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Weekend Music Picks: On The New-Music Soapbox

By Alexander Hough in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 22, 2010 6:40PM

Photo of composer Tomi Räisänen from MAVerick's website
Classical music is a funny thing, and we're not even referring to the ambiguous nature of the term "classical music" (like the Supreme Court and pornography, we know it when we see it). The role of a professional symphony orchestra has largely become that of a curator, producing a unique, exciting, or technically perfect - ideally, all three - interpretation of an established piece of music. To be fair, orchestras do program new music - just last weekend the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played a piece by one of their new composers-in-residence, 33-year-old Mason Bates - but they also have to pay attention to their bottom lines, and the classics put butts in seats. Point is, there's an aspect of classical music that's old news.

But all classical music was at one time new, and those classics traveled a long road before becoming established pieces. Listening to contemporary music is like attending the road's groundbreaking ceremony. Hearing a concert of unknown, adventurous music is exciting. Not only do you not know if you're listening to the next classic, you, by your reaction, also get to play a role in the historical path the music takes. Contemporary music hasn't been filtered by history yet; the audience - you - is that filter's first layer.

Contemporary music has its risks. Without a familiarity with what you're getting into, this often dense music becomes even denser. Like modern visual art, it's sometimes an intellectual exercise, and unlike visual art, you have contend with dissonance - sound waves that your ear literally finds uncomfortable. And that's to say nothing of buttholes like Arnold Schoenberg, who, way back at the beginning of the 1900s, specifically said that new music should not be accessible.

Palomar will play music by Kaija Saariaho (Photo from Saariaho's website)
But hey, it's the music of our times, and if you feel like being engaged in our current culture, this new music is worth checking out. Luckily for us here in Chicago, we have a wide array of ensembles dedicated to performing new classical music, from big guys like the CSO's MusicNOW series to small upstarts like Anaphora and dal niente. All these groups religiously seek out what they feel is the best music being written today, and, in the process, shift the focus back to the music itself. Sure, a flawless performance is nice, but how about them tunes?

Two of our local new-music groups, the MAVerick Ensemble and Accessible Contemporary Music's Palomar, will perform music by living composers this Sunday. MAVerick will play "Vox Balanae (Voice of the Whale)" by George Crumb, who, at age 80, is the oldest of the bunch; "Vox" is a classic piece of modern music. All but one of the other composers featured were born post-WWII, and most of those folks were born in the 1970s. Each concert is at a relaxed, informal location, costs very little, and comes highly recommended. Check it out and see what you think. Keep in mind, police broke up a riot at a Schoenberg concert in 1913; now orchestras perform his music regularly.

MAVerick Ensemble
Cappricci #4 and #5 - Salvatore Sciarrino
"Intone" - Seth Boustead
"Petroushka Dreams" - John G. Bilotta
"Omaggio a Burri" - Salvatore Sciarinno
"Forged" - Tomi Räisänen
"Vox Balaenae" - George Crumb
Sunday at 2:00 p.m., Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, 2320 W. Chicago, $15 suggested donation

Accessible Contemporary Music's Palomar
"Dialogues" for Horn and Cello - Alexandra Pierce
"Mulatash Stomp" - Derek Bermel
"Yellows" - Kaija Saariaho
"Super Soft" - Stefan Weisman
"Breakdown Tango" - John Mackey
Sunday at 2:00 p.m., Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway, $6