Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

In the early 1990s, Harold Meltzer was trying to find an identity as a composer. Not only did his find most new music concerts “dull and dutiful, like a class with an uninspiring teacher,” but his colleagues in the law firm where he worked as a litigator had no concept of contemporary art music, though they were otherwise well-versed in theater, film and dance.

Meltzer founded Sequitur in 1997 in essence to bring those two worlds together. Like Bang on a Can and the Common Sense Composers Collective, Sequitur was founded with a heavy Yale contingent: Meltzer, a second composer Jason Uechi (who dropped out early); conductor David Amado (who remained until fall 1998); and pianist Sara Laimon, who now is the Managing Director. Its goals from the beginning were to incorporate elements of other art forms without sacrificing the music in the presentation.

From its opening concert at New York’s Merkin Hall — which featured works by David Lang, Frederic Rzewski, Shirish Korde and Tan Dun — the group proved free of stylistic bias. Not only did actors not read from scripts, but musicians began spending as much time thinking about staging as they did the score.

Sequitur’s programs range from a George Crumb evening at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre which takes full advantage of the music’s theatrical implications to a cabaret show at the Knitting Factory featuring a musical setting of the testimony by Monica Lewinsky! What other group could have come up with such an idea besides one led by a certified member of the New York State Bar Association?

In 1998, Sequitur presented Words and Music, a collaboration by Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman, at Theatre 80 St. Marks, home of the Pearl Repertory Theater. On that same program was a piece of Meltzer’s, which emphasized a certain dilemma: Just how much of your own music do you put on your own concert series?

The answer, at least at this point, is just enough to keep your identity as a composer. The first season had none, the second had two in the space of three concerts, the third has one small piece later this season. “Although part of the point was to find outlets for my music, I’ve gotten to the point where other groups are interested in doing my stuff,” says Meltzer, adding that only works that fit the ensemble’s mission of including multimedia elements will be included, whether written by Meltzer or anyone else.

“The other aspect of our music theater production is that it ran for four consecutive nights,” he says. “As long as there’s an audience, I don’t think concerts should be for one night only. All that preparation for only two hours seems to be a cheat.”

Excerpt from Richard Adams: Under Oath
Kristin Norderval (soprano) with members of Sequitur conducted by Harold Meltzer
RealPlayer  [251 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip

From Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles
by Ken Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.