View from the West: New Music Ensembles, Composers, and Commissions



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

Commissions and residencies have been a way of life for composers since time immemorial. Just recently, on the twentieth anniversary of the premiere of Harmonium, the first commissioned work by then Composer-In-Residence John Adams, the San Francisco Symphony announced a long-term commissioning relationship with the composer. Over the next ten years Adams will write four pieces, beginning with a work to be written for the San Francisco Symphony’s 2002-03 European Tour and concluding in the 2011-12 season with a composition in celebration of the orchestra’s centenary. Adams’s relationship with the SFO has been a fruitful one that has already resulted in four commissions, performances of seventeen works and many world, U.S. and West Coast premieres.

Adams was appointed first as New Music Advisor to the SFS in 1979, then as the Orchestra’s Composer-In-Residence, a position he held until 1985. Along the way, he not only received commissions, but he directed a new music concert series that was quite successful and contributed tremendously to the local new music scene, adding vitality, strength and diversity.

While no one can deny that Adams deserves the new commissions from the SFS, such relationships are both difficult to come by and are few and far between. Adams’s high profile serves both the composer and the orchestra, but few composers are as well known, successful and popular.

What then, are some of the other possibilities? Clearly, there are hosts of new music ensembles with their own idiosyncrasies, biases and funding mechanisms. Some offer unique instrumentation, others are composer led and oriented, and then there is the old "uptown"/"downtown" orientation/polemic/conundrum.

The string quartet has enjoyed a tremendous renaissance over the past few decades, due in large part to the commissioning prowess of the Kronos Quartet and more recently, the Arditti String Quartet which has, in the past few years, come to great prominence, though they have been around for nearly as long as Kronos. Both ensembles have commissioned and premiered hundreds of works. The Kronos Quartet alone has commissioned well over 400 compositions, a remarkable track record and one which has yielded some masterpieces. Of course, there are many other ensembles ranging from Ensemble Modern to Speculum Musicae, from the California E.A.R. Unit to Zeitgeist, all of which commission and perform a wide range of contemporary music, working with academic, experimental and even cross-over composers whose work lies beyond the realm of the classical tradition.

And then there are composer led ensembles. It seems that after World War II, the notion of the composer as performer fell by the wayside. Composers became specialists, just as did performers. Much of this had to do with the virtuosic nature of so much modern music. It seemed not quite reasonable that a composer would be a virtuoso at both the art of composition and the art of performance. There were exceptions, of course. Cage performed throughout his career and realizing that a vital link between music maker and music receiver was retained via performance. Robert Ashley, Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley and Charlemagne Palestine all performed their own music, though often in a solo context. And while Harry Partch did put together the Gate 5 Ensemble, it seems more as a means to and end: getting the music performed, rather than as a viable performing unit in and of itself. With the advent of Minimalism, the composer led ensemble began to emerge not only as a vehicle for presenting the music, but also as a part of the composers’ livelihood. Clearly, the Philip Glass Ensemble and Steve Reich and Musicians have been among the most successful, with a host of others following in their footsteps, including the Mikel Rouse Broken Consort, Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company, Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble, the Deep Listening Band, and many, many others. All of these ensembles devote themselves to the music of the namesake composer or in the case of the Deep Listening Band and Mother Mallard, the composers which make up the group.

In recent years, a new type of ensemble has emerged and one which seems to hold a great deal of promise and vitality: a group led by or including a composer or composers, yet one which looks outside of its membership for a portion of its repertoire. Two such ensembles spring immediately to mind: The Paul Dresher Ensemble Electro-Acoustic Band and the Bang On A Can All-Stars. Both groups feature musicians of the highest caliber and neither limits itself to its resident composers. Rather, both groups thrive on the notion that they will also commission and perform works by composers not directly affiliated with the ensemble.

In 1993, Dresher expanded his ensemble, usually a trio or quartet plus a sound designer/engineer, and formed the Electro-Acoustic Band with the intent of serving the needs of an array of composers. Since its inception, the Paul Dresher Ensemble Electro-Acoustic Band has commissioned and/or premiered works by composers such as John Adams, John Luther Adams, Mark Applebaum, Eve Beglarian, Martin Bresnick, Jay Cloidt, Cindy Cox, Alvin Curran, Richard Einhorn, Bun Ching Lam, David Lang, Carl Stone, Ayuo Takahashi, Koji Ueno, and Lois V Vierk, among others, in addition to Dresher. Last season, the ensemble took on a new collaborative effort, commissioning three concertos with specific soloists in mind. Two cello concertos, one by Anthony Davis and the other by Dresher, were composed for former Kronos Quartet member, Joan Jeanrenaud. The third concerto was for piano and composed by Terry Riley who was also the featured soloist.

Dresher writes: "My philosophy has been to treat composers the way I want to be treated when I am commissioned: a respectable fee, ample rehearsal time and a presentation/performance that lets the composer’s intentions come through as strongly as possible. I would wager that we have paid out more to composers in that time than any

other composer-led ensemble, and I bet we would compete well with any other non-composer-led chamber ensembles as well."

The situation with Paul Dresher goes beyond the work done with the Electro-Acoustic Band as a performing ensemble. Musical Traditions and the Paul Dresher Ensemble is a contemporary performing arts organization which commissions, produces/co-produces and tours works in the area of concert music, chamber opera, dance, and is branching out to include sound sculpture installations. In addition to Dresher’s own operas, including the very successful Slow Fire, his organization commissioned, produced and toured Ravenshead, a monodrama created by composer Steven Mackey and librettist, vocal soloist and actor Rinde Eckert with Dresher’s ensemble performing; co-produced Erling Wold‘s surrealist chamber opera, A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil, and the Electro-Acoustic Band premiered and toured the John Adams, Peter Sellars, June Jordan music theater piece, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky. Additionally, Dresher has a long-standing association with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company as composer and performer. Currently, Dresher is working with Zeitgeist, the Minneapolis based ensemble, on Sound Stage, a piece which includes sound sculptures, newly invented instruments which were the result of a collaboration between Dresher, as instrument designer, and instrument builder Daniel Schmidt. Working with a tiny staff (essentially the composer and an office manager), Dresher has taken on projects of gargantuan, even heroic proportions and has contributed immeasurably to the new music community.

Bang On A Can began almost as a whim. Founded in 1987 by composers David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, the initial undertaking was a 12-hour Marathon concert which became the springboard for an ever growing array of events and projects. The Marathon (which continues to this day) was expanded to include festivals lasting several days, some with focused events highlighting the work of a few composers. The range of music presented was broad and diverse. In an interview with Deborah Artman, the board of directors of Bang On A Can states: "In 1987 we were fresh out of school and looking for action. As young composers, we were part of a new generation and we didn’t see any place to fit in. We looked around and noticed a bunch of other misfits — composers influenced equally by minimalism, classical music, Balinese gamelan, Indian raga, bottle-neck blues, Peruvian folk music and rock and roll. There was something different and important about our backgrounds. Bang On A Can grew out of our need to discover just where the music of our generation would fit in." As Lang continues, "From the beginning, we’ve been interested in making a home for people whose music has no home."

In addition to producing concerts, Bang On A Can commissioned new works, produced records, and designed and hosted residencies. The organization has grown to include not only a series of new music events, but, most visibly, a performing and touring ensemble, the Bang On A Can All-Stars, which includes composer and clarinetist Evan Ziporyn, as well as the SPIT Orchestra. Of these, however, it is the All-Stars that have helped to put Bang On A Can on the map outside of New York. Fortunate enough to score some impressive major label contracts with Nonesuch, Sony Classical and Point Music, as well as the intrepid indie, CRI, the All-Stars were thrust into the new music limelight and gathered steam. They made a brilliant, savvy and cross-over move when Bang On A Can members Wolfe, Gordon, Lang and Ziporyn arranged, recorded and toured Brian Eno‘s ambient music masterpiece, Music for Airports.

Bang On A Can has developed the People’s Commissioning Fund, a grass-roots program that relies on the contributions of supporters to fund the creation of new work. Rather like public broadcast, the fund takes in contributions, as little as five dollars, from member-commissioners, pooling these financial resources to make sizeable commissions. According to Bang On A Can, hundreds of people join as member-commissioners. As a result, over 300 people have commissioned eleven new pieces. This past spring, the People’s Commissioning Fund allowed them to commission works by Jeffrey Brooks, Sussan Deyhim, James Fei, and Keeril Makan this past spring. Their compositions were premiered by the Bang On A Can All-Stars during the People’s Commissioning Week at a free concert in Merkin Concert Hall. In addition to the free concert, there was an open invitation to sit in on the rehearsals and talk with the musicians who made the music.

In their quest to discover new and progressive music, Bang On A Can makes an annual call for tapes. In what must be a daunting task, they wade through piles of cassettes, CDs and CD-Rs to find works which they can include in their events, including some for the All-Stars to perform.

Such a visionary commitment to new music that is in the mission of the Paul Dresher Ensemble and Bang On A Can should serve as an inspiration and model for other composers, organizations and ensembles. Their selfless work benefits composers, performers, presenters, the new music community and posterity.