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October 19, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

Raynovich_miesThat’s my friend William Jason Raynovich performing music by Edinburgh composer Katrina Burton at the Robert Carr Memorial Chapel as part of Open House Chicago.

For the last four years ACM has worked with Open House to commission composers to write music for several of the spaces and then put musicians in the spaces to perform the music.  It’s become one of our signature events, it’s highly successful and it’s always a great time.

As every year I went to all of the sites with music with the ACM A/V team recording and filming the pieces for video documentation.  This is always such a fun day as we rush from site to site, meet new people and enjoy the other ancillary Open House events.

For example this year on the football field at IIT, just a block north of the Carr Chapel, the engineering students were having their annual pumpkin launch competition.  They design and build their own catapults and then try them out in a competition.  While none of them worked super well, it was still a blast watching them work their crazy contraptions.

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October 9, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

Screen shot 2015-10-31 at 12.34.13 PMI was watching the film the Martian the other day at the theater and, while it’s not a bad film, it does lend itself well to a certain amount of mind drift.  Naturally the premise is ridiculous and I’m quite sure that the science probably has some holes in it but it occurred to me that this doesn’t matter because the point is we’re meant to imagine a person left behind on a desolate planet far from home who has to use his skills to stay alive until help comes.

In other words the premise and the plot itself are completely immaterial and the film works largely because it successfully gets the audience to invest in it. This is a revelation of sorts for me as a composer.  I have thought numerous times how interesting it is to think about the moment that a chord progression becomes a song, when the songwriter invests it with meaning which is ideally shared on the part of the listener and it becomes more than the sum of its parts

I’m writing a solo flute piece at the moment and thinking about the flutist coming on stage and playing the first few notes.  When I first began the piece that’s exactly what they were, just a C and a C#, not a piece of music but notes.  I liked the notes but still they did not comprise an artistic statement as of yet.

Then I started thinking about how I’m in a time of transition in my life and I named the piece Half State.  I then looked up that phrase and saw that it also applies to a state between sleeping and waking which is appealing to me and I decided that I liked the title.  Now the C and C# in the opening are ambiguous and I added a pitch bend between them to highlight this fact. Now we are in a half state and the piece can progress.  Now it is a piece, not notes.

Hopefully the audience will invest in the piece as well.  That is the true measure of success in art. The piece can be well constructed but no one invests in it and by the same token there are highly successful pieces that are not well constructed but communicate and invite the audience to invest in them.  Hopefully my piece will be both well constructed and communicative but ultimately I’ll judge the success of it on whether or not the listener invests in my premise.


September 25, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

Stay_Puft_WrigleyIt’s official – the Cubs have clinched a wild card spot in the playoffs and so the entire north side of Chicago is now extremely on edge.

Much like Ray Stantz thinking of the Stay Puft Marshmallow man in Ghostbusters, any stray thought could now materialize and destroy any chance the Cubs have of breaking their curse.

Who could possibly have foreseen the Bartman incident against the Marlins?  The only thing that could have happened is that someone had a momentary mental image of a goofy guy with a Walkman (already out of date even then) and sure enough he appeared to destroy them.

Clear your minds Chicago!  From now until mid-October you must have a perfectly clean slate.  One quick thought of a deep dish pepperoni pizza
is all it takes to choose the form of your destructor.

September 16, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

City HallwI’m in Milwaukee for the weekend for Doors Open Milwaukee which is part of the global Open House program in which cities open up hundreds of sites to the public, giving them access to spaces they don’t normally get to go in or that are not normally open only for tours.

Since 2011 my company Access Contemporary Music, has worked with Open House in Chicago to have composers write music inspired by some of the spaces and then have musicians perform the pieces in the spaces the day of the tours and it’s been a huge success.

We’ve always wanted to do it in other cities and were thrilled when we were approached by Doors Open Milwaukee.  Today we have musicians in the City Hall building, Federal Courthouse, Pabst historic brewery and the U.S. Bank Building which has opened its normally closed roof deck.

I’m so impressed by the architecture in Milwaukee. We in Chicago can be somewhat snobby about our architecture but this is a beautiful city.  I’ve only ever been here in the past to attend a baseball game so it’s wonderful to spend some time here and walk through their historic downtown.

Viva Milwaukee!


Federal Courthouse

August 27, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

nmc1Nigh onto ten years ago I was one of about twenty-ish people who crowded into a conference room in the basement of Symphony Center to participate in an unfocused talk about contemporary music in Chicago and how we could perhaps work together to, well we weren’t sure about that yet, but perhaps we could work together in some way that would be beneficial to all.

The people in the room had different backgrounds and wildly different aesthetics and, while there were no raised voices there were certainly some rolled eyeballs, and not everyone in the room that first time came to another meeting but nonetheless we had started a conversation that I feel strongly needed to be started.

Even then the ivory tower mindset was beginning to crack. The idea that you could and should pursue your artistic ideas while reviling the ideas of those different from yours, align yourself in a camp and wage war against opposing camps and especially, the idea that this was all somehow of the utmost importance, well, that idea was looking silly even then.

Ten years later that old mindset, while still prevalent in some university circles, is all but gone.  New Music Chicago did many noteworthy things over the years: a festival at the Museum of Contemporary Art, several joint presentations, an events calendar, etc.  But the best thing NMC did was start this conversation at a crucial time and the Chicago contemporary music scene is vastly better off for it.

To a certain extent NMC has done its job so well that younger ensembles are not even sure why they should join.  Of course they work together with their peers as a matter of course.  But I can testify that it wasn’t always so.  Happy tenth birthday NMC.

August 19, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

Bogota-Colombia1I’ve just spent an interesting week in Colombia, five days in Bogotá and a day and a half in Medellín and I’ve found it be a fascinating country.  Of course a week is not nearly enough time to get to know a city, let alone a country, but I thought I’d jot down some quick impressions I’ve had so far.

Bogotá is different from the other South American cities I’ve been to in that it closes early, by ten the entire city is practically shuttered.  I’m used to the siesta culture like in Peru or Argentina where everyone takes a nap until seven and then stays out at least until midnight so this has been an interesting change.

I think that part of it is that Bogotá, though much improved, is still unquestionably a dangerous place to be.  In fact, though the concert hall is only two blocks from our hotel, we have a professional driver to take us to and from our interviews and concerts which is a pretty new experience.  Our friends the Lincoln Trio told us that on a previous visit they had an armed escort.

We’re staying in the Candelaria neighborhood which is the old part of the city and where most of the tourist attractions are. The people we’ve met are all extremely nice and very patient with my not nearly fluent Spanish.  The owner of a restaurant even took the time to walk us through the menu telling us about the history and preparation of each Colombian dish, all the while speaking a slow Spanish so easy to understand that I nearly cried with gratitude.

It’s definitely a religious city. There are churches everywhere and Sunday is clearly a day of worship taken seriously by nearly everyone.  I wonder if this devotion has always been here or has been exacerbated in recent decades by the violence the people have had to endure.

Last night over two beers at the Bogota Beer Company I read all about the upcoming mayoral election in the newspaper.  It’s always interesting for a Chicagoan to read about corruption in other cities and remember that we didn’t invent it.   As far as I can tell from the paper there is a sense that there will always be corruption in government and the people are resigned to it but I also detected a note of optimism, like perhaps the new mayor may have to pretend to care about the people just long enough for things to improve marginally.

Our trip has been funded by the Banco de la Republica which is the foremost funder of culture in the country and they’re doing amazing things.  They’re bringing ensembles from the U.S. to Colombia for workshops, residencies and concerts, they’re fostering the creation of new works by composers and increasing access to musical education which is amazing.  I got a sense that the average citizen of Bogota was very proud of the work being done both to bring culture here and to promote Colombian culture abroad.

All in all it seems to me that both Bogota and Medellin are cities on the cusp of major change.  Some of the corruption and violence seem to be systemic and will probably never go away but the people seem to think that on the whole there is much improvement being made and there are signs of change everywhere you look.  I’ll be very interested to visit again in a few years.


August 11, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

marvelI saw this ad on a bus recently, a Marvel Universe Live tour that is apparently selling out huge arenas around the country, and it made me long for the purity of the 1950’s.

Not the Polly Anne-ish purity that right wing politicians are always going on about, the forgotten glory age of Norman Rockwell America that they are forever trying to bring back.  No, I’m talking about the glory age of pessimistic Science Fiction in which humanity was repeatedly bested by all manner of aliens, robots and natural disasters brought about by our own stupidity.

It’s no secret that popular movies mirror popular fears and angst and there are many studies that make a convincing case that the proliferation of Science Fiction movies in particular during the 1950’s was a direct result of the successful testing of the A-bomb in 1949 by the Russians thereby arming our hated enemy, ushering in the Cold War and bringing the threat of nuclear annihilation shockingly home to the public.

These were fears that nearly everyone shared.  Even the Cunningham family from Happy Days built a bomb shelter.  According to writer Victoria O’Donnell “these fears were expressed in various guises, such as aliens using mind control, monstrous mutants unleashed by radioactive fallout, radiation’s terrible effects on human life, and scientists obsessed with dangerous experiments.”

This is nothing new of course.  Books published during the various plague epidemics preyed upon and played to the same kinds of fears but nothing really tops seeing your fears brought to life in a big budget Hollywood movie and we’ve been addicted to it ever since, but with one important change: the superhero who prevents the cataclysm from occurring or at least mitigates its worst effects, and often falls in love and hawks a product while doing so.

Buck Rogers and a few other hero epics aside, most of the films from the 1950’s are disaster epics where the earth is destroyed and humanity is obliterated, irreversibly altered or forced to send a group of cryogenically frozen survivors blindly into space hoping they can restart the race on some hospitable planet in a few hundred thousand years.  And that’s a good thing!  People should get a nice dinner in a restaurant and then see their entire way of life destroyed or warped beyond recognition because of the stupidity of their race.

In today’s superhero movies, though there is often considerably more psychological depth, there is never really a feeling that anything is at stake. The terrorists, super villains, machines, etc. will be bested in an exciting scene that has just the right amount of shaky cam or CGI delivered incomprehensible action, witty repartée and maybe a quick upskirt or nip slip.

Hollywood just can’t bring itself to destroy us anymore.  Instead they manufacture a cozy false existence filled with superheros that would have been a sinister parallel dimension in the 1950’s.  You can just picture a Twilight Zone episode in which the populace is lured into a false complacency by an alien-controlled movie production industry and then destroyed at their weakest moment.

If you truly want to save the human race, I implore you to make a movie in which the superhero dies and all of humanity is lost!  It might shock us out of our complacency.  Or at least it would be something different.  Also, no shaky cam!



August 3, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

deadbird_santa_fe1I caught a performance tonight in the SITE contemporary art museum that I won’t soon forget.  About fifty of us were shown into a room with walls covered in the provocative art work by Ann Hamilton.

The artist is very interested in the intersection of man, urbanity and nature and the effects that our increasing trend toward urban environments is having on nature.  In this particular exhibition she focused on birds that had been killed as a byproduct of human activity.

She took the actual body of the dead bird and scanned it with a highly sensitive, color scanner and then hung the scans on the wall of the room.  But there were hundreds of copies of each scan and anyone seeing the exhibit is invited to tear one off and keep it as there are plenty more copies underneath.

The room was bustling as people discussed the images and the piano for the moment went unnoticed even when someone sat down at it.  Soon he began to play the intro to a song by Benjamin Britten however and a woman in the crowd began to sing and the room was transformed.

For the next 45 minutes she walked around the room and sang songs by classical composers like Britten and Vaughan-Williams as well as spirituals, an arabic inspired piece for which she accompanied herself by tapping on the piano in rhythm and finally, Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child.

Throughout the performance the music was periodically punctuated by the sound of tearing paper as someone would be moved to take an image down.  The whole experience was quite moving and I was thrilled to have stumbled upon it.  One of the great joys of traveling is the opportunity to see and hear things you would never have experienced at home.


July 17, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

Screen shot 2015-07-31 at 3.03.12 PMThat’s the headline of the Chicago Sun-Times on the day that I moved to Chicago, exactly twenty years ago today.   They predicted the heat toll could kill nearly 300 but in the end it would kill nearly 1,000.

I moved here the summer of that awful heat wave and there were also massive power failures everywhere and my first memories of the city are of oppressive heat and pitch black nights filled with the sounds of ambulances and half-glimpsed shadowy figures moving laconically through the streets.

On my second night in town my friend Chris and I were at the L & L Tavern and decided to go to the Green Mill and, being new to the city, that it would be best to walk there.  We walked north on Broadway through what at that time was one of the worst neighborhoods on the north side of the city during a complete blackout and, as if often the case with the innocent and the insane, made it through without incident.  It was only later that we realized how stupid we had been.

I also remember hitting the streets to look for a job and seeing a hair salon on Diversey called Curl Up and Dye and thinking how appropriate the name was.  While looking for a job that first week I saw so many signs looking for stylists that I considered becoming one.  Instead my first Chicago job was at the newly opened WTTW Store of Knowledge in the Water Tower mall unloading trucks on the loading dock.

I had no money to even take the train and a co-worker gave me a shitty old bike he had with no seat that I rode each day from Rogers Park.  I brought exactly sixty-two cents with me each day which what a $.59 bean burrito cost at Taco Bell and was all I could afford for lunch.  To this day I’m convinced that Taco Bell saved my life although I did stop eating their food as soon as my circumstances improved.

I’m in a better place now twenty years after the big move but I’ll never forget that first week and I can still feel the incredible heat of that first summer in the city.




July 9, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

Screen shot 2015-07-31 at 2.54.35 PMThis was the scene of last night’s concert as part of the SIRGA Festival in Flix (pronounced Fleesh,) a very small town about three hours out of Barcelona.  It’s hard to see as I was trying to capture everything but we’re in a medieval Spanish castle overlooking a beautiful river valley and, inside the castle, there are musicians performing a piece by Giacinto Scelsi.

Throughout the evening we moved from room to room within the castle to hear music by composers from Spain, Germany and other parts of Europe.  Most of the music called for extensive electronics and I was impressed by the sheer amount of gear that they hauled all the way up here to make it work.

There were also no technical difficulties which is a minor miracle in itself.  I found the experience exhilarating.  We basically had a slow tour of the castle with a concert along each step of the way.  Tomorrow night we’ll be in a church that’s nearly as old as the castle.

I’m very impressed by the musical quality of the SIRGA festival but equally impressive are the stunning venues for each concert.  The flag flying from the castle by the way is the flag of Catalonia, not Spain.  I gather that’s rather a hot button issue here…


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