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August 8, 2021
Posted by Seth Boustead

Back in 2001 there was a big brou-ha-ha about gentrification in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood that I still remember clearly.  I myself rarely went to Wicker Park because as early as 1995 I was told that it was “over” by someone I held in high esteem and why would I go to a neighborhood that was over?  I’m a happening guy and I need to be where the action is.

Anyway, Wicker Park had been gentrifying since at least the seventies but suddenly there were protests and a small but very vocal group of people were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore. The cause of this ruckus?

MTV had opted to shoot the eleventh season of their hit show the Real World in Chicago and they chose the Wicker Park neighborhood which was bad enough but, heaping insult upon injury, they chose to bring this abomination of a show to the building that once housed the Urbis Orbis Cafe and the last few hipsters remaining in Wicker Park were incensed.

Urbis Orbis was the kind of coffee shop that Thomas Pynchon probably would have felt comfortable writing something like the Crying of Lot 49 in.  Not Mason & Dixon, nothing that heavy but definitely Crying of Lot 49 or Inherent Vice or something. Maybe Bleeding Edge…

Anyway, Urbis Orbis was a Pynchon-esque hipster coffee shop where magic happened over midday lattes.  Bands were formed, art festivals created, the relative merits of post-punk hotly debated. You know the kind of place. But they were a victim of their own success. The rent went up and Urbis Orbis closed its doors forever.

Now MTV comes in with its fresh-faced kids to film their reality show here? On hallowed ground?  There were huge protests. People stood outside with bullhorns and shouted for the cast to leave town immediately. It was chaos.

But all these years later I learned something interesting about that movement.  It was faked.  Yeah.  See, the planners of those “protests” were rightly worried that no one would show up and so they decided to trick people into coming.

They printed up fliers advertising the chance to audition for the show at the time of their planned protest.  Most of the people at the protest were not against the show, they wanted to be on it.  Once the protest started they stuck around to see what was happening and many of them made it on the nightly news.

I uncovered this underhanded deception the old fashioned way: by getting a grant from the Wicker Park Chamber of Commerce to make an audio walking tour called Sonic Walkabout that combines narrative storytelling with commissioned music.

We chose eight sites in all and I wrote music for two of them: the aforementioned Real World site and Quimby’s Bookstore, purveyor of unusual publications, aberrant periodicals, saucy comic booklets and assorted fancies, for whom I wrote a heroic anthem because, you know, comic shop.

After the brou-ha-ha half the Real World cast broke up with each other and they stopped the show and the building sat empty and then became a Cheetah Gym for years and years and now is empty again.

For my piece I was thinking of the fake media circus and of gentrification itself and how for better or worse once it starts it’s hard to stop.  It’s just a minute long because I know we’ve all got important things to do. It’s scored for flute, alto sax, cello and piano.

I found the image below on the internet.  Seems that lots of folks still remember the protests.  Click on it to listen to the piece!

 

 

February 19, 2021
Posted by Seth Boustead

 

I find myself thinking about space a lot lately. There is the space of my apartment with which I have become intimately familiar these last eleven months and counting of course.  But there are three spaces in Chicago I think about every day too.

They are the three locations for our ACM School of Music, now empty spaces.  One of them has become a repository for all of the stuff we don’t know where else to put.  Another is still somewhat busy as one of our wonderful teachers is there all by his lonesome teaching virtual lessons.

And one of them, the first one I opened fourteen years ago on Wilson Ave., is in a kind of chrysalis.  Or at least that’s how I think of it.  Like it’s sleeping right now and, once the loud men are done with their constant hammering and sawing, it will emerge in the spring as a beautiful butterfly.  Yes, it’s a deep sleeper.

I envisioned a kind of thriving community music hub when I opened the storefront back in 2007.  ACM was doing a project called Weekly Readings back then and I loved the idea of rehearsing and recording the new pieces each week in the window of a storefront.  I wanted music-making to be normal, as normal as anything the other businesses on the block did.

Though in retrospect, considering that the other businesses at that time were a shady tax guy, a chain-smoking dry cleaner and a corrupt chamber of commerce, maybe this wasn’t what we wanted to emulate. Today the other businesses are a sushi restaurant, a European clothing store and a math tutoring place, none of them corrupt so far as I can tell.  Incredibly, we’re now the oldest business on the block.

I started teaching a music composition class in our new space in the fall of 2008.  ACM musicians would come in on the final night of class to play the student works and then we’d drink wine and gush about music, art, life, all the good stuff. I was so happy.

Then the mortgage crisis happened and the Illinois Arts Council was gutted. We lost what little donations and other grants we were getting as well.  But now we had a monthly rent obligation and so we had to come up with another way to bring money in.

Composition lessons were so fun to teach but were never a best seller so I started teaching piano in the window.  After a few months my schedule filled and I hired another teacher. Then another and another.  The corrupt chamber of commerce went out of business and we expanded into their space.  A hair salon on the corner came and went and we expanded into their space.

We had been saving money for years to remodel the space when Covid hit.  At first we were nervous to move forward with the plan.  Now I know that we could never have done it without Covid. There was no way we could have closed the school for the six months and more it’s taking to complete the project.

The new design features teaching rooms equipped for virtual learning, a small performance space (in the window of course) that doubles as a recording and livestream studio and, the thing I’ve been talking about for so many years, a small coffee bar in the corner space with, in a nod to the old days, a secret cache of wine.

Everything about the new space is meant to foster community around music-making.  We’ve got another month or so of work and then another few months of siting empty most likely.  But eventually this beautiful heavy-sleeping butterfly is going to emerge. I can’t wait until that day.

In the meantime I’ll keep shoveling snow.

November 17, 2020
Posted by Seth Boustead

Written for Newcity Magazine’s December 2020 issue

It’s only natural to wax nostalgic at the end of the year but considering the year we’ve had and knowing that we’re likely in for a long winter, I find myself looking back even more than usual.

I keep slipping into the past like Brandon Stark or, perhaps more appropriately for this time of year, like Ebenezer Scrooge but with a better attitude and hopefully better hair.  Instead of the Ghost of Christmas Past though, my guide is the Ghost of Gigs Past.

I’ve been active in Chicago’s music scene in one form or another for twenty-five years.  My first gig in the city was at the Annoyance Theater on December 5th of 1995. They were on Clark St. back then across from the Metro Bar.  I had just moved to Chicago from Columbia, Missouri a few months ago and was excited to play an improv comedy show.

It was the final show for their advanced student class and my job was fairly simple.  I was tasked with drinking beer (always important at the Annoyance,) naming the groups, and of course improvising music for the scenes which included anything from gentle underscoring to sudden accompaniment in the event that someone burst into song.  After the gig we went to the Gingerman Tavern and drank more beer and they paid me in cash. I was hooked.

In the ’90’s if you could improvise on the piano you were set in Chicago.  Improv comedy was hot and there were dozens of troupes looking for a piano player. My favorite gig was with a group called Broken Pilgrims in Gothic Sneakers.  We played mostly at the old Bop Shop on Division St. which became Liquid Kitty, the first real sign of gentrification on the block.

There was a sign on the front door of the Gold Star Bar back then saying “this is not Liquid Fucking Kitty!”   Remember when bars like Liquid Kitty were the enemy? Life was so much simpler back then.

The Bop Shop is probably the Chicago venue I miss the most.  They moved to Andersonville and then to the South Loop in like 1997 which was a lot rougher then than now.  I would park in the lot across the street and race over to the venue like my life was in mortal peril.  I was stationed on my usual bar stool the night they closed forever.

In 1999 I worked at the Carl Fischer music store on Wabash and started grad school in music composition across the street at Roosevelt University.  I had actually been hired at Tower Records, (which I still thought of as Rose Records,) on the same day but Carl Fischer paid the princely sum of $6 an hour which was a dollar more than Tower so, sheet music it was.

At Carl Fischer I put one of my business cards on the bulletin board at the front of the store which led to an exciting call. In those days you’d check your voicemail every day for potential gigs. I got a call from the Palmer House Hilton that they were looking for a pianist in the lobby. I had to wear a tux just to audition.  I got the gig and played there for several months until they decided to just pipe in music instead.

After I finished grad school I started an organization I still run called Access Contemporary Music to promote contemporary classical music.  This was the early 2000’s now, a time I still think of as a golden age for Chicago music, at least in terms of having city support.

The Cultural Affairs Commissioner at the time was the legendary Lois Weisberg who had created the Chicago Cultural Center which was run by the equally formidable Janet Carl Smith.  The arts were taken seriously and there was a real budget. Mike Orlove launched hugely ambitious programs like Summerdance and the World Music Festival, and was director of music programming at Millennium Park when it finally opened in 2004.

Peter McDowell ran the classical music programs which included Summer Opera and the Sunday Salon series among many others.  At that time if you could play, write or produce, you had a pretty good shot at doing something with the city and getting paid for it.

ACM’s first performance venue was Preston Bradley Hall at the Cultural Center which at that time had live music nearly every day of the week. The only downside to this venue is that someone will always sit in the front row and play with a plastic bag all through your set. But, you learn to ignore it.

Perhaps my fondest Chicago gig memory is the time I was nearly arrested during the show.  I was producing and playing on the Sound of Silent Film Festival at the Chopin Theater. There was a fairly long piece that didn’t have piano or percussion so the percussionist and I would hang out backstage or go into the alley to smoke.

One night we went out but stupidly brought our beers with us.  A cop was actually walking a beat like it was 1930 or something and he walks up and starts giving us a hard time for the open containers.  We were like, we’re in the middle of a show!  You can’t arrest us.  Why else would we be standing behind a theater at night dressed all in black?  Oh, right.  He let us go though and we finished the show without further incident.

A few years later I talked my way into a gig at WFMT hosting a program called Relevant Tones about living composers.  We did a live broadcast from the Empty Bottle and had a packed crowd of young hipsters who were up for anything, including a 30-minute improvised meditation for clarinet and prayer bowls.

I had a piece on the program too but the audience favorite was a work that started softly and gradually built to a climax punctuated by the percussionist hitting a large pane of glass with a hammer into a metal tub.  Hard to top that.

There was so much great music on that show but my favorite memory was talking with someone who came out from WFMT who had never been to the Bottle, or perhaps to any rock club.  When I asked what she thought about the show she just said “the bathrooms were filthy!”

They sure were. And if there’s a God in heaven they will be again someday soon.

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.

WATCH HERE

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.
(more…)

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?”
“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…)

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