Ensemble Project Sparks Surge Of Creative Energy

Among the new Grossman Ensemble members tied to music’s cutting edge are Tim Munro, flute, and Andrew Nogal, oboe. They have committed to three-years of concerts and a prolonged rehearsal process. (Rehearsal photos by Mike Grittani)

CHICAGO – Marking a new era in new music for this city of proud musical institutions, December 2018 brought the formal debut of the Grossman Ensemble as a contemporary sinfonietta comprising thirteen nationally known, entrepreneurially minded, award-winning instrumentalists who have made a commitment to collaborate with a dozen or more composers each season. To best serve the composers in the development, performance, and recording of numerous world premieres, the instrumentalists have also agreed – almost unbelievably in this freelance world – to attend every rehearsal throughout a prolonged process that allows (get this) no subs.

Augusta Read Thomas (Photo © by Anthony Barlich)

The project is made possible by a gift from the Sanford J. Grossman Charitable Trust, and it is the beating heart of the University of Chicago’s recently established Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition (CCCC), founded and directed by Augusta Read Thomas. The University of Chicago professor is unique among the world’s most prominent living composers for the consistent attention she devotes to projects on the broad behalf of other composers and curious listeners. The envisioning is not only meticulous in detail (“No subs!”), but also breathtakingly big in scope.

Few in Chicago’s music scene will forget Thomas’ 2016 brainchild, the Ear Taxi Festival, which promised listeners a “joy ride for the ears” in a citywide, free-to-roam multiplex of concerts featuring 300 musicians playing the music of 88 composers, with 54 world premieres in a flat-out jubilee of fearless celebration. The CCCC project is even more dizzying than Ear Taxi conceptually, in that the sinfonietta centerpiece is funded for fifteen years from start-up.

Composer-conductor Ralph Shapey (University of Chicago news office archives)

“The Grossman Ensemble really goes back to Ralph Shapey’s vision for the Contemporary Chamber Players,” said Thomas in an interview during the rehearsal process. “Ralph founded that group in 1964 and ran it for decades on campus in the belief that rather than just paying an ensemble to fly in on tour, it was better to build our own ensemble and play our own repertoire, written for it by the greatest composers of our time. When I took this whole concept to the local musicians, they were thrilled by the idea, saying ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’ It has been inspiring to see just how good they really are.”

The Grossman Ensemble convenes three months before each concert to begin rehearsing. From left – Doyle Armbrust (viola), Maeve Espy Feinberg (violin), Andrew Nogal (oboe), Daniel Pesca (piano), Tim Munro (flute), Taimur Sullivan (saxophone), Russell Rolen (cello), Katie Schoepflin (clarinet), Greg Beyer (percussion), Ben Melsky (harp), John Corkill (percussion), Clara Lyon (violin), Matthew Oliphant (horn).  (Jean LaChat photo)

Thomas said the Grossman Ensemble will focus on what today’s composers need in order to achieve the best possible experience in bringing an ambitious work to fruition. Her idea is timely: The nation’s symphony orchestras and opera companies, so luxurious and defining of classical music in the mid-twentieth century, do limited commissioning of their own. And the traditional symphonic or operatic set-up may not always be the most flexible fit for the sound worlds that some new composers choose. Compared to traditional large ensembles, the newly configured Grossman Ensemble seems rather sporty, its high-powered modern sound driven by an engine that includes a baritone sax and two percussionists, plus harp, string quartet, piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, and horn – and gobs of electro-acoustic wherewithal.

“When I saw the instrumentation,” said the eminent Brandeis University-based composer David Rakowski, who was invited to write a piece for the first concert, “I thought, wow, you can pretty much do anything with this. I don’t get the sense that jazz-influenced music or DJ music or even rock and roll is shut out, especially when you consider not just the instruments but who these players are. There is something quite American about it, serious but not high-brow, that seemed instantly appealing.”

The Spektral Quartet forms the Grossman Ensemble’s string section. (Dan Kullman)

The musicians themselves are tied in diverse ways to music’s cutting edge, bursting with new vocabularies of improvisation and expression. Members of the Spektral Quartet form the string section, for example. Other players have connections to Ensemble Dal Niente, Eighth Blackbird, Third Coast Percussion, PRISM Quartet, Wet Ink, Alarm Will Sound, and the like. There are Grammy winners and a Fulbright scholar. All are pedigreed, classically trained players with national reputations, but they also share a high degree of experience in performance art and audiovisual techniques, plus a serious respect for rock, experimental pop, the DJ scene, hip-hop, sound installations, and jazz.

Composer David Rakowski sent some changes by cellphone snapshot.

Rakowski’s piece was written to honor the memory of American composer Lee Hyla, whom he instantly thought of when he noticed that the Grossman Ensemble had both a saxophone and a clarinet. One of Hyla’s best known pieces was We Speak Etruscan, below, which famously carries on with some unforgettably driving and jazzy rat-a-tat dialogue between saxophone and clarinet. Rakowski alluded to it magisterially in his own piece – to whoops from the players at a run-through. (The composer took cellphone shots of changes in his handwritten score, which the musicians used to input relevant adjustments in their electronic parts.)

Sam Pluta, whose new work Actuate/Resonate was one of the four premieres being prepared for the ensemble’s December debut, is technical director and a composing member of the Wet Ink ensemble, recently named by the New York Times as the best classical ensemble of 2018. He also heads the University of Chicago music department’s integrated media experimental studio. “My friends are all fantastic jazz musicians, but also fantastic composers, but also fantastic ‘new-music’ musicians,” said the composer and electronics performer. Pluta has become so adept at creating modules of sound and formulas for manipulation that he often treats his laptop as an improvising instrument he can play in real time with other musicians.

Composer Sam Pluta and percussionist Greg Beyer, at work on ‘Actuate/Resonate.’

When the Grossman Ensemble rehearsals began, Pluta was still working on the last three minutes of Actuate/Resonate, which he envisioned as involving 53 different drum-like sounds manufactured out of snippets played by the musicians themselves. He asked the players to create various single sounds, with gaps between them, which he recorded. “Then I went back and chopped them up and put them into the computer and altered them into the equivalent of drum sounds, with their attacks, and quick falling away, and their resonances,” he said. “I designed each of the elements and then I sequenced them like you would to build a drum track, with all these percussive sounds derived from all the instruments becoming the equivalent of a giant drum machine.”

Next, Pluta says, he is going to take a break from writing notes and concentrate on that software: “It’s time to work on my chops. My software is all of the code I have written for the last 20 years – this whole environment that I can tap into when playing. I want to expand what I’m doing, and also make my technique a little tighter, which is a little like practicing scales.”

As Shulamit Ran listens to her ‘Grand Rounds,’ an engineer records it for reference.

Unlike the other composers, the Israeli-American  Shulamit Ran made very few changes in her work, Grand Rounds, during the rehearsal process, although she said she was glad to have the option to make some tweaks, “rather like a painter who has the painting in front of him while he is working.”

Ran joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1973, was mentored by Shapey, and ran the contemporary concert series for a dozen years after his death in 2002. “With time and experience one hears what one puts on the page more and more clearly,” she said of the need to check what’s written against what it actually sounds like. But in developing her complex, full-scale opera Anne Frank, scheduled for premiere at Indiana University’s Jacob School of Music in the fall of 2020, she is hoping to be able to participate in exactly this sort of extended preparation.

Sam Pluta stands back to hear his piece as guest conductor Ben Bolter runs the group through ‘Actuate/Resonate.’

Leading the first stretch of Grossman Ensemble rehearsals is Ben Bolter, who also co-directs the Contemporary Music Ensemble at Northwestern University and has collaborated with groups such as the International Contemporary Ensemble and composers Steve Reich and David Lang. “Ninety-nine percent of the time when we play music, the composer is dead and we can’t ask about much except from a self-proclaimed specialist,” Bolter said, adding that although he comes to each session with a plan, the dynamics are different here. Even for the contemporary scene it is unusual that from the first rehearsal all the composers are there each time, he said. “And these are thirteen very well established musicians with strong opinions. For us to be able to discuss and disagree while the composer weighs in is incredibly exciting.”

The heaviest user of the extended rehearsal process was doubtless 30-year-old composer Tonia Ko, who learned in June 2018 that she had been commissioned to write a piece for the Grossman Ensemble’s December debut, but with  the first rehearsal in October. It is part of her one-year CCCC post-doctoral residency before heading off on a Guggenheim. Ko was already up to her neck with work on a large-scale piece for the Spektral Quartet that involved an outdoor sound walk along Chicago’s North Shore in September. The musicians were to interact with natural and electronic sounds, with listeners alongside them, on a lakeshore forest path embedded with speakers. Inspired by cicadas and Lake Michigan’s waves, Ko played with field recordings that were transformed very gradually on playback to the point where the string players could seem to respond, imitate, even converse. The noises had become to Ko “just as beautiful and musical as a C major chord.” (Her Breath, Contained shares a similar affection for bubble wrap.)

Saxoponist Taimur Sullivan explored multiphonics with Ko for her new score.

If Ko felt crunched for time by the new Grossman project, she unwittingly became an ideal subject to test the validity of the stretched-out rehearsal process that allows for development. Her piece Simple Fuel would have four rehearsals spread over three months – each one recorded for the players’ private use – allowing for interaction with the musicians as the work progressed toward the public concert and wider digital distribution. When Ko showed up for the first rehearsal at the university’s Logan Center in October, she had but two and a half minutes of the new sinfonietta piece written “and all these sketches of situations I wanted to try.” Said the composer by telephone, “I just sort of strapped in.”

Ko said she found herself describing the character of sounds she was after. “Rather than me telling a musician to ‘press this key,’ it was more like me asking ‘Can I get this resonance?'” She dove into the possibilities for multiphonics with the baritone sax Taimur Sullivan, who has given the world premieres of more than 200 solo and chamber works for the instrument: “Some of the sounds have this beating quality, which fed pulsation into my piece,” Ko said. She also explored the use of friction sticks in a section for the string players. “There was no question of ‘Why are you doing this?’ It was, ‘Oh yeah, how precise do you want it? And on which part of the instrument?’ They were already working to help sculpt the effect. The cellist was playing with the friction sticks violently, and I just loved that sound.”

[The Grossman Ensemble’s next concerts are March 15 and June 7, 2019, with world premieres by Rodrigo Bussad, Chen Yi, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, Jack HughesDavid Dzubay, Kate Soper, Steve Lehman, and Joungbum Lee.]

Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today, and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for The New York Times and a variety of national publications.