This essay will appear in the program book for the Ear Taxi Festival (October 5-10, 2016) in Chicago.
At only 16 years in, it’s still a bit presumptuous to make sweeping statements about the 21st century, but I’d like to posit a grand claim: our new century is the most exciting time to be making and listening to music. And unless all our channels of communication suddenly get destroyed, either through an unforeseen force of nature or some man-made catastrophe, the sheer number of possibilities and opportunities for access that have been steadily growing for decades will continue and most likely increase in the coming years. Our current state of ubiquity should remain “the new normal” for the foreseeable and forehearable future.
For listeners, there’s more music to hear than ever before–and it’s happening all over the world. Of course, it always has, but nowadays, it’s not limited to “national” “styles.” Also, global travel has become much more convenient, relatively speaking, and so with enough time, money, and overzealousness, a fanatical fan could actually trek the globe to hear extremely exciting music every day of the year. Much easier, we now can also experience a great deal of music happening in all these places without leaving our homes. And when we do, we can keep listening on our smartphones! Since music from literally any place and time can now be equally with us in the here and now, the once seemingly impenetrable dichotomies of domestic vs. foreign, new vs. old, and us vs. them have become completely porous and ultimately meaningless. It is all equally ours to enjoy, as well as to be the source of inspiration for our own creative impulses.
As interpreters and creators, we can literally do anything we want. In such an environment, it is no longer possible to be out of step with the zeitgeist. We no longer should feel stifled by so many of the other binaries that used to divide us aesthetically–e.g. old-fashioned vs. out-in-left-field, traditional vs. avant-garde, non-commercial vs. popular. There are few anecdotes that encapsulate today’s omnivorous catholicism more effectively than something Seth Colter Walls wrote about 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Henry Threadgill back in 2012:
Asked about what’s caught his ear of late, he identifies some recent Elliott Carter music for piano, as well as a Beyoncé song that his daughter brought into his life.
While exciting music is now being made everywhere, some places have been transformational loci for decades. It’s no small coincidence that Threadgill was born and raised in Chicago and that his career began there as one of the original members of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), who were pioneers of 21st-century music as early as the 1960s. AACM’s founder, composer Muhal Richard Abrams, epitomized the AACM philosophy when I spoke with him for NewMusicBox earlier this year:
If we say music, it could be anywhere. It’s just music. The next question, what type of music? Okay. No type of music. Just sound.
Though both of these two maverick elder statesmen moved to New York City decades ago, and therefore neither will participate in the Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago, their all-embracing spirit pervades this unprecedented week-long musical immersion. Over the course of six days, the music of 88 different composers will be presented. More than half of them (56 to be exact) are emerging composers. The only common ground they share is that they all transmit their ideas through music notation. Among the works being performed, 53 will be world premieres. All in all, it comes to more than 8 hours of totally brand new music.
Over the short span of time that we call the 21st century, a new breed of interpreter has arisen—polyglots who can speak and be understood in any musical language. It’s no surprise that given Chicago’s legacy as a hotbed for open-minded creativity, it is now one of the epicenters for such interpreters and more than 300 of them (soloists as well as 25 ensembles) will be involved in these performances. It is why of all the places in the world I can be, this week I am here!