Living American composers! In Seattle!

A stunning weekend festival by Seattle Chamber Players demonstrates the great vitality of contemporary classical music. And also how much Seattle lags the West Coast in serving up such excitement.
Crosscut archive image.

<i>New Yorker</i> critic Alex Ross, one of the curators of Icebreaker Festival.

A stunning weekend festival by Seattle Chamber Players demonstrates the great vitality of contemporary classical music. And also how much Seattle lags the West Coast in serving up such excitement.

Couple the phrase "new music" with Seattle and you're far more likely to conjure EMP or the latest playlist from KEXP-FM than what might be going on in Benaroya Hall. Perhaps that seems pointlessly obvious. But open up the perspective to take in theater, visual arts, and dance. If their representative institutions didn't offer serious exposure to work being done by today's artists side by side with the classics, they'd be considered laughably out of touch.

Regardless of how their counterparts in the field of art music came to be so marginalized, it's not an inevitable state of affairs. Seattle is famously open to contemporary (non-classical) music and would seem to have the audience to support programming that reflects the tremendous, blended vitality of current music. That's certainly happening in other West Coast cities. And as this past weekend's Icebreaker Festival generously demonstrated, we're missing out on some pretty exciting stuff by settling for the status quo.

The proof was in the fourth annual new-music festival sponsored by Seattle Chamber Players (SCP), an ensemble of prominent local musicians who commission and perform new music: flutist Paul Taub, clarinetist Laura DeLuca, violinist Mikhail Shmidt, and cellist David Sabee, along with artistic advisor Elena Dubinets. Each of them, save Taub, who teaches at Cornish College, happens to also be with the Seattle Symphony, but SCP has created its own, independent outlet for contemporary music. Over the past 15 years they've amassed a sizeable body of new commissions.

This time around, the SCP performers (along with a host of guest performers) accomplished an extraordinary feat: not just in learning and performing so much new music, but in communicating their passion for it. There were a few inevitable technical glitches and the occasional speed bump as an ensemble, but empty virtuosity for its own sake was hardly the point. It was the kind of playing that led us intrepidly and confidently into each of these new worlds.

The concept behind this year's Icebreaker, titled "The American Future," was especially ambitious and far-reaching, and it was well-executed. SCP invited two leading critical voices to "curate" the festival: New Yorker critic Alex Ross, still riding a well-deserved wave of acclaim for his new history of 20th century music The Rest Is Noise, and former Village Voice critic Kyle Gann. The festival was spread over the entire weekend and co-sponsored by On the Boards, where two concerts were given, with a total of 13 works, nine of them world premieres. (I've included below a list of Web sites for each composer, where you can find samples of their music.) Sessions were also held during the day to introduce each of the composers and give a taste of their widely ranging perspectives. Topping it all off was a marathon in honor of American maverick Morton Feldman, sponsored by Seattle Art Museum.

The pieces themselves were, of course, of chamber dimension, most of them scored for a basic ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, and cello. But some involved interfaces between acoustic and electronic sounds, so there was never the feeling of a sameness of palette. Ross curated the opening day ("World(s) in Collision"), which took the younger, 20- to 30-something generation as its focus.

His choices emphasized that today's composers don't follow a single dominant tradition. And the old patterns of composing as setting notes to paper (not to mention acquiring knowledge of the past) have been incalculably enhanced by the contemporary technologies of digital music, sampling, the Web, etc. At the same time, resorting to the tired catch-all label "eclectic" doesn't even come close to doing justice to the varied starting points and impulses these creators are tapping into.

Southern composer Mason Bates's suite The Life of Birds and Judd Greenstein's At the end of a really great day both harkened back to an Aaron Coplandesque, populist idiom, but they were utterly unlike each other. Bates imagined a colorfully populated aviary very much in an old-fashioned program-music fashion; Greenstein, on the other hand, breezily hop-scotched from modal, folk-like tunes to catchy hip-hop twitterings. In Alexandra Gardner's The Way of Ideas, you sensed an undercurrent of melancholy tempering the cheerful surface, all drawn together organically.

It was actually a bit of a surprise how un-avant-garde much of the Ross-curated music sounded. But I surmise that's partially because so little is taken for granted by this generation that even "mainstream" classical music is a matter of fresh discoveries and is no longer something to be resisted. There was something quite moving about how unjaded this generation's approach to the past seems to be.

Max Giteck Duykers's Twilight for Adored and Breathless Moments also breathed the past in and out but expanded the acoustic quartet with a wash of synth and vibraphone. It heavily sampled romantic textures you might encounter in 19th century chamber music but found a way to do that without being self-conscious or snarky.

Anna Clyne's 1987 sounded a lot more like the sort of thing I had been expecting, with its confluence of recorded sound samples and sustained harmonic glosses provided by the live players. There comes a point where such procedures begin to seem just another mannerism, but I liked the upredictabilty and imagism of Clyne's taped soundscape, which included the crunch of feet on the sea shingle and a slightly surreal carousel.

Both her work and Nico Muhly's I Know Where Everything Is made the strongest impressions of the evening on me. Muhly's piece also cast backward glances, to the baroque, but carved out a sense of personality. He seems sure to go places with his unfettered imagination. I had high expectations for William Brittelle's Michael Jackson, which processes musical "cells" from a bunch of his songs into a deconstructive blender, but the result was surprisingly tame.

The second night ("Classics of Downtown") was, on paper, more strictly focused: an evening of works filtered through Kyle Gann's ongoing fixation on an older generation of "postminimalist" composers who have tended to fall through the cracks in terms of official recognition. But the main difference was simply that these were composers who felt somehow more settled into their language; otherwise, there was just as much wonderfully centrifugal variety as with the first night.

Gann was also represented as a composer in his new Kierkegaard Walking (SCP had already commissioned it prior to his role as curator). Both his piece and Cornish faculty member Janice Giteck's Ishi (inspired by "the last-known survivor of Stone Age America" and Yahi tribal melodies) were fresh and direct. Their lack of traditional "event" (what Gann referred to as the patterns of tension and release familiar from Western music) may mark them as post-minimalist, but you'd really have to step back to notice that in their genial linearity.

With exaggerated gestures and frenzied bowings, Elodie Lauten's Scene from 0.02 (The Two-Cents Opera) started as a postmodern meditation on the art of performance. But the originality of her voice quickly emerged as she led us to an emotional space almost unrecognizable in terrifying hyperawareness. Eve Beglarian (the only composer not present for the festival) trapped frantic electronic chirps in a net of flute and solo vocals for Robin Redbreast, drawing on the poetry of Stanley Kunitz.

The theatrical impulses of Lauten and Beglarian made for a fascinating contrast with what was, to my taste, the standout work of the festival: The Light Within by John Luther Adams (the "other John Adams," this one hailing from Alaska). Inspired by the image of light changing from afternoon to night within a room, Adams created his own shimmering spectrum of massive, merging harmonies. Acoustic instruments dovetailed in and out of nameless chords spun from his electronic source: the textures of noise as our contemporary counterpart to the sublime.

The finale presented the Seattle version of the ongoing Cathedral project purveyed by William Duckworth and Nora Farrell since the mid-1990s. It's basically a happening for the Internet age that veers a little too close to New Age: a bit hokey but plenty of fun. Cathedral played out as a structured improvisation between Taub's flute, guest artist Stuart Dempster on trombone, conch, didjeridoo, even crinkly toys, and the amazing skills of DJ Tamara weaving sound files in and out of an aural collage.

How odd it is to think of this chance to hear a carefully chosen array of contemporary American composers in concert as a rare opportunity. There certainly was no lack of interest: The 300-seat mainstage theater of On the Boards was filled with both new-music aficionados and the casually curious. Compare this with the entire current season's worth of offerings by the Seattle Symphony, which includes a grand total of two pieces by living composers: Bright Sheng and a new commission from Samuel Jones (not counting Hollywood composers and a video game soundtrack played live). The situation varies considerably if you go down the West Coast, to Portland, San Francisco, and especially Los Angeles.

In a recent interview with Jen Graves of The Stranger, Ross pointed out how lagging Seattle is in this respect:

I think there could be an amazing effect if Seattle had a music director who was following that same kind of recipe. Gerard Schwarz doesn't seem to be on the cutting edge of anything. I can just imagine a whole lot more energy and conviction in that direction, and I think Seattle instantly could become one of the leading orchestras in terms of setting the agenda for classical music, because I think there's this great potential audience there. Composers represented in Icebreaker IV   

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