A new generation of classical musicians are reigniting the genre with smashed violins and PBR.
Photograph by Chris Litwin.
Cal-der! Cal-der! Cal-der!” the crowd chants rapturously, inky sweat blooming on their T-shirts after storming the stage for rock berserker Andrew W.K.’s irrepressible “Party Hard.” But on this October night in 2009, the Lakeshore Theater horde is cheering not for W.K., but for the L.A.-based Calder Quartet—bow-wielding men decked out in J. Lindeberg duds who have proven Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 2 is a perfect complement to W.K.’s anthemic rock number “I Get Wet.”
If the term string quartet drums up images of dead white Europeans in powdered wigs, think again. This is classical music in T-shirts and jeans, with an audience holding concert programs in one hand and PBRs in the other. This new generation of young performers may still be graduating from conservatories like Juilliard and Curtis, but they’re following in the footsteps of the composers (game changers like John Cage and Steve Reich) who moved classical out of the concert halls and into the streets. Emblazoned with a label as wide and disparate as the genre itself, “new music” has one foot in the traditions of the past and one foot steel-toe-kicking down the boundaries of the term classical.
New music is only the latest evolution of the classical genre. With each new era, from Early to Baroque to Classical to Romantic to modernism and beyond, there have been cries of treason and heresy as the harmonies have become gnarlier or even stripped bare, the rhythms more complicated and exacting or left to chance. This musical language is indeed new and will take time to become familiar to some, but it is also the most inviting auditory species classical music has ever discovered.
Chicago is teeming with new-music ensembles awash in sonic creativity, whether it’s a New Millennium Orchestra collabo with Lupe Fiasco or a Fifth House Ensemble mash-up with graphic novelist Ezra Clayton Daniels. Gone are the draconian rules of concert attire and etiquette; vanished are the boundaries segregating listeners and performers. Absent are the “isms,” and as Columbia College composition program director and composer Marcos Balter puts it, “No ‘isms’ suits us just fine.” The new music of Chicago is what Collin J. Rae, director of digital marketing at Naxos, classical music’s largest independent distributor and one of the genre’s largest recording labels, calls “a bit more punk rock/DIY when it comes to getting your art out there.” With Chicago at the bleeding edge of this movement, you have a front-row seat to hear some of the most white-knuckled, desolately beautiful or head-bouncingly groove-savvy music ever unleashed under the classical heading.
Like so many genres, new music is best heard, and most inspiring, live. “I think the biggest preconception with so-called new music…is that you are supposed to have some kind of preformed reaction to it,” says International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) founder Claire Chase. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Audiences are going to hear something that will blow their minds and that has never happened before and might not ever happen again. That’s the magic of live performance, and that’s what for me is so unbearably exciting about doing new music, because that daredevil, cliff-hanging aspect of the experience is heightened in the performance of a brand-new work, both for the audience and for the players. It’s vulnerable, visceral, utterly risky and the hugest rush.”
Some of the preconceptions Chase alludes to are residue from the more academically focused compositions of the mid-1900s, but ultimately new music is intended for listeners, not for black-turtlenecked professors. “New music is only esoteric if it is presented as such,” adds the flutist, whose dexterous ensemble champions new works and stands as a paragon to Chicago’s many up-and-coming new-music groups.
There may still be violas, French horns and marimbas onstage, but these sounds are of a whole new breed. If you were to drop in at a show last season at, say, the Museum of Contemporary Art, you might catch Chase scat-spitting into her flute, slapping the audience with breathy whips of air in Kaija Saariaho’s “Terrestre.” At the Green Mill, violinists Aurelien Pederzoli and Adam Liebert of the ensemble Anaphora would be smashing their cheap Chinese violins at the conclusion of Sarah Ritch’s “86 (the) Violins.” And in Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall, you would see eighth blackbird percussionist Matthew Duvall violently destroying panes of glass in Frederic Rzewski’s “Knight, Death and Devil.”
It’s not all about destruction, though. Ensemble dal niente is known for programming wickedly challenging compositions that involve what instrumentalists refer to as extended techniques (think tucking pencil erasers into piano strings or blowing multiphonics on a clarinet); Opera Cabal hits audiences with multimedia roundhouse kicks to the brain; and Third Coast Percussion members often drag found objects into performance spaces, which they then tickle or brutalize. Whatever the approach, and there are many, this is music that will leave you happily bruised or impossibly enchanted, and maybe unable to move for just a moment.
Through concert series and the hiring of resident new-music ensembles, local universities such as Northwestern, DePaul, Columbia College, University of Chicago and Roosevelt have contributed to Chicago’s position within the triumvirate of the American new-music scene (the other two being New York City and San Francisco), but ultimately this movement began at the ground level in the early 2000s. “When I first moved to Chicago in 2002, there was a sense something new was emerging, a new wave of extremely talented composers and exceptionally gifted performers, both ready to do something in order to reclaim Chicago’s reputation of a forward-looking cultural center,” says Brazilian-born Balter. “And we did it and continue to do so.”
So, how did our city become an axis of cutting-edge performance and composition? Dominic Johnson, cofounder of the New Millennium Orchestra, a collection of cross-genre young players performing traditional and brand-new classical, points to the lack of traditional orchestral jobs as a catalyst for musicians’ interest in pursuing new music. “There’s an overabundance of talented players who are stuck in the bullshit gig cycle and are tired of waiting for the remote possibility of an audition that could give them a ten-minute, 1-in-200 chance of winning a job that pays a living wage,” Johnson says. “So people make their own ensembles and find music to play that excites and fulfills them.”
Noting that classical musicians “aren’t known for bringing in serious bank,” Fifth House Ensemble director of artistic programming Adam Marks sees the city’s affordable cost of living as a magnet for performers from all over the world, including his band of classically trained musicians focused on collaborations with film, dance and cuisine. Others, like new-music specialists ensemble dal niente and its conductor Michael Lewanski, credit the Midwest’s lack of pretension. “Chicago has a certain unintimidating quality to it that makes doing your own thing possible,” he says. “If [the scene] were bigger, it would run the risk of being too diffuse or getting mired in petty, navel-gazing infighting the way that New York City seems to have.” Seth Boustead, who heads up Accessible Contemporary Music, a group almost exclusively devoted to performing works by young composers, thinks it’s simpler than that: “There’s just a shitload of interesting music happening here.”
If the opera glasses and audience shushing are gone, so too is the idea that classical music belongs in the concert hall or salon. The Chicago venues new music infiltrates are as diverse as the sounds inside. While many groups claim the Chicago Cultural Center and Harris Theater have more sophisticated acoustics, bars and rock venues such as the Hungry Brain, Velvet Lounge, the Hideout, Rodan, Mayne Stage, Congress Theater, Danny’s, Green Mill and Empty Bottle are among the performers’ favorite haunts.
“Schoenberg is Schoenberg…but Schoenberg with a beer is a whole different story,” jokes Fifth House’s Marks, referencing the composer’s cerebral later works. Whether it’s firing up the fog machine at SPACE or causing the titular owner of Katerina’s to hurl a wine glass against the wall in a display of artistic bliss, the embrace of nontraditional venues has only further stripped new music of any lingering perception of pomposity.
Bars are not the only domain for the music-of-the-now, though. The country’s orchestral institutions recently have also played a more vital role in disseminating new works and pulling living composers from the fringe onto their stages. Perhaps most notably, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra begins its fall season with two new composers-in-residence of the electronic persuasion: Anna Clyne, known for her incorporation of prerecorded tape in her writing, and Mason Bates, an electro-acoustic phenom famous for frequently planting his mixer near a symphony’s brass section. Both will curate the CSO’s MusicNOW series, which starts October 4 at the Harris Theater. The exclusively new-music collection of concerts is a favorite among fans of scores whose ink is still wet, and is popular in small part because of the postconcert free pizza, Goose Island suds and opportunity to talk Radiohead or Boulez with the MusicNOW composers and performers.
“[Former CSO music director] Sir Georg Solti said that Chicago was a ‘sleeping beauty,’ which people interpret differently, with varying degrees of optimism and pessimism,” says ICE’s Chase. “I see that comment as very optimistic and reverential of the enormous potential—indeed, the enormous space that we have in this city—and a bit of a premonition about the explosion that is taking place.” With young new-music groups peppering the calendar with everything from art songs inspired by Craigslist personal ads (composer Sam Krahn) to fully costumed “happenings” (composer Sarah Ritch), the entry points for new music are as vast, weird and welcoming as the venues they inhabit. So ditch the suit, grab a cold draft and a stool, and prepare for something fresh and uninhibited. Because, according to Chase, “This beauty ain’t sleeping anymore, that’s for sure. She’s awake and kicking ass!”