Making a Scene

When I first moved to Chicago in 1996, it was considered a bit of a new music backwater. The local universities each ran their own concert series, the CUBE Ensemble was up and running strong, and the Lyric Opera would present the occasional production by Berio or Ran while the Chicago Symphony programmed a new piece or two each season. But in general the experimental music scene lagged behind cities like Boston, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles.

By the dawn of the new millennium, all that was changing. The Chicago Symphony began MusicNow, its own new music series, originally curated by Augusta Read Thomas with the amazing Cliff Colnot as its main conductor. Then eighth blackbird moved into town, followed by ICE. Remarkably, Patricia Morehead and Janice Misurell-Mitchell—the founders of CUBE—welcomed these late-arriving players and helped them get started. As each of these ensembles found their sea legs, they focused on aiding others. The generous nature of these pioneers led to a warm community that nurtured its new members. Groups like Dal Niente, Accessible Contemporary Music, Fifth House, Fulcrum Point, Third Coast Percussion, and Anaphora (among others!) also began presenting concerts. As more ensembles entered the fray, the audience for each concert grew. The energy from each performance transferred onto the next until eventually Chicago found its new identity as a place (according to TimeOut Chicago) “to hear some of the most white-knuckled, desolately beautiful or head-bouncingly groove-savvy music ever unleashed under the classical heading.”

I believe that Baltimore is ready for a similar new music naissance.

Baltimore is fortuitously located along the Northeast corridor, a stone’s throw from Washington and Philadelphia. And Baltimore is unique among the I-95/Amtrack cities in that it combines a long-standing tradition of community support for the arts with reasonable property values. In addition, Baltimoreans welcome outsiders into this community with an openness that led to its most common nickname: Charm City.* The city teems with wonderful warehouses that have been converted into performance spaces that are easily accessible by public transit or car.

Baltimore already has a thriving community for experimental music improvisation. Later this month, the High Zero Festival will celebrate its 12th anniversary as one of the leading festivals for improvisation, welcoming artists from three continents. Every week Out of Your Head brings people together to play free experimental concerts. The Red Room, the Windup Space, and the 2640 Space (among other local venues) continuously present exciting concerts of the most cutting-edge experimental sound artists.

The more traditional new music scene is showing signs of rising to match its improvisatory brethren. Within the last few weeks, our two pioneering new music series made their 2010–11 season announcements, and both appear poised to raise Baltimore’s profile.

The Contemporary Museum’s Mobtown Modern opens their season tonight with an all-Ligeti concert featuring Peabody alumna Jenny Lin as a special guest. Each concert of their current season will focus on a specific composer, including a presentation of Oscar Bettison’s masterpiece O Death, and an all-Ken Ueno concert. They are bringing some amazing composer/performers into town, including Corey Dargel, Todd Reynolds (in a much-demanded return engagement), and Victoire. Additionally, this season the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is partnering with Mobtown Modern, a collaboration that bears watching.

About a mile south, Judah Adashi’s Evolution Contemporary Music Series will present David Lang’s Pulitzer-Prize winning The Little Match Girl Passion, and will bring ICE and Derek Bermel into town to play concerts and Alex Ross to talk about his new book. Locals are extraordinarily lucky to be able to hear these people in the intimate upstairs space at An Die Musik.

So I find myself amazed at all that’s happening in this relatively small city, and I wonder what’s next. Now that these organizations have taken root, can we take the next step? Can we build a reputation as a center for new music? Can we draw people to our city in order hear concerts? To present concerts? Can we convince people to stay? What can we do to build on the achievements of these pioneers?

And I would ask non-Baltimorean readers to come into town to sample some of these concerts. If you’d like, I can recommend some nice restaurants, as well. After all, it’s Charm City.

***

* The story of Baltimore’s nicknames is a long and interesting one. Every few years, civic leaders run out a new contender that locals mercilessly mock until it is replaced by something equally ridiculous. In my years here, the city has adorned bus stops with continuously changing slogans, including “The City That Reads,” “The Greatest City in America,” “Believe,” and currently “Find Your Happy Place.”

5 thoughts on “Making a Scene

  1. Armando

    Now, Smooke, don’t forget Baltimore’s little sister down I-95, Washington, D.C. We’re close enough to each other to have events featured in each town in both The Sun and the Washington Post (not to mention having certain DC-living new music ensemble leading composers working at a certain Baltimore conservatory. ehem…).

    Then again, you and I have already talked about this. Baltimore/Washington is itself a scene, and one that needs to be more cohesive and cooperative. Let’s make it happen!

    Reply
  2. smooke

    and Washington too!
    Armando-

    Excellent point! Really DC and Baltimore aren’t much farther away than the South Side of Chicago and Evanston and joining our scenes may be just the ticket.

    I am certainly very excited about Great Noise Ensemble’s upcoming season (the professional U.S. premier of Die Materie by Andriessen!!!). I also have loved the Verge Ensemble concerts that I have heard and am most excited that Verge will be playing a piece of MINE this Sunday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

    -David

    Reply
  3. ChristianBCarey

    Smooke,

    Count me in as someone who’d love to visit and get a taste of the B’more/DC new music scene. Although, it does seem to need more Carey performances…. ;)

    Reply
  4. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    David, thanks for this wonderful profile of some of the music going on in Baltimore.

    I was born and raised in Baltimore, and I’m now living in Boston, having just completed my masters in composition. Admittedly, Boston is one of those cities that makes you feel like cultural movements just gave up on the rest of the world. This place is absolutely great for contemporary music of most kinds, as well as visual and other performing arts. But I still long for the day when I can get back to Baltimore and have a place for myself as a composer….

    Everything about Baltimore’s music scene (not just contemporary classical music) has a strong DIY feel, and there is a real tradition of experimentation. The Baltimore hip-hop and indie rock scenes are probably the most notable- if perhaps only for having reached the widest audiences- and the music is incredible. (Check out this small sampling, particularly Caleb Stine’s track). The High Zero Festival and venues like Red Room at Normals Books are indespensible destinations for experimental and improvisatory music.

    The way I see it, though, new music will be building from the ground up, not the top down. The Baltimore Symphony, with Marin Alsop as an amazing director, can program all the contemporary music they want (and they do!), but only a handful of people will come. Peabody Conservatory’s track record of supporting new music is embarrassing when considered against the multitude of incredible musicians in their halls. Instead, this is a scene which will be supported by the hip-hop/indie/experimental/improvisational communities. It needs to be presented differently than it is in, say, New York or Boston. No more recital halls- Baltimore is a city where established conventions of concert-presenting won’t cut it. There’s too big a “non-classical” audience to ignore- and they’re completely necessary to Baltimore’s success as a musical hub.

    Reply
  5. smooke

    Mischa-

    Thank you. I agree with your assessment. I think that the top-down support of the CSO certainly helped in Chicago and the lack of that support in Baltimore does mean that it takes a bit more work to create a thriving scene. No question but that the amazing Marin Alsop would program new music on (nearly) every concert if she could, and the BSO’s collaboration with Mobtown Modern is very promising.

    And, yes, the DIY experimental scene permeates Baltimore arts (not just music—it also has similar scenes in writing and the visual arts). I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Shodekeh beatbox in the most experimental settings imaginable. And Matmos and Dan Deacon certainly do their part to expand the indie/experimental offerings coming out of Baltimore. Ruby Fulton (who blogged on New Music Box last week) also is doing her part performing in local bands while writing music for orchestra and chamber ensembles.

    The cross-pollination has been an amazing thing to hear. And I hope that this bottom-up approach will lead to strong roots capable of supporting a large and healthy tree!

    -David

    Reply

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