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March 10, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

Tomorrow night is the culmination of ACM’s Composer Alive: Brazil project.  It’s hard to believe that we’ve been doing this project since 2006 when we commissioned a piece from Beijing composer Xiaogang Ye.  Every year since we’ve worked with a composer in a different country, except for 2013 when we took a break from the international idea and worked with NYC composer and sound artist Ben Vida.

The idea has always been that the composer writes the new piece in installments and sends them to us and we record each one in front of a live audience. In the past this was an easy thing to do: we would give the open rehearsal/recording sessions in city venues like the Chicago Cultural Center but there have been a lot of changes with the city and this is harder to do now.

So this year we rethought the project somewhat and snuck the installment recordings onto our regular concert season. It was fun to unveil the new piece a couple of minutes at a time and I do think that it built a lot of interest for tomorrow’s concert.  This year we worked with a composer in Sao Paolo named Alexandre Lunsqui and he wrote a wonderful new piece called Toy.

Alex got the idea after watching his nephew play with a toy and he realized that what a child will do with a toy is completely unpredictable, at least to an adult.  He had the idea to write a piece in which the ensemble is his toy.  He could play a game with it or just throw it against the wall.  The resulting piece shows this with extreme gestures, complex but fun rhythms and a sense of never knowing what will come next.

Tomorrow is the World Premiere of the new piece on ACM’s fourth concert of the season and I’m very excited for it.  As per our custom we brought the composer to Chicago to be present so I met Alex last night, had dinner with him and watched him coach the ensemble on his piece.  He’s a great guy and perfect for this project in which we really try to demystify the creative process and let an audience hear the installments, from the first draft, through the rewrites, to the finished piece.

I’ll post video of the concert as soon as I get it!

March 3, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

This Friday and Saturday I’ll team up with cellist David Keller to play two concerts of music for kids at the Chicago Cultural Center and the Garfield Park Conservatory and I’m really excited about it.  The series is described by the city as “Chicago’s best music, dance and theater in a kid-friendly setting. A free series of cutting-edge performances, Juicebox is geared to toddlers but is engaging for the whole family.”

I think they’ve toned down the cutting-edge part of it a bit but it’s still pretty cool.  When I was first approached about it a year ago I was told that it was a series of experimental and improvisational music for kids.  The idea was that they don’t have any preset notions of what sounds good and what doesn’t sound good and so would be open to any kind of music if it were presented in a fun setting.

But as I was told this time, the kids definitely respond better to “rhythmic” music.  So perhaps they don’t care about tonal versus non tonal but, like most people on the planet, they want a good beat.  So, I’ve changed what I was planning to do somewhat.  I still think it will be fun to play inside the piano and to invite them up to look inside and I’m still going to play some fairly “out there” selections but we’ll also do kid-friendly classics like The Swan by Saint-Saens and some of the Mendelssohn Songs Without Words.

I love the idea of having the kids tell us what they think the songs would be about, or what the words might be if there were words. Then we’ll play our original music of course, a couple of blues and jazz numbers and maybe an improvisation or two.  It should be fun!

February 24, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

I’ve been told numerous times over the last fifteen years or so that I spend too much time promoting the music of other composers and building ACM and not enough time writing music and getting it performed, and perhaps that is true.  But for whatever reason I’ve always felt highly compelled to continue doing all of these things even though opening storefront music schools, planning concerts, creating a global composer membership program and hosting a weekly radio show, among other things, on the surface has nothing to do with the act of ordering sounds.

I’ve always wondered about this compulsion in myself.  In fact there have been times when I’ve been alarmed at how satisfying it is for me to produce an event like Open House Chicago or Sound of Silent Film Festival and I worry that if I’m artistically satisfied from producing these events, that don’t necessarily include my music, then I won’t have the need to create music.  And I can’t imagine my life without creating music.

But as I was in the Presidential Palace in Mexico City yesterday looking at that incredible mural by Diego Rivera and hearing a tour guide – I’m a big fan of glomming onto other people’s tours – talk about how to the Mexican people Diego Rivera is an important artist for his social message as much as for his skills as a painter, it occurred to me that I attach the same kind of importance to social message that he did but have always struggled to know how to express that message in music.

For me the message is not about injustice or politics or anything like it was for Diego Rivera, I’m not exactly going to sit around and write revolution songs.  For me the message is simply that music, and art in general for that matter, is important.  I don’t feel that I can simply write music and get it performed for small audiences of new music enthusiasts and be happy with that.  That’s partly my ego, wanting to appeal to a larger audience, but it’s mostly a deeply held conviction that has not gone away lo these fifteen years or more, that if we can train people in how to experience music, it will enrich their lives and nourish their souls. I’ve seen it firsthand too many times over the years to not believe that it’s true.

This means that I’m not quite the composer I dreamed I would be when I was in my twenties, gadding about from performance to performance, giving lectures and writing music in fevered bursts of inspiration.  I do write music in fevered bursts of inspiration but I also spend a lot of time carefully planning projects that will bring the music I love to more people, and then bringing those projects to life.  To me that’s no different than imagining a piece of music, writing it down and then bringing it to life in a performance setting.

As I stared at the mural, oblivious to passing time, it struck me that everything is ok.  I’m doing exactly what I should be doing.  I’ll never stop writing music, even if the other activities mean that I won’t write as much and it will take longer for it to get known, but I felt a profound confidence come over me that everything I’m doing is part of who I am as an artist.

I’ve been thinking that ACM and Relevant Tones were separate from writing music but they’re not.  For me, everything I’m doing is part of my life as an artist. Whether it’s music, an event, a radio show, a global network, what have you, my art is bringing what I see and hear to life and I don’t have to search for a social message. It’s already there.


February 17, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

Before coming to Mexico City this time, the only thing I knew about Lucha Libre was the mediocre Jack Black movie where he goes from a monk to a Mexican fighter.  But Jesse, the producer of Relevant Tones, wanted to go and so did several people staying with me here in the Spanish school so… why fight it?

I had kind of a bad attitude going in, I was thinking it would be really cheesy and predictable and not a lot of fun but it was actually a blast.  They’ve been doing this for a long time, much longer than American wrestling, and they really know what they’re doing.  Most of the time I was trying to shut my brain up and just enjoy the show but, being who I am, I couldn’t help but relate it back to music and radio once in a while.

You see, the dramatic pacing of each match is perfect.  Some of the moves are planned and some of it is random but they always know how to give the crowd a good time and I was thinking that if we can transfer that to every radio show we do, or if as a composer I can translate that to every piece I write, the same success can be had.

I had a composition teacher who talked a lot about the “dramatic arc” of a piece of music. She would make a tension graph as she called it, where the X axis was time and the Y axis was intensity and then we’d all plot out our pieces on the graph.  If the most intense moment was two minutes into the piece and then you had ten minutes of quiet, perhaps your tension graph needed a little work, perhaps it would not be an interesting piece.

And that’s what these spandex-clad wrestlers are so adept at.  There was never a climactic moment that couldn’t somehow be topped and there were a myriad ways of topping it.  A guy in a pin would miraculously turn the tables on the other guy, more fighters would appear out of nowhere, they’d obey the ref or disobey him as needed to create tension, they would fight outside the ring, they’d form alliances and betray each other, it was incredible.

My favorite moment was in a tag-team match and one of the guys was getting pummeled.  His partner was pleading with the ref to let him go in and help but the ref would not allow it. This was all done with oversized gestures of course, but it worked perfectly. The crowd was on its feet imploring the ref to let the guy help his friend but no, he couldn’t help and the match ended in their defeat.  The crowd was enraged but they were also thoroughly engaged.

Now we can’t resort to things like this in classical music and radio needless to say but we can use the same types of techniques to ratchet up the tension when we need to.  In music it’s not just getting louder or adding more instruments.  A skilled composer can create a claustrophobic feeling of great tension through repeated pitches, frustrated resolutions, unresolved suspensions, etc.  In radio it’s all done with modulation of the voice.

Either way it’s something I want to make sure I’m thinking about and I hope that someday I can master the art of creating and dispelling tension as adeptly as the Lucha Libre wrestlers.  Of course maybe we could take another page from their book and try having huge cups of cheap beer too.  Couldn’t hurt!

February 10, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

Tomorrow I leave for Mexico City for 15 days!  The plan is to study Spanish at the Frida school for four hours a day and then work on ACM in the afternoons and make two shows for Relevant Tones about the contemporary music scene there.  I’m also going to get some composing done and hopefully do some tourist things as well so it should be a busy trip!  I’ve been to Mexico City twice before, once for a vacation with my wife Maria and once in 2009 with ACM when we were working with stellar composer Gabriela Ortiz.  Gaby wrote a new piece for us called De Animos y Quebrantos and it has been one of the most popular of our Composer Alive commissions.

We recorded the fourth installment of the piece under her supervision at UNAM, I gave a presentation to her composition seminar and we met a ton of great composers and musicians.  I’ve always remembered what a vibrant scene it was and so, now that Relevant Tones has syndicated internationally and we’re looking for more global content, I remembered Mexico City and wanted to go back.   We have interviews set up so far with Gaby, her husband Alejandro Escuer who is the flutist and founding member of the Onix Ensemble and with legendary composer Mario Lavista.

I know we’ll meet a lot of other great composers and performers too.  Should be a great two shows, look for them some time in May 2014.  Quick funny Mexico story.  That picture above is an aerial shot of the Zocalo, the big central plaza in Mexico City.  I was here when Michael Jackson died and just happened to be at the Zocalo during the world’s largest Thriller performance in his honor.  There were hundreds of thousands of people dressed up dancing to the song and they broke the world record for the biggest public Thriller performance ever.  Here’s a picture:


February 3, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

There I am with my class on the final day of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program for non-profits.  I have a blog entry from the beginning of the class in which I express my sort of reluctance to take it, or fear that learning all of this business stuff will somehow drain me of artistic integrity and turn me into a Michael J. Fox-style young republican.  But I’m proud to say that that didn’t happen!  I’m more of a Dick Cheney republican…

I kid of course.  I actually thought the program was really excellent and learned a lot. None of those people in the photo above really has much in common except that we all run non-profits and care very deeply about our missions, but at the end of the six months I felt like we were a family of sorts.

So, meeting non-profit leaders in other fields was definitely a great thing but the curriculum itself is really quite good too.  It’s like a sped up MBA program so every class is a different aspect of running a business. From hiring and firing to accounting to finding your market gap and much more.

What I got out of it is a 55 page strategy document that I made for ACM that charts our course for the next 10 years. It’s a living document of course, it will change and grow as we do but for the first time I feel confident that the organization has a clear plan, that the plan is achievable and that we can make a tremendous impact, not just in the contemporary music community but in the world.  I’m excited to put the plan into effect.

January 27, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

I can’t tell you how excited I am about the Sound of Silent Film Festival this year!  More than I have been in many years.  I had the idea for the festival way back in 2005 when ACM was performing at the Green Mill.  I had met a magician at a bar after a concert – oh the life I lead! – and I thought it would be fun to have him perform sleight of hand during intermission while I improvised music on the piano.  Because sight lines are difficult at the Mill we had a video camera trained on his hands and projected the image to a screen on the wall.

The whole thing was a huge hit and it really got me thinking about what more I could do with visual imagery and music.  I decided I wanted to work with film but I wanted the music to be of equal importance so I thought silent film would be the way to go but I’m a staunch modernist and wasn’t about to work with golden era films that have been scored a thousand times so I decided to work with modern silent films.

Of course that was the easy part. Finding these modern silent films was the hard part. But I persevered and found some online, including a wonderful film by Guy Maddin that I wound up scoring called the Heart of the World.  The most interesting way I found a film was talking to someone at an outdoor movie showing and telling him I was looking for modern silent films and he says “gee, that’s funny, the guy across the hall from me is making a modern silent film.”  That guy across the hall turned out to be Dave Less whose film Manos de la Muerte I wound up scoring and with whom I’ve now made one film and am in the process of making another.

The event was a huge success from the beginning and over the last nine years it’s sold out nearly every year.  But it has never been easy finding the films and we’ve often used famous films by directors like Martin Scorsese and Gus Van Sant and I’ve had the nagging sensation that sooner or later I’d get in trouble for this.  So this year I decided to pay for an international film search company called Without a Box and it really paid off!

We received 110 films in total and have narrowed that down to 9 films that will be screened with new scores by ACM’s composer members, performed live, on April 29th.   I’m also excited this year because we’re moving it to the big time: the Music Box Theater, definitely one of the premiere places for film screenings in Chicago.  The films range from funny to darkly funny to poignant and somewhat experimental.  In many ways we’re back to our roots this year, short films, great live music, a full bar and a good time had by all.

See the complete lineup and get tickets here!

January 20, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

You may remember that I’ve been working in collaboration with several other people to bring an idea I had to turn six stories from Ben Hecht’s great short story collection 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago into a radio play for live music and voices.  We premiered the piece way back in May of last year, almost a year ago now, and it was a big hit.  So we’re working not just on a commercial recording but also a film version of four of the stories.

The recording will be done by May, about a year after the original premiere. Not surprisingly the film will take longer as it’s a big undertaking.  However I’m thrilled to announce that we have a website up for the film version and there are a couple of clips.  We have a heavy shooting schedule in March and hope to be done with all of the shooting by summer so we can spend the dog days editing and have it ready for release in the fall.

Watch this clip of myself, Anderson Lawfer and Mike Daily from Strawdog Theater talking about the project and visit the website for more!

January 13, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

I was talking with some friends about the upcoming Super Bowl match, which I’m not particularly excited about, and we were talking about the half time show and I said, “I think they should perform a full Greek tragedy for the half time show.  Euripides’ Medea for example would make for great viewing.”   The game stops, everyone gets their beer refilled, grabs a hotdog and then buckles in for two hours of show stopping, poison your kids to spite your husband style ancient Greek tragedy, complete with the Greek chorus of course.

We all had a laugh at the thought and the conversation turned to other things but I was thinking of Greek tragedy the next day and, although the super bowl may never be the appropriate place for it, I was thinking of resurrecting the idea.  Early Greek tragedy was commissioned for an annual religious festival in honor of the god Dionysus and the plays contemplated the “big themes” of humanity.  Honor, love, death, fate, free-will, etc.

Greek_tragedyI’ve been thinking for a long time that I’m not totally satisfied just producing concerts of music. I’ve been looking for something that would be more far-reaching and intellectually satisfying and the idea of a kind of Greek festival really appeals to me.  Assuming there were money for something like this, I’d commission artists, playwrights, choreographers and musicians to make works of art that are updates on the questions asked by the famous playwrights of old.

It would be a five day event and, though it would not commence with the sacrifice of a bull as the Greek festival did, I’m sure we could find something equally fun to kick it off.  People would be entertained but they would also be challenged to think about what they saw and heard.  In ancient Greece the tragic conflict is often between hubris or rash behavior and the order laid down to man by the gods, or it is a prophecy that foretells some horrible thing that the participants cannot escape.

But always it is more than the sum of its parts.  A Greek tragedy is never about what it’s about, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, but is instead meant to provoke questions. Do we have free will? Is there a natural order or behavior that man must comply with or risk punishment?  If not from the gods then from other humans.  These are the questions that my quasi-Greek festival will explore.  Once I get the funding and get it up and running of course.  I’ll put it on the to do list and we’ll see when it happens…

December 23, 2013
Posted by Seth Boustead

220px-John_Cage_portraitI had a composer on Relevant Tones not too long ago, near the hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Cage and in response to the first question I asked him about his music he replied, “I’m really interested in banging.”  Somehow I managed not to laugh and got through the interview and his music did bear him out on this, meaning there was lots of banging…  Later Jesse and the interns and I would joke that the Relevant Tones sign-off could be, “thanks for listening and keep on banging.”

But one interesting thing that came out of the show was that I was reading John Cage’s wikipedia page which I had never read before and there were several things that struck me. I knew he had studied with Schoenberg of course and knew they had something of a strained, one-sided relationship, but I had not heard this anecdote before from Cage’s lecture indeterminacy.

“‘After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, ‘In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.’ I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, ‘In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.'”

I really love that.  We think of Cage as the radical and of course in the traditional sense he did not necessarily have the most refined compositional chops but he always worked hard, he took his craft seriously, even though of course he often displayed a wonderful sense of humor, and even in his later years he composed four hours a day religiously, mainly out of a sense of keeping his early promise to Schoenberg.  He could have given up on music after hearing those words from a man he idolized but he didn’t and I think the world is better off for it.

Thanks for listening and keep on banging.  Or, in Cage’s case, beating.

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