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The Ear Taxi Festival tours Chicago’s rich contemporary classical scene

Composer Anthony Cheung recommends five of the more than 80 new works at this six-day extravaganza.

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This week the Ear Taxi Festival celebrates Chicago's rich new-music scene on a large scale. From Wednesday, October 5, through Monday, October 10, it presents a dazzling potpourri of new work, curated by composer Augusta Read Thomas and musician Stephen Burns (leader of Fulcrum Point New Music Project), at a variety of venues around town: the Harris Theater, the Chicago Cultural Center, Rockefeller Chapel, Constellation, Daley Plaza. More than 350 musicians will perform pieces by 88 different composers—including 54 world premieres—at nearly two dozen shows. (That's not even counting the sound installations, meet and greets, and other nonconcert events.) It's no exaggeration to say that almost every important Chicago-related ensemble and composer is represented in some way.

It can be a dizzying task to navigate all that music. So when I profiled brilliant composer Anthony Cheung, whose Assumed Roles will get its Chicago premiere on Thursday at the Harris Theater, I asked him to pick five Ear Taxi performances he was especially excited about. In every case, the piece he's singled out is part of a larger program; a variety of festival passes are available for between $24 and $200.

Read Peter Margasak’s profile of composer Anthony Cheung, who wrote the concert previews below.

Stephen Burns conducts Fulcrum Point. - DAVID CORTEZ
  • David Cortez
  • Stephen Burns conducts Fulcrum Point.

Alex Mincek's Pendulum II: Yap, Yaw, Yawp, performed by Fulcrum Point with conductor Stephen Burns (midwest premiere)

Wednesday, October 5
7:30 PM, Harris Theater, $20, $10 students, all ages

I've known Alex since we entered Columbia University's doctoral program in composition together in 2004, and this was one of the first works of his that I had the pleasure of hearing. Part of his series of Pendulum pieces, Yap, Yaw, Yawp makes full use of the resources of its chamber-orchestra instrumentation, shifting its focus in constantly changing modules with rotational shades of repetition, each a self-contained universe of rhythmic concentration. The piece travels through many states, but a constant sense of movement is present throughout its exuberant and un­restrained reinventions. This year Alex joins the faculty at Northwestern (and his Wet Ink partner Sam Pluta joins me at the University of Chicago), and I'm especially excited to see the city gain two vital new members of the new-music community.


Composer, trombonist, and early AACM member George Lewis - JOHN J. KIM/SUN-TIMES
  • John J. Kim/Sun-Times
  • Composer, trombonist, and early AACM member George Lewis

George Lewis's String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living, performed by Spektral Quartet (world premiere)

Friday, October 7
7:30 PM, Harris Theater, $20, $10 students, all ages

Any new piece by the multifaceted George Lewis promises to yield unexpected delights and provoke many thoughts on the nature of music making, and that's partly because you can never know exactly what to expect. I can't think of many artists who have such broad interests in so many different areas of music making, including improvising, composing, researching, and documenting—as well as literally inventing new methods of interactivity. In the dozen years since I met him when he began teaching at Columbia, George has increasingly turned his attention to acoustic ensemble music. Ensemble dal Niente just recorded four of his recent works for an upcoming release, and Spektral Quartet—who are tackling this world premiere—relish any challenge that comes their way. In addition I'll converse with George earlier in the day as part of a University of Chicago-­sponsored colloquium.


Keyboardist Winston Choi - CHAD JOHNSTON
  • Chad Johnston
  • Keyboardist Winston Choi

Igor Santos's Etudes, performed by Winston Choi on piano and synthesizer (world premiere)

Saturday, October 8
3 PM, Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago Cultural Center, free, all ages

Powerhouse pianist Winston Choi has been collaborating with University of Chicago doctoral student Igor Santos for the past two years—ever since they worked together as part of the student-­organized Project Incubator. And I am intimately familiar with the first of these remarkable pieces, as Igor was my student the year it was written. By blending acoustic piano with a synthesizer that's tuned and retuned in various microtonal configurations, Igor creates a shifting tonal palette in which the synth both extends and envelops the acoustic piano. New etudes will be gradually introduced to this long-term project, which focuses on piano "prosthetics" such as pedals, resonances, and touch techniques. It also serves as a springboard for a series of pieces for other solo instruments and electronics.


Composer Drew Baker - KATHLEEN E. MARSHALL
  • Kathleen E. Marshall
  • Composer Drew Baker

Drew Baker's NOX, performed by various Ear Taxi musicians (world premiere)

Saturday, October 8
7:30 PM, Harris Theater, $20, $10 students, all ages

Drew's music has drawn on a range of ideas and inspirations, including timely political themes (torture at Abu Ghraib, patriotism), contemporary art (Cy Twombly, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Brice Marden), and psychoacoustic states of temporal expansion and contraction. His Ear Taxi premiere ought to be very experiential and site specific, with musicians surrounding the audience at the Harris Theater to create a theatrical, interactive, and individualized adventure for everyone involved. Spatialized music and music "for the concert hall" are ideas that have redefined the musical experience—Henry Brant, Benedict Mason, and John Luther Adams come to mind as particularly visionary practitioners—and Drew's new piece promises to be a major contribution to the evolution of the genre.


Bassoonist and composer Katherine Young - PETER GANNUSHKIN
  • Peter Gannushkin
  • Bassoonist and composer Katherine Young

Katherine Young's The Moss Glows and the Water Is Black, performed by the CSO's MusicNow (world premiere)

Monday, October 10
7 PM, Harris Theater, $27, $15 students, all ages

A protege of Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan and a current doctoral student at Northwestern, Katherine Young is active as a performer (creating a whole new vocabulary and performance practice for the bassoon) as well as a composer (mixing elements of free improvisation with electronic processing, visceral physicality achieved through extended techniques, and highly collaborative decision making with performers). The multi­movement piece she created with new JACK Quartet violinist Austin Wulliman, Diligence Is to Magic as Progress Is to Flight, is a great example of this new composer-­performer-improviser paradigm: hands-on experimentation results in a distinctive world of heavily detuned violin strings, electronics, a sound installation, and even a chamber ensemble shadowing a solo line. Katherine's new MusicNow commission will also feature amplified performers and electronics. v


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