For those who don't regularly bide their time immersed in the intellectual circles of artsy musician types, the term "new music" can be confounding. Like its kissing visual cousin "contemporary art", it sounds and feels too vague to be of practical use as a definition of a movement or genre. Though, as a point of comparison, one can argue—and many of us do—that the mainstream genre term "indie" hardly serves as a denotation of precision, since much of the music categorized as such is not produced independently but is rather the product of sub-labels owned by corporate labels, so how then can "indie" mean independent in any real sense, huh?! Um, haha, yeah, I'll just take a breath here. Out with the bad, in with the good.
Okay, so when we are confronted with the term "new music" it is reasonable to ask two questions: 1) How new is new? and 2) When is new not new anymore? If we look for answers by researching the programs performed by ensembles of the genre, we will, without fail, find ourselves frustrated. As a general rule, new music concert programs primarily focus on the work of living composers, but what does it mean if a piece performed was composed 30, 40 or even 50 years ago? Is it still new or does it qualify simply because the composer is still kickin' around? Maybe. And what if an ensemble performs the world premiere of a piece in the course of a varied program? Does it make that piece more new than the other new works in the program? Perhaps. But how would we describe it then? New-new? Ultra-new? Super-duper-mega-new? Dunno.
In short, as with contemporary art, the exhibitions of which can represent a time frame anywhere from the 1930s to last week—i.e. longer than the average lifespan—we must let reason go, relax, and open ourselves up to the work as it is presented. And, in doing so, hopefully come to an understanding that cannot be gained while our brains annoyingly chatter away about logic and time and historical context.
Now, when I make a grand statement such as the above, I of course expect you highly intelligent consumers of information to test my assertion by having the experience yourselves. And your next best chance to achieve this sublime sensory comprehension of new music is on Friday, June 3, 2016, when Milwaukee's own Present Music performs its 34th Season Finale at Turner Hall Ballroom.
Featuring guest conductor David Bloom, conductor and founding co-artistic director of the much lauded New York-based Contemporaneous, the concert program is jam packed with challenging pieces. Click, watch and listen, people:
Still Life with Avalanche (2008) by Missy Mazzoli
Commissioned by eighth blackbird
MINDJOB (2010) by Jeremy Podgursky
Commissioned by Alarm Will Sound
Try (2011) by Andrew Norman
Commissioned by Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
increase (2002) by David Lang
Written for and premiered by Alarm Will Sound
Still Life (2015) by Matthew Evans
Commissioned by Contemporaneous
That last one is just about as new a piece of new music as you could hope to be performed, really. Though there's no evidence—or need—to suggest we should, we'll go ahead call it ultra-new, as I'm pretty sure it lost its super-duper-mega-new status once it turned one year old.
Since David Bloom was among those to commission Still Life initially and he happens to be the guest conductor for Present Music's concert, I wondered how much of a role he'd played in deciding on the full program for the Finale. I sent him an email, to which he kindly responded:
"Kevin [Stalheim, artistic director of Present Music] was very interested in hearing my thoughts on shaping the program, so we designed the concert collaboratively. He encouraged me to bring some repertoire that hasn’t been done in Milwaukee, which turned out to be something of a challenge since Present Music has done so much great new music that I know and love. Kevin gave me some broad strokes about what he had in mind for this season finale, and he went for my wildest dream pieces."
Now that's exactly the situation you want as a guest conductor, isn’t it? Yes, yes it is.
Bloom also expressed his admiration for the Present Music organization and its work with genuine enthusiasm as well as his excitement at having this first opportunity to work with its musicians:
"I've been a fan of Present Music from afar since I learned several years ago about the amazing work they do, so I was elated to see a note from Kevin inviting me to conduct a concert with the ensemble. Present Music is a fantastic example of a group whose work locally has gained a much-deserved reputation nationally for excellent programming.
I was very excited to take the invitation initially because of the opportunity to work with such a great group of players, but the reasons for my anticipation have only grown with time. The more I look into the past programs of Present Music, the more amazed I am at the ambition and innovation that the ensemble has presented for the people of Milwaukee for 34 years. What's more, the organization's deep community ties through its engagement programs and impressively large following demonstrate that Present Music will continue to be a catalyst for musical creativity well into the future."
Ah, it always feel good to get props from the outside, reminding us that we should never take for granted those exceptional groups and individuals living and working and doing good in our own midst.
Present Music's 34th Season Finale is on Friday, June 3, 2016 at Turner Hall Ballroom, 1040 North 4th Street. Get your tickets here! Added Bonus: There is an after party, featuring the musical stylings of local band Painted Caves, described by their record label, Amarrass Records, as "Middle Eastern-influenced psychedelic grooves meet California surf rock." For those of you who've never heard them, that'll be even more ultra-new music!
(Thanks David & Laura!)