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November 8, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

Originally published in Newcity 11/8/2017


I had no idea what I was stumbling into when, on New Year’s Day 2016, I posted a hastily written, ill-advised blog entry denigrating sopranos. It was shared on Facebook, quickly went viral and enraged so many people that I publicly apologized and took down the post.

I’m not generally a controversial person, so to have all of this happen before I had even recovered from the previous night’s festivities was deeply unsettling.

The outcry, though, was an appropriate response to an article that was badly misinformed, poorly written and which repeated many hurtful stereotypes about classical singers, sopranos in particular. Worse, the article raised many points that merit discussion but which were overshadowed by my tone-deaf handling of the subject.

For anyone who, like me, grew up listening exclusively to pop music, the sound of classical singing can be strange, even off-putting. It takes getting used to, and even within classical music circles, vocal music is kind of its own thing.

In my teens, when I became wildly interested in classical music, I listened almost exclusively to symphonic and chamber music; no one recommended vocal music to me. When I got to music school a few years later, the vocal music department was practically a separate entity from the rest of the school and somehow I never stopped to think how strange this was.

But, turns out it’s not strange at all. According to the writer Matthew Lasar, “One of the problems with much classical music education is that it omits or glosses over vocal classical content.” Which spills over into public life as well, as Lasar relates: “Back when I worked at a New York City record store in the 1970s, I often helped newbies taking their first classical music appreciation course find appropriate albums. They displayed something close to an allergy to vocal music.”

Classical music radio has picked up these prejudices as well. KDFC in San Francisco came under fire in 2012 for airing classical vocal repertoire either exclusively in off-hours or—and this next bit is especially wild—with the vocal parts replaced with cellos or violins. It turns out that this practice has been widespread in radio and has created a self-fulfilling prophecy in which listeners now bristle at the mere thought of vocal music.

Lasar writes, “this situation is so strange and contrived. Every other format on the FM dial is about vocal music: rock, folk, country, jazz, hip-hop. Only classical radio suppresses this most human aspect of the musical experience during the hours when most people listen to radio.”

Classical radio programmers may well respond that the sound is unpopular, but this is clearly a problem classical music created for itself. So, allow me to ask the dumb question we’re all thinking: Why is classical singing so different from pop singing?

According to Kayleigh Butcher, a mezzo-soprano who specializes in contemporary music, classical singers have a different sound largely because they’re trained to sing without amplification.

This means they need a specific technique for breath placement and pressure in order for the sound to carry and be even throughout the range and project to the back of any hall, and—most importantly—so that the singer doesn’t hurt herself as so many pop singers have done.

For a pop singer, being amplified itself can lead to injuries because there is less emphasis on a technique that aims to protect the voice; and in fact it’s often the flaws in the voice that provide the distinctive sound, with some singers even intentionally roughing up their voices by smoking cigarettes, drinking whiskey or gargling Drano to “improve” their sound.

As for Butcher, in addition to being a great singer with a healthy interest in contemporary music, she’s also an imaginative concert producer and is collaborating with pianist Christopher Narloch at Constellation on November 19: “The Schönberg Project,” a performance of Arnold Schönberg’s rarely heard early twentieth-century vocal work, “The Book of the Hanging Gardens,” alongside newly commissioned pieces inspired by it.

“The Book of the Hanging Gardens” is a song setting of expressionistic poems by Stefan George, and is the classic tale of boy meets girl in a garden, girl symbolizes garden, girl leaves garden and garden disintegrates. Schönberg was looking for a new musical vocabulary, and found it in an atonal harmonic language which was shocking at the time, but which most composers have since abandoned.

Which presents an interesting challenge for the fifteen composers commissioned to write one-minute movements related in some way to each of the fifteen poems set by Schönberg. Composers, like all creative types, are constantly hoping to forge new ground and, though the general public may not know it, atonal writing has been passé for some time.

“I think it will be eye-opening for some people who still think Schönberg is contemporary and really experimental,” says Butcher, “to have it juxtaposed with actual contemporary classical music inspired by this (what I deem) older contemporary tradition. The new commissions, written this year, are significantly more unusual and shocking. I like the idea of blowing people’s minds with how far composers have come since the early twentieth century and programming them right next to each other.”

As she says, this concert isn’t for the casual listener. If you think that straightforward classical vocal music like Renee Fleming singing Schubert sounds weird after listening to Rihanna, then this will be downright bizarre. But when you remember what the intention of the composer is, the text that is being set and the demands made of the singer, it’s a fascinating experience to hear it sung live in an intimate venue like Constellation.

As for me, I’ve learned that writing off the entire canon of classical vocal music because of a bad experience with one singer (Kathleen Battle singing spirituals) is just asinine. As Chevy Chase’s character says in “Spies Like Us”: “We mock what we don’t understand.”

Taking the time to better understand classical vocal music has been deeply rewarding and I’m excited to check out the Schönberg Project. On a separate note, I’m also truly thrilled that I don’t have to watch “Spies Like Us” again any time soon.

The Schönberg Project, Sunday, November 19, 8:30pm at Constellation, 3111 North Western. Admission $5-$10.

November 2, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

Last Sunday was the five-year anniversary of my mother’s death. I think of her every day but especially at this time of year.  I wish I could call her, tell her all the things that are happening to me, talk about the weather, talk about anything.

And I wish I could do some of the things that I promised her I’d do, like write a piece for her.  She never really understood the contemporary classical music field but nonetheless she always wanted me to write her a piece and call it Song For My Mother. She bugged me about this for years but it was an impossible task.

First of all we had wildly different taste in music. Every time she came to a concert on which I had a piece she would say “why can’t you write something nice and tonal?”  I would get furious and start sputtering like Napoleon Dynamite.  It is tonal music mother!!  My music is tonal!  God!  Then I would pull a tater tot out of my pocket and chew it petulantly. (more…)

October 2, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

Almost every time someone says the word technology to me I think of Betty Scott.  Dr. Scott was a trumpet professor at Mizzou when I was an undergraduate and I took a semester of lessons with her partly because Mizzou had the sensible policy of making composers take at least a semester of several different instruments to get some hands-on experience but partly because she was in many ways a legend.

For example my roommate even knew who she was and he wasn’t a music major or even musical. In fact, now that I think of it, he was perhaps the living embodiment of the opposite of music. Although he did pay his rent on time which makes up for a lot.

At any rate, it seemed like everyone on campus knew of Betty Scott because, in addition to being a great trumpeter who frequently left the concert hall to play in street bands, she was also preternaturally wise, absurdly well-learned and, it was said by many, even possessed of special powers. (more…)

September 15, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

PrintI’ve been interested in architecture for a long time, in terms of design and aesthetic but also in how the buildings that we make and live and work in affect our lives.  I’m also interested in the intersection of music and architecture, how music sounds in a given space, how the design of the building affects the listener perception of the music and how the history of a building can inspire a composer’s piece.

It’s been a huge blessing then that for many years I’ve had the great fortune to add a musical component to projects celebrating architecture in Chicago, Milwaukee and Barcelona.  Next weekend I’ll head to Milwaukee for Doors Open, a long-running annual event celebrating the city’s architectural and design legacy. (more…)

September 9, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

213cd41fd8ACM’s first Chicago concert of the season is the musical culmination of a lifelong fascination with comparative religion, spirituality, and altered states of consciousness and I’m so excited about it.

We’ll perform music inspired by Tibetan Buddhism, sacred spaces in Australia, the Christian mystical tradition, a hallucinogenic mushroom trip and my piece The Numinous inspired by C.G. Jung’s concept of mythical archetypes.

I first got into Jung when I was still in high school. I was obsessively reading Joseph Campbell and he seemed to be obsessed with Jung and I thought, the obsession of my obsession must be worth obsessing about.  And it was!  I almost never think of anything now in less than mythic terms which, while it makes life interesting,  does have a downside or two.

At any rate, this concert is happening in our new venue, the recently restored Davis Theater in Lincoln Square, a gorgeous movie theater with adjoining bar and restaurant.  And, as if that weren’t enough, this concert also includes the first installment of our new Composer Alive collaboration with David Smooke.

David is writing a short piece in installments called Mechanical Birds and I’m very excited to hear the first couple minutes of it.

September 1, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

2304636361_ed697a9284_bAfter I finished my piano concerto at the beginning of this year and it was performed in March I felt empty inside. It was one of the greatest creative events of my life and yet when it was done I just went into a kind of depression and didn’t want to write any more music.

I wish I could say that I felt that the concerto was the supreme expression of my art or some nonsense like that but it was more just like this incredible ennui like, I finished a great challenge and was pleased with it and all but really, did the challenge or the completing of the challenge really matter after all?

That’s a terrible frame of mind for a creative person to be in and it unfortunately lasted for several months, until just last week actually. I struggle a lot with finding meaning in the world.  It seems to me that you can focus on the really big things, like the eventual death of the universe, or you can focus on really small things like what kind of salsa to buy for your blue corn chips.

I let myself get lost in the idea that it really doesn’t matter what kind of salsa you buy for your corn chips, or even if the chips are made of blue corn at all, considering that the entire universe will eventually implode. Nothing mundane matters in the face of this and everything is mundane.  But it occurred to me last week that I’ve had this exactly backwards.

The truth is that if you find the right salsa for your corn chips then it really doesn’t matter that the universe will one day implode. A simple epiphany but it got me writing music again and I’m thankful for that.  I’m writing small ensemble works but I think I know what my next big project will be too.

And I did find the right salsa for my blue corn chips and it’s so good.

August 15, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

ACMThirstyEars_8.12.17_by_ElliotMandel-7For all of the magic of holding a classical music festival on the street, every year I think the most special part of it for me is Sunday night after we’ve torn down the tents and stage, moved everything back inside, after the vendors have left, after every chair is taken off the street and there’s this incredible moment when we remove the blockades and traffic starts up again and it’s as if the fest never happened.

I don’t know what it is about that that gets me but it’s an incredible feeling. I stand there muscles aching from my arduous labors over the weekend and look at the cars going by with drivers totally oblivious to the fact that just hours ago the street was full of people and music was ringing out.  It’s like building your castle in the sand and taking great pride in it but also taking joy in watching the ocean wash it away.

That said I have many favorite moments of the actual festival itself including hearing Shostakovich’s e-minor trio performed while the sun was setting behind me, overhearing people rave about the music, watching the kids enjoying the WTTW Big Ideas Van performance and, not least, seeing this event that had existed in my head for so long come to life.

The smartest thing I did was hire Elliot Mandel to take photos.   Looking at these is now my favorite part of the fest and reminds me that it did indeed happen and it was indeed awesome.





























































August 14, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

ff705e99-d5e5-4216-b2db-c9e7b1449934Newcity’s Music 45 celebrates the musicians behind the scenes whose unseen sweat, blood and tears make the show happen.

It’s a thoughtful list and I was excited to make the cut again this year and to move up from #44 to #34.  Cue the Jefferson’s Theme  No, wait, don’t.

Not because it’s a bad song but because it’s an ear worm and I don’t want to walk around the rest of the day with it stuck in my head.

At any rate, check out the Newcity Music 45 Who Keep Chicago In Tune!







August 9, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

ab002701-dffa-43b3-a1ee-f72233be5ba2I was fascinated by this character the first time I saw this woodcut, the Galactic Drifter by Sanya Glisic. I was tasked with setting several of Sanya’s works to music by Amos Gillespie for a project called Paintings Composed and they’ll be playing this one at the Thirsty Ears Festival in a couple of days.

As I stared at the woodcut I pictured him dancing around space, teleporting to different worlds using the chronometer on his wrist and generally getting into mischief wherever he goes. Based on his footwear he may also have a passion for dancing.

I wanted to bring this idea across with a bluesy pizzicato part in the cello but I’m not really a fan of traditional blues and I have this compulsion to make everything more complex than perhaps it needs to be so it’s a bluesy cello pizz part that incorporates multiple pitch sets. But don’t worry, it’s still fun.

Then there’s a section where the flute, clarinet and cello play syncopated rhythms together and the saxophone comes in out of sync with them.  It’s my favorite part of the piece, although I like the lonely sax solo too.  Because of the sax solo and his aloofness in the syncopated part, the musicians thought that Amos was the Galactic Drifter but I promise I was thinking of no such thing.

Here’s the great recording from the original project some years back.  Best to listen to it while staring intently at the woodcut.

      Listen to it now
August 6, 2017
Posted by Seth Boustead

ACMThirstyEars_8.12.17_by_ElliotMandel-39The highlight of summer for me is the Thirsty Ears Festival, Chicago’s only classical music street festival, now expanded to two days.

From Beethoven to Shostakovich to George Flynn, there’s something for everyone!

Or if you don’t like music you can just stand around drinking beer like most people at street festivals do.  We’ll have two great beer options for you from Chicago’s own Empirical Brewing.

Plus food trucks, vendor booths and family friendly activities all on a friendly, tree-lined street in idyllic Ravenswood.

I’m so very pleased that we have sponsors this year too.  We’ve received very generous support from PianoForte Chicago, Connect Hearing, Shure, WFMT and Hazel Chicago.


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