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September 1, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

elks2I’m a big believer in putting musicians in public spaces in order to bring contemporary music to wider audiences.  As someone who has been producing contemporary music concerts for over ten years now I’ve found this a highly effective way to reach new people and have fascinating conversations about contemporary classical music and what the art form has been up to for the last hundred years, which is usually news to most of the people I talk to.

Next month my company Access Contemporary Music will be presenting music in public spaces for two great events: Open House Chicago and the Ravenswood Art Walk.  We’ve worked with the Chicago Architecture Foundation to provide a musical component to Open House Chicago since its inception four years ago.

Our composer members write music inspired by several of the venues in Open House and then we have musicians present the days of the event to perform the music every 15 minute or so as hundreds of people come through.  Over the years we’ve also amassed a great collection of videos of these events and, as we get closer to Open House on October 18 and 19, I’ll post several of these.

The Ravenswood Art Walk is a unique event.  Sure it’s a street festival and Chicago is lousy with street festivals but this one really is about the art and that’s what has always drawn me to it.  This year we’re working with percussionist and producer Peter Ferry and Julius Meinl to have a “music walk” component that includes musicians in several of the venues playing, you guessed it, contemporary classical music.

Between the  two events we’ll have musicians performing in nearly ten different public venues over two weekends.  It’s my favorite time of the year and I’m excited to talk about contemporary music with so many new people. Videos to come very soon!

August 19, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead


The interview I’m the most proud of was Einojuhani Rautavaara who is a legendary composer well into his 80’s who was mentored early in his career by Jean Sibelius.  He had an incredible presence and, although he has a hard time talking now after a stroke a few years back, he talked engagingly about his music and philosophy of life and I felt a very strong connection with him. That my producer Jesse McQuarters and me with him after the interview which took place in his home near the sea on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon.

My favorite interview quote from any of the composers we’ve talked to so far came from Matthew Whithall, a Canadian transplant who has been in Finland now for several years.  He was talking about how contemporary music is well integrated into normal classical music concerts here and he said “the first time I realized I was in a different place was when an orchestra played a piece by Magnus Lindberg that was essentially a 30 minute sonic assault and the audience leapt to their feet when it was done and gave a standing ovation. And Finns never give standing ovations.”

I was incredibly lucky last night to be able to attend the closed dress rehearsal of Shostakovich’s recently discovered, unfinished comic opera Orango being done by the Finnish Radio Symphony with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting.  As if that weren’t enough they gave a hair-raising performance of the 4th symphony afterward.  A perfect pairing in my opinion.  An opera lampooning the Soviet system on the same program as the infamous symphony that got Shostakovich in trouble with Stalin and was the beginning of so many of his woes.

There have been so many magical moments here, I’ll try to write more soon.


August 12, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead


This is a photo of approximately 2,000 professional singers from choirs throughout Helsinki giving a short concert on the front steps of the most famous cathedral in the city for the opening of Art Goes Kapakka, an event featuring live music and art of all kinds in bars and restaurants throughout the city every day for the next week or so.

I’ve been in Helsinki now for close to a week and it’s been an amazing journey.  I’m here in my capacity as host of Relevant Tones to interview Finnish composers for two shows about the music scene and the Finnish commitment to music and to a lesser extent the arts in general.

So far I’ve been completely blown away by everything.  The city is the perfect size, it’s very easy to get around, there are happy people everywhere, I haven’t seen one homeless person though I know they must exist somewhere, there is a ton of live music and a palpable commitment to the arts and everything is extremely well ordered and government corruption doesn’t seem to exist which for a guy from Chicago is pretty much the same thing as if everyone walked on water.

So far for Art Goes Kappaka I’ve seen choirs in several bars, two musicians improvising while a comic artist drew comics live that were projected on the wall, a great folk band and an acid jazz trio that I would kill to see again.  And there’s still so much left!  Once this is over the Helsinki Festival begins.  I may never go home…


August 5, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead


My wife and I were playing cards, drinking wine and listening to Pandora the other night and it seemed that, no matter what band names or styles of music we put in, after a certain amount of time we’d hear a Tom Petty song.  It never seemed out of place either, he fits easily into nearly any playlist.

It occurred to me that if a musical playlist is like a blood transfusion, and of course it is, then Tom Petty is the universal donor.  He can donate music to any playlist without ever causing a massive activation of the immune system thereby leading to shock, kidney failure, circulatory collapse and death.

So next time you’re making your next office party playlist and no one has anything in common remember the musical universal donor and you’ll be just fine.


July 20, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

ThirstyEarFestival_WFMT_7.12.14_by_ElliotMandel-27Yesterday was my third annual Thirsty Ear Festival and the second year that we’ve been at City Winery and what fun it was.  First up was the Fonema Consort in a program of music that, while not all of it may have been broadcast suitable, was certainly ear opening.  Fonema is interested in music that explores text in new and often frighteningly original ways and that aesthetic was on full display yesterday.  My favorite piece from their set was by Chris Fisher-Lockhead that featured lip smacking, glottal stops and other noises you would not associate with traditional vocal music.

Next up was the Gaudete Brass, pictured above in the wonderful photo by Elliot Mandel.  They rocked the house with a virtuosic set for brass quintet that included some truly beautiful music by David Sampson.  Our headliner was the incomparable Graham Reynolds, pianist, composer and bandleader from Austin.

Graham played a set of his music that included pieces featured in the movie Bernie, part of a ballet score and music from his truly wonderful disc the Difference Engine inspired by what was essentially the world’s first computer, made by Charles Babbage in the 19th century.

You can hear the whole show here

July 10, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

My first string quartet is a finalist in the American Prize which is pretty cool and, since I learned of this news not too long after the Fourth of July, very apropos.  I don’t enter competitions generally because, well, I hardly ever win them and that’s demoralizing and not to mention expensive as there’s always an entry fee and the cost of making parts, etc.

But I like the American Prize.  The whole process is very transparent, you know who is judging your work, the criteria for judgement are clear and they seem very fair and to have a genuine interest in promoting music whereas most competitions are really just trying to promote the competition.  Which is why they generally give the prize to famous composers whose names will add luster to the ranks of people who have won the competition thereby making the competition looking good even though any idiot can give an award to someone who has already made a reputation for themselves.

I’ll find out who the winner is soon.  I’d be very surprised if it were me but, since you get a performance of the piece in Carnegie Hall, it would be pretty cool to actually win it.  You can click on the photo above to hear a wonderful performance of the piece by the Chicago Q Ensemble.

July 3, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

DC-FireworksIsn’t that a deliciously bizarre photo?  I was looking for photos of the Fourth and came across that one, which I’m pretty sure has been photoshopped which only makes it all the stranger, and it called out to me immediately.  The Washington Monument always looks strange but here, surrounded by fireworks and dwarfing the more feminine looking than usual capitol building and with the perspective all out of whack, it looks like two grotesque figures cavorting in a vacuum during some kind of all out aerial attack.

Anyway, I have to say that nothing brings out my inherent misanthropic tendencies quite like the Fourth of July.  It’s not like I want to be a misanthrope, it’s just something I seem to be inherently good at.  Some people can naturally juggle or hold their breath for a long time or cook delicious stews.  Me, I’m naturally talented at grumbling under my breath while everyone else in the world is having a good time, and that makes the Fourth of July a kind of living hell.

For two days there has already been an incessant barrage of fireworks, and not the big ones that actually do something but the little cracker ones that just go pop pop pop.  Someone has strung thousands of them together and has spent the last two days mindlessly, relentlessly setting them off hour after hour.  How many of those fucking things did you buy??  What kind of mentality derives joy from doing this over and over for days at a time?  I’m almost tempted to go out and ask but I’ve learned over the years not to do that.  It never leads anywhere that’s in my long term health and safety interests.

I would like to propose new activities for our great nation on the Fourth of July.  Instead of parades and marching band music and stuffing our fat faces with fatty foods and the mindless blowing up of innocent fireworks that were just trying to mind their own business on shelves in stores in small towns throughout Indiana, let’s celebrate our independence with a quiet New York Times crossword puzzle on the back deck or a rousing chess game with your neighbor or finally learning that Schubert sonata you’ve been putting off because you know you’ll have to actually take the time to write the fingerings in and that attention to detail isn’t your strong suit but dammit it’s the Fourth of July and if you can’t do it now when can you?

Most likely I’ll be one of the few people in the country celebrating the holiday this way but it is at least a small step in the right direction.

June 28, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

forbidden-city-smThat’s a picture of the Forbidden City Orchestra with the New Zealand String Quartet during a recent tour of China and New Zealand.  They partnered up to commission composers from both countries to write for them and then toured the resulting pieces throughout both countries.  I’ll be talking to them and featuring audio from this tour on the first Relevant Tones episode in quarter four of 2014.

Now that the show is syndicated we have to plan so much further ahead than we did before which takes away some of the spontaneity but also causes us to do a lot more research and we stumble across really interesting projects like this that I doubt we would have found out about otherwise.  Here then are the complete Q4 show listings!

10/4 Into the Forbidden City and Beyond

In a barrier-busting intercultural collaboration, the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra partnered with the New Zealand String Quartet to tour commissioned pieces by composers from both countries.  In a Relevant Tones exclusive, we’ll feature the music from this historic project.

10/11 What is Wandelweiser?

Originally a German musical creation, Wandelweiser is a kind of extreme minimalism that is fast becoming popular with composers around the world.  We talk with two of its creators, Jürg Frey and Eva-Maria Houben, about the phenomenal growth of this movement.

10/18 The Art of Spoken Word

It takes fine craftsmanship to achieve a perfect partnership between text and music in which neither element overshadows the other.  This week, we’ll listen to a fascinating array of spoken word and music by composers striving to achieve this symmetry.

10/25 Haunted Landscapes: Music of George Crumb

Legendary composer George Crumb created a unique, haunting sound world that leaves an indelible impression upon anyone who hears it.  The master turns 85 in October and we’ll celebrate with an entire show dedicated to his outlandish music.

11/1- Through the Grapevine

We’re having a ball trying to keep up with our ever-expanding musical collection as composers and performers around the world joyously overwhelm us with their creations.  We’re consistently amazed by their level of talent and artistry, and are thrilled this week to share it with our listeners.

11/8 In the Field: Mizzou Part I

Fast becoming the go-to summer music festival in the Midwest, the concerts and workshops at the University of Missouri’s International Composers Festival are a sure-fire place to hear imaginative new music from emerging composers.

11/15  In the Field: Mizzou Part II

More music from the vibrant inferno of creative energy that is the Mizzou International Composers Festival, featuring Alarm Will Sound, exciting works by faculty composers and a bundle of premieres, concerts and workshops

11/22 The Polish Legacy

As part of Polish American Heritage Month, we put together a live concert of works by a wide range of composers from one of the great music-loving countries of the world .  We’ll hear music from this concert and talk about the incredible legacy of classical music in Poland.

11/29  Has Anyone Seen the Bridge?

Just in the last couple of years Alarm Will Sound has covered Aphex Twin, cello goddess Maya Beiser covered Led Zeppelin and the Osso Quartet recorded music of indie darling Sufjan Stevens.  What’s going on here?  We’ll feature this fun new trend of performers commissioning composers to arrange pop songs.

12/6 Composer Spotlight – Nico Muhly

He’s worked with, and written and arranged for, performers as diverse as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Beyoncé, the American Ballet Theater and Björk, just to name a few.  We sit down to talk to this wide-ranging and highly successful composer about life on the cutting edge of 21st-century music.

12/13 Payton MacDonald – Super Marimba

Percussionist Payton MacDonald calls Super Marimba the nexus point of all of his artistic activities.  Featuring influences from jazz and classical to Hindustani and improvisational music, this is the marimba as you’ve never heard it before.

12/20 – Journey into the Sacred: Modern Oratorios

Large-scale sacred works might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of contemporary music, but a number of important composers are creating expansive works inspired by their concept of a higher power.

12/27-  Composers Among Us: Laura Schwendinger

Our popular series profiling emerging composers continues with Laura Schwendinger, an artist whose strongly personal style of music is filled with kinetic energy and slow-burning intensity.

June 21, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

I had several beers with two good friends recently while I was in New York and the conversation, as it so often does, turned to music. I was talking about a composer who will go unnamed whose music I really can’t stand to listen to which got us talking about what makes music good and bad. Is it the craft of the composer? Is it the ideas that you don’t like? The execution?

I think it’s all of these things but while we were talking about it I suddenly and half drunkenly blurted out “the thing about music is that intention is audible.” I said this because I’ve been thinking a lot about how to answer the question “what kind of music do you listen to?”

The answer for me is all kinds of music. The kind of music that I like I always say is music that is well considered, well crafted and well executed, all of the three things above, but… the most important part for me is the intention of the person writing the music: that they have a genuine desire to communicate something of value to the listener.

I really do believe that this intention is audible in the music itself. If the idea is facile or the composer is caught up in his or her own self importance then most of the time the music will not be good. The pieces that last are those that have a genuine and lasting communicative value.

So, craft and execution are all very important of course but so is the intention and that is something that can’t be taught. You just have to live it man.

June 14, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

Andriessen-Louis-05I recently interviewed Dutch composer Louis Andriessen and we had a typically thought-provoking and wide-ranging conversation about music, politics, philosophy, social justice and what kind of music a composer should write. The first question I asked him was “Is music something that can exist outside of politics or outside of the composer’s particular social landscape?”

His answer was that yes music can exist separately but that it shouldn’t. That especially in the modern age the composer should write music that causes people to ask the big questions of social justice, race, gender and class equality, and religious and ethical mores. When composers were servants, he continued, writing music for parties and such then they couldn’t do things like this but in our era they can and should.

This conversation stayed with me and I found myself thinking about it for days afterward. I didn’t grow up in a politically fraught environment. In fact my generation had it pretty easy. But I still do think about the issues that Andriessen is so passionate about even if they don’t surface in my music.

For me advocating on behalf of music, which I equate to social justice in that proliferating storefront music schools is good for society, is a separate activity from writing music. Or so I always thought. These days I’m not so sure. As I open storefront music schools and plan concerts and make radio shows I do wonder how these activities are impacting the music I write.

I always thought that when I go into a room to write music all of that should go away. But now I’m thinking it could be a source of musical inspiration which, frankly, has been somewhat hard to come by lately. Have to think on this a bit…

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