Getting Hooked on New Music
Frank J. Oteri: You all met at Oberlin, except for Tim, I guess.
Tim Munro: I actually did go to Oberlin.
FJO: You did!
Matt Albert: We didn’t know each other at Oberlin.
Lisa Kaplan: But he did go there.
TM: It just never, never ends. I did two years there, a few years after they finished.
FJO: “Did two years.” You make it sound like it’s a prison.
TM: It’s a small Midwestern town.
FJO: But, actually, Oberlin is a real hotbed for new music. Every time I turn around and there’s somebody playing new music, it seems like at least one of the people in the group is from Oberlin. So what happens there that gets everybody away from playing Haydn string quartets?
Matthew Duvall: I think there’s an easy answer to that actually. We visit a lot of institutions. And they almost all treat their contemporary music ensemble or their new music ensemble in a different way. There are all kinds of variations. Often the new music ensemble or contemporary ensemble is at the bottom of the heap of the performance ensembles. Students will want to play a piece and they’ll scramble to find other students or whoever, that’s kind of the normal formula. Oberlin is very interesting in that the Contemporary Music Ensemble has been established as one of the premier ensembles in the conservatory. The students actually often compete to get into it. It’s a completely different perspective on music. New music is chamber music, and it’s appreciated there in a way that is different because of the way the conducting faculty has positioned the ensemble. And with all that comes great and really challenging experiences that the students have with that repertoire.
MA: I would also say the conservatory and the college really have a reputation for producing students that think outside the box, and for really encouraging that. One of the greatest things that Oberlin has to offer, apart from other institutions, is that they’re constantly challenging their students to come up with new ways of doing things. You meet some of the most creative people there, and later they go on to do really amazing and creative things.
LK: I remember, personally, I had never played anything more contemporary than Copland before going to Oberlin. When I arrived, I saw how everyone was just excited about contemporary music there. And everyone wanted to play this exciting music for the conductor who put us all together. I was totally swayed by it. I just totally jumped on the wagon. That’s what happened to all of us, I think.
FJO: So when you all first got there, you weren’t necessarily into new music. Matt, I know your father is a composer, so you were into this stuff.
FJO: Or maybe you weren’t. I don’t know.
MA: I might have been more familiar with some of it than others, but even I thought: I’m going to play violin, so I’m going to get a job in a string quartet or an orchestra—I’m going to practice my excerpts.
LK: That’s what’s funny. When we asked you to join the group, Matt said, “Well, as long as it doesn’t cut into too much of my quartet time.” And we all secretly knew that he would totally love it, but we were like “Oh yeah, no problem; yeah, you’ll have plenty of time.”
MA: I had a lot of other stuff going on. But I really think about this group as the thing that took off. Any of the six of us could have done so many things coming out of Oberlin. We were all trying for things there, and this was the one that worked. Sometimes you sit down with a group of people and you start playing together and you’re speaking with one voice. You know without even trying. It’s not hitting a downbeat together. It’s not all playing the same forté. It’s like “O.K., Wendell Logan’s Moments means this; let’s make it mean that.” And I don’t know; it just happened.
Nicholas Photinos: It’s still happening.
FJO: When you guys got together, the classical music establishment wasn’t quite as suspicious of new music as when the Kronos Quartet first started out. But there was this mentality—and there still is in some quarters—in the conservatories and with certain artist management firms that new music is box office poison. And you can’t have a “real” career if you’re not playing Mozart, etc. The first time I heard you guys, believe it or not, was on CBS Sunday Morning. And I thought, “Who are these people? They’re playing new music.” You contradicted all those stereotypes. Did you find any time during the course of this that there was pressure to do more standard repertoire?
Michael Maccaferri: We felt that pressure one time I think, in a competition. But that was an anomaly. We’ve never had a presenter say “Ooh, we’d really love…”
MD: Yeah, one presenter said that.
MM: Is that right?
MD: Some years ago. Said we’ll hire you if you have one older piece of repertoire on the concert, like a Beethoven trio or something. And we declined. That happened once.
LK: I don’t think I’ve ever had the feeling like “Oh, if I was playing in a group that didn’t focus solely on contemporary music that I’d be happier” or “I’d make more money.” I never had any kind of thoughts like that.
MD: I think all of your generalizations are true. But when we started out, we didn’t understand any of that, which is good. So it didn’t seem that weird to us. We didn’t know any better so that’s probably for the best. The other funny thing that happened was—and I wouldn’t say that this was master planning on our part, I think it was just a lot of very dumb luck—one of the very first things that we did on our own, aside from a small competition while we were still students enrolled in school, was we applied as students to a series of summer festivals. These were mostly chamber music festivals and festivals that had student orchestras. The presenters—you know summer festivals are often a lot of very mixed programming—looked at our application; there were six of us applying to come and they thought: “We could fill a lot of chairs really easily if we bring these six musicians in, and they’ll all play in the orchestra. Then when we need some new music on a concert, they can do that, and then we’ll have satisfied our need for some new music programming.” We had five different festivals that first summer touring. It was all back-to-back. It worked out to eight weeks solid on the road, and somehow we just kind of dived into asking them to let us do whatever they need, and we got our foot in the door. Somehow after that first summer, all of a sudden we had this little resume of performance experience and that was a jumping-off point to justify approaching other presenters.
LK: We could only play four pieces, though, I think.
MA: I think we learned a fifth piece that summer. I think we increased our repertoire.
MM: Our entire resume fit on the back of a t-shirt.
MD: We definitely exaggerated the truth that first summer, no question about it, but you know, we managed to get through by the skin of our teeth, and then momentum very slowly built from there.