Chicago: Plays Well With Others

Scott Winship
Scott Winship
Photo by Kathryn Gritt

It’s not a secret that folks in the new music community don’t always get along, be it stylistic differences or idealistic ones, but I’m not going to talk about that here. Instead I get the pleasure of reporting on an instance where people are actually playing nice with one another.

New Music Chicago is a coalition of 17 different new music ensembles and organizations here in the Windy City. According to their president, Stephen Burns, who is also director of the Fulcrum Point New Music Ensemble, the organization was formed a year ago to “coordinate schedules, build audiences, and to promote new music.” Patricia Moorehead, founder and director of the CUBE ensemble, also added that Chicago “is one of the only places that has [new music] groups working together.” I can’t tell you how helpful it is that they not only publish a calendar, but they also coordinate schedules to avoid conflicts. One of the most frustrating things about going to new music events is that there always seems to be two concerts you want to attend on the same night. I used to lament, “if only they would talk to each other!” Well folks, the Chicago new music scene is talking, and I’m listening.

This fraternal spirit was on display on May 14th during the organization’s first public outing. Five of the member ensembles—Fulcrum Point New Music Ensemble, the Accessible Contemporary Ensemble, CUBE, the MAVerick Ensemble, and the International Contemporary Ensemble—participated in a free concert in the Chicago Cultural Center’s Bradley Hall. Before I entered the hall, I was handed a flyer advertising the event by volunteers on the street trying to attract meandering tourists and locals on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Located right across the street from the new Millennium Park, the Cultural Center attracts folks from all over, many of whom seemed to find their way to this concert providing a diverse audience of old and young alike (including strollers), new music aficionados, the newly initiated, and a few curious passersby.

The Fulcrum Point New Music Ensemble started the program with two small chamber works featuring trumpeter and NMC founder Steven Burns. The first piece, Hikari (meaning light) for trumpet and piano by Japanese composer Somei Satoh, can best be described as a mix of traditional Japanese elements within a minimalist framework. Over a continuous chordal pattern provided by the piano, the trumpet explores its register beginning with sustained tones that gradually become more animated, emulating a shakuhachi, and ending in a large crescendo. Next up was Trail of Memories (2005) by American Dafnis Prieto. Burns explained that Prieto is a Latin jazz experimentalist who studied the Afrocuban and world music scene in Havana. His composition for trumpet and percussion contains several themes that “act like memories that come back or disappear” and contains elements of experimental music, improvisation, electronic, and Latin grooves. Built around a three-note figure that gets passed between the trumpet and the mallet percussion instruments, the piece starts with a long trumpet line which the percussion accents. As it progresses, the percussion takes on a greater role but still generally remains an accompaniment. Gradually the texture is thickened with the addition of an electronic bell-like track. Overall, it avoids settling into any real grooves until near the end where the percussion finds a Latin beat and the trumpet seems to be improvising over the top.

Next up was the Accessible Contemporary Ensemble performing A Woman’s Beauty (1991) by the American ex-pat Jane O’Leary (currently residing in Ireland). Scored for flute, percussion, dancer, and narrator, the composition sustains an ethereal mood, almost somber, as instruments weave in and out of extended lines of choreography. The narrator’s words (reading from a poem of the same title) are animated by the accompanying elements, finishing with the dancer moving in silence.

CUBE, arguably Chicago’s most established new music ensemble, offered a world premiere by composer Drew Hemenger. Commissioned by soprano Alicia Berneche on the topic of women poets who committed suicide, Hemenger chose the poetry of Anne Sexton. His selection of text was “primarily based on their appeal to me as well as their potential for taking on music, but [I] also have tried to give a glimpse into this woman’s life by showing a small cross-section of her work…there are crazy and tragic moments as well as happy and awestruck ones.” Hemenger’s treatment of the material leaned towards a musical theatre approach in terms of the vocal writing, but the piano would often venture into some interesting territory if only to return to that familiar sound.

The MAVerick Ensemble chose to perform pieces written within the last year. The first was World, conceive a man from the e.e. cummings poem of the same name, composed by MAVerick Ensemble founder and cellist Jason Raynovich for soprano, clarinet, guitar, and cello. The music seemed to flow slowly forward almost like a dirge with hints of Eastern European mystic minimalism. It created a haunting sound world accentuated by multiphonics in the clarinet and reduced range and movement in the soprano. The next piece, Juggernaut for cello and electronics, was written for Raynovich by Paul Oehlers. As its name suggests, the piece is packed full of perpetual motion propelling it forward. The piece seemed to be in a simple A-B-A format with driving chords in the cello and a playfulness between the cello and electronics.

The final performers of the day were the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) who chose to perform Linea d’ombra (1981) by Magnus Lindberg. Translated as “shadowlands,” flutist Claire Chase told me that the instruments “shadow each other” through the piece, constantly chasing each other. The work is incredibly difficult from the performers’ standpoint, requiring them to sing, yell, play percussion, and employ multiple extended techniques in addition to handling intricately complex ensemble playing. The music is very expressionistic and gestural with incredibly virtuosic flourishes. Ultimately the piece ends by decomposition as the flute, percussion, and clarinet surround a single tam-tam and alternate between playing their instruments and pounding out rhythms. Finally, the performance ends with rhythmic vocalizations.

Overall the concert was a great coming out for an organization which should serve as a model for other cities. It showed off the diversity of new music in Chicago in a unified format, from the academic to the accessible. These groups reached out to a broad audience and were well received. Personally, I’m happy to know that, at least for the time being, the community here is willing to work together to further the broader cause of new music in America. See what happens when you play nice?

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Scott Winship is the Associate Director and Youth Jam Coordinator for Rock For Kids, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping Chicago’s homeless children through Holiday relief programs and Youth Jam, a free music education program for underprivileged children. He has received degrees from Central Michigan University (music education) and Bowling Green State University (composition). Currently living in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, he tries to find as much time as possible to write music, attend concerts, and drink good beer. Upcoming performances of his work will be taking place in Chicago and Tucson.