SONiC Festival Features Music Composed in the 21st Century

Sound of a New Century—or SONiC—is a new festival running between October 14 and 22 in New York City that will feature the works of over one hundred composers. All featured composers are age 40 or under, with a selection of pieces composed in the first decade of the new millennium.

These stats alone hint at the scope and ambition of the festival’s inaugural season, which boasts a comparably impressive tally of 16 featured ensembles and 18 world premieres. But what’s even more striking is the festival’s diversity of venues, styles, and approaches. Says festival co-curator Derek Bermel, “Emerging composers today have much greater access to different traditions and influences, and we are celebrating that by not restricting the music we present to any one style, movement, or agenda. We want to bring more public awareness to the many directions contemporary music is moving in, and to show everyone that ‘the composer’ is alive and thriving.” Accordingly, the festival presents a wide and refreshingly unedited snapshot of what young composers are writing today. A variety of venues—including Carnegie Hall, The Kitchen, and The Stone—ensure that the festival encompasses downtown, uptown, and most everything in between. A complete list of composers and ensembles can be found here.

Bermel (who has achieved acclaim both as a composer and clarinetist) and his co-curator, pianist Stephen Gosling, are both musicians deeply in touch with the music of our time and who are comfortable in a variety of roles—performer, composer, improviser, administrator, presenter. This fluency is also reflected in many of the festival participants. In response to the crumbling bastions of traditional funding and institutional support, they have taken it upon themselves to create a new community that might supplement—and improve upon—last century’s top-down system of institution-led commissioning.

Given the polarizing nature of much recent music history (especially the New York scene, which has been one of the most polarized of all), it’s refreshing to see such a mixture of composers that I might not have expected to see sharing the same program. While the younger generation of composers encompasses many aesthetic directions, there might be an emerging attitude that unites them: that everyone is in this together, that many of the traditional models of classical music are too small and small-minded to contain new ways of exploring and interacting, and that advances in technology and the popular music based around them form a part of the musical canon. Perhaps most tellingly, the prevalence of these attitudes hints at an emerging paradigm in which attitude and point of view become the focus rather than style, genre, or technique. Style, genre, and technique are extremely important to a great many of the composers featured at SONiC, but they are increasingly a means to an end rather than the main focus.

I had a chance to sit down with members of the ensemble eighth blackbird this week, who will be performing on the SONiC Festival this Saturday at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, and the ensemble was characteristically excited about presenting a program including theatrical/conceptual works (Fabian Svensson’s athletically competitive Two Sides and Amy Kirsten’s Commedia dell’Arte-inspired Pirouette, as well my own Fractured Jams) along with more introspective, lyrical offerings by Timo Andres (Crashing Through Fences) and Caleb Burhans (Lullaby for Madeline) and more virtuosic pyrotechnics via Bruno Mantovani’s wildly imaginative Chamber Concerto No. 2 and a clever piece for piano four hands by Mayke Nas in which eighth blackbird pianist Lisa Kaplan is joined by ensemble percussionist Matthew Duvall for a game of pitch-black piano clusters and acrobatic patty cake.

Anyone interested in knowing about the 90 or so other composers and their works should check out the SONiC Festival website, which contains much more information than I can relate in these few paragraphs. Those who take advantage of the flexible SONiCPass receive a discounted selection of tickets for events all over the city.

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