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December 2, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

The story of Cain and Abel is usually interpreted as being about envy.  Cain was a farmer and Abel a shepherd and when they made offerings to God, well, God accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s and so, the rules on this sort of thing being as yet a bit unclear, Cain killed him for it.

But for me, a more interesting read of the story is that it is actually a myth inspired by the agricultural revolution.  Cain the farmer represents mankind’s increasing use of, and dependence on, agriculture and Abel represents the former nomadic way of life which did not adapt to the change.  The agricultural revolution led to the founding of cities and ultimately civilization as we know it.

Though there were nomadic invasions of cities throughout history and the nomadic way of life persists even today in some isolated areas, it can pretty safely be said that Cain killed Abel, that the agricultural revolution was here to stay.

We’re pretty clearly in the midst of a revolution at the moment that I believe will have a similarly huge impact on human history. There is the shift away from industry and manufacturing toward technology, there is the trend toward globalization and there are massive social upheavals as frequently marginalized people increasingly, and rightly, demand to be treated as human beings.

In this context, it’s not surprising that there is a kind of hysteria gripping much of the world at the moment and of course a whole lot of people have been left behind. The changes are happening fast, a whole lot faster than the agricultural or industrial revolutions happened and it’s scary for all of us, though especially for those who were highly adapted to the industrial/nuclear family model and are having a hard time adapting to the new technological/diversity spectrum model.

I believe that the next few years will be intensely painful as many people struggle mightily to reverse the tide.  But it can’t be done.  Cain has killed Abel and there’s no way back.

November 27, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

Originally ran in Newcity Magazine on November 27, 2016

Nature has provided us with many subtle clues that we’re getting older. I’m not talking about the day you wake up and discover that there is now a small profusion of hairs shooting out of your ears. That’s not subtle. I’m talking about the little things you catch yourself doing that gradually wear you down until you eventually become the cantankerous old coot you were apparently always meant to be.

This is essentially the Calvinist doctrine of aging. It’s God’s will that even the cutest baby is foreordained to one day think that blowing his nose onto his overalls is an act of personal expression. Thankfully that day hasn’t quite arrived for me yet, but there are signs that it’s coming.

I start way too many sentences with some variation of “In my day.” Younger people look at me with pity when I tell them how old I am (just turned forty-five). And I’ve developed this weird penchant for thinking that my generation went through hard times the likes of which these youngsters have never seen which is, well, definitely not true.

A few days after the election my wife and I decided to bestir ourselves from our deep funk and go out to celebrate the opening of a new bike shop. When we got there and I took in the scene, it occurred to me that I finally understood the concept of the safe space, which I, in my growing peevishness, had previously dismissed. But it was refreshing to be around diverse views and people, and to me this was absolutely a refuge.

I think that events like that, and certainly the arts, are now to us what monasteries were to the Middle Ages: little microcosms of culture and tolerance, and our support is more important now than ever. I can’t do much about the fact that prunes are starting to look good to me and I can no longer prevent myself from correcting someone’s grammar in the middle of their sentence, but I can get out and hear some strange and wonderful new music—and these three concerts are a great place to start.

a.pe.ri.od.ic and Dante Boone play Jurg Frey

One of the founders of the loosely organized, barely defined but internationally successful musical movement Wandelweiser, Jurg Frey takes the “less is more” aesthetic to extremes in his spare, lovely music. Chicago-based a.pe.ri.od.ic is quite at home here, having produced an entire Wandelweiser festival a couple of years ago, and Dante Boone is a pianist who has made the music of Jurg Frey one of his special interests.
December 4, 8:30pm at Constellation, 3111 North Western; $10.

Katinka Kleijn and Cory Smythe
Improvisation was once an integral part of classical music, but—perhaps with the advent of the formal recital in the nineteenth century—it has steadily lost ground to polished performances from notated scores. For the last several years, however, improvisation has returned to classical music with a vengeance. Two stalwarts from the International Contemporary Ensemble now join the trend, and will leave their music stands at home for an evening consisting entirely of improvised duets.
December 7, 9pm at Constellation, 3111 North Western; $10.

Jessica Aszodi and Jenna Lyle

Stunningly wide-ranging vocalist Jessica Aszodi, who has performed everything from bristlingly difficult contemporary scores to resurrected pieces from hundreds of years ago and everything in between, teams up with composer Jenna Lyle for a choreographic voice and electronics piece called “Grafter.” Lyle is a composer interested in physicality in terms of what a performer can do with gestures and movement on stage in addition to playing their instrument. The results have always been fascinating, and I have no doubt that this collaboration will be astonishing.
December 9, 9pm at Elastic Arts Foundation, 3429 West Diversey #208; $10.



November 2, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

Tonight, as many of you already know, is game seven of the world series.  It’s a big deal for Chicago because if the Cubs win tonight not only will they have broken a drought of 108 years but they will also be the last of the three “cursed” teams in baseball to break their curse, and the win will be definitive proof that Theo Epstein is a magic man who can do anything and should immediately replace Rahm Emanuel as mayor.

I have to admit, though, that my feelings about the Cubs over the years have been mixed.  When I moved to Chicago in 1995 I played piano at the Annoyance theater which at that time was on Clark street just north of Wrigley Field and to those of us in the theater community the Cubs games were simultaneously a source of irritation and excitement.  As there was little to no expectation of winning in those days, home games often brought an ugly streak of drunkenness that once seen is difficult to forget.

At the same time I can remember being at the Gingerman Tavern when Kerry Wood had his famous 20 strikeout game.  There were guys watching the game who realized that this first year rookie was going to tie a record and quickly settled their tabs and ran to the stadium to buy last minute tickets to watch it in person. You could do that back then.  Despite the excitement though, I stayed behind and worked on my patternless crossword puzzle.

Speaking of the Gingerman, it was my favorite bar at that time not only because it was across the street from the Annoyance which was then the center of my social world, but also because they played classical music after every Cubs home game, a move taken less from an enthusiasm for classical music and more as a way of keeping drunken mayhem to a minimum.  And it worked.

Drunks in Mark Grace jerseys would crash into the bar, hear the music, noisily disapprove and storm back out.  Meanwhile we in the bar would raise our glass of port and return to our patrician pursuits, which at the Gingerman in the ’90’s were myriad.   There were always chess and scrabble games happening and a wildly popular backgammon tournament on Sundays.  There were lively political disputes, poets scribbling away in corners and of course the ubiquitous theater people, some of whom now write for SNL and Conan O’Brien and one of whom, Matt Walsh, plays the press secretary on Veep.

The Gingerman was also one of the very best bars in the city for high caliber billiards, so much so that a scene from the Color of Money was shot there, and two of the bartenders were big music heads: Joel Leoschky started Cranky Records and Harrison Bankhead is still a well-known bassist on the free jazz scene, though he has long since quit bartending, much to the chagrin of those of us who fondly remember his skills.   All of this and classical music playing after Cubs home games?   Yes, please.

Living near Wrigley Field you always had a Cubs schedule in your car so you’d know on which days to avoid Clark street like the plague.  I always claimed to hate Cubs games and the attendant traffic jams, but I was also sympathetic to the team’s plight and would pay close attention in the years when it seemed they had a shot.  A friend of mine once jokingly asked me if I had ever listened to a Cubs game on my car radio and rooted for them while simultaneously cursing the extra traffic the game had caused.  The answer is yes and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

I’m not a person who defines himself by loyalty to a sports team, not by a long shot. That said, tonight’s game will be epic and I’m looking forward to watching it. interestingly enough though, it won’t be the only epic in my day.  I’m in Dublin at the moment for an opera called Heresy by Roger Doyle about Giovanni Bruno, a medieval free thinker who was tortured and eventually killed for his beliefs.

So I’ll head straight from a three hour opera to the hotel bar to watch a three hour baseball game in which it would be nothing less than heresy not to root for the Cubs.  Things didn’t turn out so well for Bruno.  Here’s hoping they go a heck of a lot better for the Cubs.

October 5, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

Originally ran in Newmusicbox on 10/5/2016

The Ear Taxi Festival coincides almost exactly with the 100th anniversary of the publication of Carl Sandburg’s seminal collection Chicago Poems,which—while wholly unintentional—is still a neat coincidence.  Sandburg did as much as anyone to cement Chicago’s reputation as a city of rough-hewn individuals who created a great metropolis through physical labor and are justifiably proud of it, and I see Ear Taxi in a way as the musical manifestation of this: a celebration of the individual composers and performers who have created a bustling contemporary music scene and who are, if you missed the posts on social media, also proud of it.

Five years after Sandburg’s poems were published, Ben Hecht would paint the city with similar strokes in his great collection of stories, which was later published as 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago. In Hecht though, the rugged individualism of Sandburg is combined with a search for a common thread—or motif, in his words—that connects everyone he wrote about. To me, this is an impulse also present in Ear Taxi, as the festival is an attempt to bring all of the disparate styles and the whole tangled mass of creative musical energy in the city under one metaphorical roof.  This uniquely Chicago paradox has always fascinated me.  It’s a city of individuals with an entrepreneurial streak and a DIY mentality who work hard to build from the ground up, but who are also very interested in finding their shared identity.

Over the years, I’ve seen numerous attempts to codify Chicago’s various arts scenes. Whether it’s film or music summits, the Architecture Biennial, the Sonic Impact Festival, Chicago Improv Fest, Lake FX, the Chicago International Music and Movies Festival, or one of many others, the intention is to show off the entire range of any given art form happening in the city and put it in one place. As another example, a few years ago Boeing donated a large sum of money to the Elastic Arts Foundation to create chicagomusic.org, which was meant to be a one-stop shop for all live music in the city. But, though their efforts to include every performance in Chicago were nothing less than heroic, the task proved impossible as there is simply too much happening.   The quixotic attempt, however, is uniquely Chicago. One thinks immediately of architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham’s famous maxim to make no small plans.

This constant search to find a shared identity among disparate individuals reminds me of a story in Plato’s Symposium.  In the work, Socrates, Aristophanes, and the boys are up late drinking and, as boys will do, they start talking about the origins of love. Aristophanes says that in the beginning humans were not individual entities but two separate people fused together which, according to him, was actually a happy arrangement. Unfortunately though, as in so many other mythological tales, we somehow offended the gods and Zeus promptly sent one of his ever-ready thunderbolts to cleave us in half. Now we spend our lives searching to be made whole again.

I believe the metaphor transcends geographic and cultural boundaries.  Chicago is a famously divided city yet there is something innate that causes it to celebrate the individual while searching restlessly for shared identity, and I believe this has led to an unusually tolerant arts scene.

The style wars did not hit Chicago as hard as in other places.  Composers in Chicago didn’t always approve of other composers, and they didn’t always believe certain directions were fruitful or had artistic merit. But when the call to unity came, it was generally heeded.  Sure, for the most part we’re still very much clumped along academic lines: if you are a composer who went to Northwestern, for example, most likely it’s Northwestern groups who play your music. But that’s natural. What’s unique about Chicago is that there is always a basic assumption that everyone, regardless of affiliation, is adding to a collective scene and that their contribution to that scene is important.

I’ve seen this tolerance firsthand numerous times, but I really put it to the test in 2004 when I created an organization called Accessible Contemporary Music. “Accessible” isn’t exactly a hip word now, but it was practically obscene back then. I got a decent amount of crap for it, naturally, but when leaders of Chicago’s new music community got together to decide how we could all best cooperate to mutual benefit, there was a seat for me at the table. I’m not entirely certain that this would have happened in another city. It’s not that Chicago is more enlightened than other places, it’s just that all voices are welcome as it continues this interesting search for a collective identity.

When we sat down in the basement of Symphony Center in 2005 to formulate what would eventually become New Music Chicago, interestingly enough most of us at that time did not know there had been a previous organization with the same name that flourished in the 1980s under the leadership of Patricia Morehead (who was also the artistic director of CUBE, Chicago’s second contemporary music ensemble) and George Flynn (whose Chicago Soundings series started at the Green Mill jazz club in the 1970s and continues today).  Ours was not a conscious attempt to resurrect the former organization, but an example of the city’s latent urge toward unity manifesting itself through us. To paraphrase Voltaire, if New Music Chicago didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent it.

Chicago in many ways is a kind of self-contained universe, a place for artists to thrive by turning inward. I believe that in many ways this is because of the vitality of the ubiquitous storefront theater scene.  If you live anywhere in the city, it’s unlikely you live more than a few blocks from a small theater.  But the small theaters get big reviews every bit as often as the Goodman or Steppenwolf do, and the small storefronts are widely considered to be the place for innovative, edgy productions. The goal isn’t to send a production to New York or London, the focus is instead on the work itself.

You can see this in the visual arts as well. Chicago’s most important art movement may be the Chicago Imagists, which includes several interestingly named sub movements like the Hairy Who, the Non-Plussed Some, and the Monster Roster.  Most of these artists never left Chicago and, as such, they created unique local styles and are kind of the epitome of a bonded group of distinct individuals.   They represent the proud Chicago tradition of loudly not caring about the goings-on in other cities, and they cite staying in Chicago as having given them the freedom to develop according to their innermost desires rather than larger trends.

So it’s not all that surprising that, as the contemporary music scene in Chicago has begun to really thrive, it has grown up along similar lines.  Though the downtown Loop was once the go-to concert destination, performances now frequently happen throughout the city, mirroring the storefront theater trend. Over the years, as new ensembles have sprung up like musical weeds, I’ve seen shows in former mansions, furniture stores, cabaret clubs, jazz clubs, empty storefronts—even an empty restaurant that had gone out of business.

When Ralph Shapey moved to Chicago in 1964 his colleagues widely assumed he was moving to a contemporary music desert but, even assuming that were true at the time, it’s certainly not the case anymore. Composers and performers are moving to the city every bit as much to be part of the scene as to go to school, and those who move to the city for their studies are increasingly sticking around after they finish.  In just the last five years, the number of emails I get about new music performances has increased three-fold and it shows no sign of stopping. The range of music being performed is dizzying.

Ear Taxi is the most ambitious attempt yet to bring all of this disparate activity and unruly DIY individualism under one roof, and the audacity is something at which Sandburg, Hecht, and Burnham would have nodded approvingly—probably through a thick haze of cigar smoke.  Chicago may never find the unity that it’s searching for, but the search has created a unique arts scene where its individuals can flourish and be truly creative.

September 27, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

Originally ran in Newcity Magazine on September 27, 2016

There are things in this world that, though thoroughly fascinating, I will never attempt to do myself. I’m talking about things like sword-swallowing, cliff-diving, high-stakes gambling, possibly-spoiled-milk-drinking and running for pleasure. I don’t run because I lack a certain grace and have little stamina, but also because I can’t seem to control my arms when I run and they flail around in a most distressing way.

But despite these personal failings I have great respect for people who run and so, by extension, I’m fascinated with the whole concept of running a marathon.

According to my research, the first marathon took place accidentally in ancient Greece when, following the stunning naval victory of the Athenians against the Persians in the first Persian War, a lowly soldier and holder of the fleet’s only cell phone, Pheidippides, excitedly dropped it into the sea and had no way to tell the folks back home.

Understandably upset and unwilling to fess up, he decided to run the whole way from Marathon to Athens, whereupon he immediately yelled the news to the town drunk and dropped dead of exhaustion.

At any rate, for those of us in the contemporary music field there are not one but two marathons happening in Chicago the second weekend of October, the other being the long-awaited Ear Taxi Festival which requires no running and very little sword-swallowing, but at least some high-stakes gambling.

It’s an incredible week of music and here are my recommendations plus a kick-starter.

John Elmquist’s HardArt Groop

Honestly I can’t think of a better starter pistol for a new music marathon than a show by John Elmquist’s Hard ArtGroop. I once heard one of their performances described as “the New Yorker comes to life” and that’s a perfect way to describe it. Elmquist is a highly talented pianist, bassist, composer and arranger who weaves together a musical mix of tight grooves, delicately balanced nuances and just plain hot playing by an all-star group of jazz and classical musicians. In between symphonic numbers are songs that are political, deeply moving or sometimes just plain silly. It’s hard to describe but impossible to forget.
October 3, 7:30pm at Merit School of Music, 38 South Peoria; $20.

ICE at the Harris Theater

It’s not always easy for New Yorkers to remember this, but the now-renowned International Contemporary Ensemble, or ICE (not to be confused with the bounty hunter in season two of “Arrested Development”), began in Chicago. They’ll return to town to headline the opening of the Ear Taxi festival with premieres of two works by Marcos Balter and Anthony Cheung. Both composers have an ear for color and solid compositional craft, but otherwise they’re stylistically very different and I think this will make for a heady musical mix. ICE will be joined by a student ensemble from the People’s Music School and the new music ensemble of Northwestern performing music by modern-day modernist Hans Thomalla.
October 6, 7:30pm at Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph; $20/$10 students.

Chicago Composers Orchestra

The Chicago Composers Orchestra continues their wonderful habit of giving composers absolute freedom in writing for the ultimate ensemble. This program features three world premieres including a new installment in Randall West’s continuing musical exploration of the periodic table of the elements, a work by Olivia Block exploring the relationship between found sounds and orchestra, a new piece called “Lake Effect” by Kathleen Ginther and a reprisal of Brian Baxter’s earnest meditation on place, “Roots Run Deep.”
October 9, noon, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Randolph, 3rd floor; free.

Amy Wurtz and MAVerick Ensemble

Amy Wurtz is a pianist and composer to watch, and as one of the last concerts in the Ear Taxi festival she’ll be joined by cellist Alyson Berger to give the world premiere of her new piece “Songs and Dances” for cello and piano. The MAVerick Ensemble opens with a new piece by William Jason Raynovich inspired by the poetry of e.e. cummings. Listen, there is a hell, but it isn’t this concert.
October 9, 3pm, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Randolph, 3rd floor; free

September 13, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

Walter Mass_house

For three years a young man by the name of Walter Maas was hidden in the eaves of this house in Biltholm, Holland by a brave family during World War II.  Maas, who was twenty-three when he went into hiding, was a Jewish refugee from Germany lucky enough to have family friends willing to safeguard him.

After the war was over and he was able to come out of hiding he, overcome with gratitude to the family and the Dutch people generally, started the Gaudeamus Festival in the same house to promote the music of young Dutch composers.  Today, nearly seventy-five years later the Gaudeamus Festival is going strong and has expanded into an international powerhouse.

It’s an inspiring story and I think especially poignant for the Americans who are here. We are one of the few countries on the planet never to have experienced a foreign invasion. For us the world wars are remote affairs seen on television or quickly brought to heel by John Wayne but, in Europe, even today, the reminders are everywhere.

As the Dutch scholar Erasmus has said, “war is delightful to those who have had no experience of it.”  Well maybe delightful is a bit of a strong word in this case but, as the U.S. and other countries continue to beat the nationalistic drum, it makes me nervous.  Nationalism is the first step toward identifying the “other” which is a slippery slope of mistrust that leads to misunderstandings, dehumanization and ultimately to war.

I was so moved by the story of Gaudeamus’ beginning.  Imagine if that family had not had the courage to take in Maas?  We would have lost an international music festival of great renown but, more importantly, we would have lost a human life.  Kudos to that family for recognizing a fellow human and for having the bravery and compassion to do the right thing.

Gaudeamus is Latin for “let’s be merry.”  It’s amazing to me that, after a three-year ordeal of constant fear and privation, Maas not only had the energy to start a festival but also gave it such an optimistic name.  Let’s be merry indeed, and recognize the humanity in all of us.




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 29, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

Originally ran in Newcity Magazine on July 29, 2016

I’ve always thought of myself as more or less a model citizen although, of course there have been exceptions. I’ve stolen towels from hotel rooms, jumped a turnstile here and there and, like anyone else, I keep drink cups from Panera and then carry them around with me in my backpack so I can refill my iced tea later at other locations without paying again. But overall I’m generally on the straight and narrow path. Until last week.

My wife and I were in a restaurant with a cash-only policy. I didn’t know it was a cash-only restaurant when we entered and in fact I would never have entered had I known ahead of time that they had this policy because I’m against it. I mean come on, it was a long road from bartering to credit cards, and I was thinking that the next logical step was something cool like paying with a retinal scan or those credit chips they had in Buck Rogers, something like that—not going back to carrying large sums of cash on our persons.

So I was annoyed as I shuffled over to the ATM to obediently pay the fee for foolishly having chosen this restaurant. I was about halfway there when I looked around at the crowded room, did some quick calculations and thought, shit, they must have twenty-thousand in cash here at the end of the night.  At least.

I stopped in my tracks, my eyes narrowed, my posture slumped a bit and I started rubbing my suddenly clammy hands together and accidentally said out loud in a voice no longer mine “That’s quite a haul.” It occurred to me that, this being America, I could probably go back to my table, order a gun with my phone, have it delivered, pay for it in cash and knock the place over and be on my merry way in a half hour.

But of course that’s not how it works is it? I’ve seen “Pulp Fiction,” after all. Plus my mother was always fond of saying, “Don’t knock over restaurants!” So I got my cash, returned to the table, paid for the meal and ended my criminal career before it began. But, I do have to say, it would be criminal of you to miss these live music events this month.

“Cosmic Garden in Bloom”

The Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Scotland is, as a garden should be, inspired by modern notions of cosmology. It’s not plant-heavy but is instead filled with sculptures and landscaping meant to conjure up images of cosmic wonders like black holes and fractals among other things. As you would expect, everything in the garden is also mathematically placed according to some algorithm that folks like you and I could not possibly understand.

I bring this up because it’s the inspiration for Michael Gandolfi’s “Cosmic Garden in Bloom,” a large-scale orchestral work that will have its world premiere at the Grant Park Music Festival the first weekend in August. Gandolfi is a wonderful composer, it’s a fascinating concept and this should not be missed for any reason. The great C Minor Mass of Mozart, who was no slouch himself, rounds it out.
August 5, 6:30pm and August 6, 7:30pm at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion, 55 North Michigan, $25-$89.

Bitchin Bajas & Friends Play Terry Riley
For the sixth year in a row the Bitchin Bajas invite special guests to join them for a performance of Terry Riley’s seminal work, “In C.” If you caught their performance last year at Pitchfork, you know they’re masters of drones and immersive, synthesized ambient sounds, which is to say that they’re the aesthetic grandchildren of Riley in more than one way. This performance also includes video.
August 7, 8:30pm at Constellation 3111 North Western, $5.

Chicago Composers Orchestra Club Night
An invention of Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of the famous Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev), club nights feature performances by DJs interspersed with sets by live, generally acoustic classical ensembles. They’ve been a big hit in London where Prokofiev resides, and the CCO has had great success with the concept in Chicago as well. This club night also serves as a preview of their upcoming concert season.
August 14, 8:30pm at Constellation, 3111 North Western, $10.

Here and Now II

The penultimate concert of the summer Rush Hour series features Fulcrum Point New Music Project in works by Chicago composer Mischa Zupko and Ensemble Dal Niente performing music by AACM composer George Lewis. Both composers have a hard-edged sensibility so this concert will not be easy listening by any means, but they’re both thoughtful artists with something to say and the adventurous listener will be rewarded.
August 23, 5:00pm at St. James Cathedral, 65 East Huron, free.

July 16, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead

Originally ran in Newcity Magazine on July 16, 2016

Over the years there have been numerous rockers who have gotten interested in classical music and become composers.  Unquestionably the most successful of these was Frank Zappa, but he’s kind of a strange example because he was into avant-garde music early on.  In fact, there’s a famous story that for his fifteenth birthday he rejected all gifts in lieu of a long distance call to New York to talk to Musique Concrète composer Edgard Varèse. Sadly Varèse wasn’t at home and Zappa would never meet him.

But back to our narrative. Generally when a rocker decides to go classical it’s for what I would consider to be all the wrong reasons. Often they’re just in it for the prescription drugs and freewheeling older ladies, and as such they don’t do their homework and they often write derivative music that sounds like watered-down eighteenth-century drivel. Yeah, Billy Joel, I’m talking to you.

But the last few years have seen a dramatic uptick in quality with guys like Glenn Kotche, Richard Reed Parry, Greg Saunier, Jonny Greenwood and numerous others composing sensitive, interesting classical music for major groups like Kronos Quartet and Eighth Blackbird. But it appears that we’re about to take a major step backwards because none other than Kip Winger has just thrown his cowboy hat into the ring.

Yes, Winger is a composer now, and it’s tempting to follow in the footsteps of Metallica and Beavis and Butt-Head and mock him mercilessly, but what good would that do?  Classical music has survived Mannheim Steamroller, Andrea Bocelli, Starbucks gift packages, a thousand years of truly awful puns and much more. Dammit, we’ll survive Kip Winger.

In the meantime, here’s some music not written by Winger.

Pitchfork After Show, Sun Ra Arkestra

Long after founding pianist, composer and bandleader Sun Ra departed this earthly realm to return to his native Saturn, the Arkestra is still going strong, enlightening us mere mortals with his uncategorizable, otherworldly soundscapes. Not surprisingly the glory days are long gone, but the current lineup features founding sax man Marshall Allen and longtime trumpeter Michael Ray and—well, the Arkestra is never not interesting. Somehow the double negative is appropriate.
July 16, 8pm at Constellation 3111 North Western; $20-$25. 18+

Pitchfork After Show, Holly Herndon
A graduate of San Francisco’s legendary Mills College, whose list of notable faculty and students includes Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Dave Brubeck, Luciano Berio and the members of Kronos Quartet among others, Holly Herndon is an electronic composer and singer who creates a multi-layered tapestry of sound culled from a diverse range of acoustic and synthesized sources.  She’ll play Constellation for one night only as part of the Pitchfork after-parties.
July 17, 10pm at Constellation, 3111 North Western; $20. 18+

Osvaldo Golijov’s “Azul”

Former Chicago Symphony composer in residence and one of the few figures in classical music composition to have achieved mainstream success (a pesky little plagiarism problem a few years back notwithstanding), Osvaldo Golijov blends elements of his diverse Argentinian and Israeli backgrounds to write rhythmically compelling, lyrical music that is generally met with hysterical approval from his many adoring fans. Philip Glass’ “Life, a Journey Through Time” will also be performed.
July 20, 6:30pm at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion, 55 North Michigan; $25-$89.

Stravinsky’s “The Firebird”
This is a fairly mainstream concert but, for my money, any chance to see Stravinsky’s still-astonishing score for the ballet “Firebird,” his first for legendary Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev, should be seized upon. They’re performing it with puppets, which sounds a bit like something Kip Winger would do, but hopefully it won’t diminish the raw power of the music. This fiery piece is paired with music invoking the sea: Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes”—a work that’s always memorable for me because my undergraduate composition teacher once told me he would have given his left arm to have written it, which is obviously impossible—and Debussy’s beautiful “La Mer.”
July 26, 8pm at Ravinia Park Pavilion, Highland Park; $15-$75.

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.


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