Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles



Ken Smith
photo by Melissa Richard

For a composer, the urge to assume creative control in your own musical matters is as American as…well, Aaron Copland. But whether your frame of reference is literally the Copland-Sessions Concerts of Contemporary Music, a four-season project from 1929-1932 where American composers first took charge of bringing their music to the public, or the broader history of that tradition stretching back to Bach and Beethoven, the very breadth of composer-led or -affiliated ensembles is American to the core.

Since colleges and conservatories are the easiest places for composers and performers to interact, it’s no surprise that ensembles that met there (like Musicians Accord, eighth blackbird and the California EAR Unit) often continue the association after graduation. The members of other more experimentally-oriented groups, like Essential Music, Newband, or the American Festival of Microtonal Music, have found each other far from the halls of academe.

Once embarking on this mission, ensembles have a choice in what they perform. They can largely support a certain compositional school (The Group for Contemporary Music) or geographic location (Chicago Composers Consortium, Dinosaur Annex), or even a specific composer (Fred Ho’s Afro-Asian Music Ensemble), while other groups purposely break such categories (North/South Consonance and Composers Concordance). Some groups that originally formed around a single composer (like the Paul Dresher Ensemble) are now actively commissioning a variety of composers.

While the instrumentational resources of many of these groups is frequently what determines the kinds of pieces composers can write for them, some groups have been formed specifically to suit the whims of the composers (Music for Homemade Instruments, Bang On A Can All-Stars) But there are still composers who have found such standard ensembles like the string quartet to be their perfect medium for self-expression although their own conception of the genre has made them form their own groups (Soldier String Quartet, Turtle Island String Quartet).

The sound of much American concert music is largely shaped by the fact that composers are writing for specific ensembles. It is certainly easier for a composer to get a work performed by a small ensemble of his or her own creation than by an orchestra where the odds are generally stacked against both living composers and Americans. In fact, the American Composers Orchestra was created to try to remedy this and show that you can still have enormous musical diversity even if you focus exclusively on 20th century American music.

There is always the danger of being pigeon-holed in a new music ghetto. Groups like Sequitur and the Common Sense Composers Collective add to their own tradition trappings and inspirations from theater and dance. The Da Capo Chamber Players used to perform new works more than once in an evening to give audiences a greater familiarity with the music. They now frequently combine new pieces with works from the standard repertoire on their programs.

Usually, at some point, even the newest music falls comfortably on the continuum, as conductors such as Parnassus‘s Anthony Korf and Present Music‘s Kevin Stalheim have found. Music never exists in a vacuum, and at some point, even our most radical views and expressions of the present come to terms with the past. After all, what Copland began is now 70 years old.

The Ensembles

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