eighth blackbird, ICE, and Timothy Weiss of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music
In conversation with
Frank J. Oteri
Video presentation by
Transcribed by Julia Lu
With additional transcription by Randy Nordschow and
Edited by Frank J. Oteri and
There are certain institutions that seem to turn up again and again in the CVs of denizens of the new music community. One of them is Oberlin Conservatory. For years I’ve been noticing that whenever something interesting is going on new music-wise, there’s a good chance that someone involved in it studied at Oberlin.
Perhaps the most celebrated among recent Oberlin alumni is the new music sextet eighth blackbird, which has charted a unique career path in the field of classical chamber music performance for more than a decade. Adamantly a new-music-only ensemble as well as adamantly a non-fractalizable whole, eighth blackbird has nurtured a new body of concert repertoire for the 21st century and has attained a level of success that most ensembles of any kind would envy: e.g. major touring engagements, high-profile management, a significant discography, and tons of media exposure including national television.
A younger group of Oberlin alumni, ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) has also been shaking up the music scene in new and unusual ways. A fiercely D.I.Y. unit currently based in two major American cities that independently programs and produces most of its concerts, ICE encompasses and embraces everything from solos to chamber orchestra repertoire and has just released their first CD.
So what is it about Oberlin? After talking with the members of each of these ensembles, I had to go there and see for myself. Nestled in a small Ohio town 35 miles away from a major metropolis, Oberlin Conservatory is an oasis for alternative thinking about music and how it connects to other disciplines. And according to the director of the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble Timothy Weiss, who has been a valuable mentor and a catalyst for both eighth blackbird and ICE, there’s a similar euphoria about new music among the next generation at Oberlin.
- eighth blackbird
- International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)
- Timothy Weiss of the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble
at The Kitchen, New York, NY—January 11, 2007, 3:00 p.m.
Frank J. Oteri: Instead of beginning with a typical kind of how-did-this-all-begin question, I’d love to plunge right in and talk about your new CD because I’m so excited about it. You’re preparing a concert performance of this same music tonight live, which is super exciting. Part of why I’m so worked up about this has nothing to do with the music that’s on it or how you played it, but the way you’ve packaged the whole thing. Somebody randomly picking it up who’s never heard of eighth blackbird, who has never heard of “new music,” who might not know what any of this stuff is, could be fooled into thinking that this is something else, that this is some kind of alt-rock record perhaps. So was that the idea going into this? Whose idea was it and just how did this happen to do the record this way?
Matthew Duvall: We do everything by consensus in our meetings and brainstorming sessions. That’s how most stuff happens. But the actual concept for the album was Steve [Mackey]’s piece. That gave us the title, strange imaginary animals.
Lisa Kaplan: Then I had the idea that they should do those exquisite corpse drawings among the composers: If their pieces were strange imaginary animals, how would they represent it? Then from there I also told them that they should feel free to draw their own strange imaginary animal aside from just their part of the exquisite corpse drawing that they did. And then I just sent everything to the designer and said, “OK, can you do anything with this?” And he said he could.
Matt Albert: I think we have a really good relationship with the designer at Cedille records. From the first record that we did with them, I’ve felt like we were speaking the same language when we’re talking to them, Pete and Melanie. Lisa’s been working with them on the last two discs. I think it’s important that our discs look visually appealing, and that can mean a lot of things. I think that a lot of pop discs are visually appealing. Does that mean that I want our disc to look like a pop disc? Not necessarily. I just want our disc to look good. And I think that’s kind of where we’re coming from. We want to look good.
FJO: That’s interesting, you don’t even have a photo of the group anywhere in the package.
LK: Yeah, instead I decided just for fun to draw little caricatures of each of us. We didn’t think our record label would go for it when I said, “Can we just use these instead of having a photo?” But he said great and I said OK, good.
MA: And Lisa is thrilled that we don’t have a photo of her!
FJO: Not having a photo of the group sort of adds a layer of individual anonymity within group identity which is sometimes a very big deal in the alt-rock world and certainly in the re-mix world, and there’s even a re-mix on your CD.
LK: That’s true.
FJO: But the whole group identity thing makes me wonder how you think of yourselves. You’ve passed your tenth anniversary. At this point do you think in terms of individual careers as musicians or do you think really more in terms of the group?
MD: I think it’s primarily about the group. Long ago we abandoned individual bios in any of our programs or press materials. One of the things that has often differentiated our group from other classical—I should say new music—ensembles is that we almost never bring in an extra to play or hire a freelancer. We don’t usually perform any repertoire that doesn’t call for the instruments of these members. We really have tried to create a band and stick with these six people, and this CD represents that, too. It really didn’t bother any of us, and I was definitely a huge advocate for the idea that we don’t have a picture of us in the new CD. Not that it’s not nice to have that, but that content is on our prior CDs; it’s available on the web. You can see what we look like if you come to a concert. So instead of bringing that slice of reality back into the package, we had it stay fun and imaginary.
FJO: It’s interesting that you feature no individual bios. Until this past year, you’ve never even had a personnel change.
Group: That’s good.
FJO: Tim, you’re the new kid on the block here. What’s it like walking into this?
Timothy Munro: It’s kind of like walking into a huge dysfunctional family that has stayed together through thick and thin. And it just feels like home, almost. It was quite easy to slip in. But there was such a huge pile of stuff to learn because the group has developed such an enormous back catalogue of repertoire over the years. As far as actually feeling at home in the group, everyone made me feel at home; it feels like a hand in glove kind of thing. And they rag on me, I’m kind of like the little pre-pubescent teenager in the group.
FJO: Now for the rest of you, particularly Lisa, is the balance skewed now? You’re the only girl in the group now.
LK: Yes, I’m the only girl, I know. Yeah, but Tim told me though that if I ever needed to talk about girl stuff that I could feel free at any time if I felt that I was missing out on that. But I don’t because I guess I’ve always been a little bit of one of the guys.
FJO: So then, what would you say is the identity of eighth blackbird, separate and beyond any of you individually? I’m reminded of Robert Fripp’s claim that King Crimson is not him or anyone else in the group, but is rather a state of being. What is eighth blackbird’s state of being?
TM: Well we have a very clear and direct mission statement that I think we’re all pretty happy with. Do you think that’s a good way of defining the group?
MA: If you can remember it.
TM: I can’t remember it.
Nicholas Photinos: Unpretentious excitement. [laughter] That’s all I have to say.
LK: Yeah. That’s good. That’s a good way to say it.
MA: Hopefully there’s virtuosity involved and hopefully there’s a connection. That’s something that we saw sometimes happening with other new music groups and sometimes not. That you connect. They’re almost always connecting to the music, but they’re not always connecting the music to the audience. It’s really hard to define what that means or how you do that. But, it’s been really important to us to not be playing into a vacuum.
LK: We’re very committed, and I think composers know that especially, and we’re committed to each other.
TM: I always feel like a lot of new music ensembles semi-prepare new music, but this group is almost like a string quartet preparing for a Haydn quartet performance. We really get inside the music, we play it a lot, and we give it a life of its own. We really give it a chance. I think that’s important.
FJO: I’m thinking about what Matthew Duvall said earlier about rarely bringing in anybody else. I’m thinking about your very first recording and the very first concerts where you did this the Allen Otte arrangement of Joan Tower’s Petroushskates. Here was a piece that had been written and all of you could play it except one. But that wasn’t acceptable to the group; what’s the percussionist going to do? So if you were going to do it, you had to make it work for all of you. So thanks to this new arrangement, you can play it, and I personally think it’s even more exciting this way.
LK: Even Joan thinks that.
FJO: But then on your next recording you did George Crumb’s Voice of the Whale, which only involves three of you but you didn’t feel the need to have that re-arranged for everybody. And then at your 10th anniversary concert at the 92nd Street Y, there was another piece that only three of you played on. So sometimes you do have subsets. Where do you draw the line?
NP: One of the lines is that we only commission for all six of us. We never commission for a subset.
LK: Or we haven’t yet.
NP: We haven’t yet and I would say that’s a pretty strong line. We try to keep it mostly the sextet. That being said, there are these other great pieces that just happen to be for two to five of us. So we also bring those in as well.
LK: It was more important I think at the very beginning of our time together that we wanted to really establish sextets in our repertoire and then, like Nick said, commissioning sextets, too, so that there would start to become this body of work, these sextets. Voice of the Whale was a piece we had heard performed at Oberlin when we were all students. We had fallen in love with it and we just always wanted to do it, so there didn’t seem to be any reason not to, basically, the same with Table Music, which we did at the 92nd Street Y last year.
Getting Hooked on New Music
Frank J. Oteri: You all met at Oberlin, except for Tim, I guess.
Tim Munro: I actually did go to Oberlin.
FJO: You did!
Matt Albert: We didn’t know each other at Oberlin.
Lisa Kaplan: But he did go there.
TM: It just never, never ends. I did two years there, a few years after they finished.
FJO: “Did two years.” You make it sound like it’s a prison.
TM: It’s a small Midwestern town.
FJO: But, actually, Oberlin is a real hotbed for new music. Every time I turn around and there’s somebody playing new music, it seems like at least one of the people in the group is from Oberlin. So what happens there that gets everybody away from playing Haydn string quartets?
Matthew Duvall: I think there’s an easy answer to that actually. We visit a lot of institutions. And they almost all treat their contemporary music ensemble or their new music ensemble in a different way. There are all kinds of variations. Often the new music ensemble or contemporary ensemble is at the bottom of the heap of the performance ensembles. Students will want to play a piece and they’ll scramble to find other students or whoever, that’s kind of the normal formula. Oberlin is very interesting in that the Contemporary Music Ensemble has been established as one of the premier ensembles in the conservatory. The students actually often compete to get into it. It’s a completely different perspective on music. New music is chamber music, and it’s appreciated there in a way that is different because of the way the conducting faculty has positioned the ensemble. And with all that comes great and really challenging experiences that the students have with that repertoire.
MA: I would also say the conservatory and the college really have a reputation for producing students that think outside the box, and for really encouraging that. One of the greatest things that Oberlin has to offer, apart from other institutions, is that they’re constantly challenging their students to come up with new ways of doing things. You meet some of the most creative people there, and later they go on to do really amazing and creative things.
LK: I remember, personally, I had never played anything more contemporary than Copland before going to Oberlin. When I arrived, I saw how everyone was just excited about contemporary music there. And everyone wanted to play this exciting music for the conductor who put us all together. I was totally swayed by it. I just totally jumped on the wagon. That’s what happened to all of us, I think.
FJO: So when you all first got there, you weren’t necessarily into new music. Matt, I know your father is a composer, so you were into this stuff.
FJO: Or maybe you weren’t. I don’t know.
MA: I might have been more familiar with some of it than others, but even I thought: I’m going to play violin, so I’m going to get a job in a string quartet or an orchestra—I’m going to practice my excerpts.
LK: That’s what’s funny. When we asked you to join the group, Matt said, “Well, as long as it doesn’t cut into too much of my quartet time.” And we all secretly knew that he would totally love it, but we were like “Oh yeah, no problem; yeah, you’ll have plenty of time.”
MA: I had a lot of other stuff going on. But I really think about this group as the thing that took off. Any of the six of us could have done so many things coming out of Oberlin. We were all trying for things there, and this was the one that worked. Sometimes you sit down with a group of people and you start playing together and you’re speaking with one voice. You know without even trying. It’s not hitting a downbeat together. It’s not all playing the same forté. It’s like “O.K., Wendell Logan’s Moments means this; let’s make it mean that.” And I don’t know; it just happened.
Nicholas Photinos: It’s still happening.
FJO: When you guys got together, the classical music establishment wasn’t quite as suspicious of new music as when the Kronos Quartet first started out. But there was this mentality—and there still is in some quarters—in the conservatories and with certain artist management firms that new music is box office poison. And you can’t have a “real” career if you’re not playing Mozart, etc. The first time I heard you guys, believe it or not, was on CBS Sunday Morning. And I thought, “Who are these people? They’re playing new music.” You contradicted all those stereotypes. Did you find any time during the course of this that there was pressure to do more standard repertoire?
Michael Maccaferri: We felt that pressure one time I think, in a competition. But that was an anomaly. We’ve never had a presenter say “Ooh, we’d really love…”
MD: Yeah, one presenter said that.
MM: Is that right?
MD: Some years ago. Said we’ll hire you if you have one older piece of repertoire on the concert, like a Beethoven trio or something. And we declined. That happened once.
LK: I don’t think I’ve ever had the feeling like “Oh, if I was playing in a group that didn’t focus solely on contemporary music that I’d be happier” or “I’d make more money.” I never had any kind of thoughts like that.
MD: I think all of your generalizations are true. But when we started out, we didn’t understand any of that, which is good. So it didn’t seem that weird to us. We didn’t know any better so that’s probably for the best. The other funny thing that happened was—and I wouldn’t say that this was master planning on our part, I think it was just a lot of very dumb luck—one of the very first things that we did on our own, aside from a small competition while we were still students enrolled in school, was we applied as students to a series of summer festivals. These were mostly chamber music festivals and festivals that had student orchestras. The presenters—you know summer festivals are often a lot of very mixed programming—looked at our application; there were six of us applying to come and they thought: “We could fill a lot of chairs really easily if we bring these six musicians in, and they’ll all play in the orchestra. Then when we need some new music on a concert, they can do that, and then we’ll have satisfied our need for some new music programming.” We had five different festivals that first summer touring. It was all back-to-back. It worked out to eight weeks solid on the road, and somehow we just kind of dived into asking them to let us do whatever they need, and we got our foot in the door. Somehow after that first summer, all of a sudden we had this little resume of performance experience and that was a jumping-off point to justify approaching other presenters.
LK: We could only play four pieces, though, I think.
MA: I think we learned a fifth piece that summer. I think we increased our repertoire.
MM: Our entire resume fit on the back of a t-shirt.
MD: We definitely exaggerated the truth that first summer, no question about it, but you know, we managed to get through by the skin of our teeth, and then momentum very slowly built from there.
Building a Repertoire
Frank J. Oteri: At this point, the “Pierrot plus percussion” ensemble is a 20th-century mainstay, and there is a body of important repertoire written for it, but it’s all contemporary music. You play some of that, but most of what you play are works that you’ve commissioned. So how do you find composers? What turns you on to a composer? What’s the process by which you bring a piece into life for somebody?
Matthew Duvall: It varies. I wish we were organized and systematic, but I can’t make that claim. Really.
Michael Maccaferri: There are some organized aspects to it, but a lot of it’s just chance. We’re lucky in that we get out into the world a lot and we get to hear a lot different people’s music, and meet a lot of different people.
Lisa Kaplan: Matt was talking about when we went to all these festivals in our first summer together. We were at the Norfolk Festival, and that’s where we met Gordon Fitzell. We really liked his music and we asked, “Will you write a piece for us?” And he said “Sure, great, yeah.” And then it took a number of years for that to actually happen, maybe like five or six years.
Matt Albert: Three or four. The score says ’01 on it.
LK: OK, maybe three or four. We also commissioned Dan Kellogg because of Norfolk. The piece that Derek Bermel wrote for us, Tide Shifts, was through the Greenwall Foundation. That was a foundation that called us up and said, “We’d like to have you apply.” There were stipulations; it had to be an emerging New York-based composer. So we decided to apply with Derek and happened to get that.
MD: Usually depending on the situation, there are almost always some kind of limiting parameters, which is helpful, like this New York-based composer thing. We had to narrow it down to people living here.
LK: Jennifer Higdon was someone whom Joan Tower had always been a real advocate for, and we know Joan from Norfolk again, and she’s a great friend. We had wanted to commission Jennifer for a long time and finally got a grant in order to be able to do that. It’s all about finding money.
FJO: So you don’t have people sending you scores?
LK: Oh we do, yes.
MD: And we look at all the material when we can. Sometimes we find really wonderful things that way, but there’s quite a bit, and it’s very hard for us to keep up with that.
FJO: And I imagine as soon as we put this out on the web you’re going to be getting even more.
MD: We do it when we can but it’s just that we don’t know. It’s almost impossible to do in a routine way.
FJO: What’s your usual approach of working with composers once you have a piece in process?
MA: I think that a lot of times, we start out by talking to them about bare bones stuff: the length, the instrumentation, what doubling, and what instruments are you going to write for. And then we tend to leave them alone as much as they want to be left alone. It’s really up to the composer. Sometimes the composers want to come try out things, or e-mail us questions, but sometimes they just want to write, and we’re cool with that. Then when we get the piece, we want the opportunity to just rehearse as well. And again write lots of questions back and forth: “You know; this doesn’t work.” “Do you mean an f-sharp here?” “Is this the tempo?” “Didn’t you mean a quarter note?” Those kinds of things. We like to play for composers when we’ve had a chance to get close to the internalization that Tim was talking about. Hopefully we’re on equal footing with the composer who knows that piece really well.
LK: We like to develop our own interpretation to the point where we ultimately feel that we’re going to own that piece, which is not to say that other people shouldn’t play it. They should. But just that, this is our interpretation; this is how we’re doing it. We like to be at that point when we try to present it to a composer, which isn’t always the case, but ultimately that’s the goal. And then we’re totally open to changing things, and I think the composer’s usually very open to that as well, if you’ve gotten to that level for them to hear it.
MA: And ideally we like to play a piece for the composer in advance of when it’s going to be performed. I remember when the Naumburg Foundation commissioned George Perle to write us a piece. We ended up playing it for him for the first time in the afternoon of the world premiere. So that’s not an ideal situation.
LK: That’s not ideal. He was very gracious.
MA: He was great.
MM: He’s such a great composer. The score was crystal clear. I’m sure you know George’s music. He’s very precise. And of course that made our job that much easier, too, to an extent.
LK: He knew exactly what he was going for.
FJO: George Perle said in our talk with him on NewMusicBox that if a student’s score didn’t have clear articulation markings for every single note in the score, he would hand it back to his student and say “You didn’t write the piece yet.”
FJO: The flip side of this, though, is do you ever wind up getting a piece from somebody you commissioned and that you’re really excited about, that doesn’t quite work out?
LK: Sure. Yup. That happens.
MD: Not everything can be a great fit. It could be the quality of the work we received, but it could also just be…
LK: The aesthetic?
MD: …No, the fit between us and the piece. It’s not always a good pairing. We’ve played things that I’m sure are going to be played much better by other performers who feel like they can embrace it in a way that we were not able to. That’s just different personalities. The pieces that live in our repertoire are the ones that we really feel like we can own. We develop an interpretation and it’s so convincing to us that it just feels very natural and right. The pieces that don’t stay in our repertoire are not necessarily bad pieces, just things that didn’t quite work for us. It’s impossible to generalize.
FJO: Has there ever been a piece that just didn’t work to the point that you didn’t want to play it?
MD: Well, I don’t know about that.
Nicholas Photinos: Not that we ever refused to play it. Even pieces that we didn’t necessarily care for, once we got them, we always did the required number of performances. We feel an obligation in that regard. That’s not necessarily a commentary on the piece. I liked what you said: It’s just that we didn’t respond to it in a way that we hoped. One thing that we often say is that you commission the last piece the composer wrote, but you’re going to get the next piece.
LK: I remember we had commissioned someone and had specifically told this composer that we wanted an encore piece that we could play at the end of our programs, a kind of really virtuosic and fun knock-off. And he decided to totally not adhere to that in any what. He wrote a piece that needed a click track and amplifying and all this stuff. It was just like: “Wow, that’s so not what we thought it was going to be.” And it’s not to say that we hated the piece; we didn’t by any means, but we couldn’t tour it because of all these logistical problems, which is why we had asked for what we asked for.
MD: We had a need in our program for something and that’s what we asked for. The unfortunate thing is that by not giving us what we knew we had a place for in our repertoire, he gave us something that we are not able to take out to the public. We played it our contractually obligated X number times, and then we had to put it away, the primary reason being that we just didn’t have a way to place it on a program.
FJO: When you commission pieces, do you commission them with temporary exclusivities?
MA: Usually we have a year or two or something like that. And usually some kind of exclusivity for recording as well. But we do want other people to play our pieces. I love hearing developed groups playing pieces that we commissioned. But we just want the first dibs.
LK: Nick’s gone through the grant application part.
NP: Oh boy.
FJO: In terms of interpreting pieces that are already in the repertoire, it was very exciting to hear you guys do the Steve Mackey piece, which I know and love. This is now the third recording of it, and that’s very exciting. There are now three quite different interpretations of it out there. And having access to three very different interpretations really allows for someone to understand the piece better, the way you would, say, a Haydn quartet. So do you actively seek out older repertoire as well? How does that happen?
LK: Often we’ll learn something if we are going to a festival and they’re going to have a composer in-residence. We’ve done that in Cincinnati before Frederick Rzewski wrote a piece for us. We went ahead and learned some of his other pieces, so we also could make a CD. Steve’s piece was something we learned because we were going to be together with Steve at a festival at UC Davis and then also at Norfolk. So we just said, “Well, why don’t we learn something that he’s already written.” And we listened to a bunch of things and we really liked that piece. I think it just sort of depends. There’s so much music out there.
Tim Munro: There was something exciting we heard in the car.
MA: It’s a piece called Arpège by Donatoni, and I heard it done by ICE for a radio show in Chicago and loved it. It was a great piece and so we talked about it.
FJO: Getting back to Rzewski and that entire disc you did of his music, to date, this is the only time you’ve devoted a whole disc to one composer. How did that happen? What made you decide to focus so closely on one person?
LK: We knew that we wanted to record Pocket Symphony, that piece that he wrote for us and that Matt had done this arrangement of Coming Together. So we needed one more piece. We had always talked about playing Les Moutons de Panurge. Then it was easy to say that if we learned that, it would also make a really good CD.
FJO: And that piece also gave you the design concept for the cover.
MD: Fred’s music is extremely diverse. But he’s one of those very rare composers, Crumb, I think, is another one, where there was only one person that could have done it. It’s not something we planned, but, as Lisa suggested, we found ourselves learning repertoire over time and accumulating enough minutes of music for a disc. And then we looked at that repertoire and it wasn’t just like we slapped it together. Those pieces are varying enough and interesting enough together programmatically that it’s a really good disc that happens to be by one composer. That’s how I think of it. I don’t feel like we forced the music of one composer onto a disc to have that one-composer disc.
NP: It’s just that these are three pieces that we really enjoyed playing, and we thought that makes a disc. That’s great.
FJO: Getting back to what works and what doesn’t, you’re extremely diplomatic to say that the pieces aren’t necessarily bad; they just don’t work for the group. I think that’s a very healthy attitude to have. But it begs the question, what are the kinds of pieces that work for you? What are you looking for in a piece? What are the kinds of things that make it an exciting dynamic for the six of you to interact with each other?
MM: I don’t think there’s an answer.
TM: It’s very important to make good programs.
LK: That’s true.
TM: As a general rule, the group doesn’t do one-composer concerts. It’s important to generate really balanced and interesting programming that’s exciting and diverse. I think an important part of it is to find that block that fits in that chunk of the program.
NP: It really is like a puzzle or like organizing a five-course meal or something. You don’t want to eat all-meat courses. We talk about food all the time.
TM: I like meat.
NP: Some people may like to eat meat all the time, but maybe the audience doesn’t.
LK: I also think tastes definitely evolve and grow over time, and I do think that at the beginning, when we first started playing together and commissioning composers—you know we’ve always been really committed and composers would recognize that—so for instance the piece that Dan Kellogg wrote for us, I feel like he knew that he could make it whatever he wanted because we would devote the time to learning it. So he wrote whatever he wanted to write, and it’s a big virtuosic piece. I feel like some of the earlier pieces are about that: lots of virtuosic stuff because this group will actually rehearse it and hopefully will sound really good. And so I think because that was happening for awhile, then we got down into the phase where now we needed contrasting pieces: more ambient, more moody, more evocative. Gordon Fitzell’s piece definitely fits into that category. We didn’t necessarily ask for that, but that’s what we got.
MA: Like Nick said: “You don’t get their last piece; you get their next piece.” I think we’re always looking for our next piece, too. Everything we’ve done up till now does not indicate what we want to do in the future. It indicates what we’ve done. And we want to do the next thing, so that’s hard to figure out as well.
Connecting to Audiences
Frank J. Oteri: So there’s no eighth blackbird sound.
Matt Albert: I don’t think so. I think there’s an eighth blackbird way. Yeah, like a way that we approach things, and a way that we do things.
Lisa Kaplan: We have our own sound in terms of how we sound as a group. We have a group sound, but I don’t think necessarily we have one style that we’re gravitating towards.
MA: I hope not.
Tim Munro: There are pieces that you have said that you refuse to play. We’ll probably never play the Elliott Carter Triple Duo because there aren’t enough people in the group who actually like the piece.
FJO: That’s too bad. I’ve actually thought to myself that I’d love to hear you guys do it because I think you might do it even better than anyone else who has ever done it.
LK: That’s not to say we’ll never do it. I think I’ve always said: “God, that piece will take so much time to do really well, and I don’t want to focus my energy on doing that right now.” But maybe I would some other time.
FJO: His centenary’s coming up.
LK: Yeah, that is true.
FJO: One last area to get into with all of you, and that’s communicating with an audience. You brought up the importance of not being buried in your score and interacting with the audience. You stand up which is kind of unusual.
TM: He doesn’t. [points to cellist Nicholas Photinos]
FJO: Well yeah, that might not be a good idea. You might know that Woody Allen routine where he plays the cello in a marching band. And, of course, Lisa doesn’t really stand up either, although you were inside the piano.
LK: Yeah, when I need to get in there, I can.
FJO: You were saying before that you’ll play a piece if you’re contractually obligated to play it even if you don’t like it. If you don’t like something, how are you going to make an audience like it? How do you make the audience like this stuff?
Matthew Duvall: The first thing that popped into my head is that there’s a very conscious difference. I know when I don’t like a piece, I have to find a way to sell it for those three concerts. And when I do, I don’t have to make that effort.
Nicholas Photinos: I really feel like my opinion of the piece and my performance of the piece should be completely separate. Whatever I’m playing at the moment is the most important thing, and I’m going to do my best to be convincing about whatever ethos is in that piece. That’s what I’m going to try to give to you to the best of my ability.
LK: I can’t say that I’ve ever hated any piece. I still enjoy playing lots of parts of pieces I like less than others. Maybe I just have problems with how the piece works as a whole. I agree with Nick that your opinion is very separate from how you’re performing it.
MD: There are certain circumstances where you’re obligated and you have to find the best that you can find in it and communicate that. But we are fortunate to be able to choose what we play and everything that’s on this concert is exciting, and I’m really excited about it.
MA: It helps to remember that we have great jobs. This is a great thing to be doing. We’re really lucky, and if occasionally we have to get up there and play the piece that’s not the best piece you’ve ever played, there are a lot of other worse things you could be doing.
NP: Like versus an orchestra player. I play a lot more pieces that I enjoy playing.
FJO: But what is selling a piece. Is it memorizing it? Is it standing up? What do you do to sell a piece?
NP: Get inspired.
MD: Get excited.
LK: Know how it goes backwards and forwards. Not just being immersed in your score and not paying attention to what’s going on around you; being aware that you’re part of six and not just one playing with five other people.
Michael Maccaferri: The hardest part is the audience picks up on that energy. It’s very hard not to like something when somebody’s having such a good time with it.
LK: That’s true. We’ve all seen the guys sitting in the back of the violins at whatever symphony orchestra concert like they’ve been playing for a thousand years. This is not to say that they don’t like what they’re doing or that they’re not good players. But it’s not the kind of energy that sells the piece. I feel like we’re always aware of that.
International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)
at the ICEHAUS in Brooklyn, NY—March 6, 2007, 5:00 p.m.
- An Amorphous Ensemble
- Defying Geography and Corporate Structure
- Working with Composers
- The Greater New Music Community
An Amorphous Ensemble
Frank J. Oteri: I’ve been following your activities since almost the beginning. But at the same time I’ve kept up with you, to be honest, I’ve never been able to quite figure out what ICE is exactly. I’ve never been exactly sure who is in the ensemble; it’s always felt sort of amorphous. Plus you’re based both in New York and in Chicago. What’s behind this whole ICE operation?
David Bowlin: Claire’s behind this whole ICE operation.
Claire Chase: The basic idea of the group is that we’re a collective. We have a core group of about fifteen musicians who have been with the group since the beginning. And we expand to be as large as thirty. And generally our projects range from between four and ten players per concert. A couple times a season we get the whole band together to do something really big or to collaborate on a festival. As far as location goes, we split our time pretty much 50-50 between Chicago and New York. That’s been the idea from the beginning of the group. We’re also entertaining the idea of setting up a west coast chapter. San Francisco is our hope for a third location—probably in the 2009-2010 season—with the idea that we’d then be splitting our time three ways in three major American cities.
FJO: You call yourself International Contemporary Ensemble, but all those locations are in the USA.
CC: We do a lot of American music, but we also do a lot of music from other countries. Not just European music, but a lot of music from Asia and Latin America. We’re also getting interested in stuff from Africa and from other parts of the world. There just aren’t that many opportunities for us to play this music. We program, curate, and play it here in this country and cultivate a new following for it and try to drum up support in our generation for new work that’s taking place all over the world.
FJO: When you’re dividing time between cities, does that means all of you?
FJO: How modular is the structure?
David Schotzko: It depends on the situation. It can be extremely modular. We have yet to actually perform two concerts at the same time.
CC: But we’re working on it.
DS: We’ve been close and we’ve plotted that in the past and it just hasn’t come up. We could feasibly do that and have one ICE group be as official as the other ICE group.
FJO: So none of you has to be in every piece.
CC: It’s a repertoire-driven group. So, for instance, we have done a concert of all solo music in New York. We did the first performance of all fourteen Sequenzas by Berio. And we can be a chamber orchestra. We can be a string quartet. We can be a Pierrot sextet. We can be a string octet. We can be two trumpets, a viola, and a harmonica. We can be anything we feel like being based on the repertoire that we’ve chosen. So it’s kind of fun because we can make artistic decisions, and they don’t necessarily have to be personnel-related. We can just say we love the idea of this program, and we’re going to find the personnel to make it happen.
FJO: What makes it ICE versus not being ICE? Who are the core members? Do you even think in terms of core members?
DS: Sort of. We always say core membership, but it’s not that any one member has less clout than any other member. It’s actually more due to repertoire than anything else and due to concert opportunities. There is sort of a group of instruments that gets to play more than other groups of instruments: most always violin and almost always piano and flute; there’s a lot of percussion, but not always. Our poor saxophonist doesn’t get to play quite as much.
CC: But that’s something that we’re working on also. We’ve done a lot of the standard 20th-century repertoire; mixed instrumentation happens to be the bulk of it, Pierrot plus percussion. It’s a wonderful combination. We’re definitely interested in expanding that and changing it and commissioning new works for many other genres of music that hopefully will be defined as 21st-century rather than 20th-century ensembles. What we call the core are the most standard instruments that end up playing on the majority of ICE concerts, which is up to about 60 concerts a year at this point. But we’re definitely moving in the direction of creating repertoire so that everyone in the group can play the same number of concerts each year. And ideally—we’re talking probably five, six years from now—we’ll have a hundred-concert season. And everyone will take part in that, whether it’s 20 or 40 percent depending on schedules, availability, and also the needs of the repertoire of the programs.
FJO: When you say core members, is it all of you?
CC: We’re just a sampling. We’re a random representation of people who happen to not have a gig this afternoon.
Joshua Rubin: Actually, we’ve got a good part of the month off. A lot of us have projects going on and other things in our lives. We’re kind of regrouping and learning new repertoire. This is a little bit of down time for us, and maybe the only month that we’ve had recently that’s been sort of quiet.
DS: Nothing came up and we kept it that way, but January and February were very busy for us.
FJO: How important is ICE in terms of your overall activity as a musician?
Peter Evans: I just joined three weeks ago. I was sort of an adjunct member for the past year or so. So I’m not really sure how to answer because I just became a real member and I also need to figure out a way to fit the stuff that I do outside of this into this. If that’s what they’re interested in having me do so—well, I’ll find out.
CC: We kidnapped Peter very recently. He’s our newest member.
DB: I’ll talk about it a little. ICE has been a very crucial part of my musical life. For me contemporary music has become something that I’m very passionate about and very interested in. I’m somebody who likes to play both traditional and new repertoire; I like to balance both. But I think my relationship with the group has really fostered a real interest on my part that may not have existed had I not joined the group. I’m developing a very strong interest and concern about contemporary music and a real love for it. So in that sense, ICE plays a really big part of my musical life.
Defying Geography and Corporate Structure
Frank J. Oteri: What does it mean “to become a member” of ICE? It sounds a little like a corporation. Do you pay dues? What is the difference between being a member versus just being on some concerts with the group?
Claire Chase: It means that you’re involved in programming decisions. It also means that the group supports you as an individual: it supports your individual projects and your individual voice. It’s a chamber music group, but it’s a chamber music group of extraordinary soloists. Everyone in the group is an awesome solo player. And everyone has really interesting and very diverse musical interests and musical aesthetics. That diversity is one of the things that I love the most about this group. We don’t have a house style; we don’t have one particular stylistic niche that we’re out there promoting. In a given week, we’ll play what would be qualified as uptown music and downtown music: we’ll play music of Steve Reich, and we’ll play music of someone that no one has ever heard of before who comes from Bulgaria who is 23 years old. We’ll play an improvisation concert in a bar, and then we’ll play something at a standard chamber music series in a church. We’ll do all of that within a given couple of weeks. The personalities involved in the group reflect the diversity of venues and the choice of repertoire, and vice-versa, too.
FJO: Claire, technically you’re the executive director. What does that mean? Do you get more say than everyone else? How does that play out?
CC: You guys can probably answer this question better than I can, but I’m sort of like the den mother. The way I feel about ICE is that all the great programming ideas and all of the artistic vision come from the group. Everything comes from the group. Dave’s officially our program director, and we have an operations manager and an office manager and some folks that work for us part time, but I see our jobs as just gathering information and making it possible to execute the ideas that come from the group.
David Bowlin: Claire really founded the group. Our first initial concerts were back in 2000 at Oberlin when we won a grant to commission five chamber music works for flute by living composers. That was the genesis of ICE. Claire really organized everything, and subsequently her business acumen has been largely—well, solely—responsible for it. What it comes down to is that Claire runs the business end from contracts to writing grants, with assistance from some of us as she needs it.
FJO: Beginning with programming ideas and coming up with programs is great in the abstract, but then you have to sell a presenter or you have to sell a series somewhere. What is that process?
CC: The funny thing is we don’t do a lot of selling to presenters. We don’t have a manager. I only send out press kits when people ask us for them.
David Schotzko: We just had this conversation last night.
CC: We started out producing our own concerts, just self-producing everything. And we had no money and we had no venues and nobody knew who we were and nobody knew the music that we were playing, and so we just got together and did it and found an audience and found some money. It grew from there, from the very simple desire to have a garage band; it was that small in the beginning. And I think, in a way, our mentality and our way of doing things is basically the same, although it’s gotten much more organized, and we have space and we have a board now. We do music that interests us; we do projects that interest the group. More than half of our concerts are self-produced, so we’re not trying to sell them to a presenter. And the concerts that we do that get presented usually come to us. Usually someone calls us and says, “Would you guys like to do this?” Then we take it back to what we call the roundtable committee. The roundtable is a representative group that functions like an orchestra committee and deals with programming issues and also personnel issues. So I say, “Hey you guys, what do you think about this?” Sometimes they say, “That’s fantastic; I love it!” Sometimes we have a heated discussion about it. Sometimes they say, “No, we don’t really want to do this; we would rather do something else.”
DS: Usually we say yes, though.
CC: We’re not really in a position to say no, most of the time. I hope I’m not revealing too much about ICE’s secrets, but that’s how we operate. It’s not a whole of a lot more complicated than that. We don’t have a big marketing strategy as far as sending press kits out and trying to get concerts in major venues. We’re interested in doing the work we want to do. That’s always been our frame of reference, and it’s always worked.
FJO: So without letting even more secrets out of the bag, are you guys able to make a living through ICE only?
CC: Solely through ICE, no. We’re working on it. We’re working real hard on it and it gets better every few months. The fees go up and our budget has doubled consistently since the beginning, so our grant funding goes up every year, and individual donor funding is growing. But it’s a process. This hasn’t really been done in this country yet. So we’re trying to make it happen. I think we’ll be able to do it. Within three or four years we’ll be able to sustain this.
FJO: Now, David said something very interesting about being inspired to branch out and do contemporary music in addition to playing standard repertoire. ICE was formed at Oberlin, which is a real new music hotbed. Did all of you go there?
DB: Out of this group of players, only Cory [Smythe] didn’t go to Oberlin.
FJO: And Peter, you just joined the group; but you’re an Oberlin guy, too. So you knew these people.
Peter Evans: Yup.
DS: Dave and Claire and I and a couple of others were all freshman together. Josh was a year older. The foundations of it were essentially us all learning to play contemporary music under Tim Weiss in the Contemporary Music Ensemble at Oberlin.
Joshua Rubin: He was our conductor and mentor. And he also put us together as ensembles before we even really knew each other, and forced us to get along.
DS: Then we all graduated and went to different places and missed playing together, and Claire found us a wonderful excuse to start playing together again.
CC: When we graduated we had just spent four years playing contemporary music together. Naïvely I thought that experience would exist somewhere else in my professional musical life right away. And it just didn’t. And it didn’t take me very long to realize that if I wanted to make that happen, I had to just make it happen. It seemed a little bit crazy in the beginning because everybody was spread out. You think that we’re spread out now between Chicago and New York, but this is easy to manage compared to where we were before. Everyone was in grad school in different places. Scheduling-wise it was an absolute nightmare because people had school conflicts. But we just started doing projects.
DS: Then it started getting scheduled farther and farther ahead.
FJO: So do you all live and have residences in both cities at this point?
CC: But we go back and forth.
DB: We have an active network of close families and regular sublets that kind of work out of Chicago.
CC: We have our little homes away from home.
DB: We’ve made arrangements to find ways to stay in Chicago reasonably comfortably. But none of us has permanent residences in Chicago, except for Claire and a few members of ICE who actually live in Chicago.
CC: And who commute to New York.
FJO: Did you all know when you graduated from Oberlin that you wanted to devote your energies to contemporary music?
DS: Well, I’m a percussionist, so my options were limited to begin with.
JR: I know for me it’s what I really loved to do when I was in school, and I didn’t really have as much of an outlet for it here in the city. I was playing in a lot of orchestras and I was in grad school. As a freelancer, I was mostly doing orchestra or chamber music, and so ICE was really my way to be involved in that which I really loved and still love to do.
DB: I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I played a lot of chamber music during my graduate study. I was in two traditional string quartets, and ICE was something that I really enjoyed doing extracurricular to that. But then as ICE has grown more and more, and the string quartets ended up not working out for a myriad of reasons, I’ve grown into doing more contemporary music. That’s how that’s worked for now, but it wasn’t necessarily something I had designs on doing while we were at Oberlin.
FJO: How many of you are active improvisers?
PE: I am.
DS: Me to a lesser extent. It’s something I used to do more of.
CC: We’re actually taking on a few structured group improvisation projects for the first time. Peter and Corey can speak more than I can about this. I really feel like their presence in the group has inspired me personally to explore it on my own and also to incorporate it into ICE’s programming. Peter, you do improvisation like at least half of the time, right?
PE: Probably more. I do a lot of jazz stuff, free improv, and all different kinds of things outside of ICE, so this is my freedom to bring that stuff into the group. Especially with Dave. Dave Remnick is the saxophone player who lives in Chicago, and he’s the first person that I did free improvisation with outside of an explicitly jazz context. Last September we did it as part of this ICE festival in Chicago. And I think we’ll be doing it again.
CC: We’ll be doing a lot more of those. The concert that the two of them put together was just amazing.
Working with Composers
Frank J. Oteri: How many members of the group are active composers?
Claire Chase: There are a lot of people that are performer-composer-improvisors. I think some of the lines are blurring in a very positive and very interesting way. Peter, would you consider yourself a composer?
Peter Evans: Sure.
CC: We have several people in the group who fit that description. But, in terms of composers who went to school for composition, Du Yun and Huang Ruo are the founding composers who are members of the group. Other than the two of them, one of our other pianists, Will McDaniel, is also becoming a composer later in his musical development. And we’ve got a couple of other budding composers. But in terms of the group’s relationship to young composers, Du Yun and Huang Ruo are the only official composers that are on the roundtable. And we also work with a rotating group of young composers. Every two years we choose between five and ten to be nurtured by the group, and to collaborate with the group. And we launch them as much as we can in ICE’s programming for two years. And then we do a search for the next crop.
FJO: So how do you find the composers? You’ve done over 200 pieces, 200 premieres, by composers in 15 countries. How do you find the music? Do the composers come to you? Do you search them out?
David Schotzko: The answer to all that is “Yes.” I’m the “program director” and most of what that means is spending a lot of time trying to get familiar with as many names from all over the world as possible in the hopes that when we’re looking for a hole to fill out a program, something will click. And we randomly get scores in the mail, some of which have been very good. Then the third way is every two years we’ve done an official call for scores. We’re a five-year old organization, so we’ve done it twice. The first time we basically just put an ad up on our website; it was like throwing out a huge net and seeing what happened. And I think we got nearly 200.
CC: We got 190 the first year.
DS: Stuff just started pouring in from all over the world.
CC: Some of the most astonishing work by young composers that we’ve ever been in contact with just came to our doorstep. Some of the composers that we selected for that first call are going to end up being life-long collaborators with ICE. We discovered some people that were just totally amazing.
DS: Also perfect with us personally. They just fit with the group very well and we liked spending time with them. A good friend is a Japanese composer who lives in London named Dai Fujikura. He’s gotten to be both a regular collaborator and a very good friend of all of us. (I’m thinking mostly of people outside of the country to live with the international portion of the name.) There’s a woman in her early 30s in Vienna who is Russian-Bulgarian. Her name is Alexandra Karastoyanova. She’s a fantastic pianist-composer of very understated, lovely music. She’s writing a violin concerto for David.
David Bowlin: I’m very excited that Alexandra, whom we met in this call for scores in 2004, just finished writing me a concerto for violin and string orchestra, which I’m going to be doing in Weill with the Bulgarian Virtuosi. I just was e-mailed the intro. She scanned it page by page.
DS: She still writes things by hand, so whenever she e-mails us scores, she sends the pages one e-mail at a time. When I got the marimba piece that she wrote for me, I had forty e-mails with one jpeg attached to each one; it’s adorable.
CC: We could go on forever with anecdotes about these young composers. But many of them are older than we are. That program, which is what we call the 21st Century Young Composers Project is—at least for me—the most important thing that ICE does as an ensemble. I think it’s the most meaningful for the musicians, too, because we’re building relationships, and we’re collaborating on creating new work.
FJO: What happens if somebody you commissioned writes something and you all just absolutely hate it?
CC: Has it happened? Has it happened guys?
DB: Yes. It has happened. It has happened. Sometimes the composer’s maybe doing an experiment and we communicate that to them. Oftentimes they know that this was an experiment for them. And sometimes we won’t program it on a particular concert that it may not fit in.
CC: Ultimately what it comes down to is that we’ve been in some difficult situations. Just the fact that we’ve premiered hundreds of works, you can’t have hundreds of gems. And you can’t have hundreds of fantastic perfect performances, either. But we as a group and as individuals can shed our opinions about the music. Our job is to place the piece really well and to play it lovingly and to give ourselves over to it. And that’s a really rewarding process when the piece is amazing, especially when you’re the first one who’s bringing that piece to life. It’s a less rewarding process when you’re not crazy about the music, but it comes with the territory and I think we all just try to deal with that graciously when it happens.
FJO: From time to time you’ve also done classics of contemporary music. I was blown away by a performance you did of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King. But that’s a piece that’s already had quite an illustrious history. What would make you do something like that?
DS: We liked it.
CC: That’s basically what it comes down to.
Joshua Rubin: Having such a diverse group of members with all kinds of different musical careers, you really come up with some repertoire from brainstorming.
DS: Our cellist Kivie had wanted to play that piece since we were still at Oberlin.
CC: I think I got an e-mail about once a week from Kivie saying, “Hey, when are we going to program Eight Songs for a Mad King?” Then eventually we had an excuse for it. We had the right venue and we were like, “OK, let’s program this piece.” And now it’s become sort of a staple of our repertoire.
DS: It came down to Peter being like, “OK, I’m going to learn it.”
CC: We have two singers in the group and one of them, this tenor, had been saying, “Well, I think I could do it in a couple of years. I got to work on some things.” Then one day, he said, “I’m ready.” He had it memorized at the first rehearsal. And he’s really created a new version of that role. We’re pretty proud of him.
FJO: How many of the 200 pieces you’ve premiered are still actively in your repertoire? And what does it mean to be actively in your repertoire?
CC: I think it means that we play it at least three or four times. Right? Is that a fair assessment?
DS: We’re still at a point where we’re just beginning to plan our programs. We’re just beginning to be in a position to plan our concert seasons farther in advance. We’ve just crossed some threshold as an ensemble, as an organization, where planning ahead is something we can do. We’ve only recently reached the point where we really are able to say we have a repertoire that we repeat on a regular basis.
CC: We did the Berio Sequenzas over two years ago. We did that concert and we’ve played them I don’t know how many times: individual Sequenzas and Sequenzas in combination. The Davidovsky program we’ve done so much, and we’re now recording a couple of those pieces.
JR: Many of the young composers we’ve brought back from the first year. And I think now we have a new set of pieces from this year’s competition that we’ll be repeating.
CC: And Huang Ruo’s music. The thing is that the group is so big. And also I think that an A.D.D. characteristic is very much across the board in this: We get bored doing the same thing more than a few times. ICE could never be the sort of group that decided, “O.K., we’ve got these six pieces this year. We’re going to get management and tour them in 100 different cities.” I don’t think that anybody in this group would be happy doing that. Part of why we’re in new music in the first place is to generate the material, and to generate a lot of it, to put tons of new repertoire out there. Some of it will stick; some of it won’t. But I like the idea that we’re constantly in the process of creating and bringing into existence new works and programs. Maybe four of five of them a season really stick, and they’ll end up being things that we play for a very long time. But a lot of it is one or two performances and then that’s enough for us.
DB: Sometimes it’s a question of logistics. Sometimes there’s amazing work that we do only once because maybe it’s not portable, maybe there’s two percussionists, or something like that.
CC: Or the rental fee. Unfortunately money does play a role in some of our programming decisions.
DS: I would love to do Ondrej Adamek’s piece [Strange Night in Daylight] again.
DB: This is a piece by a young composer that we did in 2004. It’s a fantastic piece, but huge forces are required. It’s not very portable. In order to do that piece, there’s a huge amount of effort that would need to go into the preparation, not to mention money. Sometimes great pieces that are also portable tend to be the ones that we do more.
FJO: In terms of portability, we haven’t really even touched the whole question of recordings. You have your first recording out now. That’s a way of disseminating pieces that maybe you’re only able to do once. You could get a recording out there and then everyone could potentially hear a piece you did that requires 20 players and electronics. Is that an avenue that you’re going to be exploring more now that you finally have a disc out?
CC: We’ve got one out finally, and we’ve got two more coming out this year, one on Bridge [Records] and one on Focus Recordings, which is a small independent label run by our guitarist. We’re hoping to put out two or three a year, and we’re also hoping to do a lot more podcast work, having individual tracks available on our website that people can download and that can be disseminated easily and cost-effectively.
FJO: Since you mentioned CDs, I guess that means you all still believe in the future of CDs.
CC: I don’t know. I think I’d give it another three or four years.
JR: I don’t know about CDs, but certainly we still like the idea of getting a nice recording of a piece that we really love and being able to distribute it somehow. Not necessarily on CD. Even our new disc that’s on Naxos, the distribution is such that you can buy it as tracks on iTunes, or other ways electronically; so people looking to download this music have it available.
CC: The material copy itself is becoming less and less important.
DB: But I don’t think that the process of recording a piece of music is going to change.
DS: Even if they just end up being a group of tracks, I still organize these recording projects in my head and call them CDs.
DB: I think it would be also cool to do podcasts of live concerts on the Internet, a hybrid live recording.
CC: We have a huge discography and we don’t know where we’re going to put all of it yet. We don’t know what is really going to be useable. We make a point of recording things even though we don’t have a known way of distributing them. We don’t have a label or we don’t have a broadcast or podcast set up. But we’re doing something we think needs to be documented. We record it when it’s hot and it sits on the hard drive, and then someday hopefully we’ll find a place for it to go.
FJO: Does every composer always get a recording of their music?
CC: Even if it’s just a live performance. We think that’s the least that we can do for composers who have written music for us.
FJO: So you never say “You can’t have this recording or you can’t play this for anybody,” which has been a big problem for composers who write for orchestra.
CC: No, I think we embody the antithesis of that mentality. We want the music to get out there. This is a niche market. There aren’t enough people listening to this stuff in the first place for us to be greedy.
DS: There’s no such thing as competition in this.
The Greater New Music Community
David Schotzko: We happen to be one of a bunch of contemporary music ensembles our age. There’s Alarm Will Sound, Argento, So Percussion; there’s a whole stack. And we all intermix. I play with So a lot, and I’ve sung with Alarm Will Sound. A couple of Alarm Will Sound band members have played with us when we’ve needed extra people, and the same with the people from Argento. We all get along; we all respect what other people do. There is absolutely no reason in this very small niche market to be protective of your own corner of it.
Claire Chase: To take it a step further, there’s no reason to do anything but encourage everyone who’s doing anything like this to keep doing it and to share resources, ideas, marketing plans, and mailing lists. It’s easy to be pessimistic and say, “Oh, there’s no money, federal money’s dried up, it’s difficult to get grants, the government will never support what we do.” That’s never really been something that’s held us back. On the contrary, this is a really great time to be doing what we’re doing, especially in New York. There’s a beginning of a movement happening here and it feels exciting to be a part of that.
Frank J. Oteri: There’s another ensemble that hasn’t yet come up yet in this conversation but that’s certainly been in the back of my head knowing you were formed at Oberlin and have spent a lot of time in Chicago.
DS: The youngest of them were seniors when we were freshmen.
CC: They were sort of like our big brothers and sisters.
DS: It’s hard for me to think of them as peers.
CC: They’re in their tenth or eleventh season. It’s amazing that they’ve been doing that as a unit and the number of performances that they’ve done. We’re all good friends with them.
David Bowlin: In a way, what the blackbirds are doing is so different from what we’re doing. They have a core group of players, and they have management. They have a different working model for what they do. They’re trying to go in the same direction that we’re going in another way, but there’s no professional friction. It doesn’t come down to a thing like competing for the same gig. We’re generating our own creative projects, so there’s room for whatever happens from both organizations.
FJO: Has there ever been any repertoire that both groups have done?
DS: There’s been the Donatoni Arpège.
DB: We have proudly influenced at least one choice of blackbirds.
DS: It’s funny because I don’t think we ever really planned to play much in a Pierrot sextet.
CC: We didn’t really need to.
DS: We started playing a lot of Pierrot sextet things because we did Eight Songs for a Mad King, and we started getting asked to do Eight Songs for a Mad King in various places, so then we started having to fill other programs when we had those six people there. So we started learning a bunch of Pierrot repertoire. At one point we learned Franco Donatoni’s piece Arpege , which is this blazingly hard rhythmic thing for six players. I remember I took the score and held the vibraphone part up to Matt Duvall and said, “You guys have to learn this.” It’s right up their alley. It’s the kind of stuff they would play spectacularly; I can’t wait to hear them play it.
CC: I’m sure they’ll play the hell out of it.
FJO: Has any repertoire gone the other way?
DS: I think not so much, partly because we’ve tried to shy away from Pierrot sextet. They’ve made such a mark with their repertoire. They’re a little ahead of us. They’re in a position where they learn a piece that we did. They’re eighth blackbird. If they learn a piece that we did first, no one’s going to say, “Oh they took this piece from us.” We’re in a different position.
CC: There’s also plenty of great music to go around. We could program 100 years of music that we’d love to play; there’s so much out there already and there’s more and more that’s coming into being every day. Even with getting 100 concerts a year, I don’t think we could keep up with all the things that we would like to be playing.
FJO: Hearing you all say that the Donatoni piece would be perfect for eighth blackbird makes me want to return to what Claire said earlier about ICE not having a style. Is there any kind of music that you guys would not want to go near?
CC: There’s probably not a hard and fast answer to that question.
Joshua Rubin: The collaborative process of programming has prevented this and a lot of times we’re influencing each other. Our cellist begged us to do Eight Songs for a Mad King. I knew the piece but I couldn’t imagine us playing it at the time. But I’m really glad for this experience of having done it, because it’s one of the great pieces.
DS: I think we all have very strong opinions individually, and we try to take everyone else’s opinions very seriously. I have my prejudices. Dave and I have disagreements on Xenakis. I’m a percussionist. I love Xenakis. Dave’s not sure about Xenakis.
DB: It’s also sometimes not a matter of a certain style, but there are certain pieces by certain composers that maybe you don’t respond well to. Maybe there are other pieces by the same composer that you really like, so sometimes it’s piece-driven and not necessarily style- or composer-driven.
FJO: So have you been able to turn each other around on certain things that you might otherwise not have liked?
CC: I think so.
DB: Very probably.
JR: It happens at just about every concert, especially when the programs are very diverse.
DB: There’s no way to really get inside other than playing it, when you’re able to play and perform a piece that you might not necessarily have liked listening to a recording sometimes you develop a much better relationship with the piece.
DS: I had that experience recently. There was something that I wasn’t thrilled with until playing it. I forget what it was.
CC: Well, it happens, you know.
DB: I was playing a piece by Milton Babbitt once, his Arie da Capo; it was actually written for Da Capo Chamber Players, which is another group that I play with. I didn’t understand the piece at all. We were rehearsing and rehearsing the piece and I just couldn’t get it. And then finally in the concert, something clicked and the piece made sense to me. Sometimes that spontaneously happens in a concert or with repeated exposure.
CC: The rewards are very far along in the process. Sometimes it takes two months to just get the basic techniques into your body, at which point you could feel a tiny little bit free with them. Amazing things happen when you push yourself that hard. And I find amazing things happen when I’m in the company of these guys who are doing it at a really high level. I’m forced to keep going if I’m sitting next to people who are doing all of those things with total commitment and with total abandon and with this childlike curiosity you have to have to play contemporary music. Whereas I would probably give up if it was just me alone trying to do something so incredibly difficult: to play the flute backwards and upside down and make a sound when I’m inhaling and then speak and sing. You really have to be ready to do just about anything in front of a public. But when you’re in a group with people like this who are really willing to try just about anything, it makes that process very rewarding, and I find that my mind opens up.
FJO: So some final impossible-to-answer questions: How do you make this music communicate with an audience who doesn’t have this two-month period to get acquainted with it? What is your goal as far as reaching audiences with this stuff?
DB: I think when you’re talking about classical art music, you have the same problems with Brahms as you do with Davidovsky. If someone is listening to the music for the first time, they might have trouble understanding it; but with several listenings, they increase in their understanding. The work starts to have a power with them.
JR: Another way is extramusical, and that’s that the choices we’ve made in programming and also where we’ve played. For example, we’ve given lots of concerts in bars and clubs and places outside the concert hall. This is another way to bring the audience to a place where they feel comfortable. Maybe some people feel more comfortable in this place and are willing to have more of an open mind, which is what both the performers and the audience always needs with new music. I think people get really involved in the music no matter what it is. There might be six pieces in totally different styles on a program and that can draw an audience in.
DS: I think contemporary music has developed a bad reputation as un-audience-friendly. I don’t think that’s been our experience.
CC: It hasn’t been our experience at all. We play a lot of free concerts and we do a lot of what most people would call really hard-core contemporary music in really laid-back venues where people can feel free to react in any way that they’re going to react. They can say, “I hate that.” They could say, “I love that.” They could say, “That did nothing for me.” They could say, “What the hell was that?” But we create the space in which they could have that conversation with each other, and with us. They could have that relationship with the music and not feel like they have to react in a certain way, think a certain thing, or know a certain thing. One thing that we’re really passionate about is seeing if we can cultivate a new mentality in our new audience. A mentality that’s not just about “I’m going to go to this concert because I know that this household-name composer is great and I want to hear that music.” That’s a great reason to go to a concert, and I think all of us would like to participate in that system. But that’s not ICE’s reason for being. We would like someone to come to a concert to say, “I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to hear. I know that it will be played with total commitment. I know that as an audience member my intelligence is going to be trusted. My opinion, my reactions are going to be welcome. And I’m participating in something that’s taking place right now for the first time.” That’s a wonderful reason to go out and hear something.
Timothy Weiss of the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble
Amherst, OH—March 30, 2007, at 10:00 p.m.
Frank J. Oteri: What is it about Oberlin that turns all of these young people on to being new music junkies and evangelists?
Tim Weiss: I think they all find that they have more opportunities for creative imagination—that they can reinvent themselves musically and artistically through new music. It gives them a chance to take chances that they weren’t able to find in more traditional music. For example, I think traditionally in an orchestra you play what you’re told, you play when you’re told, and you play how you’re told. And in new music ensembles, especially these particular two new music ensembles [eighth blackbird and ICE], they play the music they want to play, they play it in the venues they want, they present it to audiences in new, interesting ways that they create, and they play it the way they want to play it. What’s interesting about both of these groups is that they have very different identities. They’re both immensely successful, but they’re entirely different. That’s because they have made that identity for themselves. I think that’s what’s unique about it and what’s really wonderful about it.
In the case of eighth blackbird, most of the material they play is now memorized, and there is an extremely strong performance aspect about it in every realm: the way that they come on stage; the way that their works are almost choreographed in a certain way. It’s wonderful. It’s a beautiful presentation. In the case of ICE, they’re constantly looking for very interesting connections between the pieces, the type of repertoire they’re exploring to make connections with young composers.
FJO: Both of these groups started at Oberlin. How did all of that happen?
TW: I feel like a very proud father in a sort of way—I don’t want any credit for what they have created. But yes, they all came through Oberlin and they played in the Contemporary Music Ensemble.
In the case of eighth blackbird, I actually pulled them out of the ensemble to create a Pierrot sextet in part because I wanted a laboratory to work on that kind of repertoire and to work more intensively with six students. But that’s all I did. They are the ones that took it to the next step. I remember the very first piece that we worked on—gosh, it must have been the fall of 1993—was Wuorinen’s New York Notes. We worked on that, my goodness, forever. I think we also tackled the five-minute Petroushskates by Joan Tower. But then in winter term we started work on Donald Martino’s Notturno, and we worked on that the whole semester. We rehearsed Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8 a.m. This was before cell phones, so when one of them stayed up too late writing a paper, I actually had to get on the land-based phone and call them, which didn’t happen too often but, you know, occasionally. Today when that happens you just get on the cell phones and call. But the problem was that they wanted to rehearse more than what I was able to give to it, having responsibilities to my other classes and having young kids. There was a rehearsal—Molly Barth tells this story very well—where I couldn’t show up, so they rehearsed without me, and they realized that in fact they didn’t need me at all. They knew the music so well it just went seamlessly. They also wanted to enter competitions, which they could not do with a conductor. So they sort of launched into being their own group, and I sort of took the position of coach and went along for the ride. They won the Fischoff and Coleman, I believe, that year, and then went on to win the Concert Artists Guild and went to grad school together.
I think part of their success is the chemistry—finding the right six people—and the other part of it is the sacrifices they’ve made for each other and for the music. Because all of them could have gone their own ways and had successful careers on their own instruments, but along the way they’ve had to make noble sacrifices to stay together as a group, to make the group the most important thing for themselves musically. And that they did entirely on their own.
In the case of ICE, they all played in the Contemporary Music Ensemble, but I think the genesis of that was that Claire Chase got the Presser Award at Oberlin, which is basically for an entrepreneurial project. And she wanted to commission four composers and give a concert of premieres. And through the experience of winning that grant money and creating a relationship with four composers—I think two of them were young and up-and-coming and two of them were very well established—she was able to have this global experience of pulling together musicians, her friends in this case, and making a relationship with composers, commissioning them for pieces, dealing with all the work involved with commissioning, the paperwork, the contract, the communication, the follow-through in getting the music on time, preparing the music, and then launching the press kit and getting people from the Cleveland area to come to the concert. And I think this gave her this idea that this is fantastic, being involved in every aspect of the artistic whole.
I think from that, this group that she had amassed, went on to be ICE. And her vision was a group that would ultimately be flexible, it wouldn’t require this complete sacrifice of oneself to be part of one thing. It would be a core group that would be driven by its programmatic creativity, so depending on what kind of things they wanted to work on, they could expand or contract. Since then, they’ve done opera, and they’ve done chamber music in Mexico. They have two home bases: in Chicago and New York. They’re doing fantastic things.
FJO: Conrad Cummings said to me the other day that Oberlin got started as a missionary school. He said, “Maybe you’ll find that this idea of missionary zeal infuses everything that happens at Oberlin and connects to everybody who winds up being a student there.” Do you think that’s true, and how has that played out with eighth blackbird and ICE?
TW: I’m not sure if I see myself as a missionary, but I do feel that there’s great satisfaction in introducing them to something that is so alive in music that they haven’t yet seen before or had experience with. And it’s a little bit like they’ve played in the sandbox before, but they’ve never been to the beach. All of a sudden, for the first time, they’re seeing this whole world of sand, and the great thing is that no one’s played in it before. That’s their perspective. In some ways it can be daunting to be creative with music that has been performed so many times. You’re almost afraid to take too many chances, to be overly creative. With new music, since in many cases it hasn’t been done, you feel responsible for making important creative decisions. Whereas in some cases with old music, you feel the text is overused and it’s difficult to make those creative decisions or that you’re not qualified. So I think that’s one of the things for these students: that it’s a fresh text, and it demands to be interpreted.
FJO: So are there other eighth blackbirds and ICEs that are happening right now in your classes?
TW: Yes there are. Some students have said to me, upon graduating, “What are you going to do? We’re all graduating. You’re not going to have any more fantastic students.” But there have been so many. It goes on forever. The thing is that every year there is a crop, a generation, of new students who are interested in new music or who want to take that place. Or what happens is that as they come in and they see all these other students who are doing these amazing, wonderful things. Like this year, we just did Lost Highway at Miller Theatre. So right now, I’ve got all these students saying, “Wow. I want to do that.” So there’s another generation coming through that wants to be part of this machine. Now they’re not all going to make this immense sacrifice to make their mark exclusively in new music the way that ICE and eighth blackbird have, but, yes, there’s always an eighth blackbird at Oberlin. There’s always an ICE at Oberlin. It just depends on what the next two years are going to be. Right now there is a group called Echoing. And it’s a wonderful group. They just finished playing Donatoni’s Arpège without conductor, a project that they worked on for 12 weeks intensively. They’re going to go to the Kennedy Center to play Arpège. And they’re going to launch onto a Xenakis piece, and they commissioned four composers not unlike ICE did. So this is a group that actually has its own identity here right now, but I’m not sure if they’re going to have a future past this year. I mean, one will probably go to UCSD; one will go to France. It just depends on what happens in their own horizons.
FJO: Do you think there’s something different about going through the whole experience, the musical training experience, at a place like Oberlin versus a more traditional conservatory like Juilliard or Peabody? I mean, the fact that Oberlin Conservatory coexists with a liberal arts college?
TW: Absolutely. I think there are a lot of advantages. One advantage is that we’re isolated. It’s an advantage and a disadvantage. One advantage is that there are only undergraduates, and the reason I think this is an advantage is that at a school like Juilliard or other schools you might name that have a very strong or large population of graduate students is that those students, by their nature, tend to be somewhat more vocationally minded. They are understandably worried about their next step as musicians: How are they going to enter the industry? How are they going to make a living? And because of that, that can trickle down. The nice thing at Oberlin is that they are immensely talented, but they’re not really concerned about their future. They might be a little bit, but it’s not what occupies their thoughts. They are thinking about music as an art form. They’re preoccupied with how they’re going to change the artistic culture. And I think that’s actually very important. What effect would Haydn have had on the string quartet if he were not at Esterházy? What if he had been a freelance musician in an urban environment? Would he have had time to focus on recreating or redirecting a medium? I’m not sure. So for me, this is one of the real significant issues. In eighth blackbird, I don’t remember how many exactly, but I think there were three double-degree students, if I remember correctly. Matt Albert with a double degree in English, he was the one who came up with the name of the group from the poem. I think that Lisa Kaplan might have been art history, but I don’t remember. Even if they weren’t double-degree students, they were all actively engaged in academic work in the college, which I think balanced and fueled their lives as artists. Taking an art history class or taking an aesthetics class adds to their identities as musicians, and I think that’s very important.