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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.

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!


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