I launched the Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival in 1998 with the purpose of presenting the music of living composers, including—but not limited to—my own work. I was eager to know what my composition colleagues were writing and to have a way of bringing their music to the public. I also knew many performers interested in new music, and the thought of putting these together was intoxicating. Now, 65 concerts and 191 composers later, Cutting Edge Concerts enters its 20th season.
And it all started with Pierre Boulez. As a doctoral student at Juilliard, I was assistant conductor to Boulez with the Juilliard Contemporary Music Ensemble. During rehearsals, I absorbed the engaging way he imparted his insights on the inner workings of the music. I was mightily impressed with his manner of speaking to audiences at his “rug” concerts which varied from first-time listeners to cognoscenti. When Boulez presented music by his composer colleagues, he interviewed them on stage, asking about their creative process. He had the unique ability to draw—even from the most recalcitrant—some vital nugget of musical significance. I remember when he interviewed Elliott Carter, whose detailed explanations of his music often incorporated many technical terms. I was amazed by the way Boulez demystified these descriptions, even making them comprehensible to my husband, a non-musician. At a reception after the concert, Boulez exhibited his continuous effort to reach “the common man” by seeking out my husband Stephan and asking his opinion about the program. Stephan told Boulez that he had succeeded in translating the stack of musical terms and details, helping to clarify a seemingly impenetrable mystery for this non-musician.
I’d like to think that some of Boulez’s talent for relating to people and to music rubbed off on me. His relationships with the composers, performers, and audience sparked the idea for the beginnings of Cutting Edge Concerts. I wanted to create and present my own series and model it on his.
Boulez was generous to his colleagues, promoting their music as well as his own, and that spirit of generosity was something else I was bent on emulating in the Cutting Edge Concert programming. I wanted to interview composers and make them feel at ease discussing their music with the audience. Above all, I wanted to avoid the off-putting formality of a prepared statement. My ability as an interviewer was tested on a number of occasions. I have had the challenge of speaking with composers whose responses were monosyllabic; I had to work hard to draw them out of their shell. I have also had the opposite problem! For instance, a well-known architect monopolized the pre-performance discussion and stretched what should have been a five-minute introduction into a half-hour lecture on his architectural accomplishments, complete with visual charts. He began the conversation by refuting the very premise that framed this particular season, “The Shape of Sound.” When I mentioned in my introduction that architecture has been called “frozen music,” his response was, “That is bunk!”
Sometimes my non-speaking roles could be just as challenging. An embarrassing moment occurred one time when I volunteered to turn pages for a pianist. This pianist was very particular about exactly when she wanted the pages turned and promised to nod her head to confirm. Having had considerable experience doing this, I was not worried. At the concert, she swayed and nodded continuously, defeating any notion of which nod was the correct one. I turned the page at the wrong moment and she stopped playing in the middle of the piece to berate me. The entire concert came to a grinding halt and both the audience and I were completely stunned. Some good came of it, though. The occasion was so memorable that I wrote a piece called The Page Turner, which we later performed to the great amusement of the audience.
Dealing with a commonplace concert interruption also resulted in a new work. Just as at every performance around the world, CEC concerts are prone to the unwelcome sounds of cellphones. I decided to dispense with the traditional pre-concert plea, and I commissioned Neil Rolnick to compose an electronic work which effectively provided the same message. We have played it at the beginning of many of our performances ever since.
Cellphones are not the only audible irritation at CEC. Dealing with ambient noise is also a constant challenge. When the series was located at Greenwich House, the auditorium faced directly onto the street. Because April evenings were often quite warm and there was no air conditioning, the only way to keep the room cool was to open the windows. There was more than one occasion when car horns intruded unanticipated pitches into a composition. At Symphony Space we also had sonic intrusions, but these came from the Thalia café next door, which often holds open mic nights for pop musicians. When the door of the theater and the door of the café were accidentally left ajar, the sound of singers of sometimes questionable ability created a dissonance that only John Cage would have appreciated!
Through my work as a conductor and composer, I have gotten to know many composers and performers. Some are now personal friends with whom I share my leisure activities. I am an avid hiker and have taken long country walks with fellow enthusiast and composer Laurie Anderson. We share a passion for nature and for animals, and during one of these walks we worked out ideas for presenting her film Hidden Within Mountains on a future CEC concert. Some are people whose music I have long admired and conducted, like Tania León, Libby Larsen, Daron Hagen, and John Harbison. Some I knew when they were students, like Andrew Norman, Kenji Bunch, and Cornelius Dufallo. And some are performers who have advocated my own music, The Cassatt String Quartet, Da Capo, Cygnus, and The American Modern Ensemble among them.
I resolved that Cutting Edge Concerts would not endorse one style but rather revel in the multiplicity of diverse styles being composed today, from the most conservative to the most experimental. The series celebrates the coexistence of this diversity and programs works without making stylistic judgments, presenting pieces by composers as varied as Valerie Coleman, Brian Ferneyhough, Philip Glass, and Steven Takasugi. Over the years, I have made a point of engaging ensembles that rehearse and perform together on a regular basis, including the Imani Winds, Loadbang, and the MIVOS String Quartet to name a few. I have found that this results in committed and polished performances.
While I always thought what we were doing was cutting edge, we actually weren’t always “Cutting Edge.” In fact, our original name was “Close Encounters,” in homage to Boulez’s “Perspective Encounters”. However, another organization was already using a very similar name, and told us we couldn’t use it. And no, we weren’t sued by Steven Spielberg.
Opera and music theater have always been important components of CEC. I am fortunate to be good friends with renowned director Rhoda Levine, who directed The Life and Times of Malcolm X at the New York City Opera as well as a production of Porgy and Bess in Cape Town, South Africa. Knowing that she would bring her theatrical flair to CEC, I asked her to direct two unusual works. For Derek Bermel’s witty Language Instruction, she placed the action in a classroom full of eccentrics, taught by an instructor who could not communicate. The resulting chaos was hilarious. She also directed The Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine by Aaron Jay Kernis as a TV cooking show, complete with Dadaist recipes.
Another significant theatrical performance presented as part of the Cutting Edge Concerts was when Valeria Vasilevski directed Eric Salzman’s opera The True Last Words of Dutch Schultz in film noir style. The costumes were entirely black and white, and in one scene, the action moved in reverse, with the singers executing their original gestures backwards and in fast-motion, like a film rewinding. The eclectic vocalist Theo Bleckmann was the soloist, and his portrayal of the legendary gangster was malevolently spine-tingling, particularly with his expert use of extended technique.
From time to time, I’ve paired composers with creative artists of other disciplines, such as architects (“The Shape of Sound”) and weavers (“Woven Sound”). In 2010, I created a season with the theme “Can Music Heal?“ and partnered with Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, as well as other cancer care facilities. CEC donated half of the box office proceeds to these organizations. We invited doctors and music therapists to participate in pre-concert panel discussions. I was curious to know more about how music therapists work with patients and spent the day observing one at MSK. I asked what instruments other than the guitar, which was what she played, were favored for this therapy, and I mentioned the harp. “We had a harpist playing in the recovery room at the hospital,” she said. “However, when one of the patients woke after surgery and heard the beautiful harp music, she panicked and thought she had died!”
Over the years, we’ve presented a number of programs that incorporate visual art and artists. For example, I have long been fascinated with the way weavers’ art relates to music because it uses form, color, and texture—elements that also apply to composition. I wrote a work that I called Woven, inspired by the intricate and colorful weaving and textiles of Jack Lenor Larsen. He invited me to perform it on an outdoor concert at his magnificent sculpture garden in East Hampton. In turn, I invited Jack to speak about his work on a Cutting Edge Concert. Dressed in his signature white suit and hat, he made a stunning presence at the concert and astounded the audience with images of his incredibly detailed artwork. This year we are working with the prominent painter Eric Fischl whose watercolors will be projected during the Eroica Trio’s performance of Bruce Wolosoff’s composition The Loom. Eric will be at the concert to discuss the collaboration with Bruce and the synergy between visual and musical creativity.
In 2006 CEC featured the music of Harry Partch, a composer with whom I had a fruitful history. When I lived in Los Angeles, Partch cast me to be the soprano soloist in the premiere of his opera Delusion of the Fury, which made an indelible impression on me. After Partch’s death, Dean Drummond, a percussionist who had also participated in that premiere, carried on the Partch tradition, preserving the iconic instruments at Montclair State University and commissioning new compositions for them. CEC performed an entire concert using the Partch instruments and featuring music by Partch as well as Drummond and other composers. At that time, the series was held in a very small theater at Greenwich House, and one of the instruments, the Marimba Eroica, could barely fit on the stage. The player stood on a tall ladder in order to play and wore huge orange gloves with which he tapped the keys. At the concert, I thought the audience would be curious about the instrument and about the gloves, so I asked the player where he got those gloves, and if they were specifically made for that purpose. “I got them at Home Depot” he replied, and the audience had a good chuckle.
Over twenty seasons of concerts, we’ve had plenty of surprises. One quite wonderful spontaneous happening was during a concert that featured composer William Bolcom. After a very successful performance of his Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano, the applause went on for such a long time, that Bolcom leaped to the stage to take a bow. But that was not the end of it. He invited his wife, Joan Morris, who was in the audience, to join him. Bill sat at the piano and Joan sang. Together they regaled the audience with an impromptu encore featuring several of his cabaret songs which he had written for Joan and which they performed to perfection. The audience went wild.
Other unexpected occurrences were not quite as welcome, but also memorable. I used to have a series called “Cutting Edge Kids” which presented music by living composers written for young audiences on locations outside of the city. On one occasion we were performing my composition, The Frog Prince at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton. In the piece, there is a suspenseful moment just before the frog is about to get thrown across the room by the princess and all action and music stop for a pregnant pause. During this silence, from the back of the audience, a child yelled “uh-oh!” in a very loud voice. The audience burst out laughing and everyone turned to look at the very small girl perched on her father’s shoulders. It was not the moment that had been planned, but it was priceless!
Another time, an elderly woman was sitting in the front row of the theater when a string quartet was just about to begin to play, their bows poised in midair. She spoke up loudly, addressing the first violinist. “Can you move your chair to the left? I can’t see the other players.” He was so startled that he actually DID move his chair to everyone’s amusement.
The challenges of producing, organizing, maintaining, and funding the Cutting Edge Concerts are great. However, the rewards of the series are equally great: bringing new music to new audiences; providing a platform for composers to hear their music performed by outstanding musicians, and providing musicians interested in new music the opportunity to work with composers. The concerts have given me a tangible way to express my appreciation for those who create, those who perform, and those who enjoy listening. On its 20th season, CEC is going strong, and as we did in the beginning, we continue to celebrate the music of our time.