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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.

December 16, 2013
Posted by Seth Boustead

After 21 years of teaching private piano and composition I will teach my last lessons this coming Saturday and it feels so strange. I’ve been slowly cutting down on the teaching for the last several years, at one point I had as many as 60 students, but discontinuing the last 10 or so has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

I truly enjoy teaching and fought hard to keep doing it over the last few years even as ACM was growing by leaps and bounds and I got a weekly radio show on WFMT and also worked hard to keep up with my own composing.  But the last several months have been a nightmare as I’ve had to sub out and cancel lessons, I forgot about students and left them sitting in the waiting room and, I have to admit, my mind simply has not been on teaching.

I find myself in the lesson thinking about a grant that’s due or getting an idea for a radio show or worrying about attendance at an upcoming concert and I can’t concentrate on the needs of the student.  My realization is that ACM hires very good teachers and most of them do not have a thousand other things on their mind so it’s best for the students, and for myself, if someone else takes these lessons over.

As hard as it is to tell everyone that I’m transitioning out though, it is very exciting to think about doing a radio show on contemporary music for stations around the world and to continue to grow ACM so that we can achieve our mission of changing the popular image of classical music in this day and age. 2014 will truly be a new year for me in many ways!


November 27, 2013
Posted by Seth Boustead

Time Drips has had kind of a long gestation period.  I had violist extraordinaire Michael Hall on my radio program Relevant Tones to talk about the Chen Yi viola concerto and after the taping we got to talking about music, philosophy, architecture and practically every other interesting thing under the sun we could think of and before I knew it I was telling him about this idea I had of a time cave or a place outside of linear time as we think we understand it.

In this cave, (I think of it as a cave most likely because of Plato’s famous cave in the Republic), there is no such thing as linear time, but in my imagination there is a substance that drips from the ceiling and each of these drips could be eons of time if it were uncompressed and put in a linear fashion as we’re used to experiencing it.

Of course when you’re talking about an infinite amount of time, which is essentially what each of these drips would contain if they could be expressed linearly, then there is no longer any sense of the passage of time.   The question arises how is anything even dripping from the ceiling as the motion of a drip would take place in linear time?

How can you even have something as finite as a cave without a linear passage of time in which it could have been created?  If there is no beginning and no end then can there be Platonian forms at all?  Or is everything that we perceive simply a matter of perception?  An attenuation of infinite space/time into a cave or a drip or a person.  All of reality is infinite and it’s only how you carve that up into objects, Plato’s forms, that they seem real.  But how do you carve up infinity?

Well, this is where my thinking was taking me. I was using the time cave as a means of thinking about how nonlinear time could possibly exist, or rather and perhaps more interestingly, since all things can be extrapolated to infinity, how you start with infinity and, through attenuation of parameters, get to something finite.  It doesn’t seem possible and is the point at which reason breaks down and we simply have to accept that it’s a mystery.

Musically I tried to express all of this with relatively simple passages, the viola “drips” with pizzicato passages in the opening and the piano doubles it rhythmically.  Then there are slow escalating passages that strive to reach a goal but then forget that there is a goal, or sink back into eternity.  More drips, more restless striving and then, and this exists in all of my pieces somewhere, there is the “event.”

There must have been a first event, what Aristotle would call the prime mover.  In this case it’s not a first event, but a flash of temper, almost anger. The intrusion of a radically different sensibility before the piece sinks back into eternity and concludes with a haunting ending.

I’m so happy that this work is finally getting performed in January.  Can’t wait to hear if these ideas work musically!

November 20, 2013
Posted by Seth Boustead

Ten x Ten Chicago composers

Although I am in Turkey and was unable to go to the concert, I have heard from numerous people that it was a huge success.  We had nearly 250 people there and the music and art pairings were so popular that I think this is something we’re fated to have to do again next year.  Which is fine by me!

Read this great review of the show on Hyperallergic

November 6, 2013
Posted by Seth Boustead

hagia_sophiaThat’s not the world’s best photo but it’s a picture of the famous Hagia Sophia church in Istanbul which is right by our hotel.  We landed yesterday and spent the day today checking out our neighborhood and going through the Hagia Sophia museum.

I first learned about this church in a class I took as an undergrad on Byzantine art and architecture and it has fascinated me ever since.  In fact all of my impressions of Istanbul were historic and of course that’s all here but the main impression I’m getting in the short time I’ve been here is actually how modern the city is.

For a place that has had human inhabitants since before the dawn of recorded history it’s in remarkably good shape.  It’s clean, the people are happy and friendly, it’s easy to get around, there’s almost no petty crime, the buildings are modern in style and it’s beautiful.  At times it’s hard to forget that literally every step you take is over ground containing thousands of years of history.

You can’t do anything in this town without thinking about the past and yet it doesn’t have a weightiness to it that you would associate with such an old place.  It’s also a bustling modern city of 14 million people, much as it has probably always been. Istanbul is a place that keeps up with the times.


October 30, 2013
Posted by Seth Boustead

Deep At Sea
This print is called Deep at Sea and it’s by the wonderful artist Renee Robbins who was my partner for the Ten x Ten project which will culminate in a final concert and gallery opening on November 16.

Ten x Ten was a collaboration with Spudnik Press, Homeroom and my company Access Contemporary Music to pair ten composers with ten visual artists to create new collaborative works.

We made an album with recordings of the music by ACM’s resident ensemble Palomar and the album also contains all ten of the corresponding prints in beautiful full color.  I couldn’t be happier with how the collaborations came together, I’m very proud of the work that Renee and I did on our piece and of all of the artists and composers involved.  Everyone really did collaborate in the fullest sense of the word and the results were absolutely unique.

You can get tickets for the concert here.
Read a preview of the event here
Listen to the music I wrote for Deep at Sea here

And lastly you can buy the album here!

October 23, 2013
Posted by Seth Boustead

Loop_synagogue_RattnerWhen I was a composition student at the University of Missouri in the early ’90’s I discovered a book of paintings in the library by Abraham Rattner and fell completely in love with his use of color, dense imagery and religious inspiration.  Then, after I moved to Chicago, I read Henry Miller’s The Air Conditioned Nightmare about a car trip he took across the United States in 1945 and who was his traveling partner but Abraham Ratter!

I was smitten.  When I made a CD of my original piano music in 1999 I used his painting Spirit in Flames as the cover art, without permission of course although in my defense I did search the Internet and could not find even an estate or someone from whom to get permission.  Here is the cover for that album.

I found the painting online but was never able to find that book that had first fired my interest so many years ago. I searched on Amazon, Ebay, half.com, you name it, but could not find a book of his paintings in print.  After a while I had kind of forgotten about him except for the rare times that I might see one of my CDs lying around.

But then came this year’s Open House Chicago and suddenly he came roaring back into my consciousness. Open House Chicago is put on by the Chicago Architecture Foundation and features 150 sites around town offering unprecedented access to the public over a two day period.  ACM has partnered with Open House since its inception to give composers the chance to write music inspired by some of the sites and then place musicians in each site to perform the music for the throngs of people who come through. It’s always a big hit and one of the funnest events I produce every year.

This year one of the venues we chose was the Loop Synagogue and, as it turns out, their congregation hall is dominated by a huge stained glass mosaic by none other than Abraham Rattner, (pictured above.)  As soon as I walked into the room I was stunned, not only by the beauty of his art but by the years of memories of looking at his art and thinking that he was by far my favorite artist even though he was so little known.  It was like Proust’s moment with the madeleine except it wasn’t taste that brought it back but vivid color combined with a deep religiosity.  It was an intense feeling and that was before the music began!

I still haven’t found a book of his paintings and I know that very little of his art exists in public collections but at least I now know that I have to travel no further than downtown Chicago anytime I wish to bask in the beauty of his work.  It’s amazing to me that I’ve lived here for 18 years and had no idea that one of his major works was right here.  Better late than never.  And that’s the beauty of Open House Chicago: you always discover beautiful new things in your own town.  I can’t wait to see what I discover next year!

October 6, 2013
Posted by Seth Boustead

1001_HechtI’ve spent most of my musical energies over the last several years engaged in producing concerts, so much so that I have completely neglected to professionally record any of my music or anyone else’s music for that matter.  Recordings just weren’t part of my, and hence ACM’s, focus.  Until recently that is.  I was asked to write music for Strawdog Theater’s production of Kill Shakespeare, a graphic novel that they were producing as a play for projections of the comic book panes with live voices, and I went into the studio with some friends to record the themes I had written.

I remember going home that night and listening to the tracks and thinking, “this is great!  How have I not discovered how much fun recording is before?”  And I’ve had the bug ever since.  The next recording project was ACM’s collaboration with Homeroom for the Ten x Ten project pairing ten visual artists with ten composers and now we’re finally recording 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago, a project that’s had a long gestation period.

1,001 Afternoons in Chicago is a famous book by Ben Hecht, a journalist in pre-prohibition Chicago who went on to become one of the most famous screenwriters in Hollywood history. The book is a collection of short stories that he wrote, to be published each weekday for one year, in the Daily News.  They consist of gritty, somewhat pessimistic but often humorous observations of city life told from the perspective of a world weary journalist who is trying to put them all together to form some kind of sweeping conclusion about humanity but of course he’s never able to boil people down the way he wants to.

My friend and fellow composer Amos Gillespie and I were approached years ago by a choreographer to write music inspired by the stories for dancers and it was a great experience getting to know Hecht and working with the dance company. But I always thought we could have gone further with the project than we did. I didn’t think about it again until last year when I was trying to think of a new project that would involve three of my biggest interests: music, literature and radio and I decided that revisiting the 1,001 stories but this time as a radio play for live music and voices would be the way to go.

I approached Strawdog Theater and they were very interested and Mike Daily did a wonderful job of adapting the stories and Anderson Lawfer’s direction brought them to life.  We had a huge turnout for the live concert which we said was really just the kickoff of a year-long, or more, project.  Now we’re working on the commercial CD and also a film version, hoping to release them both at the same time as one package and then put up a run of live shows at Strawdog.

Next week is the first recording session for the new album. I can’t wait to report how it goes!



September 30, 2013
Posted by Seth Boustead


I just found out that I was accepted into the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, the non-profit version, which I know is a big honor as it’s such a competitive program, but I can’t help but feel a kind of ambivalence about it, almost a reluctance, no definitely a reluctance, to tell my musical colleagues and fellow lefty liberals  that I’ll be doing this.

When I taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music there were several other teachers who had this curious idea that if they learned to read music it would somehow negatively affect their ability to play by ear. I always laughed at that superstition but now I find myself beset by an equally ridiculous superstition: that if I learn more about the business side of running a non-profit it will somehow detract from my creative abilities.

I know this isn’t true, there are countless people who have shown remarkable abilities in creative endeavors and also in more grounded real-world pursuits, (Charles Ives of course comes immediately to mind) but I’m not the only person who thinks this way.   It seems to me that most artists just want to pursue their art and hope to find someone who can take care of the promotion, branding, distribution, and yes budget balancing.

As someone whose had to do all of that himself, and hasn’t always been that good at it, (it turns out that there’s more to those things than I have ever given anyone credit for) I now know that not only will this not detract from my art but in some ways it is an intrinsic part of creating art.

For example I’ve been told ever since I started ACM that I have to be careful because I will run the risk of getting to be better known for ACM than as a composer.  And now of course with Relevant Tones becoming an internationally syndicated radio show that risk is greater than ever.  But here’s the thing. I enjoy running ACM, budgets and all, and I very much enjoy making a weekly radio show about the music I love and I consider both things part of my overall contributions to the world which I call art and which the music I have written and performed is also part of.

Talking to my friend Ben Taylor the other day who is a bass player in a very successful rock band but also does a lot of their management and has come to the guilty realization that he, like me, likes the business side of things too, I said that ignoring my ability to run ACM would be like cutting off one of my arms. And I like  both of my arms.

I want to make great music but proliferating ACM storefronts music schools, planning concerts and new music festivals, Sound of Silent Film, our High School Workshop, all of the incredible things we do every day, not to mention Relevant Tones.  How could I give that up?

If it means that there will be less music written by the time I’ve died then so be it.  The music I’m writing, as good as I think it is, is only part of what I hope to accomplish on this planet.  It’s taken me 20 or so years to just embrace the fact that I like the planning side of things, what artists generally refer to as “business,” and that taking something from the idea stage to real life is deeply satisfying for me, whether that’s a piece of music or a new storefront music school or making flow charts to determine how ACM is different from our competitors.

I spent a lot of time in music school and worked very hard to master my craft and I will always write music, don’t really have a choice there.  I know I’m entering a new phase of my life by accepting this opportunity but I no longer believe that it will “take over my brain” or make me evil. I believe that it will help me learn to be more effective and to get me that much closer to realizing my goal of creating a more musically literate society.

Of course that could just be the new evil side of me talking.  Time will tell!

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