What's Up Chamber Music

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Monday, August 09, 2010

These shows originally aired the week of January 11, 2010.Click here for the original show page.

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
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Comments [3]

Jared from NYC

Looking only at NYC, this would seem to be the case: a relentless drive to be "current" and "hip", attracting diverse audiences of young listeners who pride themselves on their eclectic taste, yet are willing to listen to music in terrible acoustical spaces as long as there are colored lights and alcohol to drink. Following in the footsteps of Bang on a Can, young ensembles in NYC feel a need to inject (infect?) their art with myriad indie-rock/pop influence (quirky instrumentation, post-minimal looping, ambient sonorities, propulsive rock rhythms, unimaginative harmony, simplistic structure, etc.) As Nadia states, this IS a trend, but one of simplifying one kind of music in order to make another seem more complex. It's a wonderful way to achieve equilibrium but it makes for a rather boring listening experience.

Aug. 17 2010 01:58 PM
Mario Godoy from Redlands, CA

I'm starting to see a lot of composers take a George Crumb-like approach in their writing where it seems almost as if they write down every instrument on strips of paper, drop them in a hat and say "OK, I'll pick out 6 and that will be my ensemble".

Maybe the random ensemble is the way of the future.

I've also noticed that quite a few composers are writing saxophone quartet pieces.

Aug. 12 2010 12:36 AM
Antonio Celaya from Oakland, California

Predicting the details of the musical future is game one is bound to lose. However, the new combinations raise interesting issues we can observe now. The unstated reason that people laugh at Hindemith's tuba and piccolo type combinations is because their is an implication that a composer must write pieces to become part of the European canon. As composers have realized that that exclusive club is closed they have begun to act like composers in the composers in 18th century Italy and write without expectation of publication or many repeat performances (read Charles Burney on Italian musical life for a fix on the competition and brevity of a piece's life). Why shouldn't write for the immediate opportunity? Performances are hard to come by and if you've got willing friends who play bagpipe, harpsichord and gambuh, then you search for solutions to the technical difficulties at hand.

The second issue it raises is the place of that 19th century concoction, the concert. Well, rather the issue of lack of place for it in contemporary American culture. The quasi-religious function of the 19th century concert is far less material to our world. Music is played and enjoyed, but it has new functions. Chopin wrote piano music for the salon and the salon concert. Bach had liturgical functions to address. We composers are struggling to figure out what our function is in a world of Lady Gaga events, DJ's and new music concerts attended largely by faculty of local colleges with nothing else to do that night. If expanding the ensemble from the string quartet to Guzheng, tenor sax and flamenco dancers' palmas gets performances that interest audiences compose onward. Difficult combinations are hardly new. The Pierrot ensemble is rather unwieldy, if not downright ugly, combination, but composers have found a way to lost of exciting music for the combination. Who said it would be easy living in "interesting times?"

Aug. 11 2010 03:38 PM

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