Counterstream Radio is your online home for exploring the music of America’s composers. Drawing upon New Music USA’s substantial library of recordings, our programming is remarkable for its depth and eclecticism. The station streams influential music of many pedigrees 24 hours a day. Keep listening and discover the sound of music without limits. Click here to open Counterstream Radio.
[Ed note: Founded in 1939 by Peter Yates and Frances Mullen in their modest Rudolf Schindler-designed Silverlake home, Monday Evening Concerts (MEC) is the world’s longest-running series devoted to contemporary music. Originally envisioned as a forum for displaced European emigrés and virtuoso Hollywood studio musicians to sink their teeth into the most challenging solo and chamber music of the day (such as the works of Charles Ives, Alexander Scriabin, Erik Satie, John Cage and Béla Bartók), MEC has blossomed its way to international acclaim for its presentation of demanding, uncompromising and poetically-charged music – whether new or ancient.
For eight decades, musical history has been made at MEC, whether it was the American conducting debut of Pierre Boulez, world premieres of compositions by Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Harold Budd, the early-career performances of future classical music icons such as Michael Tilson Thomas and Marilyn Horne, or the first Los Angeles appearances of artists like Marino Formenti, the Arditti and JACK Quartets and Steve Reich and Musicians. — Alejandro Cohen]
In 2015, I arrived in Los Angeles to become the Artistic Director of Los Angeles’ celebrated contemporary music series Monday Evening Concerts. At the time, I was finishing a doctorate in the performance of contemporary music at UC-San Diego. My life as a musician (I was, and am still, a percussionist and conductor) up until that point had revolved around academic institutions and what one might call ‘music of the hardcore avant-garde.’ So, when I arrived in Los Angeles, for the first time in my adult life, I found myself suddenly in a very different intellectual environment than the ones I had been accustomed to since I was a teenager.
By and large, thankfully, I made new friends quickly. But when the subject of what I did for a living would come up in conversation, I never knew quite what to say. Stating that I directed a contemporary music series meant virtually nothing to anybody I spoke to. So, instead, I would say that I ran a classical music concert series. Realizing that this immediately fired their synapses to Mozart and Beethoven, rather than Cage and Radigue, I would ask my friends to envision the paintings in the Louvre, and then the paintings in MoMA. Once that difference clicked for them, it became much easier to describe the type of work I was involved with. (The dissolution of representational imagery in visual arts roughly matches the timeline of the dissolution of tonality and pulse in classical music.) I would say that like visual art, classical music has an aesthetic trajectory that takes it through many different movements and vogues over the decades and centuries, and that MEC was focused largely on musical works produced since the Second World War.
Amongst my new friends, what I would consistently find is that they were incredibly intelligent, curious, open and creatively brilliant. They were highly accomplished and successful photographers, directors, dancers, designers, actors, producers, etc… They didn’t necessarily know any of the reference points I would mention, but they could sense that there were intense, beautiful and urgent ideas contained therewithin. They seemed to share my hunger to find the sublime in music (that nebulous term I continue to use even though I know is taboo), whatever form that might take.
Moreover, these friends helped me realize to what degree academia had instilled a myopia in my own conception of music. As I drifted further and further from the world of graduate studies, I became less and less interested in music as a siloed art form, and more and more interested in music as an important part of the cultural fabric of its time. As a consequence, I found myself paying close attention to how my friends responded to the works I presented at MEC. Quickly, I learned a great deal about both the surface and content of the works I cared about. Further, occasionally my friends would reveal to me their own enthusiasm for a given composer that I had – in the academic sense – considered to be rather lightweight. Suddenly, I found myself listening to their music with different ears. After two decades of austerity, I discovered that, as my friend and mentor Hamza Walker might say, ‘I like ice cream too.’
Something else I discovered was that these same folks all seemed to harbor an almost instinctive respect for what I did, even if they didn’t quite understand what it was. Very often, I’d find myself on a dance floor where New Order or Rick Ross would be blaring and realizing – everyone in here has some version of the ‘I played clarinet in middle school and I loved it!’ story. Everybody I knew, it turned out, kept that part of them very closely guarded, and they remembered that era of their life with a great deal of fondness. So, this typically engendered a generosity on their end that I found both touching and surprising. I always had just assumed that nobody cared about the type of work I did except for my immediate colleagues.
I wanted to offer this playlist as an intentionally unkempt, unruly, sprawling overview of works that have made an impression on me over the past twenty-five years of research in this field. I have preserved works I loved as a teenager, works I loved as a graduate student, works I loved while I was studying in Germany, works I have learned to love in the past seven years, works I continue to investigate, and works I perhaps myself may not love, but think are nonetheless deserving of recognition.
Certain tracks you may love immediately. Some you may despise. Some may be vexing or bewildering. That’s okay! I’m with you too. This material is challenging, but like Joyce’s novels or Tarkovsky’s films, it can be incredibly rewarding. Perhaps even transcendent, euphoric, or revelatory. And not understanding this music?…Well, that’s kind of de rigueur in this neck of the woods. Don’t worry, you’re in good company.
This playlist is intended as something of an ocean. Put on your goggles and snorkel and start exploring. As Hamza might say, ‘get in, the water’s fine.’
Different Cities Different Voices is a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators. Discover what is unique about each city’s new music scene through a set of personal essays written by people living and creating there, and hear their music as well as music from local artists selected by each essayist. For our latest edition we are putting the spotlight on Portland, Oregon. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.
Portland’s signature "maker mindset” and love of all things handcrafted carries over into the way we approach music.
Instead of six degrees of separation, there are usually no more than two. That interconnectedness and proximity makes for some strikingly original ensembles, and has presented opportunities for me to interact with urban planners, scientists, political activists, entrepreneurs, winemakers, coffee roasters, chefs, and artisans from many fields.
During the summer of 2020, when things seemed to be at their most dire, I purchased a battery-powered amplifier and started hosting jazz concerts in my driveway.
This feels, and will always feel, at least for me, like the perfect place to compose.
The spirit of imaginative resourcefulness that keeps Portland “weird” and alive is exactly the reason the new music scene thrives.
I’ve found people in this community to be genuine and passionate. People like experimentalism and nerdiness here. It's cool to be nice here.
Alex Arnold a.k.a. !mindparade
Amelia Lukas (photo by Rachel Hadiashar)
I relocated to Portland in 2014, hoping to shift the “hustle culture” I had adopted in New York City and create a new framework for myself that emphasized balance and a slower pace. I grew up in Boston and have since lived in London, San Francisco, and New York – all incredibly rich cultural epicenters that I fully enjoyed being a part of – but the magic and beauty of the Pacific Northwest had always beckoned. The access to nature here is incredible (something I highly value), and for a smaller city, Portland is home to a remarkable number of talented artists and musicians.
The spirit of the Pacific Northwest emphasizes innovation and social responsibility. The synchronicities, connections, and integrations that abound in this community, and its strong sense of place and presence, are extremely special. Portland’s signature “maker mindset” and love of all things handcrafted carries over into the way we approach music. Energized by creating something new, both in the music itself and in the models through which we experience it, musicians here tend to program with meaning, intention, and a desire to connect deeply with the community. For example, I’m proud to be a member of Fear No Music, an organization that highlights the music of living composers while leveraging its platforms for healing, activism, and social justice. Also, the brand new Patricia Reser Center for the Arts just offered an impeccably curated grand opening spring season featuring all kinds of new music from around the world, dissolving boundaries and emphasizing inclusivity.
Although Oregon is a state that values the arts, Portland faces some challenges, including a dearth of appropriate venues for intimate multi-media performances. Thankfully, potential barriers only serve to fuel the resourcefulness and creativity of local musicians. As the PR representative for SoundsTruck NW, I’m supporting the launch of an unconventional mobile venue that will bring live concerts and enrichment programming into neighborhoods and institutions, increasing access and connection to the arts with a focus on underserved areas. Chamber Music Northwest also adds fantastic variety to the mix with their [email protected] series, featuring shorter, early evening performances in the lobby of a major theater. These types of creative, modernized concert experiences sustain a vibrant new music scene.
As an artist whose career is split between freelance performance and running Aligned Artistry (the arts PR company I founded in 2018), the pandemic was very difficult. I lost all of my performing overnight, as did the vast majority of my clients. It was devastating and overwhelming; I applied for and received several artist relief grants, including one from New Music USA, which proved to be both financially and emotionally supportive, and for that I’m very grateful. With my performing at a standstill, I focused my energy on Aligned Artistry, working closely with each individual client to assess the best path forward, whether that involved putting agreements on hold, or creating new platforms to share work. At the outset of the pandemic, I felt a strong urge to make productive use of my time, and to try to “figure out” what the new paradigm should be and how to implement it. But a louder inner voice told me it was time to slow down and listen. Only after lots of observation, processing, and reflection did I feel equipped to break through the explosion of digital content, recontextualize my clients’ needs within this new framework, and develop what I hoped would be effective, thoughtful solutions that were also meaningful and sustainable. Through this process, I navigated very successful album releases (one of which received a JUNO Award nomination for Classical Album of the Year, solo artist – go Catherine Lee!!); helped clients secure transformative levels of funding; managed transitions to virtual seasons that resulted in exponential audience growth; and have begun to serve clients nationally and even internationally through Aligned Artistry. I’m passionate about using my knowledge and skills to help clients expand the impact of their work, and by staying the course and trusting in the process even when things became quite scary, I ultimately expanded my own impact and business. It’s my great privilege and joy to experience life as an artist, and I hope that my perspective, dedication, and uniquely aligned artistry adds to this community’s depth and resiliency.
My performance of Carlos Simon’s move it for alto flute
Recommendation: Remote Together by Catherine Lee; music for oboe, oboe d’amore and English horn with electronics, field recordings and fixed media by Canadian and American composers residing in the Pacific Northwest
Darrel Grant (photo by Thomas Teal)
I moved to Portland in 1997 to join the music faculty at Portland State University after ten years as a touring and recording jazz artist based in New York City. Ironically, I was not looking for a career change when I decided to make the move. I was seeking a sense of community and to feel like my work was making an impact. The series of serendipitous events that led to me accepting a tenure-track teaching position in Portland have always made my being here seem a bit predestined, despite my trepidation about saying goodbye to the New York jazz scene. A friend gave me an important piece of advice at the time that I have remembered ever since. “You don’t need to go in search of a scene,” he said. “Wherever you go, YOU are the scene.”
In my twenty-five plus years here, that has meant using music as a means to build connections, explore stories and history, and invest in serving the needs of this community by cultivating a practice of artistic engagement that promotes positive change. I have driven pianos deep into state forests to support the environment, arranged protest anthems, and shared the stage with Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu. I have curated live performances, started a record label (Lair Hill Records), launched jazz venues (The Typhoon Lounge and LV’s Uptown) and created a Jazz institute at Portland State. Being in Portland has also allowed me to shift outside the jazz genre as a composer. My 2012 chamber jazz commission “The Territory” explores the state’s geology and cultural history. A Black history month commission for the 100th anniversary of Portland’s Reed College spawned “Step By Step: The Ruby Bridges Suite,” a concert piece based on the life of the civil-rights icon Ruby Bridges. In 2017, I was commissioned by Portland’s Third Angle New Music to compose “Sanctuaries” a chamber opera exploring the racial and political underpinnings of gentrification and the experience of displaced residents of color in Portland, Oregon’s historically black Albina district.
The music scene here reflects a great deal about the city’s ethos. Portland’s progressive reputation attracts creative people of all stripes to the region. It is a large city that feels like a small town. Instead of six degrees of separation, there are usually no more than two. That interconnectedness and proximity makes for some strikingly original ensembles, and has presented opportunities for me to interact with urban planners, scientists, political activists, entrepreneurs, winemakers, coffee roasters, chefs, and artisans from many fields. Added to this is Portland’s DIY culture, which makes for a fertile environment in which to start and incubate new projects. On the downside, the lack of a substantial philanthropic base can make it hard to scale those projects beyond the startup phase.
Its dubious distinction as the whitest city of its size in America means Portland also has plenty of historical and cultural baggage to address. As a Black artist, I often have to look outside my own locale for artists with whom I share cultural identity. At the same time, I have had opportunities to share my voice at tables where folks are reimagining Portland’s future in terms of public space, policy and funding. These encounters have given rise to projects like The Soul Restoration Project’s Albina Arts Salon, a six-month residency in which I activated a historic space in the heart of Portland’s Black community that transformed a vacant storefront into an ongoing hub of arts and cultural activity. In all I’m grateful for the reception and recognition my work has received here. I was inducted into the Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame in 2009. And was named Portland Jazz Hero by the Jazz Journalists Association in 2019. In 2020, I received the Governor’s Arts Award, Oregon’s highest arts honor.
In many ways Portland is still reeling from the twin pandemics of COVID and racial unrest that started in 2020. Our boarded up downtown still bears the signs of protests that turned our streets into an “anarchist jurisdiction”, and the economic impacts that increased homelessness. The past two years have also brought clarity regarding the critical role the arts have to play in reimagining our cities and healing the traumas we face as communities, as well as deepening my engagement with communities of color and my own role in challenging systemic racism. Even as these efforts have drawn me back to my roots in jazz, I have been fortunate to expand my own circle with creators of color from a number of artforms . I am seeing some organizational transitions from performative acts of inclusion to meaningful equity, and I am interested to see how the city navigates the rechartering of its leadership after the vote this fall.
Here is a link to the title track for my upcoming CD entitled The New Black. This piece is both a retrospective of my early years in New York City, and a statement of identity that celebrates the joy and unfettered possibility of Black artistic expression.
This is a link to a track from the latest CD by Blue Cranes, one of my favorite bands that embodies the ethos of generosity, collaboration and genre-crossing expression that defines Portland to me. From their 2021 album Voices, this piece “Tatehuari” is a collaboration with Mexican-American vocalist/composer Edna Vazquez, with whom I created a 2018 performance project around immigration called “21 Cartas.
I moved to Portland in 2011 because my husband, George Colligan, accepted a position as Jazz Area Coordinator at Portland State University. Currently, I serve there as an adjunct on the jazz faculty as well as at the University of Portland.
As far as what makes Portland unique, there are a lot of creative, innovative artists here fusing different genres and mediums; I think that’s really exciting. One organization that is tremendously supportive of original music and projects is the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (PJCE), which operates a record label (PJCE Records) and is also associated with the ten-year-old Montavilla Jazz Festival. This local festival features a wide variety and diversity of Portland-based artists. I will be headlining it this year with my quintet, as we are about to release my seventh album, In a Heartbeat (PJCE Records).
The pandemic has been challenging for all of us, of course. Many venues closed, and we really missed social and artistic connections. I had received a grant from Portland State University to host the excellent Brazilian pianist Cassio Vianna for a concert and master class, but everything went virtual. So, I instead enlisted the help of several musicians (including Cassio) to put together a YouTube mini-series about Brazilian piano legends.
During the summer of 2020, when things seemed to be at their most dire, I purchased a battery-powered amplifier and started hosting jazz concerts in my driveway. This turned into The Driveway Jazz Series, which is now in its third year and has received grants from the Regional Arts and Culture Council. The free series is live-streamed and continues to bring the jazz community together, not just in Portland, but around the country. The pandemic really brought home to me how important it is to build community and to share music together.
Here’s a track from my most recent album (not the one that will be released in October):
And here is a recommendation for my endlessly prolific pianist/drummer/trumpeter husband! (I designed the album cover.)
Below my feet are the glistening slabs of concrete leading me towards the waterfront. From my right arrives the compounded smells of 20 different food carts, each offering tastes of their own little worlds. To my left is “Big Pink,” the iconic pink skyscraper so often seen in Portland’s skyline. In front of me about five or six blocks down is the waterfront. If I were to follow the Willamette River along the waterfront towards the north, I could find myself at Saturday Market – a site for local artisans, artists, and food vendors to show off their goods, for folks to mingle, meet, learn, and support these artists – an open-air tapestry of creation. If I were instead to follow the river south, I could eventually find myself passing Salmon Street Fountain and arrive at the Hawthorne Bridge. From there, the entire East Side.
These are paths I’ve walked countless times, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get tired of them. But at the moment I still haven’t moved – instead, I’m looking at the concrete below my feet. There are these little chunks of glass embedded in it. They’re smokey with an airy hue of purple, and offer the faintest hint of what’s below the surface. As it turns out, this smokey glass was the only source of natural light for this section of Portland’s infamous Shanghai Tunnels. Right below my feet are the remnants of Portland’s darker pasts with a present day firebrand of activism that saw 150 nights of protests against the police built on top of it. This feels, and will always feel, at least for me, like the perfect place to compose.
I’ve performed in Portland State’s recital hall, a dance studio, a grocery store, a decommissioned steam boat, the middle of several fields, street corners, a graveyard, a warehouse, living rooms, coffee houses, and many, many other places across this city. I’ve been involved with a local new music organization called Cascadia Composers since 2008. They’ve been absolutely instrumental in getting tons of new music by local composers performed, and are just some of the loveliest people. I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to work with FearNoMusic and Third Angle – two absolutely top tier new music ensembles, both of whom have been leading the way in championing new voices locally and abroad. New Music is alive and well in this city, and remarkably adaptive to our world and our collective circumstances.
For myself, I’m currently in the middle of a graduate program in Computer Science. This has been my adaptation to the last 2 years. I suffered from major burnout at the start of 2020. I couldn’t compose, couldn’t build off old ideas, nor hear anything coming from that internal ether. It just… went silent. Like so many others, I also saw major projects fall apart, plans get canceled, opportunities vanish. The trajectory of the last decade and a half of my life suddenly stagnated. This was all in conjunction with losing my day job, so I needed to find a way to stay above water, if not for myself but for my daughter’s sake. Enter computers.
I’m a long way away from being done with music. I don’t think I ever will be. I still play nearly every day, and have managed to scribble some fragments here and there. I’ve spent the last two years using the skills learned through my CS program to develop algorithmic composition tools to aid me in my creative efforts. I can generate anything from purely random compositions to poly-rhythmic/modal canons (or really any process based composition) in seconds. I’ve been able to use these tools to generate hundreds of facsimiles – there will be ideas forever, and I plan to keep on building this framework. If the last two years have given me anything, it’s the ability to adapt and evolve my creative processes.
Portland is my home. The energy of this city has always fueled me, and I think it always will.
The People They Think We Are (2018) for piano, video, and fixed media. (Me). Performed by Kathy Supové
I grew up in Seattle, so the Pacific Northwest has always felt like home to me. My husband, composer Kenji Bunch, is originally from Portland, so when we first met in New York City, we connected about this common background and shared desire to return one day. Soon after the birth of our first child, we took a leap of faith and decided to move back to be closer to our families. In a whirlwind, our Brooklyn condo sold in one weekend, I flew out and made an offer on a house, and just a few months later we found ourselves moving to Portland without any concrete work lined up, fingers tightly crossed that things would work out. We’re both so grateful to have landed on our feet fairly quickly, and were welcomed with open arms by the vibrant music community here. We’ve now been living and working in Portland for nine years, and moving home to the PNW is the best decision we have ever made. I’m currently wrapping up my eighth season as Executive Director and Pianist of Fear No Music, and my first as Program Director of Music Performance at Reed College.
Portland is well known for its vigorous DIY ethos that embraces creativity and grass-roots initiatives with a cheerful lack of regard for the credentials that traditionally grant “permission” for such undertakings. Everywhere you turn, someone is brewing their own beer, bottling their own hot sauce, writing a novel, or building their social justice-driven non-profit from the ground up. The spirit of imaginative resourcefulness that keeps Portland “weird” and alive is exactly the reason the new music scene thrives. The music community is intimate and supportive of one another. Portland new music groups mostly pull from the same roster of musicians, so we all feel like one big family and celebrate each other’s successes. And just as Portlanders love their books, there’s also a voracious appetite for experiencing live music, and open minds eager to discover new sounds and ideas.
While recognizing the tremendous difficulties so many of us faced during the pandemic, our music non-profit, Fear No Music, fared as well as we could have hoped. There were challenges at the beginning of the lockdown period, given the need for an immediate pivot to online-everything, and the steep learning curve and trial-and-error process to find the right people and resources to help solve various unforeseen difficulties. However, Fear No Music is a relatively small organization, which allowed us to be nimble enough to adapt quickly to the necessary changes, and as a result, we were able to flourish moving forward. Of course, in addition to the pandemic, the nationwide reckoning of our racial history and present-day culture has caused a tremendous upheaval in the music world, bringing long-overdue attention to composers and musicians traditionally overlooked from mainstream audiences. For our organization, this has meant an even greater push for equity and diversity in our programs and initiatives, and a move to a donation-based ticketing model for our concerts, to promote accessibility, while still maintaining excellence in our programming.
Fear No Music: Monica Ohuchi, piano, performing BQE by Hiromi Uehara:
Portland Taiko performing Dango Jiru by Kenji Bunch:
Alex Arnold a.k.a. !mindparade
Alex Arnold a.k.a. !mindparade
I moved to Portland from my home town of Bloomington, Indiana in 2017. I’m a multi-instrumentalist, one of those musicians that played in multiple bands for years. I was lucky enough to travel and see much of the US via touring and independent road trips. I always felt drawn to the PNW; the mystical feeling of the mountains and the dynamic landscapes appealed to me. The mist whispered something important to me. I decided it was time to move to a major city with a larger music scene to grow my band/songwriting project !mindparade. As an outdoorsy person, I thought, well, if I’m going to move my whole life, I should probably move near mountains. I’m so glad I made that choice. As soon as I honed in on Portland as a potential place to live, I began applying for jobs here, and landed an internship at a music licensing music company that I had signed to as an recording artist. I moved as soon as I had the opportunity, and threw myself into every aspect of music in Portland that I could. I didn’t really know anyone here when I arrived, and just started biking around to shows, meeting musicians.
There is a high level of musicianship in the scene here. So many great artists doing their thing, and in so many different genres of music. The city lacks a robust music industry compared to places like NYC and LA, or Nashville or Austin. That means there are less of those kinds of industry jobs, less labels, etc., but maybe that means people in music here may be in it for other reasons than money or prestige. I’ve found people in this community to be genuine and passionate. People like experimentalism and nerdiness here. It’s cool to be nice here. It seems like so many people you meet are in a band or are music fans, and that means more people to connect with. The location is incredible as well, as the surrounding nature provides endless perspective and inspiration. The city is nestled between very tall mountains and a very deep ocean.
Moving here was definitely a good choice for me overall. I was lucky to find an inspiring and engaging community. When everything stopped during the pandemic, I found myself focused on songwriting. I’ve worked up around 4 albums of !mindparade material that I am now chiseling into completion. It wasn’t necessarily a choice I made, it was most likely a coping mechanism. It was definitely a challenge to not play live for so long, which is something I’m so happy is happening again. There is really nothing else in life like live music.
Different Cities Different Voices is a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators. Discover what is unique about each city’s new music scene through a set of personal essays written by people living and creating there, and hear their music as well as music from local artists selected by each essayist. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.
Since folks from all over the world made their first post-pandemic pilgrimage to Austin for SXSW in mid-March, we waited a bit for the dust to settle so we could shine light on some of the extraordinarily creative people who are an important part of the Austin music scene all year round. – FJO
Austin is a tight knit community of musical creators and producers. There are lots of organizations in this town dedicated to presenting and promoting non-commercial music in favor of free jazz/improvisation, contemporary classical and experimental genres. Keep Austin Weird? Actively weird? Yup, we most definitely have!!!
I experience a sense of play, curiosity, and exploration that weaves together Austin’s new music scene. There’s a spirit in which all of these musics, and I am saying that deliberately as a plural, kind of comingle together. The classical music scene here feels quite naturally at home next to the indie scene and next to the country and blues and soul and rock and roll and Americana.
Craig Hella Johnson
Austin’s economic and social reality is complex and our art communities are forever adapting to the challenges and opportunities presented by these realities.
I can reasonably expect there to be a guitar to jam on in anyone’s house (or at the very least, a ukulele). There’s a vibrancy here of people just generally being excited to make art. I hope this energy can continue to flourish as Austin grows rapidly as a city (which, even without a pandemic, can be hard on creatives).
Austin offers a special and unique combination of a world-class conservatory-style music institution surrounded by (and increasingly incorporating) local and popular music styles.
I love Austin, I am Austin, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I came to Austin from Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2010 to study flute at the University of Texas. The composition department and electronic music departments especially at the UT Butler School of Music were full of creative, collaborative and bold students and professors – there used to be an annual showcase called Ears, Eyes and Feet, in which composers, choreographers and media artists from three different departments worked together to create multi-disciplinary performances. I didn’t know at the time that Austin had only a few new music ensembles playing very experimental stuff, and there wasn’t a big contemporary classical scene. However, there was some spark at UT in those few years – several of my colleagues at UT went on to start contemporary classical / new music organizations and collectives themselves (Fast Forward Austin, Density512, Tetractys, Line Upon Line Percussion), and some spectacular crossover classical groups came to town as well and stayed (Invoke Sound, Kraken Quartet), intermingling with the existing long-standing organizations that already championed experimental music and cross-disciplinary collaboration in Austin (Church of the Friendly Ghost, Fusebox Festival, and others). It felt like the beginning of a special period of growth for the Austin new music scene, and it has just continued to blossom since then. I was very moved by this year’s ATX Composers Showcase at SXSW, 12 years later, where many of these groups played on the same stage. Especially 2 years into the pandemic, it felt like a joyful reunion and celebration remembering that yes, we are committed and excited to make wild and strange music and soundscapes and improvisations in our city.
Part of the magic of Austin for me is its open mics. I’ve heard it’s not the same in other cities – they are an extremely collaborative and supportive environment with wildly talented musicians playing almost always original songs. I briefly moved away from Austin after doing my masters at UT and returned as I was starting to write my own music, and every week there were at least 4 incredibly welcoming open mics I could go to and try out my new tunes and arrangements, with a lot of the same supportive, friendly faces frequenting each one. I felt so comfortable finding and refining my musical voice in that environment, and met many friends, future collaborators and even partners. Now you can find that vibe at Mozart’s and Opa’s, with the same open incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic open mic leaders ushering in musicians new to Austin or new to writing their own stuff.
And then there’s the fact that I’ve always been able to find creative projects here. Austin’s known for lots of styles of music and its growing tech scene, but along with that there’s so much other creative activity that happens here – film, dance, visual art, improv comedy all have these vibrant communities around them. If I don’t have a project, and if I didn’t have a network of people to check and see what they were up to, I know I could always go to one of the many amazing local coffee shops and meet an artist or a musician, or if I’m in a more film/theater mood I could find a pre-production meeting happening at least one table. I also love that I can reasonably expect there to be a guitar to jam on in anyone’s house (or at the very least, a ukulele). There’s a vibrancy here of people just generally being excited to make art. I hope this energy can continue to flourish as Austin grows rapidly as a city (which, even without a pandemic, can be hard on creatives). It’s been incredibly challenging during the pandemic as early on, gigs disappeared, and then later venues – even iconic ones – have had to shut down. There is energy and determination here for collective action among artists though, and a few great organizations to support and advocate for musicians (Austin Music Foundation, HAAM), and I hope that we can continue to push for this city to financially support its artists.
I actually ended up finding a new Austin community and creative outlet during the early part of the pandemic. The Hideout Theatre, Austin’s longest running improv theater, moved all its classes and shows online within a couple of months of March 2020. At the time I had just produced and conducted a big experimental concert of improvised chamber music in person, before the shutdown. I was taking inspiration from theatrical improv and improv comedy to see how cross-genre musicians might relate to and connect with each other to improvise in large groups. The Hideout community was so full of creative determination and energy, and they invited me to experiment with livescoring narratives with groups of improvising instrumentalists ONLINE. It was a great feeling to bring many of my musician collaborators into the new improv community I’d entered. Since most of us suddenly had a lot of time on our hands, there was creative fuel and really talented people who would otherwise be busy gigging and touring and whatever, available to experiment with online performance art forms. With some incredible collaborators, I ended up taking part in some projects that really pushed virtual theatre boundaries in 2020 and 2021, and I like to think we’ll all bring the insights and the deep connection we found in those challenges into our work back in person in 2022.
You never know what kind of creative work or wonderful people you’re going to find around the corner here, and as a person who thrives with a variety of creative activities and values community, I can’t think of a place I’d rather call home than Austin. The sunshine also helps! While the various artistic communities haven’t really deeply cross-pollinated much up to this point, there’s definitely a lot of energy of coming together, and room for interweaving those communities, which is something I look forward to in Austin’s current chapter.
Kenzie Slottow: “Neverland” from the EP Hold It Up to the Sun
Austin kind of chose me through a job offer from The University of Texas. I was just finishing a doctoral program at Yale and I had an interview which I decided to do just for fun. I never thought I would actually live in Texas as I had a funky, terrible Northerner’s bias. I enjoyed the interview and had a great time visiting this city. It surprised me with all of its green and beautiful places and all the diversity of music happening. I was offered the job and the rest is history.
Austin seemed like a really great place to set up camp. Much to my delight and surprise, I worked for 10ish years as the Director of Choral Activities at The University of Texas and made many friends there. I got to know so many musicians during that time and also began Conspirare during that period around 1993. Someone told me something once which was very helpful. I remember it and live by it today: “Welcome to Austin. In Austin we take our work and passions seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.” This was fabulous input for me and I have found that to be true of Austin cultural generally. It makes it a really pleasurable place to live and work.
I experience a sense of play, curiosity, and exploration that weaves together Austin’s new music scene. There’s a spirit in which all of these musics, and I am saying that deliberately as a plural, kind of comingle together. The classical music scene here feels quite naturally at home next to the indie scene and next to the country and blues and soul and rock and roll and Americana. I think it’s just beginning to almost explode in a wonderful way just like the rest of the city.
The cancellation of SXSW trumpeted the arrival of the pandemic in Austin. For me, it meant more time at home, more time to have that interior relationship with my soul, my heart and my interests. There were times when even though it was very busy there could also be time for reflection and pause.
At Conspirare we were dedicated from the first day we knew this was happening to doing everything we could to continue to engage our artists, to offer them work that could be creative and meaningful but also to just be able pay them and help support them through this period. I feel immensely grateful that we were able to do that. Throughout the pandemic period we created concerts at great distances from one another for online presentations. It felt like the demands of this medium called us out to expand the boundaries of the choral music. I got to meet some wonderful new collaborators –editors, filmmakers, videographers, and creatives of all types. Even as we all felt the great burden of this time, we continued to make art, to express ourselves, and to support people in remembering that we are still here, we’re still alive, we still have beating hearts. There is still a need for art that continues to support us moving forward in our lives and invites us into more awareness and the deeper experience of what it means to be human, to be alive.
Craig Hella Johnson: “We Tell Each Other Stories” from Considering Matthew Shepard
Eliza Gilkyson: “Reunion”
She is a favorite singer-songwriter and a cherished friend
Omar Thomas (photo by Izzy Berdan Photography)
I moved to Austin mid 2020 to begin an appointment as Assistant Professor of Composition and Jazz Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. Prior to moving here, I had completed two separate residencies as the featured composer for the UT Wind Ensemble and the UT Symphony Band. Having participated in many composer residencies all across the country, one of the standout aspects of my UT residency was Austin itself, being a place that feels uniquely its own with amazing culinary offerings as diverse and ubiquitous as its live music venues.
Working predominantly in the wind ensemble field these days, Austin offers a special and unique combination of a world-class conservatory-style music institution surrounded by (and increasingly incorporating) local and popular music styles, while being centrally located among some of the strongest educational music programs and performing ensembles in the country. The wind ensemble field is one that is leading the way in the creation of new works for the medium, and Austin offers access to some of the nation’s leading ensembles who are willing to breathe life into these pieces on some of the field’s largest performance arenas.
The largest challenge of the past two years in my field has been navigating creating music safely (or at all) with ensembles that average forty musicians blowing air through instruments – clearly not ideal for helping to curb the spread of a respiratory virus. It has been truly amazing (and exhausting) to watch large ensemble instrumental and choral music adapt, as composers came together to create music designed to be played by any combination of very few instruments, conductors reached out via Zoom to inspirational figures within the field and beyond to keep musicians motivated as we waited for the opportunity to safely return to making music, and students took it upon themselves to use technology to not only connect with one another via virtual performances, but also to create music that capitalized on our virtual reality. We kept each other motivated long enough to make it to out current moment where we are back sharing space, art, connection, and community with one another and with audiences, grounded
by deeper gratitude than any of us has ever felt.
“I Am” performed by the Omar Thomas Large Ensemble
John Mackey: “Immortal Thread, So Weak” from Wine Dark Sea (Symphony for Band): performed by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble conducted by Jerry Junkin
Stephanie Bergara (photo by Jake Rabin)
I’m a born and raised Austinite, so for myself, working and living as an Austin musician has always just been, The Way. It was invested in to my heart and mind at an early age that musicians deserve respect. I have been consuming live music for so long, I couldn’t even tell you what my first concert was. It had just always been the thing that you do. When my son was born, just over four years ago, I knew I Austin would be home forever, or until he finishes school. I love Austin, I am Austin, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
There is just a different unique energy that runs through this town in a way I haven’t quite seen anywhere else. I worked in the music industry for nearly ten years before starting my band where I got to travel the globe, and playing music has allowed me to tour in some of the greatest music cities in America. When the band travels to different places, and we tell people we are Austin musicians, that comes with it’s own branding, it’s own meaning. It’s special, it means something.
Musicians were the first members of the work force to be asked to stop working and they have been the last to be asked to come back to work in any pre-covid capacity. It’s been hard, we’ve been forced to get creative, learn new skills, leave old business models behind and be quick to adapt to change. I also chose to release my first solo effort during the pandemic, which was not ideal, but it was time. The Banda has been lucky to continue to play across the country. We’ve relied heavily on social media to stay in touch with fans and are working through mediums like TikTok to stay active with our audience. Onward through the fog, as they say.
My two selections are my song, “Rear View” —
And a song from Austin band Nané, (who’s lead singer, Daniel Sahad, passed away just two weeks ago) called “Ladybird.”
I moved to Austin about 12 years ago and have since been working across various music and art scenes as a performer, composer, administrator, and teacher. As a jazz guitarist and composer, I’ve worked with various small groups, big bands, and my own conducted group improvisation octets and chamber ensembles. Some of the more experimental and classical Austin ensembles and organizations I’ve worked with include Church of the Friendly Ghost (COTFG), Less Than 10 Music, Collide Arts, and Future Traditions Festival.
Even in my own short time here, the city has gone through dramatic changes. Like most large and mid-sized American cities, Austin has continuing––and in many cases worsening–– problems with gentrification, racism, lack of affordability, inherited and perpetuated segregation, and problems with police brutality. But, Austin is also home to a great variety of community and activist organizations fighting tirelessly against the systemic oppression of our state and sometimes local governments. As Austin booms and tremendous amounts of money comes in through tech and other industries, artists see firsthand the way that that money, and the publicity around it, doesn’t ultimately benefit the communities that give this city its cultural identity. In spite of these challenges, this city generally still takes pride in trying to celebrate inclusivity, acceptance, and counter-culture values, and the artists, ensembles, and organizations that make up our cultural landscape do amazing work. In short, Austin’s economic and social reality is complex and our art communities are forever adapting to the challenges and opportunities presented by these realities.
Austin’s music and art communities are full of the most giving, creative, and determined people I have ever met. And the way that the people of this city embrace and honor music and musicians is truly special. For example, the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM) provides health insurance, dental coverage, hearing clinics, access to professional mental health services, housing assistance, and more to Austin-based musicians at no cost. When the pandemic caused the sudden collapse of the entertainment and live performance industries, HAAM and other organizations like Austin Creative Alliance, and the City of Austin itself, provided grants, groceries, and other aid specifically for artists.
The onset of the pandemic brought the momentum and direction of my work––rooted in group improvisation and interaction––to a sudden stop. Being unable to work in person with other musicians was shocking and disorienting (an experience so many of us in the performing arts world can relate to). One of the things that kept me going was the opportunity to join a wonderful group of classical new music friends forming Less Than 10 Music, a new music ensemble producing weekly virtual concerts featuring guest artists from around the country. Just having the communication and weekly concert deadlines really helped keep me going and kept me from falling too far into a sense of aimlessness. Some of the guest highlights and collaborations have included Ocelot, Nina Shekhar, Jason Thorpe Buchanan, and a masterclass with George Lewis.
So, what about the actual music scene? Well, there’s too much to possibly cover here, but I’ll do my best. Some of the many experimental performing arts organizations and ensembles include: Epistrophy Arts; COTFG; Salvage Vanguard Theater; Rude Mechs; Sonic Transmissions; Liminal Sound Series; New Media Art and Sound Summit; Fusebox Festival; dadageek; OUTsider Fest; and Six Square. In addition to year-round performances and premieres by local artists, these organizations have hosted guest artists including Henry Threadgill, Maria Chavez, The Necks, Thumbscrew, Turning Jewels Into Water, and Peter Brötzmann. Among the ensembles and organizations more closely rooted in classical new music, there are groups such as line upon line, Tetractys, Invoke String Quartet, Austin New Music CO-op, and Density 512. There are music education organizations doing great work with young musicians such as Golden Hornet, Austin Chamber Music Center, Austin Classical Guitar, and Austin Soundwaves. Larger institutions like the Blanton Museum of Art, The Contemporary Austin, and Big Medium have recently commissioned and hosted large scale sound installation works by local and international artists like Steve Parker. KMFA, our classical radio station, has a wonderful new concert and recording space where they frequently host and promote new music performances. The University of Texas Butler School of Music composition departments and Electronic Music Studios (UTEMS) do a great job fostering up-and-coming composers and performers from around the world.
Of course, Austin also has a vibrant jazz scene with various weekly jam sessions and performance opportunities. Spaces like The Elephant Room, Parker Jazz Club, and Monks Jazz Club host a year-round lineup of local and touring artists, big bands premiering new works, and live recordings. We are also blessed to have luminary jazz artists and mentors in our community such as trombonist Andre Hayward and pianist/composer Dr. James Polk, among others. Vocalist, Joshua Banbury, splits his time between Austin and New York and has recently worked with The American Lyric Theater, The National Black Theater, The Kennedy Center, and made his solo debut at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic. I’ve attached a link for him below, and I extremely encourage all to listen. Local jazz musicians frequently play and tour as band members in the pop music industry and during Austin City Limits Festival, SXSW and more. I couldn’t even begin to cover that side of the music scene, let alone our thriving dance, visual, and performing arts, food, and improv comedy scenes, in this short essay. Lastly, I can’t forget to mention the amazing Indian Classical Music scene here, supported by organizations like The Indian Classical Music Circle of Austin (ICMCA).
Recently, at a SXSW show featuring Austin composers, I was deeply moved, running into so many people I hadn’t seen in person in years. It was a wonderful experience and sparked a new sense of enthusiasm and hope for continuing my own work that had been dampened for some time. As we sort of continue to emerge from the ups and downs of the last two pandemic years, I’m feeling hopeful about who will be coming through town and what we will be creating together in the coming years.
Alan Retamozo (guitar, electronics) and Katherine Vaughn (dance)
Brightest and Best
Forgotten Folklore featuring Joshua Banbury and Kevin Sherwin
Tara Bhattacharya in the performance of Steve Parker’s Foghorn Elegy (2021) at The Contemporary Austin, Laguna Gloria. (Photo by Brian Fitzsimmons)
I moved to Austin around a decade ago to live and work with experimental composer and synthesizer player Rick Reed. His releases can be found on the local Austin music label, Elevator Bath. We were married for about four years and he was the reason I started playing the ARP Odyssey. Some of my most fruitful collaborations have been with Rick including live scoring for the films of Aldo Tambellini (at the Austin Film Society), Andy Warhol’s Batman Dracula (at Alamo Drafthouse) and composing work together for Ken Jacobs’s Nervous Magic Lantern Festival (at Anthology Film Archives and Secret Project Robot in New York City as well as First Street Studio in Austin).
I was born and raised in London, U.K. to Bengali parents and my early musical exposure is of great importance to my work. My musical training started as a child with Indian music; my mother is a well-known Tagorean artist and she taught me how to play harmonium and learn all the songs from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. Throughout school, I learnt to play flute and sang in chamber choir. Also, since I grew up around a large Afro-Caribbean Diaspora in West London, I witnessed the Notting Hill Carnival annually and became closely familiarized with the traditions of reggae and calypso. Both traditions play an important role with the rhythmic aspect of my music, as subtle as it is. By my late teens, l started to experiment with guitar feedback and radio art and started following the Onkyo music scene from Japan. Onkyo expanded my understanding of electroacoustic music, prepared instruments, and analogue synthesizers. As a curator, I brought Toshimaru Nakamura and Tetuzi Akiyama to play in Austin in 2015, which was a total dream come true.
Before I moved to the U.S.A. in the late ’90s, I worked for British guitarist Derek Bailey whose book, Improvisation, which was later turned into a Channel 4 docuseries of the same name, seen throughout many households in the U.K. when I was a child. I worked for him and his wife Karen Brookman at their label Incus Records for a few years. I was 18 years old when he convinced me to move to NYC. I did and have lived in the US for almost 25 years now. He passed away in 2005. I thought about Derek a lot during the pandemic and what he would’ve felt about it, had he been alive. He preferred playing with other people, much more than playing solo. I share a similar sentiment to him. Playing on my own is a dull activity. Not being able to play with folks because of the pandemic and hospitalization numbers going up and down so rapidly really brought down my spirit and stymied my creative output for about two years. I strive to partake in musical banter with my peers. The pandemic frustrates me because it took away those opportunities.
Also, I missed seeing live music performed. Before the pandemic you could see music every night. Austin is a tight knit community of musical creators and producers. There are lots of organizations in this town dedicated to presenting and promoting non-commercial music in favor of free jazz/improvisation, contemporary classical and experimental genres. Keep Austin Weird? Actively weird? Yup, we most definitely have!!!
When I first moved to Austin around 10 years ago, I went to a lot of Church Of The Friendly Ghost (COTFG) events at Salvage Vanguard. COTFG also organizes the NMASS festival (New Music Art and Sound Summit), a genre defying local and national festival of multimedia. This festival continues to this day. Also, throughout the years, I’ve had the great pleasure of attending new music concerts performed by folks like Panoramic Voices, New Music Co-op, Line Upon Line, and Atlas Maior etc. Organizations such as Epistrophy Arts and festivals such as No Idea and Sonic Transmissions have also brought in some of the best national and international free jazz acts to town. Also, in recent years more locally curated music labels have been sprouting up more regularly. Labels such as Astral Spirits, Aural Canyon, and Holodeck Records have done numerous tape releases throughout the years (sold in local stores) in addition to releasing material digitally on Bandcamp. Running any kind of a label is super impressive to me and an essential activity for performing artists.
The one thing Austinites were having a really hard time grappling with prior to the pandemic was gentrification. It had started to become a huge problem in our creative communities and shows very little sign in slowing down, of course. The most well-known casualty (in our experimental music community) of that “first wave” of gentrification was Church Of The Friendly Ghost, who lost their home, The Salvage Vanguard Theater in East Austin. Many smaller spaces stepped in and continued facilitating art, music, and culture. One such example is the local D.I.Y. space and stalwart, The Museum of Human Achievement, which has consistently supported locals film screenings, experimental music, theater, performance art throughout the years. Other thoughtfully curated spaces such as Dimension Gallery, Co-Lab Projects, Cloud Tree Studios, Volstead Lounge and Ground Floor Theater also carried their weight in supporting the scene. I’m so thankful to belong to this community of folks.
I hope that these venues and support for one another continues to thrive post-pandemic. Rent has sky-rocketed through Austin, TX in the last few months alone. Big music venues have shuttered through the pandemic. Finding performance spaces continues to be a consistent struggle for artists and presenters alike.
I have been a curator in Austin, TX since 2014. I have organized experimental film screenings with the Experimental Response Cinema collective under Scott Stark. I have also curated my own music events and sound installations under the name Antumbra Events + Installations. I started Antumbra in 2013 to present performance art and sound projects from across the globe.
I did manage to do some really cool and meaningful things during the pandemic. I organized my festival online called Interference Fest-Women Making Noise in December 2020. The festival headlined a mix of multimedia artists and musicians including Angel Bat Dawid and Sistazz of Tha Nitty Gritty, Yuliya Lanina, and Amanda Gutierrez w/Norman Long. I invited local and national artists to partake and every single person who participated gave it their all. I felt so honored and so amazed by everyone on it. The festival was plagued by technical difficulties and was delayed two weeks from its original date. The themes I had in mind for 2020 were care, consideration, and concern. December 2020 was a particularly bleak period during the pandemic and I wanted to bring myself and people out in the world some joy. The festival aims to be an inclusive space for free expression and artistic experimentation in all forms/genres including film, video, movement, poetry, music, sound, and even mind-body practices. Online wasn’t a perfect scenario, but it was the best I could offer, given the state of the world, at that moment. I actually organized Interference Fest in-person at North Door (now shuttered) in 2019, which was also a very heartfelt festival. I hope to resume to in-person this year. As a curator, as well as someone who is concerned first and foremost with the well-being of others, I don’t want my participants or audience members to get sick from Covid-19 and so that’s why I’m waiting to announce the dates for 2022.
Due to grief and depression from losing friends and family during the pandemic and for being isolated on my own for almost two years, I have started to learn Tai’Chi with local dancer/choreographer Heloise Gold, progenitor of Deep Listening Retreats. Her collaborator and friend was Houston-born composer Pauline Oliveros. Heloise in one of Austin’s most famed residents and her movement-based training has impacted countless artists throughout the years. I am proud to be her pupil and hope to heal from her tutelage.
Here is my collaboration with Rick Reed; a live score for Ken Jacobs’s Nervous Magic Lantern Festival at Anthology Film Archives in 2016. It was one of my proudest moments as an electronic musician:
Different Cities Different Voices is a new series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators. Discover what is unique about each city’s new music scene through a set of personal essays written by people living and creating there, and hear music from local artists selected by each essayist.
The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.
An introduction by Ashley Shabankareh
(Member of the New Music USA Program Council)
New Orleans possesses a rich cultural landscape of musical talent, with tradition and community at its core. While New Orleans is most commonly viewed as the birthplace of Jazz, it should be recognized and uplifted as the birthplace of American music. Whether it’s jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, classical, bounce, hip-hop, or brass band music, the sounds of New Orleans play a big part in our culture. Our community is close-knit, laidback, and relies deeply upon family traditions that are passed down from the older generation to the younger generation and from them to their successors.
Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, we have seen many ebbs and flows within the New Orleans community. The pandemic hit at the worst possible time of year for New Orleans – festival season – where a large portion of income is earned for those in the music and cultural economy. Like numerous communities across the world, the pandemic caused gig cancellations, which negatively impacted many whose lifestyle often is sustained from gig to gig. Numerous music, arts, and service organizations, including, but not limited to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, MaCCNO, and Culture Aid NOLA, quickly stepped in, offering grants, food relief, and other assistance to help sustain our musicians and culture bearers and work to ensure that our culture was not lost as a result of the pandemic. As the weeks turned to months, the uncertainty continued; would New Orleans’ music and culture be able to be sustained after the pandemic?
We began to see optimism within the community when live music was able to occur within outdoor spaces, including at porches and new opened outdoor venues like the Broadside and Zony Mash. As vaccine distribution began to pick up, performances began to happen indoors. We saw more and more gigs happening and the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant allowing more and more spaces to finally reopen. But then hope quickly turned to disappointment as what was anticipated to be a very robust festival season in the fall was canceled. Shortly thereafter, New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Ida, leaving the city without power for close to a month. Many were forced to leave their homes, and for some, they had to find a new home to live in due to damages caused by the storm.
However, despite the consistent hardships over the past 21 months, New Orleans saw our community grow even stronger than before. We’ve recently seen our City Council take steps towards the legalization of outdoor music in New Orleans, a huge step to ensure that outdoor spaces that opened as a result of the pandemic can legally continue to operate. New Orleans has also seen the Office of Economic Development propose an Office of Nighttime Economy, which myself and numerous other advocates hope will support cultural activity, not enforcement, to provide true equity of opportunity within the community.
As our vulnerable city continues to recover after both a hurricane and a pandemic, one thing is for sure – our community has become more vibrant and creative. In this installment in Different Cities, Different Voices, you’ll hear from 5 New Orleans musicians: Jason Marsalis, Helen Gillet, Clint Maedgen, Delaney Martin, and Dylan Trần.
[Ed. note: Listen to music by the contributors and other New Orleans-area artists throughout the essays below, and on our Different Cities Different Voicesplaylist.
Photo: Naveen Venkatesan, Unsplash
JASON MARSALIS – percussionist, bandleader
Since I was a kid, I’ve been involved in the New Orleans music scene. Growing into adulthood, I started to see the city receive recognition that it hadn’t in previous years. A huge growth of young musicians occurred in New Orleans during the 1990s. At the same time, New York was always the place to be when it came to music. However, the dynamics of the scene changed when aspects of the music business were no longer vibrant. New Orleans has always had a connection with its traditions. Even when music changes, aspects of New Orleans groove was always in the music. However, the music in New York was deemphasizing the swing element while embracing a darker ambient sound. New Orleans was maintaining its fun element while New York was losing theirs. It was during that time I decided to stay in New Orleans.
I discovered that working in New Orleans would help me develop my “swing”; it’s an element of a groove in the music that makes the people want to dance. There are gigs that are based on the swing element that you can play in New Orleans. In New York, those gigs are not as common as they once were and many drummers haven’t developed the swing element at all because of it. Now that doesn’t mean New Orleans doesn’t have its challenges. In the past year of the pandemic, I lost my father pianist Ellis Marsalis to Covid-19. It was not only a loss for me but for the music scene as a whole. He was a teacher and leader that believed in young people playing music. He would use his bandstand as a way for younger players to grow and develop. His passing left a hole in the music scene that will have to be filled in other ways. Those ways include other people understanding how to pass on music to the next generation. As for me, even when the gigs were shut down for a year, I was able to use my creative outlet in other ways. I did more teaching, posting videos, and performing the music online. One way that I have fared with this major change is through teaching. The more music that is taught and passed on to the younger musicians, the music and all of its elements have a better chance of survival.
Listen to a Performance by Jason Marsalis:
The Jason Marsalis Quintet performs the music of Ellis Marsalis: “Three in One”
Listen to Jason Marsalis’s New Orleans Artist Recommendation:
Dr. Michael White: “Give It Up – Gypsy Second Line” Live at Little Gem Saloon
HELEN GILLET – singer/songwriter, cellist
Helen Gillet (photo by Jason Kruppa)
There were no other cellists I could see around town when I first moved to New Orleans in 2002. There were also very few women instrumentalists out and about. I was raised by strong women, so this struck me as odd. But the spirit of New Orleans music can be very welcoming to newcomers who are willing to show off their talents if they have enough sincerity, talent, and show respect to the city and the musical legacy that came before.
Sure enough, I managed to talk my way into a variety of musical contexts, convincing bandleaders I could fill the role of trombone, guitar, bass, violin, and eventually drums, synthesizer…all using the acoustic cello, and later on the looping pedal. I have learned to: “turn it up to 11” in funk bands, rock bands and even solo to play loud enough to cut through the noise of a drunken tourists yelling “Sake Bomb” as she stumbles into a Frenchman dive. Especially during the post-Katrina musical renaissance, I became a resident recording cellist around town, notably Piety Studios under the tutelage of Mark Bingham. I learned about recording music, playing in front of amazing microphones and into headphones; creating and weaving my cello parts to lift countless records for artists such as beatnik poet Ed Sanders, Marianne Faithful, Cassandra Wilson, Dr. John, Wardell Quezergue, Sonic Youth, Arcade Fire, Leroy Jones etc.
I was blessed by the city in 2004 during my first ever Jazz and Heritage Festival appearance as cellist in Smokey Robinson’s band, a decade before my first solo Jazz Festival appearance under my own name. I have been blessed by two Smokeys, the second of which was my neighbor of ten years, Fats Domino’s drummer and grandfather of funk Smokey Johnson. He became like a father figure to me, encouraging me every day to “Go lay it on ’em” and to “go get ’em killa'” — He also was instrumental in helping me figure out I had worth as an artist and how to demand more money for my music. “Girl, you know some [email protected]&*..I hope they payin’ you for what you know!” We all need a great cheerleader in our lives, especially before we learn to do it for ourselves, and I was fortunate to find the best ones just four houses down the street from me. He helped me see past my gender and just do my thing in music. I not only managed to carve out a decent living for the past 19 years I have followed my own path along the way. Thank you Smokey and thank you New Orleans!
Earning the reputation to be a first call for innovative musical projects looking for a cello player has been a wonderful privilege. Within a few years of living here, I was playing in a musical jazz arena alongside Johnny Vidacovich, James Singleton, Kidd Jordan, visiting world renown Jazz improvisers such as Frank Gratkowski, Hamid Drake, Wadada Leo Smith, Tatsuya Nakatani, Cooper More, so many more… I played in a local Medieval Band. I am fond of my yearly appearance at The New Orleans Noize Fest, playing in spontaneous Punk Bands, Rock n Roll Circus Bingo Show, Mardi Gras Indian Funk Orchestra, Southern Rock bands, with Singer Songwriters, Traditional and Progressive Jazz, Vaudevillian French bands and even a Disco band called “Bubble Bath” — I have workshopped my Belgian inspired surrealist ideas with some of the world’s finest improvisers and come up with a style that is my own. It was a natural evolution to put all my favorite grooves, melodies, and sentiments from this plethora of inspiration into my own music.
You often feel like there are just as many musicians in New Orleans as there are houses in New Orleans. Live music is everywhere, in the streets, in the clubs, restaurants, churches, sports fields, public parks, private courtyards, schools, barber shops, coffee shops, hotel lobbies, spilling out into Steamboats over the Mississippi and up over the West Bank into Algiers Point. Since the pandemic began, that spirit made its way onto people’s front porches, rod iron balconies, driveways, car ports … you name it; if you were strolling outside on any given day, you’d likely run into a live band playing a show. When music is such an important part of the fabric of a city, the musicians are put to work. I remember drummer Claude Coleman from Ween coming up to me in the artist tent at Voodoo fest in New Orleans and saying, “You New Orleans musicians are the best in the world because you play so often with so many different kinds of bands!” People often say I am very diverse, and I would say, look at any New Orleans full time instrumentalist…they are usually playing in at least 10 different style bands often and well. I am not sure where else in the world a cellist could have gotten a more diverse musical education.
I consider myself a Stoic optimist, having had to pivot many times during hard times. I understand things are likely to be tough and living is finding ways of surviving creatively. The city of New Orleans is a good place for someone like that. The outdoor music scene has exploded in New Orleans since March 2020. I was fortunate enough to have established my solo musical presence before the Pandemic hit, allowing me to live stream with my show and reach listeners eager for entertainment. Never receiving unemployment because I was working enough remotely to not be qualified, I just pushed as hard as I could to eke out a living. I played a lot of outdoor venues and during the welcomed pockets of time between waves of variants, I have even managed decent tour schedules across the USA. During long periods of staying home, I have worked on my relationship with my city, and have built a front porch worthy of live music performances and for the first time in the 14 years I have lived in my house, some of my neighbors have been able to hear my music for the first time. I am proud to be approaching my 20th anniversary living in this amazing and resilient city.
Listen to Music featuring Helen Gillet
Helen Gillet Trio: “Tourdion” from the album Running of the Bells
Tim Green: Conn-o-sax
Helen Gillet: vielle (medieval fiddle) and cello
Doug Garrison: drums with mallets
Helen Gillet: Helkiase (Solo Album)
Helen Gillet: cello, loops, vocals
Listen to Helen Gillet’s New Orleans Artist Recommendation:
I first moved to New Orleans in 1988. I wrote 150 songs while delivering food on a bicycle in the French Quarter from 1998 to 2005. New Orleans is an amazing place to be an artist, and this city has given me a lot. I have led my own bands over the years (liquidrone and bingo!) and also had the honor of playing saxophone and singing with the historic Preservation Hall Jazz Band for the last 17 years, and I’ve also taken thousands of photographs in the French Quarter and beyond.
New Orleans makes it very easy to be creative; it’s the kind of place where anything seems possible. This is also a town that still talks to one another, and that is a hard thing to live without if you’ve ever lived here and had to leave. The city gets in your bones in a forever kind of way, and I just couldn’t help but live here. I also still feel like a visitor here, and I am honored to be a small part of such an incredibly important place. Where would the world be without New Orleans? So many things started here, it is absolutely mindblowing.
As for the new music scene here today, I feel incredibly spoiled getting to hear so much music in the air at all times of the day and night. All kinds of music. Music is everywhere here. So many places to play, so many musicians. One of my favorite sonic experiences in New Orleans these days is to hear TRUMPET MAFIA playing on Frenchmen Street. The sound of 8 to 12 trumpets playing together has become this new electric current that is sent into the air on the regular, on Tuesday nights here lately. TRUMPET MAFIA is definitely a worldwide organization, but it’s amazing getting to hear them this much in New Orleans. Please check out these amazing musicians, and many more coming out of New Orleans today. It’s an exciting time for New Orleans music.
This last year has honestly been one of the greatest years of my artistic life. I have performed well over 200 shows for my online subscribers, and through the use of Zoom have stumbled onto my new favorite interface for live performance. To me it’s like Hollywood Squares meets Austin City Limits. It is virtually the same audience every time we get together, so we have developed strong relationships in the context of these mini concerts that feel very intimate. Each person has their own square, so puppet dance parties are always a good idea. We have gotten to know each other over time, even though a few of us live in different countries.
Here is a three-minute sizzle reel of the PANDA FAM.
I wrote 24 personalized songs for my subscribers last year. I launched a deal where any member that purchased one of my French quarter doorbell throw pillows, I would write them a personalized song. Each person got to submit 10 words. That project set me free in so many ways, and I found the songs came to me quite quickly. The process reminded me of how I wrote music in the early 90s, recording onto cassette and ping-ponging between different devices to achieve a multi-track. It felt playful and wide open, And I love what it brought out in me.
Here is the video playlist:
As a group, we have collectively been raising funds to record each of the songs in the studio, with the intention of releasing the songs on vinyl upon completion. These songs have such an amazing energy to them, and as a songwriter I find myself amazed with an entirely new process to share and experience with an audience that really wants to be there.
Here is ELI AND THE SUGAR STATIC
As a photographer, my subscription-based audience has been a true blessing. Our group has also become a collectors club, and I have sold eight of my photographs this past year.
Clint Maedgen: Hindsight & Shadows
Clint Maedgen: Shadows & Colourburst
CONNECTION is the real currency. People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And for creators to have the opportunity to convey that message with an audience that wants to participate online, I can’t help but think that we are living in the modern day gold rush. We finally have the opportunity to cut out the middleman and the gate keepers and connect directly in a very organic and convenient way. If you love what you do and you love to talk about it and you like sharing your excitement for it, I think that this platform is perfect for all creators of all walks of life. If 500 people give you $200 a year that is a really good living for an artist. I like to imagine a world where artists perform because they want to, not because they have to. I think the answer is finally here.
DELANEY MARTIN – multi-media installation artist and Creative Director, New Orleans Airlift
I met New Orleans pre-Katrina, 1998, in my early twenties. Meeting her upended my life in the best way. I’d been a savvy kid living in New York and LA, reading culture magazines from Europe. Not only was none of that available for purchase in New Orleans, none of it mattered. Moreover, the culture here was not for sale. What New Orleans lacked in terms of a global art trending was more than made up by its incredible living culture that paraded–no–danced, down streets every Sunday for second line parades, rounded a corner in the flowing feathers and hallucinatory splendor of Black Masking Indians during sacred times each year, and kept late hours and a big beats in small neighborhood clubs that rivaled any famous nightclub I’d ever visited. And that was just the Black culture. Though less famous, the weirdo White kids were running anarchist circuses, inventing instruments, costuming on a Monday morning and just generally building such a specific-to-time-and-place culture that I realized that literally everything I had valued before needed to be reconsidered in the most joyous way possible.
I eventually left to go to grad school in London, but I deferred for a year. And I returned as often as I could in the intervening years. I built an art practice in London, but New Orleans continued to ground me at a distance. When Katrina hit, I was looking for a way to help. Starting in 2007 my co-founder of New Orleans Airlift and I began a sort of import export culture business, bringing folks like Big Freedia to NY for the first time or an artist like Swoon to New Orleans to work with us collaboratively alongside local creators we valued. I expanded my art practice to function as a framework for collaboration, building bigger ideas than I ever could on my own by having so many hands working towards a common goal. These days we are most known for our collaborative juggernaut Music Box Village – a collection of interactive musical houses hand built by artists in the dozens, an ever-expanding krewe exploring this idea of a performative musical architecture. This idea born of New Orleans is an ode to our city’s culture, its architecture; it’s the music you can hear coming through thin old walls or around the corner of your block, yet it is an idea that resonates around the world. We invite world-renowned musicians to compose and perform the musical houses. Part whimsy, part serious new music pursuit, the Music Box Village has become a landmark in our city, building off the rooted, but living, evolving culture that defines New Orleans.
I love creating here. I’ve created in many cities, but this is my speed. Jump in a truck with your friends, hit the wood dump, build from nothing, make make make, but all at a livable pace that prioritizes catharsis, ritual and release.
COVID allowed me to slow down. Slowing down and reflecting and moving with change is good. The pandemic of course shut down our performance schedule and was terrible for musicians. But it was growth for myself and for my organization. We pushed up against the obvious challenges by saying, well what do we have time for now. We were able to gather musicians we work with for conversation, have difficult conversations, make decisions to work on difficult projects around race and hard histories that continue to shape our lives. The pandemic created such a rare opportunity to make space for change.
That said, second lines are back. And we terribly missed dancing through the streets. It gives us life. New Orleans without its culture is a city with pretty buildings, but terrible education, pollution, crime, corruption!!! None of us would live here, but the culture trumps all of that and so we do.
Hurricane Ida – now that is a different story. We can celebrate the spirit of mutual aid that defined our community’s response to this tragedy, but it was a tragedy and more will come. New Orleans’ place on the map of the mind is huge, but Ida was a stark reminder that its place on the map may not exist into the very near future. Our neighbors in the river parishes continue to be without homes. This easily could have been New Orleans fate. We were just lucky by 20 or so miles. No amount of culture or music can save us. But we must save the culture. To be honest, we are still in this moment of Ida recovery – it’s too soon to say we’ve overcome it.
Because New Orleans is so storied musically, this idea that it is all tradition can become a perception problem from the outside, but it’s not really a problem from the inside. We know tradition here does not mean something stale or a museum culture. It’s all very alive down here, evolving, well-loved. These so-called traditional forms are understood to be more than music, but sound connected to the spirit in deep ways. There is not a snobbism about, say brass band culture, amongst new music people. It is a blessing that we get to be in this swirl. In turn, these so-called culture bearers are not closed off; they are welcoming. They are also experimental. The musicians we have in our space are not all people making new music. They are brass bands, they are Black Indians, they are superstars of the new music world, they are pop stars. What we give them is a context to work together in an unlikely setting and unlikely pairings. There is an openness. Recently we had two big players in their respective new music circles live in our town for some years: Yotam Haber, the Rome Prize-winning composer and Mikel Patrick Avery, known more as a Chicago character and perhaps most known for his work band leading for Theaster Gates’ Black Monks of Mississippi. We worked extensively with both of them, and the effect of New Orleans on their practice was profound – they wanted to dig in, not dig out. They’ve moved on to other cities and opportunities, but it was great to have their gifts here for a while and we knew that our city was a gift to them too.
Listen, clearly New Orleans is not a mecca of “new music”, but it is open, collaborative, and knows deep in its bones that we make music that matters to the world and so much of that music was the new music of its time.
Listen to Delaney Martin’s New Orleans Artist Recommendations:
Taylor Lee Shepherd: “The Blue Sea Hushed Him”, from Flight of Icarus @ the Music Box Village
So much to choose from at Music Box, but selecting this piece by my music box co-founding sound artist Taylor Lee Shepherd. He leads this project with me. We’ve built musical houses in collaboration and our Shake House is well heard on this track. But he is also the daily technical director of Music Box Village, maintaining all the musical houses by our collaborating artists, and so intimate with all the sounds. This song is from his one man show Flight of Icarus. For the show he exclusively used the sounds and interfaces of the houses, looping and building on their sounds via connected looper pedals he installed throughout the space.
Leyla McCalla: “Mèsi Bondye” from Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes
I really like this particular track. Sort of a nice spare, feminine counterpart to Taylor’s Shepherd’s piece. It also speaks to the evolving exploration of rooted music that New Orleans artists explore – in this case both Leyla’s and New Orleans’ deep connection to the music and culture of Haiti.
DYLAN TRẦN – composer and Marketing Coordinator at New Orleans Opera
My experience in New Orleans can be summed up in one word: opportunity. I’m a first generation American on my dad’s side, born into poverty in the Deep South. If it weren’t for the fact that Loyola University New Orleans has a free undergraduate application and ample scholarship opportunities, I’m not sure I would have been able to go to college, much less pursue a career as a composer. Even my career as a composer, at this point, is only financially possible because of my administrative position at the New Orleans Opera Association.
Throughout my undergrad I had many interests: conducting, composing, singing, film, photography, marketing, languages, history, diasporas, media, activism, sociology, etc. I had very supportive professors in all of these areas that encouraged me to develop my skills in these interests; this held true when I left school as well. This is a huge reason I have stayed in New Orleans— as my artistic career evolves, the city has allowed me to discover, create, and share opportunities to facilitate my growth and exploration.
The reasons I believe this city is so prime for making your own opportunities is a bit of a double-edged sword. There’s a famous Cajun French phrase, “laissez les bon temps rouler” (let the good times roll). That lovely, laidback vibe permeates the music scene as well, setting the scene for the biggest challenge I’ve experienced in New Orleans—outside of jazz, funk, and other popular genres, there is a lack of infrastructure for “classical” music artists. Because of this, most of my commissions come from online and social media networking, as opposed to local groups.
In a way, this lack of infrastructure creates space, an opportunity to build community and art without having to follow an extant institution’s rules—but, the work is not easy. As artists, we are no strangers to being our own advertisers, agents, accountants, etc., something I experienced intimately while I was pursuing a local singing career. As a composer, however, one of the only ways I’ve been able to create the art I want is to take on the additional titles of project manager, development officer, employee organizer, community liaison, etc.—basically running my own small business.
This may sound scary to someone who is trying to be exclusively a composer, but if you are someone in a more exploratory part of your career, New Orleans is an excellent place to do that. I don’t think there are many other places where I would have had as many opportunities to be compensated for trying new things. I’m not just talking music commissions either. I’ve been hired to direct music videos, film documentaries, write articles, run marketing campaigns, develop guest instructor lessons, be a guest speaker, etc. I did not have a huge amount of professional experience with many of these things prior, but because of the nature of the city, if you put some work in and cash in some social currency here and there, you can really explore anything!
Beyond that, I do think the “classical” new music scene in New Orleans is in a blossoming era at the moment. In terms of large organizations: the Marigny Ballet regularly performs world premieres, the New Orleans Opera Association (while not a regular commissioner of new works) is known for championing second and third performances of emerging works, and the LPO will occasionally commission a local composer to accompany an extant “canonic” masterwork. Versipel New Music is a particularly talented collective working exclusively in new music, and there is New Music On The Bayou in North Louisiana, but I am not familiar with many others locally. That being said, every year, I meet more and more composers and groups in the city, so I believe that, while the new music scene may be small at the moment, it is vibrant, growing, and will continue to flourish.
Stepping outside of strictly “classical” new music, the New Orleans musical world opens up tremendously. Some days it seems like there isn’t a genre unrepresented in the city. Hip-hop, folk, indie, jazz, rock, metal, and indigenous musics are ubiquitous in the community. More and more as of late the larger “classical music” organizations have begun to reach out and collaborate with these other genres. For example, it has happened on more than one occasion that the LPO will share the stage with Tank and the Bangas. If you are interested in exploring many genres of music, and the intersections and collaborations therein, New Orleans may be the place for you.
Listen to Music by Dylan Trần:
Dylan Trần: String Quartet No. 1 on Việt Themes
Listen to Dylan Trần’s New Orleans Artist Recommendation:
Lilli Lewis: “Incantation: Wind”
Listen to the Different Cities Different Voices playlist on Spotify:
The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US. Please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.
Different Cities Different Voices is a new bi-monthly series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators. Discover what is unique about each city’s new music scene through a set of personal essays written by people living and creating there, and hear music from local artists selected by each essayist.
The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.
Listen to music by the contributors and Chicago-area artists throughout the essays below, and on our Different Cities Different Voices playlist. And from now until October 4, you can also explore Chicago’s music scene by attending the stellar Ear Taxi Festival, which is currently underway with concerts, premieres, panels, and much more – in-person at various Chicago venues and online.
Max Bender / Unsplash
DAVE REMPIS – Saxophonist & Bandleader
Dave Rempis (photo by Cengiz Yar)
I’ve been a working saxophonist and bandleader in Chicago for about 24 years now, having moved here from Boston in 1993 to go to college at Northwestern University. Along the way I also started my own record label in 2013 (Aerophonic Records) and have presented and organized concerts and festivals including a weekly series of jazz and improvised music since 2002 at the not-for-profit Elastic Arts Foundation, where I also now serve as the Board President. Additionally, I was a co-curator and producer of the Umbrella Music Festival from 2006-2014, business manager of the Pitchfork Music Festival from 2006-2016, and am currently Operations Manager of the Hyde Park Jazz Festival.
In my time in Chicago, one person in particular set the tone and model for what this city can be at its very best. Fred Anderson – a renowned saxophonist who ran the Velvet Lounge for more than two decades – was a tireless champion of the music who provided a platform for anyone who was serious about their work. Up until he passed at the age of 81, Fred could be found working the door and restocking the bar at the Velvet every night that he wasn’t on the road, his gentle smile and demeanor setting the tone for a place that provided a supportive environment for all the artists who worked there. Fred was a legend of experimental music whose impact stretched back decades, even before his work as a co-founder of the AACM in the 1960s. Until the end of his life, he continued to persist stubbornly against so many odds, to selflessly support the artists around him by giving them a dependable place to develop their work. He even re-opened in a new location at the age of 76, after being pushed out of his longtime home by a condo development. And the list of artists who enjoyed that persistence is long – Joshua Abrams, Renee Baker, Ari Brown, Hamid Drake, Henry Grimes, Steve Lacy, Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid, Avreeayl Ra, Matana Roberts, Ken Vandermark, to name only a few. As Lacy wrote on a large printed-up version of The Chicago Reader Critic’s Choice for his concert that hung in the club for years after his concert, “This Place Is a Temple.”
That spirit has infused so much of what I’ve been able to enjoy in this city in my tenure here. Artists and audiences in Chicago who experienced Fred and the Velvet Lounge have taken that example and continue to work towards building community. So many of the venues and concert series that serve as important parts of the city’s infrastructure for creative music are run by musicians who volunteer their time, overseeing concert programs that have endured for years. And they’re supported by a dedicated community of people – audience, musicians, writers, venue owners and staff – who work together through an informal network that functions at an extremely high level. This isn’t a city of hustlers, trying to out-maneuver one another onto this festival or that record label. At its best, it’s a city where pushing the artistic dialogue forward through collective action and community effort takes precedence over the purely business side of the work. That’s the lifeblood that few cities with a significant scene for adventurous and creative music can match. And it’s a place I’ve been glad to call home for almost thirty years.
Listen to Music by Dave Rempis:
The COVID Tapes album by Dave Rempis, Tomeka Reid, Joshua Abrams, Tim Daisy, Tyler Damon
All Your Ghosts in One Corner album by Kuzu (Dave Rempis, Tashi Dorji, Tyler Damon)
Listen to Dave Rempis’s Chicago Artist Recommendation:
Tomeka Reid’s album Shards and Constellations
TAALIB-DIN ZIYAD – Vocalist, Flutist, Composer and Arranger
I have deep roots in Chicago where I was born and raised. The two main reasons I have remained in Chicago is my family and the music. Chicago has one of the most diverse music scenes in the world, which creates many opportunities for good musicians to work. You can do a classical gig in the evening and a jazz gig that night. Additionally, because of the diversity of the music one can perform in one of the several variations of different music expression. For example, you can play smooth Jazz, straight-ahead Jazz, Be Bop Jazz and so forth. Basically, musicians can pretty much perform in any genre they are versed in; that is one of the beauties of Chicago’s music scene.
Chicago has provided me with great opportunities to collaborate with many world-renowned musicians and music organizations and institutions. Also, there are many teaching opportunities for those who want to share their musical talents in an educational setting. I have performed creative music all over this city in many venues and musical institutions. I have also performed in the Chicago Jazz Festival several times as well as Pitchfork and other festivals over the years. Chicago has provided a strong base for my career in music.
The music scene in Chicago has provided many outlets for younger musicians to sharpen their musical skills. There are more venues hiring young musicians to perform in their space. This allows them to grow musically and developing the necessary tools for a successful career in music. The diversity of music styles in this city, gives a young musician the opportunity to perform a variety of musical expressions while also finding their niche.
Listen to Music featuring Taalib-Din Ziyad
JazzCity: Miyumi Project Meets AACM Chicago’s Great Black Music Ensemble
Taalib-Din Ziyad’s flute solo begins at the 5:23 marker in the video.
OLIVIA BLOCK – Media Artist & Composer
I moved from Austin to Chicago in 1997 for practical reasons related to the relationship I was in, and because I was fascinated by all of the interesting experimental music happening here in the late-nineties. It seemed like a good choice for a new home. Having been in a band in Austin, playing live and touring, I wanted to make a change and create different, more exploratory types of music, yet I wasn’t formally trained in “classical” music at that time. I had some recording skills and experimented with a four track. I had no formal connections with institutions or even people here.
Jim O’Rourke, who lived in Chicago then, was an influential figure for me. He made innovative music, produced or collaborated on almost every experimental music album in the nineties, and was in Gastr del Sol with David Grubbs, which is, in my opinion, one of the most innovative bands in history.
I related to O’Rourke’s approach because he did not identify as an academic, although he referenced composers like Feldman and Conrad in addition to the post-rock music, bands, Drag City, etc. he worked with. I met O’Rourke after I arrived here. He introduced me to musicians in the improv scene like Jeb Bishop, Kyle Bruckmann, and many others.
These Chicago improv musicians played my scored pieces in local concerts and recording sessions, in a sort of alternative track to the world of conservatory training, scores, and commissions. Improvisation became important in my work as a result of my work with Chicago improvisers. (Later I did attend a music conservatory to receive a more formal music education, although I will always be an autodidact in my heart.) I was one of few female sound artists here in the early aughts, but I felt an openness and acceptance here.
Over time I have made meaningful connections with faculty and students at the School of the Art Institute Sound Program (where I attended classes and now teach), Experimental Sound Studio, and The Chicago Composers Orchestra (where I now serve as an advisor).
Around ten years ago, Chicago had an abundance of small new music ensembles playing more radical music than is typical for those types of ensembles. Some of those small ensembles have left the city now, but I think the spirit of adventure in new music has remained. There is still a healthy genre crossover in Chicago, and a beautiful willingness by artists to take risks and collaborate with others. Perhaps this lack of genre rigidity is related to the lack of financial imperative. Artists have to go elsewhere to make money from their art for the most part. In terms of music and art-making, I ended up staying here for so long because there was really no reason to leave. I have always had an abundance of opportunities, extremely skilled musicians and ensembles to work with, very reasonable high-quality recording studio rates, affordable housing with room for a home studio, and a large airport nearby for easy work-related travel. I have a community of like-minded, creative friends and loved-ones, and I enjoy teaching here.
Listen to music by Olivia Block:
Olivia Block’s work “October, 1984” from October, 1984
Listen to Olivia Block’s Chicago Artist Recommendation:
Haptic’s “BTWN 65, 52” from the album Weird Undying Annihilation
CRAIG DAVIS PINSON – Composer, Guitarist & Educator
Craig Davis Pinson
For anyone paying attention to music in Chicago, it would come as no surprise that there is a stunning variety in how the people of this city make and participate in it. No less rich are the different approaches musicians often take to being part of more than one genre community or artistic discipline. Notably, these networks and cross-pollinations are mediated, to some degree or another, by factors such as privileged access to resources, institutional prestige, or subcultural community gatekeeping. Despite these barriers, an undeniable spirit of curiosity and openness persists in the creative spheres I’ve been involved in. Being immersed in this collective attitude has humbled me, as an outsider from Mexico City (another great music city), while I’ve come to know some of the people and music of Chicago over the past seven years.
When it comes to artists that deal with music and sound with a deliberately experimental attitude, Chicago is a city of house shows, DIY venues, and open-minded dive bars as much as it is one of canonized concert halls, revered jazz clubs, and prestigious art school galleries. The lines of dialogue are increasingly open between improvised music, contemporary classical, performance art, electronic music production, independent pop and rock, and adventurous folk – all arenas to which Chicago has contributed enormously. Yet artists and audiences increasingly refuse to shy away from discussing the politics of access between these spheres, most frequently along the lines of class, race, gender, and ability. A substantial amount of art that speaks directly to these issues is made here, and the fact that there is still much work to be done on these fronts is often acknowledged.
I’ve had the privilege to be able to make music as a composer within academia as well as to be welcomed into spaces that run independently of direct institutional support. Regardless of the setting, making music together with others has brought me meaningful artistic and personal experiences. While certainly not unique to Chicago, the collaborative mindset can be observed throughout the city’s history as a common value across many of its communities, and has made an indelible mark on me as a creator. It’s the driving force behind the collective composition and improvised music hybrid Fat Pigeon, a group I formed with Emily Beisel and Luis Fernando Amaya. We explore everything from free improvisation to the making of conventionally notated scores, continually searching for different modes of making music together. It also informs my improvisational practice outside of that group, the desire to write and produce indie songs together with friends, and an investment in fostering long-term close collaborations with classically-trained performers. Through these collectively-minded approaches to making and experiencing art, working in Chicago has taught me both the tremendous creative potential and the urgent necessity of striving to make music in relation to others.
Listen to music featuring Craig Davis Pinson:
“No Fate Pig II” by Fat Pigeon (Craig Davis Pinson, Emily Beisel, Luis Fernando Amaya) from the album Fang Poet I
Listen to Craig Davis Pinson’s Chicago Artist Recommendation:
“Prism Unabridged” from Imelda Marcos’s album Tatlo
JACKIE TAYLOR – Founder & CEO, Black Ensemble Theater, Director, Producer, Actress, Playwright, Educator & Singer/Songwriter
Thousands of years ago in another time and galaxy, I, Jackie Taylor, embarked on a career as a Folk Singer. This was the early ’70s and there was a huge Folk Music Market. Many, many clubs where one could be booked and sing their heart out. I had written many songs and felt that the world needed to hear them – so I hired a manager and he booked me in the Chicago folk clubs. There I was performing with my guitar, three sets a night and swallowing mounds and mounds of smoke. I quickly realized that this was not the career for me and put an end to that journey. No more playing the clubs! But I had become intrigued with the Chicago music scene. I found it warm, exciting, and inclusive. There was so much going on, folk, blues, jazz, soul and I quickly became an avid fan of the Chicago music scene. I met many musicians and joined many jam sessions – let’s fast forward to my starting the Black Ensemble Theater in 1976. I had done a lot of traveling but as an artist there was no place like Chicago. I kept writing music – but this time it was to accompany the plays that I had written. It is unbelievable that it is now 46 years later and I’m still writing plays and I’m still writing music. Chicago is a very, very special place – it is my musical home – as well as my theater home. There is no other place like Chicago. To me it was never the second city. It was and will remain my number one artistic home – where an artist can do more than just survive – they can thrive.
Listen to Music by Jackie Taylor:
“We Will Remember” (written by Jackie Taylor), performed by Dawn Bless from the Black Ensemble Theater production of The Healing
Listen to Jackie Taylor’s Chicago Artist Recommendation:
Theo Huff’s “It’s A Good Thang I Met You” from the album Now is the Time
JENNIE OH BROWN – Executive & Artistic Director of Ear Taxi Festival, Flutist, Collaborator, Entrepreneur & Educator
Jennie Oh Brown (photo: Marc Perlish)
Chicago is a city that has always felt like home to me since the moment I moved here as a child. I love the culture, I love its art, I love the people and, believe it or not, I even kind of love the weather on most days. When my husband and I decided to move back to Chicago after graduate school, I was ready to invest my energy into building a career in the artistic community of this city. However, despite my eagerness, I was met with a brick wall of resistance. The gatekeepers of the field were anxious to push me out, and I was viewed very clearly as a threat to their territory of community, of tradition, and whether deliberate or not, of whiteness. However, I was neither discouraged nor impressed.
My circle of friends in graduate school included and frankly revolved around composers, and I spent a significant part of my time studying and premiering their works. Hence, I sought out and decided to immerse myself in the new music scene in Chicago. The depth of creativity and truly world class talent I discovered was completely mind-blowing. Perhaps even more impressive, these incredible artists were also fearlessly creating their own unique professional paths to sustainable careers. Over and over again, people were dreaming up projects and finding homes for them throughout Chicago. The bigger the project, the bigger the community around it.
Fast forward to today, and the pinnacle of this for me is serving Chicago as the Executive and Artistic Director of New Music Chicago’s Ear Taxi Festival alongside my stalwart colleagues Michael Lewanski, LaRob K. Rafael, Jessica Wolfe, and Justin Peters. Approximately 600 artists are being showcased throughout the neighborhoods of Chicago including: performance artists, instrumentalists, and singers; creative improvisers, contemporary classical musicians and sound experimentalists; speakers, writers, panelists and more. The festival is also providing webinars, professional development workshops, and portfolio building elements to help artists rise beyond the desolation of the pandemic. However, the festival is more than just a gathering, it’s an imperative.
Listen to Music performed by Jennie Oh Brown:
Jennie Oh Brown performs “Vidimus Stellam” written by Sungji Hong
Jennie Oh Brown performs “Plea for Peace” written by Augusta Read Thomas (also with Elizabeth Brausa Brathwaitee, Kate Carter, Dominic Johnson, and Paula Kosower)
Listen to the Different Cities Different Voices playlist on Spotify:
The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US. Please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.
Lance Anderson / Unsplash
Sep 28, 2021
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