Boston: Six Degrees Equals Separation

Julia Werntz
Julia Werntz
Photo by Michele Macrakis

“Where are you?” An eminent composer to whom I had just been introduced, also as “a composer,” asked the question politely with a handshake and a curious smile, and with a slight emphasis on the word are. Where was I? Inside the same university concert hall in Boston, Massachusetts, that he was, attending a concert of contemporary music, but obviously that was not what he meant. He meant, “At what academic institution do you have a teaching position?” The context would have made this clear to anyone present, since a large percentage of the audience appeared to be professor-composers.

I begin my presentation of the Boston new music scene with this point because the academic atmosphere is an inescapable feature and usually colors the experience of new music consumption here. If it is generally the case in America that contemporary classical music is associated with the academic intelligentsia, then Boston, with its unusually large number of universities and music schools, is a place where this class distinction could be described as overwhelming.

Aside from being bad news for composers stuck outside the ivory tower, what does this mean for audiences? On the one hand, it means that the quality and quantity of new music performances is high. Largely because of its schools, Boston attracts a surplus of world-class composers and performers, and we have many university-resident performing groups and concert series. The landscape includes the Lydian String Quartet at Brandeis, Alea III at Boston University, the Fromm Foundation concerts at Harvard, as well as many independent performing groups, such as the Dinosaur Annex Ensemble (who just celebrated their 30th anniversary), Boston Musica Viva, Collage New Music, and several other excellent younger ensembles.

On the other hand, it also means audiences must not only posses the desire to hear this music in the first place, they also need to feel comfortable in the elite atmosphere that often weighs so heavily at these events—and this is no minor point. I believe there is a constituency of people out there interested in the arts who would be thoroughly enchanted by the music of Chen Yi or Mario Davidovsky, if only they had access to the music. They don’t. Most haven’t even heard of these groups, while others feel alienated by the milieu, indicating just how remote and secluded this large, rich, exciting musical world is from ordinary people.

A few groups, such as the Boston Modern Orchestra Project with their Club Café series, and pianist Sarah Bob’s New Gallery Concert Series, try to break through this barrier, and have had some success. And this is the context of Boston’s new music scene: a wealth of new music and musicians, and a profound need for the music to seem more relevant.

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Composer Julia Werntz lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, jazz pianist Pandelis Karayorgis, and their daughter Anna. Since the mid ’90s her music, mostly chamber pieces, has been almost exclusively microtonal. Her music has been performed around the Northeastern United States and Europe, and may be heard, together with works by composer John Mallia, on the CD All In Your Mind (Capstone Records). She is currently working in collaboration with choreographer and dancer Christine Coppola and violinist Gregor Kitzis on a piece for solo violin and viola and dance, based on poems of E. E. Cummings.

Werntz curently teaches music theory as an adjunct faculty member at universities in the Boston area, and also is Director of the Boston Microtonal Society, together with her former teacher and BMS President, composer and jazz saxophonist Joseph Maneri.