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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!

September 25, 2013
Posted by Seth Boustead


I’ve had a long and ambivalent history with the word accessible.  When I finished grad school in 2002 and wanted to start some kind of organization that would, well normalize contemporary classical music I suppose is the best way to think of it, I called it Accessible Contemporary Music.

At the time I had started a program called Weekly Readings that ran for 8 or so years in which I and other musicians would play through and record a piece of music by a living composer every week and post it to our website.  My thinking was that we were making ourselves accessible to the composers and, through sharing music on the web, which was in its infancy at the time, accessible to new listeners as well.

I was not prepared for the absolute shit storm that followed.  I was accused of somehow betraying contemporary music, of “dumbing it down.” I was called names, sneered at and, it’s not an overstatement to say, in some corners even reviled.  What a reaction!  I admit that I was taken aback by it all.  I’m not an overly academic minded person and I didn’t realize that I was putting myself in the middle of a decades-old argument and, through the flagrant use of the word accessible, taking a stand that was seen as very aggressive.

Well we’re now called Access Contemporary Music and we finally made the change for many reasons:

1) We have long worked with the Chicago Architecture Foundation to put music in buildings around town and to people taking these tours “accessible” meant handicap accessible.  Getting yelled at by handicap people is not what I signed up for…

2) I taught string arranging at Vandercook College, a school for music educators, and learned that to educators “accessible” means easy to play.  But the music we perform is some of the hardest music there is so this is clearly a misnomer.

3) The very composers we were formed to serve were turned off by the name and assumed that it meant we were only performing music that was accessible to audiences or somehow easy to listen to, contained no sharp edges so to speak.  Again this was far from the truth. ACM has no real aesthetic, we exist to update the popular image of what classical music is in this day and age and as such we perform music in all genres.  As long as its composed, (I have another blog entry coming soon about what I consider the essential difference between classical music and pop music.

4) Access just sounded better, more active than the passive word accessible. Also we had just rebranded and spent a lot of money on our fancy new website and so did not want to have to start from scratch. One of our board members at the time suggested access, which summed up what we’re trying to do without all the negative connotations of accessible and we only had to lop off four letters from the logo.  Yay!

Over the last ten or so years I had grown to absolutely hate the word accessible.  I had sort of become known as Mr. Accessibility and it drove me crazy. If someone said the word accessible in my presence I would cover my ears and make a high pitched keening sound until they went away.  Well, perhaps I exaggerate but I didn’t like it!

But now I’ve made my peace with the word. I say it all the time on Relevant Tones without cringing and have even tried dropping it into conversations with my colleagues and the funny thing is even they don’t have the Pavlovian hate response to the word anymore either. It will never be a good word in artistic circles as most artists are trying to hard to break the mold and do something new and there’s the wonderful legacy of art that was hated at first but became treasured over time.

Still there’s been a real sea-change in regard to what I used to call “that word!”  You know the word, accessible.  It’s funny to see it in the mission statements of new music groups now.  There it is, that word!  It used to be the ultimate bad word.  Now it’s thrown around with barely a sneer. I wonder what means?

September 11, 2013
Posted by Seth Boustead

Screen shot 2013-09-11 at 3.56.24 PM

The national conference for classical radio station program directors, PRPD, is coming up quick and I’m proud to say that WFMT will be pushing the national syndication of Relevant Tones hard there.  We’ve created an ad, pictured above, that I think really says what we’re trying to do and we’re having a lot of conversations about exactly what the brand identity of the show is.  If you tell program directors that it’s a contemporary music show you’re going to pretty much turn them off immediately so instead we talk about the continuing tradition or presenting classical music as a living tradition.

I had a long conversation with our syndication team yesterday about the brand for the show and what their talking points should be, but by the end we decided that actually the ad says it all.  I like the statement that now is the most fascinating time for classical music.  It’s bold, it’s something that I believe with all my heart, and most importantly for an ad, it gets the attention.  But again, I do believe it.  As wonderful as the golden era of classical music was it was really a handful of men in five or six countries.  But these days we’re hearing from men and women in virtually every country on the planet

As we develop the brand identity for the show I believe that will always be the tagline.  Although it’s hard to read on the small image above, I also like the copy at the bottom, “with its informed but informal presentation…”  This has always been important to me: to know what you’re talking about and come across as knowledgable without sounding like everyone’s least favorite professor.  The things happening in classical music are exciting and they should sound that way!   The ad says too that we’re “making contemporary music accessible to diehard classical music fans while attracting new and younger listeners.” I think that’s true, that we’re walking that fine line of not alienating people in the know while bringing in new people and I hope that we’re getting mainstream classical music fans to give contemporary music another chance.

So we’re focussing on now but we’re relating it back to the classical music tradition as a whole, we’re working to define what the classical music tradition means in this day and age and we’re doing it all in a friendly and engaging manner.  Or at least we hope that we are.  In the next couple of weeks I’ll hear how our team did in Atlanta, hopefully they’ll come back and tell me that dozens of stations picked it up.  So far the news is good.  Before it’s even officially been offered we’ve been picked up in Atlanta, Houston, Austin, Oklahoma City, Kalamazoo and even by Radio New Zealand.  So we’re off and running and on our way to updating classical music radio and getting living composers the attention they deserve



August 8, 2013
Posted by Seth Boustead

As someone who is interested in bringing contemporary classical music to a more mainstream audience, I find myself thinking a lot about the role of music in the lives of most people and its role in society in general.  It seems to me that if I can understand what role music has in general for most people I can then understand what would make them want to come to a concert of new music.   There are several roles music plays in our lives:

1) nostalgia or to remind you of a specific time in your life
2) a nice beat to which you dance, go into a trance or row a slave galley or warship
3) something to sing along with while you clean the house or drive your car
4) ceremonial roles, music for funerals or weddings, bar mitzvahs, meditation, spirituality
5) story telling, like ballads, Johnny Cash, most folk music
6) underscoring a film, theatrical production or audio book
7) engaging with an artist who is creating interesting music with a view toward self expression or pushing the musical art forward for its own sake

There might be other roles for music in our lives but I think these are the main ones.  The vast majority of people stop listening to new music after college and then the only music they put on for themselves is the music of “their era” meaning when they were young. So the nostalgia role is the strongest by far for most people.  It affects them so powerfully on so many levels that it’s unlikely a new piece of music will ever have that same resonance for them which in turn makes it unlikely they’ll seek out new music, let alone music in an unfamiliar genre.

The only time they hear unfamiliar music and are ok with it would be in a club where everything musical has been stripped away but a strong beat that defies you not to dance to it and a rudimentary sort of development: faster or slower, drums stop and then kick in, etc.

This might seem like bad news at first for composers but I think that the more we know about how people interact with music the better off we are.  For example even someone who only likes a handful of songs and never goes to concerts may be deeply moved by a beautiful performance at a wedding or sports event.  Understanding what expectations the average person has for music helps us understand what might entice them into the concert hall and then, most importantly, what might open up their ears to adventurous new sounds.





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