Episode #1

What's Up, Chamber Music?

Nadia Sirota Joins Q2 Weekdays from 12-4, a.m. and p.m.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

New Music is flush with chamber music these days! Small ensembles of virtuosic musicians are popping up left and right. But how does an ensemble of saxophone, electric guitar, piano, and percussion fit into the classical canon?

For a couple of hundred years (say, 1760-ish to 1960-ish), chamber music was written for a handful of tested and trusted ensembles: sonata pairings, the piano trio, the string quartet, the woodwind quintet, piano quartets and quintets (all of these with the occasional guest woodwind), the odd octet, etc. Composers who wrote chamber music that fell outside these categories were either mocked (“Oh, that Paul Hindemith, always writing some trio for viola, piano, and heckelphone”) or lauded as “game changers,” composers writing works so important that their particular ensembles became standardized. For example, Schoenberg wrote this great eccentric set of quasi-cabaret songs in 1912 called Pierrot Lunaire. In addition to the vocalist, it was written for an ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. That was a wild orchestration in its time, but in the ensuing decades became the de facto instrumentation of the modern new music ensemble (often with added percussion or, ahem, viola).

Somewhere around the 1970s, the Pierrot-style New Music ensembles were joined by increasingly visible composer-oriented groups like the Philip Glass Ensemble and Steve Reich and Musicians. These groups had synths and guitars and vibrato-less singers! They had amplified strings!

The 1990s saw a flush of smaller groups using these new sounds and styles, such as The Bang On A Can All-Stars and Eighth Blackbird. What set these groups apart was their commitment to their odd instrumentation. They commissioned music specifically for their members, thus creating a body of music that relies on their very existence. In the ‘00s, this idea was expanded big time with groups like the NOW Ensemble (flute, clarinet, bass, electric guitar, piano), Flexible Music (saxophone, guitar, piano, percussion), and So Percussion (percussion quartet). What I really love about this trend is that it’s conducive to so much new stuff! New scores, new orchestration concepts, new relationships between composers and performers, new performance practices, and, ya know, just a lot of new art!

Institutions like the Wordless Music Series took this concept and ran with it. The question is now: Well, if that’s chamber music, where do ambient music, some indie rock, and all manner of other art music lie in the chamber music continuum? If we are not restricted by orchestration, where do our boundaries lie?

Of course, the classic ensembles are still very much thriving in New Music. The Kronos Quartet and Ethel are two groups that have ensured that the string quartet will remain as vital a genre as any. Where’s this gonna go, though? What do you think the quintessential 21st century ensemble will be? Or, are we living an era where the inconsistent is the only constant?

Hosted by:

Nadia Sirota

Comments [14]

Exactly, Nadia. And what's so exciting about the "artist-as-catalyst" (good phrase) is the deepening responsibility that's added to the traditional interpretive role: Choosing which ideas will drive the music -- and how those ideas will be developed and communicated -- can mean the advent of a new, much more creative chamber presence. I hope we see a lot more good work going in this direction. Thanks for the great theme and shows this week!

Jan. 15 2010 03:26 PM

Porter, I think you're right on target with the concept of "idea-driven chamber music." I also love this as a concept because it actually positions the performer as artistic catalyst rather than recreative post script. I guess this is hardly a new idea, but I'm thrilled that it seems to be so of the moment!

Jan. 15 2010 12:40 PM

Hey Dan Leeman,

If your spirit has you listening to Nadia, you're not a geezer. You are a "with it" craver of great New Music.

Jan. 14 2010 03:56 PM


I don't play through the "widget", I use Winamp and have the 128kbit mp3 stream URL saved as a bookmark.

First, you can access "What's On Now" on the WQXR home page by clicking on Q2. Second, you can access the Q2 playlist, by clicking on Playlists and then the Q2 tab.

Jan. 14 2010 03:54 PM
cdthomas from Denver, CO

Oh, this is wonderful.

Remember that some of us don't listen through the Q2 widget, therefore we don't get *any* details about what's playing. I'm ignorant, so it's great to have someone expressly discuss the linkages between old and new "new music".

Jan. 14 2010 03:29 PM
Dan Leeman from Ottawa, ON, Canada

Did you just start on Monday, January
11th? I am glad I discovered you! I love
contemporary music and will listen
everyday...from 12 til four. Play some
Elliott Carter. He deserves a hearing!
He made to 100! Your programming is so
refreshing, compared to the "same old,
same old, same old!" And I am an Old
Geezer!(proudly 84!)

Jan. 14 2010 03:19 PM
Porter Anderson from Copenhagen

Regarding the show and format, I have to respectfully disagree with you, Bernie. Don't feel we're ganging up on you. In fact, in the abstract, if someone had said, "We're going to break the music-only format with a hosted show, I'd have worried. But we're in such thoughtful, concise and dedicated hands with Nadia, that I'm a quick convert to this. I'm saying she's clearly here for the music and for us, not "loving herself in the art," Mr. Stanislavsky. I do want to learn and I find such intelligent company as hers delightful.

As to the "theme" of the week, I wonder if one aspect of a "new" chamber movement may not lie more with the intentions and interests of its members than, necessarily, questions of instrumentation. Consider a core group that pulls in guests for various projects but is led by a conceptual interest. Its work is meant to explore and share a vision, speak a purpose, define an idea for us.

The Silk Road Project is an example of what I'm talking about. Yo-Yo Ma and associates. Here's their mission statement: "Inspired by the cultural traditions of the historical Silk Road, the Silk Road Project is a catalyst, promoting innovation and learning through the arts. Our vision is to connect the world’s neighborhoods by bringing together artists and audiences around the globe." Now, this may not be everybody's favorite vision or mission, of course, but I think it's an example of "chamber" for the purpose of a purpose -- instead of for the purpose of a repertoire.

Is it fair to say this is idea-driven chamber music, as opposed to repertoire-driven? If so, is it fair to say that this might be a potential new aspect (if not always the defining aspect) for some chamber developments today?

Jan. 13 2010 01:17 PM

Thank you for keeping me company with such beautiful music. This is a very refreshing break from the same old sounds I put on my discman (DISCMAN!) and record player (RECORD PLAYER!). Finally, streaming a live feed of new music through my computer, I feel like I have my finger on a pulse of something living. It's just the right amount of information and insight. Makes me want to stay up another couple hours!!

Jan. 12 2010 01:37 AM
James Klosty from Millbrook NY

Thank God Ms. Sirota is back with us live! What a treasure. I could not disagree more with Bernie who commented previously. Q2 was quickly becoming a sterile and faceless new music Muzak. Yes it is rare to have new music presented at all, but how much more wonderful to have it presented as something to be passionate about by someone so intelligent and so involved, for whom it is as central part of life as eating and breathing. We are blessed.

Jan. 12 2010 12:31 AM
gary gach from san francisco bay area corner of the universe

love it! ( the music AND the words ) ... well, i lean more towards late morty feldman than any berio but — the andriessen was so nice to hear again today !

keep up all the good works

Jan. 11 2010 03:34 PM
Richard Mitnick from Highland Park, NJ

So far, a great start.

Thanks for the great music and explaining the connection between Arvo Part and Benjamin Britten.

As many times as I have heard the Part on the Tabula Rasa disc, I had never found out about the connection, not even in Wikipedia.

Please keep educating us. A great deal of what I have learned came (and still does) from John S. You are in a fine tradition.

Jan. 11 2010 03:33 PM

Enough with the pretentious self important comments!
We don't need another commentator - the music alone was the way to go. If I wanted to "learn" about the music I would take a class.
This was supposed to be an all music - no talk station.

Jan. 11 2010 01:46 PM
Richard Mitnick from Highland Park, NJ

"...If we are not restricted by orchestration, where do our boundaries lie?"

Stephen Hawkings famously said about the universe, " The limits are: there are no limits".

So, was it a surprise to see Mark Stewart and
Evan Ziporyn playing with Paul Simon back in 2001.

Truly, there are no limits.

And, listeners thank Q2 for its recognition of this wonderful state of affairs.

Jan. 11 2010 10:31 AM
Richard Mitnick from Highland Park, NJ

Nadia for four hours a day!!

This is exciting.

Not only great music, but the intelligence to present it properly and teach us something.

Jan. 11 2010 10:17 AM

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