Chamber Music America awards commissioning grant to Spektral and Composer Tonia Ko

Tonia Ko

Tonia Ko

We want to say a big thank you to Chamber Music America for funding a new work by composer Tonia Ko for our 2018/19 season! We've been looking for an opportunity to work with Tonia, whose imaginative music has been on our radar for some time, and the 18/19 season offers the perfect fit.

But we can't tell you about that season just yet...

What we can tell you is that we will have a season-long theme, one that has us all deliriously excited, and that it is our largest-scale project to-date. With CMA's generous support, a key element of this dream is now firmly in place.

We can also tell you that Tonia's piece, titled "Plain, Air," will be a 30-minute work that investigates the relationship between musical sounds and those of the natural environment.

If you are new to Tonia, we should share with you that her music tends to color outside the lines of artistic discipline, with a deep affinity for the visual arts. She studied at the Eastman School of Music, Indiana University, and Cornell University, and has been commissioned by heavy-hitters like Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center as well as the Tanglewood, Aspen, and Santa Fe music festivals.

One of our favorite things about Tonia is that she uses bubble wrap as a sound texture in some of her work. Does this sound like a match made in heaven or what?


Preamble to a Post: Studying the Arditti Quartet

Any string quartet that performs contemporary music today has listened to and admired the aesthetic rigor, musical commitment and amazing longevity of the Arditti Quartet.  I know there are others who - like me - have been listening to the Ardittis since childhood.  So, when I finally saw them live in 2012 - as opposed to years of listening to studio recordings - at the Darmstadt Summer Courses, it was a revelation to see their raw energy and the clarity of their interpretation of an incredibly difficult work.

The piece of which I speak is Brian Ferneyhough's String Quartet No. 6, a stylistic and instrumental triumph that I am continually intrigued by as a listener.  I had heard it once in recorded form, but seeing them perform live with absolute precision in microtonal unisons and complex rhythms made the music come to life through their virtuosity.  But even more, it was not just technically sound and true to the page: they had command of colors within a distinctive quartet sound that's all their own.

I've been intrigued with Ferneyhough's music from my vantage-point as a performer for years, and finally got to tackle some with Spektral this fall when we played his Adagissimo on a few concerts.  I've already had thoughts about that piece, but since I keep ruminating on the Sixth Quartet (and that Darmstadt performance) I'm planning to undertake a study of the wealth of materials available online about the Arditti Quartet's approach to the work.

So, I share those links with you intrepid new music listeners/performers/composers with the hope you'll discuss the results of my studies in a week or so.

In the meantime, here's video of the Arditti Quartet giving the work its world premiere, two years before I saw them play it in Darmstadt.  Even at this early stage in their interpretation you can see their unity of vision and cooly collected communication in the face of stern challenges.


A Present for You, Unhidden

Composer/Bassoonist/Improviser Katherine Young is a good friend to the quartet, having written a suite of four ringtones for our Mobile Miniatures project and a fascinating arrangement of an Arthur Russell tune for our Chambers album release party this fall.  The arrangement of the coy "Hiding Your Present From You" is a joy to perform, both for its easy groove and satisfying sonic detail.  So, we're releasing it in a home-made recording on Soundcloud - a little mid-winter single for you.

We hope you enjoy the tune. If you want to learn more and hear the original Katherine has some great things to say about the song and her work in an interview from this fall.

Clarion Call: World Premiere by Augusta Read Thomas

This Sunday, our concert at Constellation will begin with the resonance of a harp.  Not a usual occurrence for one of our Sampler Packs, but we're all the happier that the incredibly talented and gracious Ben Melsky was willing to step in and join Russ as a part of our effort to make good out of a bad situation.  Even better still, those resonating tones are the initials of Mary Louise Gorno transformed into music for cello and harp by the infinitely skillful and energetic Augusta Read Thomas.


This performance will mark public premiere of "Clarion".  Just weeks ago, it was dedicated to Gorno at a private celebration in the home of University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer.  It's a true testament to the importance of the arts at U of C (to which we can attest by our weekly visits to Hyde Park) that this work was commissioned by and performed in the president's home.  In fact, much of the history of music is music written in just such a way: to celebrate weddings, coronations, beloved colleagues…the list goes on and on.  Augusta says, regarding the traits of this work inspired by Gorno "This short work is very soulful, and graceful, like her."

At just three minutes, it is a poetic feat that Augusta has captured so many sides of this prismatic character in such a short span of time.  Her collaborative spirit as a composer, and sensitivity to what performers can achieve and capture live, allows her such striking stylistic virtuosity.  Rehearsals and composition classes with her are imbued with the bubbling energies of her music and the more we've worked with her (whether at the University or on our Ringtones project), the more her passion for exploring musical characters has inspired us.  

You can hear the public premiere of "Clarion" in all its brilliantly clear lyricism and elegant optimism this Sunday on the Frequency Series.

Ringmasters: Collin J Rae

Collin J Rae is one of the most multi-faceted artists I know. We met, virtually-speaking, when Collin was working for Naxos Records where among his many responsibilities, he was creating box sets and collections of some of the weirder (translation: more compelling) music at the label. Rather than the usual Beethoven sonata or Mahler symphony release, Collin was championing new-music talent like Gloria Coates, Nicholas Repac and Frank Bretschneider. Needless to say, we became fast friends and colleagues.

Collin is also one of the world's most highly-regarded foot fetish photographers. Bet you didn't see that one coming.

Spektral recently partnered with this boundary-hopping composer for his F O N E (an un-performable symphony) project. Like the other collaborators, we left Collin a voicemail, playing one of the gnarlier passages of Elliott Carter's Quartet No. 2. All of these voicemails will be mined and restructured to create a brand-new work. It sounds fantastic and bizarre, right?


We are really lucky to have Collin on board for Mobile Miniatures, and can't wait to hear what shenanigans and tomfoolery he gets up to with his ringtone!

Ringmasters: Nomi Epstein

I met Nomi Epstein while she was curating Chicago's John Cage festival in the spring of 2012.  At the end of each day's events, she somehow still had the energy to indulge me on all things Cage (try putting on Variations V, I dare you).  Our mutual admiration for the composer seems to find its way in nearly ever conversation we've had since the festival, whether it's talking about the most recent Cage conference she attended or geeking out over the latest staging of HPSCHD that we heard about that is obviously in New York and why is it not in Chicago HEY WE SHOULD BRING THIS TO CHICAGO.

I have a feeling Nomi thinks about Cage just as much when she's composing.  Her works run the notational gamut, from traditional scores to interpreted spatial scenarios, yet each set of means searches for the same ideal: to let sounds be themselves.  There is an objectivity in her music that can be comforting to an audience; there's nothing to "get," there's only something to listen to.  And that's okay.

Ringmasters: Shulamit Ran

Shulamit Ran is one of the most artistically generous composers I know. While preparing her Perfect Storm (for solo viola) for a performance at University of Chicago last year, she invited me to her home for a coaching. What took me by surprise that day is Shulamit's deftness in verbally articulating what she's after, gesturally and emotionally, in her music. Composing a brilliant and virtuosic passage is one thing, but guiding the performer there expediently, getting him to "hear" exactly what you "hear" is something else entirely.
Shulamit's music is expertly crafted, demonstrative and poignant. She's also in high demand around the world, so we were delighted when she came on board for Mobile Miniatures. One of her reasons, she explained, is that the challenge of "saying something" in 3-30 seconds was too perplexing to pass up. 
It should tell you all you need to know about Shulamit's work ethic and drive as a composer that in a recent correspondence, she informed us that she had written not one, but an ENTIRE SUITE of ringtones! I feel like we just won the composer commission lottery!

Ringmasters: Erin Gee

Erin Gee is a unique composer and performer...not to mention a truly bold collaborator. Her work represents a striking deconstruction of the sounds of language alongside a luminous harmonic language.  Plus, her vocal performances are unlike anything I've ever seen.  Watching her manipulate the elements of human speech and vocal technique in such seamless and nuanced ways as you'll see below is truly unparalleled.

The striking sonorities of this piece shimmer on the edge of the borders of society and history.  Where are we in our travels that finds us in this strange place?  Allow your mind to delve into the depths of its associations along with this music:

What might such a virtuosic vocal performer and composer do with your text message alert or ringtone?

Ringmasters: Marc Mellits

Marc Mellits is a force to be reckoned with in the contemporary music world, having composed a huge number of works for the full range of classical ensembles.  He's frequently commissioned for major works by orchestras and top chamber groups, including Kronos Quartet, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the Bang on a Can All-Stars just to name a few.

His style is marked by a driving rhythmic style that still has no shortage of soaring melodies and arrestingly intimate moments.  But, he describes himself as frequently a "miniaturist" so he seemed like a perfect fit for our Mobile Miniatures project.  We couldn't be happier to have him on board.

His energetic style and puckish spirit are on full display here:

Ringmasters: Nathan Davis

My first introduction to Nathan Davis' music was ICE's performance of his piece Bells at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art.  Performers, dispersed around the museum's lobby and atrium, played material that was manipulated electronically while the audience processed around, cell phones in hand.  We were asked to call various numbers which would receive those same electronic manipulations being sent from a ring modulator that Nathan was operating in the museum, creating a sort of ambulatory speaker system.  The hazy textures from wandering phones superimposed onto the live instruments was fascinating.

Nathan's penchant for electronics is undeniable; I think I've yet to see a work of his that was strictly acoustic.  Yet he does such an amazing job of tricking the listener into believing there are no computers present; instruments are electronically processed only to highlight their idiosyncrasies, to accentuate themselves with themselves.  Nathan is able to find the little quirks that define an instrument and develop them organically through digital means.  The result is at times corporeal and human, at other times meditative and spiritual.  His work for bassoonist Rebekah Heller, On Speaking One Hundred Names, seems to demonstrate both: