Chicago Revs Up Careening Ride In ‘Ear Taxi’ Festival

By Daniel Hautzinger

CHICAGO — Why is Chicago’s immoderate festival of new music, electrifying venues across the city through Oct. 10, called Ear Taxi? The festival’s own answer is that it’s a “joy ride for the ears” through the sound worlds of 88 composers and 54 world premieres, spearheaded by composer Augusta Read Thomas, with 25 ensembles and more than 300 Chicago-based musicians acting as cabbies in 30-some performances, installations, and events.

Augusta Read Thomas was a lead curator for Ear Taxi.
Composer Augusta Read Thomas spearheaded Ear Taxi. (Photos: Nicholas J. Yasillo)

The metaphor can be taken further. Just as Chicago has multifarious neighborhoods laid out in an easily navigable grid, Ear Taxi presents a vibrant polyglot of contemporary music accessibly, in a variety of venues, styles, genres, and sizes, curated by the trustworthy team of Thomas and conductor, composer, and trumpeter Stephen Burns, along with other vital mainstays of the Chicago musical community.

Some people might experience one piece as a dazzlingly picturesque ride down Lake Shore Drive, while others might find it more like the frustrating ordeal of taxiing after landing at O’Hare airport. But along the many possible routes, there is sure to be excitement, newness, beauty, and yes, perhaps even some dullness.

That’s the beauty of Ear Taxi and new music: There are so many different kinds of music. Take opening night, on Oct. 5 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in the heart of downtown. The festival began with the world premiere of Angels, Birds, and I, a song cycle by jazz pianist and singer-songwriter Patricia Barber written in part for Renée Fleming. Understated, melancholy, chic, touching, the five songs are closer to piano lounge jazz by the likes of Norah Jones than salon art song, allowing for beautiful improvised solos and dialogues between Barber and her bassist, Patrick Mulcahy.

Stephen Burns conducted Fulcrum Point New Music Project.
Stephen Burns conducted Fulcrum Point New Music Project.

Following a meet-the-artists panel discussion in the Harris lobby, a two-part concert showcased other styles of contemporary composition. The versatile ensemble Fulcrum Point New Music Project, conducted by Burns, first explored three corners of the new music world. Alex Mincek’s Pendulum II: Yap, Yaw, Yawp is dynamic, with crackling motifs shooting out in repetition before being shut down before a new episode. Ringing the Quiet by Chicago Symphony Orchestra composer-in-residence Elizabeth Ogonek, an integral part of Chicago’s new music scene as co-curator of the CSO’s MusicNOW series, received its U.S. premiere. Gauzy and intimate, Ogonek’s piece is vastly different from Mincek’s – colored oils swirling in water versus craggy, mechanistic explosions.

Mischa Zupko’s outstanding Fahrenheit is an example of yet another unique genre and style. Much more narratively structured, its harrowing and gripping music was inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Piano soloist Winston Choi’s playing was by turns incendiary and poignant, the latter in an exquisite middle section against siren-like wails from the winds. Both Zupko and Choi are part of the strong contemporary scene in higher education in Chicago, as faculty at DePaul University and Roosevelt University, respectively.

Composer Mischa Zupko and pianist Winston Choi, with Fulcrum Point.
Composer Mischa Zupko and pianist Winston Choi, with Fulcrum Point.

Some of the more populist threads of new music emerged after an intermission in performances by the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra under Allen Tinkham and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, conducted by Erina Yashima. Popular music is increasingly influencing certain types of contemporary art music, as in Jonathan Newman’s Blow It Up, Start Again, which attempts to transfer the whomping bass of dubstep, a style of electronic dance music, to the orchestra, in this case the energetic CYSO.

Eric Malmquist’s Prairie Music, in its world premiere by CYSO, displays a surging cinematic pastoralism that also appeared in Mason Bates’ Desert Transport, performed by the Civic Orchestra. Bates, a former CSO composer-in-residence, also supplements the orchestra with a recording of shakers and singing, which triggers a fantastic climax.

That second half of the concert featured only young musicians (the Civic is a training orchestra affiliated with the Chicago Symphony). Ear Taxi emphasizes a younger generation of musicians, giving many a stage that they might not otherwise gain. Many of the composers also are “emerging,” here afforded an unusual chance for premieres in a well-publicized festival at exceptional venues like the Harris, the laid-back club Constellation, the magnificent Chicago Cultural Center, and the warehouse-like arts center Mana Contemporary, among others.

Patricia Barber gave world premiere of her song cycle 'Angels, Birds, and I.'
Patricia Barber gave world premiere of her song cycle ‘Angels, Birds, and I.’

Other youthful musicians, students from the tuition-free People’s Music School, got to perform and work side-by-side with the talented International Contemporary Ensemble in a commissioned piece by Marcos Balter.

Young audience members have access to all this new music too, at an affordable rate. Many concerts are free, including a weekend-long “New Music Marathon” at the Cultural Center and five installations around town, while others are $5-$20.

Given the festival’s focus on emerging musicians and diversity of style, Ear Taxi also tries to move beyond the hegemony of the white male composer. Many of the composers are women, and a few are composers of color. There is of course much more work to be done in allowing people of different backgrounds access to the education and resources required to become a composer, but Ear Taxi at least does much better than most other mainstream classical festivals or orchestras.

Because of the vast scope of Ear Taxi, it is difficult to recommend any one event. But here are two that catch the eye, and likely will fascinate the ear: Blowout Party! at Constellation (Oct. 9) and the season’s first concert of the MusicNOW series on the festival’s final day (Oct. 10).

The intrepid listener could go to all the concerts, as none overlap — I wouldn’t be surprised to see the inexhaustible Augusta Read Thomas at them all (her nickname Gusty is apt, given her gusto and the wind-like force of her enthusiasm and energy). She, the festival manager Reba Cafarelli, and the entire team behind Ear Taxi deserve resounding thanks for creating such an enormous, delightful, astounding, invigorating showcase of new music and Chicago’s brilliant contemporary scene.

Daniel Hautzinger has worked for the Grant Park Music Festival and written for Chicago On the Aisle,, and Cleveland Classical. He graduated with degrees in history and piano from Oberlin College and Conservatory, where he wrote a thesis on Benjamin Britten, the Aldeburgh Festival, and modernity.