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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…

June 7, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

acm_logo_full_smallerI had a grant deadline recently for my organization Access Contemporary Music and I was including the proof of our non-profit status as I’ve done so many times before but this time I actually glanced at it and saw that we had received our official status, and incorporated, almost exactly ten years ago.

In effect, we forgot our own birthday. And such a milestone too! We had been active under the name before 2004 but once we incorporated and got non profit statues was when things really started to move. Our concert season came shortly afterward, the first school in 2007 and the composer membership program in 2010 and now we’re bringing our more successful initiatives to other cities and looking to continue to grow from there.

The best thing for me personally is that we finally have infrastructure. For nearly ten years I was running all of our programs myself and everyone was telling me to delegate but it’s hard to do with volunteers. Once I had staff and was able to effectively delegate the organization really took off.

I think now that the biggest mistake I made early on was this lack of delegation. I always felt so guilty asking people to do things for which I couldn’t pay them. I completely neglected to remember that giving them ownership over a project is a great motivator, that it’s not so much asking them to work for free as to give them a way to express their support for the organization.

If I had been better at motivating volunteers and hadn’t always felt reluctant to ask people to do things I think we’d be further along but there’s no sense in dwelling on that. This is definitely something I now share with young arts leader. Now I have to get good at asking for money!

May 30, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

I’m in New York covering the New York Philharmonic’s inaugural Biennial, a series of concerts celebrating contemporary music, and it’s been amazing but something even more amazing just happened: I was asked to voice their Biennial Minute video series.  This is a great honor as I feel that they could have gone with virtually anyone, from Alex Baldwin to any of a dozen radio hosts in NYC.

I’ve scripted all five of them and recorded the first voice overs. They’ll be released throughout the Biennial.  Here’s the first one!

May 17, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

ThirstyEar_11My third annual Thirsty Ear Festival is coming to City Winery on July 12!  We just got the lineup done and it’s going to be an exciting show.  Thirsty Ear is a special two-hour live broadcast of my show Relevant Tones on 98.7 WFMT and it’s designed to feature an eclectic mix of interesting performers in Chicago and elsewhere.

This year’s headliner is Graham Reynolds who I met when he was performing in Chicago many years ago.  I spoke with him a little bit backstage before his performance and thought we had a similar philosophy toward music making and then the performance was excellent so he was someone I definitely wanted to keep in touch with.

I describe Graham as Lou Reed meets Shostakovich meets Duke Ellington.  His music has this angsty cool that has to be heard for you to know what I’m talking about.  He’s a fantastic pianist and drummer in addition to a composer and his performance will be wonderful.  The other two groups are Fonema Consort, a vocal group that leans toward extended techniques and interesting, often experimental sounds and the Gaudete Brass Quintet, an energetic virtuosic shot in the arm of musical adrenalin.

Tickets are on sale so don’t miss Thirsty Ear!

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