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An explosion of New Music in the Triangle

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On a rainy 40-degree night in early February, I trotted without an umbrella down a soaking Chapel Hill sidewalk. It was a bit after 10 p.m., my sneakers were saturated and my fingers were going numb. Surely, no sensible person was out in this.

Still, I ducked into the intimate rock club Nightlight for a late performance of Terry Riley's minimalist masterpiece In C. Along with Chapel Hill-based writer Will Robin, Shawn Galvin—a percussionist and co-curator of New Music Raleigh, or NMR—assembled a group of community musicians to play Riley's hypnotic but restless composition. There were more musicians onstage than people in the audience on that inhospitable night, but, as it turns out, it was one of my favorite concerts of the still-young year.

Galvin is one of an ever-growing community of young musicians and composers pushing music in all directions at once. To wit, similar performances by local groups like NMR and the Duke New Music Ensemble—and visiting groups such as the Wet Ink Ensemble and Brooklyn Rider—pack venues all over the Triangle these days. And they're making their music not only in massive concert halls but also in small rock clubs and theaters, pushing their innovative music far from any pretense or cloister.

Next Tuesday night, Wet Ink wraps up a residency at Duke University with a performance of collaborative work by graduate composers and multimedia artists in the Sheafer Lab Theater, a claustrophobic black box theater. The New York-based assembly of composer-musicians has been critiquing and performing student compositions for the last two years in Durham. NMR, meanwhile, plays Kings Barcade in early May, performing special arrangements of a new open-source songbook by alt-rock auteur Beck. Local rock musicians such as Eric Hirsh and Peter Kimosh of the hip-hop/jazz group The Beast and Django Haskins of The Old Ceremony will join the ensemble of classically trained musicians. It will be this state's debut performance of Song Reader.

Area musician-composers and presenters are exchanging and amplifying this new enthusiasm each year. Transferring that energy into the greater community is the real mission of practitioners such as Galvin, if not the mission of anyone who plays a note on an instrument or makes a mark on a musical score.

"We really love the Triangle," says the Pittsburgh transplant. "It's a great area because there are a lot of creative types who live and work here—lots of designers, architects, visual artists, lots of people who have to draw their inspiration from somewhere."

It's tempting to say that "New Music" has arrived, but it's actually been here for awhile. The genre-bending trio The Bad Plus has become a near-annual visitor to Duke Performances, remaking Stravinsky's Rite of Spring a year before Carolina Performing Arts devoted an entire season to the composition's centennial. That premiere-studded celebration of one of New Music's seminal works included Russia's Studio for New Music Ensemble, operatic cellist Maya Beiser and pianist-composer-physicist Vijay Iyer. UNC even announced a multi-year residency by the versatile string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

If you don't know the term New Music, you'll be hard-pressed to solicit a consistent definition, even from the composers and performers it describes. In the absence of a coherent phrase to describe today's composers, the term originated as a catch-all for contemporary classical music. The label seems to leak meaning as the music it attempts to encapsulate propagates.

"There's no question that it's a term in flux," says composer Stephen Jaffe, a music professor at Duke and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. "It can mean anything from fully written, almost neo-Romantic music, to music in which experimental method is embedded in such a way that every rendition of a work is completely different. It can mean a string quartet. It can mean a string quartet plus Asian instruments. It can mean jazz. It doesn't only mean new music as in Henry Cowell anymore."

Cowell—the instrument inventor and innovative composer—died almost a half-century ago, and there's the rub. "New" was used to differentiate mid- to late-20th-century music, separating it from the generations-old traditions and forms that existed up to then. That's made the word, in part, an obsolete modifier, but it works within the name of the NMR ensemble by giving a clue about the group's mission.

"I'll be honest with you—arriving at a strict definition for what that term is ... I dwell on it myself," Galvin says, shrugging. "All I can tell you is that, in terms of the mission for New Music Raleigh, we've limited ourselves. Whoever's composed the music needs to be alive for us to program the piece. That's not to say that if someone has passed, that their music still isn't relatively contemporary. But [the term] is an honest governor for making sure that we're discovering new voices. It's an automatic timekeeper."

A cautious tone enters Galvin's voice whenever he starts to sound at all precious about it. To the NMR crew, "new" simply means it's just come out of the oven; everything else about the music is pretty wide open. Galvin actually sees Beck's decision to publish the sheet music of his new album as Song Reader before recording it as an old move, not a new one. But by encouraging people to play and record these 20 songs however they like, Beck has ensured that there will be no original version.

"He wanted to infuse this old way of learning a tune and to allow them a life before he kind of rubber-stamps what that song sounds like," explains Galvin. In turn, that allows New Music Raleigh to springboard from Beck's reputation to fresh faces. "We think that it's important, as practitioners, to bring light and bring live performances to folks who might not have the name recognition or whatever the limiting factors are. The Beck project allows us to do our thing and freely demonstrate our sensibilities."

Such freedom can be plenty provocative. In a conversation about Brooklyn Rider before its UNC performance last November, Emil J. Kang, Carolina Performing Arts director, described a community-oriented career model for the new music composer. It's more like a hive mind than the tortured composer in isolation, pulling at his hair to find that perfect next note.

"The only thing that's reminiscent of the past is the fact that [Brooklyn Rider is] two violins, a viola and a cello," Kang notes. "Everything else is up to what they want to do. And all of them, though this is a very small world, work with each other. There's isn't a sense of competition like in the old days where they're all trying to get Leonard Bernstein to premiere their new concerto. They're all sharing. They're all coming together to help each other's careers."

Some young composers don't even understand such a competitive model. In his second year of a musical composition doctorate at Duke, D. Edward Davis will have an as-yet-untitled piece for flute, saxophone, violin and electronics performed by Wet Ink on Tuesday night. But it's not just a straight score of his notation; it's a multimedia collaborative work made with Lisa McCarty, a photographer who's finishing her MFA in experimental documentary arts this spring. The competition is supplanted by necessary collaboration.

The piece sprang from a meeting about a year ago; at the time, it felt painfully forced. In a conference room, faculty gathered the Wet Ink Ensemble, a team of Duke graduate composers and a group of MFA EDA artists to work together. They stared blankly at one another. Unfamiliar with one another's work, the students gave 10-minute presentations of what they did. Davis immediately recognized a kindred spirit in McCarty, even though she didn't make music.

"I was immediately drawn to Lisa's work because it has a lot of resonance with what I do. She's very interested in conceptual ideas and a focus on process. And she combines a rigorous conceptualism with an end result that's aesthetically beautiful," he says. "It's a cold and clinical process, but we're both shooting for something ravishing when we're finished."

McCarty didn't initially see the connection, but now it computes.

"He's making music about music and I'm making pictures about pictures," she says. "His music is a gradual and subtle unfolding of elements. It really demands your attention, and I hope mine does too. I've listened to John Cage, but I've never worked with a composer before."

Even "composer" is a somewhat outdated term for Kate Soper, a vocalist-composer with Wet Ink. In her profoundly collaborative world, everyone is hyphenated.

"When the composers are the performers and vice versa, it lends an internal momentum to an ensemble," Soper says. "It stimulates you as a composer when you're part of an ensemble that will be an outlet for your work, taking it right from your studio to the stage. It heads in the other direction, too. It's a nice symbiotic relationship between those identities, and I think they create a really productive feedback loop."

After two years working consistently with Duke composers like Davis, Soper can tack "-teacher" onto her title. All these categories truly seem to blend for her. She reckons the musical purist—the composer who doesn't play or the performer who doesn't write—is a fading breed.

"This is a big part of the zeitgeist right now," she says. "It seems to have entered a mainstream understanding of music. On any kind of job application for a composer, you're expected to do some other things, whether it's running the electronics studio or performing or teaching performance. New Music in general invites—and maybe even requires—that the performers do have to have some kind of active role in really shaping the work. ... The choices that you are making are without precedent."

Indeed, for New Music practitioners, even repertoire often lacks precedent. Galvin already plans open-call performances of In C. He dreams about how powerfully a massive ensemble could play it. And he knows that, now, people will come out for that. Since he and his wife, Karen, a violinist, started NMR in 2009, they've seen audiences grow. The tipping point was a 2010 performance of Penelope, an hour-long song cycle written by Sarah Kirkland Snider.

"We gave the first performance of this outside of New York," Galvin says with obvious pride. "It's found some very wonderful legs now and is getting many, many performances. But it was maybe our third show or so. We did it at Kings with a singer named Shara Worden, who leads My Brightest Diamond. It was a perfect demonstration of how the synergy of new music can be a really enjoyable thing. It energized us."

This article appeared in print with the headline "The inexhaustible energy source."

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