Music Festival in Seattle

I miss the days of new music festivals in Seattle. In the early 1990s, composer Robert Priest produced Marzena, a Festival of Contemporary Music that brought composers such as Toru Takemitsu and R. Murray Schafer to the Northwest. Performances took place in venues that ranged from traditional concert halls to unique places where the audience was encouraged to bring sleeping bags and pillows to listen to music while in repose. Along with well-known contemporary composers, there were over two dozen other composers from all over the world who would converge in Seattle as part of Marzena.

Marzena is no longer around, so it is with great excitement that I attended the Seattle Chamber Players’ Icebreaker IV Festival of emerging American music. For this post, I will write about Day One, curated by Alex Ross. Ross’ program included works by young composers, many who are still in school. Their struggles to break out of academic and popular influences could potentially create the basis for a fantastic program.

After all, when does a Seattle audience get to experience the inner battles of Gen-X, Gen-Y and Gen-Me students educated at Juilliard, Columbia or Princeton play out in a world premiere? Especially challenging, was that all the works on Fridays’ program where instrumental works scored for flute, clarinet, violin, ‘cello, sometimes with an additional instrument such as electric guitar. In other words, there were no lyrics, text or singing at Friday night’s concert. Their mishaps and discoveries played out in the abstraction of instrumental chamber music. I applaud Ross, the Seattle Chamber Players and On the Boards for providing this glimpse into a possible future of classical music aptly named World(s) in Collision.

The entire day was set up to give a platform to select East Coast trained composers in their 20s and 30s. Admittedly, I arrived late, five hours late, as the program began at 10 a.m. I missed hearing composers Mason Bates, William Brittelle, Anna Clyne, Alexandra Gardner, and Max Giteck Duykers talk about their work, but arrived in time to hear the tail end of Judd Greenstein and Nico Muhly’s presentation as well as Ross’ breakdown of his new book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. It was nice to hear a recording of Muhly’s work for old-timesy folk singer with chicken and whale bones. Later, I was heartened to hear Ross talk about the significance of the West Coast’s influence on American music and in particular minimalism.

Of the seven works on the Friday-night concert, five were world premieres and two were Seattle premieres. The sold-out audience was highly appreciative. I was captivated by the world premiere of Clyne’s 1987. The flute, clarinet, violin, and ‘cello wove in and out of a recording that included a music box and branches. Another world premiere, Bates’ The Life of Birds was a series of mechanical bagatelles. The Seattle Chamber Players’ sounded especially virtuosic and blended fairly well throughout this challenging work. I noticed only a handful of composers and musicians in the audience, and very few seats were empty after intermission, so I conclude that the multigenerational audience was into listening to newly composed classical music.

I look forward to tonight’s program called Classics of Downtown curated by Kyle Gann, especially because it includes a work by Alaska-based composer John Luther Adams who I heard performed in Los Angeles and New York and Eve Belgarian, who I have always wanted to hear performed live.