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April 20, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

SOSF_2014Why do directors still make silent movies in the modern era? This is of course a rhetorical question that I don’t have the answer to but I suspect that for many directors the idea of telling a story without dialogue, or even sound effects, is an intriguing challenge and so, though the days of Rudolph Valentino are long gone, there are still an incredible number of filmmakers today working in silence.

In 2005 I had the idea to start an event that would pair images with newly composed music in an interesting and innovative way and I decided that the thing to do would be to focus on modern silent films, which I wasn’t even sure existed.  But I wasn’t going to let a little thing like that deter me!  My way of doing things is to write a press release and send it to everyone and then I have no choice but to make it happen.

I found the best film from the first year in an almost laughable coincidence.  I went to see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at a neighborhood park with my wife and I ran into someone who asked what I was up to lately.  Upon answering that I was searching high and low for modern silent films he said, “that’s funny, the guy across the hall from me is making a modern silent film.”

The guy across the hall turned out to be Dave Less and I scored his film Manos de la Muerte for the first year.  Another film from the first year came from Sergio Assad’s son Rodrigo who had eschewed the family trade of music and focused on film instead.

Over the years we did some crazy ambitious things like rescore Chris Marker’s classic film La Jetee with narrator and a small orchestra, hire singers to perform a deeply satirical version of the opera Carmen by Alexander Payne, ask four composers to write a seamless score for Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 74 minute masterpiece Gaudi, and perform music for a film to be projected in four directions simultaneously.

But the last couple of years have been the best.  The addition of conductor Francesco Milioto and a regular body of performing musicians have meant extraordinarily high musical quality, all of the movies are now submitted to us by world class directors which has vastly increased the quality of the films we’re showing and the audience is growing too.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since I sent that first press release. It’s been a wild ride but I wouldn’t change a thing.  Here’s hoping for ten more years!





April 13, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

I recently had the opportunity to fly to New York to cover a preview concert of Jennifer Higdon’s new opera Cold Mountain at the Guggenheim museum, put on by Santa Fe Opera.  I was having a drink in the bar the night before the concert with two of the publicity folks for Santa Fe and one, who had gone to school in New York, was talking about how amazed she was that her friends wanted to do completely different things while in the city than she did.

I agreed and said it’s always interesting how so many people have different ideas of fun, that your New York is not their New York.  I was reminded of this today when I got an email from a musician friend of mine who’s playing with “the best musicians in Chicago” and I didn’t recognize a single name. I don’t doubt that they’re great musicians, I was just surprised that, after so many years living here, there’s still so much more to the city than I’ll ever know.  His Chicago is not my Chicago.

I remember moving here in 1995 and being overwhelmed at first, but humans have a curious ability to break down overwhelming things and make them manageable.  First I moved to the north side of the city which cut it in half, then I settled in one neighborhood which, like so many Chicagoans, I rarely leave, and the city became manageable.  But it also became a reflection of me to a certain degree.

I cut myself off from the parts of the city that are not like me and then assume that Chicago is like me, that it’s my city.  But of course there are millions of people living only a few miles away who experience the city in a completely different way.  One of the advantages of city life should be that we seek out new parts of the city, new lifestyles and points of view, that we explore other people’s experiences of our city and don’t stay stuck within our own metaphorical city which is really a metaphor for our self-imposed ignorance.

Not saying I’ll get around to doing this of course, not during Game of Thrones season anyway. It’s just been on my mind.  Of course, your Game of Thrones is not my Game of Thrones either.

April 6, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead
1001_WFMTI’m typing this minutes after the end of our live broadcast of 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago: A Radio Play on Live from WFMT.  I’m so grateful to Kerry Frumkin and to Andi Lamoreaux for agreeing to let us do this, to Francesco Milioto, our incredible conductor, for keeping it all together and to the musicians of Palomar and the wonderful actors at Strawdog Theater, not to mention my good friend and director Anderson Lawfer and my composer colleague Amos Gillespie.
That’s a lot of people to thank!  I feel like the oscar music should be starting up.  But seriously, this project has involved so many people and at times I never thought we’d pull it off and I was certainly  beginning to think that we’d never be able to perform it the way it was meant to be heard: live on the radio.
What an incredible joy then to sit in the Levin studio and watch three years of hard work come together and sound so beautiful and know that somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 people are listening.  I live for these moments!
March 29, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

jennylinliz1It doesn’t even feel like spring but I’ve already completed the Relevant Tones listings for summer.  I think it’s a great line-up and am looking forward to getting into the studio to tape!

RT 15-27: CD Grab Bag
We’re having a ball trying to keep up with our ever-expanding musical collection as composers and performers around the world joyously overwhelm us with their creations.  We’re consistently amazed by their level of talent and artistry, and are thrilled this week to share their music with our listeners.
(release 7/1)

RT 15-28: Pianist Jenny Lin
Stunningly versatile pianist Jenny Lin has recorded with jazz musicians, rockers, contemporary composers and everyone in between.  Equally comfortable playing Shostakovich on the same concert as giving a world premiere, Lin is a vital talent that is taking concert halls by storm.
(releases 7/8)

RT 15-29:  Above and Beyond
In recent years composers have become interested in the fact that the performers can do things on stage other than just play their instrument: stomp their feet, clap, play simple percussion, and even sing.  We’ll feature a variety of pieces from composers who ask musicians (who are not trained singers) to vocalize and supplement their playing.
(release 7/15)

RT 15-30: Composer Champions
Where would Gustav Mahler be without the incredible support of Leonard Bernstein?  Bach without the support of Mendelssohn?  Being championed by a famous performer or conductor is an incredible leg up to the career of many composers.  Who are the modern day composer champions, and whose work are they promoting?
(release 7/22)

RT 15-31:Composer Spotlight: Alvin Singleton
Critic Kyle Gann says “Singleton’s music is soulful, with an understated simplicity that I particularly prize. Despite the studied economy of his means and the set character of his images, the music is never cold … nor abstract. It glows with warmth.”  We’ll feature Singleton’s music on our next Composer Spotlight.
(release 7/29)

RT 15-32: Cityscapes
We all know the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture inspired by Fingal’s Cave, and the music by Vaughan Williams inspired by the English countryside.  But in the modern era, the urban environment is inspiring many composers to capture its sounds in music.
(release 8/5)

RT 15-33: A Change of Opinion
Throughout history, composers who have been known for championing a particular musical style have shocked their fans by radically and suddenly changing their aesthetic.  Why does this happen, and who’s changing their style in the modern era?
(release 8/12)

RT 15-34: The Modern Symphony
Much like the novel, people are always pronouncing the symphony to be a dead form.  And yet, composers continue to write symphonies at an incredible pace.  We’ll feature music by composers around the world who are adding to the symphonic canon.
(release 8/19)

RT 15-35: The Laptop Ensemble
This week we’re exploring a newer musical medium: the laptop.  We wanted to find out what exactly groups named PLOrk, CLOrk, and Benoit and the Mandelbrots could possibly have to offer. The answer surprised us.  We discovered improvisation, live coding, and even orchestral collaboration.
(releases 8/26)

RT 15-36:  Composer Collectives
The twentieth century saw an interesting movement as composers banded together in collectives to help promote each other’s work. The movement has only gotten stronger in the twenty-first century with the rise of entrepreneurialism in classical music. We’ll feature the music of several composer collectives and take a close look at their inner workings.
(releases 9/2)

RT 15-37: SIRGA Festival  
A relatively new festival in a remote part of Catalonia featuring music by electro-acoustic composers, SIRGA has recently grown into an international event that brings musicians from all over the world.  Relevant Tones visits the SIRGA festival to feature audio from their concerts.
(releases 9/9)

RT 15-38: Composers Among Us: Michael Colgrass
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Michael Colgrass has had a varied career as jazz drummer, freelance percussionist and composer of a dizzying array of works in every conceivable genre.
(releases 9/16)

RT 15-39: Kronos Quartet
Ground breakers, virtuousos, and commissioners of many of the world’s twentieth and twenty-first century string quartet masterpieces, the influence of the Kronos Quartet cannot be underestimated.  We’ll talk with the musicians and feature a sampling of their luminous output over the years.
(releases 9/23)

March 15, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

PaderewskiRoom_polishMuseumOfAmerica_t411_a379I recently was given a tour of the Polish American Museum in Chicago and I was stunned at the beauty and rich diversity of the art on display.  The paintings exhibit an enormous range of style, from Impressionism to Modernism, Pointillism to Expressionism, nearly every “ism” I could think of.

But for me personally the biggest thrill was by far the Paderewski room.  In the photo above you can see an exact replica of his hotel room in New York when he lived there right down to a cigarette in the ashtray that looks he just put it out.

When I was taking piano lessons as an undergraduate, my teacher would only let me buy editions of Chopin that had been edited by Paderewski.  Only he understood Chopin’s music and was fit to be its editor.  Because of this I always had a vague impression that he was probably a brilliant pianist but best known as an editor.

What a revelation then to discover the real Ignacy Paderewski some twenty years later in a museum on Milwaukee Avenue!

What an incredible guy!  A brilliant pianist and statesman with larger than life charisma who was literally a living legend.  He was Prime Minister of Poland and signed the Treaty of Versailles on behalf of Poland after World War I, he was an outspoken proponent of Polish independence and represented Poland at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and the list just goes on from there.

I’m really enthralled by the idea of the artist statesman like Paderewski or Vaclav Havel.  Paderewski, unlike the vast majority of politicians it seems to me, absolutely had the best interests of Poland at heart.  And he was a brilliant pianist.  I’m so glad that I finally got to know him.


March 8, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

Hans_FalladaI’ve just finished reading Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada and it’s an absolutely chilling novel, partly because of its story and partly because it shows so clearly how easy it is for fascist ideas to take hold in the human mind.

Set in Germany in 1933 right before Hitler’s rise to power, the book is the story of an average working class couple trying to make their way in a small town and, later, in Berlin while gradually being enveloped in the shadow of the awful events to come.

What makes the book so powerful is the way that we understand the early sympathizers to the Nazi party.  Everyone is angry, everyone wants a scapegoat.  At first the scapegoat is authority itself, the political party in power, but later, as everyone knows, it is ethnic groups, gays, people with different religious beliefs and then, ultimately, even other Nazis themselves.

Because there’s no way to stop the process of hatred once you give in to it. Once you declare someone to be “other” and persecute them you have started an inexorable process that destroys everything in its path.  It’s a horrific cliche to compare modern day politicians to Hitler and that certainly isn’t my intent.

But there is a disturbing tendency in American politics to declare a particular group “other” and try to strip them of their rights.  Even if it were possible to do this, and thankfully I believe that we’ve progressed too far for it to be easy, it is a dangerous path that leads only to paranoia, suspicion, divisiveness and ultimately war and suffering.

Books like “Little Man” are so important as they show us clearly that we’ve walked down this path before and it is not a path any of us wants to walk down again.

February 28, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

toccata-and-fugue-in-d-minor-160x120I recently did a show for Relevant Tones called Visual Aids in which we asked artists to suggest imagery for a variety of different pieces.  In some cases we asked multiple artists to suggest imagery for the same piece.  I got this idea long ago after many years of producing my Sound of Silent Film Festival and noticing that composers could write any kind of avant garde idea they wanted, as long as there was visual imagery accompanying the music.

Without the imagery people would often complain that the piece was atonal, thorny, unlistenable, etc.  The usual words people use.  But when paired with imagery suddenly the music was evocative and powerful.  Fast forward years later and I now have a weekly radio show.  What if we play “difficult” music but ask artists to suggest imagery for people?

Well, the show airs today so we’ll see if it’s successful or not but the experiment itself was fascinating.  Each artist had such detailed imagery, in almost every case accompanied by a narrative storyline that was incredibly creative and rich.  It was interesting to me that in every case the narrative was integral to the visual imagery.  Not one artist just suggested random images, instead the images were almost cinematic in how they served to tell the story.

It occurred to me that this is the main thing that people want from art, and perhaps from life in general: to be told a story.  If there is no story accompanying a painting, most people will make up one to go with it. We are narrative creatures by nature, a byproduct I’m sure of the causal nature of how we think.  I’ve always told composition students that to be successful their music must communicate something to the listener.

But what I would say now is that it must tell a story of some kind.

February 21, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

IACI’ve put that logo on more concert programs over the last eleven years than I can possibly remember.  Thanks to funding from the Illinois Arts Council I and several other musicians from ACM have traveled to Mexico and to Paris to perform concerts of music by Chicago composers.

Thanks to funding from the IAC, we have commissioned composers around the world, flown them to Chicago to hear their music performed, we have brought contemporary classical music to venues throughout the city and we have opened music schools in three different neighborhoods.

They’re not our only sponsor and the money they give us is a very small part of our overall budget but nonetheless, they’ve been hugely helpful to us and to so many other arts organizations in the state and, considering what a small part of the state’s budget they receive, I would say that the return on investment has been extremely high.

How terribly sad then to see our new governor Bruce Rauner, who spent $64 million, $27 million of his own money, to get elected, decide that he can somehow balance our budget through cuts alone without even trying to find new revenue sources.  How sad to watch him cut the IAC to the bone while giving raises to his staff, insisting that all Illinoisans must feel the pain while making it clear that this excludes those close to him.

No, the only ones to feel the pain will be the downtrodden, poor, mentally ill,  those who wish to use roads or public transportation to get around, and the artistically inclined.   Why do we artists have to defend art’s place in society?  Nearly all of the renowned societies throughout human history were renowned because of their arts, the only possible exception being the Romans who were renowned for orgies, aqueducts and aquiline noses.

It’s a sad but true fact that Illinois artists, and artists throughout the country, have to find ways to make art on their own.  We cannot expect help from our city, our state or our federal government.  We have to create earned revenue to support ourselves and create the art that we want and we have to become a force to be reckoned with.  The mere fact that creating art is universally considered part and parcel of what it means to be human is not enough to have the government which we support allocate a miniscule portion of its budget to in turn support our work.

Farewell Illinois Arts Council.  It was a good ride but we’re on our own now.


February 13, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

Mexican_museumIf there’s a more peaceful place in an urban setting for contemplation and tranquil thinking than this lovely patio at the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, I don’t know what it is.  I spent several hours here yesterday writing in my notebook, thinking, and just kind of spacing out in general.

Since I’m here in Mexico studying Spanish, language has been on my mind quite a bit.  When I first started studying Spanish five years ago I worked to memorize my vocabulary mainly by relating Spanish words to their English equivalent, but over time I learned to stop doing this and to just picture the object or concept for which the Spanish word stands.

I’ve always been fascinated by how, in learning a language, you learn more than a mere set of different words, you learn how the people who speak that language view our world.  I was thinking of this at the museum, how a mesa for example, is not really the same thing as a table.  You can say that mesa “means” table but that’s not quite true.

Both cultures had the idea for a table, an object on which you could set other objects.  The idea existed in the mind first and then it was made real and then given a name.  This to me is a much more interesting way of thinking of about this than that a mesa is the Spanish speaking equivalent of a table.  It also brings us to Plato’s idea of the theory of forms.  In the theory of forms there is a perfect table that exists in a different world, a spirit world of permanence. It is a kind of archetypal table, of which the table in our world is a mere imperfect copy.

I always thought that this would imply that all potential forms existed in this spirit world and, as conscious beings like humans had ideas, they were pulled forth as imperfect copies in this world.  But, upon reflecting on language and how everything that can be given a name must have existed as an idea first, I now think that we have a direct impact on this world of forms.

It is consciousness that has the power to create ideas and to bring those ideas into the material world, in howsoever imperfect a manner.  Therefore it is consciousness that populates the world of forms in the first place and allows them to be real. We always wonder how consciousness arose but I would argue that there was no other choice but for consciousness to arise, that it is as much part and parcel of the fabric of the universe as anything else.

The Aristotelian Unmoved Mover, the Big Bang, or whatever the “first” event was, was simply the result of a form of consciousness having an idea, and since consciousness or the potential to become conscious, is perhaps the one thing that pervades any understanding of reality, it was inevitable that ideas would populate the world of forms and inevitable that they would then be copied imperfectly in the material world.  That is of course if you believe in the theory of forms.

Anyway, these are the kinds of thoughts that can flit through your mind in a place like this.

February 7, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

Agnieszka_installment_one1For the past nine years ACM has had a project called Composer Alive in which we’ve commissioned composers from countries around the world to write a new piece for us.

Nothing unusual in this except that we’ve asked them to write the piece in short installments so our ensemble can play each installment in front of a live audience and post the audio to the site in real time as the composer writes it.

The problem with this is it’s hard to get an audience to come to watch a group rehearse and record two minutes of music.  We’ve tried this every which way over the years but this year, I think we finally hit on the right way to do it.

We’ve partnered with two people who frequently have salon-style events in their homes featuring musical and other arts performances and asked if we could partake.  It turns out that this is the perfect format in which to unveil part of a new piece and rehearse and record it in front of an audience.

The intimate setting, the gathering of people who are interested in the arts conspire with the wine and appetizers to create a conducive atmosphere for listening to unfamiliar music in an appreciative way.  I wish we had thought of this years ago!

From now on this is how we’ll conduct all of our Composer Alive projects and I’m already looking forward to next year.

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