PostHeaderIcon New Music Cracks The Ice

Over the last decade, musical organizations have gone public with their concern at the absence of the under-30 generation in the audience for classical concerts. Orchestras and conductors around the country blamed the lack of music education in school while critics retorted that orchestras had priced young people out of their halls and were acting more like museums, endlessly curating the same canonical works from the 18th and 19th centuries while turning their backs on music of our time.

Tim Munro & Eighth BackbirdWell, the musical ice has cracked in Chicago and the new music scene has “really exploded”, according to Tim Munro, flutist with Eighth Blackbird, a leading contemporary ensemble.  The prime movers and shakers are the city’s chamber music ensembles, though the mighty Chicago Symphony joined the movement in 1998 with its MusicNow series and the appointment of two young, edgy composers-in-residence, Anna Clyne and occasional hip-hop DJ Masonic, Mason Bates.

A seminal event for this development was the creation in 2004 of New Music Chicago, an association of five founding members—Eighth Blackbird, ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble), Cube, ACM (Access Contemporary Music) and Maverick—that has grown to 20 members. Tribute must be paid to the vanguard Contemporary Chamber Players (now Contempo), headed by composer Ralph Shapey who paved the way in 1964. The group is now headed by composer Shulamit Ran.

Chicago, in fact, is the most active city for new music activity in the country. Teddy Dean Boys, a local consultant to non-profit organizations, says that he heard Bates and Clyne, at a luncheon last week, claim that Chicago is an even more lively center for new music than London, San Francisco and New York.

Seth Boustead

Seth Boustead

Munro, ACM’s founder, Seth Boustead, and Boys revealed a number of reasons for this musical flourishing.  They noted that New Music Chicago has proven to be a unifying force supportive of each ensemble’s work rather than in competition; there is no comparable organization in New York or San Francisco. Boys seconds this idea, stating that Chicago is “a great nurturing place” with “risk-taking audiences”, factors that allow performers to develop at their own pace, with less fear of failure than exist elsewhere.

Young people like to flock to venues that have a “cool vibe.” So, new music ensembles have ventured out of their academic homes to play at The Hideout, Heaven Gallery, Hungry Brain, Chopin Theater and even the Green Mill Tavern. Both Boys and Boustead say that the new music scene is reminiscent of the excitement surrounding Chicago Theater in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Boustead noted that Dal Niente, Fulcrum Point and ICE are groups with a very clear mission who “talk like people in their 30s” that bonds with younger audiences. A number of new groups are crossing over to incorporate indie rock influences in their performances, says Munro.

Munro claims that engaged, young audiences flock to Eighth Blackbird concerts because the group “try to create a different performance aesthetic. We try to find ways of emotionally engaging an audience.” He says they employ elements other than an audiences’ ears—movies for example—to grab attention.

Finally, what makes Chicago so lively is the absence of a single major presenter, the proverbial 800-pound gorilla that monopolizes the audience’s attention, like the Chicago Symphony does for orchestral music.

If you remain in the dark about new music, I’d urge you to catch a performance by Eighth Blackbird, Pacifica Quartet, ICE or any of the ensembles in this report. This Saturday, Eighth Blackbird is at the Museum of Contemporary Art playing Steve Reich’s masterwork, “Music for 18 Musicians” in honor of his 75th birthday. The first show is sold out but a second show has been added at 10 p.m.

Eighth is curating the “Tune-In Festival” in New York from February 16 – 20 in a really alternative venue, the cavernous Park Avenue Armory.  The festival consists of 4 concerts over 5 days. Eighth is performing in all the festival concerts apart from the February 16 opening; only one features them in their normal sextet configuration. A highlight will be the premiere of John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit” which features 72 percussionists performing as they move around the armory. For more information, go to

Here at home, mark March 30 on your calendar to take in Access Contemporary Music’s annual “Sound of Silent Film Festival.”  It’s the only film festival that features modern silent films by directors like Martin Scorsese and Gus van Sant screened to live music composed specifically for each film. It is both fun and engaging. The festival runs from March 30 to April 2 at the Chopin Theater. For more information, go to

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