(Re)New Amsterdam: an Interview with Doyle Armbrust

As many of you know, during Storm Sandy New Amsterdam Presents and New Amsterdam Records’s headquarters in Red Hook, Brooklyn was decimated by flooding. Ever since, the label’s staff, led by co-directors William Brittelle, Judd Greenstein, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, have been working on rebuilding. Not only have they been concerned with their own business, but the community minded folks at New Amsterdam have also been advocating for aid to help their neighborhood in Red Hook.

New Amsterdam’s plight hasn’t gone unnoticed by the broader new music community. And not just in New York. On December 16th, Chicago musicians are presenting (Re)New Amsterdam (ticket info here), a benefit to raise money for the organization. One of the concert’s organizers, Doyle Armbrust, violist, writer, and curator of the (Un)Familiar Music Series at Chicago’s Empty Bottle, spoke with Sequenza 21 about the show.

Christian Carey: Hi Doyle. Thanks for taking the time to tell us about the upcoming benefit for New Amsterdam Records. How did the idea emerge for musicians to give a concert in Chicago to help out a record label that’s based in Red Hook, Brooklyn?

 

Doyle Armbrust: The idea for a New Amsterdam fundraiser came from the generous brain of Marcos Balter, whose scores have been recorded on the New Am label. This year, I’ve launched a new-music series, (Un)familiar Music, with the sole purposes of artist advocacy and breaking the new-music scene out of the concert hall setting. With its policies of allowing artists to retain the rights to their music as well as 80% of an album’s proceeds, the philosophies of New Am and (Un)familiar are wonderfully congruous. It was an obvious fit as Marcos and I saw it. Much more important than all of that, though, the Chicago new-music scene is a far more collaborative than competitive one. We believe in this often quixotic and illusory career path, and specifically the music being written today, and when we hear that our colleagues in another state are suffering, our hearts break. I moved back to Chicago after living in Los Angeles and Miami in large part because I missed this compassionate spirit of my home city. I’m grateful that the passionate response by the new-music community here has proved the point for me once again.

 

 

CC: How did you go about assembling the artists putting on the show? Which groups are participating?

 

DA: Once we secured the date with The Empty Bottle, (Un)familiar’s home base, calls and emails went out to just about every new-music ensemble in Chicago…and just about every new-music in ensemble immediately agreed to play. In some cases we have members of ensembles performing solo works, or smaller chamber pieces, due to availability and the size of the venue, but the program is an absolute knockout. Performers include: Abominable Twitch / Access Contemporary Music / Can I Get An Amen / Chicago Q Ensemble / CUBE / Dojo / Eighth Blackbird / Ensemble Dal Niente / Ensemble Vulpine Lupin / Fifth House Ensemble / Fulcrum Point / Gaudete Brass / Grant Wallace Band / Searchl1te / Spektral Quartet / Third Coast Percussion.

 

 

CC: Was there a collaborative or thematic aspect to selecting the program? Any highlights among the selections you’d like to preview for us?

DA: When programming (Un)familiar shows, my aim is to have the ensembles perform whatever they are most amped about. Marcos and I have continued that trend here, and I’m happy to report there will be no filler anywhere in this 4-hour show. I can’t possibly pick a most-anticipated entry, because the setlists are so dynamite. That said, as a Beat Furrer fanatic, I’m looking forward to hearing Ensemble Vulpine Lupin (a recent addition to the Chicago family) dig into “Invocation VI” and because this is a Cage year, I can’t wait to see Third Coast Percussion destroy with “Third Construction.”

CC: Any chance that the concert will be recorded?

WFMT will be recording the concert.

CC: What ways would you suggest non-Chicagoans help New Amsterdam and others affected by Storm Sandy?

 

DA: I wouldn’t presume to tell folks specifically how to donate, but I will say that I did have a wrestling match in my cranium over the often fraught issue of aid. There will always be someone in more dire need of assistance, as there is in the case of now-homeless victims of Sandy. I can also return from a record-buying binge and realize that someone won’t eat today, but I HAD to have that Harry Partch first-pressing. It’s a constant hypocrisy that most of us deal with on a daily basis. In the case of this event, I see an opportunity to help in some small way fellow musicians with whom I share similar artistic struggles. I have resources to magnify that aid, through my series and the generosity of my friends here in Chicago. We can rally together and throw a monster of a concert that people will excitedly pay to come witness. Together, through this incredible music we’ve dedicated our lives to championing, we can effect some tiny degree of relief.

 

 

11/14 Spektral Quartet’s Auditory Scenario

This Wednesday: Spektral Quartet plays Elliott Carter’s Second String Quartet in Chicago. And they aren’t just playing … they’re acting it out!

the Spektral Quartet

An Auditory Scenario for the performers to act out with their instruments

Wednesday, Nov 14th, 2012
7:30pm

(B.Y.O.B!)

National Pastime Theatre
941 W Lawrence Ave, 4th floor
Chicago, IL

Tickets
$15 advance online here
$20 at the door
$10 students with valid ID

 

Guest Post: Spektral Quartet presents Theatre of War

May 23-24, 2012: Spektral Quartet and High Concept Laboratories Present Theatre of War (A Preview)

by Arlene and Larry Dunn

On Wednesday, May 23 in Chicago, the Spektral Quartet and High Concept Laboratories will present Theatre of War, an artistic investigation into the disconnects between the experiences of those most directly affected by our wars and the experience of the public at large. The event comes at a salient moment, immediately following the NATO summit meeting in Chicago. Theatre of War will be held at the Chopin Theatre and will be repeated on Thursday, May 24. All ticket proceeds are being donated to the Vet Art Project (www.vetartproject.com)

In every era there are artists who are able to use their work as a prism through which the public can examine troubling facts that might otherwise be hiding in plain sight. Examples abound, as diverse as Picasso’s antiwar masterpiece Guernica and Nina Simone’s civil rights broadside Mississippi Goddam. With our personal history in the struggles for civil rights and against the War in Vietnam, we consider this an important role of art. We have been troubled by the lack of public discourse and artistic light shone on a decade of US war-making.

We applaud the Spektral Quartet and their collaborators for embracing this artistic tradition with Theatre of War. The multimedia production will employ music, film, literature, and theater to examine the consequences of our nation being at war. With our modern all-volunteer military, few Americans are directly involved in our war efforts. We as a society hold those who serve in high regard. But we tend to do so with an empty reverence. We worship them as heroes without really understanding what we ask them to do in our names, nor comprehending the physical and psychic toll they pay in doing it. These are the disconcerting realities Theatre of War will confront.

The musical components of Theatre of War will be “Stress Position” by Chicago composer Drew Baker and George Crumb’s “Black Angels.” Guest pianist Lisa Kaplan of eighth blackbird will perform “Stress Position,” a staged piece for solo amplified piano. The pianist is subjected to a kind of torture, stretched to the limits to play constantly at the two extremes of the keyboard. As the volume increases and the lights go out, the audience is engulfed in the experience. The Spektral Quartet will play “Black Angels,” written by Crumb at the height of the Vietnam War turmoil. It is scored for electrified string quartet and the players are also required to vocalize, play percussion, and bow water-filled crystal glasses, creating eerie, otherworldly effects.

Richard Mosse, a filmmaker and photographer who has been embedded with US military units in Iraq and Afghanistan, will provide the video portion of the program. His short films “Theatre of War,” “Gaza Pastoral,” and “Killcam” expose elements of our military efforts of which the everyday public are typically unaware.

The literary and theatrical segments of Theatre of War will come from Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska and Chicago writer Virginia Konchan. Szymborska’s poems “Hatred” and “The End and the Beginning” assay the fundamental nature of human conflict and reconciliation. Konchan’s short story “Blackbird,” adapted for the stage by Molly Feingold of High Concept Laboratories, probes the scars of war borne by a returning soldier and his frustrated search for healing.

In presenting Theatre of War in the wake of the NATO Summit, we hope the Spektral Quartet and their artistic partners will spark a personal-level examination of our ongoing global military operations. Following the program, the audience will be encouraged to share their reactions in discussion with the artists and with each other.

Chicago-based Spektral Quartet was formed in 2010 with a commitment to play a wide-ranging repertory in traditional and genre-breaking venues. The members are Aurelien Fort Pederzoli (violin), J. Austin Wulliman (violin), Doyle Armbrust (viola), and Russell Rolen (cello). High Concept Laboratories, led by Co-artistic Directors Molly Feingold and Kevin Simmons, collaborates with Chicago-area artists and performers to foster the creation and development of new works.





Theatre of War

Chopin Theatre

1543 W Division

Chicago, IL 60642

Wednesday, May 23, 2012 at 7:30 PM

Thursday, May 24, 2012 at 7:30 PM

General Admission: $30.00

Student Admission: $20.00

Tickets: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/242801

Arlene and Larry Dunn are avid fans of a wide range of contemporary arts and music endeavors as well as life-long social activists. They are frequent contributors of “audience perspective” blog postings for digitICE, the blog of the new music juggernaut International Contemporary Ensemble. They live in rural LaPorte County, Indiana.

Happy Independence Day from Charles and Greta

My parents-in-law have a long tradition of enthusiastic photography. Greta the golden retriever is less than a year old, but she’s already an accomplished model.

To those readers in the United States, I’d like to wish you a safe and happy Independence Day. While there’s a lot of music played on this holiday that is arranged to be “broadly appealing,” Charles Ives was never one to compromise. “Fourth of July” (1904), from the Holidays Symphony, complexly layers a number of patriotic tunes, which move a different speeds and simultaneously appear in different keys.

No one will mistake this piece for John Philip Sousa anytime soon, but it’s Ives’ way of paying tribute to the complex and multifaceted portrait that he saw both as America in the modern age and as the epitome of the American dream. Michael Tilson Thomas leads the Chicago Symphony in the embedded video below.


Eighth Blackbird partners with Finale: relaunches Competition

I just got off the phone with a reporter from the Chicago Reader, who read our February 12th coverage of Eighth Blackbird’s Composition Competition (on Twitter, this came to be known as the “8Bb boo-boo” post).

In the initial post, I’d expressed my disappointment at finding out that Eighth Blackbird, an ensemble for whom I had a great deal of respect as new music performers, was charging a $50 entry fee for their competition. As the post’s title indicated, it seemed apparent that the competition’s prize would easily be self-funded by application fees, with plenty left over.

We had a lot of comments on the post. This discussion revealed a wide range of viewpoints on the subject, both pro and con. Some posters pointed out that instrumentalists are routinely required to pay robust fees for auditions; why should composers? Others suggested that the ensemble was right in charging a fee, as they would be spending time adjudicating the contest and deserved compensation for that time. But others agreed with me that self-funded commissions are a problematic aspect of far too many composition competitions.

The variance of opinion didn’t hew to a composer vs. performer divide; one of Sequenza 21′s regular contributors, composer Lawrence Dillon, mounted a vigorous defense for the competition’s guidelines. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, on the other hand, went even further than I did in strenuously rebutting the idea of high application fees and self-funded commissions.

Shortly after our post, and commentary elsewhere on the web, Eighth Blackbird announced that they were postponing the competition to rethink and revise its guidelines. They have recently announced a new competition. Partnering with the American Composers Forum and MakeMusic, Eighth Blackbird will undertake the Finale® National Composition Contest. You can read the competition’s guidelines here.

As I pointed out in my interview with the Reader (the article will run next Thursday, if you’d like to see what they make of it), the Finale competition improves on the previous contest in several ways. Some highlights:

-Each contestant may send up to three works, composed in the last five years, that demonstrate how they would write for Eighth Blackbird. One may include CDs, DVDs, and scores.

- There’s no more application fee; composers may pay a nominal amount ($5) if they’d like for their materials to be returned. Like all good competitions, it remains anonymous. There are no age restrictions.

- Three finalists will each receive $1000 and a $500 travel stipend. They will workshop the piece for a weekend with Eighth Blackbird. The winner will receive $2000 and a performance by 8Bb.

-None of the prizes is a king’s ransom; but paying finalists a travel stipend and giving them the opportunity to workshop their piece with the ensemble are significant opportunities not afforded by many competitions.

I think that this competition will better serve both emerging composers and the ensemble. By partnering with Finale and ACF, 8Bb has high-profile sponsors who are helping to offset some of the administrative costs that were previously passed along to composers. The affiliation with Finale will doubtless garner more attention and publicity for the competition. I’d imagine it will also help to get the word out to a wider and more diverse pool of emerging composers.

I, for one, am pleased that our discussion about composition competitions on Sequenza 21 seems to have made a positive impact. I’m also glad to be able to thank Eighth Blackbird publicly for being receptive to criticism and open to discussion. Their willingness to listen to what composers have to say – and then act on it- is another brand of advocacy that’s all too rare and greatly appreciated.

The deadline is September 15th, so get writing!

The Horse's Ha

Horse’s Ha

Chicagoans Janet Beveridge Bean (Freakwater) and James Elkington (Zincs) started their collaboration in 2002, but have waited until ’09 to release  Of The Cathmawr Yards  (Hidden Agenda). They’re a simpatico duo. In addition to a penchant for frequent Dylan Thomas references, the two share a thirst for musical exploration. Pairing alt-folk originals with an avant jazz rhythm section,Of the Cathmawr Yards  is a successful and novel-sounding recording that’s well worth its long gestation.

MP3: “The Piss Choir”


Terradactyl

Serengeti and Polyphonic

Terradactyl

Anticon Records

 

Both from Chicago, rapper Serengeti and DJ Polyphonic invest their second full length recorded collaboration with a plethora of stylistic approaches. Hip hop, electronica, and elements of world music create a hybridized music, melding in varied, often stirring ways.

For example, on “Bon Voyage” there is a triangulated give and take between synthetic elements, a beat template imbued with pitched percussion and interlocking rhythmic figures, and Serengeti’s urban poetics. “My Negativity” matches downtempo electronica with echoing repetitions of the title lyric. “Cleveland” allows Polyphonic to take the lead, creating an evocative synth suite on which Seregeti’s vocals take on a more ornamental role.

The duo doesn’t eschew accessibility – “La Lala” features winsome keyboard riffs and an appealing mixture of sung vocals and clipped rapping. But often, the choices of instrumentation underscore the lyrics’ visceral worldview. For instance, reptilian squawks and an ominous backbeat give “My Patriotism” an appropriately confrontational ambience. Meanwhile, “Playing in Subway Stations” uses a swath of layered rhythms to create an apt sonic approximation of commuters’ hurly burly. Far from prehistoric, Terradactyl is positively cutting edge music-making.

You can hear more of S&P at their MySpace page. RCRDLBL also has a page devoted to the group, including a downloadable remix of the song “2 Times 2.”

Terradactyl

D. Rider's debut

D. Rider

 

D. Rider

Mother of Curses

Tizona

 

Best known for his work with U.S. Maple, Todd Rittman has formed a new band: D. Rider. Its debut release is filled with heady experimental rock signatures: explosive percussion, handmade instruments, alternately wailing and jangly guitars, and portentous bass-lines. The Chicagoan trio mixes this with Windy-city post-rock features; in particular, judicious use of cornet and saxophone and minimalist layerings.

 

Upon occasion, a balladic character inhabits Rittman’s cryptic, long-breathed vocals; crystal clear vocal harmonies also populate the most fetching portions of Mother of Curses. Indeed, the singing serves as a stark contrast to the often noise-laden character of the accompanying instruments. The whole doesn’t quite cogently cohere, but its spiky juxtapositions and somber-hued vamps take out rock in often fascinating directions.