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April 10, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

SOSF_AustinThe last time I was in Austin I was 21 years old or so and on a road trip from Columbia, MO to Albuquerque New Mexico.  We decided to go the long way and drive to Memphis and then down I-55 to New Orleans and then west to Dallas and Austin before making the final trip to New Mexico.

We slept in the car or on the floors of friends, both new and old, we drank too much, we frequently ran out of money, it was a blast.   But I remember Austin making a special impression on me. It was much like Columbia but a lot bigger and, so I thought, much cooler.  We were there for three days staying with a friend and his karate instructor, a Jewish Mexican guy, yes, that’s right, named Saul who smoked pot incessantly but was widely considered one of the best martial arts instructors in the city.  Interesting guy that Saul.

After the three days we were on our way but only made it as far as Odessa, TX before the car broke down.  You see, cars apparently need oil to run, especially in hot climates. It’s not like we didn’t know this in theory but… well we just didn’t think about it.  We burned out the engine and the car was going no place.  It was Friday night and so we had to stay in a hotel until Monday when we could sell the car for salvage and get bus tickets back home.  Those two nights in the hotel were pretty epic too but, another time.

So here I am twenty-one years later in Austin again and again find myself really loving it.  First of all the venue for Sound of Silent Film is also hosting the Texas Burlesque Festival which is kind of wonderful.  And then there’s just music everywhere you go here.  I’ve been here for four days and have not gone into any restaurant that didn’t have live music.  Incredible.  Viva Austin!  Can’t wait to come back next year!


April 8, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

ascentStill hard at work composing music inspired by the works of artist Sanya Glisic. This one has the rather provocative title The Ascent.  For each of these paintings I’ve kept a journal of my thoughts to try and sort out what the heck the work means to me and how the heck to represent it musically.  Here are the entries about The Ascent.

Initial thoughts upon seeing the art

But I love this one.  The imaginary city, distant metropolis like in my own imaginings. Makes me happy to see such a thing. I think of grounded music, majestic but mysterious that does slowly ascend but never transcends the initial feeling of mystery.  And the figures above the cosmic city, what to make of them?  Are they bizarre trapeze artists depending from lines with no apparent anchor?  Are they animal or mineral?  Sentient beings?  protecting the city? Facilitating its ascent?

New thoughts 4/2

I was thinking in bed this morning that you have to go down in order to go up and that perhaps the piece should start in the high registers for each of the instruments and then gradually work their way down and then start back up.  But looking at the art again I’m not sure this is quite the right idea.

The painting has a mountain city or palace or some kind of fantastical structure, or series of structures, on an island and then there is the silhouette of that too.  Then there are the strange seraphic creatures acting like censors above the city.  What are they doing?  The dotted lines look to me like ropes upon which they swing or not ropes exactly but some kind of gravitational bond that holds them in the air and allows them to swing over the city.

If you look carefully too you’ll see dotted lines emanating from one of the pointed structures on the right of the city.  There also is a fault or crack in the firmament to the right side of the bottom of the work.

There’s something vaguely, or maybe not so vaguely, reptilian about this painting.  What if the censor/seraph creatures are swinging wildly above the city like trapeze artists?

Ok, some actual music now.  The cello bows open fifths on open strings, G and D will work.  This throbs with submerged power and a sense of fateful portent.  Then the winds, what do winds do well?  They make these blendy beautiful ugly weird sounds well.  They can be cold, ice cold. I know the painting is full of vivid warm colors but the contrast between the cold winds and the throbbing cello, the powerful cello underneath with the cold interjections on top I think will be nice and will convey the sense of power but also desolation. The city appears to be empty after all.  Powerful desolation defines the opening of the piece.

Then after a minute or so of this the ascent will begin.

March 30, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

worryaboutI’m in the midst of writing music inspired by the incredible art work of Sanya Glisic. The first thing I did was start a journal of my thoughts on each of these works.  Here are my thoughts for this one titled “What We Worry About, What We Can’t Help”

How to depict this picture musically?

The sea of orange is the very first thing I see. I am lost in it, searching for a focal point.   Which is the oasis of flame.  Which is the focal point for the various figures apparently trying to move toward it.  Or many of them are trying to move toward it, not all of them.  Some are resting or taking a break or perhaps worshipping it.   It’s also a self-contained tableau, there are no waves outside of the central field of vision.  You know, it’s not an oasis, it’s a flame.  The figures are not human, not fully realized or recognizable as anything.  They are representations?  Parts of the soul yearning for the fire?

At any rate, yearning, sea of orange, focal point. how do you depict orange in music?  Should i worry about that?  I create a sense of infinite space with waves, a sense of recurring, predictable motion.  The figures want to go to the flame. In this moment the flame has always been there.

The piece of music begins with the arrival of the flame.  The figures would not be going toward it if it had not arrived relatively recently.  There is a great event, it is the arrival of the flame.  There is a kind of scattering that is caused by the flame, there is a sense of struggle to get to the flame, they do not reach it in the painting so they do not reach it in the piece.  THe piece does not fade out and away, it still struggles to reach the flame until the very end, but we do not know if they get there. It is outside of our knowledge.

What to make of the title?  We can’t help trying to reach the flame?  A spiritual goal?  We all want to have a spiritual goal and can’t help it?
What do we worry about?  Day to day things?  All of which seem to have been stripped away in this screenprint.

The piece opens with an eerie kind of sound but there is also a sense of motion right away in the cello.  The sax is in its lowest register, the flute is singing an eerie siren song.  The clarinet is bending through micro tones.  It’s an uncanny sound that we’re going for here, restless, irresistible.

There’s an ambiguity in the work too that I like and that I think is represented musically in the faster section.

The first section through the fast section should feel like you’re stuck in molasses, trying to reach the flame, the waves are there, the motion but it’s harder to get to than you might think.  The faster section is what we can’t help.  The worrying is the trying to reach the flame, the faster section, what we can’t help is perhaps being sucked into the flame.  What, then does the flame represent?  Something good?  purity?  Is it important that we reach the flame?  Is anything important?

March 22, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

sonya_zodiacI recently discovered the incredible art of Sanya Glisic because I’m part of called “Paintings Composed” pairing up musicians with visual artists.  Although not one of the works that I chose, the print here, “Zodiac” is a pretty representative sample of her work.

My friend Amos Gillespie’s quartet will be performing the music and Amos sent me the work of several artists to decide who I would set to music. I found Sanya and didn’t go any further.  Her work is vibrant, complex, visually stunning and the kind of art you could discuss with your smartest friend for hours. The first thing I did was keep a kind of journal about the my thoughts on the works.

The next three blog entries are from my journal about her work.

March 17, 2014
Posted by Seth Boustead

withoutabox_250_80For years as I’ve curated the Sound of Silent Film Festival, I’ve found films that were well-known and generally available on commercial DVD.  The idea of the festival was to pair music with film but because it was crucial to me that the music be an equal partner, I wanted the films to be silent.  But, I’m also such a modernist that I wasn’t interested in the idea of working with Golden era silent films so I decided that they had to be modern silent films.

Finding these suckers turned out to be harder than I thought it would be though.  I mean, I did have some success. I found early silent films by Martin Scorsese and Gus Van Sant, there are tons of silent animated shorts and of course there’s Guy Maddin who revels in the use of silence in his films.  But there was the whole issue of screening them without permission and especially screening them with new music without permission.  I’ll admit that I was always a bit uneasy about it.

So this year I decided to pony up the bucks and use Withoutabox, a huge international search firm for film festivals.  I specified that the films had to be short and silent or at least with no dialogue, they could come from any country in the world and they could be in any genre.  I received around 120 films in all and last night I watched about a quarter of them.

As usual with submissions there’s a lot of junk but I’ve found some real gems too.  Alex Italic’s dark comedy Blackout Roulette especially stands out. I think I’ll open the festival with it this year.  I also think I’ve found my new way for finding films. It’s so nice to be able to email the directors, to not worry about having rights to screen the films and, in many cases, to be creating music for the film for the first time.  We feel like a real film festival now!

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:



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