That’s a Mighty Big Umbrella

That’s a Mighty Big Umbrella

This weekend I enjoyed two events the likes of which make me happy to be involved in music and give me hope for the future of new music. What I find particularly intriguing about this is that these events really could not have been more different from each other, yet both were heartening and ultimately extremely satisfying.

On Saturday night, I heard the avant-garde progressive noise band Gutbucket on the Baltimore stop of their tour. Quoting from their mission statement: “Destroying walls between art-rock, avant-squonk, and mathed-out prog, Gutbucket’s through-composed charts enter a place of pure sound.” This quartet is comprised of players (Ken Thompson, saxophone; Ty Citerman, guitar Adam D. Gold, drums; and Eric Rockwin, bass) who combine classical performance and composition training with incredible improvisation chops and a decided predilection for industrial rock timbres. Their set had the energy of a metal performance and the rigor of a serious experimental concert. Most of their set was comprised of “songs” (which they could just as easily have called “pieces”) from their upcoming CD. These songs were noisy, brutal, at times tuneful, funky without sitting in a single meter. Their playing was virtuosic in the extreme, but never detracting from the musical flow.

What impresses me most about Gutbucket is their ability to reach beyond the concert hall without compromising the integrity of their music. Many locals call this town “Smalltimore” because people who spend a lot of time here start running into the same people over and over again, and—after only three years in the city—I recognize many people at any concert or reading by sight if not by name and profession. The entire audience at the Gutbucket show was new to me. And this was the type of crowd that strikes me as what people twenty years ago hoped would become the future audience for classical music: original prog rock fans. I was surprised to see that this audience is still seeking new music, but the allegiance of these original prog rockers is to new experimental “rock” rather than following the influences of the ’70s prog bands towards orchestral music.

On Sunday, I made a quick road trip to Philadelphia to hear the final concert of Orchestra 2001’s 22nd season. I’ve been hearing a lot lately about the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and rightly so since their recordings are phenomenal and they have championed many wonderful composers (including two of my all-time favorites: David Rakowski and Ken Ueno). But a few miles south, James Freeman also has been presenting wonderfully American-centric contemporary orchestral music in committed performances, to somewhat less fanfare. This concert included three premieres sandwiched around the sole old piece by Barber. Yes, you read correctly: an orchestral concert with three premieres. And a large avid audience. One of the composers told me that his piece alone was rehearsed for four hours over three rehearsals!

The concert opened with Andrew Rudin’s Concerto for Piano and Small Orchestra, completed in 2008 for the Great Noise Ensemble and receiving its Philadelphia premiere. This 45-minute work had many of the same hallmarks as the Gutbucket performance the previous night—beautifully crunchy harmonies, evocative new sounds, propulsive rhythms that never quite stabilized— but here these elements were derived from a fascination with Bartók’s and Ravel’s concertos and other music within the orchestral tradition. The piece was a tour de force and the pianist, Marcantonio Barone, advocated beautifully for the wide-ranging expressiveness of the music.

Robert Maggio composed Summer: 2 A.M. in response to the Barber piece. Robert was my ear-training instructor in my second year at Penn and it was great seeing him again after 20 years, catching up a bit on his wildly entertaining pedagogy. His piece, a set of orchestrated songs in the musical theater style, reflected his recent forays towards Broadway. The songs were funny, engaging, and honest. Laura Heimes acted and sang them invitingly. I greatly appreciated the fact that the songs were exactly what Robert and Laura intended them to be—diverting and entertaining.

Like the Maggio, the final piece on the program was a world premiere: Paul Moravec’s Violin Concerto. Filled with virtuosic effects, this piece was designed to showcase the playing of Maria Bachmann, who tore into the music with great intensity and musicality.

The variety of the pieces on the concert was clearly designed around the axiom that different people would respond better to different pieces, and that was indeed the case. All the pieces were well-constructed and all the performances were thoroughly rehearsed, allowing the individual audience members to determine for themselves with what aesthetic they most closely identified. The people in attendance could disagree with each other as to which was their preferred piece while recognizing the value in hearing new music for orchestra.

After this weekend of concerts, I strongly believe that these two groups have both created excellent solutions to the problems facing experimental musicians today. By programming a diverse cross-section of today’s composers, Orchestra 2001 can present orchestral concerts filled with premieres and find a supportive audience. Meanwhile, Gutbucket has moved out of traditional concert halls in order to bring experimental sounds to a different audience. Both events were successful new music concerts and together they made for an exceptional weekend. The umbrella of new music must be very large to contain both these concerts and that umbrella was very comforting to me on this rainy weekend.

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9 thoughts on “That’s a Mighty Big Umbrella

  1. Lisa X

    What impresses me most about Gutbucket is their ability to reach beyond the concert hall without compromising the integrity of their music.

    Great to read about Gutbucket in NMBx! But the above seems to imply that you are surprised to find music outside of the concert hall that hasn’t compromised its musical integrity. Am I reading that right?

  2. smooke

    @Scott: Thank you for asking. I’d suggest starting with two excellent groups from the 80s who got the ball rolling: Sonic Youth and Einsturzende Neubauten. After that noise bands kind of went in two directions where one is more about drones (e.g. Glen Branca or Sigur Ross) and the other is about industrial sound (e.g. John Zorn’s Masada or Hexnut’s recent recordings). You could also try some of the small local clubs and see what you find since it’s music that’s best experienced live and you’re in Nashville where certainly there’s a wide variety of club music!

    @Lisa X: Good point. I’m surprised that Classically-trained players are reaching out towards a different audience without sacrificing musical integrity. It’s a subtle distinction, but I’ve found that the tendency is for crossover acts to water things down a bit when crossing over. So, I’m not surprised to find musical complexity in a club (not by a long shot!), but at the same time, I’m heartened that Gutbucket doesn’t soften any of their edges in order to reach an audience.

  3. philmusic

    You could go back further to the 60’s Amon Duul, or Blue Cheer (outsides/insides) if you like. (I am sure there are many more)

    “..this was the type of crowd that strikes me as what people twenty years ago hoped would become the future audience for classical music:

    I think that the classical crowd had been making quite a few strides in the alternative space performance direction. It is certainly become more inclusive except for serial music (sigh). Yet there is something really liberating about very loud music that is not confluent with a classical concert.

    On the other hand co-opting a “scene” is a social maneuver that is pretty hard to pull off. Besides coming off as a tourist being “cool” is not just about what you know its also about who you exclude.

    Phil Fried Who remembers the 60’s or was it the 70’s?

  4. Lisa X

    David, are you saying that classical training makes it difficult for musicians to play other kinds of music with integrity? I’d agree with that. But I guess Gutbucket is doing a great job, becuse I would have never guessed they have classical training.

  5. smooke

    @Lisa X:
    No, I’m not saying that. Just saying that when acts consciously appeal to a certain audience the tendency is to pander. And Gutbucket is refreshingly pander-free (to my ears). I know that Ken has classical chops since he runs the Asphalt Orchestra and plays in Alarm Will Sound and Signal. Eric sounds to me as if he’s classically trained, but I didn’t ask. I’m drawing a conclusion by association for Ty and Adam. Perhaps they’ll want to clear up the matter?

  6. smooke

    Well, I checked and Gutbucket prefers to not discuss their training, keeping the focus on the music. Suffice it to say that my assumption wasn’t entirely correct.

  7. Lisa X

    Just saying that when acts consciously appeal to a certain audience the tendency is to pander.

    That’s clear enough. You think Gutbucket is trying to appeal to a specific audience? Who?

    Sorry to harass you about this. I just sense some strong personal values (ones we probably don’t share) under the surface of statements like the one quoted above. I am only curious about those values and don’t mean to badger you.

  8. philmusic

    “Sorry to harass you about this. I just sense some strong personal value”

    Um why apologize–thats all you do.

    As I remember the last time in my case “you” asked me several times to explain comments that I didn’t make. Those referenced comments you made up your self. Putting words into peoples mouths then asking them to explain them. Well, I suppose its a step above spitballs.

    Sure its cool to be a situationist. No doubt thats why you hide your identity.

    Phil Fried Phil’s Page


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