Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

Talking to Kevin Stalheim, artistic director of Milwaukee’s Present Music, you remember very quickly that America’s great contribution to philosophy has been pragmatism.

Back in 1983, when Stalheim had formed his group as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison to give students and his friends in the Milwaukee Symphony something interesting to play besides another Nutcracker, his group was the Milwaukee Music Ensemble.

“The name didn’t have the same focus, because we didn’t have any focus,” he says, adding that a typical concert would start with Gabrieli triple brass choir, move into a Bach Brandenburg Concerto and end with a string quartet by a local Wisconsin composer.

“We’d think nothing of using 45 musicians in a concert — and never all at once,” he said. “The freedom of no money made all that possible.” But soon as the group began to get serious, Stalheim had to think practically. Sifting through grant applications, he found NEA money available to perform American music and pretty soon he came up with a project. Although he had had no love for the new music he’d heard as an undergraduate at Oberlin, the pieces he was discovering were headed in a much more tonal direction.

Composers, he soon found, provided another advantage. Because the ensemble hadn’t found a pianist who had specialized in new music, Stalheim began leaning toward composers who also played piano — like Milwaukee hometown boy Michael Torke.

“Michael plays really well,” says Stalheim. “Kamran Ince is an unusual pianist, but also really good in the right circumstances. It all worked out well.”

It certainly has by the audience response. A typical Present Music concert will get between 400 and 600 people, often drawn to the group’s thematic programming, Stalheim says. Despite the group’s name, a piece by Torke might follow a piece by Stravinsky, which in turn would come after Bach. Another theme show featured settings of “Shall we gather at the river” composed by Ives, Copland and others.

Through the Music in Motion initiative, Present Music been active in commissioning such composers as John Adams, Michael Daugherty, Mary Ellen Childs and Lois V Vierk. Even Present Music violinist Eric Segnitz is getting into the act with a piece next season. The ensemble’s concerts are broadcast over Wisconsin Public Radio, and their recordings of Torke and Ince appear on Argo.

“Because we’re in the midwest, people think of us as being conservative,” says Stalheim. “I guess that’s true, but we’ve found our way around it.”

From Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles
by Ken Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox