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September 2, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

Screen Shot 2016-09-15 at 5.49.33 AMTen years ago I was in a hell of my own making. I was in the middle of Eastern Expressions, ACM’s first large-scale project and I was in so far over my head it wasn’t funny. I had the idea to commission a composer in a different country from us and ask him to write a piece and email it to us in short installments as he composed it. We’d meet and read and record each installment and post it to our website for him. When the project was finished we’d bring him to Chicago and give the world premiere performance. It was, as they say, a simple plan.

I chose a wonderful composer in China named Xiaogang Ye and he agreed to this unorthodox style of working and we were off. As it turned out we were starting this project just as Yo-Yo Ma was announcing a huge initiative called Silkroad Chicago and we were able to become part of that larger project. Then I asked my filmmaker colleague Dave Less to film the rehearsals for what I thought would be just website posts.

But then Dave and I got a wonderful interview with Henry Fogel, the former head of the Chicago Symphony and he went on a diatribe about how classical music had created most of its own problems. It was killer stuff and we decided we had a documentary film on our hands. Then I managed to talk Boeing into funding us and they vouched for us with United and before I knew it Dave and I were filming in Beijing.

You can see where this is going. The project kept scaling upward until it was practically out of control. Every bit seemed manageable on its own but I was too inexperienced to see how, in the aggregate, it was a disaster waiting to happen. By the time of the final concert on September 10, 2006 (a date etched into my mind) I was wildly overcommitted and we were thousands of dollars over budget.

I managed to raise the money and solve the logistics challenges (I had to break down and call my mom who rented a van and helped me pick up our musical guests flying in to two airports from six different cities) and we got through it but in many ways it was a harrowing experience.

Looking back now I realize that I put myself through that at the time partly because I was inexperienced and didn’t know better but mostly because I was impatient. I wanted ACM to be a large organization RIGHT NOW and thought this project was a kind of magic bullet that would make that happen.

And the project was a huge success but what I didn’t know then was that you have to have the infrastructure to handle big projects. There are no magic bullets and, as I’m sure most arts leaders will agree, calling your mom is not a sustainable option.

By the way, if you’re curious to see that interview with Henry, it’s here.

July 8, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead


I had never heard of New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham until I watched a documentary about him the day after he died but he’s been living in my head ever since. I’m fascinated by his life because, at least on the surface, it was about as simple a lifestyle as it’s possible for anyone to have.

He was never in a relationship and in fact had no human entanglements of any kind.  He lived for much of his career in a tiny apartment in Carnegie Hall, tore up most of his paychecks to avoid being “owned,” ate every meal in the same restaurants and spent every day doing what he loved: biking through Manhattan photographing fashions that caught his eye. He truly was a kind of urban twentieth-century monk who just happened to have a great eye for women’s hats.

This is not the life that I would want to live and the film certainly hints at darker waters beneath the surface but I do understand the appeal of a life lived virtually without complications where each day has a ritualistic comforting sameness and I do believe that, for the most part, he spent the vast majority of his life in contentment and even happiness.

I’m not the only one in awe of the idea of the simple life simply led. The idea is in vogue now around the world but there’s a dark edge to it. This is no monastic life being dreamt of, but a life in which society conforms to a homogeneous ideal.  And when this fails, as it always does, they respond through acts of violence, isolationism and the conjuring of imaginary bogeymen who haunt public restrooms.

But there’s no going back.  Isolate yourselves into any kind of homogeneous group and it’s only a matter of time before someone comes out as different.  It’s a fundamental part of being human.  Although for that matter,  unfortunately, so is fearing that which is different. But diversity is inevitable and it’s time people got used to it.

The great thing about Cunningham is that he lived a simple life personally but in his work he sought out and celebrated diversity. If his legacy teaches us anything, it’s that the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

June 24, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

51neDs+Bf5L._AC_UL320_SR214,320_October of this year marks the hundredth anniversary of the printing of Carl Sandburg’s collection Chicago Poems and ACM is working with mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley and five composers, myself included, to set several of the poems for voice and piano trio for a performance at the Chicago Cultural Center as part of the Ear Taxi festival.

I hadn’t read the poems in some time and have greatly enjoyed reading through them again. Many of the poems are quite clear in their meaning and employ a workmanlike, rough-hewn structure.  And others leave you thinking about them long after multiple readings.  Such a poem is the poem I chose to set for this project: Nocturne in a Deserted Brickyard.

Before writing a note of music I tried to analyze the poem as best as I could.  Here is Sandburg’s beautiful short poem and my analysis is below.

STUFF of the moon
Runs on the lapping sand
Out to the longest shadows.
Under the curving willows,
And round the creep of the wave line,
Fluxions of yellow and dusk on the waters
Make a wide dreaming pansy of an old pond in the night.


Why stuff of the moon?  Not light of the moon?  Or some poetic word for light?  It’s as if he’s saying that the moon’s contribution to the scene is somehow more than merely light. Stuff of the moon.  The moon is investing in the scene, the stuff of the moon like the stuff of life, or the stuff of legend.  It’s moonstuff, not light.  All things attributed to moon: light, energy, femininity, etc.  He’s setting the stage with an odd word but there is power here too.

Runs on the lapping sands.  The sands don’t lap of course, the water laps the sand or so we would think.  But because of the stuff of the moon perhaps it is confused what is lapping what. Also, perhaps it’s not a bright moonlit night, again stuff does not necessarily evoke light, but could also be the moon’s power to obscure or to subtly alter our perception of a scene.

Out to the longest shadows.  The stuff of the moon runs on the lapping sands out to the longest shadows.  What an odd sentence. Now we have the “stuff” of the moon running presumably at a tilt from above on the lapping sands.  The sands seem to be moving, to be lapping, which is an effect of the moonlight.  So the stuff is the moonlight. But again I feel there is more to it.

The stuff of the moon runs on the lapping sands but it stops at the longest shadows. The stuff of the moon cannot penetrate the longest shadows.  Or does it create the shadows?  Doesn’t moonlight create shadows?

Under the curving willows and round the creep of the wave line, fluxions of yellow and dusk on the waters make a wide dreaming pansy of an old pond in the night.

I believe we’re following the moonlight-created shadows first and then we go round the creep of the wave line which is confusing because the pond would presumably be still.  Is he talking about waves of light?  Did they know back then that light was waves and particles?  At any rate, we follow the moonlight, the stuff of the moon carrying with it its power to alter perception, to the sands and out to the shadows, or defining the longest shadows as we light up everything else, and then under the willows, round the creep of the wave line.  Here I think it’s just poetic language evoking waves, of light, of water, etc.  Fluxions is a mathematical science-y term. It appears that mister Sandburg knew his physics a bit.

Yellow and dusk flux together the way waves do in particle physics and they make the old pond appear to be a pansy, a kind of flower.

Overall it’s an evocation of a lonely scene. There are no humans here, including I believe the narrator who is not a witness.  This poem is an evocation of a scene without a first person narrator.  And yet, that can’t be true because reality is altered by the stuff of the moon, or by the waves, fluxions, etc.  But perhaps this is the tree that falls in the forest.

At any rate for coherence’s sake let’s go with the idea of this as an evocation of a lonely, nighttime scene. There is wonder here, mystical but also a new mystical, the mystics of modern science and physics in which nothing is as it seems.

Also this is a brickyard but a deserted brickyard.  Is it deserted because it’s late at night or is it no longer in use?  Is the brickyard itself a metaphor for loneliness, for lost purpose?

At one time the brickyard was a bustling scene, provided jobs and was emblematic of the rise of a great city.  now, in its desertion, either temporary or otherwise, there is a sense of loss, of nature reasserting itself without humanity.  Chicago is a great city and the work of ambitious men and Sandburg aims to praise that but, he also sees that it is temporary, without purpose aside from that which we humans give it and the works of man appear odd, shiftless

I believe the title is significant too.  It’s a nocturne in a deserted brickyard.  Not nocturne for or of a brickyard.  There’s something to that.  This isn’t a song for the brickyard or even a song of the brickyard.  It’s a song in the brickyard like the waves represent not only light but sound as well. The path the moonstuff takes creates the shadows, alters the pond and is a kind of ghostly song of loneliness.



May 27, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

NMUSA683Ten years ago this month was the first time I flew to New York to attend the awards for new music held by the American Music Center, as it was then called.  I had a great time and from then on it became a ritual for me each year.

New Music USA was the first organization to write about ACM’s Weekly Readings project way back in 2004. They thought it was good for composers and so they spotlighted it, and that’s the simple litmus test that they’ve used since the beginning: is it good for composers?

Since that first event I’ve sat in on many meetings and have always been blown away by the integrity, dedication and selflessness of the staff.  Which is especially laudable as it’s mostly a group of folks who are composers themselves.

We composers can be very selfish.  We spend so much time trying to get our music out there that we don’t often realize we’re only one of tens of thousands of composers in the same boat.  The truth is that no one organization can effectively convince classical music institutions to embrace contemporary music, find funders, guarantee commissions and match composers with professional level ensembles skilled in concert production and promotion. There’s just too many of us. But therein should lie our strength.

I get a number of emails every year from composers complaining that ACM hasn’t done enough for them.  My question for them is, what have you done to help another composer lately?  Because if each of us did something to help someone other than ourselves we would all be helped.  This would be so much more effective and beautiful than ten thousand plus composers with an every man for himself attitude.

New Music USA is a wonderful organization but it’s only the beginning.  We need to create a buddy system or, filtered through a Hitchcock-esque lens, we need to swap murders except instead of murders it’ll be advocacy.  Seriously though, many of us have a hard time with self promotion. What if instead we promoted each other?

May 19, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the film adaptation of Diamonds Are ForeverClose your eyes for a moment and picture this familiar scenario: A super-villain is sitting in a high-backed chair, fiendishly stroking a kitten while he tells a momentarily incapacitated super-spy and a handful of hapless goons his current plan for world domination. What music is he listening to as he does this? That’s right, he’s listening to classical music.

Given that this is one of the enduring images we who have chosen this field have had to deal with at least since Wagner, how disappointing was it to open up the newspaper the other day and read that that arch-villain Vladimir Putin had decided to put on an open-air classical music concert in war-torn Syria featuring his good buddy and fellow one-percenter, and also decidedly mediocre cellist, Sergei Roldugin.

I was eating tacos at a great new spot in Uptown when I read this and I actually turned to the guy next to me, shaking the paper in such a way that he couldn’t possibly read it, and said, “Do you believe this shit?!” Naturally he moved to the other side of the restaurant, but I was too distracted to notice. I mean here we have Hitler, at least half of the James Bond villains, Gary Oldman’s character in “The Professional” and Alex DeLarge from “A Clockwork Orange,” just to name a few—and now Putin too? It’s too much.

Obviously we’ll never overcome the image of classical music as the genre of choice for super-villains, but still I’d like to respectfully ask a favor. If you’re a super-villain and you’re thinking of trying to legitimize your recent bombing campaigns by having a concert on a historic landmark, for Pete’s sake call Yanni.

May 5, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

26c8fb01-dd29-432b-8c31-f9c0977355c3Recently my life abruptly somersaulted between two extreme opposites as I went from living an intensely introspective, rarely leave the house kind of lifestyle in which I spent my days in a feverish haze working constantly on my piano concerto that I’ve spent the last two years on and really need to finish, to walking the runway as a male model at a fashion show.

Yeah, it was weird. In fact you might even think I’m making it up.  I was in such a Barton Fink Life of the Mind haze for so long myself that I also wasn’t sure if it was happening but no, it was all too real.  This is how it came about.

My talented wife runs a successful company that makes bike bags and as such is kind of a superstar in the biking community and she was exhibiting at one of the biggest bike fashion shows in the country and they needed male models and, well, she volunteered me.

It was pretty intense. They did my hair and put makeup on me and gave me clothes to wear and even taught me how to walk down the runway. They couldn’t do anything about my bad posture and general slouchiness or the fact that I couldn’t stop thinking obsessively about how the orchestra relates to the piano in the fourth movement of my concerto but, overall it was surprisingly fun to show off high end bike products for hundreds of serious bike geeks.

Plus I was recognized at the after-party which was a new experience for me. I felt like a superstar.  But now it’s back to my little home studio and the life of the mind.  Oh, there’s John Goodman – what’s he doing here?

April 29, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

maxresdefaultFrench artist and curator Jean Dubuffet coined a term he called art brut, which he defined as “works produced by persons unscathed by artistic culture, where mimicry plays little or no part. These artists derive everything from their own depths and not from the conventions of classical or fashionable art.”

In art brut the expressive content was more important than a glossy finished product; practitioners of art brut walked to the beat of their own drum and never gave a thought as to how their artistic vision fit into larger trends. Art brut would later become known as outsider art, a movement to which Chicago has contributed plenty.

I thought about all of this last month when Henry Threadgill became the first native Chicagoan to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. To me, Threadgill is sort of the ultimate musical equivalent of an outsider artist. Over the last fifty years or so he has built an incredible legacy of uncompromising recordings and compositions that reveal a singular musical vision and he certainly wasn’t thinking about musical trends.

It’s a bit of a surprise, albeit a welcome one, that Threadgill won the Pulitzer; but it’s no surprise that Chicago is home to so many outsider artists and musicians.

And really, reading the definition of outsider art, what other kind of artist would you want to be?

April 15, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

Boston-pmWhat do you suppose is the approximate age where we tip over into nostalgia, where we can’t go anywhere without thinking obsessively about the last time we were there?  I’m thinking about this because I’m in Boston today for a speaking gig at the New England Conservatory of Music but everywhere I go the ghosts of the last time I was here crowd my mind.

At the time I had only been in Chicago for a couple of years and my mom was living in Augusta, Maine.  During the summer she suggested that my sister, who still lived in Missouri, and I come to Maine and we would spend a week at the Old Orchard beach which turned out to be one of the happiest times I ever spent with my family.

At the time I was working as a “job recruiter” at a place called Adlab. Our job was to pre-screen applicants for major companies and weed out the crazies. The phone would ring and I would answer, “thank you for calling Target” or perhaps Fidelity Investments or whatever the company was. Then I would lead the applicant through a series of brain dead questions that a surprisingly high number of people would get wrong. If they missed too many we would “flush” them by hitting F7.

The great thing about Adlab, aside from the stimulating conversations, was the flexible hours so I decided to stay another couple of days after my sister left and my mom and I drove to Boston for two nights.  The first night we had dinner at the Fairmont Hotel on Copley Square and it’s one of the happiest memories I have of my mother.

For once our conversation seemed natural, not strained or full of real or imagined recriminations. The restaurant was elegant and there was a wonderful pianist and I felt like such a grownup sitting there casually drinking wine with my mother.

So of course I made a beeline to the hotel to drink a toast to that night but, unsurprisingly after so many years, they’ve completely remodeled it.  The beautiful ceiling is still there but they’ve installed a ton of TVs and the piano has been replaced by piped-in dance music and they don’t even serve dinner anymore, just upscale bar food.

It was very crowded though and I doubt that anyone noticed the guy standing by himself in the corner silently drinking a glass of wine in homage to a long-ago night.

April 6, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead
 I’ve written the odd article for Newcity over the years but they have always had a great classical music person and so I was surprised when they asked me to contribute regularly to the magazine.


What about Dennis Polkow? I said.  I was told that Dennis would still be writing and that my column would be in addition to what he’s doing, in fact would complement it by featuring off the radar classical music events.


With newspapers and magazines laying off their classical music writers left and right lo these last many years, it came as a huge surprise that they would want two classical music writers.  I mean, devote the same attention to classical music that you do to rock?  Simply amazing.


I want to cover Chicago events that I think deserve a wider awareness but I’d also like the column to be funny, a bit irreverent and to skewer the stereotypes that many people have about classical music, even when they’re true.  Below is my first column, I’m looking forward to many more!
Apr 11


Marc Mellits

By Seth Boustead

For nearly twenty years I made my living as a piano teacher and had as many as sixty students at one time. Over the last few years though, as my kale farming business has taken off, I’ve been cutting down on the number of students and these days I’m down to just one.

She’s close to ninety years old and, when she’s not in Paris or Mexico or some other far-flung locale, she drives herself to her lessons and she’s a better driver than you or me or most anyone I know.

In this and many other ways she’s my model for how to get old. Not only can she drive a car better than the average texting millennial but she’s also grown very wise with age. We usually shoot the shit for the first couple of minutes, talk about politics, climate change, open-carry gun laws, depressing shit like that. Then after a few minutes of this she always says, “oh well, at least we have music.”

Damn right. Here’s some upcoming live music events to help you forget everything else.

Peter Ferry Presents Marc Mellits’ Fiftieth Birthday Portrait
Chicago percussionist Peter Ferry has a knack for planning concerts that are adventurous, musically compelling and just plain fun. The first time I saw him perform he played Steve Reich’s iconic duet “Clapping Music” but opted out of a performance partner in favor of a video of himself clapping in front of “The Bean.” They both tore it up. Now he’s presenting a birthday extravaganza, multimedia performance of the music of Marc Mellits, a post-minimalist Chicago composer with a serious melodic gift.
April 17, 8:30pm at Constellation, 3111 North Western, $10-$15.

Record: A Radio Opera
Although this “opera” won’t have much singing, sex, violence or viking horns, it has something far better: Brechtian modernist street cred. Radio opera, or Funkoper, features live performers interacting simultaneously with a radio broadcast and was used to stunning effect by the likes of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill back in the day. Now Chicago’s art-classical-punk ensemble Mocrep teams up with German composer Ludwig Abraham to revive this fascinating and somewhat neglected art form.
April 23, 8pm at Co-Prosperity Sphere, 3219 South Morgan.

Fulcrum Point—Proclamation!
Symphonic jazz composer, conductor, scholar, educator, writer and winner of more prizes than you could shake a stick at in a comfortable stretch of time, David Baker, who passed away last month, was the very soul of a musical icon. Fulcrum Point New Music Project celebrates his legacy and that of three generations of great black composers traced in Baker’s seminal book “The Black Composer Speaks.”
April 29, 7:30pm at The Promontory, 5311 South Lake Park, $25, $35 table seats, $15 standing room.

The Party
Chicago’s only classical cassette-tape label Parlour Tapes+ teams up with local new music powerhouse Dal Niente to celebrate the latter’s ten-year anniversary and the release of a new album with a five-hour party featuring booze, conversation and that staple of any party, live performances of American and European modernist musical works. With new pieces by indie-noise band Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier, Dal Niente founder Kirsten Broberg and Ensemble Pamplemousse stalwart Natacha Diels among many others, this party might just go all night.
April 30, 5pm-10pm at Dal Niente Studio, 4045 North Rockwell, third floor.

– See more at: http://music.newcity.com/2016/04/11/the-tip-sheet-aprils-best-bets/#more-24102

March 25, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead


I go all over the place speaking about contemporary music several times each month and my talking points are generally optimistic.  I would even say that they’re overwhelmingly optimistic, Pollyanna-ish even.

But I’ve been a composer and contemporary music advocate now for many many years and I do have to ask, are we getting anywhere?  There’s no doubt that there are more groups than ever before performing contemporary music and I do feel personally that getting Relevant Tones on largely conservative classical music radio stations around the country was no small feat.

But, in spite of this, I would say that we still have a long ways to go. Of course if you’re going to ask if you’re getting anywhere you should really know what the goal is.  For me at least the goal is that everyone in the country has a sense that classical music is an ongoing art form, that you could tell folks you’re a composer and they’d have some sense of what you do.

There’s so much creativity happening in contemporary music around the world, it’s really astounding and I feel very fortunate to have a front row seat for much of it.  But I feel strongly that it’s not enough for us to make great art, we also have to advocate for our art.  The vast majority of contemporary music concerts that I go to are attended almost solely by other composers and new music performers and this is something that I would dearly like to change.

Everyone understands that there are people still writing novels, still painting, creating dance works, etc.  But I think that it’s different when it comes to contemporary music. Composers, like visual artists, mostly want to  be recognized by their peers and succeed within the parameters of their world but for them if their work is accepted into a major museum, well, major museums are attended by the general public and we just don’t have an equivalent.

There are some exceptions of course.  The BBC Proms is attended by the general public and they program contemporary music, there are outdoor festivals like the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago and many others across the country that frequently program contemporary music and are attended by non-cognoscenti but by and large contemporary music has not done as good a job as the other arts of presenting itself as relevant to the general public.

It’s a major achievement for a composer to start getting important commissions and to get performances of her music around the world.  I would just argue that it’s an even bigger achievement to get major commissions and performances that are attended by a wider cross section of the public.  So, we’re making progress in terms of more and more ensembles interested in playing contemporary music and that’s wonderful.  Now we just have to take the next step and educate the general public.






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