Encouraging an UNsafe Approach...
What's dangerous when it comes to composing for orchestra? And why is ACO encouraging composers to take new risks?
by Karen Campbell
Traditionally, when a composer gets a commission from a major orchestra, it comes with some pretty hefty strings attached in terms of style, length, and instrumentation. Hip hop, laptop ensembles, and Theremins aren't usually part of the bargain, and edgy experimentation is seldom on the table.
But with the ACO's new "Playing It UNsafe," experimentation is the order of the day. The project, which begins a week of open rehearsals, public readings and lab performances on April 23, is designed to stretch the limits of what an orchestra can be and do by encouraging composers to take creative risks and challenge conventional notions. The first professional laboratory to support the creation of ground-breaking new American orchestral music, it's nothing less than an invitation to reinvent the orchestra for the 21st century.
"There's a huge hunger for this," ACO Artistic director Robert Beaser believes. "Historically, every century has added new technologies to the orchestra and the 21st century is no exception. We need to re-imagine the orchestra. 'Playing it UNsafe' is an opportunity to try out new ideas."
Out of nearly 200 proposals from around the country, the ACO chose five composers that Beaser believes have unique perspectives that could engender "provocative synergies."
Daniel Trueman, for example, is working with eight performers from the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, each of whom play a "meta-instrument" comprised of a laptop, multi-channel speaker, and a variety of controller devices (keyboards, graphics tablets, etc.) In his new "Silicon/Carbon: an anti-Concerto-Grosso," Trueman likens the computer ensemble to a section of the orchestra, except that the laptop performers won't be reading specific notation and their collaborative input is at the heart of the creative process.
Audiences will experience Charles Mason's "Additions" before they even sit down inside the hall. As listeners filter into the building before the concert begins, musicians in strategic areas of the lobby will perform key musical elements of Mason's piece. These snippets will bring the aural experience of the lobby's architecture to the foreground. "The placement of musicians opens up hidden spaces, delineates curved surfaces, and alters the normal pedestrian flow," Mason explains.
Mason's music explores what he calls "hyper connectivism" between the acoustic instruments of the orchestra and electroacoustic sounds. "I try to create with my music the exhilaration that one feels when many disparate elements come together for a common purpose and the excitement one gets from the positive energy of being on the edge&ldots; just before chaos, but not in the midst of it."
Ned McGowan's "Bantammer Swing" may be the world's first concerto for the rarely performed contrabass flute. "It has a very special sound, ranging from velvety soft middles to screaming highs to driving lows," McGowan says. "I've tried to explore them in many different relationships to the orchestra - whether as a soloist, accompanist, or in conversation with various instruments."
Jonathan Dawe, whose "The Flowering Arts" was commissioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 125th anniversary, is recasting his opera "Armide," based on a 17th century opera by Lully, into postwar Iraq and incorporating Middle Eastern music, hip hop, and strategies gleaned from fractal geometry.
Composer Anna Clyne is collaborating with laptop musician Jeremy Flower and computer-graphics artist Joshue Ott for her double laptop concerto "Tender Hooks." Clyne's score, a combination of standard notation, written instructions, and graphic representation, aims to elicit an organic live experience through the combination of the orchestra's music with electronic sounds and visuals. Both Flower and Ott will process live data from the orchestra using a variety of input devices, from microphones and foot pedals to drawing tablets and Theremins. Theremins are those wonderfully exotic, spooky-sounding electronic instruments of the early 20th century that are played by moving the hands around two antennae. Clyne is hoping their use will give the computer musicians the kind of visual/musical links that acoustic musicians display as they prepare to blow, strike, or bow a note. "We hope the audience will enjoy the experience of stretching the acoustic orchestra sonically, spatially and visually," Clyne says.
"Tender Hooks" has been the most complicated project piece to get together. While Clyne and Ott live in Brooklyn, Flower lives in Boston, necessitating lots of emails and conference calls in between live get-togethers in New York. But as with all the composers, the emphasis has been on process rather than product, which composers cite with giving them an invigorating sense of liberation and empowerment. "It is a unique opportunity to create a work with relatively few limitations," Clyne says, citing the "exciting relay of ideas and information" flying between her and her collaborators.
Mason believes the project just might turn around the way orchestras engage composers. "Orchestra commissions are so rare that it is usually not wise to try out new ideas with them," Mason explains. "But with 'Playing it UNsafe,' I could do just that. I could take risks. If the risks I take on this project are successful, other orchestras will be willing to try them out."
"Playing it UNsafe" features the ACO's entrepreneurial Orchestra Underground, led by conductor Jeffrey Milarsky. The smaller, more flexible ensemble, which was started four years ago to expand the ACO's embrace of cutting edge music, is ideal for the new project, with its eclectic range of musical styles, technological innovations, and multi-media collaborations.
Dedicated to the memory of ACO's longtime board member Peter S. Heller, who was committed to creating new opportunities for American composers, "Playing It UNsafe" is the first major initiative of ACO's new, long-range plan to develop a national network to foster the creation and development of new orchestral work. A vital element of the plan is to create activities that offer experimental "laboratories" and new music readings. And it all feeds into the orchestra's ongoing mission to be an advocate of American composers and their music, functioning as an incubator of ideas, as well as a catalyst for growth and change. Executive director Michael Geller calls it "another step in our continuing efforts to imagine the orchestra of the future."
KAREN CAMPBELL, dance critic and cultural correspondent for The Boston Globe and a communications writer for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is a journalist specializing in the performing arts and education. A graduate of the University of Illinois, she also is active as a double bassist in numerous area orchestras, including Boston Baroque. While living in New York and Philadelphia, she composed for a variety of modern dance companies and instrumental ensembles and was the only Pennsylvanian awarded both Emerging Composer and Emerging Choreographer Fellowships. She has been the frequent recipient of awards by MEET THE COMPOSER and ASCAP.