Tag: Ear Taxi

Renée Baker: Nothing’s Gonna Stop You From Creating

Renée Baker


Spending an hour over Zoom chatting with Renée Baker about her more than two thousand musical compositions and perhaps almost as many paintings was inspirational as well as motivational. Especially during this time when the ability for anything we do to have a certain future seems somewhat precarious at best. But Renée does not let anything deter her and while her music is extremely wide ranging and gleefully embraces freedom of expression, her daily schedule is precise and meticulous.

“I don’t separate life from creation,” she explained to me as she outlined a typical day in her life. “Breakfast about 7:30. And right behind that, about 8:15, started [making] dinner. … When I’m done with my conversation with you, I have four gallons of paint in the hallway that will make their way to my studio garage; I’m working on a series there. … These might not be finished for a couple of weeks while I determine what the palette is gonna be. You know, it has to strike me. Once I do that, I might wander out. I’ll go past a thrift store or something looking for pieces because I do make sound item sculpture, so that’s always fun, especially with wood and glue. And then I’ll probably nap and watch a few zombie movies. I’m a Walking Dead aficionado. When I’m done with that, since dinner’s already fixed, my husband can eat whenever he wants, I will probably go to a coffee shop or sit outside a coffee shop. I keep my manuscript book in the car. So anytime I’m driving or going to sit by the pond, or sit by the lake, or feed the ducks, I keep adding to these compositions. When they’re finished, I pull them out and I put them in the envelopes. So I touch almost everything every day.”

Her discipline has paid off. In addition to the ensembles that she herself has formed to perform her compositions, most notably the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, organizations around the country and the world have commissioned and presented her music including the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Spektral Quartet, Boston’s ECCE Ensemble, Berlin’s International Brass, DanceWright Project SF, the Joffrey Ballet, Berkeley Books of Paris, the Destejilk Museum in the Netherlands, and on and on. Plus her paintings are represented by two different galleries—and they sell.

Given her broad range of artistic pursuits, it’s no wonder that Renée Baker is a member of Chicago’s pioneering AACM (The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), an organization founded in 1965 by the late Muhal Richard Abrams who counts among its members such legendary genre-defying Black artists as Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Amina Claudine Myers, Henry Threadgill, George Lewis, and Tomeka Reid. Yet at the time Nicole Mitchell first suggested she join, Renée had acknowledged that she had never actually improvised. And while she proudly identifies herself as “a Black woman in America that survived classical music,” she “never sought to do an all-Black anything.” As she explains, “When you’re looking at my music, you can say, oh, it’s Black music because she’s Black, or whatever. But the fact is I’m interested in people who can play in four with my beat pattern and stay with me. It’s very simple. I don’t care; I don’t care what you are.”

Also, despite the fact that she creates vital work as a composer and as a painter (plus she also writes poetry and makes sculptures), Renée Baker does not compartmentalize. She does not think in terms of synaesthesia, but if you spend enough time looking and listening to the different forms of art she creates, you will notice clear aesthetic affinities. E.g. the striking combinations of colors in her paintings share a kinship with the way different timbres interact in her musical compositions. In fact, she has worked extensively with graphic scores that are as fascinating as visual art as they are as music. Ultimately, Renée Baker’s work is a by-product of an extremely healthy confidence, and her advice about perseverance is something that all artists should heed, especially in these extremely uncertain times:

“If your heart is married to creating, then there’s nothing, even a pandemic, that’s gonna stop you from creating. You might not create as much. You may experience a bit more stress, some financial worries—no telling what everybody individually is facing. But you can’t stop the train. Just keep going. Just keep going. Look at other directions. Maybe the direction you were going in would have been stopped without the pandemic. Maybe you’d gotten to a wall and there’s something else for you to access. Don’t be frightened, and don’t be cowed by criticism.”

NOTE: As part of this month’s Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago, Renée Baker will lead a string quintet from her Chicago Modern Orchestra Project in a performance of her composition Eternal Units of Beauty for one of the Spotlight Concerts at Chicago’s Phantom Gallery on September 26. Learn more about Ear Taxi’s Spotlight Concerts here. She will also participate in Ear Taxi’s panel discussion “What are the components of a thriving ecosystem for new music?” moderated by New Music USA’s CEO Vanessa Reed on September 29 at the DePaul Art Museum. More info about that panel can be found here.

Nicole Mitchell: Endless Possibilities

For composer/flutist Nicole Mitchell, participating in the Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago this past October was something of a homecoming even though she has lived in a variety of places. She was born in Syracuse, New York, grew up in Orange County, California, and has since returned to Southern California where she currently serves on the faculty for UC Irvine’s Integrated Composition, Improvisation and Technology program. But Mitchell’s move to Chicago as a young adult was a transformative experience, and the activities she was engaged in during her years in the Windy City were what ultimately determined her path as a creative musician.

“It’s an amazing community that embraces the arts,” Mitchell exclaimed during her ten-minute monologue with music at our NewMusicBox LIVE! showcase which took place at the Harris Theatre, the second of three such presentations that evening. (You can see the first, featuring Andy Costello, here; and we will post the third, with Shulamit Ran, later this month.)

During her time in Chicago, Mitchell was deeply involved with the legendary AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), an organization which she has been a member of since 1995 and for which she later served as its first female president. In recognition of her impact within the Chicago music and arts education communities, she was named “Chicagoan of the Year” in 2006 by The Chicago Tribune. But Chicago musicians had just as much of an impact on her as she did on them. Before she arrived in the city, most of her musical experiences came from her classical training and her years as an orchestral performer, but the many mentors she came into contact with showed her a way to think beyond the binaries of the specificity of notated composition and the flexibility of improvisation, confirming for her the endless possibilities that had already been instilled in her by her mother, a self-taught painter who was actually born in Chicago.

“She would take that blank canvas and create things that were a mixture of things that existed and things that never existed,” Mitchell explained. “She would draw a landscape of three setting suns.”

This sense of new worlds is something she hopes to instill using her own music.

“I can create new environments for us to come together,” she said. “There’s always something else we can reach for.”

Andy Costello: The Power of the Unexpected

Andy Costello

As regular readers of NewMusicBox know well, there’s something special about the stories told by musicians. Whether they’re reminiscing about family history, sharing the memory of meeting a favorite collaborator, or revealing the impetus behind an important piece, artists offer unique and compelling insights into their lives and the work they create—and often the broader world at large.

New Music USA was proud to present NewMusicBox LIVE!, a special program that featured three very different artists and the work of this site, during the Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago (October 8, 2016). Shulamit Ran, Nicole Mitchell, and Andy Costello each took the stage and, using both their words and their music, pulled back the curtain just a little bit further on the motivations and inspirations that fuel their creative lives.

We’ll be posting all three presentations for you to view this month on NewMusicBox. Here we begin, as we did in Chicago, with Andy Costello’s playful exploration of communication and the power of the unexpected in performance. Utilizing short pieces drawn from multiple authors, Costello follows a throughline built around “masking the mode of your communication. Music is about that a lot of the time. We use words to speak to one another and we use music to communicate on a different level in a different way, so this is something I’m exploring in my work.”

Since May of 1999 when the site first launched, NewMusicBox has profiled hundreds of amazing music makers. It’s been very important to us that artists have a platform to speak for themselves, and they have told us some unforgettable stories. Some of them have had some particularly vibrant memories of Chicago, and we also shared just a few highlights with our gathered Ear Taxi audience in October. Check it out below.

Chicago: What Makes It Great?

Chicago at night
To further showcase the spirit of the community Ear Taxi is organized to celebrate, we asked a diverse roster of local creators to highlight stand out (but quite possibly under-the-radar) aspects of the scene—to pull back the curtain on Chicago for those in the know about new music but maybe a stranger to the city. Add your favorites in the comments or share with us on social media!

Insider Tip: Mana Contemporary—a large, repurposed industrial space in the booming art-loving neighborhood of Pilsen. Mana hosts studios for tons of incredible artists who regularly open their work to the public, as well as experimental dance and music performances.

What Makes Chicago Great: Chicago is a city of welcome. Artists from all over the US (and the world) come here because of the vibrant scene and myriad visible institutions that have long flourished here. Alongside the established arts in Chicago, emerging artists can find a place to explore and test their practice. There is visible activity here at every conceivable level of career development, and at the intersection of most every genre and discipline.

The new music community of Chicago is discursive rather than judgemental. Who you know and what you are affiliated with is less important here than it might be in some other big cities. Young artists have opportunities to show their work and get genuine feedback from older peers, mid-career artists can try out their ideas with an open-minded cohort of ensembles and independent artists.

Part of the reason for this openness is that the midwest is a friendly place. Another reason is that Chicago plays host to a cluster of academic institutions with their doors, students, and faculty open to participating in the wider community. The relative affordability of the city is a not insignificant factor as well. Artists can survive here on less then they can in comparably large US cities, making it easier to find time and space for in-depth, exploratory work. Upon arriving in the Chicago scene (as I did a bit over a year ago) one discovers a community willing to try out ideas and enter into spontaneous, non-strategic collaborations and conversant, musical friendships. Like a real community, which is a wonderful thing.

Australian vocalist, researcher, and curator Jessica Aszodi has been praised for her “…virtuosic whimsy” (New York Times) & “…upmost security and power…” (Chicago Tribune), while performing with ensembles, orchestras, opera companies and festivals across the US, Australia, and internationally, in notated conventional, new, experimental, and improvised music contexts.

Smart Museum

Smart Museum

Insider Tip: There are many art, architecture, film and literary spaces that regularly include new or experimental music in their programming—places like the Arts Club of Chicago, Black Cinema House, Conversations at the Edge at the Siskel Film Center, the Graham Foundation, Renaissance Society, Smart Museum, Stony Island Arts Bank, and Poetry Foundation.

What Makes Chicago Great: Audiences here are terrific. Very supportive, enthusiastic, diverse. They’re not just, or even primarily “music people,” but people from design, video, visual arts and a range of creative fields who want to hear something different, even if they’re not particularly schooled in a tradition. I’m sure that’s partly due to the varied places that include this music in their schedules. Our visiting artists consistently talk about how they’re blown away by the numbers who attend and how they feel the crowd is really focused on what’s going on. I see the same thing at all kinds of shows.

Andrew Fenchel is the director of Lampo, which organizes experimental music and intermedia projects.

cacophony mag

Chicago is a painfully segregated place, and the new music scene is no exception. With so many national news stories focusing on the violence that plagues the city, visitors can be nervous to tread off the beaten path and away from the shiny, gentrified Loop. But as a recent Chicago-to-D.C. transplant, one of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t spend more time soaking up the incredible programming happening around Theaster Gates’s South Side arts empire. (Sure, I was a far-North-sider without a car, but that’s no excuse.) Check out places like the renovated Stony Island Arts Bank (where they do free tours most Saturdays at 1 p.m.), Black Cinema House, and BING Art Books, where they’ve been hosting musical evenings each Wednesday and will probably have some new stuff going in October. Gates is an inspiring figure in creative placemaking and artist-led, community-focused development.

You should also make a point to see what’s up at INTUIT Gallery for Intuitive & Outsider Art, where composer, guitarist and visual artist Shawn Lucas has been curating an interesting performance series called FLAK. This cozy, transit-accessible gallery venue is one of my favorite places to hear (and perform) new work in Chicago, and FLAK is an exciting example of a functional partnership between a musical curator and a “non-musical” space.

For creative, grassroots coverage of Chicago new music events, check out Cacophony magazine, which is run by Chicago musicians Bethany Younge and Lia Kohl. I’m especially excited about the geomancy fortune-telling column they’ve just launched.

After eight years in Chicago, Ellen McSweeney now lives with her wife in Washington, D.C., where she’s working the singing violinist angle and writing a book on musicians, trauma, and loss. Her duo, Handful of Smoke, will release their first album next year.

frequency series

Insider tip: The Frequency Series at Constellation, curated by Peter Margasak, has been a crucial part of the burgeoning contemporary music scene in Chicago. Peter’s series includes a wide array of styles and presentations of music and sound, which contributes to a more inclusive and nuanced idea of contemporary music.

I love that I can hear wonderful presentations of piano pieces by Feldman one week, then electronic music or a multi-speaker presentation the following week.

Olivia Block is a media artist and composer based in Chicago. She creates studio-based compositions, performances for concerts, site-specific sound installations, scores for orchestra and chamber groups, and cinematic sound designs.

Insider tip: Experimental Sound Studio, including its off-site programs like Florasonic and its Creative Audio Archive. Thirty years of programming, production assistance, professional services, and advocacy for exploratory sound art and music. The website says it all, including program descriptions, info on production services, links to media, and access to the Creative Audio Archive.

Lou Mallozzi is an interdisciplinary artist, cultural organizer, and educator whose work often deploys sound in performances, installations, improvised music, fixed media works, and others forms of cultural exploration. He co-founded Experimental Sound Studio in 1986 and recently left his position there as executive director. He is on the faculty of the sound department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall

Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall. Photo by Tom Rossiter

Insider tip: Mary B. Galvin Hall is one of three new performance spaces at Northwestern University, in their recently opened Ryan Center for the Arts complex in Evanston, Illinois. It is an acoustically wonderful hall with a beautiful wooden interior, comfortable seats that hold four hundred people, a large projection screen, and recording capabilities. Better yet, Northwestern has an on-site parking lot that’s free on weekdays after 4 p.m. and all day on weekends, which is a luxury in comparison to parking rates in downtown Chicago. For me, however, the feature that tops the rest is its onstage floor-to-ceiling glass windows with spectacular views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. Depending on the weather and the time of day, audience members can witness nature’s own performances: seagulls flying, clouds drifting across the sky, the undulations of the water, the changes of color in the sky as dusk approaches, and even fantastic lightning storms (which adds great drama to a concert!). For Northwestern’s talented students, faculty, and guest performance artists, and particularly for concertgoers who live north of Chicago, Galvin Hall is a wonderful addition to Chicagoland’s concert venues.

After teaching composition full-time at Roosevelt University for sixteen years, Stacy Garrop stepped down from her position this past spring to begin a freelance career. Her works range from orchestral and choral to a wide array of chamber groups.

Great Moments (for me) in Chicago New Music History

Chicago History

When I arrived in Chicago in the fall of 1984, I registered as a returning scholar in composition at The University of Chicago. At that time, the first incarnation of New Music Chicago published a monthly newsletter mailed to its more than 300 members about activities in the Chicago area. By 1985 I found myself elected president of American Women Composers-Midwest and vice-president of New Music Chicago. While I was president of AWC-Midwest, we produced 18 events in one year, with the two most important events being concerts at Kennedy King College featuring six African American women composers—including a full orchestra performing Florence Price’s Symphony in E minor—and a concert of AWC-Midwest composers presented in Washington, D.C.

I have experienced score selections where the guys would throw out any score submitted by a female and I would sneak them back in.

During my New Music Chicago days, I remember having 600 scores in my living room submitted for their annual new music festival, out of which we had to choose some 30 scores to be performed over three days. One of my fondest memories of NMC days was having Ralph Shapey take charge of the selection committee. He was so full of energy and ran the fairest way of judging scores I have ever experienced. With other committees I have experienced score selections where the guys would throw out any score submitted by a female and I would sneak them back in again. Also with Shapey, we never conversed about the scores with each other as we listened. We each wrote down our own honest opinions and then compared notes after a group of several scores had been evaluated. We were almost always in agreement.

Another wonderful moment was the three-year existence of NEMO (New European Music Overseas) in the ’90s motivated by a young composer from Belgium while he and his wife lived in Chicago. Pierre Boulez became our honorary president. Peter Gena was artistic director; he is a composer from the Art Institute of Chicago and was organizer of New Music America on Navy Pier before I arrived in Chicago. I was the chair/work horse, so to speak. We had the financial support of the Goethe Institute as well as the French and Italian Consulates. Goethe Institute brought in some wonderful groups of musicians and composers, as did the Italian Cultural Institute and the French Consulate. We presented Chicago composers along side our European colleagues. It was a very exciting time and attracted much critical and audience attention for newly composed music on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.


CUBE Contemporary Chamber Ensemble through the years

As founder of CUBE Contemporary Chamber Ensemble in the fall of 1987 with my husband Philip Morehead (and not affiliated with a university), I performed/organized more than 250 concerts. Janice Misurell-Mitchell and I were co-artistic directors of CUBE for the next 20 years. Christie Miller, a clarinetist, continued to run CUBE for the following five years. Our main focus was to feature the music of living Chicago composers, but we also included important composers from the United States, Europe, and beyond. John von Rhein, music critic for the Chicago Tribune, named Janice and me as Chicagoans of the Year for our creative/innovative programming, a wonderful and unexpected honor. Under Christie Miller’s leadership, we honored Gunther Schuller with a portrait concert at the Jazz Institute of Chicago, M. William Karlins at Pianoforte Chicago, and important opera composers Thea Musgrave at the Merit School of Music and William Bolcom at the Elizabeth Stein Gallery in the Chicago Fine Arts Building. We were very fortunate to have many performances on WFMT Live from Studio One and wonderful critical coverage from John von Rhein of the Tribune, Wynne Delacoma of the Sun-Times, and many reviews from Ted Shen in the Tribune and the Reader.

The AACM may be the most important musical development in Chicago.

The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians has existed for longer than all of us and I believe may be the most important musical development in Chicago of all, in my personal opinion. Fifty years ago, a group of South Side jazz musicians found themselves backed against a wall. Clubs were closing, radio stations were going pop, America’s musical interests were shifting elsewhere. If these Chicago jazz artists had given in to inevitably changing musical tastes, jazz might have devolved into a nostalgia bath or succumbed to the commercial excesses of the fusion era that followed. Instead, the Chicago musicians created the AACM, invented original musical languages, created intriguing new instruments, crafted novel ways of penning scores, and otherwise defied long-standing presumptions about how music was supposed to be made. And though they didn’t necessarily intend it, their breakthroughs opened the door to new ways of creating, staging, and perceiving music. Chicago and the rest of the musical planet will celebrate the AACM’s 50th throughout this year, a fitting response considering this organization’s global profile and impact.

I am so proud of Chicago and the many new music groups that have since come into being and are flourishing today. Ear Taxi is a wonderful festival event bringing together the many groups that make Chicago an amazing creative place to be.

Patricia Morehead

Patricia Morehead

Patricia Morehead, composer, and oboist, is the founder and former artistic director of CUBE Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. She is past president of the International Alliance of Women in Music and American Women Composers Midwest. She made her Carnegie Recital Hall debut in 1977 and has concertized actively in Brazil, Canada, Europe, China and the USA. She recently retired from her positions on the adjunct faculty of Columbia College, Chicago, and Dominican University, River Forest, and she was for 17 years leader of the Composers Forum at the Merit School of Music.

Uniquely Together: The Chicago Paradox

Old Colorful Marbles in a Glass Jar

The Ear Taxi Festival coincides almost exactly with the 100th anniversary of the publication of Carl Sandburg’s seminal collection Chicago Poems, which—while wholly unintentional—is still a neat coincidence.  Sandburg did as much as anyone to cement Chicago’s reputation as a city of rough-hewn individuals who created a great metropolis through physical labor and are justifiably proud of it, and I see Ear Taxi in a way as the musical manifestation of this: a celebration of the individual composers and performers who have created a bustling contemporary music scene and who are, if you missed the posts on social media, also proud of it.

Five years after Sandburg’s poems were published, Ben Hecht would paint the city with similar strokes in his great collection of stories, which was later published as 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago. In Hecht though, the rugged individualism of Sandburg is combined with a search for a common thread—or motif, in his words—that connects everyone he wrote about. To me, this is an impulse also present in Ear Taxi, as the festival is an attempt to bring all of the disparate styles and the whole tangled mass of creative musical energy in the city under one metaphorical roof.  This uniquely Chicago paradox has always fascinated me.  It’s a city of individuals with an entrepreneurial streak and a DIY mentality who work hard to build from the ground up, but who are also very interested in finding their shared identity.

Over the years, I’ve seen numerous attempts to codify Chicago’s various arts scenes. Whether it’s film or music summits, the Architecture Biennial, the Sonic Impact Festival, Chicago Improv Fest, Lake FX, the Chicago International Music and Movies Festival, or one of many others, the intention is to show off the entire range of any given art form happening in the city and put it in one place. As another example, a few years ago Boeing donated a large sum of money to the Elastic Arts Foundation to create chicagomusic.org, which was meant to be a one-stop shop for all live music in the city. But, though their efforts to include every performance in Chicago were nothing less than heroic, the task proved impossible as there is simply too much happening.   The quixotic attempt, however, is uniquely Chicago. One thinks immediately of architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham’s famous maxim to make no small plans.

There is something innate that causes Chicago to celebrate the individual while searching restlessly for shared identity, and I believe this has led to an unusually tolerant arts scene.

This constant search to find a shared identity among disparate individuals reminds me of a story in Plato’s Symposium.  In the work, Socrates, Aristophanes, and the boys are up late drinking and, as boys will do, they start talking about the origins of love. Aristophanes says that in the beginning humans were not individual entities but two separate people fused together which, according to him, was actually a happy arrangement. Unfortunately though, as in so many other mythological tales, we somehow offended the gods and Zeus promptly sent one of his ever-ready thunderbolts to cleave us in half. Now we spend our lives searching to be made whole again.

I believe the metaphor transcends geographic and cultural boundaries.  Chicago is a famously divided city yet there is something innate that causes it to celebrate the individual while searching restlessly for shared identity, and I believe this has led to an unusually tolerant arts scene.

The style wars did not hit Chicago as hard as in other places.  Composers in Chicago didn’t always approve of other composers, and they didn’t always believe certain directions were fruitful or had artistic merit. But when the call to unity came, it was generally heeded.  Sure, for the most part we’re still very much clumped along academic lines: if you are a composer who went to Northwestern, for example, most likely it’s Northwestern groups who play your music. But that’s natural. What’s unique about Chicago is that there is always a basic assumption that everyone, regardless of affiliation, is adding to a collective scene and that their contribution to that scene is important.

I’ve seen this tolerance firsthand numerous times, but I really put it to the test in 2004 when I created an organization called Accessible Contemporary Music. “Accessible” isn’t exactly a hip word now, but it was practically obscene back then. I got a decent amount of crap for it, naturally, but when leaders of Chicago’s new music community got together to decide how we could all best cooperate to mutual benefit, there was a seat for me at the table. I’m not entirely certain that this would have happened in another city. It’s not that Chicago is more enlightened than other places, it’s just that all voices are welcome as it continues this interesting search for a collective identity.

It’s not that Chicago is more enlightened than other places, it’s just that all voices are welcome as it continues this interesting search for a collective identity.

When we sat down in the basement of Symphony Center in 2005 to formulate what would eventually become New Music Chicago, interestingly enough most of us at that time did not know there had been a previous organization with the same name that flourished in the 1980s under the leadership of Patricia Morehead (who was also the artistic director of CUBE, Chicago’s second contemporary music ensemble) and George Flynn (whose Chicago Soundings series started at the Green Mill jazz club in the 1970s and continues today).  Ours was not a conscious attempt to resurrect the former organization, but an example of the city’s latent urge toward unity manifesting itself through us. To paraphrase Voltaire, if New Music Chicago didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent it.

Chicago in many ways is a kind of self-contained universe, a place for artists to thrive by turning inward. I believe that in many ways this is because of the vitality of the ubiquitous storefront theater scene.  If you live anywhere in the city, it’s unlikely you live more than a few blocks from a small theater.  But the small theaters get big reviews every bit as often as the Goodman or Steppenwolf do, and the small storefronts are widely considered to be the place for innovative, edgy productions. The goal isn’t to send a production to New York or London, the focus is instead on the work itself.

You can see this in the visual arts as well. Chicago’s most important art movement may be the Chicago Imagists, which includes several interestingly named sub movements like the Hairy Who, the Non-Plussed Some, and the Monster Roster.  Most of these artists never left Chicago and, as such, they created unique local styles and are kind of the epitome of a bonded group of distinct individuals.   They represent the proud Chicago tradition of loudly not caring about the goings-on in other cities, and they cite staying in Chicago as having given them the freedom to develop according to their innermost desires rather than larger trends.

So it’s not all that surprising that, as the contemporary music scene in Chicago has begun to really thrive, it has grown up along similar lines.  Though the downtown Loop was once the go-to concert destination, performances now frequently happen throughout the city, mirroring the storefront theater trend. Over the years, as new ensembles have sprung up like musical weeds, I’ve seen shows in former mansions, furniture stores, cabaret clubs, jazz clubs, empty storefronts—even an empty restaurant that had gone out of business.

Chicago may never find the unity that it’s searching for, but the search has created a unique arts scene where its individuals can flourish and be truly creative.

When Ralph Shapey moved to Chicago in 1964 his colleagues widely assumed he was moving to a contemporary music desert but, even assuming that were true at the time, it’s certainly not the case anymore. Composers and performers are moving to the city every bit as much to be part of the scene as to go to school, and those who move to the city for their studies are increasingly sticking around after they finish.  In just the last five years, the number of emails I get about new music performances has increased three-fold and it shows no sign of stopping. The range of music being performed is dizzying.

Ear Taxi is the most ambitious attempt yet to bring all of this disparate activity and unruly DIY individualism under one roof, and the audacity is something at which Sandburg, Hecht, and Burnham would have nodded approvingly—probably through a thick haze of cigar smoke.  Chicago may never find the unity that it’s searching for, but the search has created a unique arts scene where its individuals can flourish and be truly creative.

Seth Boustead

Seth Boustead is a composer, radio host, arts manager and writer, concert producer, in-demand speaker and visionary with the goal of revolutionizing how and where classical music is performed and how it is perceived by the general public.

Chicago New Music as assemblage; or, why are we doing this?

Pinned Chicago, Illinois

I realize that there is an imbedded irony in a person who lives and works in Chicago new music making this observation, but I’ll do it anyway: it seems like people outside of Chicago talk a lot about new music in Chicago. Why is this?

From my vantage point—the lives-here, works-here one—I want to guess at an answer by saying tentative things, stutter while I do so, and use the shrugging shoulders emoji at the end of what I say. I want to make a weak claim, not a strong one; I don’t want to assert that what is happening in Chicago is truly unique or mystically special or importantly revolutionary. I don’t have the expertise to be able to make such a claim (and, actually, a suspicion of expertise is a strain in a mode of artistic production here). What I want to hypothesize is that Chicago is a particularly concentrated expression of confluences in current culture, and that the evidence of this is both the explosive energy of the city’s new music community in recent years and also how hard its characteristics are to pin down. This essay (in both senses: “a piece of writing,” but also “try” or “effort”) is one of a number of attempts I’ve made to theorize Chicago new music, and inherent in these attempts is—as an axiomatic presupposition surely, an ever-present anxiety maybe—an awareness that I could be wrong. Going a bit further: my tendency to theorize, my hypothesizing impulse, my weak-claim-making, is a very Chicago-new-music-esque characteristic.

What comes to mind when I describe the character of Chicago new music are words like “provisional” and “transient”and “conditional” and “contingent” and “fragmented.”

What I want to hypothesize is that Chicago is a particularly concentrated expression of confluences in current culture.

A quintessential work of Chicago new music is something like George Lewis’s Assemblage, which he wrote for Ensemble Dal Niente (which I conduct) in 2013. It’s quintessential to Chicago new music because it was written for the Bowling Green New Music Festival by a Chicago-born improviser/scholar/composer/computer musician living in New York for a new music ensemble started ten years ago by a bunch of mostly students without jobs, composed in a style that references many other musics, and cast in a form that encourages the listener to “catch the bus and go along for the ride.” Thus, the city of Chicago is essential to the work’s creation, but its presence cannot be readily pointed to. The essence of its Chicago-ness, if one may say so, is the not-exactly-there-ness of Chicago. George was born in Chicago, cut his teeth as an experimental musician in the AACM, left to go elsewhere (Yale and Paris and San Diego and New York), has turned to notated composition only in relatively recent years. Ensemble Dal Niente (literally, “from nothing”) was initially a bunch of musicians—mostly from Michigan or Indiana or Texas or Georgia or Canada or Kentucky, and not too many of whom were actually born in Chicago—just trying to make stuff work because existing things didn’t satisfy. The Bowling Green New Music Festival is sort of close to Chicago I guess, kind of. “Both the title and the content of Assemblage refer to a type of visual artmaking that recombines and recontextualizes collections of natural and human-made objects,” writes George. Everything about the piece—its composer, the musicians for whom it was written, the form, its external references, the listener’s experience, the circumstances of its production—is provisional. It is the instantiation of the contingent, if such a thing isn’t a contradiction in terms.

To be less slippery, I buy a basic Marxian approach to culture (articulated and developed by, for instance, Adorno and other Frankfurt School theorists) that “means grasping[…] forms, styles and meanings as the products of a particular history” (to quote Terry Eagleton), as the results of a set of socio-economic conditions. It’s not merely that works tend to be about their place and time, or that composers consciously engage with political issues (say, the Eroica symphony or Shostakovich’s wartime works or John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls); it’s that every facet of culture creates the conditions for a piece of music, and this happens on many levels, including (and especially importantly) unconscious ones. We have a particular and peculiar situation in Chicago: it’s a very large city—the largest in a large region—that attracts intelligent, talented young people from this region and beyond. It has famous performing and visual arts institutions with histories of being famous. But these same institutions suffer from a certain second city-ism that makes them anxious about their own prestige and causes them to look to more famous arts institutions (in other cities) for art, and thus, they have only recently started paying close attention to the local new music scene. It doesn’t have many presenters, so the venue situation is often difficult. (Sure, there are a few staple places where you might go to sample various flavors of experimental music, and plenty of it: Experimental Sounds Studio or Elastic Arts or the Hideout, say; or famously, Constellation, for instance; this is mostly due to the hard work of an amazingly dedicated staff led by the inexhaustible Peter Margasak.) It’s hard to find funding. And while it’s not hard to make a living (it’s not as expensive as many East or West Coast metropolises), it’s hard making a living in music in Chicago. There are only a few universities and full-time orchestras, and there are a lot of people.

Chicago is simultaneously highly cosmopolitan and deeply provincial; this can be, depending on how you parse it, a painful contradiction to live in or a fruitful tension with which to engage.

Chicago is simultaneously highly cosmopolitan and deeply provincial; this can be, depending on how you parse it, a painful contradiction to live in or a fruitful tension with which to engage. Either way, these oppositions prompt the asking of a basic question: why are we doing this? Put another way, or perhaps to offer a provisional answer: if we have an intelligent community of musicians, audience members, and composers, yet the possibility of creating a sustainable, full-time career seems remote, we’d better do something that is really meaningful to us rather than exhaust ourselves chasing a phantasmagoric notion of “accessibility.” The financial stakes are often low. This is neither to promote a romanticized starving-artist mythos updated for the 21st-century US nor to suggest that well-funded art here can’t be authentic; it is to say that the fact that people here mostly aren’t either a) stringently competing for a place in a saturated PR/marketing landscape or b) doing all they can to scrounge up the most minimal, indifferent, bewildered of audiences, has a defining impact on the character, structure, and style of the art that’s made. The drive to specialize in order to compete, to niche-ify, is less urgent; people seem free to develop authentically.

This pushes a group like, say, Mocrep to play their instruments less and pursue performance art more. It pushes a group like Dal Niente in all kinds of different directions (a collaboration with Deerhoof, a portrait album of George Lewis, the performance of work by as many local composers as we can manage, plus lots of recent European music). Third Coast Percussion has begun writing pieces collaboratively, somehow finding time to do so amid a nomadic touring schedule. Spektral Quartet has made an art of the low-culture/high-culture juxtaposition with its Sampler Pack series. The Chicago Arts Initiative is a group of high school students who perform and compose collectively, founded by Dal Niente guitarist Jesse Langen. I read the work of local tape label/performance collective(?) Parlour Tapes+ as partially a non-high-culture re-imagining of the historical avant-garde (meant in Peter Burger’s sense). Chicago composers explore stylistic ideas of dizzying dissimilarity; the Northwestern doctoral composition recitals from November 2015 to May 2016 alone are a worthy dissertation topic. (If you don’t believe me, do check out the head-spinningly diverse aesthetics of David Reminick, Jenna Lyle, LJ White, Alex Temple, Chris Fisher-Lochhead, and Katie Young.) Do you find the prospect of exploring this series of links daunting? If so, welcome to my world.

[I have an impulse to put here some sort of “full disclosure” statement about who of the above are personal friends about whom I cannot be objective, but the truth is I know all of these people. This is not just okay, but actually great; I do not feign a non-existent objectivity or an impossible and undesirable disinterest.]

Eliza Brown wrote Prospect and Refuge (video here) for Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble in 2015. Here we go again: Eliza is a Chicago composer in the sense that she is from Philadelphia, teaches at DePauw in Indiana, but attended Northwestern and worked in Chicago for many years. Quince is a Chicago(ish?) group in the sense that only one of its members actually lived in Chicago at the time of this work’s writing but many of them are in Chicago often. “The result is an experimental music-theater piece, primarily intended for re-purposed or non-traditional performance venues, that depicts four private individuals meeting in a public space. The dramaturgy of the work—how it is interpreted and staged by the performers—is to be adapted according to the social history and/or function of each performance space,” says Eliza. This is a Chicago piece in multiple senses: it is written by and for Chicago musicians (“Chicago” as just described), and it has at its structural core a provisionality (can a core be provisional?). But paradoxically, it’s also just deeply structurally concerned with the place and time of its staging. This is not a work that is reproducible and commodifiable: you can’t find it in a Starbucks in Houston; rather, you might, but it would be a different piece. That Zach Moore wrote a similar piece for my DePaul School of Music group, Ensemble 20+, just months before, is telling. About the piece, “???” (Zach says, “I’m bad at titles”; I’m not sure I agree), he says:

I got into it for the obvious reason that a piece takes places at a specific time and place, and that is obviously a huge part of the piece (what the venue is like, who is there, what exterior sounds and movements are happening) yet they are somewhat uncontrollable, so to do it again would be a “different” piece. […] I don’t see reproducibility as any part of my practice. So, when I do a piece that’s performed once, I feel like it acts as a community event, more so than the premiere of “my” piece.

In March 2015, my friends Seth Brodsky and Philipp Blume held an enormous festival of the music of mathias spahlinger (spahlinger writes in militant lower-case letters) for his 70th birthday, in which I participated with my DePaul orchestra and Ensemble Dal Niente. It was a typical Chicago effort, mixing the DIY with the institutional. The Goethe Institute and the University of Chicago and DePaul University were among the kind, supportive sponsors, but we made every dollar count. The festival included an ambitious string of performances, a thoughtful symposium, and an elegant program book. This was an event that was simpatico with the experimental, make-it-work character of our new music scene; perhaps a proposed resistance to a commodified concert-going and -making, a different way of doing things expressed in the work of a composer with many years experiencing thinking about precisely that question. Says spahlinger about his doppelt bejaht (“doubly affirmed”): etudes for orchestra without conductor:

artworks too are manufactured and distributed according to the conditions of the market, and more to the point: their innermost constitution is itself dependent on the means of production, inculcated in power relations and their corresponding patterns of thinking. […]

playing instructions for doppelt bejaht were devised with the aim of focusing the musician’s attention and responsibility on the whole—a whole which, since it involves new music, can only be contradictory, open whole, changeable in itself and actually changing itself.

spahlinger is an exciting figure to me not because he’s a Famous German ComposerTM, but because he’s a person who has simply been granted the time and means to work on these various issues in depth. What drew me to him is that his life’s work does a more thorough and complete job of approaching cultural problems in our world and recent past than my own analysis does. His critiques of commodification are penetrating and moving as musical experiences.

The festival was roundly criticized in the Chicago Tribune for not having been well-enough advertised.

so, why are we doing this? music (not: is, but) can be a way to communicate (and to understand by ourselves), what we are, want to be, and will be by finding out, what is our way.

spahlinger wrote to me after the festival, in response to certain of my soul-searching queries:

you ask some first and last questions and i take this very seriously by saying: try to give yourself preliminary answers[…]

so, why are we doing this? music (not: is, but) can be a way to communicate (and to understand by ourselves), what we are, want to be, and will be by finding out, what is our way. [Author’s note: read this sentence a few more times; it’s worth your while.]

sorry, this is not very specific.

Here I feel that I have reached a satisfying conclusion; I have sketched the essence, or the rather, the process, of Chicago new music’s transient state. Yet I must say more. On the one hand, everything I write above is consonant with my experience and so deeply felt that I’ve restlessly redefined my career trajectory because I feel inspired by the exciting work I see on a daily basis. I feel that I have theorized in a nuanced, sympathetic, friendly manner the work of my colleagues. On the other hand, it’s painfully clear that there’s an awful lot I’m leaving out. I’m aware that I haven’t mentioned a number of Chicago new music organizations: Chicago Composers Orchestra, Fulcrum Point New Music Project, Eighth Blackbird, Contempo, CSO’s MusicNOW. I recognize that, even in the list of organizations I’m leaving out, still more remain left out. What I initially called “a weak claim, not a strong one,” is shown to be all the weaker. There are vast numbers of complicating factors, and only the embrace of these will give us a fleeting glimpse of the reality of the situation: that there is not a unified whole to be grasped.

Chicago new(?) music is no longer emerging, it is emerged.

I said earlier in this piece that “[famous arts] institutions […] have only recently started paying close attention to the local new music scene.” This is true. Ensemble Dal Niente, Third Coast Percussion, New Music Chicago have just entered their second decade. Those groups are no longer new; Chicago new(?) music is no longer emerging, it is emerged. Famous arts institutions are beginning to pay attention to local new music (for instance: CSO’s MusicNow, led by Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek, has commissioned Katie Young, Kyle Vegter of Manual Cinema, Marcos Balter, Sam Pluta—all current or former Chicago residents). Thus, my analysis here can also be described by all of the adjectives I initially used to describe Chicago new music: Provisional. Transient. Conditional. Contingent. Fragmented. This is a scene entering a new phase of existence, and the socio-economic circumstances will—unavoidably—alter its style, forms, media, and contents. I don’t know whether it will be for better or for worse, and I don’t know if the categories of “better” and “worse” will make sense as analytical tools. Honestly, I just have no idea what’s going to happen.

Michael Lewanski

Michael Lewanski

Chicago-based conductor, educator, and writer Michael Lewanski is conductor of Ensemble Dal Niente and assistant professor of Instrumental Ensembles at the DePaul University School of Music. He wishes to thank Deidre Huckabay for her help refining ideas in this essay.

Why the 21st Century is the Most Exciting Time for Music

This essay will appear in the program book for the Ear Taxi Festival (October 5-10, 2016) in Chicago.

At only 16 years in, it’s still a bit presumptuous to make sweeping statements about the 21st century, but I’d like to posit a grand claim: our new century is the most exciting time to be making and listening to music. And unless all our channels of communication suddenly get destroyed, either through an unforeseen force of nature or some man-made catastrophe, the sheer number of possibilities and opportunities for access that have been steadily growing for decades will continue and most likely increase in the coming years. Our current state of ubiquity should remain “the new normal” for the foreseeable and forehearable future.

For listeners, there’s more music to hear than ever before–and it’s happening all over the world. Of course, it always has, but nowadays, it’s not limited to “national” “styles.” Also, global travel has become much more convenient, relatively speaking, and so with enough time, money, and overzealousness, a fanatical fan could actually trek the globe to hear extremely exciting music every day of the year. Much easier, we now can also experience a great deal of music happening in all these places without leaving our homes. And when we do, we can keep listening on our smartphones! Since music from literally any place and time can now be equally with us in the here and now, the once seemingly impenetrable dichotomies of domestic vs. foreign, new vs. old, and us vs. them have become completely porous and ultimately meaningless. It is all equally ours to enjoy, as well as to be the source of inspiration for our own creative impulses.

As interpreters and creators, we can literally do anything we want. In such an environment, it is no longer possible to be out of step with the zeitgeist. We no longer should feel stifled by so many of the other binaries that used to divide us aesthetically–e.g. old-fashioned vs. out-in-left-field, traditional vs. avant-garde, non-commercial vs. popular. There are few anecdotes that encapsulate today’s omnivorous catholicism more effectively than something Seth Colter Walls wrote about 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Henry Threadgill back in 2012:

Asked about what’s caught his ear of late, he identifies some recent Elliott Carter music for piano, as well as a Beyoncé song that his daughter brought into his life.

While exciting music is now being made everywhere, some places have been transformational loci for decades. It’s no small coincidence that Threadgill was born and raised in Chicago and that his career began there as one of the original members of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), who were pioneers of 21st-century music as early as the 1960s. AACM’s founder, composer Muhal Richard Abrams, epitomized the AACM philosophy when I spoke with him for NewMusicBox earlier this year:

If we say music, it could be anywhere. It’s just music. The next question, what type of music? Okay. No type of music. Just sound.

Though both of these two maverick elder statesmen moved to New York City decades ago, and therefore neither will participate in the Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago, their all-embracing spirit pervades this unprecedented week-long musical immersion. Over the course of six days, the music of 88 different composers will be presented. More than half of them (56 to be exact) are emerging composers.  The only common ground they share is that they all transmit their ideas through music notation.  Among the works being performed, 53 will be world premieres. All in all, it comes to more than 8 hours of totally brand new music.

Over the short span of time that we call the 21st century, a new breed of interpreter has arisen—polyglots who can speak and be understood in any musical language. It’s no surprise that given Chicago’s legacy as a hotbed for open-minded creativity, it is now one of the epicenters for such interpreters and more than 300 of them (soloists as well as 25 ensembles) will be involved in these performances. It is why of all the places in the world I can be, this week I am here!

Made in Chicago: Original Sound, Original Voice

This Wednesday, Chicago kicks off the Ear Taxi Festival, a 6-day, 88-composer, 350-performer, 54-world premiere celebration of the city’s new music community spearheaded by Augusta Read Thomas. The event will include concerts, lectures, webcasts, and artist receptions—plus a special edition of NewMusicBox LIVE, which will highlight stories and music from Andy Costello, Nicole Mitchell, and Shulamit Ran. (If you’re in town, we hope to see you on October 8 at 5 p.m. in the Harris Theater.)

Inspired by this concentration of activity, here at NewMusicBox we’ll be devoting the week to an examination of the creative energy that fires Chicago from a variety of angles. We will reflect back with Patricia Morehead, consider aesthetics with Michael Lewanski, and examine culture past and present with Seth Boustead. To further showcase the spirit of the community Ear Taxi is organized to celebrate, we’ve asked for short posts from a diverse roster of local creators to highlight the stand out (but quite possibly under-the-radar) aspects of the scene—to pull back the curtain on Chicago for those in the know about new music but maybe a stranger to the city.

But to get things rolling, we’re going to start with an essay by our very own Frank J. Oteri penned for the festival’s program book, but do check back for more as we explore what makes Chicago an inspiring place to create.


Why the 21st Century is the Most Exciting Time for Music

Chicago New Music as Assemblage; or, Why Are We Doing This?

Uniquely Together: The Chicago Paradox

Great Moments (for me) in Chicago New Music History

Chicago: What Makes It Great