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

The strangely named Dinosaur Annex, formed in 1975 by performers and composers associated with The Annex Players (the musical “annex” of the New England Dinosaur Dance Theater), had an initial sense of programming that was no easier to grasp than the roots of its name.

“Two of the founders, Rodney Lister and Ezra Sims, were really into Percy Grainger and John Cage,” says composer and artistic director Scott Wheeler. “Even Bach and Schubert would turn up on our programs without obvious reasons, so it was hard to hold the programs together.”

When Wheeler inherited the sole artistic reins of the organization in 1982, the focus narrowed to works of the 20th century, but the range broadened to embrace the stylistic gamut, from 12-tone pieces to microtonal works to pop and world music influences, with and without electronics. Cooperatively run by Wheeler and its nine-member ensemble, the Boston-based Dinosaur Annex has kept its new music campaign close to home in its support of local composers.

In addition to its Boston venues, which include First & Second Church in Boston, Jordan Hall, Paine Hall, Tremont Temple, and the Berklee School of Music, the ensemble has also toured to New York, Amherst and Smith Colleges, Clark University, the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), and the University of New Hampshire. Their performances are also broadcast over WGBH radio.

Although Wheeler says Dinosaur Annex was never intended to express a single viewpoint — his or any other — the group’s diversity has been its biggest strength.

“Every composer, I think, has strong feelings about what music is interesting and worthwhile, but I don’t think that same feeling is a great thing for a presenter,” says Wheeler, who also teaches at Emerson College. To keep a broad musical spectrum, Wheeler keeps his own programming down to the one concert a year he conducts. Another concert features the input of a guest conductor, and a third features programming by a member of the ensemble. The compromise, he says, benefits both the ensemble and himself on a creative level.

“I hear all kinds of music from other people that I never would’ve thought would mean much to me,” he admits. “As a composer, it helps keep me in the loop, because after graduate school, even the most in-touch composer feels out of touch.”

From Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles
by Ken Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox