Three ensembles and five presenters were honored for their commitment to new music with 2015 CMA/ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming during the 37th national conference of Chamber Music America, which took place at the Westin New York at Times Square from January 15-18, 2015. The eight award recipients were selected by an independent panel of musicians and presenters based on the amount of works composed during the past 25 years that have appeared on their programs during the 2013-2014 concert season as well as for innovations in engaging audiences with new music. Separate awards are given for ensembles and presenters devoted to contemporary music and jazz as well as groups which incorporate new music into a mixed repertory. Presenters are further categorized into large and small based on their annual budgets and the number of concerts they present during the year. This year there was no award given in the “Small Jazz Presenter” category.
The eight awardees were:
• Either/Or (New York, NY)—Ensemble, Contemporary
• Sean Smith Ensemble (New York, NY)—Ensemble, Jazz
• PUBLIQuartet (Brooklyn, NY)—Ensemble, Mixed Repertory
• Switchboard Music (San Francisco, CA)—Small Presenter, Contemporary
• Music at Noon, The Logan Series (Erie, PA)—Small Presenter, Mixed Repertory
• Miller Theatre at Columbia University in the City of New York (New York, NY)—Large Presenter, Contemporary
• Festival of New Trumpet Music [FONT Music] (New York, NY)—Large Presenter, Jazz
• Yellow Barn (Putney, VT)—Large Presenter, Mixed Repertory
A booklet distributed to conference attendees during the award ceremony listed all eligible repertoire presented by the eight honorees. While any work composed during the past 25 years that the honorees featured was eligible for inclusion (which means works dating as far back as 1989), it was particularly gratifying to see that the majority of the repertoire was created in the 21st century and for four of the eight awardees—FONT Music, PUBLIQuartet, Switchboard Music, and Music at Noon (whose oldest piece was Steve Reich’s 2009 Mallet Quartet!)—it was exclusively so.
The Adventurous Programming Awards Ceremony was one of several new music-related highlights during the CMA conference. Another was the concert, “New Music from CMA,” an annual conference component that is devoted to performances of new repertoire that was directly commissioned through CMA’s grantmaking programs. Works in the Classical Commissioning Program are supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Aaron Copland Fund for Music and the Chamber Music America Endowment, while New Jazz Works supported by the Doris Duke Foundation.
This year attendees braved a half-mile trek from the conference hotel to the DiMenna Center in extremely inclement weather, but it was well worth it. Nico Muhly’s Fast Dances for two harps was lovingly performed by Duo Scorpio. It was followed by a hefty excerpt from The Subliminal and the Sublime, an ethereal work by Chris Dingham played by his sextet Waking Dreams which, in addition to Dingham on vibraphone, featured Loren Stillman on alto sax, Ryan Ferreira on electric guitar, Fabian Almazan on piano, Linda Oh on bass, and Justin Brown on drums. What was supposed to follow that was a performance of Daniel Strong Godfrey’s To Mourn, To Dance by the Cassatt String Quartet, but unfortunately due to the severity of travel on roads in the New York City-Metropolitan area, one of the members of the quartet was unable to get to the venue. While this was extremely disappointing, the all-star Marty Ehrlich Ensemble—Ehrlich on clarinet and saxophone, Ron Horton on trumpet, Ray Anderson on trombone, Jerome Harris on electric guitar, Bradley Jones on bass, and Eric McPherson on drums—lifted up the doldrums with a rousing performance of Ehrlich’s Rundowns and Turnbacks, a politically-charged multi-movement magnum opus lasting some 20 minutes that he had recorded with a much larger group on his 2013 New World recording, A Trumpet in the Morning.
But ultimately the concert was just the tip of a new music iceberg. During the conference there were a total of 18 showcases (basically a half-hour mini-concert), each devoted to a different ensemble that was either categorized as “classical” or “jazz” and the majority of these groups focused on the music of our time. What was particularly interesting was that despite the nominal segregation, many of the groups were clearly indebted to both classical and jazz traditions, freely traversing between performance practices to create 21st century music. Some groups blurred additional lines as well. Don Byron’s New Gospel Quintet (Byron on clarinet and sax, plus vocalist Carla Cook, bassist Brad Davis, drummer Pheeroan akLaff, and the extraordinary Nat Adderley Jr. on piano) found common ground between sacred and secular, making classic gospel hymns by the legendary father of the genre, Thomas A. Dorsey, totally swing. (Although it must be pointed out that doing so is not completely without precedent. Before Dorsey completely devoted himself to devotional music, he was a highly successful jazz and blues composer/pianist known primarily as “Georgia Tom” and in the earlier part of his career he felt equally comfortable creating music for both partying and worshipping.)
Meng Su and Yameng Wang—who call themselves the Beijing Guitar Duo even though they are both from Tsingtao (where, as they pointed out, the beer is made) and are currently based in Baltimore—made an extremely compelling case for Manuel Barrueco’s transcription for two guitars of Eight Memories in Watercolor, the opus 1 of Tan Dun (who was actually in the audience for this performance). The plucked sonorities of the guitars are perhaps even more effectively able to evoke the sound world of the folk music of Tan Dun’s native Hunan province which inspired what was originally a solo piano composition. In their performance on four saxophones of “Ori’s Fearful Symmetry” from Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin’s pan world music-inflected Vjola Suite, a work originally written for strings, the Asylum Quartet were extremely comfortable with (and sounded requisitely-informed ethnomusicologically for) every nuance the score required of them.
Though they’ve premiered pieces by composers on both sides of this ever-so-seeming arbitrary contemporary classical-jazz divide (e.g. Richard Einhorn and Uri Caine), the Sirius Quartet—a quartet of the string variety—devoted their showcase to their own compositions which were largely platforms for their own daredevil virtuosity and their ability to effortlessly traverse idioms as diverse as Chinese traditional music and Nuevo Tango. Another string quartet—Megan Gould and Tomoko Omura on violins, Karen Waltuch on viola and Noah Hoffeld on cello—were half of a larger group called Rhizome led by the aforementioned pianist Fabian Almazan. But in addition to performing Almazen’s own mixed-genre compositions (which also featured guest vocalist Sara Serpa), they also performed what can best be described as a “cover” of the Adagio from Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 10. Rather than just performing the music as it had been written (although they were all reading from scores), their performance was a surreal re-imagining in which the original 1964 Soviet-era music serves as a backdrop for on-the-spot musings created more than half-a-century later involving additional counterpoint and rhythmic underpinnings from piano, double-bass, and drums.
Perhaps most surprising of all, however, was the showcase by Andy Milne’s group Dapp Theory, a quintet consisting of Milne on piano, Aaron Kruziki on various reeds, Chris Tordini on bass, Kenny Grohowski on drums, and John Moon performing what the program listed as “percussive poetry” and what Milne introduced as “vocal poetics.” The majority of American listeners would identify what Moon was doing as rap, something that some more traditionally-minded chamber music practitioners might consider a cognitive dissonance during a Chamber Music America event. But the interaction between Moon and the four instrumentalists was formidable and undeniably chamber music, a testimony to how rapping can be enriched by direct collaboration with live musicians—something that other hip-hop creators, if only they had been in attendance at the conference, might have been extremely inspired by.
All in all, the awards, the commissions’ concert and all of those showcases provided a real immersive new music experience throughout the weekend—one in which definitions were constantly being expanded and which celebrated diversity and inclusivity. The impetus to re-imagine what chamber music composition and performance could be also informed many of the discussions people were having during the rest of the Chamber Music America conference. It also was a backdrop for an extremely provocative statement made by flutist Zara Lawler during a fascinating panel called “Sharing the Stage—Reach Across Disciplines to Better Reach Audiences”:
People think Britney Spears’s music is her music even though she didn’t write it. The assumption of classical music is that we are just the vessel for something greater than us … It’s not a fair assumption for most audiences that music comes from the composers.
As music continues to evolve in the 21st century, the lines between composers, interpreters, and even the audience will perhaps grow even more porous and inclusive. And hopefully in future years, an even greater variety of people creating music today will have a role in these discussions and performances. Of all the ensembles featured in the commissions’ concert and the showcases, only 4 included vocalists even though the majority of people who perform music sing. This is not to imply that instrumental music shouldn’t merit a great deal of attention during these convenings, simply to point out that there is a ton of other non-instrumental chamber music repertoire and a ton of people who create and interpret it who merit inclusion here as well. Although women were widely represented in the performance and administrative spheres (as participants in showcases and recipients of adventurous programming awards), only 3 out of the 73 pieces of music scheduled for performance during the conference were actually composed by women (a mere 4.1%)—Polina Nazaykinskaya’s saxophone quartet Pavana Pour Quatre performed by Asylum and pieces by Tonia Ko and Caroline Shaw for the cello/percussion duo New Morse Code . New music—a great of majority of which is for smaller forces—is being created by people of all ages, geographic locations, economic milieus, faiths, genders, and orientations. Showing the broadest possible range of this form of artistic expression is the best way to ensure that chamber music remains the viable force that it is and should always be.
1. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the entire conference since I was in Minneapolis for the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute and could not fly back until Saturday morning, so the above report only reflects what I was able to personally experience.