Tag: festival

Quick Cuts for Big Ears

A crowd of people outdoors

Attending the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville is a delicious game of choice and chance, forcing you to pick between such things as overlapping performances by Rhiannon Giddens, Theo Bleckmann, and Joan La Barbara—and that’s just the first night! But with only a week to go until the kickoff of the 2019 edition of the festival (March 21-24), decisions will need to be made, so we’re combing through the schedule and getting excited to consume as much music as we can cram into our ears (and the hours available each day).

Meanwhile, we’ve been digging through our archives and revisiting the amazing conversations we’ve had with some of this year’s featured artists to get ready for what’s ahead.

The time Joan La Barbara gave us a masterclass in extended vocal techniques

(“The Unexpected Importance of Yes” 3/1/06; @ Big Ears here)

These are things to play with; they’re just ways of experimenting. These are the beginning rudiments of extended vocal techniques. What I want to give to you and what I want to give to every singer is just to play with voice, just play with it and see what else it can do. There are all sorts of wonderful things and if you listen to the music of other cultures you’ll hear very, very different uses of the voice.

The time Gabriel Kahane told us the tale of the golf sweater, the crumpled letter, and the Tupperware container of chocolate chip cookies hidden in the back of the closet

(“NewMusicBox LIVE! Presents” 8/4/15; @ Big Ears here)

The time Meredith Monk spent an hour sharing personal stories and trading ideas about music with Bjork

(Radical Connections, 3/16/07; @ Big Ears here)

Counterstream Radio OnDemand: Meredith Monk and Björk


[nm_stream_boxes ids=”277006, 272862, 270886″ title=”More on using the voice with this year’s Big Ears artists:”]

The time Wadada Leo Smith explained how to leave room for personal interpretation

(“Decoding Ankhrasmation” 5/1/12; @ Big Ears here)

I have all kinds of music, but I use the specific language that I have to experiment with instruments and people, sometime extracted from their history, sometime using their history as well. Most things that artists do will find this course.

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The time Carl Stone showed us how to make music on a laptop using MAX (in the year 2000)

(“Intellectual Property, Artistic License and Free Access to Information in the Age of Sample-Based Music and the Internet” 11/1/00; @ Big Ears here)

[nm_stream_boxes ids=”271023, 147595, 274129″ title=”More from Stone on intellectual property and the creative experience:”]

The time Alvin Lucier offered us some excellent advice on evaluating new music

(“Sitting in a Room with Alvin Lucier” 4/1/05; @ Big Ears here)

I’m not interested in your opinions, but I’m interested in your perceptions.

With an admittedly overwhelming number of options to explore, last year I took festival founder Ashley Capps’s advice when selecting from among the myriad options:

The art of fully enjoying the festival experience is to “be here now” as they say, and once you make your decision, to go all in and be fully immersed in what that experience has to offer.

It was guidance that held up under the pressure of so many great performances in 2018. We’ll be reporting from the festival again live this year via our social channels if you want to follow along, or get a taste of what’s to come right now with our 2019 Big Ears Playlist.

The Tennessee Theatre

The Tennessee Theatre, Big Ears 2018. Photo: Molly Sheridan

Big Ears Festival Preview: Behind the Scenes with Ashley Capps

With just days to go before the opening of this year’s Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee (March 22-25), Ashley Capps—the driving force behind the annual event—and his team were putting the finishing touches on the four-day line-up of music drawn from an ear-catching range of styles and genres. Capps took a few moments to chat with us about anti-algorithms, festival strategy, and how you market an event that offers its audience both Béla Fleck and Diamanda Galás.

Molly Sheridan: I was about to thank you for making time to chat this close to the festival, but on reflection, you’ve done this professionally for a long time. Maybe this isn’t such a big deal to you anymore!

We’re heading to Big Ears and will be reporting live via FB, Twitter, and Instagram all weekend. Give us a shout out if you’re in town as well!

Ashley Capps: It actually is a big deal for me because in some ways it’s the most personal of all the things that I do. Not merely because it’s small and something that I really care about, but it just involves so much direct interaction with the artists. That’s both one of the things that I love about it and one of the things that makes it a lot more stressful because you don’t have an intermediary that you’re going through. It just requires a lot more just personal hands-on attention. But it’s fine. It’s funny, I was just reading an essay by Zadie Smith last night, this new collection that she just published, talking about the dread and anxiety that basically accompanies any writer around what they do. I think the creative business is just filled with a certain amount of, “Oh my God, am I doing the right thing?”

This year’s Big Ears Festival line-up includes quite a few folks who have also appeared on NewMusicBox or created work supported by New Music USA. So to get ready, we put together this highlight reel of some of our favorite moments from our archive.

MS: I’d like to take it back for just a minute to the birth of the festival. You were already well established in the music field and deeply entrenched in major festival and concert production at that point. What was the big idea for Big Ears when it first emerged—the needs you saw and the goals you had when you put it together that first year in Knoxville?

AC: There are many different threads to all of this. My interest in the music that is presented at Big Ears is something that I’ve had for as long as I can remember. Even as a teenager in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I was listening to John Coltrane and Stockhausen along with Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles. In my early days as a concert promoter, many of the first concerts that I presented were artists—well, some artists that are coming to Big Ears this year! Evan Parker, for one. So for me, there’s a thread of continuity running through all of this that may not be completely evident on the surface.

Even as I got involved in major rock shows and a lot of the bigger concerts and festivals, I’ve always had a great interest in presenting other kinds of music. I first presented Steve Reich back in 1987 when he was on tour with Steve Reich and Musicians. And we operate and manage two of the theaters that are part of the Big Ears experience: the Tennessee and The Bijou. I also own The Mill & Mine with a couple of partners, and there’s always an impetus towards programming all of these venues in a really exciting way. So part of the Big Ears initiative was about that: an interest in presenting all sorts of different kinds of music but doing so in a way that really attracted an audience. In a town the size of Knoxville, Tennessee, getting an audience to fill a 700 or 800-seat theater for many of these acts is very difficult under normal circumstances, so creating a weekend around that experience and bringing in different audiences was one of the ways that I imagined that it might be possible to bring these artists to our theaters and to do so successfully.

MS: That was actually my next question: does this kind of music benefit from this type of fast and furious presentation?

AC: That’s a good question, and I think that there’s probably a little bit of an inherent contradiction in all of that. I sometimes liken the experience to going to a great restaurant. Many great restaurants have a full menu and you’re not expected to eat everything. The menu gives you your chance to put together your own meal. Sometimes you have your chef’s tasting menu, but usually you select your own appetizer and a salad and your entree and so on. If you’re ordering the lamb, you’re probably not ordering the chicken that night, but it’s still a feast. So we’re simultaneously offering an array of options, but I certainly hope people are really participating in whatever experience they choose to have.

MS: So you must pick! In a way, that’s part of a festival’s style.

AC: The interesting thing about the array of options is that it creates an audience interaction and a dynamic that is pretty exciting. It also gives people an opportunity to explore in a way that you can’t necessarily do otherwise. There are probably two or three things that you’re bound and determined to do; this is the reason you came to the festival. But then there are things that you’re interested in, and now you’ve got an opportunity to explore them between the other events that you know you want to see. Then you meet people and they share their passion and excitement about something you’ve maybe never even heard of and you decide, “You know, I get to see this artist regularly. I’m going to go check out this show instead this time and hang out with my new friend.”

The art of fully enjoying the festival experience is to “be here now” as they say, and once you make your decision, to go all in and be fully immersed in what that experience has to offer.

So there is a social dynamic, but there’s also an opportunity for intellectual and aesthetic exploration that is pretty unique. But I have to agree, at some point you can make yourself miserable at a festival if you’re constantly thinking about all the other places that you could be rather than where you are. The art of fully enjoying the festival experience is to “be here now” as they say, and once you make your decision, to go all in and be fully immersed in what that experience has to offer.

Big Ears playlist

Whether or not you’ll make it to Big Ears, you can feast on this playlist featuring music by artists who are part of this year’s line-up.

MS: Stylistically, Big Ears stretches all over the map with intention. Now, we’ve been talking about the blurring of genre for a long time now, but what are the aesthetic guideposts you use when putting these artists together and then how do you talk about that with ticket buyers?

AC: That’s a challenge! In a way, this goes back to the impulse behind the creation of the festival to begin with, because I would be at Bonnaroo, for instance, and talking with musicians and hearing all of these influences coming from all over the place that were showing up in the music. I knew it was there, but it just started hitting me over the head. You start to realize how, for artists, there’s this very rich world of cross-pollination and influence, and people drawing inspiration and ideas from all over and you hear that in the music—sometimes in very subtle ways and sometimes in not so subtle ways. To me, it’s exciting to start to follow those threads and to think about, “How did we get here? Where is this sound coming from? Where are these ideas coming from?” So the programming at Big Ears is kind of based on following some of those threads. And that’s not to say that everything at the festival connects with everything else at the festival; it certainly doesn’t, at least not in an obvious way. But I think that there’s a rich cross-pollination of ideas—these threads of influence that are woven throughout.

MS: But you’re not necessarily explicit about that when you’re talking to the audience that you hope to attract?

AC: Not necessarily. You know, I kind of make it sound like it’s this very academic process, and it’s not like that for me at all. And it’s not forced. It’s just something that I’ve been noticing for a long time. But when it all comes down to it, a lot of the booking is a combination of a lot of different ideas and opportunities. Then you see where all of that leads.

MS: Some things you only learn through experience. As the festival has experimented, what have been the lessons as assumptions meet reality?

AC: We learn from the audiences, as well as from the artists, every year. It sometimes does become difficult to explain why these things coexist at the same festival. On the one hand, I like to think of the festival cultivating a very open-minded and exploratory aesthetic and that the people who come—and generally I think this is true—are very open and very interested in the various aspects of what the festival has to offer. The interesting thing that I’ve occasionally discovered is that certain audiences don’t want to go there! They don’t want to explore that little tangent or they don’t want to share their world with this other audience that they feel may not be appropriately appreciative or that their engagement with it is maybe too superficial. There is an element of tribalism behind all of this. People gravitate towards a certain thing and they identify with other people who like that thing, and sometimes it becomes very insulated and protected. It seems kind of obvious to me now, but it’s one of those things that occasionally takes me by surprise. It’s completely contrary to the motivational aesthetic behind the festival.

A far bigger challenge is simply to get people to embrace their curiosity and dive right in. I just had a conversation with someone yesterday who said, “Oh my God. I don’t know what to do. There are six or eight artists on this festival that I love, but I don’t know who the others are.” And I was like, “Well just go see the six or eight things you want and then figure out what else you want to discover. It won’t hurt; no damage will be done. If you walk into something and you actually hate it, you can walk right back out and go do something else.” So encouraging audiences to kind of embrace that spirit can sometimes be amusingly difficult, besides the fact that going to see eight or twelve concerts over the course of a weekend is probably plenty for most people.

MS: How do you encourage that though when as a society we’re getting more and more locked into our “if you like, you might also like” algorithms? How do you excite or engage people to go exploring things they don’t know, get them out of the house and off the phone long enough to send them on this adventure? Is that getting more difficult as the years go by?

It’s kind of the anti-algorithm. Too many algorithms tend to be reductionist, and I like to think of the festival as being expansionist—that it grows out from instead of in.

AC: That for me is what makes the festival such a rewarding thing to be presenting, because in a sense it’s kind of the anti-algorithm. Too many algorithms tend to be reductionist, and I like to think of the festival as being expansionist—that it grows out from instead of in. It’s less of a snake eating its tail and more expansive, at least in my mind. I hope that’s what it is. As people engage in the experience, I hope it becomes somewhat addictive and I hear enough from people who do have that experience to know that on some level or another it’s really working. I go to festivals regularly and I often discover that the highlight of my experience is often something that I had no idea about before I got there.

MS: It seems like that’s an opportunity that’s fading along with our physical record stores and bookstores. We’re staying home more and yet we’re still hungry for those kinds of experiences.

AC: I hope the festival is in some way filling that void—the social community center that a great record store or a great bookstore can be. This is one of the reasons that we have conversations and panels about the music at Big Ears, because I do think it’s important to talk about the experience and to have the artists talk about their music and to have others talk about what the music and the experience means to them.

MS: Considering the broader social issues getting a lot of discussion over the past year or so, is there any direct intersection with the festival this year or are you more explicitly focused on the presentation of the music?

AC: I feel like the festival expresses a certain diversity that I’m very proud of. I’ve become more conscious of trying to do that in the last couple of years than I perhaps was initially, but it’s still something that comes pretty naturally. I’m still to this day somewhat shocked, for instance, that contemporary female classical composers seem to be overlooked—in a lot of the mainstream programming, at least—because to me they’re writing some of the most extraordinary music of our time. So these are things that we are certainly aware of in the programming at Big Ears, but I don’t book artists simply for that reason. There’s so much great music being created by so many different people out there—certainly by women and artists of all ethnicities—that it’s pretty easy really. I do feel like that’s part of breaking down the boundaries and the barriers and the silos that is at the heart of the Big Ears aesthetic.

MS: So to the programmers who say, “Oh, well we don’t know who to program. Where do you find these people?” You’re saying that’s not been your experience?

AC: No! There are so many great artists. If I struggle with anything, it’s what to put the weight on because really the plate overflows. I am certainly not struggling for ideas for artist to present in any way.  I feel like we’re still just scratching the surface.

Keep Listening: More from the Artists

MS: Big picture question to wrap things up: How do the types of music you present at Big Ears fit into the larger music landscape? Considering the type of presenter you are and your career experiences, I suspect that you’re seeing much wider field trends. Are there lessons—either to apply to Big Ears itself or perspectives that might help individual artists themselves—that are not trickling down from the broader industry that you think would be valuable?

The element of surprise is always to me the secret sauce in any great festival experience.

AC: Last year or the year before, Tom Morris of the Ojai Festival told me—and I think he meant it as a compliment—that this festival is a new music festival produced like a rock festival. My first reaction was, “I think that’s a compliment!” because I think he was talking about the sheer energy that comes from the variety of offerings and the way people are intermingling and interacting with one another. And my second reaction was, “Well, that’s kind of the only thing I know how to do.” So I love the idea that this might be some kind of brilliant insight, but of course that’s the way I would do it.

I do think that there is a certain aesthetic that we bring to the presentation of the music that hopefully demystifies it in some way—takes it out of the rarefied atmosphere that it’s sometimes performed in and opens up the experience for people. That means different things under different circumstances with different kinds of music.

The element of surprise is always to me the secret sauce in any great festival experience. We always strive to present the music at the highest level—so we don’t want to go into a rock club with something that really belongs in a theater—but we do strive to present music in a context that really enhances what the experience is about. There is a tremendous amount of thought that goes into which artist performs in what venue and why and what that experience is going to be like. So it’s not completely serendipitous, even if it might appear to be when you look at the schedule.

I’m excited about the whole festival and how people respond to it. In many ways there are rules, but I can’t tell you what they are because we kind of make them up as we go along.

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

Chicago: The Unbearable Intimacy of Wandelweiser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boston: SICPP’s Love and Geometry

A cynocephalus, from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493).

A cynocephalus, from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493).

It was an angle of birds
directed toward
that latitude of iron and snow
along their rectilinear road:
with the devouring rectitude
of an evident arrow,
the airborne numbers voyaging
to procreate, formed
from imperative love and geometry.

—Pablo Neruda, “Migración”

I tend to assume that every concert, whether by conscious design or not, contains a coherent narrative of some kind. It might not be the most defensible assumption, but it is useful, to me at least; it gets me into a mode of listening that’s a little more engaged than it might otherwise be. That doesn’t mean the narrative is always plain, though. On paper, the June 17 concert presented by the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP, known to the faithful as “Sick Puppy”), part of the institute’s annual week of new music training, festivities, and shenanigans, made some piece-to-piece local connections but seemed more miscellaneous on a global scale. In performance, though, a theme kept peeking around the edges, hovering peripherally, receding but then coming back into view. It took me a while to get a sense of it; I’m still not sure I got it. But it concerned two concepts that I have long been obsessed with, and that have been more and more salient in recent times: civilization and citizenship.

* * *

Citizenship of a musical kind was prominent. SICPP director Stephen Drury led off with a trio of piano solo works—big and fingerbusting, all past and future beneficiaries of Drury’s committed advocacy. And the concert was SICPP’s most full-fledged (though, sadly, unplanned) memorial to Lee Hyla, who had been scheduled to be the institute’s composer-in-residence. Roger Reynolds stepped in after Hyla fell ill, and programs later in the week featured much of Reynolds’s music, but this concert was Hyla’s—three pieces interspersed with other music that, directly and indirectly, provided comment and complement.
Hyla’s art was that of a model musical citizen who, nonetheless, maintained a wary distance from the more civilized—or civilizing—aspects of music. The raison d’être of Basic Training is a celebration of citizenship: Drury asked Hyla to write it as a tribute to Drury’s teacher, Margaret Ott. The piece itself, though, is a furious, sometimes funny, but ultimately equivocal portrayal of civilization’s progress. From a single-note, deliberately clunky opening (“Neanderthal-like,” according to Hyla’s program note), the piece acquires and deploys increasingly frenetic technique—it’s learning, WarGames-style. (My favorite aspect was how Hyla’s facility with complicated, off-kilter rhythms recreates the kind of distortions that happen when you can almost play something, hesitations and tumbles turning into their own determined groove.) The music consumes itself in virtuosity, then melts into a simpler, orderly, triadic coda; but the triad is minor, and the return of that single opening note, now rounded and polished into a beautiful object, is suffused with melancholy.

Basic Training constructs a culture; John Zorn’s Carny pulverizes it. It is Zorn in his full-on, Carl-Stalling-cartoon-collage mode: not so much a piece as a hundred different pieces run together for maximum slapstick contrast. Quotations abound in motion-blurred plenitude; stylistic signifiers come and go with near-subliminal swiftness. Carny is one of Drury’s specialties (he was one of its dedicatees), and the initial effect was simple astonishment at his fierce precision and energy. But the single performer and instrument, perhaps, gives Carny, for all its information overload, a kind of narrative unity: a montage-based secret history of civilized culture. The piece delights in exposing just how thin the line is that separates comforting dichotomies: tonal and atonal, old and new, high and low—and, finally, comedy and horror. Carny is funny until it’s not, the nonstop cartoon violence turning suspiciously lifelike.

Zorn reaches his coda by way of an outburst of clusters that Drury has called a “nuclear holocaust…. Are we now paying dearly for the previous fun and games?” Drury provided one possible answer by making a segue directly from Zorn’s fade-out ending into Frederic Rzewski’s version of the anti-war spiritual “Down By the Riverside” from his North American Ballads. Rzewski portrays that most crucial responsibility of citizenship—righteous protest—as invitingly easy, then perhaps too easy, then hard-won and triumphant, but then, as the music dwindles away, exhausting as well. That, in turn, gave Hyla’s We Speak Etruscan the air of a cautionary tale. The title of Hyla’s 1994 duo for bass clarinet (Rane Moore) and baritone saxophone (Philipp Staeudlin) references a lost civilization and language; in this context, the music’s truly impressive channeling of the instruments’ capacity for guttural honking sounded like an apocalyptic klaxon, a drive-by warning to turn around before it’s too late. As with Basic Training, the tone was primarily funky and fiery, but shaded by passages of lyricism shot through with minor-mode regret. Part and parcel of the civilizing impulse, Hyla seemed to say, is a wistful nostalgia for anarchic wildness.

* * *

If the first half was all about civilization and its discontents, the concert’s second half opened in back-to-the-land fashion—or, maybe, under-the-land. Chaya Czernowin’s Wintersongs IV: Wounds/Mistletoe (a world premiere) was positively tectonic, slow-shifting, granitic textures heavy with friction. The 17-player ensemble (conducted by Drury) was pitched toward registral extremes, all low growls and high whines, with microtonal abrasions and lots of white noise: snares, cymbals, breath sounds from the winds and brass. Not all of Czernowin’s effects came off—having all the wind players whisper over the mouths of plastic and glass bottles, for instance, was a provocative visual but proved barely audible. But the piece arrived at some great, punishingly bright, skull-rattling sonorities. Like magma, Wintersongs IV moved slow but, eventually, burned hot.

Hyla’s Migración, one of his last pieces (it was premiered in February by the SICPP-affiliated Callithumpian Consort), seemed appropriately airy by comparison. The text is a long Pablo Neruda poem considering natural cycles, winter and spring, life and death. But a tension between the individual and the collective is ever-present. The migrating birds of the title are considered as a machine, a product of technology: “a squadron of feathers, / an ocean liner / fluttering in the air.” The “transparent ship / constructs unity from many wings.” Neruda’s “multiplied hungry heart,” in Hyla’s setting, becomes something like a crowd of strangers on the same ferry.

A mezzo-soprano (Thea Lobo) sings (and, at one point speaks) the text in an equable but relentlessly declamatory style, the nine-player ensemble (conducted, again, by Drury) quilting an accompaniment out of instrumental aphorisms. Neruda’s conflation of evolved and constructed has a timbral echo, an often-yoked trio of piano, harp, and cimbalom, feathery and discrete at the same time, a quiet purr of rivets. The trajectory of Migración felt less conventionally expressive than meditatively compulsory: a reflective commute rather than an adventurous voyage.

Like many a commute, Migración led into a teeming urban grid, Charles Ives’s Set for Theatre Orchestra, with even the ensemble arranged on stage as if by zoning committee: percussion on the north side, timpani on the south side, winds and strings ensconced on the east and west sides, the piano centrally parked. The middle movement, “In the Inn,” was saturated with volatile ragtime, anticipating and recapitulating that thread from Hyla and Zorn and Rzewski. And the third movement, “In the Night,” with the sound of extra instruments drifting in from offstage suburbs, was gorgeous. But it was the opening movement that resonated most with the second half’s town-and-country unease, and the program as a whole: “In the Cage,” brooding, stalking, its leopard in the zoo pacing its pen, and the boy outside wondering as to the nature and benefit of the civilizing bars.

* * *

Pablo Neruda himself had an attitude toward citizenship and civilization similar to Hyla’s, an acute sense of the gap between an artist’s individuality and an artistic movement within society. In a 1971 interview with Canadian radio, Neruda denied that he was a political poet:

I am the poet of the moon, I am the poet of the flowers, I am the poet of love. Meaning I have a very old conception of poetry, which does not contradict the possibility that I have written, and that I continue to write, poems that are dedicated to the development of society and to the power of progress and of peace.

In the end, the thread tying together the concert was that the music never contradicted the possibility, either. Civilization was regarded with skepticism, but still engaged with it energetically and even exultantly; the citizenship on display was constantly reaching out, expanding the network, reweaving the web. The evening’s music squared the circle of the contemporary avant-garde, how the often grim nature of the modern condition can yield such exuberant art, how encyclopedic determinations of style and craft can create the freest expression. The concert postulated its own conclusion—civilization is technique; citizenship is love.

On the Good and the Great—Wrapping up the NY Phil Biennial

New York Philharmonic 2014 Biennial

Christopher Rouse takes a bow after the premiere of his Fourth Symphony.
Photo by Chris Lee.

Since three nights late last week of hugely ambitious programming and concerts—the big finish of the first NY Phil Biennial—I’ve waited to let things settle for a few days in my ears and memories before trying to sum up this heady, busy, and at times even giddy festival.  As I mentioned in earlier posts on the goings-on all over New York City, I was excited by what I heard and saw: some dazzling performances of new repertoire and the galvanized atmosphere of a happening.  Professionals from as far as London and Los Angeles popped their heads in and seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as anyone else.  Holders of the Biennial Pass (a golden key to every event) began to recognize each other and band together at intermissions and at après-concert events for conversation.  Composers both young and not-so were out and about: in droves at the large concerts in Avery Fisher Hall; in trickles for other events.  And the musicians of the Philharmonic, thoroughly exhausted by a punishing schedule, still found energy to honor and even serenade their colleagues at the annual Musicians Retirement Concert and dinner last Thursday.  It’s always heartening to see great musicians speak so fondly and eloquently of each other, and with legends like principal second violin Marc Ginsberg, principal trumpet Philip Smith, and concertmaster Glenn Dicterow all saying their goodbyes to the Philharmonic this season, I was further reminded of the riches of continuity of this and other great orchestras.  A 30-plus year orchestral career is not built merely upon one’s own talent, but upon stamina, trust, and flexibility, and in truly valuing one’s colleagues.  In some way, last week’s enormous back-to-back programs of Rouse, Eötvös, Carter, Pintscher, and added Earshot (“Composer Idol”) winners Julia Adolphe, Max Grafe, and Andrew McManus, as impressive as they were, were just another challenging (and hopefully to more than a few, gratifying) week of work at the New York Philharmonic.

(From left) Christopher Rouse, Julia Adolphe, Matthias Pintscher, Peter Eötvös, Alan Gilbert, Steven Mackey, Bruce Adolphe. Photo by Chris Lee.

(From left) Christopher Rouse, Julia Adolphe, Matthias Pintscher, Peter Eötvös, Alan Gilbert, Steven Mackey, Bruce Adolphe.
Photo by Chris Lee.

Still, as exciting as it was this year, the most significant element of the biennial may be already stored away in the attics, waiting for 2016 (or ’18, or ’26) to be fully unpacked.  Its potential as a driver and supplier of new projects and new music was (understandably) only just lightly tapped this year, with most pieces being US/NYC premieres as opposed to commissions.  And yet, last week amounted to a floodgate of new music being opened: from a few new subscription-series pieces per season from major figures and some encouragement to young talent by way of CONTACT! commissions, the Philharmonic and partners performed well over 60 pieces from composers of all stages and many walks of life.  Absolutely laudable say some, foolhardy say others.  I couldn’t possibly say I enjoyed every piece.  One left me angered in concert, and a few others had me in various states of nervous discomfort.  Nothing new for me—I assume never to like or despise anything until I’ve heard it (and then maybe heard it again, and again…) but liking every piece is, for me, not the point. (I also have a strict personal policy against picking favorites in a concert, and I must say it’s improved my complexion, demeanor, and probably lengthened my life—no two composers are trying to make the same piece; judging them against each other simply makes no sense.)

Andrew McManus took a bow after the New York Philharmonic gave the World Premiere of his piece Strobe. Photo by Chris Lee.

Andrew McManus took a bow after the New York Philharmonic gave the World Premiere of his piece Strobe.
Photo by Chris Lee.

But a subtle tension begins to build when one of the world’s great orchestras and a committed presenter of “Great” music (when have you heard the perfectly good music of Louis Spohr or Eugène Bozza at Avery Fisher Hall?) says, “We’ve got it here; you be the judge of what’s good and what’s great.”  (I also hear the voices singing of the problematic aesthetics of words like great and good!—Don’t worry; I hear them!)  There are those composers and listeners, taking a generally unpopular position, who say that part of the honor of being performed by the Philharmonic was that one had to earn the privilege, or that this is the not the place to be tried in the fire.  (As someone who was tried in this fire, with one of my first major commissions from the New York Philharmonic at age 29 after a thorough vetting, I can recognize and regard the whole process as one of those defining moments of one’s musical life, although I took the responsibility of those twenty minutes of stage time as seriously as I could.  I did my absolute best to rise to the specific challenges and opportunities presented by that particular commission, and beyond that can’t assess myself in terms of great or good or bad.  For those not interested in that kind of internal and external pressure, I can’t recommend it.)  Selectivity is important, as is perspective, but I believe this floodgate can be managed to great benefit.  I know composers who rise to the challenge of a major commission each and every time, and I know many more who are still waiting for the invitation.  In the future, when the biennial provides opportunities to hear their kind, and all kinds, of vital, compelling music, I will be cheering in the aisles.

Composer Péter Eötvös and soloist Midori acknowledge the crowd after a performance of <em>DoReMi </em> for violin and orchestra.

Composer Péter Eötvös and soloist Midori acknowledge the crowd after a performance of DoReMi for violin and orchestra.
Photo by Chris Lee

If hearing three major statements (the premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Fourth Symphony, DoReMi for violin and orchestra by Péter Eötvös, and Matthias Pintscher’s cello concerto, Reflections on Narcissus, with soloists Midori and Alisa Weilerstein, respectively) was a highlight of the week for this listener, it was powerfully counterbalanced by a special event from the opening weekend—that of the Very Young Composers of the New York Philharmonic in a free a.m. concert titled The Continuum.  A mentoring program, part of the Philharmonic’s vast education conspiracy and developed by composer and former Philharmonic associate principal bassist Jon Deak, the VYC emphasizes guidance and directed enthusiasm over style-based composer training, and kids start in third grade.  The concert, a presentation of the whole range of the program, with pieces from young students through to senior teaching artists (all noted composers themselves) Richard Carrick, Daniel Felsenfeld, and David Wallace, was bound to put a smile on my dial.  When 12-and-unders Samantha Darris, Graydon Hanson, Jake O’Brien, and Elli Choi joined members of the orchestra on stage to hear their pieces, each an individual jewel, and took their triumphant bows, my mother hen’s heart leapt!  The VYC Jazz Improvisation Group (Eric Poretsky, Ethan Cohn, Jack Gulielmetti, and Nick Chomowicz, with mentor Will Healy) followed with a cool, original fill-in for the stage change, with larger statements by more young composers to keep an eye on: teens Milo Poniewozic, Julian Galesi, and recent graduate Farah Taslima, now a young mentor in the VYC program.  Lovingly shepherded by vice president of education Ted Wiprud, Deak, and his dedicated army of teaching artists, the morning program was an Instagram of this exciting moment (for each composer, and for the VYC program, to a packed house at the NY Phil Biennial) which felt more like a Polaroid, reminding me of my own excitement for music at that age.  Including these voices, and those on the Face The Music program the next day, on the biennial was one of the masterstrokes of the festival, as striking as any statement that could be made about the future.

And to the future the NY Phil Biennial will ride, after the number crunching and soul searching, and fine-tuning and finagling.  My stated goal in the first post was to hear lots of live music, which I managed to achieve in spades, and which was every bit as rejuvenating and electrifying as I’d hoped it would be.  I’m eager to know what shape the biennial will take in two years, but for now, I’ve got something more pressing on the horizon: the premiere of my own new work for Alan Gilbert and the orchestra.   Songs is paired with (actually sandwiched between) some of that Great music—Beethoven’s Second and Third Piano Concerti—this coming week in Avery Fisher Hall.  It will be time to put my music where my mouth is, but one thing has been a relief, as I have been able to content myself, so far, with working to make (not easy!) something good.  With Alan, Yefim Bronfman (the humblest man in the world), the Philharmonic and Herr B (perhaps the least humble man in history) on the program, we’ve got the great covered just plenty.

NY Phil Biennial: Scads, Oodles, and Heaps of Composers

New York Philharmonic Biennial

Photo by Chris Lee

As the NY Phil Biennial continues, with events every day through this Saturday, I’ve begun to realize how many new pieces and how many composers I’ve heard over the last week or so. My rough count comes to 56 people, with only one name appearing on more than one program: that of French composer Bruno Mantovani (whose two delicious yet totally different pieces, Spirit of Alberti and Turbulences, separated by more than fifteen years and adding much to both the “Beyond Recall” and “Circles of Influence: Boulez” programs, was a fascinating contrast in itself). While certain works—the operas Gloria – A Pig Tale and The Raven and other major statements—have made biennial marquis names out of a small number of composers such as HK Gruber, Toshio Hosokawa, Christopher Rouse, Steven Mackey, and Peter Eötvös, the majority of pieces I’ve heard are for modest forces and are of modest length: nearly always less than fifteen minutes long. Of course, if what the planners seek is variety, then such a design makes sense. To paraphrase Alan Gilbert during his conversations with leaders in the visual arts on Monday evening, time space is to music what wall space is to art. Both are precious, but the more Richard Serra one exhibits, the less space there is for everything else. A combination of grand monuments and humble still lifes can fill a gallery—differences of scale are powerful in giving us context for what see and hear, and also how we come (perhaps over several pieces and several visits) to know an artist or composer.

Ruminating on the delicate art of programming these recent days, I’ve been struck by that old simple math: finding the right pieces and putting them in the right order can provide for some seriously satisfying musical experiences. If the scope of the festival might be called broad, then several of the biennial programs have approached the questions of what music to put and where to put it from a place of (sometimes to my ears, very sharp) focus: surveys of the British and French scenes by way of Pierre Boulez and George Benjamin; solo works from young Americans. Europe seemed to figure in more heavily over the weekend, whereas on Tuesday alone, I heard 12 very new pieces from Americans of roughly my generation—all less than 10 years older or younger. (Ed. note: Sean will be 35 next month!) In the case of the two “Circles of Influence” concerts presented by Pablo Heras-Casado and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in Rose Hall, the pieces had an uncanny way of talking to each other. Boulez’s former students of various generations—Mantovani, Marc-André Dalbavie, and Philippe Manoury—each provided a new prism of commentary and illumination of Boulez’s slightest works, Mémoriale (…explosante-fixe… Orginel) for flute and small ensemble and Une page d’éphéméride for piano. His contemporary and colleague Heinz Holliger’s Ostinato funèbre was a real outlier, a kind of dirge of found and novel sounds, which gave the whole program a different weight altogether. Similarly, Sunday’s program—essentially Brits of two generations—presented a kind of dialogue across the ages. Although not as tightly wrapped as the French version (those sharing the program with Benjamin each could be said to have closer personal history with another British lion, Oliver Knussen, who wasn’t on the program), these composers complemented each other in natural and surprising ways. The pieces of the thirty-somethings, Helen Grime and Ryan Wigglesworth, each balanced, melancholy and impeccably elegant, contrasted with Colin Matthews’s hugely frenetic and impassioned Suns Dance, cool-to-the-touch Night Rides, and Benjamin’s virtuosic, noble Octet and gravely poetic Upon Silence.

Matthias Pintscher conducting members of the New York Philharmonic in Contact! At the Biennial: Beyond Recall at Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Chris Lee

Matthias Pintscher conducting members of the New York Philharmonic in Contact! At the Biennial: Beyond Recall at Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Chris Lee

A cousin of these programs could be the “Beyond Recall” concerts, presented at MoMA as part of the Philharmonic’s CONTACT! series, with Matthias Pintscher conducting Philharmonic musicians in nine pieces, each less than one year old, each in response to a work of public art in the city of Salzburg. Rather than a meditation on recent history, however, this concert served as a snapshot of the present on the Continent. As such, a different atmosphere—that of anticipation, with an almost tingling sense of event—seemed to permeate the lobby of MoMA at 10 p.m. on a school night. Major voices in Europe like Michael Jarrell, Olga Neuwirth, Dai Fujikura, Johannes Staud, Mark Andre, and Mantovani shared the program with emerging voices like Slovenians Nina Senk and Vito Zuraj, while American composer Jay Schwartz, who at age 25 left the US for Germany to study nearly 25 years ago, enjoyed his US concert debut, presented by the New York Philharmonic, in a moment whose significance was not lost on him.

Matthias Pintscher conducting members of the New York Philharmonic in Contact! At the Biennial: Beyond Recall at Museum of Moder Art, 5/29/14. Photo by Chris Lee

Photo by Chris Lee

The program—often dense, often jubilant, and veering fast among all things between—would have been unheard of as a New York Philharmonic presentation when I arrived in New York more than a decade ago, but the growth of CONTACT! has contributed to a new institutional norm: the new music band. The subset of Philharmonic musicians, always changing, who tackle this repertoire, have, I dare say, grown into the job over the years. It’s a very different one than sitting on the Avery Fisher Hall stage with Brahms and Mahler and the weight of history on your shoulders, and in years of seeing CONTACT! after my own premiere on the opening season, I’ve enjoyed the blossoming of these die-hard chamber virtuosos in magnificent performances of major contemporary rep, like Boulez’s …explosante-fixe… a few seasons back. I also dare say that whether or not the biennial (which has put a lot of difficult new music in the hands of Philharmonic musicians this week) is a natural outgrowth of CONTACT!, it has been enhanced immeasurably, both in performance and as an experience, by this and other journeys into the new world of brave new music. This orchestra is ready for this exhibition.

New York Philharmonic's Biennial Contact! Young American Composers at Subculture. Photo by Chris Lee

New York Philharmonic’s Biennial Contact! Young American Composers at Subculture. Photo by Chris Lee

Tuesday’s American fare, a night of solo works at SubCulture on Bleeker Street, co-presented with the 92nd Street Y and the EarShot reading sessions in a closed session by the Philharmonic, seemed yet a different way of shining a light on what’s happening this very minute. Six composers for six soloists (Paola Prestini, Eric Nathan, Oscar Bettison, Ryan Brown, Michael Hersch, and Chris Kapica, respectively, with Sumire Kudo, cello; Joseph Alessi, trombone; Rebecca Young, viola; Eric Huebner, piano; Yulia Ziskel, violin; and Pascual Martínez Forteza, clarinet) provided what was has probably been the loosest night of the biennial—all pieces, save Ryan Brown’s charmingly dappled Four Pieces for Solo Piano, were commissioned premieres, with huge variations in result. From the spare gravity of Michael Hersch’s seven elegies lasting nearly 20 minutes, to Eric Nathan’s clever take using a partially dismantled instrument, to Chris Kapica’s party-on-the-stage Fandanglish, with sweet and sensuous turns for strings from Prestini and Bettison, what was compelling in concert was actually the sense that each new piece would be approaching the problem of the instrumental soliloquy from a new perspective.

New York Philharmonic's Biennial Contact! Young American Composers at Subculture, 6/3/14. Photo by Chris Lee

Photo by Chris Lee

The orchestra readings offered a similar view from six in their late twenties and early thirties—it’s musical variety that we Americans expect, especially from each other. As with many an early orchestra piece, I heard a lot of others composer’s music in the six pieces chosen on Tuesday morning. I’ve spoken before about getting one’s flight hours in with the orchestra, and with so much to be aware of, developing one’s personal orchestral voice is no slick and simple process. These pieces each approached the challenge of these forces with intelligence, and this weekend we hear the pieces selected for performances (by Julia Adolphe, Andrew McManus, and Max Grafe) get the fair Philharmonic treatment, not just those 20 or so minutes of the reading, which can frustratingly pose more questions than answers. I’m curious to revisit them.

The notion of a musical program is so simple: several pieces, often split by a break, before we head off to drinks. The orchestral norm—overture, concerto followed by symphony—has been so satisfying that it’s worked for centuries. But it seems that the element of surprise can bring so much perspective, and can help us to absorb things afresh. Alan Gilbert is well known for his talent in this realm (“…best we’ve had since Bernstein,” as a former member of the orchestra told me this week), and I’ve seen it here—he and Edward Yim, the Philharmonic’s vice president for artistic planning, and the NY Phil partners understand that there are myriads way to present a piece or a composer. Last night, pianist Marino Formenti, in what has been among the most rich of all such endeavors, presented a stunningly shaped program of Liszt (“the first of the moderns,” as he said from the stage) and works since the 1960s, in which there were many unclear moments—which century were we in? Now there was a surprise, as satisfying as they come.

What’s In a Festival? NY Phil Biennial Pre-Game

This week marks the start of something big, busy, and possibly brilliant in New York: the first edition of the NY Phil Biennial.  It’s so big, in fact, that beyond the tag lines—11 days of new (really actually new!) music, in 9 venues, in partnership with many others—it’s not too easy to describe succinctly.  The New York Times gave it a team effort in their preview, and the New Yorker’s Going’s On About Town excitedly devotes a page to parsing it all out, while in later pages eulogizes another large new music festival upstart, Spring for Music, which presented its final concerts at Carnegie Hall earlier this month.  Beyond what look like some exciting programs, I’m waiting to make any grand assessments on something so damn grand.

Parsing it all out is also what I’m trying to do for now and, this week and next, I’ll be going to nearly every event and will be reporting here on what I’m hearing and seeing—and what it all might mean for composers, and even for music, at a juncture such as this.  Whereas my previous posts and series on NewMusicBox (starting in 2006 at the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, and in various instances since) were written from a participant’s perspective, I’m primarily (beyond speaking in a discussion on masterpieces in the 21st century: “Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?”) a listener this time around.  But, as the Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer, I have a kind of insider’s view, for both better and worse.  I was involved in some programming discussions for a small part of the festival, I know many of the artists involved, and I know a little about the reasons and drive for this organization, the busiest orchestra in the world, to start an entirely new (and doubtlessly expensive) initiative, although I’d like to know more.  But in the end, I’m savoring the chance to hear a lot of music, something I just don’t get to do these days.

Since the festival was first announced, people have approached me—in casual conversation, via email, even on my Facebook wall—about what they don’t see enough of on these concerts.  Some see it is as too international, some see it as needing more female voices, some see it as being too general, with no unifying thematic drive.  They make fair points.  These are the kinds of questions that every curator of any major event must contend with, and I don’t think it should surprise anyone to say that these conversations go on at the Philharmonic, because they go on nearly everywhere.  Inspired programs come from inspired conversations, where people come in prepared to talk about what really excites them.  When someone speaks eloquently about what they are moved by, the enthusiasm is infectious.  Then the process usually becomes about what must be cut (Oww! Oww! Ouch!  It really does hurt); it’s the rare moment of misery. The best things I’ve experienced in a concert hall have a way of looking strange on paper, and so I also think about that when I see these 13 different concerts.  I know I’ll think differently once I hear them.

I personally see the international components of this program as a particular strength and find any argument that we in New York should be hearing less music from around the world to be absurd.  I’m pleased to see two of the sharpest younger voices in the UK, Helen Grime and Ryan Wigglesworth, getting US premieres of their work, and I’m very curious to hear music from the brightest young lights from Slovenia (didn’t you know?), Nina Senk and Vito Suraj.  And I wouldn’t, not for a hot minute, miss the Very Young Composers of the Philharmonic along with the Jovenes Compositores de Venezuela, whose presence on this festival is no mere accident. There’s also opera (Gotham Chamber Opera’s presentation of Hosokawa’s The Raven, and H. K. Gruber’s Gloria – A pig tale with Alan Gilbert in another Philharmonic production with Doug Fitch’s Giants are Small team), solo music (the powerhouse Italian pianist Marino Formenti gives a recital and Philharmonic musicians premiere new pieces for solo instruments), young composer readings (by the American Composers Orchestra as well as the Philharmonic), and some big, vital pieces (Steve Mackey’s Dreamhouse, Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields, and Christopher Rouse’s new Fourth Symphony). The Philharmonic has stretched their fingers in ways only an organization of this magnitude can, and few actually do. The results may very well be stupendous.  I count 67 pictures of composers young and old (and nearly all living, save Liszt and a few others) featured on the site of the festival.  To me, that is already stupendous.

Most conductors, musicians, and administrators I’ve met have their Big Ticket Item, their Pie In The Sky programming idea—if money and time were no object, they would have done it long ago. So while I head uptown to some concerts this week, I’ll leave you with the question:  What’s in your festival?

Austin: Mozart Requiem–Undead

Requiem WEB
I’m a bit OCD about arriving on time. My wife is laid back about these things, but I just can’t be late. Can’t. Be. Late. So even though I arrived a good fifteen minutes prior to the scheduled downbeat of Mozart Requiem: Undead, when I came upon a line of about 100 people I got nervous. I thought, “I knew I should have gotten here when the doors opened an hour before the show, but we’re at the French Legation Museum…How many people could possibly show up?”
Built in 1840, the French Legation Museum is a sprawling outdoor affair featuring some of the oldest surviving structures in town, and it’s surrounded by huge lawns and six-foot stone walls. The place is so big nobody’s filling it up, especially with concert music.

As I shifted from one foot to the other, I noticed that several people around me had the same worried look, and soon a guy walked past saying, “We’re not getting in. They are contacting the Fire Marshall to see if more people can be allowed in, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.” I poked my head over the wall and saw this:
French Legation WEB
You know how it is when you’re trying to take a picture of something huge and the photo just can’t do it justice? See above. You can see a bit of the orchestra and maybe ¼ of the main lawn. On a Wednesday. After seeing that, I knew something had to be done. Suffice it to say I finagled my way in to see what was happening on the other side of that wall.


Mozart Requiem: Undead is the brainchild of Graham Reynolds, Peter Stopchinski, and Brent Baldwin. The trio commissioned Glenn Kotche, Caroline Shaw, DJ Spooky, Adrian Quesada, Kate Moore, Todd Reynolds, Petra Hayden, and Justin Sherburn to “finish” the Requiem based on a computer analysis of the original manuscript that “definitively separated out what Mozart had written.” The composers were asked to keep the original vocal parts intact, but otherwise all bets were off. Of course, putting this all together requires a marshalling of considerable musical forces. Reynolds and Stopchinski’s Golden Hornet Project was joined by Baldwin’s Texas Choral Consort, Texas Performing Arts, Fusebox Festival, and Convergence Vocal Ensemble to put on the event. Presented as the kickoff for the 2014 Fusebox Festival, the performance featured over 200 artists (including the chorus, full orchestra, rhythm section, and electronics).

Twelve movements and ten composers—in addition to the commissions, Reynolds and Stopchinski took a few movements—make for a very full plate, and the arrangements ranged from full re-imaginings to more subtle alterations. Todd Reynolds “Dies Irae” was one of the former, with whispers building to shouts and a smattering of hi-hat on half-time drums. Pizzicato strings held the power of the work in check for a time, but the chorus would not be denied, belting out the lines until the final moment when they all fell down. Which they did (all fall down, that is). Glenn Kotche’s “Rex Tremendae” came in like a lamb with marimba, crotales, and shaker, the drum kit entering as Rex along with big choir roars before the whole thing drifted away in the wind. Stopchinski’s “Lacrimosa” had a Middle-Eastern flavor and featured violin soloist Roberto Riggio performing twists and turns over drones accompanied by strings and organ. DJ Spooky laid some beats over “Hostias” while Justin Sherburn (of Okkervil River) and Adrian Quesada brought a rock vibe to the proceedings. It was the loosening of an already colorful tie when Quesada and his band took the stage, strapped on their guitars, and began doling out the power chords to a wildly diverse festival crowd, complete with little kids doing cartwheels in front of the stage.

Many in the new music community are preoccupied with broadening the audience by changing venue and ceremony, and at times it seems a bit forced, like parents trying to be cool. When Golden Hornet Project puts a show together, there’s never any of that “Try it, you’ll like it!” earnest convincing going on, they just lay it out there and see what happens. The confidence that comes from curating hundreds of events in many shapes and sizes really shows when you see them pull off something this big. From the diversity and geographic range of the composers to the breadth and depth of performers to the ginormous attendance, the whole thing stood as an example of what you should do if you’re trying to reach a wider crowd.

And what a crowd it was. Seeing people of all stripes enjoying adult beverages while kicking back on blankets before an outdoor orchestra is one well-worn thing, but seeing them on a Wednesday afternoon in the middle of a school/work week attending a concert featuring a single tune is another. Granted, the Requiem is a big old piece, but still. Graham, dressed in a suit and ten gallon hat, and Peter in a tux with tails provided just enough funky formality while Brent Baldwin ran the whole thing like a champ. Notable also in this endeavor is that the whole thing was free. This year’s Fusebox Festival, once a ticketed affair, is now accessible to all. As board member Joe Randel explained, “We felt that making the festival entirely free was important in order to facilitate the discovery of new work for the audience, but that was just part of our goal. There is a common misconception that if people buy tickets to a performance, they’re “covering the tab,” so to speak. In reality, the box office receipts rarely cover the cost of presenting this kind of work, and they don’t even begin to recognize the artist’s costs associated with creating the work, so we hoped to stimulate a broader conversation about the reality of those costs.”

Free concerts combining hundreds of artists in town with some of the best composers from Austin and across the country? I want to have that conversation every day.

Austin: Fast Fo(u)rward

I’ve complained on more than one occasion about the changing of Austin into a theme park, and I feel comfortable saying that if you’ve only been here during SXSW or the Austin City Limits Festival, than you haven’t really seen the town. It’s not the gentrification alone but the rate of change which makes for a real baby-with-the-bathwater situation in a town that got weird off the radar and for so many years stayed that way. The cache of interesting events and people that really make this town unique is being lost at a breakneck pace, replaced by stylized food trucks and Formula One Racing [1]. I like funky tacos and fast cars as much as the next guy, but at some point the value that is being traded on will be gone, and any number of other towns will be just as attractive assuming that they have buildings that will take a coat of paint.

So how is a festival that exemplifies Austin’s classic quirks so perfectly being run from LA, New York, and Hong Kong [2]? Shouldn’t I boycott these interlopers and demand that they get off my lawn? No, because Fast Forward Austin is run by three Austin ex-pats who know what the town is all about and who keep that in mind when putting this annual circus together.

Loadbang - Photo by Steve Sachse

Loadbang – Photo by Steve Sachse

This fourth installment of the all-day festival returned to The North Door with another fantastic line-up of local and national performers. Loadbang cranked up the show with offerings from Christopher Cerrone and Andy Akiho, the latter’s three movements from six haikus hinting at the percussion deluge to come with each player eventually trading their trumpets and clarinets for pot-top syncopation. The Skyros Quartet paired with the composers of West Fourth New Music Collective to present a number of quartets and trios written by the group. They opened with Matt Frey’s Procession which featured a repeating chord progression played largely in unison that eventually broke apart, each player moving mechanically away from the original material. Ruben Naeff’s Jackass, which was initially written for the JACK Quartet, closed their set. Quick, quirky, and rambunctious, the piece popped right off the stage.

Tatsuya Nakatani - Photo by Steve Sachse

Tatsuya Nakatani – Photo by Steve Sachse

To say that the music and performances of Tatsuya Nakatani are idiosyncratic and mercurial is an understatement. Perhaps FFA co-director Steve Snowden put it best during his introduction when he said, “I can’t really put into words what this guy does.”

I will now attempt this.
Nakatani began by working a large hanging tam-tam with a large bow [3], one that had a particularly arched stick and looked a bit like an archers bow. Intermittent hits with a large beater colored the sound and after several hits he grabbed a second bow and began to work another tam-tam along with the first. This was all well and good, and I figured we were in for a nice set of screeches and overtones.

He eventually moved to a little trap kit with a kick, a handful of toms, and a grab-bag of goodies. Shortly after arriving at the kit, everything went nuts. Singing bowls danced on the head of a tom as he stacked half a dozen cymbals on one another, slamming them on and around the bowls until most were on the concrete floor. One cymbal with a hand-sized hole in the center was bent, and scraped rapidly across the head of the tom, producing a sound like a bowed saw run through a distortion pedal. Nakatani clearly had a few go-to sounds (such as the tam-tam bowing) that he used and manipulated convincingly, but it was when he seemed to be winging it that the real magic happened. The afore-mentioned cymbals and prayer bowls came and went frequently, and while Nakatani was able to keep the energy going (at full speed, even during the relatively quiet opening and closing portions of the set) it occasionally threatened to fall off the rails. Once or twice a cymbal fell too early or a stacking of instruments just didn’t quite gel and these moments were wonderfully visceral and real. This is what, IMHO, live improvised music is about: at least one part communication with the audience and one part danger. Totally fantastic.

Austin Soundwaves - Photo by Steve Sachse

Austin Soundwaves – Photo by Steve Sachse

Austin Soundwaves returned this year and sounded better than ever. I’ve heard the El Sistema-inspired group play multiple times over the past several years now and not only was this performance much stronger in terms of fundamental pitch and rhythm, they’ve also come a long way in terms of their musicality. Their rendition of Cielito Lindo was particularly strong and their works from the canon were very well presented.


Just back from a three-week European tour, line upon line percussion opened with Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, presented as a sort of historical preview of (spoiler) Mantra Percussion’s Timber performance. Watching LUL reminds me of my rock band days when we’d get home from a tour flush with road chops, except that these guys play like this all the time. They are all superb players, and while watching Matthew Teodori in particular you get the impression that every single note is the most important thing in the world. It makes you think that whatever endeavor you’re involved in, you probably need to up your game.

Fast Forward Orchestra - Photo by Steve Sachse

Fast Forward Orchestra – Photo by Steve Sachse

FFA has usually had a featured piece or act, something that gets all the nerds [4] hot and bothered. This year had a two-fer in Donnacha Dennehy’s That the Night Come and Michael Gordon’s Timber. The former was played by the Fast Forward Orchestra and conducted by Austin Symphony Orchestra’s Peter Bay. Featuring an emotionally powerful performance by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Findlen, the orchestra was a perfect example of what Austin has to offer in terms of new music. During the course of the day, sound from outside would make its way inside The North Door, but I swear Austin shut up for the whole piece. Mantra’s performance was no less thrilling, taking the audience on Gordon’s hour-long marathon of pulsing, surround-sound endurance. Finally, The Grant Wallace Band wrapped up the festivities with a set of folk and jazz influenced originals that would have been at home in any number of bars in town as well as they were at the festival.

Mantra Percussion - Photo by Steve Sachse

Mantra Percussion – Photo by Steve Sachse

Places change and grow, and the only constant is the complaint about how things used to be. Checking out eight hours of banging new music is one way of getting your mind off that fact.

1. The 24-gate regional airport that serves Austin has a direct flight to/from London now, so those from overseas can see F1 without connecting flights. This has been a dream of Willie Nelson’s for some time now.

2. Last year it was Sweden, Portugal, and New York. It’s my understanding that the next one is going to be run from the moon.

3. Actually, he began by asking the venue to turn off the AC. When it was revealed that the sound he was hearing was the refrigerator which was keeping all the beer cold, he smiled, shrugged, and started the set.

4. If you’re reading this, you’re the nerd.