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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.




March 10, 2011
Posted by Seth Boustead

At a recent panel presentation attended by numerous people in Chicago’s music community¸ I listened intently as the panelists discussed the future of classical music. The conversation inevitably featured a lot of hand wringing and dire predictions.

It seems that everyone is worried about how to attract younger audience members¸ about getting larger audiences in general¸ and even about the continued relevance of classical music organizations.

As I listened to this¸ I couldn’t help but think how removed I am from these concerns. As the director of Access Contemporary Music¸ an organization dedicated to promoting the music of living composers¸ I realized that¸ while we in the contemporary music community certainly have our challenges¸ attracting young people is not one of them.

I never hear any of my colleagues complain about audience size¸ and I certainly never hear anyone wishing that they could appeal to younger audiences. If anything¸ we have the opposite problem! We could really use more older people with disposable income and a history of philanthropic giving in our audiences.

At one of our recent concerts I spoke with a person who works at a funding organization in town and was dismayed to hear him say that young audience members are the “holy grail” for any arts organization. I was surprised how off the mark this was for our organization and that someone who should be “in the know” doesn’t realize that there are different kinds of classical music organizations¸ with very different challenges.

We can’t get older people to come to our concerts because many of them are old enough to have had bad experiences with contemporary music. They’ve seen the self–indulgent performers dressed all in black who don’t communicate anything¸ who come on stage and bloop¸ bleep and squawk and then pretentiously walk off.

I’m old enough to have caught the tail end of this performance practice and am truly happy that it is rarely seen in contemporary music circles any more. But the damage has been done¸ and the “holy grail” for us is now the silver–haired couple willing to listen to a performance of music by a composer impolite enough to be still alive or only recently dead.

It seems silly to me that the classical world has created a culture that glorifies a select group of works¸ all over a hundred years old¸ and then worries about the future of their rarified form of ancestor worship. It’s as if a museum stated that there would be no additional acquisitions of art¸ no new shows or exhibits¸ but only a series of renowned scholars coming to the museum to interpret and expound upon the old art that the museum itself has proclaimed a masterpiece.

It is to me a bitter irony that most of the time when people talk about the future of classical music they are actually talking about future performances of music from the past¸ despite the fact that there are tens of thousands of composers in the world writing music and thereby extending the tradition and creating an actual future for it.

As a composer and as the director of a contemporary music organization¸ it has always been my fond hope that one day there will be no need for organizations that specialize in the performance of contemporary music. There will just be ensembles large and small performing music from every part of the living¸ evolving compositional spectrum.

Judging by what I’ve been hearing lately–and who I’ve been seeing at the performances of organizations like ours–it seems likely that more up-to-date programming might just help classical organizations find their holy grail.

August 23, 2010
Posted by Seth Boustead

I am the director of an organization called Accessible Contemporary Music that exists to promote the music of contemporary composers through, among other things, live performances each year in several different venues around town. As such I am always working to expand and diversify the audience for our concerts and to introduce new people to contemporary Classical music. In my mind there is an ideal but highly elusive group of people I am especially interested in reaching that I think of as FINDs, short for Friendly, Intelligent, Neglected and Diverse.

FINDS are generally educated, curious, open to new experiences and are interested in the arts but don’t necessarily interact with them on a regular basis. Because they don’t regularly attend plays or go to concerts or museums, FINDs can be hard to reach in the traditional way, but they make perfect audience members because when they do come out they are enthusiastic and happy, even grateful, to have been exposed to a new experience. And if you can get them out the first time, they are likely to return.

But finding them is difficult. They are like skittish animals on a nature show. There is no one habitat in which they can be found, no one hobby or defining characteristic pinpointing them. However, I recently encountered a whole herd of FINDs at once and it got me thinking.

My wife is a designer of fashionable handbags for women who bike and as such has become very active in the biking community. When she was invited to go on a “cocktail bike ride” and asked me to come, it sounded like a lot of fun.

The idea was that we would dress sharp from the waist up but wear practical clothing that allowed for safe and comfortable biking from the waist down. We would bike to four tony restaurants or bars, have a drink at each and then hopefully not crash on the way home.

We showed up to the first place a little late and sat at a table with three other people. We ordered a light dinner and drinks and started talking. We were sitting with a graphic designer, a lawyer and a Columbia College professor. As I talked to them and told them about ACM it became clear to me that these people were FINDs. They did not know much about contemporary Classical music but were very interested when I talked about it. They had been to the Modern Wing and a play here and there but did not regularly attend arts events.

Everyone I met that night was the same way. Without exception they were intelligent, interested in the arts and open to new experiences but completely under-utilized. I exchanged cards with everyone I talked to and several of them joined ACM’s email list. I have seen three of the people I met that night at our concerts and they were thrilled to have been turned on to something they didn’t know about before. Each of them has brought someone else and has told me that they now forward our email newsletters to their circle of friends.

I have found that promoting our live events face to face in social situations is an effective and lasting way to create a connection with this type of under-utilized audience member who would never have heard about the organization otherwise.

Since that night I have encountered FINDs in wine tastings, book clubs and in my Spanish class. I joined the Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce and met them at our community events. I have seen them taking guitar classes at the Old Town School. There is a lecture series at a bar called the Map Room that is especially popular with FINDs.

The truth is that FINDs are everywhere but they have to be engaged on their own territory. They don’t respond to mass mailings or impersonal marketing techniques. Friends and socializing are important to them and they want to feel they’re part of a community. It’s a lot of work to go to these events after business hours but I have found that it’s worth it. FINDs are loyal, curious, often connected to large networks and they have been mostly overlooked by arts groups. They are the audience we as arts promoters most need to tap into.

Written for the Wallace Foundation Audience Engagement Blog

May 6, 2010
Posted by Seth Boustead

First published May 6, 2010 in the web magazine “New Music Box”

Last Monday was the annual membership meeting for the American Music Center and, as I have done three out of the last four years, I flew to New York City from Chicago to be there. I’ve gone out of my way to be at these meetings because I believe in the AMC and like to know what’s going on, but also because I like going to New York and because spending lots of money on really small hotel rooms makes me happy.

The meeting this year was a great opportunity to meet new people, hear musical performances, support the award winners, and catch up with old friends, both at the meeting and, as per a long-standing tradition, after the meeting at a nearby Irish pub called the Half King.

The Half King is a bustling pub on West 23rd Street filled with people drinking, talking, eating and, as a rule, listening to rock music. Or, at least there is always rock music on in the background. I know that it’s impossible for me to go anywhere and not notice the music that’s playing, but I’ve always suspected that this is not true for most people and, at the Half King, I had a chance to see that for myself.

About halfway into the night my friend Ewelina noticed that I had a CD and asked me what it was. I told her that I had gotten it from a composer at the meeting and that it consisted of several pieces for orchestra and Chinese traditional instruments like the erhu and pipa. Ewelina then said that she would buy my dinner and drinks if I could convince the bar to play the CD and let the piece run for 13 minutes.

I couldn’t say no to that. I didn’t think it would actually happen but it sounded like too much fun to turn down, especially as I had not heard any of the music before and so had no idea what to expect.

I began my crusade by getting our waiter on our side. He seemed to think this a welcome departure from the normal Monday night rush hour and agreed to help immediately. He and I approached the bartender and asked him if we could play the CD for 13 minutes.

The bartender was a surly little dude who asked me what the music was. “It’s contemporary classical orchestral music by a Chinese composer,” I replied innocently. “We only want to play it for 13 minutes. Look at these drunk people! They won’t even notice.”

Unfortunately he disagreed and said he wouldn’t play the CD because he thought people would flee the bar in droves. Arg. I do like free drinks though, so I was not about to be deterred so quicky. I decided next to talk to the bar patrons themselves and get them on my side. I approached a large group of people standing at the bar and asked if they liked the music that was playing. They looked at me like I had asked if they had met the alien perched on the bar.

“The music? Yeah, I guess. It’s fine.” “Are you familiar with contemporary Chinese classical music? It often blends elements of the western classical music tradition with their own storied tradition in fascinating ways,” I said. This didn’t go over so well so I changed tactics again. “I want you to tell the bartender to play this CD and let it play for precisely 13 minutes.” This they agreed to readily. I’m not really sure why, but they did.

Having now secured the support of nearly half the people standing at the bar, I went back to Surly and promised him that the patrons would not leave. “They won’t even notice,” I insisted. He looked at me, he looked at the waiter, he looked at the drunken mob in front of him.

Everyone wanted to hear the CD. He caved and put it in. “If I personally hate this music, it’s coming right the f**k out,” he warned me. “I would expect nothing less, my good man,” I replied. I returned to the table and told the tale of my success. Ewelina reminded me that 13 minutes was a long time…

The CD started and for literally the first full minute we couldn’t hear a thing. It was a quiet beginning and the bar was loud. Fortunately Surly got busy and seemed to forget about the whole thing and no one else noticed that there was no music on.

Then suddenly the music swelled. Loud percussion and strings came in with occasional puncuations in the chimes. I immediately got nervous and looked around the bar. “This is not normal Irish pub music,” I kept thinking to myself. Nobody seemed to notice except the drunk people I had originally talked to. They were now openly mocking me. Again though, the bartender was too busy to notice and the CD played on.

4 minutes. It got quiet again and we couldn’t hear anything for another minute or so. No one noticed.

6 minutes. Loud percussion now with a distinctly Chinese traditional sound to it, Again I got nervous and looked around. Again no one noticed. Even the bartender seemed resigned at this point.

8 minutes. Hard to hear the music again. Lots of chimes. The drunks were not mocking me anymore, they seemed to have forgotten everything and gone back to their conversations.

10 minutes. More drums, more chimes, high string melodies that were unfortunately hard to make out.

11 minutes. The bartender walked over to the stereo. I immediately jumped up and ran over to him. “Just two more minutes!” I beseeched him to let it play. “Ok, but this s**t is seriously rubbing me the wrong way,” he replied.

12 minutes. Pretty much nothing but silence at this point with an occasional chime. No one noticed.

13 minutes. The dude must have had a stopwatch because he seriously went and cut it off at exactly the 13 minute mark. Rock music started to play again. No one looked up, no one commented, no one noticed.

Ewelina lived up to her end of the bargain and bought my drinks and dinner, but the whole experience was a bit strange. Somehow it didn’t exactly feel like a victory for contemporary classical music. Or for music of any kind for that matter.

October 20, 2009
Posted by Seth Boustead

First published October 20, 2009 in the web magazine “New Music Box”

I’ve been going through a bit of a crisis lately which I hope will pass. The crisis has to do with composing and specifically why I compose music. It’s not writer’s block. I have as many ideas as I’ve ever had, although time in which to notate them is always short. No, it’s not writer’s block but a sense of ennui. I keep asking myself: “Why am I writing concert music in this day and age? Is it relevant? Does it have a place in the world at large?” I didn’t always worry about things like this…

When I was young and first knew I would spend my life as a composer, I had the idea that fame and fortune awaited me. I could picture myself strutting to the premiere of my new mixed ensemble piece, crowds gathering, tough bodyguards ushering me into the concert hall while a string quartet followed me playing the theme from Shaft (my arrangement, of course).

I had it all worked out: I would move to a big city (I was born in a place where you see shotguns in the backs of trucks and where people have kids when they’re fifteen), get a menial job, write music at night, arrange my own performances and the rest would take care of itself. It seemed so simple. I mean, who doesn’t love concert music? Who doesn’t feel a thrill when they get to hear a new World Premiere? Who doesn’t wait with bated breath for the new John Adams opera, or remember the first time they heard Kronos Quartet do Black Angels live?

A lot of people, apparently.

I guess I’m naive, but this has always been a shock to me. I’m still surprised when I go to parties and tell people that I’m a composer and they look at me like I climbed out of a time machine. I still don’t understand why I have to spend so much time telling them that it’s 2009 and why would my music sound like Mozart’s? Any more than, say, the novelist Jonathan Lethem would write like Balzac.

I mean, people still make violins, cellos, and other acoustic instruments, so it makes sense that people would still write for them. Right? And it makes sense that a 21st-century American composer would have different sounds in his ear than say an 18th-century Austrian composer. And yet… And yet, when they hear the word composer it’s as if they expect me to wear a wig, drink absinthe, and write with a quill pen. Weird.

It was around then that I started to envision another version of the future, this one slightly less self-centered. I imagined that people would actually know about contemporary music, would have heard of the major composers of the last century, and would know what I was talking about when I told them what I do. I imagined a community of people going to contemporary concerts, listening to contemporary music, debating passionately about new pieces and composers.

I imagined these people becoming more interested in contemporary music and attending more concerts. I imagined them then taking an interest in the music of the past and taking music appreciation classes and attending symphony concerts. I imagined a renewed burst of enthusiasm for the art form of music composition, contemporary and throughout the ages.

I imagined that diehard Classical fans would not turn their noses up at the fact that an orchestra had the gall to program a contemporary piece, but would, instead, work to understand it on its own terms and not compare it to their favorite 19th-century warhorse.

This vision of the future has never left me and, crazily enough, it’s now almost stronger than the other vision. The more I talk to people who read modern fiction, attend new plays, and see modern dance performances, the more frustrated I am that they don’t know about contemporary concert music. Over the years this frustration built until I felt that I had to put my money where my mouth was and do something about it.

And so I started Accessible Contemporary Music. I did it to bring a change into the world: to create an environment in which contemporary music was better known and appreciated, to create resources for composers, especially those without resources, and to educate people so that they can step into a concert hall without fear of the unknown.

I got lucky and quickly found like-minded musicians willing to play for peanuts and the occasional macadamia nut. I was also smart enough to ask for advice from anyone and everyone in the arts community who would have lunch with me, so I was able to assemble a very helpful team early on.

We decided that there was a vast and untapped resource of composers out there who labor in obscurity and who will probably never get to hear their music. I have met a surprising number of people who compose or write music and have never heard it performed. They may have majored in music and simply lost touch with musicians or they don’t have enough money to hire musicians, they aren’t going to win competitions and most performers aren’t interested in contemporary music, especially music by unknowns.

Our idea was that if this group of people could hear their music and get excited about composing again, they would come to concerts and support the contemporary music scene.
We started a project called Weekly Readings in 2004 to address this situation. The idea was that we would read and record a piece by every composer who submitted and post it to our website. We were very idealistic about it!

No matter the quality of the work, no matter the craft of the composer, every composer should hear his or her music played. How can you get better if you’re not hearing your music?! If the composers hear their music it will renew their interest in writing music, if their interest in writing music is renewed they’ll be more likely to attend concerts and we will begin to form a groundswell.

Aside from underutilizing the very people who would most be interested in contemporary music, the other problem we identified is that audiences have this holier-than-thou perception of the composer and of composed music in general, which is apparently off-putting.

To combat this we started Composer Alive in which we work with one composer who writes a new piece for us in installments. We record each installment as we receive it so that the composer can hear the piece played as he writes it and rewrite and send the next installment until the piece is finished.

By letting people hear the piece composed in chunks, from the first draft through the rewrites, we are opening the compositional process to them and investing them in the project, making it much more likely they’ll attend the concert. The Composer Alive concert remains our most successful annual concert event.

It was only once these online projects were established and became successful that we started a true concert season, now only in its third year. The last several concerts we’ve given have been sold out concerts and yes, people were passionately debating the music, among other things, at the reception. By starting with these online projects and developing a reputation through them, we were able to start our concert season with a large audience following from day one.

Two years ago we started the ACM School of Music in Chicago’s north side neighborhood of Ravenswood. We offer piano lessons and a music theory and music composition class. The composition class attracts a variety of people: an architect, a salesman, a graphic designer, who have nothing in common except for the fact that they’ve either never composed before or haven’t composed in years and wouldn’t be composing now if it weren’t for the class.

At the end of the class they hear their music performed by professional musicians and the way their faces light up is truly magical. They also come to concerts. Religiously.

I often hear people say that the future of modern music is in film. Although this statement usually annoys me I mean I understand that dissonance is more palatable when married with certain images but can’t people just use their imaginations in a concert setting? but after thinking about it, I decided to start a film festival.

In 2005 the Sound of Silent Film Festival was born, bringing newly composed scores, usually by Chicago composers, performed live to modern silent films in a fun, BYOB event that brings young people in droves. Now even Wicker Park hipsters can say they’ve seen a contemporary music event!

In 2007 we made a 60-minute documentary film about our collaboration with Beijing composer Xiaogang Ye as part of our Composer Alive: Eastern Expressions project. The film is our most ambitious attempt to bring contemporary music to a wide audience. It was shown on Chicago’s PBS station, WTTW in December of 2007 and was watched by over 40,000 people.

We still have a lot of work to do to create the community that I envisioned so long ago but we’re on our way. More of our concerts sell out than not, composers on our Weekly Readings series are hearing their music, often for the first time, audience members are telling us that they have become curious about contemporary music and are hungry to hear more, and people in our ACM School of Music are playing contemporary music and hearing the music that they themselves write.

The more I work with ACM and see the success we are having in reaching new audiences, the more convinced I am that focusing on contemporary music is the way to revitalize the Classical, (for lack of a better term,) tradition as a whole.

This is only the beginning. If the ideas we’ve started catch on, we can build an audience for new music. We can recreate a global community of people who care, who attend concerts and debate and talk about contemporary music, breathlessly wait for the next World Premiere, and even compose their own music.

We can make composing relevant again. We can answer the question: Why compose now? The answer will be because it matters and because I can get famous doing it! If we make this happen, then I can have my bodyguards and my string quartet following me to my next premiere. I’ll just have to figure out how the cellist will manage it…


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