To the editors:
I belong to a quiet fraternity which holds that the serious music of our time is as important as the concert music of the baroque, classical, and romantic periods, which together constitute almost the entire standard repertoire of our mainstream musical establishments. Compared to those earlier periods, as much music of the highest quality and importance is being composed right now in our own time. This is a fact that is too little known and understood. Is the Reader now attempting to make its public aware of that fact? In several recent issues, after months or even years of relative neglect, the Reader has attended to new art music composed and performed by Chicagoans. Until recently, I doubted whether any of the Reader's musical journalists were capable of making sense out of these activities. I now have reason to believe otherwise.
Today's art-music is being composed by a greater diversity of people than ever before, many of whom are not operating in a structured, collective environment. This music, which is the result of numerous cross influences and stylistic splintering on behalf of serious composers, is often experimental, it sometimes leans toward free-jazz, it can be heard on unfamiliar instruments, and it almost always blithely eludes definition. This genre is usually pigeonholed under the "classical music" appellation. When searching for a label, most commentators resort to the ambiguous term "new-music." The noble and visionary mission statement of the now defunct New Music Chicago organization stated, in part, that "New music is the composed and improvised music of today. This includes various styles of art music and avant-garde styles of jazz and popular music." There now, it's perfectly clear, right?
Ironically, this music, usually heard locally in lively concerts sponsored by any of a half dozen or so shoestring and ad hoc groups, may represent the genre which hosts the most important musical innovations of our time. Chicago Composer's Consortium, Concerts at the Goethe-Institut, Contemporary Chamber Players, CUBE, Experimental Sound Studio, Face the Music, New Music DePaul, and New Music at the Green Mill come to mind as important breeding grounds for interesting and unique musical creativity. History reveals to us, perhaps most especially early 20th century European history, how crucial to progress and innovation in the arts is the contribution made by these often informal, seat-of-the-pants efforts, which are labors of love on behalf of the participants, who frequently undergo no small sacrifice in expending the requisite effort.
From three consecutive issues of the Reader, beginning on October 29, we got a generous dose of new music information. Ted Shen got things rolling with two Critic's Choice features on new music in one issue, then on November 5 the ghostly Egbert Souse was given no less than 45 column inches of valuable Section One real estate to bring to bear his preconceived notions of academe's cagey mathematical approach and its avoidance of charm and humor upon an event which, in his opinion, reflected essentially the forces echoing throughout the corridors of our local universities. His amorphous description of a ten-composer, 14-work, three-hour event (which may itself appear shapeless to some observers) at an Uptown saloon was, nevertheless, important and valiant. An important gesture was Souse's tribute to a great local composer, George Flynn, by referring to him as illustrious and then writing, "To a true modernist of the late 20th century, such as DePaul's George Flynn, there's no difference between the impulses of the head and heart." That is a compliment regardless of which century an artist represents, and from among the 14 works he heard at the October 31 concert, one concludes that Mr. Souse did not find this happy conjunction of mind and soul. Some of us did find it, however.
The compelling and powerful work of the Korean Myung-Bok Shim and that of the daring Dutchman Sebastian Huydts--Mr. Souse ignored the Korean but found great significance to Mr. Huydts's work--were exceptional, and the latter's piece, Six Improvisations, was loaded with witty, unexpected, and inviting harmonic twists and turns. I applaud Souse for focusing on one of the day's two or three most significant achievements. I'm baffled, however, about why he found no lightness, charm, or irony, if not humor, in Huydts's work. In spite of the fact that Souse went a little too far in trying to squeeze the entirety of this concert into his generalized notion of what comes out of academe these days, I must heartily commend him for simply attempting to describe that concert--he found space for six of the ten composers and 7 of the 14 works given--let alone trying to summarize the significance of this group of musical works.
The icing on the cake was a beautifully constructed November 12 article by Ted Shen, covering a whopping two pages of coveted Section One space. This review, which had real focus and development, centered on two of the most visible and successful composers operating in Chicago. Shulamit Ran and Bruce Saylor write music which is hard to pin down, but Shen gave such a compelling picture of Ran's Legends that one is left feeling a major void for not having heard the piece. Fortunately, he reminded his readers of an upcoming broadcast on WFMT, an opportunity to hear the piece in a CSO concert wherein Daniel Barenboim also came up with some "in your face" Brahms. Without offering a direct, positive, and glowing view of Ran's piece, Shen presented it in such a manner as to drive one's curiosity to an almost frenzied intensity. What more valuable a service can a critic provide?
Shen then went on to give, in just a few paragraphs, a good picture of the Lyric Opera's composer-in-residence. The only blemish in his review, the type of convenient characterization you'll see even in the New York Times arts section, was the statement: "The impression that Saylor belongs in the company of old-line WASP musical intellectuals . . . is reinforced by his settings of poems by James Merrill." It did not advance the cause of Bruce Saylor and inadvertently misled many curious and impressionable readers, I suspect. Nevertheless, in light of an abundance of such colorful and piquant comments as " . . . these youthful experiments are well crafted and, as played by Lawrence Axelrod, had the fleeting charm of a haiku," " . . . a poignant hothouse melody is played by the cellos, which are soon joined by the other strings in an oriental serenade," or "the accusations . . . are seconded by an agitated, fluttering flute . . . and the hint of a Shaker tune . . . adds to the overall feel of faith unburdened by sentimentality," one puts the Reader back down on the end table with the conviction of having absorbed information transmitted by a masterful writer.
The cumulative significance of these four Reader new-music features over a span of only three weeks must be celebrated. This comes at a time of year when dozens of mainstream musical organizations are launching their seasons and when people are still talking about Lyric's opening night or the Berlin Philharmonic's recent ethereal rendering of one of the greatest gifts to humanity, the Mahler Ninth Symphony, and causes me to conclude that the Reader is getting serious about new music. Chicago's new music deserves regular treatment in the Reader and its events should occupy a separate category in the Section Three listings. If Renaldo Migaldi and Ted Shen can persist in garnering regular column space for this deserving musical genre, I think lots of people are going to be making the discovery of a lifetime!
Robert A. Falesch