SONiC Reverb

SONiC Reverb

Bringing to light the latest generation’s approach to music, a few courageous folks recently set out to show us all what today’s music is really like and just how expansive it can be. Showcasing over 100 composers from six continents (all age 40 and under), 16 ensembles, and dozens of premieres, the SONiC Festival—which ran October 14-22 in venues all over New York City—brought the sound of the 21st century to life. Groups like Alarm Will Sound, eighth blackbird, American Composers Orchestra, and the JACK Quartet put in an effort we’ve come to expect from these stars of the contemporary classical world as they performed at venues as stately as Carnegie’s Zankel Hall and as intimate as Joe’s Pub.

And to think my introduction to this festival started out with an old lady trying to scalp tickets in front of Carnegie Hall.

American Composers Orchestra Photo by RMK Photos
American Composers Orchestra – Photo by RMK Photos

Testing my youthful endurance, this festival took me all around New York City for a tour of performance space hot spots. I caught a number of the SONiC concerts—the ACO at Carnegie Hall, eighth blackbird and the JACK Quartet at Miller Theatre, Camerata Aberta at Americas Society, ICE at The Kitchen, Alarm Will Sound at Roulette (with some electronic music afterwards), and electronica-infused percussion at Joe’s Pub. Since there was so much musical (and physical) ground to cover over the period of the festival, concertgoers planning on attending two evening concerts had to be mindful of the time and distance between performances. The logistics of presenting multiple concerts under the same umbrella in one evening can be a bit complicated. Committed SONiC Festival attendees found themselves navigating between venues that weren’t exactly right next door to one other. Here’s an idea of what I’m talking about:

Oct. 18 – Americas Society (7:00 p.m.) to The Stone (10:00 p.m.) (Google Maps)
Oct. 19 – Thalia Theatre at Symphony Space (7:30 p.m.) to Joyce SoHo (10:00 p.m.) (Google Maps)
Oct. 20 – The Kitchen (8:00 p.m.) to 92YTribeca (11:00 p.m.) (Google Maps)
Oct. 22 – Winter Garden at World Financial Center (7:00 p.m.) to Joe’s Pub (11:30 p.m.) (Google Maps)

Considering concert duration and the distance between venues, it was a little difficult to catch it all, but manageable if you hightailed it on a couple of these nights and the trains were running in your favor.

Kenji Bunch
Kenji Bunch

Logistics aside, one of the most impressive elements of SONiC was its programming. All new music concertgoers have experienced blandness before; programs that don’t go anywhere or offer any sense of excitement past the endeavor to be original. Fortunately, for the most part, this festival had enough spunk to last the nine days. From the incredible left hand work of Camerata Aberta’s violist Peter Pas to Alarm Will Sound’s heart-wrenching performance of David T. Little’s Haunted Topography, there was skill and vibrance to be found in every corner of the SONiC Festival. And what would a new music festival be if it didn’t go above and beyond with some serious extended techniques and acting chops? Nathan Davis’s Dowser for bass clarinet and electronics could have served as a dissertation on multiphonics and Tim Munro pushed the theatrical envelope with Amy Beth Kirsten’s Pirouette as his voice meshed with the flute.

The American Composers Orchestra’s opening night program was about as motley as an orchestral program could be; not necessarily in terms of content, but in the stylistic voice of each composer. All the pieces sounded authentic and true to their respective composers, the only theme being “new.” The world premiere of Wang Lu’s Flowing Water Study II for orchestra and video graced the eyes and ears as video projection accompanied the ensemble. A lone qin (Chinese zither) sat silent on the stage as the orchestra retold a 2,000-year-old folk tale through a traditional melody. A short film by Jeremy Robins followed, profiling Kenji Bunch’s The Devil’s Box. A piece for amplified viola and orchestra, The Devil’s Box featured a wacky inverted bowing technique and two-hand plucking that even got the audience to applaud in between movements (see video below). I think “hootenanny” sums it up best.

The Kitchen proved to be my favorite venue, with the International Contemporary Ensemble reaping its spacial benefits. Even though I felt like I was in a recording session (and I was—mic cables were everywhere), I felt comfortable in the space. Speaking with Du Yun after a performance of her Vicissitudes Alone, I congratulated her on what I thought was a strikingly successful incorporation of material from one of her previous works. While reflecting on this, I realized that ICE members benefit from an incredible relationship that allows for easy experimentation with new ideas and pushing collaboration to the next level. This specific concert was part of ICElab, an annual collaborative initiative between six emerging composers and the ensemble that focuses on composer-performer relations. Components of performance and composition such as format, spacing, instrumentation, etc. aren’t set in stone at ICElab—they’re variables. It’s this approach to music that modeled SONiC’s goals and made ICElab a worthy programming option.

International Contemporary Ensemble
International Contemporary Ensemble – Photo by Chad Batka

It is easy to see how one might find the relationships between performers and composers at SONiC a bit incestuous. Composers appearing on one program were frequently labeled as performers on another. As expected, I saw a fair number of names appearing on multiple programs throughout the festival. Whether it’s the nature of the niche or a fierce loyalty, the concertgoers also adopted this practice. Familiar faces presented themselves at many of the concerts and, from what I witnessed, pretty much everyone knew someone from one of the performing ensembles (this didn’t seem to be the case with Camerata Aberta’s performance at Americas Society—an organization with its own members.) Even considering the dedication of fans, attractive programming is a must for a festival of this scope. If SONiC hadn’t been riddled with some of today’s all-stars, the turnout would likely have suffered.

Camerata Aberta
Camerata Aberta

Of course, this festival would never have gotten off the ground if it weren’t for some diligent people coordinating press and running the operations behind the scenes. Co-Curators Derek Bermel and Stephen Gosling were at every event I attended and spoke to the audience a couple of times during each concert to let everyone know what was in store the next day. One of the products they were pushing was an iPad app called Thicket. An interactive soundscape, this app responds to touch in different ways and plays audio samples based on gestures. Before concerts and during intermissions, there would usually be someone walking around trying to entice people with a demo. I was enticed (see video).

One SONiC event even showcased Joshue Ott performing a piece featuring audience-created music from the app. Highlighting even more audience engagement initiatives, the SONiC Festival sought out the opinions of concertgoers and asked them to vote on compositions they heard at each concert. The compositions receiving the most votes were played on Q2, WQXR’s online new music stream, on October 19 and 26.

The late-night concerts carried the title SONiC Afterhours and featured more intimate settings with varying approaches to programming ranging from steel pan music and electronics to pop music to dance performances. If you had attended one of SONiC’s full-length evenings, these shows offered a nice change of scenery and content that was needed after a two-hour concert.

As incentive to go to multiple performances during the festival, SONiC offered a discounted pass that offered a 20% discount (sometimes more) on the ticket price for each event if purchased for $25.

Ultimately, the SONiC Festival concerts were well-attended, there were a number of diverse and suitable venues included, audience engagement activities were present and noticeable, and there were perks to attending multiple performances. Promoting a festival during the season is serious business and Christina Jensen PR was there every step of the way making sure this festival got the presence it deserved. Concert reviews and profiles appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Huffington Post, as well as on a number of blogs. The airwaves weren’t silent, either. Excerpts of the ACO’s performance of The Devil’s Box appeared on Performance Today accompanied by a short interview with Kenji Bunch. In addition, many of the fans, composers, and performers were tweeting their hearts out trying to hype up the concerts. Some of them were even smirk-worthy.

Judd Greenstein Tweet

Still, I keep asking myself: was this whole endeavor to celebrate new music really so groundbreaking? Perhaps not, but the incorporation of alternative venues and star-studded ensembles made SONiC an attention-grabbing event. The SONiC Festival aimed to present a glimpse of the wide variety of styles alive in the 21st century’s musical atmosphere. This goal was achieved, but I was never on the edge of my seat wondering how all of these sounds could get along and live together in the same city. It was all very familiar. Perhaps that was the underlying point of SONiC: the contemporary music world has been stretched wide and it no longer means anything to say we live in a time where music knows no bounds. Anything and everything is legitimate and old prejudices have faded—this is the voice of today. Of course, this has been the case for a lot longer than a decade. “Sounds of a New Century” is just a title.

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One thought on “SONiC Reverb

  1. "authentic"

    Can I take you to task on your comment above: “All the pieces sounded authentic and true to their respective composers”
    You then go on to talk about how Wang Lu’s piece has a Chinese zither in it. (I say this with no malice intended to Wang Lu.) Seriously, does the addition of a non-western instrument in a piece by a non-western composer make it “authentic” to that composer? Would yodeling in a piece by a German composer make it “authentic” to that composer? It is commentary like this that continues to promote stereotypical beliefs about national characteristics and fetishizes otherness, to say nothing of the ignorance of globalization it implies.

    On an only somewhat related note, I would argue that the fact that many performers showed up as composers and vice versa isn’t something perticularly healthy, but points to an incestuousness among new music organizations that is reflected in festivals, grant applications and other places. The performer is king and the reason those performers can also be seen as composers is not a sign of health, but quid pro quo. You can see this incestuousness in the composition of the audience as well which seems to me to demonstrate that the only people interested in these composers are their friends. Similarly, I’d be curious to know how many people came out specifically for the “big name” composers on the festival, read, the guys who play in rock bands. Something is definitely rotten in the state of new music.


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