Maybe it’s the city’s surplus of heritage, maybe it’s autumnal reminiscence, or maybe it’s just a coincidence, but the start of the season in Boston brought a bumper crop of new music deliberately glancing off older music and/or styles. That’s part and parcel with contemporary music—the past is always present, even if only as something to deliberately ignore—and the new-old juxtaposition is practically orthodox in mainstream classical programming.
Music can be a force for healing in the face of devastating tragedy. Composers who seek to confront the scars of loss and human suffering face the challenge of expressing qualities that transcend our differences and appeal to our shared humanity. Chicago’s Fulcrum Point New Music Project addresses the need for healing after the painful events of 9/11 by programming an annual concert for peace.
There aren’t as many generalizations to make about new music in Boston as one might think—even the old epithet of “academic” starts to fray when you realize that some of the city’s least academic composers are here because of academic appointments—but here’s one that’s not unreasonable: on balance, new music in Boston is institutionally driven. It’s ensembles and schools that curate the repertoire; the scene is parceled out by group and by season more than piece by piece.
This is a big year for the Austin Chamber Music Center. It marks the 30th anniversary of the center itself, the 5th year with Michelle Schumann as director, and arguably the biggest year for its annual festival. Now in its 14th year and spanning more than two weeks, the festival features a wide range of performing groups, from the alt-jazz of Kneebody to the Tokyo String Quartet. This year’s festival also has a featured composer in Michael Torke, a first for the festival.
The annual Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, which started last Wednesday, has long been dominated by what used to be called the new-music mainstream, before new music sprouted so many streams that the title became dilute. Charles Wuorinen, the director of this year’s festival, certainly made his reputation in that mainstream: East Coast, atonal, academic. But, so far, this festival has been comparatively—well, funky might be too strong a word for it, but certainly more loose, more varied, than past festivals.
Bang on a Can composer-founders Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe don’t just create music. They’ve also created a utopian environment where independent-minded young composers and performers gather every summer for three weeks to immerse themselves in contemporary and experimental music. The institute celebrated its 10th season this summer, and I traveled to North Adams, Massachusetts, to hear the culminating marathon concert at MASS MoCA. As was evidenced by the six hours of excellent performances of exciting new pieces (and a couple of oldies) by the Institute Fellows alongside the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the festival is going full-steam ahead into decade number two.
New music is not new to Austin, but its supporters have largely been of the grassroot variety and its funding has typically come in the form of modest ticket prices, tip jars, and any number of thankless day jobs. Now one of the big players in town, Texas Performing Arts, is using a significant new grant to throw its weight behind not only the creation of new music, but also its presentation to a new audience.
What a week. The Mizzou New Music Summer Festival proved to be an intense, non-stop learning experience. Right from the beginning, I felt like I had been dropped down into the midst of a Hollywood party with all these great composers and musicians. The formal and informal meetings, rehearsals, and activities were never-ending and one activity seemed to flow seamlessly into the next.