Tag: ensembles

New Music and Globalization, Part 1: Silk Road and Global Collaborations

Silk Road Ensemble

Silk Road Ensemble
Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography

There is little doubt: the particular phase of globalization we are living in (forged from a combination of post-Cold War politics, digital networks, global finance, free market ideology, and cheap travel) has had a major impact on the forms and presentation of art, music, and literature. Within the visual arts, this is a major topic of critical interest, and is widely seen to be manifest in the explosion since 1989 of art biennials. The form of the biennial, as a festival-like exhibition of work from around the world, certainly reflects some aspects of the global experience: the mixing and curation of international artists, the touristic approach to culture, and the boundaryless flow of international capital.

There isn’t really an equivalent in—for want of a better word—art music, even though many of the same structural changes apply. (World music is better served through projects such as WOMEX and WOMAD.) For all their strengths, new music festivals like Tanglewood or the Bang on a Can Marathon can’t attract the same sort of money (and therefore glamour and press attention) as the Whitney, São Paolo, or Venice biennials. Art, through the biennial, can become particularly symbolic of the flow of global capital—often concretely too, as works are bought and sold. Music, as a time-based art form rooted in experiences rather than in objects, cannot attract the same level of capital investment. When it does reflect the flows and structures of globalization, it therefore tends to bring other dimensions out.

In terms of curatorial impact, perhaps a closer analogy to the art biennial might be found among new music ensembles. Single concerts don’t do the same thing and new music festivals, unfortunately, don’t have the same impact. Ongoing projects, however, in which repertories can be collected and developed, in which a sense of global mobility can be projected through international tours and residencies, and for which financial support and prestige can be built up over time, offer a closer comparison.
One example is the Silk Road Project, founded by Yo-Yo Ma. With Ma as its chief advocate, Silk Road is capable of attracting a level of capital, interest, and prestige that is possibly unique in new music. In large part this is due to Ma’s superstar status, but there is also a correlation with the group’s commitment to a globalized, multicultural vision that operates outside of the usual channels of new music, and there is a case to be made that the “global music” angle that Silk Road promotes opens doors in ways that more conventional, “abstract” compositional approaches cannot do.

Kojiro Umezaki

Kojiro Umezaki
Photo by C Taylor Crothers

The Silk Road Project was founded in 1998 to “promote innovation and learning through the arts.”[1] At the heart of the concept is the network of ancient trading routes from India and China to Europe, which acts as “a modern metaphor for sharing and learning across cultures, art forms and disciplines.”[2] Two years later the Silk Road Ensemble was formed, a variable collective of around 60 musicians, artists, and storytellers that performs music in accordance with the Silk Road ethos. The ensemble’s members come from more than 20 countries, many of them along the Silk Road itself. They bring with them the instruments and traditions of their own countries—from the gaita bagpipes of Galicia as played by Cristina Pato to Kojiro Umezaki’s Japanese shakuhachi—taking in the instruments and musical styles of southeast Europe, Central Asia, North Africa, India, and China along the way.

The composers involved with the group are similarly diverse in origin. The ensemble has commissioned more than 80 original works and arrangements, most of them from composers originating from outside the conventional Western repertory. They include figures like the Azerbaijani Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, the Argentinean-born Osvaldo Golijov, and the American Vijay Iyer, all of whom have substantial careers beyond their Silk Road work. However, others are little known outside of this context, composers such as the Lebanese Rabih Abou-Khalil, the Tajik-Uzbek Alisher Latif-Zade, or the Mongolian Byambasuren Sharav.
The ethos of the Silk Road Project (with the ensemble as its most tangible manifestation) is built upon the principles of cultural exchange, learning, and understanding. As Ma explains it, modern-day cultural fragmentation can be resolved through the sharing and passing on of knowledge. In musical terms this might be accomplished by something as simple as adjusting your ear to the nuances of a new kind of scale, or a new rhythm. Music, as a flexible, intangible medium, is well suited to this sort of transformative synthesis, but the sympathetic adjustment Ma talks about acts as a metaphor for a more substantial kind of global harmony. Ma’s model is one of transparency, in which progress is achieved through the acquisition of knowledge and understanding, within a collaborative creative process.

When it appears on stage, the Silk Road Ensemble is a model of harmonious unity: despite the national costumes and range of instruments on display, the emphasis is on togetherness and coordination, audible through the music itself, and visible in the relaxed body language and constantly exchanged glances and smiles of the players.

But while Silk Road’s music is enjoyable, its goals laudable, and the musicians’ skills impressive, hybridization of this sort is not a perfect model for understanding or addressing the issues of modern-day globalization through music. At the heart of its model is the notion of collaboration, but as the scholar Timothy D. Taylor has observed, “collaboration” has become an ideology in world music, since at least Paul Simon’s controversial Graceland: “The term frequently appears as a sanitizing sign when western musicians work with nonwestern ones, making their music safe for mass consumption.”[3] Against the background of hybridizing collaboration, differences get softened, he argues, “making Others and their cultural forms desirable in new ways.”[4] As musicians are expected to alter their original sound in order to conform to international expectations, others are expected to produce hybrid musics. The result, reflected in the respective sales of field recordings versus hybridized world music, is that music that is hybridized—like Silk Road’s—is received as more authentic. This is what a global music is supposed to sound like, and so engaging with that process comes to be seen as a more authentic gesture than sticking to your (isolated) roots. As Taylor puts it again, “World musicians may not be expected to be authentic anymore in the sense of being untouched by the sounds of the West; now it is their very hybridity that allows them to be constructed as authentic.”[5]

For all its merits, then, Silk Road’s ideal of global interconnectedness is not without its problems. (I should mention that the biennial model is also much criticized.) This post is the first of four looking at the impact of globalization on the aesthetics of new music. In my remaining three I will look at some alternative approaches, and how they have made their way into the work of other American musicians.


[1] Silk Road Project website: http://www.silkroadproject.org/.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Timothy D. Taylor: Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 129
[4] Ibid., p. 126.
[5] Ibid., 144.


Tim Rutherford-Johnson is writing a book on music since 1989 for University of California Press. He lives in London and blogs at johnsonsrambler.wordpress.com.

Should I Start a New Music Ensemble?

Nouveau Classical Project headquarters

Nouveau Classical Project HQ

A new contemporary music ensemble is born every 5.6 seconds.* Conservatories have tuned into this trend; for example, Oberlin launched a Master of Contemporary Chamber Music degree, and Manhattan School of Music, University of Missouri’s Mizzou School of Music, New England Conservatory, and other schools have launched music entrepreneurship programs in recent years. I would have loved these programs to have existed when I was an undergrad so that I could have had more guidance with my career early on and been aware of what my other options were aside from the only one I was aware of at the time: become a professor, play concerts here and there. I probably would have started The Nouveau Classical Project sooner and with fewer growing pains.

These days, many musicians are acutely aware of how to start and run a chamber ensemble, at least when it comes to the basics: gather musicians, perform the works of young composers mixed in with established composers, and launch a Kickstarter campaign to cover costs. Due to our friends and our friends’ friends launching their own ensembles, a wealth of information has been passed around in the new music community.

Here in New York—which I must note is the only new music scene I really know about—there are a number of performance opportunities that are accessible to startup ensembles. Smaller venues, such as Spectrum, won’t hesitate to program young groups, and there are many other venues that are affordable to rent. And as noted above, even academia encourages more musicians to launch new ventures.

But I’m wondering if anyone is asking: should you start another new music ensemble?

I’m not trying to be cynical nor am I trying to discourage, but it’s a valid and important question to ask oneself. Google “things to consider before starting a business” or “should I become an entrepreneur,” and thousands of results pop up. I’m sure many of us are aware that establishing an ensemble is essentially like launching a business. However, I do believe that the question of whether or not to start one is not often reflected upon first. I’m curious about this issue because there are so many groups and oftentimes musicians within these groups not only play in multiple ensembles, but also begin their own, and the differences between groups don’t seem to extend much beyond instrumentation.

So should you start another new music ensemble? Consider that our industry is saturated, audiences are small, and funding is limited. It’s essential to think about how you’re going to fit into the world of new music. Can you answer these questions: What makes you different? Will your ensemble convey a specific identity to audiences? Can you get people other than close friends and colleagues to your concerts with what you’re doing? (Because if these are your usual attendees, you may end up with a sad turnout if they are at a mutual friend’s ensemble’s concert on the same evening.)

There are so many emerging groups out there that you may already fit into a preexisting one that could use your skills and talents. Perhaps it would be more worthwhile to seek an ensemble where you can share your ideas and join an already fully formed team instead of pursuing a similar venture from scratch. I know from personal experience and from talking to colleagues that many of us artistic directors love having a team of musicians who are proactively involved behind the scenes. I am extremely fortunate to have built this with NCP over the last two years.

If you do decide to start an ensemble, ask yourself the questions that you would ask if you were to create a business. Your answers will inform your decision and provide a clear direction for your work. Playing concerts is fun, yes, but the work that goes into producing concerts and running an organization can be grueling. If you see things going nowhere it will be difficult to be creative and the whole experience will become discouraging. A few suggestions:

1. Why am I doing this? A simple question but it can reveal so much. Maybe it’s a personal passion or just an interest in the business of new music. You have to get to a place of no return, where you can only imagine yourself creating and being in this ensemble. When you’re consistently staying up until 1 a.m. looking into venues and rentals, this question will definitely come up!

2. What is unique about my ensemble? How will you define your ensemble as being different than the many others? Is it your music, your style, your performance?  There needs to be something tangible that quickly provokes curiosity about your group.

3. Who is my target audience? This is difficult to answer but it’s extremely important. When I started NCP, I wanted an audience that had eclectic interests (makes for better post-concert conversation), so I aimed to target people who enjoyed culture, museums, fashion, and did not currently attend classical music concerts regularly (that is, until meeting NCP!). When I had entered the NYU Stern Business Plan Competition, one panelist noted that the way we were targeting our audience reminded him of the book Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne.  The book uses the metaphors of the red ocean and the blue ocean. The red ocean is where everyone is fighting for the same market share, turning the ocean bloody, while the blue ocean is the market space untainted by competition. Think hard about your target audience and how to get them!

4. Am I prepared to spend the time and money I need to get this done? Ya gotta spend money to make money. And I’m sure we’re all aware, this stuff takes time!

5. Am I willing to do this for the next ten years? It’s a long game. It’s going to be a while before you draw a salary. (Any day now!)

These are the questions I’ve found to be relevant to my experience with NCP over the past six years. It’s true that you don’t know until you try, but some thoughtful questions like these might provide a clearer direction for your artistic endeavor.

*This is not true because I made it up. But doesn’t it feel like it sometimes?

The World Beyond the Classroom: SFCM Nurtures Community Creativity and Optimism

The school year has begun anew at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with a fresh class of students, but a remarkable group of recent graduates exhibits no sign of floating despairingly at sea, idly wondering how to move on with their lives. They aren’t chasing orchestra auditions or applying for an endless stream of competitions either. In the past several years, the San Francisco new music community has been energized by a wave of performers emerging from SFCM who are deeply, and in some cases exclusively, committed to the creation of new work, supported by a tightly knit network of composer peers and mentors. And while there certainly has been no shortage of composers and new music performers coming out of schools across the country, the concentration of commitment to new music and the interconnectedness of the network coming out of SFCM in recent years has been exceptional.

Virtual tour of atrium at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s new building
It is not a coincidence that the school relocated to a new facility in 2006. Previously situated in a foggy residential area which felt isolated and well removed from downtown, the school’s move to a new glass-filled building with a large, open atrium represented a major identity shift for the institution. The new building is located just off one of the main city crossroads, around the corner from Davies Symphony Hall, the War Memorial Opera House, and City Hall. Not only has the proximity benefitted the students, who are more integrated into the city’s daily cultural activity; the city’s audience has become more aware of the school’s activity in turn—getting to the conservatory’s performances has gotten immeasurably easier due to the location and is therefore more appealing.

One result of this integration into the city center has been a noticeable reconfiguration of the community of new music makers in San Francisco. The local influence of SFCM alumni has been growing for several years: the multi-genre Switchboard Festival, now in its 7th year, was founded by SFCM graduates (Jeff Anderle, Ryan Brown, and Jonathan Russell), as was alumna Minna Choi’s fabulously flexible Magik*Magik Orchestra, which gave the West Coast premiere of Jonny Greenwood’s string orchestra piece Popcorn Superhet Receiver to a sold-out audience in 2008. And though the focus is not on new music, Classical Revolution—founded by Charith Premawardhana in 2006 and designed to increase chamber music’s accessibility by placing performances into a broad range of non-traditional spaces—now boasts over 30 chapters internationally and exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit that has been internalized by many of these recent graduates.
But in the last couple of years several new music ensembles with their roots in the conservatory have reached a new stage in their development, growing up together almost as a collective in close collaboration with an intergenerational community of composers. Among these groups are the Living Earth Show, Mobius Trio, Friction Quartet, and Nonsemble 6, all of whom are commissioning and pioneering new work. The unusual concentration of activity begs a look at how this environment nurtured this development.


Nonsemble 6 in costume for Pierrot Lunaire

Nonsemble 6 in costume for Pierrot Lunaire
Photo by Irwin Lewis, Corsetry by Autumn Adamme/Dark Garden

In speaking to members of each of these four ensembles, there is an admirable sense of entrepreneurship, empowerment, and self-motivation across the board. Soprano Amy Foote, who co-founded Nonsemble 6 with clarinetist Annie Phillips, says simply, “I wanted these opportunities, so I created them!” This self-possessed sentiment is echoed by her colleagues in other ensembles: the lesson that it is possible and even necessary to make things happen for oneself has clearly hit its mark. Nonsemble 6 first began to take shape in 2009, when Foote and Phillips approached the chamber music faculty with the idea of performing Pierrot Lunaire. The request was green-lighted, and the school helped them to fill out the ensemble with Justin Lee (flute), Kevin Rogers (violin), Ian Scarfe (piano), and Anne Suda (cello). Since then, the group has memorized and staged the work, and has toured the production in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. In continuing support of their efforts, SFCM also presented them on their newly established Alumni Recital Series last season. In the meantime, Nonsemble 6 has begun to commission new works, specifically with the goal of developing staged monodramas where the instrumentalists are equal theatrical participants with the vocalist. (A current project is wishes, lies, and dreams by fellow graduate Danny Clay, with a libretto developed in writing workshops for children aged 8 to 12, led by Foote and Clay at Dave Eggers’s 826 Valencia.)
A milestone in Nonsemble 6’s development, which was later shared by the Mobius Trio, was the school’s choice to have them represent SFCM at the Kennedy Center’s Conservatory Project, a performance series hosted by the Center to showcase the nation’s top musical talent. Nonsemble 6 was given the opportunity to present their production of Pierrot Lunaire in Washington in 2010; the Mobius Trio performed on the same series the following year with a program of works written for them that included Persian Dances by SFCM composer Sahba Aminikia. Both groups cited access to this national platform as a major opportunity and motivator to hone their work.

Mobius Trio

Mason Fish (left), Robert Nance, Matthew Holmes-Linder
Photo courtesy of Mobius Trio)

While Nonsemble 6 had the canonic Pierrot Lunaire to launch their group, the Mobius Trio—classical guitarists Mason Fish, Matthew Holmes-Linder, and Robert Nance, all protégés of David Tanenbaum and Sérgio Assad—had no established repertoire to draw on, and therefore had to build an entire catalogue of music for themselves from scratch, a situation that Tanenbaum points out has been the case for guitarists since Segovia’s time. Through an interdepartmental program at the school called Doublespeak developed by the guitar and composition chairs (Tanenbaum and Dan Becker, respectively), 20 composers were paired with guitarists to create new works, yielding 150 minutes of music for guitar. Doublespeak was modeled on an existing, successful program at SFCM called the Viola Project, begun in 2004 by string department chair Jodi Levitz and Becker. In addition to the benefits that composers gain from working in-depth with instruments that might not get a lot of their attention otherwise, both Tanenbaum and Levitz have spoken of the deeper sense of identification with a piece that performers gain while working on music written expressly for them. “Students would make extreme efforts to stretch their technique to new heights to perform ‘their’ works,” Levitz says. “This made me realize the power of ‘ownership’ of a work.“ Thanks in part to Doublespeak, the composer base that had experience writing for classical guitar was enlarged, and the trio went to work commissioning not only their peers, but also their teachers.

The integration of faculty members into this community, not only as mentors but also as collaborators, has been particularly gratifying to observe. Becker has an obvious, deep-rooted affection for his composition students and their performer colleagues alike, and has himself composed works for several of these groups. Sérgio Assad, who with Odair Assad forms the awe-inspiring Assad Brothers guitar duo, doesn’t simply coach or advise Mobius; he agreed to produce their first album and is writing for the ensemble as well. Students speak gratefully of Becker and Luciano Chessa, who is on the music history faculty, hosting informal listening parties in their homes. As a performer himself, Chessa has worked with The Living Earth Show and is writing a new work for Nonsemble 6.

The Living Earth Show

The Living Earth Show at Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland

The Living Earth Show—Andrew Meyerson, percussion, and Travis Andrews, electric guitar—started in 2010 out of Meyerson’s realization that the most musically rewarding path for him would be “to commission new works and play things that wouldn’t otherwise be played.” The duo, which has an album scheduled to be released on Innova this fall, has also had three works written for them by faculty members. When asked to describe the support that he and The Living Earth Show have received from the administration and faculty, Meyerson uses the words “endless,” “loving,” and “seemingly unconditional”—terms more commonly applied to one’s favorite grandmother than the administration of an institution.

In addition to the duo, Meyerson co-founded the annual Hot Air Music Festival in 2010, a full-day new music marathon event that takes place at the conservatory each spring. (Last year there was also an off-site Hot Air After Party concert at the Hotel Utah, a saloon dating back to 1908 that regularly presents independent music in the South of Market area, where Mobius, Living Earth, and the Friction Quartet shared the bill.) With Becker as a faculty sponsor, the organizers of the festival received academic credit as an independent study project, free space provided by the school, and some PR assistance. Building on the model of the Switchboard Festival (which is independent of the school, though founded by alumni) and Becker’s own experience producing OPUS415 marathons with his Common Sense Composers’ Collective, the Hot Air Music Festival was launched, allowing Meyerson and his co-founders the experience of entrepreneurship within a supported environment.

The Friction Quartet is one beneficiary of Hot Air’s greenhouse: founded by violinist Kevin Rogers and cellist Douglas Machiz, Friction wanted specifically to play John Adams’s String Quartet and programmed it for Hot Air in 2012. (In addition to Rogers and Machiz, the quartet includes violinist Otis Harriel and violist Pei-Ling Lin.) According to Rogers, a number of people came to hear that work specifically, and their performance, which was then posted on YouTube, brought them to the attention of other composers, who began contacting them. Among those writing for the group now is Becker, who is collaborating with Friction on a major project for Bay Area dance luminaries Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton titled A Show of Hands, which Friction will perform live with Garrett+Moulton Productions in October.

Rogers’s interest in contemporary music began well before coming to SFCM. He speaks of becoming familiar with Penderecki and Berio before Beethoven, and cites the experience of hearing the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet’s recording of Black Angels as an inspiration.** With this existing interest in new music, Rogers (who was the violinist assigned through the chamber music program to the Pierrot Lunaire ensemble that has now become Nonsemble 6) is grateful that his teacher Bettina Mussemeli was “willing to get her hands dirty and explore” contemporary works with him that she didn’t know herself. Likewise, he also credits conductor Nicole Paiement, who directs both the school’s new music ensemble (a student ensemble) and Opera Parallèle (the conservatory’s resident professional new music ensemble, which recruits students to perform with professionals) for sharing her “infectious energy for new music.”


Now that they have graduated, all of these ensembles fully embrace the idea that their paths forward require them to be enterprising and to take on the responsibility of cultivating their own paths. As Mason Fish of Mobius points out, “To come out of college with direction like this is rare.” The school has also recognized the need to continue developing this ethic in their current students: Switchboard and Sqwonk Duo co-founder Jeff Anderle, Magik*Magik founder Minna Choi, and Nonsemble 6 co-founder Annie Phillips are teaching a two-semester graduate-level course this year titled “Musical Startups,” developed by Anderle and the Dean’s office at SFCM. Phillips says the curriculum will include information about “how to found a project, structure it in a way that makes sense, and other practical business” skills. As each ensemble has found, the division of labor has tended to emerge organically, as individuals tap into natural skill sets to further each group administratively.
Nonetheless, the barriers they are now encountering outside the conservatory environment are painfully familiar. About fundraising, Rogers says simply, “We don’t know how to do it.” Mobius’s Nance notes, perhaps jokingly, “90% of my time for Mobius is admin.” As for Nonsemble 6, Foote adds, “I know that there’s a learning curve… There’s a lot we don’t know about the ins and outs of certain institutions. It takes years before you learn that, let alone how to write a good budget, a good proposal. We need support from people who know these organizations.”

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To help guide these young ensembles through this transitional period, the newly formed Center for New Music, founded by Adam Fong and Brent Miller, has stepped in to provide guidance and access to an infrastructure that disappears once students have graduated. Fong, a composer himself who worked as Other Minds’ associate director prior to starting the Center, says that behind the Center is the idea that a community working together helps everyone thrive. “We’re very fortunate in the Bay Area to have not just one, but multiple generations of leaders in contemporary music who are very present and active,” Fong says. “We work in such a small niche of the musical world that it behooves us to think collaboratively, to work together, to function as multipliers of each other’s artistic impact.”
The Center, which just opened last fall in San Francisco’s still developing mid-Market district, is a performance space, a rehearsal space, an office space, a meeting space—in short, an area that allows young artists and artists without an established infrastructure to work and experiment. The Center has also begun to offer workshops on grant writing and other administrative tasks, as well as provide consulting to select ensembles, including the Mobius Trio who are appreciative of the fact that Fong and his colleagues are willing to share the “stuff you don’t learn in school” in their regular meetings.

Fortunately the school’s new music community is aware that it provides a web of support as everyone tries to find a successful transition into their professional performing careers. Foote speaks of her hope that the “community will build support for itself,” with ensembles and composers “legitimizing each other.” “Together we form a conglomerate, a collective,” she says. “Finding a way to congeal these groups together will help us all out.” Meyerson of The Living Earth Show expresses a similar sentiment, saying, “I can’t really imagine a healthier and more creatively rewarding sense of camaraderie among students, faculty, and staff.” Indeed, the interconnectedness of this community, fostered by the environment at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, has proven itself to be amazingly fruitful, yielding dozens of new scores which are getting committed performances from excellent musicians. Our job now is to continue nurturing this environment of creativity and optimism.

When I asked how the new music community can help extend the wave of energy currently in motion, Meyerson said, “I think the only support we could ask from the established new music community is to check out our recordings and shows, and check out more if they like it.” Websites for some of the emerging ensembles and composers who are part of this community are listed below.
Anthony Porter | Classical Revolution | Danny Clay | Friction Quartet | Joseph Colombo | Kevin Villalta | The Living Earth Show | Magik*Magik Orchestra | Mobius Trio | Nonsemble 6 | Sahba Aminikia | Sqwonk | Switchboard Festival

**(Disclaimer: I work for the Kronos Quartet, and Dan Becker has also developed a mentoring program for his composition students who observe rehearsals and have access to Kronos’ Artistic Director David Harrington. Some students have written and arranged works for Kronos, and some performers mentioned are receiving mentoring advice from Harrington as well.)

Five Rehearsal Secrets of the Spektral Quartet

Spektral's debut concert poster

Spektral’s debut concert poster

I still remember when I saw Spektral Quartet’s poster for their first concert. It was around the practice rooms at DePaul, where I was getting my master’s degree. When I saw the poster–four mysteriously empty chairs bathed in yellow light–and realized who the quartet’s members were, I had a feeling I was looking at something serious. I was right.

I’ve been watching them closely ever since. Their career has grown by leaps and bounds, from getting their graphic design noticed by Alex Ross to landing a residency at the University of Chicago. But that’s just the view from the outside. What’s been happening behind the scenes?

Spektral Quartet (l to r): Austin Wulliman, Aurelien Fort Pederzoli, Russell Rolen, and Doyle Armbrust

Spektral Quartet (l to r): Austin Wulliman, Aurelien Fort Pederzoli, Russell Rolen, and Doyle Armbrust
Photo by Daniel Kullman, Bitter Jester Creative

As a chamber musician, I always wish I had access to the processes of other ensembles. Every group of people has a different approach to the musical, personal, and organizational challenges of running an ensemble. How does the Spektral Quartet do what they do–namely, learn enormous piles of music and give consistently excellent performances, all while apparently retaining their sanity and continuing to actually like each other?

I decided that I needed to know. It was time for me to go into the lion’s den. So I emailed the lions and got permission to visit. But when I arrived, I suddenly felt nervous and lingered in the bushes outside Russell’s apartment. Should I even be here?

Outside Spektral's Studio

I may or may not have snapped this photo while awaiting an appropriate pause in the rehearsal to buzz in. Photo by Ellen McSweeney

That’s the thing: rehearsal process is kind of personal. Sitting in on another ensemble’s rehearsal is fascinating, but also makes me feel squirmy. My inner monologue during this rehearsal would impress no one:

Should I laugh at the rehearsal jokes? I’m just supposed to be a fly on the wall! Don’t make eye contact. Wait, is it really obvious on my face which version of measure 75 I prefer? That’s so cute how they rehearse in their bare feet, I do that too sometimes!  Man, they must get tired rehearsing at this pace. Ooh, so Russ has a cat?

I visited the Spektrals because I was looking for some insights into effective rehearsal. After observing their work on Mark Anthony Turnage’s Slide Stride, which they performed earlier this month at PianoFest, I have some ideas about what makes their rehearsal process work.

1. The way they criticize each other is really funny.

a. “Can this part be more chill, tempo-wise?” Austin asked of Doyle.
“Yes. I will have just finished having an aneurism the bar before,” Doyle said evenly.

b. During a frenetic passage, Austin caught Aurelien improvising a series of up bows. “That was the most amazing bowing I’ve ever seen,” Austin declared.

“I got lost,” Aurelien replied weakly.

c. Austin and Doyle worked to tune a long, gnarly passage of sixteenth notes. “It’s the
A-flat that’s really out,” Russell said.

They played it again. My ear caught a few more pitch disagreements.

“Well, the A-flat is better,” Russ deadpanned.
“Die in a fire!” Austin cried.

d. During Austin and Doyle’s nastiest passagework, the second violin is given a rather sexy cabaret-style solo. As his colleagues toiled in unison, Aurelien punched the melody out with a burnished sound, lots of panache, and not a care in the world.

“I hate you so much,” Austin said afterwards.

So you can see why I spent a good portion of the rehearsal trying not to laugh. Mathias Tacke, longtime second violinist of the Vermeer Quartet, once told me what he thinks the secret of long-term quartet success is: “If you can still laugh together, you’re okay.” And if you’re going to get relentlessly criticized by your colleagues, you might as well laugh while it’s happening.

Spektral at the Empty Bottle

Photo by Lori Fahrenholz, Fahrenholz Photography

2. They’ve developed a shorthand that lets them rehearse quickly and efficiently.

When deciding how to proceed with a difficult section, it’s almost as if they’re selecting from options on a menu–a menu that, obviously, has been developed over years of intensive work together. “How about mezzo piano and slow?” Everyone nods and the work begins. Done.

When talking about balance, there’s a default option. “Can we make sure it’s most, middle, less?” Doyle asked, pointing around the quartet to demonstrate the desire for more cello and less violin. Done.

When tuning, there’s a clear sense that they’re been through certain issues before and are simply revisiting them. “That’s just higher than we like putting that C,” Austin told Russell as they tuned a scale. As in any good marriage, no one is necessarily wrong, but there’s an understanding of each individual’s flaws and tendencies.

3. They often criticize themselves first.

As the group began to rehearse an important crescendo, Russell waved his hand and stopped the music. “I started too loud.”

Aurelien frequently checked in with his colleagues, asking: “Was I rushing? Was that on time?” Whatever their answer, he accepted it readily and without defensiveness.

I was impressed with the way the way they communicated accountability, and respect for each other, by constantly “checking themselves” before criticizing each other.

4. They balance between short-term problem-solving and long-term musical development.

For every group in a long term musical relationship, there are multiple senses of time. There’s right now (How quickly can we solve this problem? Also, I’m hungry), there’s lately (Billy’s been busy lately, so he’s a bit less prepared. Is it me or is she playing that slower today?), and there’s long term (How is our group sound evolving? What are the ongoing issues we need to address?).

For the Spektrals, I thought this was most clearly evident when they decided to stop working on something. After drilling a rhythm for ten minutes, Austin might say, “We’ll keep working on it.” There was a collective understanding that through time, individual practice, and continued work, the passage would get better–and that everything didn’t have to be fixed immediately.

Spektral Quartet

Photo by Omar Robles, Paume Studio

5. The truth is, there are no rehearsal secrets–they just work really hard.

“You guys rehearse at an intense pace,” I said during a break.

“Yeah,” Austin agreed. “By the time we’re done, pretty much all we can say is ‘sandwich’.”

And that’s the truth I walked away with as I left the lions in their den, taking a brief break before they hunkered down with James Dillon’s the soadie waste. There’s only one way to achieve the ease, efficiency, and enjoyment that the Spektral Quartet has developed: by working extremely hard, together, day after day, year after year. It’s a truth I know in my own work, and it’ll be my pleasure to watch the Spektrals continue to share the benefits of that work with us in Chicago.

Moondrunk for a Century: A History of the Pierrot Ensemble

Hanns Eisler’s Palmström—for speaker, flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet, violin (doubling on viola), and cello—is easily mistakable for a better-known work. Thirteen years after the premiere of Pierrot Lunaire, at the request of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, Eisler composed a companion piece for the same instrumentation (minus piano) as that modernist masterpiece. Pierrot itself is a deeply ambiguous work, full of biting satire and mocking seriousness; Palmström takes this a step further, parodying the parody. The forty-five second “Notturno” mimics the bloodrush of Schoenberg’s “Galgenlied” (“Gallows Song”), but with comically low stakes:

Palmström takes paper from his drawer.
And spreads it artfully round the room.
And after he’s made pellets out of it.
And spread it artfully, and at night.
So that, when he suddenly awakes in the night,
He hears the pellets rustle and a secret terror
Strikes him
Of the spectre of wrapping-paper pellets.

Besides being a fine bit of Second Viennese School homage, Palmström is an early participant in a hundred-year musical heritage, one still unfolding today: the Pierrot ensemble. Composers from Philip Glass to Karlheinz Stockhausen to Missy Mazzoli have all written music utilizing slight variations on Schoenberg’s original Pierrot Lunaire instrumentation. Some grapple with the legacy of Pierrot Lunaire head-on; others creatively misread the work. Many ignore Schoenberg’s piece entirely and take the instrumentation as a given—a modern updating of the string quartet or piano trio.

As we approach the Pierrot Lunaire centennial, its instrumentation, once reflective of Viennese weltschmerz, has been internationalized, turned timeless, and endured both modernism and postmodernism. Briefly tracing its legacy, as this essay will do, reveals a story of artists grappling with modernism and tradition, but also with practical realities. The Pierrot ensemble acts as a panorama of the musical 20th century, and one that bridges us into the 21st—earlier this year, the Pierrot-derived group eighth blackbird took home their second Grammy.

Pierrot Lunaire Excerpt

This excerpt from the score of “Madonna,” the sixth song in Arnold Schoenberg’s 1912 Pierrot Lunaire, shows the first occurrence of a quintet consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. It has happened many times since then. (The public domain score of Pierrot Lunaire is downloadable from IMSLP.)

Let’s begin at the beginning. We traditionally think of the Pierrot ensemble as a miniature orchestra—the grand Romantic afflatus stripped down to its bare bones—but Schoenberg actually did the opposite in Pierrot Lunaire. He originally planned the work, a melodrama comprised of 21 short texts by Albert Giraud, for speaker and piano. In the process of composing, Schoenberg asked actress Albertine Zehme to add a clarinet—a reference back to Brahms’s chamber music, if anything—then a violin, a flute and, finally, a cello.

Maximizing the musicians’ potential, Schoenberg requires the flute to double on piccolo, the clarinet on bass clarinet, and the violin on viola. He utilizes the novel instrumentation in various, smaller groupings throughout the work, and the combinations match the spirit of each song—the hooting piccolo and clarinet of “Der Dandy,” the sickly, limpid solo flute of “Der Kranke Mond.” And if Pierrot Lunaire’s Pierrot ensemble is a miniature orchestra, it is a miniature cabaret orchestra, adding a populist snarl to Schoenberg’s hyper-chromaticism.

Pierrot Lunaire premiered on October 12, 1912, and immediately caused a sensation. Schoenberg knew he had a hit, and the work had a run in Berlin before the musicians embarked on a five-week tour of twelve cities. Artistic responses followed quickly. Sabine Feisst has documented the work’s impact in America, which was immediate: Universal Edition published a pocket score in 1914, which inspired Henry Cowell’s 1915 Red Silence, a Japanese-influenced monodrama for speaker, flute, violin, cello, and piano. Charles Griffes followed suit with the similarly exoticist Sho-jo and Kairn of Koridwen of 1917; evidently, when American composers heard sprechstimme, they thought druids and samurai.[1]

Back in Vienna, Schoenberg sought out companion pieces for the Pierrot instrumentation to fill out an evening concert: thus, Palmström, but also Anton Webern’s re-orchestration of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony for a Pierrot contingent (1922-23). With Webern’s piece, we see one of the earliest examples of an instrumental Pierrot ensemble, with the role of the speaker removed—a precedent (though a virtually unknown one) for many later works which would abstract the concept of the ensemble entirely, removing the elements of melodrama to focus strictly on the possibilities of the instrumental combinations.

For the next several decades, works for Pierrot ensemble pop up throughout Europe and America. The American premiere of Pierrot, in 1923, was a major event with a wide impact. Cowell felt the Schoenbergian influence again, leading to his 1924 Four Combinations for Three Instruments (playing off of Schoenberg’s shuffling of instruments); Carl Ruggles wrote his Vox Clamans in Deserto, for mezzo-soprano and a more expansive chamber ensemble than that of Pierrot Lunaire.

Then there are early examples of the Pierrot ensemble as a convenience, a choice made as much for financial practicalities and logistics as artistic vision. In a fascinating article published in the volume British Music and Modernism, 1895-1960, Christopher Dromey discusses re-discovering the Pierrot ensembles of a young Benjamin Britten, who apparently “reveled in the romanticism” of the original work, and scored several films for Britain’s General Post Office Film Unit for its instruments.[2] His 1936 score for the film Dinner Hour may be the first instance of what today is called the “Pierrot-Plus,” with Pierrot instruments augmented by percussion. The day-to-day reality of the Film Unit meant that Britten often gathered random assemblages of musicians—Pierrot as pick-up band.

Still, these are not the pieces you think of when you think Pierrot ensemble (if you even knew they existed). They remain outside the repertoires of the major Pierrot groups, like the Da Capo Chamber Players, eighth blackbird, and the Fires of London. The real cottage industry of Pierrot music would come with the codification of the ensemble, the transformation of an unusual instrumentation into an institution.

Fast-forward to 1967. In London, young composers Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies banded together with several instrumentalists to form the Pierrot Players. Their first concert consisted of Pierrot Lunaire, Maxwell Davies’s Antechrist, and Birtwistle’s Monodrama, with the new pieces scored for Schoenberg’s configuration as well as percussion (the true dawn of Pierrot-Plus). Reflecting back on the ensemble in 1987, Maxwell Davies said that:

The Pierrot Players were founded because the performances Harrison Birtwistle and I were receiving of our music in the sixties were less than satisfactory—under-rehearsed and uncommitted….There emerged a group of friends, willing to spend many hours of unpaid time with two inexperienced conductors, rehearsing difficult new works. Thanks to The Pierrot Players/Fires of London I learned the basics of instrumentation as never before, and the rudiments of theatrical craft—not to mention, out of frightening necessity, how to conduct….The group has been the most important music experience of my life to date. [3]

The founders felt that tying their legacy back to Schoenberg would also connect them to Schoenberg’s own tradition of new music concerts in Vienna’s short-lived Society for Private Musical Performances. Here, Pierrot becomes a kind of foundational text, the modern moment around which one can fashion an ensemble to progress Britain’s contemporary music scene.

The Pierrot Players’ seminal early work is Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, a heaving gloss on Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire swapping out moonstruck female reciter for crazed baritone (and adding percussion). Like that of Pierrot, the instrumental ensemble acts as a psychological manifestation of the work’s insane protagonist. Maxwell Davies takes it a step further, noting that the instrumentalists are “projections stemming from the King’s words and music, becoming incarnations of facets of the King’s own psyche.” (The musicians performed from within cages at the premiere.)

Where Pierrot Lunaire built upon the antiquated device of melodrama, Maxwell Davies crafts a full-on pastiche, juxtaposing several hundred years of historical references. The instrumentation becomes a kind of desiccated relic—the flute and clarinet mimic wind consorts, while the piano bangs out a “smoochy” country dance; the baritone quotes Handel’s Messiah over a Baroque harpsichord (yes, Maxwell Davies ups the ante on Schoenberg’s doubling, giving us a dual-duty keyboardist), singing alternately “in style” and “like a horse.” Figurative deconstruction, as the king’s madness reaches its forte, becomes literal destruction: Maxwell Davies indicates that the violin should “break apart.”

This maximalizing snapshot is only one aspect of the Pierrot ensemble’s grand postwar history. With the inception of the Pierrot Players (disbanded and reformed as The Fires of London under Maxwell Davies’s direction in 1970), as well as other groups around the same period—the Da Capo Chamber Players in 1970, Amsterdam’s Schoenberg Ensemble in 1972, the New York New Music Ensemble in 1975—the format is set in stone. As those groups actively commissioned and encouraged young composers, the Pierrot ensemble transitioned from a scattered tradition of Schoenberg-inspired works to a key player in new music.

With this shift, we see works emerge which tiptoe around Pierrot Lunaire while utilizing its core instrumentation—anyone writing for the ensemble was aware of Schoenberg’s piece, but many composers wished to avoid the association of Viennese modernism, abstracting the instruments from their Expressionist origins.

We see this in the slew of new works that accompanied the premiere of Eight Songs for a Mad King in 1969. For the 80th birthday of Alfred A. Kalmus, who ran the London wing of Universal Edition and championed contemporary music, twelve composers wrote pieces for the Pierrot Players in his honor. The result, A Garland for Dr. K, is a series of short, mostly pointillist experiments by Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, Bernard Rands, and others for the Pierrot set-up. (Berio’s The Modification and Instrumentation of a Famous Hornpipe as a Merry and Altogether Sincere Homage to Uncle Alfred, a goofy riff on Purcell, stands out among the pack as sounding particularly not like post-war Pierrot ensemble music.)

That these works stood alongside the Maxwell Davies shows the burgeoning interest in music that took advantage of Pierrot Lunaire’s instrumentation without reprising Schoenbergian melodrama. (None utilize a vocalist.) This echoes, loosely, what Boulez wrote in his famous 1952 polemic “Schoenberg is Dead”: that the late composer’s music, despite its explorations of new musical languages, displayed “the most ostentatious and obsolete romanticism.”[4] A Garland scrubs Pierrot of its hyper-Expressionist roots, putting it in line with the pure, mathematical abstraction of the postwar generation.

Pierrot, of course, did not die. Works utilizing the ensemble to back a mad narrator coexist alongside ones that treat the instruments as a modern day string quartet. As we move towards the end of the century, this trend continues. Elliott Carter’s Triple Duo, a 1983 BBC commission for The Fires of London, is a classic example of Schoenberg avoidance. A review of the premiere noted that Carter “averred that Pierrot Lunaire and the legacy of expressionism had little importance for him as he was dreaming up fresh deployments of [Maxwell] Davies’s personalized, Schoenberg-inspired ensemble.”[5] Carter’s skittish instrumental writing is an entirely different kind of mania from Pierrot—it begins with a Haydn-esque joke, with the instrumentalists pretending to warm up. (His divisions of the sextet into duos, though, does echo Schoenberg’s chamber-groups-within-the-chamber-group concept.)

Carter seems to be deliberately stepping around Pierrot. Other composers forget it entirely, treating Pierrot’s ensemble just like any other. Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life 2 makes a Pierrot-Plus ensemble the miniature orchestral accompaniment to a solo viola.

Joan Tower, who co-founded the Da Capo Chamber Players and served as its original pianist, has written several Pierrot-scored works that have no particular connection back to Schoenberg. Tower re-arranged the 1977 Amazon for full orchestra (Amazon II), indicating that her original Pierrot instrumentation may have been merely a practical matter; her 1980 Petroushkates, another Da Capo work, pays homage not to Schoenberg but to Stravinsky (along with, strangely enough, ice skating).

These two pieces also demonstrate that there’s nothing odd about writing a tonal Pierrot piece—we shouldn’t forget about the Da Capo commissions of Philip Glass and John Harbison. Just because Schoenberg wasn’t terribly lush doesn’t mean that his ensemble can’t be.

The Pierrot parody genre, launched by Eisler, trudged on as well. Donald Martino, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Notturno is a classic example of postwar Pierrot ensemble music, ends his From The Other Side (for flute, piano, cello, and percussion) with a movement titled “Das magische Kabarett des Doktor Schönberg.” A tango slides into the opening piano lick of Pierrot Lunaire’s “Mondestrunken,” and a czardas erupts into a section titled “The Wrath of A.S.” with shouts of “Nein!” under the piccolo trumpet solo from Petroushka. In The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams mocks an Austrian woman by accompanying her sprechstimme testimonial with a Pierrot-esque subgroup in the orchestra.

Perhaps the best bookend to the Pierrot tradition is Martin Bresnick’s 2002 My Twentieth Century. Another Da Capo commission, My Twentieth Century is what Bresnick calls a “descendant of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire—without the chanteuse and in a more vernacular musical and poetic idiom.”[6] Its title is a sly annexation of musical modernism, utilizing the Schoenbergian ensemble for an alternate history of the past hundred years. A laid-back series of piano chords opens the piece, soon joined by gauzy strings repeating short, postminimalist patterns. The musicians themselves alternately intone Tom Andrews’s text: “I played hopscotch in the twentieth century. I lived in a country of fireflies in the twentieth century.” Just as the music steps around modernism, the text transforms the 20th century from world-historical to personal, giving weight to individual actions instead of grand narratives. Pierrot Lunaire is a piece of extreme economy and brevity, doing the maximum with the minimum; Bresnick transforms economy into expanse, suggesting in his open harmonies the sparse lyricism of Appalachian Spring. The instruments blend, rather than prick.

And where is the Pierrot ensemble today? Its most famous proponent is, of course, eighth blackbird. Timothy Weiss, who heads the Contemporary Music Ensemble at Oberlin, brought together several conservatory students in 1996 to tackle the more difficult works of the Pierrot lineage—pieces like Martino’s Notturno or Charles Wuorinen’s New York Notes. The repertoire of eighth blackbird quickly expanded to include pieces like Joan Tower’s Noon Dance, Wendell Logan’s Moments, and Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Bairns of Brugh. The blackbirds even tackled one of the earliest Pierrot configurations—Webern’s arrangement of the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony.

This origin story points out a crucial aspect of today’s Pierrot tradition: the ensemble did not perform Pierrot Lunaire for the first five years of its existence. Whereas the Pierrot Players centered their repertory around Schoenberg’s piece, by the end of the 20th century, Schoenberg’s ensemble stood on its own, independent of the work that launched it into existence. Asked why the Pierrot configuration has endured so long, eighth blackbird’s flutist Nicholas Photinos wrote in an email:

Many reasons: it’s a great, small, economical mini-orchestra. It can have the sweep of an orchestra, the groove of a rock band, yet is small enough to be a finely tuned sports car like a string quartet. I think one of that orchestration’s greatest assets, and what sets it apart from other standard small ensembles like string quartets and woodwind and brass quintets, is that there is so much variety of timbre, so the ear never gets bored. Though of course, a composer can also write in a way to achieve a great blend across the group.

Today, eighth blackbird tours Pierrot Lunaire regularly in a theatrical production with soprano Lucy Shelton.

Their commissions include works as varied as Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, Steve Mackey’s Slide, and Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire—a concerto for Pierrot-Plus plus orchestra.

Most of these new Pierrot works don’t tackle the historical legacy directly, and many have that rock-band groove. In 2012, the burden of Schoenberg’s status as founding father seems to have been lifted. Not every string quartet needs to refer back to Haydn; not every Pierrot ensemble needs to refer back to the Second Viennese School. Instead, Pierrot Lunaire hovers in the background—in its centennial year, the moonstruck clown has taken a back seat in that finely tuned sports car.



1. See Sabine Feisst, “Echoes of Pierrot Lunaire in American Music,” in James K. Wright and Alan M. Gillmor, eds., Schoenberg’s Chamber Music, Schoenberg’s World (Hillsdale: Pendragon Press, 2009), pp. 173-192.

2. Christopher Dromey, “Benjamin Britten’s ‘Pierrot Ensembles,” in Matthew Riley, ed., British Music and Modernism, 1895-1960 (London: Ashgate, 2010), p. 230. Dromey has written a full-length study of the Pierrot ensemble tradition, which will be published later this year by Plubago.

3. Peter Maxwell Davies, quoted in Grenvile Hacox, “The composer-performer relationship in the music of Peter Maxwell Davies,” in Kenneth Gloag and Nicholas Jones ed., Peter Maxwell Davies Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 200.

4. Pierre Boulez, quoted in Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007), p. 394.

5. Paul Driver, “‘Triple Duo’ and ‘Image, Reflection, Shadow,’” Tempo 146 (September, 1983): p. 53.

6. Martin Bresnick, Program Notes for My Twentieth Century” accessed from Martin Bresnick’s website on May 4, 2012.

Many thanks to Frank J. Oteri, who has taken on the herculean task of compiling a massive and comprehensive list of works which utilize the Pierrot ensemble or its variations.