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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.






March 6, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

Although my life is hardly a prison, lately I have escape on the brain. It all started two days ago when Maria and I went on an organized bike ride and this woman named Cassandra casually told us that she had just bought a one-way ticket to Mexico and so this was the last ride she would be leading for a while, maybe forever.

All through the ride I couldn’t stop thinking about it. A one-way ticket? Maybe forever? How is she doing it? What about her stuff?  What about family obligations? What about the need to make money and contribute to the commonwealth through the rendering of taxes upon your income and purchases?

I was also jealous because, although I didn’t go this year, I would normally be in Mexico myself right about now.   For the last several years I have escaped the weather every February and decamped to Mexico City for two weeks of sunshine, Spanish lessons, amazing food, trips to the pyramids and salty, lime-encrusted beers.

And then, thinking of escaping to Mexico City made me think of my first Spanish teacher there, Berenice.  She taught us swear words in Mexican slang and said that her favorite verb was huir, which can mean to flee like from the scene of a crime like OJ Simpson but which also means to escape, to chuck it all and hit the road like Dean Moriarty. When I returned the following year she didn’t work there anymore and I haven’t seen her on any of my subsequent trips.

As far as I can tell Berenice made good on her escape. I do wonder from time to time though what happened to her and what her life is like now and if huir is still her favorite verb.  I wonder if she and Casandra will meet up on an organized bike ride somewhere. And I wonder which definition of huir she was really talking about.

March 1, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead



It’s nearly spring and for me that always means it’s Sound of Silent Film time.  This year I’m producing the event in New York and Chicago within a month of each other so it’s an extra busy time.

A huge part of my promotion strategy is postering and after all of these years I still mostly do this myself,  partly because I’m a control freak who doesn’t believe others will center the poster properly, but also because I enjoy biking around the city slapping posters on every bulletin board I happen across.

Once inside a building I think of myself as a ninja.   I get in and out lightning fast, leaving a trail of posters in my wake. No one sees me come or go, they just see an awesome event that they should probably try to get out to.

Last year things didn’t go quite as planned however.  I was heading into Columbia College which is a goldmine of bulletin boards but which also, as I now know, has notoriously strict parking rules.  I had chosen not to bike this time and to drive instead and left my car outside with flashers on and in the time it took me to artfully place posters and postcards on ten floors of one building, my car was towed.

I came out flushed with my victory only to find that I now had to take a humiliating walk of shame to the underground city facility where literally hundreds of similarly dispirited people wait to be gouged for the privilege of getting their car back, which also now has nifty numbers painted on the window so everyone knows what an idiot you are.

That set the publicity ninja back a bit I can tell you but I’m hoping to get the mojo back this year.



February 1, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 9.30.39 PM

It’s an exciting night tonight as many Iowans head to the polls as the first in the nation to cast their votes or, in election parlance, to caucus, which is an Algonquin word that translates roughly to “let the right one in.”

Although there is some cause for alarm, what with a socialist running and all, I do think it’s worth remembering that the results in Iowa rarely mean anything in the long run.

Mike Huckabee won the thing for the Republicans last time after all and, well, that just wasn’t going to happen.  Although at least he actually has some experience with governing.  And he plays bass in a rock band which is kind of cool although it does have the unfortunate name Capitol Offense.

I mean who names their rock band after a crime punishable by death? That’s just not a good idea.  What if their albums are criminally bad as in fact many of the good folks in the comments section of Youtube seem to think.

After some listening, however, I would argue that their version of Freebird is pretty dang good.  That it is in fact definitive.

January 28, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead


We in the arts are always being told to refine our “elevator pitch”, a succinct account of what we do and who it benefits, delivered presumably to a potential investor with a short attention span with whom we are currently sharing an elevator.

Despite the fact that this situation has never happened to me I have worked diligently on my talk for many years and have even tried, so far without luck, to reduce what we do at the arts organization I founded, Access Contemporary Music, to one perfect, ideally less than Faulknerian-length, sentence.

Then recently I found it right under my nose.  We were about to launch our new website and I was looking for snazzy quotes to put on the Support page and found this amazing quote from the Chicago Tribune’s John von Rhein.  “A Utopian vision of contemporary music for everyone.”

Yes!  That’s exactly how I would state our mission in one sentence if I had only had the ability to do so.  Weird how someone outside the organization can sum us up so perfectly.  My only quibble would be that I have always found Utopian societies to be a bit dull and I’ve lived in a few.

The truth is you need a little excitement once in a while. A good bar fight or something to liven things up.  So I would change it to “A Utopian vision of contemporary music for everyone, with the occasional bar fight.”  Now that’s an elevator pitch!


December 30, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

shanghai-new-music-festival_600x2501Relevant Tones was recently invited to cover the Shanghai New Music Week, a sprawling international contemporary music festival with world class ambitions.  Unfortunately for me though, the dates coincided with another trip I had planned and I was not able to go, so my producer Jesse McQuarters went without me and I’m only now getting a chance to listen to the music and interviews that he brought back.

Not surprisingly the festival is extremely ambitious and well funded and the performances are of a uniformly high quality.  The organizers of the festival are justifiably proud of what they’ve put together and they seem to be connecting with audiences in Shanghai, (nearly every concert was sold out and overall attendance rose this year to more than 8,000.)

In many ways this is something that could only happen in China.  Artistic Director Wen Deqing is absolutely right when he says that audiences for contemporary classical music in the U.S. and Europe by and large are smaller than what you see in China.  And yet the festival is a little too carefully cultivated and the programming is, in my opinion, a little too heavy on European and American composers.

Shanghai New Music Week is indicative of modern China in general, a country that is self consciously emerging as a world player after hundreds of years of swinging between regional influence and total isolation.  Now that in recent years it’s stepping onto the world stage for the first time, China is very much like the awkward debutante coming out at the ball.

And again this is most evident in the music that they’ve chosen to program.  There is no music by South American or Scandinavian composers because China doesn’t think those composers are important. On the international front they’re mainly programming American and European composers because that’s who they want to impress.  If that sounds familiar it’s because that’s exactly how the U.S. was during its debutante phase a couple of hundred years ago; obsessed with Europe, lacking a national cultural identity and awkwardly stepping into a cultural leadership role.

China has the resources and the intent to dominate the world classical music scene but in order to do this they need to move away from American and European models, find their national cultural identity irrespective of western trends and, most importantly, they need to take the muzzle of their artists and give them absolute creative freedom.





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