Tag: music series

Should I Start a New Music Ensemble?

Nouveau Classical Project headquarters

Nouveau Classical Project HQ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vicki Ray Reflects on 20 Years of Piano Spheres

Vicki Ray

Vicki Ray

“I believe in composers,” Vicki Ray tells me. This is exactly the kind of thing that could sound like an empty platitude, but she says it with undeniable conviction—and with the track record to back it up, too. Along with Gloria Cheng, Mark Robson, and Susan Svercek, Ray is one of four pianists involved with the Piano Spheres concert series, a Los Angeles institution that is now celebrating its 20th anniversary. Over the years, Piano Spheres has presented 73 premieres (48 of them world premieres), and commissioned 19 pieces through the Leonard Stein Memorial Fund. According to Ray, however, the actual number of commissions associated with the series is harder to pin down, since “sometimes other institutions like CalArts help out, and sometimes I just pay for it out of my own pocket.” (Because she believes in composers.)

Of course Piano Spheres programs older music, too—that is, contemporary music that is no longer contemporary, until we have a better term for this kind of thing. Mark Robson’s recent concert on February 11 covered a remarkable swath of music from the 20th and 21st centuries, including everything from extremely delicate pieces by Beat Furrer, Toru Takemitsu, and Olivier Messiaen, to thorny fingerbusters by Charles Ives and Thomas Adès, whose Concert Paraphrase on “Powder Her Face” sounded something like a diabolical tango buried under layers of dense counterpoint and Lisztian shrapnel.

Mark Robson in performance

Mark Robson in performance

Ray’s upcoming program on March 18, by contrast, is solely grounded in the present. She will play several recent works by living composers, including Hoyt-Schermerhorn by Invisible Cities composer Christopher Cerrone, Six Settings for Solo Piano by local composer and LA Phil percussionist Joseph Pereira, and Donnacha Dennehy’s Stainless Staining. She’s particularly excited to play Dennehy’s music, which doesn’t get a lot of performances on the West Coast, she says.

Ray will also play the winning piece from their spring 2013 audience poll, a new initiative created for Piano Spheres’ 20th season. This poll allowed the audience to vote for one piece from a shortlist of pieces from the last twenty years for each pianist to perform again. When the audience voted for Ray’s own composition, The Waking, her reaction was one of incredulity. “I was shocked, stunned… I swear I didn’t stuff the ballot box!”

This modesty carries over into Ray’s account of how she first became involved in Piano Spheres, the brainchild of musicologist and pianist Leonard Stein. “I had just finished my doctorate, and Leonard just called me up one day and asked me to be a part of it.” She attributes much of Piano Spheres’ early success to the respect and “street cred” that Stein carried within the new music community. (At the time, Stein was also the music director of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC, which did much to promote Schoenberg’s music and legacy in Los Angeles.)

Ray with Morton Subotnick and Leonard Stein

Ray with Morton Subotnick and Leonard Stein.

But even with Stein’s participation, Piano Spheres was a risky proposition at first, with the LA new music community being much smaller in those days. Ray vividly describes how things have changed in the past 20 years:

Back then, it was basically the [California] EAR Unit and Xtet in town, and those were the two main new music groups, and then there was the [LA Phil’s] Green Umbrella series, but there wasn’t that much going on, certainly not the unbelievable plethora of small venues that you see here everywhere today. There are so many new groups right now—for example, there’s Gnarwhallaby, and What’s Next Ensemble, and the Hear Now Festival, and all the stuff at Monk Space, and People Inside Electronics, and DC8—and that’s just a drop in the bucket. It just feels like the community’s grown, and it’s more vibrant, and it’s less dependent on big venues and established theories. There’s a lot more self-producing going on.

Part of that vibrancy is certainly due to pioneering groups like Piano Spheres, which started out with a similar DIY spirit. “When we first started out we didn’t have a board, we were just licking stamps and self-producing our own concerts,” Ray recalls. The series started out at the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church of Pasadena, but their audiences quickly outgrew the space, and they soon moved to the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, where they continue to host concerts today.

Piano Spheres

Piano Spheres (l to r) Mark Robson, Gloria Cheng, Leonard Stein, Vicki Ray, and Susan Svercek.
Photo by Betty Freeman.

Stein passed away in 2004, just before the series’ 10th anniversary, but by then it had enough structure and momentum to sustain itself. “As word got out, we started to get a lot of solicitations from pianists from all over the world, because there’s really no other series like this.” This allowed the series to host a rotating cast of guest artists from all over the world, a long list that includes Thomas Adès, Kathleen Supové, Christopher O’Riley, Ursula Oppens, Eric Huebner, Joanne Pearce Martin, and Liam Viney.
But as Ray says, “Leonard’s original mission was to showcase pianists from Los Angeles, so that has always been part of the mission. Our main new venture we’re starting is this Satellite Series, where we’re showcasing four younger pianists also from the Los Angeles area. We feel like we want to pass on the legacy that Leonard left us to the next generation.” The inaugural run of the Satellite Series will commence in 2015 with Steven Vanhauwaert, Richard Valitutto, Aron Kallay, and Nic Gerpe as the featured performers.

As for Ray, she has an eclectic range of things to keep her busy in the meantime. Her other performances in the past month have included a gig with jazz composer-improviser Wadada Leo Smith in Mexico City, and a performance with Aron Kallay as the Ray-Kallay Duo at the MicroFest Records Release Party, celebrating the album release of John Cage’s Ten Thousand Things, which earned Ray a Grammy nomination this past year.

When she goes on sabbatical from teaching at CalArts next year, Ray has a few other ideas for things in the works—“I can’t seem to stop starting projects,” she admits. She wants to get back into composing more, and dreams of commissioning a prepared piano concerto from John Luther Adams. She also hopes to start a new local concert series for art song, which would bring her closer to her classical roots as a performer, which she feels often gets overlooked:

You do get pigeonholed…I used to do tons of lieder recitals and traditional chamber music, but people tend to think of you one way, and what can you do? But they inform each other, so you want to keep your traditional sensibility, and your historical link to the past. When I was a student I did standard rep all the time. Now I think if it’s a great piece and I want to play it, I don’t care when it was written.

New England’s Prospect: The Agnosticism of Boston’s Equilibrium Concert Series

Boston's Equilibrium Concert Series

Waiting for the show, February 21, 2014.

Boston’s Equilibrium Concert Series, which started in 2011, has made entire seasons—not to mention an entire new music community—out of that most alchemical of compositional tricks: establishing a connection between two ideas simply by putting them next to each other. The organization opportunistically shifts its identity between composer collective and presenter, at times putting together made-to-measure programs of premieres, at times turning over the reins to friendly performers and groups who bring in their own repertoire and connections. Instead of a unified aesthetic, they end up with a multitude of enthusiasms. The idea that 21st-century new music is stylistically agnostic might be somewhere between a truism and an extrapolation, but EQ actually comes pretty close to that ideal.

Their concert on February 21—at the Central Square YMCA Theater in Cambridge, one of the area’s more elegantly ramshackle spaces—featured Boston Modern Brass. (The group also made an appearance on EQ’s 2012-13 season.) The program was spiked with examples of the group’s spoke-by-spoke connectivity. One of the performers—trumpeter Jason Huffman—is also one of EQ’s core organizers; three others—trumpeter Jonah Kappraff, hornist Yoni Kahn, and tubist Beth McDonald—also lend their talents to the EQ Ensemble, an as-big-as-it-needs-to-be group that gathers for the more composer-centric concerts. (Trombonist Paul Fleming rounds out the quintet.) Another EQ organizer, Aaron Jay Myers, had a piece premiered on the concert, which also included a contribution from Kahn.

The rest of the program had something of a throwback feel, built around a trio of old-school modernist works combining mixed-meter angles with chunky dissonances and nervous energy. What was interesting was how much the program’s 21st-century pieces seemed to channel similar vibes; it was almost as if the sheer choice of instrumentation allowed some atavistic, brass-based form of American once-upon-a-time-new music to again express itself. Coincidental or not, it was a reminder of how much fizz is still in that style—it might be retro, but the best of it never gets old.

And the old stuff was pretty good indeed. William Mayer’s 1965 Brass Quintet was the busiest, a dense hubbub of teletype Neoclassicism. Mayer’s catalog has ranged far and wide, stylistically speaking; the Quintet is tonal, but just barely, with an efficient use of effect. (The third movement, a toccata-scherzo in which the players seem determined to sabotage any hint of heroic brass—with mutes, with fluttertongued raspberries, with speed-bump rhythmic shifts—was especially fluent in that regard.)

The music of John Huggler, who died in 1993, seems ripe for rediscovery. I was surprised to find he doesn’t even rate a Grove entry. For years a professor at UMass-Boston, he spent a couple seasons in the ’60s as that rarest of birds, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence. (One fruit of that has made it online.) Huggler’s Quintet for Brass Instruments, from 1963, was a real beauty, sinuous and austere: an opening movement that made compelling use of long tones in fast rhythms, an almost-fugue marked by stark unison passages, a “Mysterioso” wonderfully cast with a high tuba solo, a closing clutch of tight, cubist fanfares.

In between came Ralph Shapey’s marvelous grit: his Fanfares, composed in 1981, is three minutes of pure, unadulterated crunch. Shapey’s penchant for massiveness was out in full force—it’s kind of amazing how he could make the quintet sound so much bigger than it is, as if filming it from an extremely low angle—but so was his restless imagination: the clashes and clusters are refracted through all manner of mutes and voicings.

The concert opened with Counterpoint, a 2003 piece by Kahn —his first completed work, according to the program notes. It was an interesting mediation between busy modernism and easygoing post-minimalism. Its somewhat slow harmonic rhythm was translated into a density of attack: drones and pedal tones reiterated into an agitated stutter of short notes. Individual lines were overlaid with cross-traffic accents. Dissonant intervals came on a steady bed of fourths and fifths.

The one brand-new piece, Aaron Jay Myers’s FLUX, was, much of the time, an exploration of different kinds of homophony: first a series of repeated chords, then a division of the quintet into two factions (horn, trombone, and tuba in slow, moody cahoots, while the trumpets offer muted chatter), then a fluid lock-step chorale, then a return of the opening idea. (Myers’s program note linked the structure to a personal struggle and recovery; one could, in that light, hear those opening jitters transformed, lemons-to-lemonade style, into crackling positive energy behind the chorale’s cushion.)

The program’s one apparent outlier, Hans Abrahamsen’s Rundt Og Imellem (“Round and In-Between,” finished in 1976) seemed to visit from another concert, in both its European origin and its in-your-face simplicity and triadic tonality. Still, its rhythmic ideas were congenial to the program, its squared phrasing trimmed to odd numbers of beats, lending an off-kilter surrealism to its deliberate genericism. A cheery brass band marches through an Escher print; a bright fanfare drifts out of step with itself; a soft-edged legato turns more loping than lyrical. The piece makes the most of the most basic of formal contrasts, juxtaposed jump-cut style: that marching band tune interrupted by tuplet outbursts, those fanfares undercut with dark, droning pedals. Trumpet and horn pick up a triangle and bells, respectively, at the end, a pastoral touch genial and jarring at the same time. In fact, Myers’s currents and Abrahamsen’s clockwork formed a complement that, rhythmically speaking, encompassed the whole program. Where Abrahamsen’s mixed meters were subtractive, looping around faster than you might expect, Myers’s were more additive, which created its own layer of lacunae: the stop-and-go rhythms really did stop, noticeably, putting each phrase in its own frame.
Equilibrium’s mixed-meter programming gives every new music style its chance to have its say. The next few EQ concerts are like some kind of eclecticist’s fever dream: a solo glockenspiel concert from Trevor Saint; the debut concert of Trio Okho, three Boston new music percussion stars (Nick Tolle, Jeffrey Means, and Mike Williams) performing Xenakis, a new piece by Victoria Cheah, and Rick Burkhardt’s amazing Great Hymn of Thanksgiving; and a string quartet concert featuring a premiere from EQ organizer Stephanie Lubkowski alongside music by Zorn and Górecki. That’s a montage to make Eisenstein proud. Equilibrium Concert Series finds balance in variation.