensemble to emphasize the work’s sense of expansiveness.  These were used sparingly toward the end of the work with the relatively dry reverberation of the recorded material contrasting noticeably with the spatial presence of the live ensemble on stage.  Another striking moment was the pizzicato movement that featured the full string ensemble strumming their instruments to rich harmonic effect.  Perception was a tour de force of extended string techniques combined with exquisite Sprechstimme in the soprano and baritone parts.  It is a complex work that requires extensive concentration by the performers.  It was well rehearsed and beautifully performed.

As a celebration, this concert made a powerful argument for Sofia Gubaidulina’s significant contributions to new music with just a small sample of her works.  Each piece of hers that reaches these ears has reinforced that impression.  Concerts such as this suggest that entire festivals of Gubaidulina’s music would still leave listeners craving more.  Let us hope that there are many more celebrations in store to recognize this fantastic composer.