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

Coming from a theatrical family, composer Dan Becker had just always assumed that musicians developed a score the same way actors developed a script, with constant experimentation over weeks of rehearsal to mold the text to fit the actors involved — sometimes even continuing after the show opens to the public.

Boy, was he in for a surprise. “Music was anything but that,” he says. “Just write for any orchestra and see how much rehearsal time you get.”

It was in fall of 1993 when Becker and seven like-minded composers formed the Common Sense Composers Collective, assembling an ensemble roughly modeled on the ragtime bands from the beginning of the century. Composers and musicians were frank in rehearsal right from the beginning, says Becker, forming a bond where criticism from both sides flowed freely, but was tempered by an overall musical trust. Soon, he adds, each of the composer’s work began making comments on that of the others’.

“Obviously, we were in the spirit of Bang on a Can,” says Becker, who freely admits that his annual all-day Opus 415 concert is modeled on the BoaC Music Marathon. “But there was also an element of Varèse’s International Composers Guild and the Copland-Sessions Concerts there too. There was this old saying, ‘If you don’t like the news, go make some of your own.’ And there’s definitely a bit of that in everything we do.

Becker and his colleagues (Ed Harsh, Carolyn Yarnell, John Halle, Melissa Hui, Belinda Reynolds, Randall Woolf and Marc Mellits) all share “respectable” pedigrees from schools like Yale, Harvard, Columbia and Cornell, but balance them with a musical background that unashamedly incorporates vernacular bits of rock and jazz.

The Bay Area was a natural environment to incite this kind of open collaboration, Becker admits. “You’ve got this great experimental jazz scene, an active world music scene and a whole West Coast school of composers and they never seem to check each other out.”

Their initial project in 1994 presented world premieres of eight new works (one from each member composer), which was recorded and released on CRI in 1997. Since then, Common Sense has embarked on a series of collaborations with ensembles, including Alternate Currents and American Baroque in the Bay Area and Twisted Tutu and the Meridian Arts Ensemble in New York. There most recent collaboration was with the Albany-based new music group Dogs of Desire, and a joint project with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble is scheduled for next season.

Each season is balanced between two projects, Becker says, Opus 415 and their annual collaboration, to which they devote about 6 months of preparation each.


Excerpt from Dan Becker: Tamper Resistant
performed live in April, 1996 by American Baroque (on period instruments), as part of Common Sense’s 3rd annual collaboration project
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RealAudio sound clip



Excerpt from Belinda Reynolds: coming around
performed live in January, 1997 by the New Millennium Ensemble, as part of Common Sense’s 2nd annual collaboration project
RealPlayer  [54 seconds]
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Excerpt from Randall Woolf: Hee Haw
performed live in March, 1999 by Dogs of Desire, David Alan Miller, conductor/Music Director, as part of Common Sense’s 6th annual collaboration project
RealPlayer  [56 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip


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