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.
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.
One of Chicago’s most notable chamber ensembles, Third Coast Percussion, joined forces on Tuesday evening with flutist Tim Munro (of eighth blackbird) to create an intriguing evening exploring music from the 20th and 21st centuries. While flute and percussion might not be an obvious combination, it worked extremely well with the assistance of some subtle amplification that did not detract or distract from the overall performance and actually assisted in giving what would have been an overly dry ambience some life.
The concert was well-programmed with a healthy balance between new works by Australian composer Anthony Pateras and Third Coast member Owen Clayton Condon against older works by George Crumb, John Fonville, and John Cage (the latter of which we’re going to be hearing a lot from over the next 18 months as we approach the centenary of his birth). Crumb’s An Idyll for the Misbegotten took good advantage of the balconies in the venue and allowed Munro to begin his performance behind the audience, wind his way through the tables and waiters before taking center stage and retracing his steps to conclude the piece with exquisite bird-like flutters where he began the work.
I’ve seen other concerts where two multi-movement works are interlaced, but none that worked quite so effectively as the combination of Fonville’s Music for Sarah for solo flute and Cage’s Quartet for percussion quartet; the extremely varied colors Munro was asked to extract from his instrument with polyphonic textures through singing-while-playing as well as playing without the head-joint shakuhachi-style made a resonant contrast against Cage’s simplistic, almost monochromatic instrumentation and non-melodic excursions that were brought to life through Third Coast’s intense performance. I have to point out David Skidmore’s accuracy during this piece, as the head of one of his mallets flew off near the end of the piece and popped yours truly square in the chest – nice shot, David!
One of two world premieres of the evening, Pateras’ work Lost Compass fit well in the Cage/Crumb mold that the first half of the concert had set; the combination of a meandering alto flute against four percussionists skittering across glassware and metals with knitting needles intentionally did not move forward with a purpose, but rather seemed to just exist as entities of themselves (an effect that was heightened with one’s eyes closed which helped to abstract the percussion sounds into one great and complex rattle). Cage’s Aria again strewed the percussionists around and within the audience to make improvisatory comments on what was the most memorable performance of the evening, with Tim Munro laying down his flute to belt, mutter, caterwaul, coo and stutter in five different languages (from memory, natch) all while wandering throughout the audience; it was a tour-de-force performance that would be a shame not to get recorded at some point. The evening concluded on the right note with Fractalia, Condon’s new percussion quartet for two marimba four-hands with each performer switching back and forth from the marimba to several toms; the work is both memorable and enjoyable while being not overly virtuosic – this piece could easily become a staple in the percussion quartet repertoire.
The concert took place in the Mayne Stage theatre on the North Side of Chicago, one of several “alternative venues” that are popping up all over the country and are unafraid to feature a wide array of styles and genres to a diverse audience. While this concert worked out really well in the venue for many reasons, there were a few times where the whispering of wait-staff and clinking of glasses made unwelcome comments through some of the more intimate moments – though I’m sure Mr. Cage would have approved.
I just wanted to make sure everyone knew that tonight in Chicago the International Contemporary Ensemble will be paying tribute to an amazing violist, Omar Hernández-Hidalgo. They have commissioned three new pieces in his honor which will be premiered at 7:30 at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. Back in early June, Steve made us all aware of what happened and the response from the community was quick and memorable.
On a personal note, I was fortunate to be part of the Indiana University New Music Ensemble while Omar was there and I’ll always remember the day he walked in to the first rehearsal of Berio’s Chemins II for Viola and Ensemble – everyone in that room was completely speechless. So amazing and so inspiring. Of course every time he played this was the reaction.
Thanks to ICE for making this concert happen. If you can get to Chicago tonight go to this concert. More info here.
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.
Our friends at Cedille Records, the Grammy Award-winning, Chicago-based classical record label, are about to embark on their 20th year. Launched two decades ago in a student apartment on Chicago’s South Side by James Ginsburg, then 24, son of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is a pretty prominent lawyer in Washington, DC, Cedille (that’s say-DEE to you) made its debut in November 1989 with its first CD release, a program of solo piano pieces performed by Chicago-based Soviet emigre pianist Dmitry Paperno.
Since then, Cedille’s catalog, which features world-class musicians in and from the Chicago area, has grown and diversified, while attracting critical accolades, an international clientele, and praise from its artists. Cedille has 115 principal CD titles ranging from solo keyboard works to complete symphonies and operas. These include world-premiere recordings and CD premieres of important compositions, plus the commercial recording debuts of some celebrated artists.
Among the label’s major contributions to the world’s CD catalog are its recordings of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera “The Medium” (the only available recording of the work at the time of its release) and world-premiere recording of Robert Kurka’s opera “The Good Soldier Schweik,” both with Chicago Opera Theater; the world premiere recording of Easley Blackwood’s Fifth Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by James DePreist, paired with his First Symphony performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch (originally released on RCA Records); the world-premiere recording of Franz Clement’s 1805 Violin Concerto, paired with Beethoven’s concerto, with violinist Pine and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier; two discs of orchestral music by Chicago composer Leo Sowerby (1895-1968), with Paul Freeman leading the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Sinfonietta; the three-disc African Heritage Symphonic Series of orchestral works by black composers, with maestro Freeman and the Chicago Sinfonietta; the complete Mendelssohn string quartets with the Pacifica Quartet; a disc of David Diamond’s chamber music with the Chicago Chamber Musicians; and “Oppens Plays Carter,” the newest and only fully complete survey of Elliott Carter’s solo piano music, performed by Ursula Oppens, and just nominated for a Grammy Award. Read the rest of this entry »
I thought it might be nice to close out the month of interviews from Chicago by featuring a couple musicians from dal niente. The ensemble has some great concerts planned for October, but I caught violinist Austin Wulliman and flutist Shanna Gutierrez back in June.
Austin’s episode is worth listening to just to hear him say, “I love me some Scelsi”. You don’t hear that very often, but it’s true, oh so true. Shanna talks a little in her episode about interesting experiences with composers, but the real value is in the seemingly endless list of resources she mentions if you are writing for flute, or are just thinking about writing for flute.
Listen to Austin’s interview here and Shanna’s here. Subscribe to the podcast here.
Ensemble dal niente begins their season on Friday with what they are calling OKTOBERFest. You can find all the details on their website. How many groups are pairing Franco Donatoni with John Luther Adams, or Bach with Rihm, or Helmut Lachenmann one week and Arvo Pärt the next week? They are doing it all in October – I wish I could be there!
Friday, October 2 – 7:30pm ($10/5)
Columbia College Concert Hall, 1014 S. Michigan Ave.
Sunday, October 4 – 3 pm ($5)
Sherwood Conservatory of Music at Columbia College, 600 S. Michigan Ave.
Sunday, October 18 – 2:00pm ($5)
Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, 4802 N. Broadway Ave.
Sunday, October 25 – 3:00pm (FREE!)
Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.
Last week on the podcast: Cliff Colnot (download Cliff’s interview here). This week: Nicholas Photinos, cellist in eighth blackbird (download Nick’s interview here).
Turns out that 8bb was just finishing up some studio sessions at the end of last month for Reich’s Double Sextet. Unfortunately, we will need to wait over a year until we actually get to hear it. (Incidentally, Galen has some commentary about how frustrating it is that we have to wait so long for these recordings here.) Anyway, I don’t know how many ensembles think about their programming in terms of a five-course meal, but these guys do, and Nick tells us a little bit about that process. More beer!
Check-in next week for the first of two interviews with members of the Chicago based new music ensemble, dal niente.
As always, you can subscribe in iTunes here, on the web here, or just click here to download Nick’s episode.
One of the simple rules for the podcast is that there is a new episode every two weeks. That rule was broken in July when all four members of ETHEL were featured. And, that rule is being broken again in September when four musicians based in Chicago will be featured.
The month starts out with conductor Cliff Colnot (best known for his work with Contempo, Chicago Symphony’s MusicNow, ICE, and others). Cliff is a unique person in that he feels so strongly about notation and rehearsal efficiency, that he has produced documents outlining the way he likes to see things as a conductor–and gives them away to anyone who asks. Some of his thoughts on the topic are rather controversial, but anyone who has met him knows that it is hard to find a more appropriate word to describe him than “efficient”. Even if you disagree with him on some of his points of view, it’s hard to argue with the fact that composers should be preparing scores and parts in a way that doesn’t waste rehearsal time. Cliff describes how to get these documents for free at the end of his episode.
As always, you can subscribe in iTunes here, on the web here, or just click here to download the episode.
Since 1995 Chicago’s Percussion Scholarship Program has been shaping all kinds of mallet-whackers from grades 3 through 12. The program, under the direction of CSO percussionist Patricia Dash and Douglas Waddell, percussionist with Lyric Opera of Chicago, with amazing direction and arrangements by Cliff Colnot, has been growing something phenomenal. The kids’ musicianship and commitment seems to me every bit as stunning as Dudamel’s Venezuelan El Sistema stuff everybody’s been going gaga over. Don’t believe me? Just take in our young crew’s monster ride through Colnot’s arrangement of Dimitri Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony:
Incredible. The group’s big spring concert is coming up again this May 17th, 1:30 pm in Buntrock Hall at the Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Avenue. And it’s free, meaning not much better value can be had for a Sunday’s afternoon.