Tuesday, July 31, 2007

pulsoptional: It’s Not Chamber Music (is it?)

A recent New York Times article from June (“Music That Thinks Outside the Chamber”) raised what I thought was perfectly valid question: is chamber music performance, as we traditionally know it, dead?

Many classical musicians might resent the idea that one of our most hallowed, enjoyable, and deeply satisfying artistic experiences is being given the “doomsday” treatment. Well, part of me is sensitive to this, but another part says, “Tough – deal with it!” Sometimes we performing musicians need to have our mental wiring shocked into accordance with present-day reality. The truth is, many people who otherwise like live music are not coming to (or supporting) the traditional, formal chamber music concert as much as they used to. (Take a look here for some thoughts on redirecting chamber music events towards the more informal.)

This is not to say that there is something wrong with traditional chamber concerts. Here’s a great example of a wonderful program for a typical chamber concert (this is taken from a program offered by the St. Lawrence String Quartet at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in November 2007):

Ernest Chausson, Chanson perpetuelle for Soprano and Piano Quintet, Op. 37
Cesar Franck, String Quartet in D major
Robert Schumann ,String Quartet in F major, Op. 41, No. 2
Roberto Sierra, Songs from the Diaspora for Soprano and Piano Quintet (CMS Co-commission, NY Premiere)

It’s a really terrific program: plenty of meaty classics from the Romantic era, a little variety in the instrumentation through the inclusion of voice and piano, and the obligatory new piece which lends the program contemporary resonance. OK, great for CMS; these established programs involving performance institutions like the St. Lawrence Quartet can bring in people who appreciate great chamber music. But what if there are simply too many of them, with too much of the same thing, in the same venues, with all of the same people on stage and in the audience? People will begin to yawn if this kind of event is replicated over and over again, which, with some notable exceptions, is precisely the situation anywhere chamber music is active. And sometimes people are just simply intimidated by chamber music culture. Don’t musicians who are armchair-administrators always talk about bringing in NEW and FRESH audience members? What about contemporary relevance, too? How can we bridge that gap – gain wider audiences, balance tradition with innovation, and most important, just get interested parties more excited about hearing live music in an intimate setting without fears of feeling inferior?

Into this arena walks a group like
pulsoptional, a composer-collective outfit that operates in and around Durham, North Carolina. A good friend of mine, composer Marc Faris, is a member of the group (the rest of the members are Sydney Boquiren, Jennifer Fitzgerald, Todd Hershberger, Thom Limbert, Caroline Mallonée, John Mayrose, and Carrie Shull). He was kind enough to give me a copy of their debut album (self-titled pulsoptional) which was just released this year. pulsoptional is a great example of a group of self-sufficient musicians too busy to think about these issues because they are doing something about them instead. I wish the NY Times article author, Anne Midgette, could have known something about this group before she wrote the article. Though the groups she mentions (such as the Chiara String Quartet) are indeed exploring some valid ways of circumventing the often overbearing conventions of chamber music practice, pulsoptional goes much further in terms of “thinking outside the chamber”.

Here’s a description from the group’s own website:

pulsoptional, Durham, North Carolina's Band of Composers, challenges and enthralls audiences with its innovative new music programming. Since its inception in January of 2000, the new music ensemble and composers' collective has developed a diverse, devoted audience and continues to attract listeners new to contemporary music with its boundary/genre-defying, high-energy concerts. pulsoptional creates and performs new experimental works for its eclectic instrumentation, commissions new music by emerging American composers, and maintains a repertoire of experimental "classics" with an emphasis on the American experimental tradition. pulsoptional has performed in music festivals, rock clubs, dance spaces and other non-traditional venues, as well as prestigious concert halls. pulsoptional's commitment to performing in non-traditional venues has attracted audiences of diverse ages, ethnicities, and social and economic backgrounds. pulsoptional is a non-profit organization dedicated to presenting high quality performances in the Triangle area and beyond, especially music by young and/or lesser-known composers. By charging no more than $8/ticket, pulsoptional remains accessible to audiences.

They consider themselves a “band of composers” first and a “new music ensemble” second. Right away there is an acknowledgment of the terminology issues (and its concomitant PR consequences) raised in the NY times article. Second, they write AND perform their own music and seek out alternative venues for their performances. In other words, they are truly blurring the hard distinctions between the traditional notions of the chamber music group and the idea of a sophisticated rock band of musical innovators. Some of the members also function as the band’s public relations and development personnel. Third, there is the completely unique instrumentation of the group: electric guitars, electric bass, piano, bassoon, alto saxophone, percussion, violin, and oboe/english horn. Simply put, there are going to be sounds not heard before due to the diverse instrumental canvas. They are also versatile performers who explore improvisational settings, create live music for silent films, and are willing to submit to amplification.

But don’t think that they are completely turning chamber music on its head. They maintain a subtle link to the tradition by performing modern “chamber” pieces by established composers (such as Daniel Lentz, Steve Reich, and Alvin Curran), and they also arrange twentieth-century classics for the group’s instrumentation. See this page for more information on their current and past performances and programs.

I wanted to share all of this because I think that we can learn something from pulsoptional’s approach to re-defining the roles of composer, arranger, performer, and arts marketer in the twenty-first century. They certainly provide a great example for what varied skill sets modern concert groups need to incorporate to achieve progress in this field. And they are contributing to an ever-widening definition of what chamber music is, which is a net positive from my point of view. Chamber music certainly isn't "dead" when it gets enlivened by new ideas through a group like pulsoptional. (I hope the group’s members don’t mind me considering their activities as a more modern and accessible version of chamber music practice, so I certainly invite comment and discussion of this aspect.)

Since this post is getting a little on the long side, I have written about the music on pulsoptional's debut CD in another post. You can hear some samples of their music by clicking here. The CD is also available for purchase from that page.

Image from the pulsoptional website.


Chris Foley said...

I get irritated when mainstream journalists use the "Is [genre of classical music] dead?" byline just to get a story going. Perhaps we should ask the question "Is mainstream journalism dying?"

Joshua Nemith said...

Chris, I understand your irritation. Journalists can be hackneyed and self-serving when they use language like that. But I do think those loaded catch-phrases can motivate us to counter negative claims with more fervent energy. Gets the discussion going. And I should add that it's good to get beyond the bylines and into the substance, of which I think there is certainly some in Midgette's piece.