Tell us something about Accessible Contemporary Music
Accessible Contemporary Music was started in 1999 by myself and flutist Laura Koepele-Tenges. There were not very many small, low-budget groups performing exclusively new music in the Chicago area so we started ACM to address that need. From the very beginning we decided to embrace a slightly unusual concert format. Our concerts are unusual in that we perform almost exclusively in non-traditional venues like bars, coffee shops, galleries and churches rather than in the concert hall and in that we frequently invite guests who don’t fall into the mainstream ideal of a Classical concert to perform with us. In the past we have had improvisors, Jazz groups, electronic musicians and, on our most recent concert, even a Magician. Because of our innovative format we are able to attract a wide ranging audience of people who are mostly unfamiliar with Classical music in general and contemporary Classical in particular, which is where the “accessible” part comes in. Our main goal is to bring music written by living composers to as wide an audience as possible and to present it in an inclusive way in a friendly environment in which people can wear jeans and order a beer if they like.
Since we started in 1999 we have seen our organization grow to include cellist Alyson Berger and, through the Weekly Readings program, twenty guest performers drawn from the finest professional musicians in the Chicago area, including the Chicago Symphony. Our first concert was attended by about twenty people, our most recent concert (April 10th 2005) was attended by a hundred and thirty and our website has grown from fifteen visits a day to eighty, so I do feel that our format, unusual though it is, is working and that we are successfully accomplishing our goal of disseminating contemporary music. Many of our audience members have told me that they’d never before been to a new music concert and that, after seeing ACM, they are more open to the idea of going to another.
What do you see as the role (intended and actual) of new music in the modern world?
I think the intended role of new music in the modern world should be the same as the role of new literature, new theater and new art, ie: to allow an artist to express him or herself in their chosen medium, to connect with an audience and share new ideas, different points of view, other cultural experiences and individual expression and to encourage dialogue about the arts and who we are as human beings. Unfortunately the actual role of new music is not as widespread as that and we find ourselves in the middle of a crisis about how Classical music in general and new music in particular is perceived. Because so much of the music in the twentieth century was perceived as forbidding, dead, lifeless or fiercely antagonistic, many people have turned away from new music and that is a problem that needs to be addressed and solved. Concertgoers are divided into different camps. There are the people who love Classical music but would prefer to only hear Beethoven and Mozart and even then only the works they already know and there are the people who only want to hear the very newest of the new. Obviously there are many more of the former than the latter and obviously there are people in between but for the most part this is the case.
I believe that the former think of Classical music as an essentially dead tradition in that the best composers have already left the building and there are no others coming to take their place. This attitude toward art music is very dangerous because it becomes so easy to lionize Beethoven and Mozart and forget that they were mortals, very talented mortals obviously, but still just people. Once a composer becomes lionized in this way it is widely believed that no one else can live up to that ideal and that there’s really no point in anyone trying. Who can live up to a bust? Unfortunately it is these concert goers who have the money and resources and so it is they who the major orchestras placate with unimaginative programming.
New music people agree that it is a dead tradition and do everything they can to distance themselves from Mozart, Beethoven, et al, and will only embrace the brand spanking new and spurn the old as “been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.” In the twentieth century things came to a head with the futurist composers writing dense, cold pieces that only served to reinforce the negative stereotypes concert-goers already held about new music, about the best being behind us. Once the wealthy concertgoers lost interest the patronage system that had supported the composition of new music for so long was lost and composers turned to the University for help. The University gladly gave help but also reinforced the overly academic direction in which Classical music was already heading and as a result the leading compositional movements of the twentieth century are overwhelmingly lifeless, dry and, to paraphrase George Rochberg, emotionally bankrupt.
Composers need to make an effort to overcome these stereotypes and reach out to wider audiences. There is a fear of “selling out” or of compromising that has been born essentially out of a fear of failure. It’s such a temptation to say “I don’t have a wide audience because no one “gets” my music.” There is a huge feeling of futility for many younger composers who are not connected or who don’t know good performers and, worst of all, new music is intrinsically tied to the University. If as a composer you are not affiliated with a University or have not won a major prize, usually sponsored in some way by the University system, then you are pretty much dead in the water. You will not win other prizes, you will not get grant money, you will not get performances that you don’t arrange yourself and you will not be taken seriously by other composers or performers. Major Symphonies will usually only perform the music of major prize winners, most of whom come from the University tradition. This essentially limits the music being performed to a very small number of compositions by a very small number of people. There are many many people who graduate in composition and then never write another note and I think that’s tragic. Just as politics is said to work best at the grass roots level, so should art music be made on all levels. One of the reasons that rock music is so popular is that people are doing it at all levels. Teenagers to gray bearded old men can get together in the garage and jam and have a great time. They know they’re not Led Zeppelin and that isn’t the point, the point is to connect through music and have a good time.
Composition, on the other hand, is thought to be a mysterious process that Beethoven could do and Mozart could do and a handful of other lucky mutants could do but that everyone else should stay away from. Over time this thinking has permeated society to the point that composed music in general is thought of as mysterious, complicated, overly intellectual and above all to be avoided. If more people thought they might actually have a chance to hear what they wrote, regardless of quality, criticism and commercial and peer acceptance they would write more and the quality would improve which would encourage more people to compose. This would in turn increase audience interest and over time we would have a revitalized art form. As it stands now we have a castle in the sky without a foundation. We have art being made on a very high level by a-list composers like John Corigliano, Chen Yi, Bright Sheng to name a few but everything underneath that is being ignored entirely. It’s essentially a one-tiered system. One of the great things about the rock world is that teenage jam bands can go on to become world famous adult jam bands. The likelihood of that happening in the Classical world, even for a University trained musician, is only slightly better than the chance of winning the state lottery and I see that as a problem.
Somehow modern literature, modern art and modern theater have all avoided this crisis but modern music is enmired in a web of bad perception and bad publicity and much of it is the doing of the composers and performers involved. Composers encourage the mystique and aloofness of the compositional process. Performers don’t want to touch new music because it is often difficult, their teachers didn’t encourage it or challenge them in any way, there’s no money in it and they don’t think it’s fun to play. Performers are also trained to get an orchestra job. If you listen to student musicians they are overwhelmingly concerned with getting an orchestra job, nobody talks about how they want to be a free-lance musician when they grow up. Amateur musicians are also not encouraged to get together and make Classical music for fun. It’s expected that if you’re playing and especially performing, a Beethoven trio then it must conform to the highest artistic standards but again this limits the art form to a very small number people. Everyone else feels excluded and so it is no wonder whatsoever that they are turning their backs on concert music as an artform and as a result orchestras everywhere are losing money and making cutbacks. The overwhelming perception as a performer is if you can’t get good enough to get into a major orchestra or have a major concert career then don’t bother.
The actual role of new music in the modern world is a handful of highly educated people playing highly complex music for another handful of highly educated people. It’s absolutely no surprise then that the artform is not thriving. Just because in my scenario the music would be played by amateur ensembles or enjoyed by the uninitiated does not mean that it is being “dumbed down.” The highest artistic standards would still be applied to the top groups and performers by their cognoscenti audiences and critics. The difference is that more people, having seen their local group perform might be enticed to go out and hear more and learn more and might even be enticed to find out what modern composers are up to or at least learn that they exist. This is such an interesting time compositionally with people writing in a multitude of different genres, styles, formats and media. There is absolutely no reason for it to be ignored nearly wholesale by the general public.
How do you go about programming your concerts?
I probably lean overall a little bit more toward performing works by composers who don’t yet have an international reputation. We receive over a hundred works a year for our Weekly Readings program and many of these pieces are by composers with an established reputation. We plan to read every work that we have received, if that’s at all possible to do, but as for performing them, we generally prefer to perform the pieces that aren’t getting the attention they deserve.
In putting a concert together I think of the pieces I have played, heard or recorded and then narrow it down to the eight or ten that we have the resources, musicians, technology, money, etc., to perform and then plan them in the next season according to the schedules of the musicians. I also frequently program one of my own pieces which are always written for some combination of the ensemble.
That’s one way in which I program but there are also times in which I start with an idea and work towards that. For example, for the October concert we are planning on having a music and movie festival that will last about three hours. I have invited filmmakers in the Chicago area to submit short, up to 20 minutes long, movies to be shown and I have invited several Chicago area composers to write music for the films for which music would be appropriate. Some of them will not have music of course and some of the musical pieces will not have video accompaniment but the hope is that there will be four or five movies with original scores by Chicago composers played live by our ensemble while the film shows. So, in this scenario all of the music is being generated out of the concept rather than several pieces being selected and then a concept of the concert formed around them.
How do you respond to unsolicited work- do you give feedback? Do you ever commission new work yourself?
Considering that ACM has a standing call for works for the Weekly Readings project it is possible to say that there really are no unsolicited works for us. We believe strongly in reading , recording and posting to our website at least one piece by every composer who submits to us. It could take a long while to get to all of the pieces that have been submitted and, as of this moment, there isn’t really a process in place as to which piece gets recorded when, but we do plan to get to them all. We have not given feedback traditionally but if the composer asked I would certainly get feedback from the musicians involved and pass that along. For many of the composers who submit to Weekly Readings this is the first time a piece of music they’ve written has been read without them being physically present so for these composers simply how the piece is interpreted from the written score is a very useful indication of how well they are communicating their sonic ideas in a written medium.
We don’t commission new works in the sense that ACM would ask for a work for specific instrumentation and then own the rights to exclusively perform that work. There are several composers who have written pieces expressly for us or for members of our ensemble and we often invite composers to write for us but we never retain rights to the premiere performance or to any aspect of the composition’s performance life whatsoever. At this point we do not have the resources to pay a well-known composer the fee he or she would be sure to ask for a commission and since our stated goal is to promote the music of lesser known composers (which we do without charge) our budget money is better spent on concerts and the Weekly Readings program which more directly benefits the composers with whom we collaborate.
What are your plans for the future?
We are in the midst of several very exciting things. Weekly Readings is going to partner with the International Society of Bassists to present Spotlight Double Bass. The ISB member composers and several ACM Weekly Readings composers have submitted pieces to us which use the Bass in some way, either as a solo or in an ensemble, and we are going to read those pieces, record them and post them to a special part of the website designed for the project. The bassists we have lined up include Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera Orchestra members and excellent free-lance Jazz musicians so this should be a very exciting project. The press release will go out late next month and the pieces will be posted beginning in June.
We are also starting a new aspect of the Weekly Readings project in which a composer writes a piece specifically for us and we read through it as it’s being composed. The composer, Dr. Jeffrey Hoover, will write whatever he can get done in a 7 day period and then email the parts and score to me as a pdf file. I will print them out every week and the participating musicians will play it and, when they are ready, I will turn on the recording equipment and we will post it. Each week listeners can hear the piece change and grow as Jeffrey makes revisions until we arrive at the final version of the piece. This will allow listeners an insight into the mystery of composition and it will give performers a chance to give some input as well instead of being merely the mouthpiece for the end product. I will have all versions of the piece posted together at the end of the project so a new listener could come in fresh and follow the piece’s progress from initial idea to final version. To my knowledge nothing else like this long distance collaboration has ever been done before.
We are performing on the first ever New Music Chicago New Music Marathon to be held at the Merit School in October. New Music Chicago is a consortium of nearly every group in town that is involved in any way with contemporary music so it’s very exciting that we are all able to work together harmoniously to promote the music of our time.
We are planning four concerts for the 2005-2006 Season, one in October (the film/music collaboration,) one in March, one in May and then the Weekly Readings end of Season concert in June.
And we are of course planning our second season of the highly successful Weekly Readings, in which we read, record and post to our website, the music of composers who submit pieces to us that fit some form of our ensemble.
How can people find out more about you?
They can go to our website at http://www.acmusic.org, they can sign up for our mailing list to get updates about our activities, concerts and about the Weekly Readings and they can always write to me with questions, kudos, complaints, etc. at email@example.com.
Interview by David Bruce
Interview originally appeared in Composition Today