First Year Impressions of the Chicago New Music Scene
Ed. Note: This week we are pleased to welcome and introduce to you the latest addition to our new team of regional editors, Chicago-based composer and new music omnivore Devin Hurd. These contributors, located in cities across the country, will be our eyes and ears on the ground, surveying the new music landscape in their areas and delivering regular coverage.
Fred Child surveyed the audience of 9,000 from the stage at Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park. It was late August, and the host of American Public Media’s Performance Today—the most listened-to classical radio show in America—was emceeing a concert celebrating the music of Steve Reich, delivering commentary suitable for a diverse crowd of open-minded listeners with various degrees of exposure to new music. We had all gathered on this warm summer evening for a free retrospective of Reich’s chamber works and tape pieces. Some listeners were enjoying a bottle of wine and a picnic on the grass, accompanied by the phasing of Come Out and the 2009 Pulitzer-winning Double Sextet. Child briefly interrupted his introductory thoughts on the music of Steve Reich for a shout out; “By the way, give it up for eighth blackbird!” The sincere response he received in reply would have been suitable for a sporting event.
At the other end of the spectrum from this public concert in the park, one finds events such as the Transmission Series, which are presented late each Sunday night at The Hungry Brain in Chicago’s Roscoe Village. Here the regulars are greeted by series co-curator Mike Reed’s admonition to “keep the talking to none. . . so that we can all enjoy the music.” Considering the typical audience that congregates here, this is also a pitch-perfect approach to concert emceeing that builds upon the dedication of a group of listeners already well versed in jazz and improvised music.
Across the board, however, the audience for new music in Chicago is different from the audiences in other cities I’ve lived in. When I moved here last year I noticed a significant difference in the attitude and open-minded attentiveness of concertgoers in both formal halls and alternative performance spaces. People discuss and debate music with a sense of historical perspective built upon deep personal music collections and live performance experiences. There’s a generosity extended toward music that takes risks. Some of this can be attributed to the range and diversity of opportunities to hear new music in a major urban center, but there is also a sense of pride about the local music scene mixed in with an overall sophistication.
May 8, 1965 was the day that the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music was founded by the visionary musicians Muhal Richard Abrams, Jodie Christian, Phil Cohran, and Steve McCall at Cohran’s home on East 75th street. This collective continues to promote and support creative music and has a strong track record for nurturing and exporting some of the best music to originate from the Windy City. The massive audience that gathered at Pritzker Pavilion more than 46 years later is one of the fruits of the profoundly effective and sustained audience development that has been a big part of Chicago’s culture. New music ensembles like eighth blackbird, Third Coast Percussion, Fulcrum Point, and Ensemble Dal Niente benefit from the progressive tastes cultivated and nurtured by the AACM’s community outreach over the decades. Likewise, the Umbrella Music collective has modeled its own activities along the lines of the AACM and thrives within an environment where audience outreach has progressed well beyond simple introduction and initial exposures to adventurous music.
The music community in Chicago also maintains a healthy geographical reach, interacting with artists and audiences beyond its borders. In 1967, the AACM began sending musicians to Europe to spread the sound of creative improvised music from Chicago. The AACM eventually expanded to include a second chapter of the organization in New York City. The dialog and cultural exchange between Europe and the East Coast continues to progress and extended Chicago’s position as a significant cultural hub in the Midwest. This is particularly evident in the opening days of each year’s Umbrella Music Festival as dignitaries from multiple embassies and consulates introduce musicians from all over Europe featured alongside Chicago musicians. Norwegian players like bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love make frequent stops in Chicago. The cultural hub aspect of life in Chicago also brings about fantastic collaborations with the likes of Poughkeepsie resident Joe McPhee or New Yorkers like Taylor Ho Bynum, and Mary Halvorson. These exchanges go above and beyond merely being a stop for touring musicians. There is a genuine creative spark that these players bring to the local scene on a regular basis. McPhee’s collaboration with Chicago’s Ken Vandermark earlier this year offered incredible insight into how influential this cross-regional dialog has been for the Chicago scene generally and on Vandermark’s compositional approach specifically.
When new music ensembles resort to more traditional forms of audience outreach here in Chicago, they tend to fall flat. For example, on-stage composer interviews are not uncommon, and they consistently leave the impression that the music cannot speak for itself. Interest in how a piece was composed may follow after it has been heard, but rarely before. Engagement cannot be coerced. More often than not, this style of introduction has led to performances that would have been more convincing without saddling the music with too much detail about the compositional process, a situation that is often then compounded by the inarticulate descriptions offered by some composers during interviews in front of a live audience. The safest approach to set “discussions” is to physically remove them from the performance and the performance hall itself, making it an optional experience—preferably done at the conclusion of the concert evening’s performance. Otherwise, this type of live program note delivery works on the assumption that the audience needs to be gently coaxed toward new music and fails to recognize the clear commitment of the ears that have already made the decision to attend. It is better to reward the ears first with the music and let curiosity grow naturally from the experience.
The AACM model has succeeded in its long-term audience outreach by forming itself into a recognizable part of the community. It is an organization run by and for the musicians. It is a broadly supportive environment that promotes creative growth and that has weathered significant evolutionary changes over time. (George E. Lewis’s excellent A Power Stronger Than Itself details many of those changes as the responsibilities of sustaining the AACM passed from one generation of musicians to the next.) Membership within the AACM communicates an immediately understood set of qualities to an audience, with a body of music to back it up. Membership in the AACM indicates a near perfect balance of seriousness without stuffiness. This is built up through a level of consistency that allows an audience to find and experience the music as often or as little as they wish.
At its best, audience outreach grows the appetite for seeking out new music. It gives all ears present a stake in the music at hand, acting as an invitation to share in a communal experience and leaving a lasting impression that tempts the curious toward future concerts. The outdoor venue of Pritzker Pavilion is hardly an acoustically ideal place to hear music. One would not stage a definitive performance there. But Chicago’s own eighth blackbird presented a world-class performance that liberated the music from the confines of the concert hall and built upon the decades of communal experience that makes the Chicago music scene uniquely vibrant.