De Capo Chamber Players performing at New Music New College, 2016-2017 season
photo courtesy of Nancy Nassiff
As the De Capo Chamber Players took to the stage to perform Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire during New Music New College’s 2016-2017 season, house lights centered on a miniature wicker chair positioned in the middle of the stage. Vocalist Lucy Shelton emerged from the shadows offstage, carrying what appeared to be a handmade doll resembling her likeness and placed the doll into the chair as college students, octogenarians and young professionals seated at round tables looked on with delight.
The unorthodox opening to the concert was no coincidence. Steven Miles, the director of New Music New College, consciously arranged the performance space to anticipate the audience’s reaction to the opening of the work. “[Pierrot Lunaire] is one of these classics of the twentieth century – the piece has a strong connection to early cabaret culture,” Miles said. “The atmosphere was less formal. Whenever you have circular tables, the audience can monitor each others’ responses to the music much better.”
Outlandish new music productions and an exacting attention to detail towards the audience experience have come to define the success of New Music New College concerts, which take place multiple times a year in Sarasota, Florida on the grounds of New College of Florida.
The organization grew as a brainchild of New College of Florida professor, Steven Miles, after he was tasked with assembling a group of musicians to perform John Cage’s Songbooks at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in 1998. The concert was so well-received that Miles and the group of musicians were asked to return the following year. The series steadily grew and members of the community were invited to perform. By 2003, ensembles from across America began participating, and New Music New College grew into a concert series meant to engage the audience with new and experimental music.
“New music faces some of the same challenges contemporary art faces,” Miles said. “You can write music that is very accessible, but what we present is edgier or somewhat removed from popular culture. What we’re trying to do is serve as a mediating institution between the most advanced work, which requires experts, and an audience from a completely different space. We’re providing this place where experts learn from non-experts and both need each other.”
Since New Music New College began, the series has attracted a wide variety of new music ensembles that has included Ekmeles, Wet Ink Ensemble, and Ensemble Mise-En, among many others, and has presented world premieres of notable works, including Bobby Previte’s Terminals II and the soft premiere of Kate Soper’s Ipsa Dixit.
Despite presenting avant-garde music in a region that typically saw little public interest in new music, New Music New College has seen an increase of patrons each season.
“We’ve developed a community that’s about discovery,” Miles continued. “People come to the concerts being unfamiliar. They come because they have a sense of trust but know that it will be well done. It won’t be too long and will be a variety [each time]. Music is the focus, but if we only focused on the music and didn’t think about respecting the audience’s experience and foster agreement, I think New Music New College would not have lasted.”
The organization’s approach to presenting concerts embraces classical music aficionados and pop music patrons alike. In addition to hosting performances in concert auditoriums, Miles and Silver have organized outdoor shows that encourage the audience to wander between stages, multi-day “Crossroads” festivals that intermingle New College of Florida rock bands with members of the Sarasota Orchestra, created pieces that spontaneously appear in public spaces in the style of flash mobs and have transformed meeting halls into nighttime cabarets.
“We try to lower the barriers of coming to a new music concert – there are always barriers,” Silver said. “If you’re already comfortable, you don’t perceive them. If you go to a rock club, you [get used to them], but going to a symphony is a whole other deal.”
New Music New College carved out a market for new art music in their community that previously did not exist by viewing their audience’s experience as key to their success, but their methods and approach are not solely based on their market.
“Our approach could work elsewhere,” Miles said. “It’s not rocket science, [but] musicians aren’t trained to think about these things. It makes us rethink what performance space is.”
“We’re exploring new means of performance,” Silver agreed. “We’re not jumping to re-create something – we’re trying to create.”
New Music New College's current season and streaming concerts can be found here
photo courtesy of Rohan Chander
“I’m an extremely anxious person, I always have been,” Rohan Chander said. “I don’t think it’s an accident that that ends up reflecting in my work, especially since I’ll spend long swaths of time writing and obsessing over it… I’m often pursuing a really high intensity experience and in that pursuit I think my brain can go off the rails.”
Piercing strings and distorted electronic samples nail home this very nervousness in Chander’s “iamwhoami,” written for and premiered by the International Contemporary Ensemble in 2019. Within the first thirty seconds, a livid soundworld that bounces between inorganic granular synths and jagged violins beg you to keep listening.
The same energy that drives “iamwhoami” saturates everything that Chander accomplishes. Whether he embarks on composing commissions for the Los Angeles Philharmonic or sets up concerts and events as a co-organizer of NYC’s Pulsing & Shaking Festival, Chander’s drive breathes fresh life into the next wave of contemporary classical music.
Chander’s music thrives driving the listener forward, while giving them multiple paths to walk down as they decipher his music.
“I want to give a place for people to think,” Chander said. “Not just about the possibilities of music, but rather the way they look at life and the things around them. Music was the only language that I knew of so I chose that, but had I had skills as a visual artist or something else, I might have gone down that path. My goal as a musician would be that my work invites people to take a look at things differently without ever telling them how to feel.”
These ruminations pay off. His music achieves a level of hyper-detail that makes you feel like you could reach out and touch the sounds that he conjures, while freely straying between electronic and classical realms. He makes some of the youngest-sounding art music in the best possible sense – his unique style truly freshens up a classical landscape where tired atonalism or predictable post-minimalism still reign supreme.
The evolution of Chander’s music didn’t spontaneously bloom overnight - his style developed as a result of deep introspection.
“I like to think super critically about how the experience of music varies across people both within and outside of musical communities, so when it comes to drawing inspiration, I tend to gravitate to objects that are extremely sensory such that they can be internalized regardless of your relationship to the larger ‘institution’ or your current mode of listening,” Chander said.
“I sample quite a bit, which helps in creating a compositional system based on material that we have a shared understanding of, even if placed in a contextually different environment,” Chander continued. “To the same end it also allows me to immediately begin a kind of development with extremely short articulation, so the immediate experience is informationally dense and (hopefully) really intense. When I’m making my work, I think a lot about broad gesture and composite texture, which ends up bringing me close to sounds that have strong, characterizable identities.”
Like many other musicians, Chander channels the abstract elements into discreet themes, which are tackled with a delicate touch.
“For some pieces, I write thinking about mental health or body shame or identity issues, others I’m thinking about love, memory, or god,” Chander said. “Some pieces are very explicit about it, for others it’s subtle. In this way titles are actually quite important to me as it can set up that fundamental interrogation before they even hear the piece.”
“I think if you have something to say, it needs to permeate into every corner of the work, and on every level,” Chander continued. “I think the times are now allowing for diverse POC and LGBTQ+ artists to rise up and tell really deep, meaningful stories that have been suppressed and held back, stories that have such depth and intensity that when they’re told they really permeate to the very recesses of the piece. If you’re going to engage with an idiom, idea, or concept, really know it.”
With such an animated sonic vocabulary that Chander has refined, expect to see some exciting projects from him this year.
“Currently, I’m working on a new piece for two midi keyboards, harmonizers, and toy pianos which was commissioned from the Barlow Endowment for Chromic Duo,” Chander said. “I’m also working on an evening length quasi-opera/futuristic ritual for Alarm Will Sound that investigates a society that has the technology to confirm an existence of God. The project was commissioned through the Matt Marks Impact Fund and will hopefully be premiered in the next couple years. Additionally, I’m developing two solo + electronics pieces, a quadrophonic violin and electronics work for Jennifer Curtis, and a solo bassoon and electronics work for Rebekah Heller.”
You can listen to Chander's music at his website or on Soundcloud
photo courtesy of Amanda Berlind
“I’ve always wanted to go to some remote icy place and gather field recordings of frozen dripping things,” Amanda Berlind said. “Then I would eat a maple candy and draw shells all night. That would be ideal.”
Berlind’s dream project doesn’t seem like a far stretch of the imagination after diving into her psyche and feeling her all-encompassing creations wrap around you.
At the beginning of 2020, Berlind came to a wider public prominence - her piece, “Bird Chart,” made an appearance at the first Bang on a Can’s People’s Commissioning Fund concert of the new year, alongside works from Quasim Naqvi, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Alvin Curran, and Phil Kline. Amanda composed a piece for The Bang on a Can All-Stars that married homemade footage and visuals of New York City and birds together with a whimsical bird-themed fixed media track and a tight instrumental arrangement that could feel at home in a packed club. This work felt like a breath of fresh air for art music.
The evolution of Berlind’s artistic breadth led her to this very collaboration. Her work pairing homemade visuals with lush, hazy musical tapestries that drape over the listener stretches back for years.
“I’ve been combining the two mediums for a while (to varying degrees of success and total fiasco),” Berlind said. “It’s important to me insomuch as it’s a part of a process that I like… If I am thinking about fish, I want to draw fish, I want to listen to fish, I want a portrait of a fish to hang above my bed, I want to wear a little jewel in the shape of an eel, I want a lobster to help me fasten my seatbelt. I want to be in a world that is entirely about fish. I get very monolithic and uncompromising about these things. I sort of like my life to be about one thing at a time. If I am in a fish mood, I want every experience to be about fish. I don’t have the strongest sense of reality, and I have instead become obsessed with creating little worlds for my imagination to stretch out in.”
The microcosms that Berlind brings to life evoke a blend of early Animal Collective and Frederick Rzewski. The intermingling of sound and music blends seamlessly into one another and is unlike anything out there in the North American art music world.
“I think everything I do artistically is the shape of a long, low puddle,” Berlind said. “Both musically and visually, I really think that applies. It’s possible that if I didn’t have that shape gliding around my brain all day, like a big green boat, nothing would make any sense to me. So I think the answer here is a Venn diagram with the middle sliver shaded to reflect that puddle-shape mentality. Visual art and music… they both meet in my brain at the inflection point where a puddle appears and dissipates.”
The intermingling of visuals and music doesn’t solely exist in the final artistic product. During the Bang on a Can experience, Berlind brought her overarching vision directly to the musicians and refined her musical language through the collaboration.
“There were logistical lessons and procedures that were new to me, but really what I learned is that they are all wonderful people,” Berlind said. “I was so scared of looking like a kid, or of seeming inexperienced, young, whatever— they could not have been cooler to work with. They were so respectful of my work, and so fun to hang out with. I had assigned each of them a bird character (this aligned with the bird visuals I had created for the piece I wrote for their ensemble), and upon meeting Mark Stewart, he said right away to me, ‘I made everyone hold up their bird yesterday to see what we got!’ I feel so lucky to have worked with such incredible musicians, but moreover I feel so lucky to have worked with a group that was so welcoming of me and my birds.”
With the All-Stars project finally complete, Berlind has a host of exciting projects on her horizon.
“I have a few ambient experiments that are in the works, awaiting the completion of my line-drawing canvases so I can pair everything together. It all got sidelined during this coronavirus mess because I decided I wanted to spend all of my time making a comic about bugs. I’ve finished that now, and I think it’s about time to refocus, so that ambient music should be available in the coming weeks. My bug comic is available on my site for purchase.”
No matter what the situation, Berlind’s drive to create beautiful worlds for us to rest in or fall through should keep her on your radar. Her sonic world’s stem from a place of comfort and guarantee to provide a welcome space for you.
“For me, music is a companion,” Berlind said. “It is there encouraging me to experience beautiful things. It has seen me through turbulence. It is one of the best friends I’ve ever had.”
Amanda Berlind’s music and art can be found on her website and on Vimeo.
Obscure Frequencies came about during the March 2020 pandemic quarantine. I wanted to create a project that would highlight the accomplishments of my friends, give a greater voice to the music that has fallen through the cracks in popular media, and give me an outlet to talk about the music that I think everyone should at least know about (if not, celebrate on a daily basis).
The genres that I cover will probably evolve over time. As long as it strikes a chord and doesn't receive a ton of coverage from other sites, I want to know about it. Let me know if you have something cool you're working on in the contact page.
Erich is a musician and writer living between Montreal and New York whose work appears on Best Life, Eat This, Not That!, MSN, and more and has represented artists for years as a PR rep. He likes weird music. If you want to find his music, it's over here.