Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble: On the New Music Map

When composer and educator Bill Ryan interviewed to teach composition at Grand Valley State University in 2005, he laid out what his ideal collegiate program would look like. Teaching student composition lessons would be a focus, of course, but he also placed a strong emphasis on the need to both establish a student contemporary music ensemble and to create a concert series that would welcome visiting artists to the campus.

“These three parts are incredibly important. Without one, I think your program is going to be much, much weaker,” Ryan explains. GVSU must have agreed, because they brought him on board that fall. What no one—perhaps even including Ryan—likely anticipated, however, was how swiftly and successfully he would be able to make his vision a reality and how, in the process of so doing, he would put the university’s program on the national contemporary music map.

The story of how that newly minted new music ensemble, based at a state university in western Michigan, took on Steve Reich’s seminal Music for 18 Musicians, boomeranged into NYC on a field trip to hear his ensemble perform the work at Carnegie Hall, and then returned to their hometown to perform it themselves and make an acclaimed recording of their efforts, is an old one at this point. But it remains instructive.

Ryan had no illusions—or expectations—when the project began. “Music for 18 was a super project,” he acknowledges. “Frankly, many people have never heard of the school. We’re in the Midwest, and the focus is on the coasts, and New York especially, and we’re not part of that.” Fair or not, however, that novelty is why he believes audiences and the media were so captivated by their story. His early concerns—such as simply shepherding the young group through the piece from beginning to end—eventually faded, and ultimately their success with the work snowballed into an invitation to perform it at the Bang on a Can marathon in New York and the release of a recording on the Innova label. That trajectory caught lots of press attention, including the ears of Alex Ross and NPR. “I think it worked because it wasn’t contrived; like the piece, it was super organic,” Ryan says. “And we sat back and took it all in and just couldn’t believe that every day there was another email or something showing up in the press. It was thrilling for me, and the students were just floored.”

This is where it’s interesting to step back into those Michigan cornfields for a minute, because even though most folks couldn’t find Allendale on a map, they could find the GVSU New Music Ensemble on the internet, and once they did, the group was more than a dry paragraph on the university’s website. Video documentation that was originally intended for rehearsal purposes was repurposed for YouTube clips that illustrated to the world what the ensemble was up to.

“If we had done this 10, 15 years ago, pre-blogs and pre-YouTube, maybe no one would have noticed that we even did the concert,” Ryan admits.

The ensemble’s website now boasts a history of concert performances and a lengthy list of explored repertoire and commissions. After the Reich, their next major recording project was sparked by an invitation from the Kronos quartet to be involved in the 25th anniversary concert of In C at Carnegie Hall. When they decided to release a recording of this minimalist classic as well, they added a twist by asking 16 remixers to rework the raw audio materials for a 2-CD set, expanding the community and connections for the ensemble at the same time.

These exercises continually push the students beyond school walls and dunk them in real-world scenarios, and that has proven invaluable. Kelly Vander Molen, a senior violin performance major at GVSU, plans to play with a symphony orchestra after she graduates. But the perspective towards new music that she takes with her into the job market will have shifted.

“Before I came to Grand Valley I had no clue what new music was, and what I did hear I didn’t like,” she admits, but then a friend invited her to participate in one of the ensemble’s improvisational activities. “I was really uncomfortable, and then once I realized that anything goes, that kind of opened up a whole new world for me. And it also helped me in my classical music world, too, because I became less self-conscious as a musician.”

Daniel Rhode, a composer who is finishing up his studies to be a music teacher, credits the program with inspiring him and a classmate to start their own concert series. “It would be foolish to say we would have even come to that conclusion of starting to try to do this if I hadn’t been able to be in the New Music Ensemble, help set up, and talk to all the artists that Dr. Ryan brings in,” he acknowledges.

And as Ryan outlined in that early job interview, that’s why the climate of new music he’s worked to build at GVSU is so essential. “Life as a composer, there’s a lot more than just writing notes. It’s building relationships and being able to corral people and rehearse well.” He tries to provide his students with not only the skills to write a piece, but also an understanding of how to give the resulting work a public life by being able to work well with performers and present concerts, both at home and on the road. A recent inaugural multi-city tour expanded these lessons even further, adding performances in non-traditional venues as well as dealings with the minutia of travel and stage setup to their resumes.

“All that back stuff is almost as important as the actual training in the craft of writing,” Ryan maintains. “And I think as a result, they’re much more successful when they leave, because they’re a little more grounded in reality about what it entails to get their music out there.”

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