Last Wednesday night, we at SUNY Fredonia concluded hosting a satisfying two-day residency with the Lunar Ensemble, a talented group based in Baltimore whose instrumentation is formed around that of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (including voice) with the ubiquitous addition of percussion. Performing a two-evening concert series under the banner of the “Pierrot Centenary Project,” the ensemble not only executed a subtle and entertaining rendition of Schoenberg’s masterpiece but also premiered eight newly composed works. These pieces set the remaining 29 poems by Albert Giraud (from the original collection of 50) that were not included in the libretto for Pierrot Lunaire. I enjoyed both concerts thoroughly, but I was especially surprised by the continued utilization of the singers–it’s a rare occurrence to see a Pierrot-based ensemble incorporate voice unless they’re performing the Schoenberg, and having both of the extremely gifted sopranos (Lisa Perry and Danielle Buonaiuto) tag-team between the many new works really allowed these performances to transcend the realm of the ordinary.
Rewind back several weeks ago and we had another equally able and insightful ensemble in residence, this time from New York City. Initially formed by four graduate students from the Manhattan School of Music’s Contemporary Performance program, loadbang consists of a unique combination of clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and baritone voice. When I first announced that not only would loadbang be performing their concert but performing student works in a reading session as well, I got a lot of quizzical looks asking “what the [insert expletive] am I going to do with that ensemble?” And yet, when they came to campus and flawlessly read down the six student compositions, they inspired the students so much that in both of the student composer concerts that followed, works utilizing the loadbang instrumentation were performed by student performers to great effect.
As Frank J. Oteri’s musings remind us, diversity is a good and rare thing these days. While there are still a number of exceptions, the instrumental makeup of ensembles performing contemporary concert music has ossified into three primary formations: traditional chamber ensembles, “Pierrot + Percussion” ensembles (which groups like eighth blackbird continue to prove is a viable model), and the one-on-a-part chamber orchestra instrumentation found in many university new music ensembles as well as the very successful group Alarm Will Sound. It makes sense that these three models have become commonplace with both performers and composers; the traditional chamber ensembles already have strong and deep repertoires from which to choose (and for composers to study) and so many composers have composed for the other two ensembles over the past 30+ years that they have become staples in their own right.
This consistency in instrumentation is in many ways a good thing, since it simultaneously allows for ensembles to have a wide array of works to choose from as well as a strong number of similar ensembles by which composers may have their works performed. That same consistency, however, has created some unintended side effects. The most obvious is the timbral homogenization that has occurred; the violin/cello/flute/clarinet/piano/percussion combination, for example, has become the de facto mixed chamber sound for new music (just as winds-in-threes became the default instrumentation of symphony orchestras in the 19th century). In addition, the success of these established models has been reached at the expense of many instruments that are not nearly as prominently written for in contemporary concert ensembles (i.e. double reeds, saxophones, brass, violas, and voice, among others; both contrabass and electric guitar have gained some popularity, but are still not used nearly as much as the standard P+P grouping).
Ensembles such as Lunar Ensemble and loadbang as well as several others (including BOAC All-Stars, NOW Ensemble, Newspeak, Cygnus Ensemble, and the Akropolis Quintet) are doing their part to push against that tendency for homogeneity, and one can only hope that more groups (and subsequently composers) will continue to not only experiment but to establish new permanent combinations that can flourish in the future.