Tag: music festivals

Our Second Festival of American Music

The audience for the Louisville Orchestra's MakingMUSIC concert in March 2016 (Photo by Deanna Hoying)

When I came to the Louisville Orchestra as music director, one of the first things I wanted to do was to think about ways of reconnecting with the orchestra’s heritage—incredible, almost unheard of numbers of commissions, world premieres, and recordings which were a result of an extraordinary partnership between the Louisville Orchestra and the city of Louisville. This was the story of this orchestra for a long time; it was the element of the Louisville Orchestra that gave it international stardom and an incredible influence over the music of the world. I wanted to reconnect with that heritage and make it current and modern and something that’s relevant and vital for today, to show that the Louisville Orchestra was and still is at the forefront as an incubator for new orchestral works.

American art is all about exploration and coming up with new ideas and going places that nobody had dared to go before.

For our 2015-16 season here in Louisville we came up with the concept of a yearly festival that would celebrate art from this country and connect with the incredible story of the Louisville Orchestra that developed over the last half a century. The Festival of American Music would center on living composers from this country—as well as around styles of music that you might not necessarily expect a symphony orchestra to play—and would engender a spirit of improvisation, trial, and experimentation. It seemed like a festival of this type very much encapsulated the concept of American art. American art is all about exploration and coming up with new ideas and going places that nobody had dared to go before. So much of American art is also about synthesizing elements that come from around the world, as well as those that come from us right here, as a diverse population.

In curating this festival, I considered a number of things. American composers don’t form a monolithic block. (I think that’s actually one of the coolest things about them.) In 19th-century America, you had composers like Charles Ives, and his even wilder father, George Ives, who—long before anybody else—were experimenting with how to represent the world as it really sounded and how to use those sounds in a way that meant something to an everyday American. Up to that point, a lot of American composers were still trying to emulate Europeans. Once Ives made his statement, it paved the way for other American composers to write in ways that no one else had done before. Then the populist movement came on the scene and Copland was the composer who really blew apart that door to American folk music and Americana. Gershwin did that simultaneously with jazz and blues. And that has been the hallmark of Americanism in music—a constant exploration and expansion of boundaries.

You have to be very respectful and cognizant of American music being far broader than anything written for an orchestra

With today’s composers writing in such disparate styles, it’s difficult to pinpoint what makes them “sound American.” Typically when we think of the American sound, it almost always goes back to something vaguely “Copland-y” or “Gershwin-like.” But if you’re building a festival around American music at a symphony orchestra, you not only have to recognize the wonderful music written for a symphony orchestra. You also have to be very respectful and cognizant of American music being far broader than anything written for an orchestra—actual jazz, actual bluegrass, actual folk music, actual hymns, actual cowboy tunes. These are also authentic American music. And it’s important that when you’re representing yourself broadly, it’s not just about a composer’s interpretation, but it’s also about those things themselves in their authentic, genuine state. That’s something I think about all the time.

If you were to think of an orchestra playing a piece with an American sound, probably something like Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man or Appalachian Spring would come to mind. But if you were thinking of just American music, it would be a much bigger picture. This country essentially came up with blues and jazz, with popular music as we know it, and with rock and roll. Virtually every other style that came in the second half of the 20th century wouldn’t exist without blues and jazz. They’re distinctly American. As is bluegrass and rap. I’m always cognizant of that bigger picture.

With all that in mind, as we’re now in the second year of the Festival of American Music, I thought the way to honor all of these elements of American music was to give each concert a central identity. Two of our concerts this year are celebrations of iconic American artists: Michael Tilson Thomas and Ben Folds. I think it’s safe to say that Michael Tilson Thomas is one of the most respected musicians to come out of the United States, not only as a conductor but as a composer, an educator, and as a person who bridged incredible divides in musical history. And Ben Folds is a remarkably talented and adventurous song writer, pianist, and musical maverick. For the thematic programs, one centers on all living female composers, and the other on the American Journey—from iconic American composers of the past to modern composers.

Celebrating the individual musical mavericks that have shaped orchestral music as well as pushed the boundaries of the concert hall, female composers who are telling their stories through music, founders of what we call the “American orchestral sound,” and the new guard of American composers taking risks and experimenting with sound are the hallmarks of the American musical landscape. Taken in its entirety, these three weeks of the Festival of American Music encompasses the incredible range and diversity that is American music.

Teddy Abrams sitting on the floor.

Teddy Abrams (Photo by Chris Wietzke, courtesy Louisville Orchestra)

An unusually versatile musician, Teddy Abrams is a widely acclaimed conductor, as well as an established pianist, clarinetist, composer and music educator. Now in his third season as Music Director of the Louisville Orchestra, he is also Music Director and Conductor of the Britt Classical Festival. Dedicated to exploring new and engaging ways to communicate with a diverse range of audiences, Abrams co-founded the Sixth Floor Trio in 2008 with fellow alumni of the Curtis Institute of Music.

New Music USA’s Six Submissions to the 2016 ISCM World Music Days

The official logo of the ISCM

Later this month, the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM)’s 2015 World Music Days (WMD) will take place in Ljubljana, Slovenia (from September 27 to October 2, 2015), but program planning is already underway for the 2016 WMD in Tongyeong, South Korea (March 29-April 3, 2016). To encourage that a fair and equitable distribution of new music is chosen from all over the world, all of the ISCM’s member organizations are encouraged to submit repertoire from their respective countries for consideration. As per the ISCM’s by-laws, if a member organization submits a total of six works in at least four different categories (which are grouped by instrumentation and must conform to the set duration limits), at least one of the works is guaranteed a performance during the festival. New Music USA, which is a full associate member of ISCM, has submitted six works for consideration. All are works that received funding through our grantmaking programs and all are works composed since 2010. Below are some details on each of the pieces.

Photos of Nolan Lem, Julia Adolphe, Missy Mazzoli, Matt Evans, George Walker, and Gabriella Lena Frank

Top row (left to right): Nolan Lem, Julia Adolphe (photo by Martin Chalifour), Missy Mazzoli (photo by Marylene Mey); Bottom row (left to right): Matt Evans (photo by Jaime Boddorff), George Walker, and Gabriella Lena Frank (photo © Sabina Frank)

1. Julia Adolphe: Veil of Leaves (2014) for string quartet
Julia Adolphe’s string quartet Veil of Leaves was one of the highlights of the fourth season of the Pikes Falls Chamber Music Festival in Jamaica, Vermont, which received a 2015 New Music USA Project grant.

2. Matthew Evans: Still Life for Ensemble (2015) for chamber ensemble
Evans’s Still Life for Ensemble was one of several works created and premiered by members of the ensemble Contemporaneous on a concert in celebration of their fifth anniversary, an event that was awarded a New Music USA Project grant. Here is a video from that performance.

3. Gabriela Lena Frank: Requiem for a Magical America: El Día de los Muertos (2012) for orchestra
The orchestral version of Requiem for a Magical America: El Día de los Muertos was one of several compositions created by Frank during her residency with the Annapolis Symphony, which was supported by the Music Alive program, a collaboration between New Music USA and the League of American Orchestras.

4. Nolan Lem: push-pole (2014), a sound installation
Nolan Lem’s push-pole is the centerpiece of the New Music USA Project Grant-funded SoundArt2016, a two-week exhibition of Sound Art presented by Qubit New Music, a contemporary music and performance art initiative founded in 2010.

5. Missy Mazzoli: Vesper Sparrow (2012) for unaccompanied chorus
Mazzoli’s Vesper Sparrow is the opening track of roomful of teeth’s new recording render on New Amsterdam Records. The recording was awarded a New Music USA Project grant.

6. George Walker: Sinfonia No. 4 ‘Strands’ (2011) for orchestra
Walker’s Sinfonia No. 4 ‘Strands’ was a consortium commission that was funded through Meet The Composer’s Commissioning Music/USA Program.

Hopefully they will choose more than one. Better yet, all six!


Fluxus is attitude, anti-art, cultural-social-political revolution, intermedia, renewed Dadaism, art as life and life as art. Fluxus is not a coherent movement, a set form, or a particular style. It is meant to be “grasped by all peoples, not only the critics, dilettantes and professionals,” as George Maciunas put it in his Fluxus Manifesto of 1963.

Maybe for that reason, festivals have always been important to Fluxus. So important, as it turns out, that Maciunas introduced the term “Fluxus” in a pamphlet he handed out at his very first festival in Wuppertal, Germany in 1962. After that, the floodgates opened: Fluxus festivals were produced throughout the 1960s and ‘70s in locations as diverse as Paris, France, and Rutgers, New Jersey. These festivals really did allow a public forum for Fluxus to be experienced by “all peoples.” In fact, the values of Fluxus and the advantages of the festival medium meshed so well that George Maciunas created several art posters that served as an introduction to Fluxus festival production. The first of these was called FluxFest Sale (1966), and the second was titled—even more explicitly—FluxFest Kit 2 (circa 1970). These two documents are conceptually similar (if differently organized), and so from here on out I’ll refer to the FluxFest Kit 2 as a stand-in for both.

An eight column listing describing all of the Fluxus artists' projects

George Maciunas’s 1966 Fluxfest Sale

It wasn’t a total free-for-all. Maciunas had very specific ideas about how a Fluxus Festival should be. What follows (capitalization, punctuation and all) is taken directly from the upper left hand corner of the FluxFest Kit 2 poster—we can think of these as the Rules with a capital R.

Any of the pieces can be performed anytime, anyplace and by anyone, without any payment to fluxus provided the following conditions are met: 1. If flux-pieces outnumber numerically or exceed in duration other compositions in any concert, the whole concert must be called and advertised as FLUXCONCERT or FLUXEVENT. A series of such events must be called a FLUXFEST. 2. If flux-pieces do not exceed non-fluxpieces, each such fluxpiece must be identified as a FLUX-PIECE. 3. Such credits to Fluxus may be omitted at a cost of $50 for each piece announced or performed.

Lesson learned: credit Fluxus where credit is due. The largest part of the poster, though, is a catalogue of approximately half of the Fluxus catalogue. Not all of the works listed were explicitly or implicitly musical, of course, but I can’t get over how many are performative and how many do make reference in one way or another to musical signs and symbols. A few examples, in list form:

  • George Maciunas, Piece for Conductor, 1965: Conductor steps over podium and takes a conventional bow. He remains bowed while tying shoelaces, polishing shoes, rolling and unrolling legs of his trousers, scratching ankles, picking up small specks from floor, pulling nails from floor, etc. etc.
  • Joe Jones, Duet for Brass Instruments: Rubber glove is place over bell and tucked inside. Air is blown until glove emerges from bell and is inflated.
  • George Brecht, Drip Music (Drip Event), 1959: For single or multiple performance. A source of dripping water and an empty vessel are arranged so that the water falls into the vessel. Second version: Dripping.
  • Robert Watts, C/T Trace, 1963: An object is fired from canon and caught in bell of tuba.

So, Maciunas created a document that not only provided specific pieces and scores, but also outlined a general format, and even gave a raison d’etre. In other words, this one poster supplied everything a person (musician or layman, artist or enthusiast) could need to produce their very own Fluxus festival. You could become the performer-producer of your dreams.

What was it like to perform these pieces? I wondered. And who is performing them now? Ian Power was born decades after the height of the 1960s Fluxus festival craze. He has never put on an entire festival dedicated to Fluxus pieces, and he doesn’t follow all the Rules. (Ian, have you paid any Fluxus fees lately?) Even so, he frequently programs Fluxus gems in concerts of his own music—Power takes seriously his role as new music composer-performer-producer-advocate. At the same time, he’s living proof of Fluxus’s reach: Power is the next generation of musician Fluxus enthusiasts.

Archival footage from a 1962 Fluxus Festival in Wiesbaden
A short digression. I’m not here to argue about whether or not Fluxus is music. In some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t. Personally, I find it hard to ignore that its members—many of whom at one point or another considered themselves musicians and composers—pointed to musical forms and instruments in so many of their titles and with so many of their materials and processes. And it’s hard to argue against the fact that so many of these pieces are performance based, that they move through time, and that sound is purposely juxtaposed with the visual. Regardless of whether or not you buy that, though—regardless of whether or not Fluxus is music—I think that musicians and musicologists (with our focus on sound and temporality) have a unique perspective on these performances, and with that comes the potential to understand Fluxus in new and exciting ways: what happens if we suspend our disbelief and treat these pieces as music?

Now back to Power. “If I program the pieces, it’s because I believe in them as music,” he told me in an e-mail interview. (Good, I thought, we’re on the same page.) “These pieces, even ones without much sound, coax me to attend to time and experience in much the same way (and in some important, invigorating different ways) than any other good ‘music’ might.”

True, and while Power hopes that some of this same attention might rub off on his audiences, he also recognizes that his role as performer—and therefore as a kind of translator—grants him certain privileges and responsibilities. A couple of specifics: during a recent concert, Power interpreted Mieko Shiomi’s “Boundary Music for Piano” as the movement of sheet music from the floor to the piano music stand, all accomplished as quietly as possible. That same concert, he set up Alison Knowles’s “Chair Music for George Brecht” in the back of the hall: he chose to provide a reading light, a book of Japanese death poems, and a biography of Erik Satie, all just waiting for Brecht to appear. Or not.

At one point I asked him: How seriously did you take these performances? Did you ever feel silly? “If I did,” he said, “it was likely part of the learning process essential to arriving at a place where I can really understand the music.” Power embraces the self-consciousness of performing these works, and notes that a good performer can make all the difference in establishing an atmosphere of good will and humor in the hall. “Not to compliment myself,” he said, “but if there’s one thing I can do, it’s commit to a Fluxus performance.”

That commitment is key. That commitment is the reason historical Fluxus has made its way through to the present day. Power wants to preserve the uncanniness, the situational poise, the amazement, the empowerment, and the fun of the Fluxus spirit—a big part, I think, of what makes this music (this art) as exciting and innovative now as it was in the 1960s.

Which brings me back around to the FluxFest Kit 2 and the question of performance. In the very early stages of my research, I’ve found evidence that at least one person did, in fact, follow Maciunas’s poster-art instructions (at least in spirit, if not to the letter). Jeff Berner, photographer and conceptual artist, presented his Fluxfest (a festival in two parts) at the Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco on March 31, 1967. Tickets were two dollars and fifty cents, and absolutely no cameras were allowed inside. “Experimental is not knowing what the results will be,” reads one of his publicity posters.

The poster for Jeff Berner's 1967 San Francisco Fluxfest featuring a drawing of a woman in a top hat and heels

The poster for Jeff Berner’s 1967 San Francisco Fluxfest.

Berner, though—Berner was a member of Fluxus. His website notes that he has participated in “the international conceptual/performance art group since 1965,” and so we have to consider him an insider, someone more specific than the “all people” Maciunas dreamed Fluxus would reach. What really interests me is who among us non-Fluxans rose to the challenge of transforming the FluxFest Kit 2 into a real-life, realtime festival. Surely somebody couldn’t resist the possibilities of this performative readymade. Was it you, NewMusicBox reader? Please step forward and identify yourself—we all want to hear your story!

Why Not Include the Bird—Tudorfest, 1964

In the spring of 1964 in beautiful San Francisco, Pauline Oliveros decided it was time for her new music organization, the San Francisco Tape Music Center, to put on a festival. She had recently met David Tudor and asked him to choose three programs of music to be performed twice each for a total of six concerts. The festival—curated by Tudor, performed by Tudor, in celebration of Tudor—became (obviously, inevitably) known as the Tudorfest.

In a characteristic move, Tudor chose pieces by his friends and collaborators: John Cage, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Alvin Lucier, George Brecht, and Oliveros herself. It was a hodgepodge of styles, a perfect representation of the sheer range of 1960s experimental music. Ichiyangi’s Music for Piano #4, Electronic Version cuddled up to Cage’s Music for Amplified Toy Piano. Lucier’s Action Music for Piano, Book I provided a nice contrast to Brecht’s Card-Piece for Voice. And if you were particularly in the mood for every variety of Cage, you could hear Atlas Eclipticalis, Winter Music, Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Cartridge Music, and Music Walk all on the same program.

But the piece that everyone seems to talk about—even now, fifty-plus years later—is Pauline Oliveros’s Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato. Here’s the set-up: there’s a giant seesaw on the stage. It goes up and down, as seesaws do, but it also moves side to side and roundabout. Seated on one side, strapped in with a seatbelt, is Pauline Oliveros and her giant accordion. On the other side is David Tudor and his more moderately sized bandoneon. Hanging directly over the center is a cage containing a brown-black mynah bird named Ahmed. There was no hard and fast score to follow, though Tudor and Oliveros had worked through improvisation techniques and styles in rehearsal. Instead, the audience experienced a literal whirl of music and motion, a blur of performers and instruments up high and then down low, a constantly shifting understanding of how sight and sound worked in space and over time.

Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato was only ever performed on those two concerts at Tudorfest, and Tudorfest was only ever put on that one year. (Personally, I want to know what happened to the seesaw. Did it become a sculpture in somebody’s garden? Was it dismantled and repurposed into other Tape Music Center musical props? Is it still languishing in a basement somewhere, waiting for a reprise of the Duo?) This was a much smaller operation than something like the New York Avant Garde Festival—which isn’t to say it didn’t attract the same sorts of interested audiences or the attentions of the press. There were critics at the event, and they did write about the performances they attended for their respective papers. These largely positive Tudorfest reviews were a part of the reason that the San Francisco Tape Music Center became known as a mover and shaker on the experimental music scene; in some ways, this was the festival that started it all.

Tudorfest was more than what you could read in the reviews, though. It was more than its success. It was a scramble, a stretch, a compromise—the usual behind-the-scenes madness. (You all know what I’m talking about.) If the festival was put on well (and it was), the critics almost certainly couldn’t have known what took place beyond the clean façade of onstage performance. But that’s what composer Pauline Oliveros remembers—that’s part of what makes this festival so interesting.

The cover of the University of California Press book, The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde

David Bernstein (ed), The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde. University of California Press, 2008.

I’ve spent a long time trying to track down what people have already said about Tudorfest. Most of the good stuff—a kind of best-of collection of interviews, retrospective essays, and scholarship—can be found in David Bernstein’s book on the larger group and its doings, The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde (go read it—it’s good), and in the program notes by David Bernstein and John Holzaepfel included with the recently released three-disc set on New World Records, Music from the Tudorfest: San Francisco Tape Music Center 1964 (go listen to it—it’s good). Oliveros is all over these sources; her words are on the record and they give us a different perspective than the reviews.

The cover of the CD booklet for New World Records' Tudorfest featuring a photo of David Tudor wearing a jacket and tie

New World Records’ 2014 release of archival recordings from the 1964 Tudorfest.

At the beginning of this article, I wrote that Oliveros had recently met Tudor when she asked him to curate the festival. That’s true, but I didn’t tell you that Oliveros wrote about how she met Tudor at the house of Olive Cowell (aunt of Henry Cowell). I didn’t tell you that Oliveros remembers John Cage, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and Toru Takemitsu all attending the final performances. I didn’t tell you that she invited dancer-choreographer Elizabeth Harris to stage her Duo, or that she asked Tony Martin to provide the lighting, or that Morton Subotnick, Stuart Dempster, and Ramon Sender (among others) all agreed to be part of the performing ensemble. Oliveros remembers these people because they were friends and colleagues, and because this was the support system that she had in place to produce a festival. This was really the only support system she had in place; she had to rely on this art world of musicians and composers—because mainstream grant foundations weren’t always clamoring to expand or develop experimental music.

To put it plainly: the Tudorfest was a stretch on the resources of the San Francisco Tape Music Center generally speaking, and that meant it was a stretch on the resources of its individual producers and organizers. “In those days,” Oliveros told one interviewer, “I taught a string of students: accordion and French horn. I copied music. I played in a variety of situations…. I have no idea how I did it in a way. And yes, I did do it. You know, you look back on it, and it wasn’t easy. I had maybe $250 dollars a month to get by on.”[1]

And yet, she did produce Tudorfest. She scraped by on $250. She called on all of her friends to help out. She got support from like-minded organizations including KPFA, the public radio station that shared building space with the Center and often allowed Oliveros and her colleagues to record improvisations using their equipment. Maybe the end result was everything Oliveros dreamed of; maybe she had grander plans she had to cut back due to space and time and money constraints. In the end, though, it was a success in the same way that her Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato was a success.

But even that piece, as Oliveros writes in a retrospective essay, was a series of compromises. The first time Oliveros and Tudor rehearsed the piece she was writing for Tudorfest, the composer-accordionist met the pianist-bandoneonist with a score in hand:

David and I rehearsed at my home in Hunter’s Point, which I shared with Laurel Johnson and her mynah bird, Ahmed,” Oliveros remembered. “As David and I rehearsed the music, Ahmed got very excited. I tried covering Ahmed’s cage to quiet him. Nothing worked. Ahmed insisted on joining our rehearsal. I realized that the bird was picking up on the sounds we were making. So I thought, ‘Why not include the bird?’ The duo became a trio: Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato (1964).[2]

Trio format established, Oliveros asked Elizabeth Harris to find a way to stage the piece…and Harris came up with the infamous aforementioned seesaw. By this point, it would have been hard for anybody to deny that the music was theater, and the theater was music. Oliveros wanted choreography, ways of manipulating the seesaw as a counterpoint to the sounds of the free reed instruments. First, there was the problem of playing an instrument and moving around at the same time: “I had to employ a safety belt to negotiate the swivel chair because of the imbalance of the motion of my accordion bellows,” Oliveros noted.[3] Second, there was the problem of reading a score while playing an instrument and moving around at the same time: “I swallowed hard and abandoned the written score that I had composed and decided on improvisational instructions.”[4] (The draft score still exists, by the way; it lives in the Pauline Oliveros archive at the University of California, San Diego.) A compromise, a collaboration: the line was always very thin—which worked out just fine, given that the experimentalists did their best to walk a thin line.

We can think of these behind-the-scenes challenges as part of the essential nature of Tudorfest, as part of what made the San Francisco Tape Music Center stronger, as part of what influenced the composers both at the time and maybe in their later years—these were the materials they had available, this was their experience, this was what they learned. As for me, I like to imagine that moment when Ahmed the mynah bird first squawked in rehearsal. I can imagine being frustrated, feeling like nothing was going as planned. Then: a moment of appreciation that sometimes the world just works this way, a dim thought, space to let it grow, and finally: What if…? What if the mynah bird became part of the piece? What if we brought him onstage? What will the people say? It’s only fitting to give Pauline Oliveros the last word: “I remember this period as a lot of fun.”[5]

1. David Bernstein (ed), The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde. University of California Press, 2008, p105.

2. Ibid, p.86.

3. Ibid, p.87.

4. Ibid, p.86.

5. John Holzaepfel, Program Notes for Music from the Tudorfest: San Francisco Tape Music Center 1964, New World Records, 2014, p22.

It’s Music Because I Can Hear It: 1960s Experimental Music Festivals

Photo of an upright piano burning

Photo by Caitlin Schmid

In the spring of my senior year of college, I burned a piano. Before you give in to the rising outrage—it was more than some college prank: I organized a performance of Annea Lockwood’s 1968 Piano Burning with the composer on hand to lead a pre-concert discussion. I found a “dead piano” as the score required—an upright that had been relegated to the laundry room of a dorm for years, a piano well beyond the concept of repair. I contacted the fire department for a permit; I advertised on posters around campus. I watched as it went up in flames. Hundreds of people crowded around the space we had cleared in the middle of the quad, talking, laughing; a few brave students were allowed early on to plunk out Beethoven and Joplin; I remember the sound of the balloons taped to the lid popping in the heat, the twang of strings breaking under pressure, the whoosh as the instrument was finally engulfed. “This is way cooler than I thought it would be,” a jock-type admitted. Just like that, I was hooked: this music made people think, this music provoked discussions, this music was gutsy and political and sometimes it even required us to reconsider our definition of music.

I went to graduate school to study the sounds of burning pianos and squeaky rubber dolls and trash can lids, scores that instruct the performer to “draw a straight line and follow it,” and realizations of that score involving hair dipped in ink and dragged across pure white paper. The experimental music of the 1960s was (is), to some, ridiculous (and maybe that’s part of its power); to others, it proclaims freedom from genre, border, and label. But the thing that draws me in the most? It was meant to be experienced—sometimes conceptually, sometimes interactively, never by just some small community of musicians, but always by everyone. To achieve this, our intrepid experimental heroes turned to the festival medium.

There’s something special about festivals. All of the musicians, composers and organizers coming together to say: “General public, this is what we are about.” And the audience members responding: “We hear what you’re doing, we’re trying to understand it, and we like it or we don’t.” A festival isn’t something that can just happen on a whim; even the lowest maintenance variety needs personnel, materials, space, some modicum of promotion; a festival is a concentrated effort to self-define and proclaim a particular set of artistic values. For experimental music—meant to be experienced by everyone, remember—festivals were part of the territory, and that was true in East Coast New York (of course) but also in West Coast San Francisco and Midwest Ann Arbor, and across the ocean to France, Germany, the Netherlands, and England. Wherever this extended family of musicians and composers went, they made themselves and their work known.

Here is this week’s example. Charlotte Moorman (famously known as The Topless Cellist) organized what eventually became known as the First Annual New York Avant Garde Festival in 1963. “We wanted for all these new people to see what we’re doing: it’s silly for us to play for all our friends, you know,” she told Harvey Matusow in an interview several years later. What were they doing? That first festival was a series of six concerts spread out over the course of a little more than two weeks, held at the venerable Judson Hall. The first concert was Frederic Rzewski’s American piano debut featuring music by Sylvano Busotti, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Giuseppe Chiari. The next concert was a Toshi Ichiyanagi and John Cage double bill (apparently Cage’s Variations III, which involved amplifying the sound of drinking a glass of water, caused several patrons to complain of earaches). There was a chamber concert, an electronic music concert, a Moorman-Tudor concert, and an ensemble concert. Imagine Moorman’s pride as she looked over this extensive and varied program on opening night—the “friends” had made this happen.

reproduction of flyer listing concert programs including works by Cage, Feldman, Brown, Woolf, Young, Corner, La Monte Young, Ornette Coleman, Toshi Ishinayagi, George Brecht and Dieter Schnebel plus all the composers' signatures

A flyer from the first New York Avant Garde Festival in 1963.

The “new people,” on the other hand, were—shall we say—less enthusiastic. Witness that very first concert in 1963. John Gruen of The New York Herald Tribune titled his review “Far Out Concert, Stupefying Boredom” and signed off with “avant-garde piano music is decidedly something to watch—it might even get worse.” He wasn’t alone in his evaluation: Harold Schonberg of the The New York Times left us with this gem: “An evaluation of the work [Chiari’s Teatrino]? Don’t be silly, man.”

The first three years of the festival were held in a concert hall and featured the musical works of all sorts of known composers including Cage, Morton Feldman, and Edgard Varèse. Looking back, we might say it was a fairly traditional concert-going experience, and yet… Year two, October 1964: Carl P. Sigmon’s “Festival of the Avant Garde” for Musical America: “Time and again the potential fun quickly turned to tedium….One could only wonder why the youthful audiences cheered loudly….” Year Three, September 1965: Leighton Kerner reviewing a night of action music by Nam June Paik for the The Village Voice: “Take, for example, the opening night which aged some of us considerably.” So bitter, so soon. Little did the critics know what they were in for.

Logo with the words "annual avant garde festival of new york" in white on black in which each word is separated with address (47 W 46th Street NYC) underneath

The letterhead that was used for the New York Avant Garde Festival

By year four, Moorman had radically redesigned the format of this music festival. Held over 18 hours in Central Park, the works of 77 artists from 14 countries were performed simultaneously. Picture this: Ed Summerlin and Don Heckman improvising a saxophone duet early in the morning across the Children’s Pond; Joe Jones riding his Musical Bike; Jim McWilliams staging his Picnic (in which the point was to eat as many hot dogs as possible, even if that meant regurgitating what you had already eaten); Moorman herself realizing Nam June Paik’s Zen Smiles by passing out five thousand pennies and five thousand smiles, one of each to each audience member; Dick Higgins, sitting in a lawn-chair, dressed in a striped tunic, allowing his wife to apply shaving cream to his bald pate in a performance of Danger Music No. 2. This is all faithfully reported in Dan Sullivan and Richard F. Shepard’s September 10, 1966 New York Times article “The Avant-Garde Day in Park Goes On and On.” The reporters ask at one point if it is really music. “‘It’s music,’ Mr. Higgins said, ‘because I can hear it. To the audience, of course, it’s theater.’” Shepard and Sullivan don’t argue; in fact, they give up opinion entirely in favor of description, laced with a healthy dose of skepticism. “[There were] no cogent answers from anyone,” they say at one point. Then there’s my personal favorite subheading of all time, “Clapping Hands – to Ears.” And finally, the last word of the piece: “Nothing was settled.”

After all was said and done, the New York Avant Garde Festival ran almost-consecutively for fifteen years from 1963 to 1980 (excluding three years when Moorman was too sick to organize it). At its peak, it featured the works of more than 650 artists and attracted audiences of a hundred thousand-plus at a time in locations including the John F. Kennedy Staten Island Ferryboat (1967, “Music: Lost at Sea” read one headline in the The Village Voice), the 67th Regiment Armory (1971), and even the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1980). As composers, as performers, as audience members, as passersby, Charlotte Moorman made sure everyone had the opportunity to experience experimental music.

So there it is, a history of the early days of the New York Avant Garde Festival, a bit of proof that festivals and experimental music go together like ramalamalama. In a nutshell, this was crazy music—was it even music?—with festivals that kept getting bigger, and the tastemakers (represented by the newspaper critics) thought it was outré and boring. Done and done. But there is a catch: what I’ve presented to you today as “the New York Avant Garde Festival”—a description of events, documented opinions, all incontrovertible fact—is only what I’ve found in advance press and reviews. It’s not the whole story by any means.

We can never have every detail of any given event; my version differs from yours, and what he saw from the corner won’t be quite the same as what she experienced from stage-center. Plus, memories are faulty and colored by attitude and context. We can’t really blame the critics for their generally less-than-enthused reviews because, let’s face it, these guys (and they were mostly guys) worked for major newspapers in the capacity of music critics. They usually spent their nights seated in a hall on red plush velvet, listening to Bach and Beethoven and writing about whether or not a particular performance did justice to the composer’s vision, not about whether or not a particular performance might be considered music. Regardless of whether these experimental music festivals were objectively “good” or “bad,” critics had a stake in the musical canon (which the New York Avant Garde Festival most certainly was not a part of) and it comes across in their reviews.

History is written by those who write; the critics were writers. What we sometimes forget in our pursuit of facts immortalized in print, waiting for us to scoop up and rewrite into our articles and books, is that history is made by all sorts of people—from the creative composers to the friends of friends who lend their amps in a last minute Situation. What is written isn’t the only version of history, and the critics weren’t the only people at those festivals. There were organizers, there were performers, there were composers—all, one would have to imagine, more committed to the idea of experimental festivals than the critics. And there were audience members—sometimes willing, sometimes just in the right place at the right time (or the wrong place at the wrong time, no judgment).

And so here we are fifty years later, and I have limited options to recover history: I can head to the archives (if there are archives), I can talk to the participants (if I can find them—hello out there?), or I can turn to the microfilms and the internet and pull up the newspaper reviews and the advance press—the easily accessed, written records of these historical events. That last is exactly what I did for you today. It’s not a bad thing (it’s often all we have to go on), but you deserve more and in the next few weeks I’ll give you first-hand accounts from a variety of festival participants. It’s the only way we can even begin to see the whole picture. After all, if I hadn’t told you at the beginning of this article about Piano Burning in my own words from my own experience, all you might have had to go on was this, from the comments section of a review on a local blog: “MHMMMM just wondering if part of our added sales tax for ‘the arts’ paid for this?????”


Caitlin Schmid, wearing glasses, sitting in front of a bookcase filled with books

Caitlin Schmid

Caitlin Schmid is a graduate student in Historical Musicology at Harvard University. Her interests include American music, sound art, feminist approaches to musicology, and (of course) 1960s experimental music festivals. She’s particularly interested in your experience of these festivals – what do you remember? Post your memories in the comments below.

No Place Like This—The 2013 Mizzou International Composers’ Festival

Simon Rehearsal

Alarm Will Sound rehearses Greg Simon’s Draw Me the Sun in the Missouri Theatre.
All photos by Greg Simon unless otherwise stated.

Last Sunday, I stumbled off a tiny commuter jet and into the airport at Columbia, Missouri, arriving in town to attend the Mizzou International Composers’ Festival. Along with seven other composers from around the world, I had been chosen to write a piece for the festival’s resident ensemble: the incomparable chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound. We gathered in Columbia for a week of making music, talking shop, and what AWS affectionately calls “the hang.” There were concerts by Alarm Will Sound and the University of Missouri New Music Ensemble; lessons with Daniel Kellogg and Augusta Read Thomas; bouts of laughter, tough love, elation, anxiety, terrible food, amazing wine, new friends, old teachers; and, of course, world-class music. The week ended with a concert featuring the premieres of the works we had written for Alarm Will Sound, a truly hair-raising program showcasing a wild array of backgrounds and styles. I’m still processing the whirlwind of emotions I experienced during the festival and the amazing premieres, but I left certain of this: the MICF is a truly special event, an opportunity young composers will be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

The Festival

Presented by the University of Missouri and the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation, the festival brings together eight resident composers, two guest composer mentors, and the ridiculously talented members of Alarm Will Sound for a week at the end of July. The ensemble workshops, records, and premieres pieces written specifically for them by the eight residents. The guest composers work with the residents, in individual and small-group sessions; the residents work with Alarm Will Sound, sitting in on rehearsals and lending their ear to the preparations for the premiere performances. Just about everything is open to the public, including rehearsals and lectures by the guest and resident composers.

Like most composers, I’ve done the summer festival dance for a while now. Before coming to the Mizzou International Composers’ Festival, I was lucky enough to spend two summers among the bats at the wonderful Brevard Music Center. Before that I was the worst operations intern in the history of the Aspen Music Festival, and tagged along with their composers for the six-week session. At Mizzou, the eight-resident roster also included alumni of Aspen, Bowdoin, California Summer Music, ACO and EAMA workshops, and more. Every music festival is different, but there’s one thing I’ve learned: It’s a bit weird to be a composer at any of them. While your instrumentalist friends are getting yelled at in rehearsal, you’re taking hikes or having lighthearted talks with knowledgeable mentors and colleagues. You might compose, but not nearly as much as your buddies practice. The performances of your work, if there are any, might be well-attended but will pale in comparison to the crowds at the operas and symphony concerts. The festival is, in most cases, very good to you and your colleagues; but ultimately, you’re on the fringe, a vital part of the mission statement but one that spends precious little time center stage.

It’s a brand-new experience, then, to come to a festival where composers are the main attraction. The eight of us were the focus of the festival’s final night, but the MICF love affair with new music runs much deeper than just the last night’s festivities. The three programs presented during the week featured more than 20 works, just about 100 percent by living composers. No fewer than twelve of us were in the building, introducing our work and talking to our audience before and after the performances. The emphasis of MICF is unequivocally on creating an environment where new music can flourish and grow. As was pointed out to me by Ryan Chase, another 2013 resident composer, MICF makes a statement through its very use of the word “resident”. The eight of us aren’t “student” composers or “young” composers; we’re residents, brought in to be creative partners in the festival and its offerings.


Composers Jason Thorpe Buchanan, Greg Simon, Ryan Chase and Wei-Chieh Lin
having a post-rehearsal round on Tuesday night.

The Community

There are many great festivals around the country and the world with similar goals and aims for new music, it’s true. But what makes MICF so special isn’t just its artistic bent, but the community it serves. The eight residents came from all over the world to Columbia, including visitors from New York, California, and the Netherlands. Not a one of us had ever been to Columbia before our arrival here in town, save for local boy David Witter. None of us knew what to expect from the community or its listeners, but I don’t know that we were expecting an appetite for new music on par with New York or L.A. Columbia, after all, is a college town separated from the nearest major city by a two-hour drive. At 100,000 denizens, it’s less than half the size of Buffalo and could fit into Los Angeles 38 times.

But its smaller size makes the presence of community members at rehearsals, talks, and concerts even more inspiring. At most events, the residents sit elbow-to-elbow with members of the Columbia community, who come out in droves for the chance to see this elite group of performers in action. There’s real conversation and familiar faces—it’s not unusual to see attendants to lectures or concerts grabbing their morning coffee the next day. (By the way, be sure to get a chocolate shake at Lakota Coffee. You’ll thank me later.) Most of those who come out aren’t affiliated with Mizzou’s School of Music, although there are plenty of students hanging around, too. Each of the three concerts of the week drew a sizeable crowd, with Columbians from all walks of life.
And of course, no account of MICF would be complete without mentioning the local heroes of the festival, Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield. Financial support of the festival through the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation is just the beginning for Jeanne and Rex. The Sinquefields opened their incredible estate to the MICF performers and composers to start the week with a kickoff banquet. (Side note: Rex drives a golf cart much better than I ever will.) You could find them at just about any of the week’s events. Jeanne has done some incredible work in service of her mission to grow Missouri’s contemporary music offerings, and MICF is a beautiful example of that. By including Mizzou faculty and students at every stage of the festival (Stefan Freund, cellist for AWS, is a faculty member at Mizzou), from composer to performer to administrator, she ensures that it will always be a blend of the best talent in Missouri and musicians from afar.

Jeanne Sinquefield and Augusta Read Thomas

Jeanne Sinquefield (left) chats with guest composer Augusta Read Thomas (right)
at the Sinquefield Estate.

Alarm Will Sound

Whether they’re working on your piece or someone else’s, it’s a pretty valuable composition lesson just to watch Alarm Will Sound in action. It’s no surprise: the group brings together twenty phenomenal players to form a chamber music superpower. Not only that, but the time and attention they grant every composer’s music is almost unheard of elsewhere in the orchestra world. AWS rehearses repertoire for the festival (including the eight world premieres) six or more hours each day during the week, including performance days. That’s on top of a three-day pre-festival “band camp” at the Sinquefield Reserve for more rehearsal.
The rehearsal schedule is intense and all-consuming; each participating composer gets a generous block of time to try things out, make changes to their pieces, and field questions. After the day’s activities, all is set aside in favor of beer, wine, and really awful music jokes. For the eight residents, the festival is an opportunity to take risks with incredible players and test their limits. It’s also an opportunity to skip most of the growing pains of passing out new music—the fumbled runs, the missed key changes—and skip right to drawing the music out of a brand new piece. And yes, it’s a chance to have a drink or two with some extraordinary musicians.

Most importantly, though, it’s a chance to put music in front of true professionals and get their full, brutal honesty. There were frank discussions about what notation worked or didn’t work, how to craft scores and parts for maximum efficiency, and how extended techniques like multiphonics can be used without being exhausting for the performer. Even in moments of tough love, AWS is kind. Even in the hardest trial-by-fire moments, AWS is adventurous. Regardless of style, writing for them is a pleasure, and having them as a lab to try out compositional ideas is an invaluable learning experience for a composer.

The Composers

The composers invited to the festival came from all over the world, as far away as the Netherlands and as close by as across town. We were a diverse group with eight totally different stories and styles—from Ryan Chase’s luminous tonality to Wei-Chieh Lin’s intricate, Grisey-influenced sonic landscapes. Andrew Davis, Elizabeth Kelly, and myself all profess to be influenced by jazz and pop, to three radically different ends. Eric Guinivan comes out of his experience as a world-class percussionist, and David Witter writes music that reflects his love of free improvisation. On Saturday night, the concert of eight premieres revealed a radical cross-section of the contemporary music world.

An excerpt from Jason Thorpe Buchanan’s Asymptotic Flux: First Study in Entropy (2012).
Video courtesy of Jason Thorpe Buchanan.

I’ve found this one of the greatest perks of attending music festivals: to encounter the music of other young artists that you might otherwise gloss over for lack of time or chances. Our field is one where the blinders go on all too easily, if only because there’s far too much great music out there to spend much time seeking out the brand new. Composers at music festivals have the opportunity to throw those blinders in the trash, and Mizzou goes the extra mile by surrounding you with nothing but living music.

In fact, Mizzou offers an even steeper inundation into the new music landscape than many. The focus of the eight composers at MICF is on building the premiere of a big new piece. As a resident, not only are you seeing new music from seven other voices in composition, but seeing the growing pains that come along with it. Composers sit in on the others’ rehearsals, following along with the score and observing the agony and ecstasy of the rehearsal process. The strengths and weaknesses of each piece are in the forefront when pieces are raw, and the residents see each other’s. In our off hours, we talked through issues both musical and extramusical. We talked about developing craft, shaping the voice, and silencing the demons. Every aspect of the process was laid bare. The usual festival experience of encountering colleagues’ music is enhanced by watching their process, understanding their anxieties, and—at the premiere performance of their work—sharing their elation.

On Stage Interview

Guest composer Daniel Kellogg interviews resident composer Elizabeth Kelly
as Andrew Davis, Wei-Chieh Lin, and Eric Guinivan look on during the final concert.

The End

So here I am, a few days after the incredible last concert at MICF 2013, trying to make sense of the experience. There’s no doubt in my mind: In a country filled with inspiring opportunities for young composers, the Mizzou International Composers’ Festival is unique. The wealth of offerings to the resident composers, the “bring it on” attitude that Alarm Will Sound applies to every new piece, and the emphasis on composers and performers growing together are all remarkable, made doubly so by the (somewhat unlikely) surroundings.

Throw in the emphasis on local participation and talent, and the festival’s aims become clearer: MICF is hoping to create a new kind of space for new music in the community. The festival brings world-class performers and young composers together with an uninitiated audience, inviting them to experience the process of building new music in all its painful, rapturous glory. Audience members can interact with and understand composers and performers in their element, in a way that might only be possible in such a context. Featuring local talent gives Columbia a voice in the festival, and a presence that lingers long after the applause dies down from the premieres concert. MICF is creating a new music festival that its college-town community owns, and is going a long way in building Mizzou and Columbia into major destinations for contemporary music in town and beyond. If it can work in Columbia, maybe one day it could work in Corvallis, Tallahassee, Boseman… who knows? If one thing’s for sure, it’s that this is a festival to watch, in a town to watch. Composers, take note: There’s no place quite like this.


Greg Simon

Greg Simon
Photo by Erin Algiere

Composer and jazz trumpeter Greg Simon is currently pursuing a doctorate at the University of Michigan and is the young composer-in-residence for the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings. His music has been performed by ensembles and performers around the country, including Alarm Will Sound, the Fifth House Ensemble, the Playground Ensemble of Denver, and the California All-State Symphonic Band, and is featured on recordings by the California State University, Fullerton Wind Ensemble, the Fifth House Ensemble, and violist Karen Bentley Pollick. When he’s not composing, Greg enjoys hockey, microbrews, and short stories.

What Do You Sound Like, and Where Are You Going?–Thoughts from the 2013 June in Buffalo Festival

For new music lovers in western New York, the first week of June promises not only the burgeoning warmth of the summer months, but the personal discovery of recent works by talented and sometimes unduly obscure composers. The 2013 edition of the annual June in Buffalo festival featured the compositions of 29 participant composers, as well as esteemed guest faculty including Brian Ferneyhough, Augusta Read Thomas, and Charles Wuorinen.

Composer-conductor Lukas Foss first cultivated the new music soil that would yield the annual festival in 1964 when he conceived of the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts. Through its fellowships for composers and performers of contemporary music, the Center set the cultural precedent at the University at Buffalo for Morton Feldman’s June festival, which he inaugurated in 1975 as a complement to the Center’s “Evenings for New Music” series. After 1980, the festival lay dormant until it was revived by current artistic director David Felder in 1986.

From the outset, June in Buffalo 2013 demonstrated that a composition doesn’t communicate in a vacuum, but instead often reveals its vitality while in dialogue with other works. The first half of the evening concert on June 3, featuring the Talujon Percussion Ensemble and the JACK Quartet, included the intriguing combination of John Cage’s Third Construction for percussion quartet and David Felder’s Stuck-stücke for string quartet. While each work is naturally expressive in and of itself, together they spoke to the larger notion of how four musicians engage in intuitive dialogue with one another: What does the architecture of the orchestration look like? How does the interplay between instruments evolve over the life of the piece? Though these questions can certainly be pondered during a single concert, over the span of the weeklong festival these ideas were given time and space to germinate, manifesting themselves in multiple performances of diverse works, interpreted by musicians with varying sensibilities.

The participant composers’ program for Friday, June 7, which touted the most wonderfully eclectic grouping of works of the festival, exemplified how intricate and distinct these intramusical relationships can be. As performed by the Alsace, France-based Ensemble Linea, the set was characterized by a particularly unmitigated energy, in which the mixture of exuberance and skill made the composers’ respective intentions clear. Written for an amplified quartet of bass clarinet, violin, viola, and cello, Asymptotic Flux: First Study in Entropy by Jason Thorpe Buchanan is an unearthly collage of sounds. Like many of the June in Buffalo compositions, Flux centered on the expressive textures one can create by combining multiple timbres from different instruments. Though conceptually direct, the resulting sounds of Buchanan’s piece were delightfully ambiguous: frantic joy could be as easily heard as extreme distemperment.

Amidst a frothy sea of June in Buffalo works characterized by chaotic rhythms and liberal doses of dissonance, Colin Tucker’s engulfed, constrained in a widening gap felt like a direct challenge to that approach. The composer set out to see how much could be expressed with the fewest number of notes possible, as desolate plateaus of extended silence were interrupted occasionally by the thin and airy rasp of strings.

What followed Tucker’s refreshing work was arguably the most beautiful piece of the entire festival—Fifty Pairs of Eyes for string trio by Philadelphia composer Jenny Beck. The composition began with a simple but emphatic viola glissando up a half step. The central melody continued to ruminate on that theme, as the violin drifted in and out of abstraction high above the viola. The cello then takes over the initial motive before a trio section that contrasts pizzicato with tender, elongated notes. Beck seemed to be playing with the fine balance between maintaining a tonal center and indulging in atmospheric gestures. The effect was somewhat like differentiating between a representational painting of someone breathing, and an attempt to paint the texture of the air itself.



June in Buffalo also offered intriguing examples of how extramusical elements can be commingled to foster epiphany and create new realities of higher resolution. Tuesday evening’s concert, presented in Lippes Concert Hall (the festival’s primary venue) featured the only program of the festival exclusively devoted to the work of one composer, Charles Wuorinen. It was a particularly momentous occasion for Wuorinen, who was honored with an honorary doctorate in music from the University at Buffalo. The proceedings also served as a celebration of the composer’s 75th birthday, which arrived officially a week later.

With regards to the music itself, what followed was an auspicious showcase of the week’s lone full-scale vocal work, It Happens Like This, with text culled from the poetry of Pulitzer Prize winner James Tate. The curiously insightful 2010 cantata made for gorgeous and engrossing theater, as performed by the Slee Sinfonietta—UB’s “new music” chamber orchestra—and a consummate vocal quartet of Sharon Harms, Lauren Mercado Wright, Steven Brennfleck, and Ethan Herschenfeld.

The question of how to set seven of Tate’s intensely prosaic vignettes, brimming with empathy and veiled wit, would appear to be supremely daunting. But under Wuorinen’s conception, surreal interpersonal nightmares in which fate ultimately ignores the characters’ futile pretentions of upright living, like “The Formal Invitation” and “Intruders,” only gained in clarity. With a combination of spoken word and arioso, the vocal lines were pungent but inherently mellifluous. Meanwhile, the Sinfonietta’s instrumental accompaniment seemed to swirl around the voices intermittently in veristic bursts of modernist tone colors. And while Wuorinen’s use of poetic texts is by no means revolutionary, his ability to coax even more nuance out of the masterful source material was compelling to experience.

Ironically, the most memorable performance of the entire week was not given by a musician at all, but by dancer Melanie Aceto, who collaborated with the Buffalo-based composer Megan Grace Buegger to present the premiere of Liaison, a performance art piece that I hope has opened the door for similarly experimental works to be performed during future JiB festivals.

At first, though the choreography and the resulting music complemented each other well, they did not seem directly correlated. But gradually, the gritty strumming of the piano strings and their undulating overtones became increasingly linked to Aceto’s movements; her fluid yet ultimately constricted motions were causing the music. Finally, the separate entities of dancer and piano were somehow conjoined, and it became clear that the dancer was the source of all of the sounds. Here’s how it was done. The grand piano’s lid was removed and in its place there was a network of five suspended pulleys holding wires which bow the piano strings. Each pulley was activated through the movements of the soloist, Aceto, whose limbs were connected to the pulleys via bungee cords and velcro. As a result, it was possible to hear as well as see Aceto dance.

After the performance, Megan Grace Buegger explained the genesis of this unusual collaboration.

Perhaps the most intriguing development for June in Buffalo as an institution was the implementation of its inaugural Performance Institute, which aims to mentor emergent interpreters of new music as they work alongside the resident ensembles of the festival, mirroring the proven dynamic of faculty composers and participant composers. The week neared its end with two consecutive concerts performances by the Institute participants. Approaching nearly three hours in total length, the second of the two enjoyable programs was the longest and weightiest of the June in Buffalo concerts, featuring the works of heavy hitters Babbitt, Carter, Cage, Stockhausen, and Bernd Alois Zimmerman. As indicated by the committed interpretations of such talented musicians as percussionist Ross Aftel, pianists Jade Conlee and Michiko Saiki, and cellist T.J. Borden, the Performance Institute promises to provide invaluable support to June in Buffalo’s already regenerative nature for years to come.


Six days earlier, I had arrived in the basement of University at Buffalo’s Slee Hall for the first concert of the week. I was confronted with a vast array of percussion instruments, which took over more than half of the space, from the bandshell in the rear of the room to the feet belonging to the listeners with legs politely crossed in the front row of the audience. The meager area designated for seating had become flush with the presence of approximately 60 to 70 people. As the recital began and I listened to California composer Ben Phelps’s Year of Solitary Thinking—In Metal, a beautifully erratic composition filled with the dark timbres and tactile atmosphere evoked by the percussion and prepared piano, I was reminded of a crucial notion: ultimately, new music is subject only to the insatiable rigors of the creative spirit, and nothing else. It isn’t really about what the sound is, but where that sound is compelled to go.

No Idea Festival 2013: Improv Anywhere

Chris Cogburn
Chris Cogburn recently curated the 10th annual No Idea Festival with six concerts in Austin and San Antonio. Hailed by the Paris Transatlantic as “one of the finest improvised festivals in the world,” this year’s gathering featured performances by nineteen musicians who made domestic treks from Austin, Houston, Jackson, and New York, as well as those who braved customs with loads of arcane gear from New Zealand, Germany, France, and Mexico. Grizzled veterans were joined by new players in a variety of collaborative efforts over the six-day event, one in which new relationships were formed and existing relationships were strengthened through brief but intense rehearsals to facilitate “free improvisations, composition, noise, and sonic interventions.”
A free show on the Pfluger pedestrian bridge served as a somewhat casual pre-festival opener. Hailing from the streets of Mexico City by way of New Zealand and Spain, Misha Marks was joined by Austinite Ralph White for a bit of off-the-cuff busking on a spectacular Saturday afternoon. The Pfluger pedestrian bridge is quite well traveled on any given day and even more so on the weekend, so there was no shortage of people passing and pausing to hear Marks, and White trade fours. The second set featured Cogburn and Dafne Vincente-Sandoval in musical conversation. Their interaction was somewhat more sparse and introverted, but still quite communicative and expressive. Perhaps the most compelling thing about these sets was the fact that the audience had no frame of reference. Some walked by without so much as a turn of the head while others stopped and soaked in every nuance, not necessarily realizing that this was a planned show and not another Austin oddity. Children had some of the most interesting reactions, eyes big with wonder when the sounds would come together in a recognizable form, invisible worlds forming in those little craniums.

Dafne Vicente-Sandoval and Chris Cogburn

Dafne Vicente-Sandoval and Chris Cogburn

I headed to the Salvage Vanguard Theater for the opening event where Cogburn, Vincente-Sandoval, and her fellow Parisian laptop artist Xavier Lopez performed a set of live improvisation. Among the goals of the festival is to bring artists together not only for one-off shows but also to build multi-year relationships; relationships that serve to more fully develop the depth of communication in each improvisation. Immediately following a brief introduction by Cogburn, a siren dopplered its way down the street outside as if to signal entry into a world in which every sound is musically fair game. Vincente-Sandoval began with chirps and clicks on her bassoon reed as Lopez invoked punches of static from the laptop. Cogburn placed a cymbal on the snare, creating resonance with friction from a dowel placed in its center, which combined cleanly with a rising (and piercing) set of frequencies from Lopez’s laptop. Something about the level of volume and the particular frequencies, all quite high in pitch, filled the room and got into my head, which while not painful was a bit scary. I kept thinking, “One false move with that dial and we’re all toast.” As the work progressed, Vincente-Sandoval gradually assembled her bassoon, continuing to coax sounds that had more body and resonance while retaining the short, sharp character of the opening. The players clearly had respect for each other’s space which resulted in clear background and foreground during the performance with very little stepping on one another’s toes. This was made all the more clear by the very different palettes utilized by each player. Lopez’s static and wholly electronic world played out in stark contrast to the others. Cogburn was able to create long tones which had characteristics in common with elements of Lopez’s world, though they were timbrally distinctive. Vincente-Sandoval’s staccato arsenal could at times echo the static of Lopez but also had an organic quality that served to contrast with those electronics and while blending well with Cogburn’s offerings. Very cool.

The No Idea performance I attended last year was at The Broken Neck, a large warehouse on the east side. In a marked contrast to that visceral space, I found myself at The Performance Loft, an uber-swanky venue in the heart of downtown Austin. I was initially unsure about whether to even go in, thinking I must be in the wrong place, but when I saw Bonnie I knew all was well. I arrived several minutes before Bob Hoffnar (on pedal steel) and Aaron Allen (on upright bass) began their set. Hoffnar and Allen performed a commission by Catherine Lamb, one that involved an unorthodox tuning designed to correspond with the 60 cycle hum generated by standard US voltage as well as the 50 cycle European standard. Bowed harmonics on the bass shared space with low pedal swells, the two combining to form resultant tones that echoed bells with no attack. As Hoffnar swelled up and down in volume, the hum from the pickups lent a body to the sound not unlike what you might hear when walking under a lamppost. It struck me that it didn’t seem incongruous to the work, and Hoffnar mentioned afterward that because the piece was based on voltage cycles, the pickup hum actually fit right in.

Chris Cogburn played a piece written by Bryan Eubanks which was not only the brightest spot among many that evening, but one of the simplest and most compelling pieces I’ve heard in a long time. It’s so simple that I’m not sure how to convey the impact to you, but here it goes. Cogburn began with a roll on the snare, near the rim. Over the course of five or six minutes he gradually increased in volume, though his overall dynamic journey was essentially from mf to f. I suppose that Eubanks borrowed a bit from a magician’s sleight of hand-book, because as I was intently listening to what essentially appeared to be a drum roll I began to hear something else. Or did I? I thought I was hearing some kind of very quiet hiss or static and figured it must be my brain reacting to the prolonged roll. I began to turn my head a bit to “feel” the sound and realized that many people were doing the same thing; looking around the room trying to figure out if that “other” sound was a real thing or some crazy artifact of the roll. I should at this point tell you that the Performance Loft has a very involved surround sound speaker system (360+ speakers!) that is carefully integrated into the walls such that you hardly notice it, and it was from these speakers that a gradually increasing white noise signal was emanating. Maybe it was the shared “A-ha!” moment with other audience members, or the simplicity of the sort of 21st-century Bolero vibe that the piece had, but when the Cogburn and the static reached critical mass, held it, and cut off abruptly to end the work, the place went nuts. It was simply awesome and everyone was excitedly talking about it. I’m not sure if it would have the same impact the second time around or if it would suffer as the movie “Sixth Sense” can on a second viewing because you know what’s coming, but that first time…whoa.

Remi Álvarez, Damon Smith, and Alvin Fielder

Remi Álvarez, Damon Smith, and Alvin Fielder

The last set of the evening featured Alvin Fielder on drums and percussion, Damon Smith on upright bass, and Remi Álvarez on saxophone. On a night with static lurking in the darkness and pedal steel guitars tuned to electric sockets, this final set was arguably the most conventional, though I don’t use that term pejoratively. Fielder set up delicate textures with bells, shakers, and other hand percussion while Álvarez comped harmonics. Damon Smith pulled out all the stops, coaxing a wide variety of sounds and attacks from the bass. Clearly part of the conventionality was that the drums/bass/sax setup has a long and storied history which informs any performance, even if that performance strives to be something completely different. However, these players were clearly above all that and spent their set as the other improvisers had at the festival; focusing on each moment and event as they assembled them into a new work of art.

I was struck by this year’s festival—not only by the music, but also by the diversity of audience and venue. Presenting this music in typical concert halls will only go so far and connect with so many. Outdoor afternoon bridge concerts with kids and dogs in attendance, an evening show in otherwise private performance space populated by the usual suspects, and shows in hidden museums all speak to the need to put this music in as many different places as possible so the largest number of people can find it. Cogburn is ten years into this journey, and in that time he has done a great deal to bring the diverse world of improv to the experienced as well as uninitiated in central Texas.

Reporting From Mexico

Monterrey is the seat of the third largest metropolitan area in Mexico and is, arguably, the most “Americanized” city in the country, allowing me the idiosyncratic sensation of comfort I get from consciously eschewing establishments offering mass-hypnosis in the form of fast-food and warehouse shopping. The daily routine, though, of Encuentro Internacional de Jazz y Música Viva makes it somewhat difficult to sightsee or go shopping for souvenirs. Every day, our group of ten musicians is scheduled to rehearse from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. with workshops being conducted from 3-6 p.m. and, since Wednesday, concerts from 8-10 p.m.

Tonight (May 11) the musicians from the United States (myself, trumpeter Herb Robertson, and drummer Lou Grassi) will be featured. Yesterday’s concert featured the music of the musicians from Europe: pianist Sophia Domancich, saxophonist Harri Söström, trombonist Conrad “Conny” Bauer, and guitarist Andreas Willers. Tomorrow is the last concert and features works presented by musicians from Mexico (guitarist and event organizer Omar Tamez and saxophonist Rémi Álvarez) and Bolivia (saxophonist Marcos Miranda). Our program, so far, consists of two compositions of mine (a cycling dirge, “The Carpenter,” and an up-tempo multiple-layer blues, “9-2”), one by Robertson (“Cosmic Child,” a 32-measure piece with chord changes that is parsed into three somewhat independent events using a varied palette of improvisational strategies), and two by Grassi (“Avanti Galoppi” and “Parallel Realities,” both comprised of single-line melodies that serve to mark the compositions’ structures and forms, which are interpretations of their titles). The promoter wanted tonight’s performance to be dedicated to the memory of Paul Motian and we were happy to oblige by adding “From Time to Time” (Motian in Tokyo, JMT, 1991) to the program.

This is the third (and I sincerely hope not the last) Encuentro in Monterrey I’ve been a part of. If my memory serves me well, the first was in 2004 and the second in 2008. The first was a two-week affair with concerts held on the weekends. The artists were housed at an elegant Howard Johnson’s in downtown Monterrey. Sadly, the hotel has not been well maintained and a hurricane that devastated much of that area of the city has turned it into a mold trap. Fortunately, a Hilton opened in Fundidora Park, where Encuentro is held, and our accommodations are better than ever. Yesterday was Mother’s Day in Mexico and the hotel’s dining facilities were decked out in grand style, complete with a strolling violinist, making lunch a gala affair. But even the added festivities couldn’t alter the bittersweet feeling that accompanies the knowledge that a unique and vital musical event is now only half what it once was. While those who are in-the-know when it comes to improvised music support the Encuentro de Jazz y Música Viva Monterrey series, even to the point of people traveling from nearby Texas and New Mexico to attend, the local tastes are more acclimated to indigenous folk, popular Latin, and dance music.

Monterrey is a major, and possibly the center of corporate culture in Mexico, which is reflected in the attitude towards music education here. So far, Tamez has been working with select local businesses and the home embassies of the musicians he brings to Monterrey for support. This year a new and surprising source of support in the person of Roberto Romero, the owner of Roberto’s Winds and Michiko Studios, has appeared at Encuentro Monterrey. Roberto is no stranger to saxophonists in New York, and a saxophonist who travels to that city inevitably winds up at his 46th Street shop. I go there often to rehearse at Michiko Studios, the most affordable high-quality rehearsal studios in Manhattan. It turns out that Romero has dealerships in Australia as well as in Mexico City. Tamez met Romero on one of his trips to New York and the two agreed that this year a nation-wide saxophone competition would be included in the list of Encuentro events with the first prize being a Roberto’s Winds signature soprano saxophone. So now, not only can you buy recordings by the various artists performing at Encuentro de Jazz y Música Viva Monterrey, but you can also try out and buy a brand new saxophone from Roberto’s Winds!

I think this could be the start of something really great for Encuentro de Jazz y Música Viva Monterrey and the world of improvised music. I’ll include pictures next week, but now I have to go rehearse…