View from the West: New Venues for New Music



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

As we all know, some styles of new music, including minimalism and post-minimalism, rock, and jazz-inflected styles, appeal to a cross-over audience, yet producers, promoters, and performers, for the most part, have not figured out how to market, promote, and especially present the music to either a larger or more diverse audience. A few artists and ensembles have made forays into unconventional, non-classical venues.

Occasionally, classical performers have worked with pop artists. Years ago, classical guitarist Liona Boyd toured as the opening act for Gordon Lightfoot. Michael Lorimer recorded for Windham Hill Records and even eschewed the title of classical guitarist for a period in his career as he sought to widen his audience and appeal, all the while playing classical literature. It seems that the pop/rock/jazz/world music cross-over really took off with two very popular albums: West Meets East (1967) featuring duets with Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar, and Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano (1975) with flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and jazz pianist/composer Claude Bolling. More recently, Yo-Yo Ma has worked with a host of non-classical musicians, including Bobby McFerrin, Béla Fleck, Mark O’Connor, Edgar Meyer, and others, as well as his Silk Road Project, a fusion of Asian and Western classical music. Violinist Nigel Kennedy made a big splash with his tour featuring the music of Jimi Hendrix. Many classical guitarists of the baby boom generation and after began their love affair with the electric guitar and rock music and to a lesser degree, jazz, before making the transition to classical studies and pursuits. It is almost a matter of course that some would retain their interest in rock and other vernacular or popular musics. More than a handful have collaborated or performed in concert with rock, jazz, fingerstyle, and other popular guitarists. Manuel Barrueco has recorded with the likes of Steve Morse, Al Di Meola, and Andy Summers. Old timer John Williams (the classical guitarist, not the film score composer) was a member of the progressive rock group Sky in the 1970s and has continued to work with rock musicians, most recently with John Etheridge best know as a latter day guitarist with Soft Machine, in addition to his on-going work with Nigel Kennedy.

If classical performers can do it, with varying degrees of success, why not new music composers/performers? While this is obviously not for all, many could reach out without pandering or compromising their work.

Among the first to successfully enter into venues such as rock clubs were the minimalists. Steve Reich has the distinction of being the first living classical composer to sell out a concert at Carnegie Hall while presenting a concert of his own music and also the first composer of “serious” music to sell out the Bottom Line in New York. Likewise, I recall seeing Philip Glass, around 1983, sell out both the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Roxy, then Los Angeles’s premier rock club, within a year’s time. A few years after that, he performed at the Universal Amphitheatre in Studio City, a venue which seats more than 6,000 and one which is more accustomed to hosting Tom Petty or Tori Amos. It must be said that this was a tour of Songs from Liquid Days and featured performances by Linda Ronstadt and the Roches and was at a time when Glass was enjoying his most widespread popularity. Still, one cannot imagine Milton Babbitt selling out a 6,000-seat hall. In 1970, Terry Riley played at the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London and was discovered by a host of underground rock musicians who almost immediately began to incorporate elements of his music. Soon Soft Machine was using repetitive modules, and later, minimalist repetition was featured prominently in Who’s Next (1971) by The Who. In recent years, Riley has performed at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage, an acoustic music club, but also sold out a concert in the same city as a solo artist in the Cal Performances series on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley.

Of course, Laurie Anderson has won a large cross-over audience and regularly performs in both rock/pop music venues and fine arts venues. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area she recently performed at Stanford University as part of their Lively Arts series, as well as Bimbo’s, a club in San Francisco.

The Kronos Quartet has played in rock/pop venues as has Glenn Branca, John Zorn, and a host of others. Harold Budd performs almost exclusively in pop/rock venues collaborating with rock musicians, as he did in his most recent British tour with Jah Wobble‘s Solaris featuring former P.I.L. member Wobble, Bill Laswell, Can‘s Jaki Liebezeit, and Graham Haynes. Still, such venues are off the radar screen for many, many composers and new music performers.

Significant possibilities for experimental composers and performers that have been largely untapped can be found in the many festivals that present improvised music. In North America, perhaps the most important such festival is the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in Canada. While the emphasis is on improvisational music, there are performers and composers whose work often falls in a more traditional, compositional category. This year, Joan Jeanrenaud, best known as the former cellist with the Kronos Quartet, will join Maybe Monday, the trio comprised of Fred Frith, Larry Ochs, of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, and koto player Miya Masaoka. Annie Gosfield will present Ewas7, a piece that she composed during a six-week residency in Germany. Also performing will be Peggy Lee (!), a fact which points up the diversity that one can find at such festivals. While improvisers such as Cecil Taylor, Keith Tippett, Gerry Hemingway, Eugene Chadbourne, and Merzbow dominate the 5-day festival, there are clearly possibilities for others.

In Europe, there are many similar festivals that composers could tap into, yet they so often fail to even consider them. At these festivals, one can find not only the improvisers, but slots given over to iconoclasts, such as Pascal Comelade, the eccentric French oddball who performs as a solo artist and with an ensemble that features toy and other unorthodox instruments and plays quirky, often aphoristic arrangements of numbers by both idiosyncratic rock musicians and rock heroes (Deep Purple, Dylan, Robert Wyatt, MC5, Tim Buckley, Faust, Brian Eno, Captain Beefheart, Elmore James), film score composers (Rota, Morricone) and 20th-century stalwarts (Satie, Weill, Stravinsky), as well as original compositions. Progressive rock groups and musicians such as Present, Art Zoyd, and Lars Hollmer (founding member and composer of Samla Mammas Manna and von Zamla, as well as his own Looping Home Orchestra) might also be found at these festivals. If Comelade or Hollmer can land a slot in these festivals, why not a Scott Johnson, Errollyn Wallen, Pamela Z, Raphael Mostel, or Miguel Frasconi?

It seems obvious that some composers who feature elements of rock, jazz, world music, and other popular components in their work could find a degree of success in more popular venues including clubs and small rock concert halls. For the young composer/performer or those interested in exposure rather than a meaningful fee, it might make sense to try to obtain an opening spot when experimental or avant-garde artists perform at one of the more mainstream venues. If Scanner can perform at the Other Minds Festival, perhaps he can have Carl Stone open up for him at a club.

This does not mean that there is any money to be made. Ensembles such as the Annie Gosfield’s ensemble of five musicians, including the composers, the Bang On A Can All-Stars, Zeitgeist, or the Paul Dresher Ensemble are an expensive proposition. Rehearsal time, accommodations, transportation, and the like add up quickly, making some performances a break-even proposition at best. Certainly, a number of composer/performers mount solo performances, and for them, the economics would make performing in smaller venues viable, if not lucrative.

While it may not lead to a significantly larger audience, museums and galleries offer performance opportunities that can be of real importance to musicians and composers. Again, the minimalists were among the first to successfully exploit such venues, establishing their careers and credentials playing in artists’ lofts, the Park Place Gallery, or the Whitney Museum of American Art. There are many such opportunities and many take advantage of them, yet more could probably be done in this arena.

In any event, composers and most classical musicians specializing in contemporary music did not go into the field with the idea that fame and fortune awaited them. What is important is getting the music out to the right, and hopefully growing, audience. By considering and pursuing new, unorthodox, and alternative performance venues, a faction of the new music community might reach a larger audience and help perpetuate this art that we all love so much.