Sitting in Different Rooms

Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

“I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now,” is the way Alvin Lucier opens one of the most important pieces of American chamber music. Chamber music? Well, maybe not by today’s standard definition of a conductor-less ensemble piece in which each player has a unique part. Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room is a creation on magnetic tape consisting of a spoken sentence recorded in a room, played back into the room and recorded again, and again, and again until the speech dissolves into hums and hisses. Not exactly the Grosse Fuge…

But the very expression “chamber music” designates music that is site specific more than anything else. At a Conference of Chamber Music America a few years back, music critic Mark Swed startled audiences with a step-by-step logical proof that any recording you listen to at home, whether it’s Led Zeppelin or Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand,” is in some sense chamber music. Following that same logic, one wonders if a Mozart String Quartet, played in a large space such as Carnegie Hall, or outdoors at a music festival, can still be considered “chamber” music.

Clearly the blurring of terminology, while allowing for greater variety and open-mindedness, can also lead to words becoming meaningless. Like the term “classical music”… “I don’t know what classical music is but I know what it sounds like,” is a cute music industry paraphrase from the judge who vindicated Ulysses (“I don’t know what pornography is but I know it when I see it”), but it is ultimately a specious statement. The great thing about classical music is that it is not defined by how it sounds, but rather by how it is constructed and how it reaches its listeners. I am thrilled that after listening to classical music for over 20 years, I still don’t know what it sounds like! And that’s because starting in the past century, throughout the world, but particularly here in the United States, music has been (and continues to be) created that defies definition.

Last month, we asked if there is currently a center to American musical thought, a topic that continues to elicit some fascinating exchanges from our readers. This month, we’ve decided to look at a specific area within current American music making – namely chamber music – in the same open-ended way.

Since leaving the Kronos Quartet, cellist Joan Jeanrenaud has embarked on a new chamber music-informed solo career emphasizing collaboration. After speaking with her, I’m convinced that her new path that may prove to be a viable and important option for many musicians in the future. To parallel Joan’s life since Kronos, we asked Frederick Kaimann to provide us with an exploration of new music’s role in the lives of four very different post-Kronos quartets. We asked members of four ensembles, each acknowledged for their work in new music in this year’s CMA/ASCAP Adventurous Programming Awards, and together indicative of the wide variety of chamber ensembles working with new music today, how they integrate new music into their repertoire.

Recent concerts, new recordings and reports from recent conferences of Chamber Music America and the International Association of Jazz Educators, reveal that many of the old barriers are down and are staying down. With all this in mind, we ask you to attempt to define chamber music. It’s a very different room from the one we used to be sitting in!

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