Pinned Chicago, Illinois
Chicago New Music as assemblage; or, why are we doing this?

Chicago New Music as assemblage; or, why are we doing this?

I realize that there is an imbedded irony in a person who lives and works in Chicago new music making this observation, but I’ll do it anyway: it seems like people outside of Chicago talk a lot about new music in Chicago. Why is this?

From my vantage point—the lives-here, works-here one—I want to guess at an answer by saying tentative things, stutter while I do so, and use the shrugging shoulders emoji at the end of what I say. I want to make a weak claim, not a strong one; I don’t want to assert that what is happening in Chicago is truly unique or mystically special or importantly revolutionary. I don’t have the expertise to be able to make such a claim (and, actually, a suspicion of expertise is a strain in a mode of artistic production here). What I want to hypothesize is that Chicago is a particularly concentrated expression of confluences in current culture, and that the evidence of this is both the explosive energy of the city’s new music community in recent years and also how hard its characteristics are to pin down. This essay (in both senses: “a piece of writing,” but also “try” or “effort”) is one of a number of attempts I’ve made to theorize Chicago new music, and inherent in these attempts is—as an axiomatic presupposition surely, an ever-present anxiety maybe—an awareness that I could be wrong. Going a bit further: my tendency to theorize, my hypothesizing impulse, my weak-claim-making, is a very Chicago-new-music-esque characteristic.

What comes to mind when I describe the character of Chicago new music are words like “provisional” and “transient”and “conditional” and “contingent” and “fragmented.”

What I want to hypothesize is that Chicago is a particularly concentrated expression of confluences in current culture.

A quintessential work of Chicago new music is something like George Lewis’s Assemblage, which he wrote for Ensemble Dal Niente (which I conduct) in 2013. It’s quintessential to Chicago new music because it was written for the Bowling Green New Music Festival by a Chicago-born improviser/scholar/composer/computer musician living in New York for a new music ensemble started ten years ago by a bunch of mostly students without jobs, composed in a style that references many other musics, and cast in a form that encourages the listener to “catch the bus and go along for the ride.” Thus, the city of Chicago is essential to the work’s creation, but its presence cannot be readily pointed to. The essence of its Chicago-ness, if one may say so, is the not-exactly-there-ness of Chicago. George was born in Chicago, cut his teeth as an experimental musician in the AACM, left to go elsewhere (Yale and Paris and San Diego and New York), has turned to notated composition only in relatively recent years. Ensemble Dal Niente (literally, “from nothing”) was initially a bunch of musicians—mostly from Michigan or Indiana or Texas or Georgia or Canada or Kentucky, and not too many of whom were actually born in Chicago—just trying to make stuff work because existing things didn’t satisfy. The Bowling Green New Music Festival is sort of close to Chicago I guess, kind of. “Both the title and the content of Assemblage refer to a type of visual artmaking that recombines and recontextualizes collections of natural and human-made objects,” writes George. Everything about the piece—its composer, the musicians for whom it was written, the form, its external references, the listener’s experience, the circumstances of its production—is provisional. It is the instantiation of the contingent, if such a thing isn’t a contradiction in terms.


To be less slippery, I buy a basic Marxian approach to culture (articulated and developed by, for instance, Adorno and other Frankfurt School theorists) that “means grasping[…] forms, styles and meanings as the products of a particular history” (to quote Terry Eagleton), as the results of a set of socio-economic conditions. It’s not merely that works tend to be about their place and time, or that composers consciously engage with political issues (say, the Eroica symphony or Shostakovich’s wartime works or John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls); it’s that every facet of culture creates the conditions for a piece of music, and this happens on many levels, including (and especially importantly) unconscious ones. We have a particular and peculiar situation in Chicago: it’s a very large city—the largest in a large region—that attracts intelligent, talented young people from this region and beyond. It has famous performing and visual arts institutions with histories of being famous. But these same institutions suffer from a certain second city-ism that makes them anxious about their own prestige and causes them to look to more famous arts institutions (in other cities) for art, and thus, they have only recently started paying close attention to the local new music scene. It doesn’t have many presenters, so the venue situation is often difficult. (Sure, there are a few staple places where you might go to sample various flavors of experimental music, and plenty of it: Experimental Sounds Studio or Elastic Arts or the Hideout, say; or famously, Constellation, for instance; this is mostly due to the hard work of an amazingly dedicated staff led by the inexhaustible Peter Margasak.) It’s hard to find funding. And while it’s not hard to make a living (it’s not as expensive as many East or West Coast metropolises), it’s hard making a living in music in Chicago. There are only a few universities and full-time orchestras, and there are a lot of people.

Chicago is simultaneously highly cosmopolitan and deeply provincial; this can be, depending on how you parse it, a painful contradiction to live in or a fruitful tension with which to engage.

Chicago is simultaneously highly cosmopolitan and deeply provincial; this can be, depending on how you parse it, a painful contradiction to live in or a fruitful tension with which to engage. Either way, these oppositions prompt the asking of a basic question: why are we doing this? Put another way, or perhaps to offer a provisional answer: if we have an intelligent community of musicians, audience members, and composers, yet the possibility of creating a sustainable, full-time career seems remote, we’d better do something that is really meaningful to us rather than exhaust ourselves chasing a phantasmagoric notion of “accessibility.” The financial stakes are often low. This is neither to promote a romanticized starving-artist mythos updated for the 21st-century US nor to suggest that well-funded art here can’t be authentic; it is to say that the fact that people here mostly aren’t either a) stringently competing for a place in a saturated PR/marketing landscape or b) doing all they can to scrounge up the most minimal, indifferent, bewildered of audiences, has a defining impact on the character, structure, and style of the art that’s made. The drive to specialize in order to compete, to niche-ify, is less urgent; people seem free to develop authentically.

This pushes a group like, say, Mocrep to play their instruments less and pursue performance art more. It pushes a group like Dal Niente in all kinds of different directions (a collaboration with Deerhoof, a portrait album of George Lewis, the performance of work by as many local composers as we can manage, plus lots of recent European music). Third Coast Percussion has begun writing pieces collaboratively, somehow finding time to do so amid a nomadic touring schedule. Spektral Quartet has made an art of the low-culture/high-culture juxtaposition with its Sampler Pack series. The Chicago Arts Initiative is a group of high school students who perform and compose collectively, founded by Dal Niente guitarist Jesse Langen. I read the work of local tape label/performance collective(?) Parlour Tapes+ as partially a non-high-culture re-imagining of the historical avant-garde (meant in Peter Burger’s sense). Chicago composers explore stylistic ideas of dizzying dissimilarity; the Northwestern doctoral composition recitals from November 2015 to May 2016 alone are a worthy dissertation topic. (If you don’t believe me, do check out the head-spinningly diverse aesthetics of David Reminick, Jenna Lyle, LJ White, Alex Temple, Chris Fisher-Lochhead, and Katie Young.) Do you find the prospect of exploring this series of links daunting? If so, welcome to my world.

[I have an impulse to put here some sort of “full disclosure” statement about who of the above are personal friends about whom I cannot be objective, but the truth is I know all of these people. This is not just okay, but actually great; I do not feign a non-existent objectivity or an impossible and undesirable disinterest.]


Eliza Brown wrote Prospect and Refuge (video here) for Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble in 2015. Here we go again: Eliza is a Chicago composer in the sense that she is from Philadelphia, teaches at DePauw in Indiana, but attended Northwestern and worked in Chicago for many years. Quince is a Chicago(ish?) group in the sense that only one of its members actually lived in Chicago at the time of this work’s writing but many of them are in Chicago often. “The result is an experimental music-theater piece, primarily intended for re-purposed or non-traditional performance venues, that depicts four private individuals meeting in a public space. The dramaturgy of the work—how it is interpreted and staged by the performers—is to be adapted according to the social history and/or function of each performance space,” says Eliza. This is a Chicago piece in multiple senses: it is written by and for Chicago musicians (“Chicago” as just described), and it has at its structural core a provisionality (can a core be provisional?). But paradoxically, it’s also just deeply structurally concerned with the place and time of its staging. This is not a work that is reproducible and commodifiable: you can’t find it in a Starbucks in Houston; rather, you might, but it would be a different piece. That Zach Moore wrote a similar piece for my DePaul School of Music group, Ensemble 20+, just months before, is telling. About the piece, “???” (Zach says, “I’m bad at titles”; I’m not sure I agree), he says:

I got into it for the obvious reason that a piece takes places at a specific time and place, and that is obviously a huge part of the piece (what the venue is like, who is there, what exterior sounds and movements are happening) yet they are somewhat uncontrollable, so to do it again would be a “different” piece. […] I don’t see reproducibility as any part of my practice. So, when I do a piece that’s performed once, I feel like it acts as a community event, more so than the premiere of “my” piece.

In March 2015, my friends Seth Brodsky and Philipp Blume held an enormous festival of the music of mathias spahlinger (spahlinger writes in militant lower-case letters) for his 70th birthday, in which I participated with my DePaul orchestra and Ensemble Dal Niente. It was a typical Chicago effort, mixing the DIY with the institutional. The Goethe Institute and the University of Chicago and DePaul University were among the kind, supportive sponsors, but we made every dollar count. The festival included an ambitious string of performances, a thoughtful symposium, and an elegant program book. This was an event that was simpatico with the experimental, make-it-work character of our new music scene; perhaps a proposed resistance to a commodified concert-going and -making, a different way of doing things expressed in the work of a composer with many years experiencing thinking about precisely that question. Says spahlinger about his doppelt bejaht (“doubly affirmed”): etudes for orchestra without conductor:

artworks too are manufactured and distributed according to the conditions of the market, and more to the point: their innermost constitution is itself dependent on the means of production, inculcated in power relations and their corresponding patterns of thinking. […]

playing instructions for doppelt bejaht were devised with the aim of focusing the musician’s attention and responsibility on the whole—a whole which, since it involves new music, can only be contradictory, open whole, changeable in itself and actually changing itself.

spahlinger is an exciting figure to me not because he’s a Famous German ComposerTM, but because he’s a person who has simply been granted the time and means to work on these various issues in depth. What drew me to him is that his life’s work does a more thorough and complete job of approaching cultural problems in our world and recent past than my own analysis does. His critiques of commodification are penetrating and moving as musical experiences.

The festival was roundly criticized in the Chicago Tribune for not having been well-enough advertised.

so, why are we doing this? music (not: is, but) can be a way to communicate (and to understand by ourselves), what we are, want to be, and will be by finding out, what is our way.

spahlinger wrote to me after the festival, in response to certain of my soul-searching queries:

you ask some first and last questions and i take this very seriously by saying: try to give yourself preliminary answers[…]

so, why are we doing this? music (not: is, but) can be a way to communicate (and to understand by ourselves), what we are, want to be, and will be by finding out, what is our way. [Author’s note: read this sentence a few more times; it’s worth your while.]

sorry, this is not very specific.


Here I feel that I have reached a satisfying conclusion; I have sketched the essence, or the rather, the process, of Chicago new music’s transient state. Yet I must say more. On the one hand, everything I write above is consonant with my experience and so deeply felt that I’ve restlessly redefined my career trajectory because I feel inspired by the exciting work I see on a daily basis. I feel that I have theorized in a nuanced, sympathetic, friendly manner the work of my colleagues. On the other hand, it’s painfully clear that there’s an awful lot I’m leaving out. I’m aware that I haven’t mentioned a number of Chicago new music organizations: Chicago Composers Orchestra, Fulcrum Point New Music Project, Eighth Blackbird, Contempo, CSO’s MusicNOW. I recognize that, even in the list of organizations I’m leaving out, still more remain left out. What I initially called “a weak claim, not a strong one,” is shown to be all the weaker. There are vast numbers of complicating factors, and only the embrace of these will give us a fleeting glimpse of the reality of the situation: that there is not a unified whole to be grasped.

Chicago new(?) music is no longer emerging, it is emerged.

I said earlier in this piece that “[famous arts] institutions […] have only recently started paying close attention to the local new music scene.” This is true. Ensemble Dal Niente, Third Coast Percussion, New Music Chicago have just entered their second decade. Those groups are no longer new; Chicago new(?) music is no longer emerging, it is emerged. Famous arts institutions are beginning to pay attention to local new music (for instance: CSO’s MusicNow, led by Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek, has commissioned Katie Young, Kyle Vegter of Manual Cinema, Marcos Balter, Sam Pluta—all current or former Chicago residents). Thus, my analysis here can also be described by all of the adjectives I initially used to describe Chicago new music: Provisional. Transient. Conditional. Contingent. Fragmented. This is a scene entering a new phase of existence, and the socio-economic circumstances will—unavoidably—alter its style, forms, media, and contents. I don’t know whether it will be for better or for worse, and I don’t know if the categories of “better” and “worse” will make sense as analytical tools. Honestly, I just have no idea what’s going to happen.


Michael Lewanski

Michael Lewanski

Chicago-based conductor, educator, and writer Michael Lewanski is conductor of Ensemble Dal Niente and assistant professor of Instrumental Ensembles at the DePaul University School of Music. He wishes to thank Deidre Huckabay for her help refining ideas in this essay.

You might also enjoy

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.