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October 10, 2020
Posted by Seth Boustead

Chicago, like many cities with brutal winters, tends to try to make the most of summer. In a normal summer there are hundreds of street festivals throughout the city celebrating a wide array of things from a national independence day, to a centuries-old cultural tradition, to eating hotdogs in the sun until you puke.

With no street closure permits being offered this year though, it was an eerie summer in Chicago.

I myself got into the street festival game five years ago when ACM launched the Thirsty Ears Festival, a street fest dedicated to classical music. Every August we closed the street in front of our music school for two days of live music, craft beer, food trucks, vendors and kid-friendly activities.

Of all of our events this was the most difficult to reimagine to fit current circumstances.  I mean what are we going to do, give a virtual presentation of previous year’s performances with tons of shots of people enjoying themselves in close contact without masks?  Cruel at best.

No, we needed something different.  Something that showcased the creativity of modern composers and celebrated our community at the same time. The answer was to relaunch the event as a hybrid audio walking tour featuring commissioned music combined with limited live performances in a private parking lot that didn’t require a city permit.

We worked with the Ravenswood Historical Society to choose ten cultural and historic sites in the neighborhood and then asked composers to write short pieces inspired by them.  We got people connected with each site to record a narrative and paired the narratives with the pieces and I was amazed at what I learned.

For example…

I’ve walked by this building hundreds of times. I always thought it was cool and I knew that Louis Sullivan was one of the architects but…

I didn’t know that Sullivan, who is regarded as the father of the skyscraper and is still known for his mantra of “form follows function,” was seriously down on his luck when he designed this building.

He was completely broke, living in a men’s hotel and drinking nonstop day and night.  He got this commission for a music store that sold pianos, sheet music and radios and pulled it together long enough to whip out this masterpiece and then died soon after.

William Krause, who commissioned him, only got to enjoy the building for two years before the Depression hit and, despondent, he killed himself in the upstairs apartment.  On the right kind of night you can still see his shadow through the window stalking back and forth restlessly.

I’m very happy with how the audio tour turned out.

Download the Gesso app from the Play or Apple store, go to passcode in the left side menu and enter “thirsty” to check it out

June 24, 2020
Posted by Seth Boustead

I’ve long had a fascination with magicians and have tried numerous times to incorporate them into ACM concerts with varying success.  I once wanted to do a fundraiser where there was an escape artist in a water tank who only makes it out safely if we hit our goal.  Obviously no one really voiced any support for that plan so it didn’t go anywhere but I still think of it fondly and hope to bring it to life one day, perhaps virtually.

We did a CD release party a few years ago in Chicago that featured a sleight-of-hand magician but that was kind of a bust too because he was so amazing that he completely and thoroughly stole the show. To this day people talk about the awesome ACM event with the magician and completely forget that it was a freaking CD release party.

Perhaps my most successful foray into the magical arts was when I asked another sleight-of-hand magician, (I used to know a lot of magicians but have sadly had a falling out with the guild) to perform on our Green Mill series. The Green Mill is a really famous jazz club in Chicago and ACM did an annual concert there for years.

For the intermission one year the magician did his thing and I accompanied him in D-minor from the piano behind the bar.  Because sight lines are bad at the Green Mill we put up a screen and projected his hands onto it.  People loved it which was great because the previous year’s concert had been hijacked by a rogue a capella vocal group and I was eager to erase that painful memory.

My takeaway from the Green Mill magic act though wasn’t to ask the magician back the following year, largely because I was getting tired of being upstaged by magicians, but to think of other things we could do with a screen and projector.  After much thought I came up with the idea of commissioning new scores to play live to modern silent films.

That was fifteen years ago and we’ve produced the Sound of Silent Film Festival every year since. This year, in two days actually, we’re presenting it virtually and I couldn’t be happier.  The films are the best they’ve ever been and the music is wonderful.  Our musicians did a fabulous job recording sixteen pieces in two marathon recording sessions in the theater and our conductor, audio/tech director and video director outdid themselves as well.

For the 2009 festival I wrote filmmaker Guy Maddin and asked if I could write a new score for his classic short Heart of the World.  Incredibly he wrote back and said yes.  He loved my score and gave me permission to perform it live whenever and wherever.

Pressing my luck, I asked him if he’d contribute a quote for the Sound of Silent Film Festival.  He wrote back with this.  “Of all the art forms, music takes the shortest route to the heart, and this is especially true of live music. Something truly alchemical happens when film gets a live score.”

As I sat in the empty Davis theater watching the musicians play to the films I could only agree with Maddin. It’s absolutely magical. I hope you can join us this weekend.


April 15, 2020
Posted by Seth Boustead

On March 8 a colleague and I produced the tenth edition of our Concept Lab series in Manhattan.  We had a cello quartet visiting from out of town and we all went out for Korean BBQ after the concert and then out for milkshakes after that.  On the subway ride back uptown we talked of plans for upcoming concerts, travel plans for the summer, and recent things we’d read.

Three days later I was having a panic attack in my kitchen and the day after that I was on a flight to Chicago to work with my ACM team to figure out how we were going to get more than 300 students online in a matter of days and then, when it was unsafe for the teachers to come to our schools, how we were going to ensure they could teach from home.

Those were long days in which we were constantly updating our website and sending out email blasts only to get new information, change course and do it all again. We were also expecting to produce the 15th annual Sound of Silent Film Festival on March 28 and for a delusional week or so there I was convinced we’d be able to do it even if only as a live stream.

But priorities shift with dizzying speed in the face of something this devastating and, as with the cycle of grief, acceptance comes. Four weeks ago canceling a major show like that would have seemed like the end of the world to me.  Now I barely remember what it was like to feel like that.

After that initial flurry of activity, the shelter in place orders came down in New York and then in Illinois.  I realized that we were in for a long haul and so I took an eerie flight back to New York City on March 24 so I could spend quarantine with Maria.  There were exactly twelve of us on the flight and no one said a word.

At LaGuardia the few people who were there were leaving and they looked at us new arrivals like we were nuts.  Who flies into the epicenter? Luckily I made it back to our apartment safely and settled in for the long haul.  Days spent reading, practicing, composing, having Zoom meetings and virtual happy hours stretch into weeks of the same accompanied every day by the steady drumbeat of bad news.

There are some bright spots though. Every night at 7:00 for the last few weeks people have leaned out from their apartment windows and climbed onto fire escapes all over the city and applauded and cheered for health workers and others who have to work in unsafe conditions.

When I first heard it, the sound of cheering was so incongruous with my gloomy mood that my first reaction was annoyance.  Now I live for it.  I can’t tell you how much this simple act has heartened me and, I hope, many others as well.

It’s also been fascinating to see how artists and cultural institutions large and small are responding. I mean Titus Burgess is hosting Live With Carnegie Hall on Instagram for heaven’s sake. That sentence wouldn’t even have made sense a month ago.

And of course new rituals are being formed all across the globe.  Speaking of which, I have a very important lunch date with Mr. Sock.  It would be ever so rude to keep him waiting. He gets so angry.  Please stay safe and sane.  You know, the new sane.

January 8, 2020
Posted by Seth Boustead

It’s been almost exactly a year to the day since my last live broadcast for WFMT at Le Poisson Rouge.  I’ve been asked countless times since then if I’m planning to launch a podcast version of it and the answer has always been no. I spent 2019 writing several chamber pieces, a feature film score and my first opera La Jetée, plus producing a dozen or so events in three different cities and my let’s not forget my day job at ACM.

I don’t know how I would have done a weekly radio show on top of that let alone launching a podcast from scratch. The other night I was back at LPR for a show, and a publicist I know came up to me and said “how’s retirement?”   It took me a while to figure out that she was talking about Relevant Tones. I was like, oh yeah, some people only know me as the former radio guy.  How strange.

Overall it’s true that I don’t miss doing a radio show. The deadlines are constant and the truth is that we were never on solid footing with the network which was stressful. The threat of cancellation hung over the show from day one.  There was also nearly always someone telling me not to do the things I really wanted to do.

I didn’t want to just play music.  I wanted to engage with composers on the important topics they were thinking about or that affected their lives and the music they create. Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum after all.  I love music but like most composers, I have a wide range of interests and I wanted to do a show that reflected those interests.   What are composers thinking about automation, climate change, the rise of Japanese whiskeys, you name it.

In classical radio though, talk of any kind is bad. The mantra is the more we talk the more listeners flee in droves and apparently the Arbitron numbers bear this out so I’m not giving them a hard time.  But who wants to listen to a playlist you can’t control?  How are we providing value if we’re not telling the listeners what they’re listening to and why we love it?  What are we doing to reach new listeners?  And why isn’t radio doing a better job embracing digital media?

The last couple of months I’ve started thinking of bringing Relevant Tones back as a semi-regular series broadcast live through streaming. We streamed a few of our last live broadcasts for WFMT and the results were intriguing.  I’ve mentioned this idea to people recently and their responses have also been intriguing.

There’s an interesting divide along age lines.  People roughly 40 and over ask if I’m partnering with WFMT or another old school media company.  People under 40 just ask Youtube or Facebook?

As I got more serious about this idea I started to reach out to media outlets to partner with.  In the end I decided to go with Caveat in NYC.  Caveat is primarily a venue as of now but they have a sophisticated setup for streaming and they are looking to launch their own media company in the near future.  They also are fluent in millennial which, well, there’s a lot of them so that seems good right?

I’m doing a pilot program on February 23rd.  If they like it then I’ll be entered into their incubator program. Incubated! Sounds so warm and cozy. I know a lot about broadcasting and event production but they know a lot about the people I want to reach and how to reach them through digital media so, though it’s a totally new direction for me, I think I made the right choice.

I don’t know how often I’m going to do these yet because, as a composer, I’m really enjoying this whole getting a piece performed every few weeks thing lately and want to keep that momentum going.  A lot of it will depend on what kind of support team I wind up with. I realize, though, that composing alone isn’t enough for me.  I have this need to reach people, to share music and ideas and I’m really excited to do that again.

Plus, it turns out I’m kind of an extrovert and I miss being on stage.

December 5, 2019
Posted by Seth Boustead

There are some moments in life that just stick in the brain as an indelible image.  Such a moment for me was New Year’s Eve 2009.  Maria and I were in London with her family and her sister took us to a fancy dress party which is what they call a costume party. The theme was American Prohibition which, coming from Chicago, was pretty hilarious to us.

But we put on our 1920’s clothes and went to the bar which I believe was in Tooting or one of those still somewhat disreputable neighborhoods, at least at that time. It’s probably changed by now.  At any rate, there was a smoking hot jazz band complete with a tap dancer and we drank bathtub gin and it was alright.

I was absolutely entranced by the tap dancer, partly because of her skill, partly because she wore a ludicrous smile the whole time she performed and partly because she was on a not very wide platform that was at least four feet high which I thought was amazing.  I stared at her and the band with such a look of naked fascination that at one point the guitarist winked at me like I was a ten year old in a Dickens novel. Which maybe I was, just for a bit. London is a weird place.

November 10, 2019
Posted by Seth Boustead

Years ago my Relevant Tones producer Jesse and I were in Helsinki for a couple of weeks interviewing composers, going to concerts and generally checking out the amazing music scene there.

Finland had long had a thriving music scene but after they were able to take advantage of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 to gain independence from Russia and while they were still searching for a national identity, a young graduate from the Helsinki Conservatory of Music named Jean Sibelius wrote a series of pieces incorporating Finnish folk songs that became so popular that classical music became an “inextricable part of the Finnish psyche,” according to his biographer.

I’ve always found it fascinating to see how what a society chooses to spend its resources on shapes the people who live there.  In the case of Finland they put enormous resources into music education and the results are amazing. (more…)

October 5, 2019
Posted by Seth Boustead

“What is it?”
“Well, it’s my therapy. I’m still perfecting it.”
“What does it do?”
“What’s it for?”
“Well, nothing — nothing. I mean, that’s the beauty of it. Every machine in the world does something, but not mine.”

I took a little bike tour of the Bronx a couple of months ago which, if you’re the kind of person who prefers to bike without traffic barrelling unpredictably at incredibly high speeds in all directions with absolutely zero thoughts given toward hapless bikers slowly making their way up ludicrously steep hills in a joke of a bike lane which is really just a bike symbol spray-painted onto the side of the road, I cannot with any degree of honesty recommend.

Still, I did manage to survive the worst parts to make it to a more or less flat stretch of the Grand Concourse where there is a divided bike lane and I could catch my breath.  After falling on my knees and thanking the patron saint of bicyclists (Madonna del Ghisallo in case you don’t know) for watching over me, I looked up and saw the Bronx Museum of Arts and decided to head in and see what was shaking. (more…)

September 5, 2019
Posted by Seth Boustead

“A peacetime bedroom, a real bedroom. Real children. Real birds. Real cats. Real graves.” – La Jeteé

In Chris Marker’s film La Jeteé, a boy goes with his family to the observation deck at Orly airport to watch planes take off and land.  While there he sees a man shot and killed.  The boy becomes obsessed with this image; a woman’s gesture, a sudden roar, the man falls.  Some time later,  the narrator tells us, a massive war breaks out.  The boy, now a man, must fight in the war. He survives along with a very small percentage of humanity and, with the other survivors, is forced to live in underground catacombs because the surface is radioactive.

They are governed by autocratic pseudo-scientists referred to as the camp experimenters.  The experiments they conduct are centered around the idea of sending someone through time.  They first want to send a person through a “loophole in time” to “summon the past and the future to the aid of the present.” (more…)

July 6, 2019
Posted by Seth Boustead

“Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings.” ― Robert Benchley

You know you’re living in a weird bubble when everywhere you go every person you talk to seems to be in the midst of writing an opera.  This isn’t conjectural, this is my life currently.  It reached a kind of apotheosis yesterday when, at a meeting at a coffee shop in the West Village, the guy who took my order told me he’s working on an opera too

It’s about a misunderstood barista who has quietly revolutionized the percolation process but who foolishly spouted off about his idea at the regional convention one night after too many Baileys Irish cream coffees in the hotel bar and it was stolen by an unscrupulous middle manager who went on to achieve great success. (more…)

June 7, 2019
Posted by Seth Boustead

Growing up in Jefferson City, Missouri was not quite the Tom Sawyer-esque adventure it probably could have been though this is entirely my fault as I could never bring myself to jump into the Missouri River or even to wade into the mud along the shore.  I also had no idea how to build a raft and I look terrible in a straw hat. I did spend a little over a year barefoot though so hopefully that counts for something.

At any rate, my friends and I mostly spent our teenage years escaping to nearby Columbia to see what we thought were punk rock shows.  Then, when we got more adventurous we started driving to St. Louis to see bands with actual punk cred like Danzig. On one such trip my friends learned that I had never been to the top of the Gateway Arch and it was decided that this must be rectified immediately.

If you haven’t done this then I have to say that it is a singular experience. The arch was designed and built long before accessibility was a buzzword in architecture.  The elevator is a miserable, cramped affair in which you’re forced to sit staring in uncomfortable silence at the people across from you as it, suspended from above by a cable, sways back and forth on its creaky, painstakingly slow way to the top. (more…)


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