Generation Z

An underage crowd turning out for Boulez? That’s Chicago.

Few new-music series in this country (or even on this planet) are visited by tour-buses filled with high school students.  Teens rarely look up from their iSomethings, and when they do it’s not at a classical music concert.  But there they were last week, stumbling en masse into the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW concert celebrating the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez.

I’m sure few of them were aware of Boulez’s über-modernist music or his long history conducting the CSO.  But when the Avon High School band passed through Chicago on tour, MusicNOW appeared on their must-do list.  It’s not the first time we’ve seen busloads of kids at one of our shows (wistful memories rushing in of another ‘teen bus’ from Wisconsin at our Victor Gama show).  In fact, we’ve had enough kids show up at our new-music series that the free beer at the post-party briefly became a topic of discussion.

Anyway: how? why? really?

A confluence of factors has put MusicNOW on the radar of non-classical folk.  Most fundamentally, the cultural curiosity of the Upper Midwest has created an audience with a higher tolerance for new experiences than I’ve encountered anywhere.  Whether it be symphonic music, contemporary chamber music, or underground DJ events, Chicagoans turn out.  There was the show when 1500 folks turned out in 8° weather to hear German electronica duo Mouse on Mars perform with CSO musicians.  There was the Freakeasy party last winter, held next to a lightbulb factory in the snowy middle of nowhere, exactly the place you’d dump a body – yet the place was thronged with a devoted arm of Burning Man electronic music fans.  That kind of energy and curiosity reminds me of Berlin, where I lived long enough to experience enough innovative music in creatively designed spaces to last a lifetime.  Northern climes: same latitude, same attitude?

Another reason for the diverse audience is MusicNOW’s eclectic programming.  The music we ranges from the starkly minimal to the extravagantly maximal, from purely acoustic to surround-sound electronic – a vast stylistic palette unattached to any particular ideology.  For some reason it’s truly rare to find that kind of catholic approach elsewhere.  These days Chicago is more and more populated by great new-music groups embracing that approach – from Fifth House Ensemble to Third Coast Percussion –  but five years ago it was harder to find.  The modernist leanings of Chicago have much to do with Barenboim and Boulez’s tenures at the CSO, and also with the vision of former head of artistic planning Martha Gilmer.  After a couple of decades of this, the audience grew to appreciate gritty modernism.  While my iPod is none too filled with post-serial music, I think that compositional approach should be represented when the piece is right and the concert can support it.  So we’ll have a beautifully ambient work by Paola Prestini coexisting with an explosively chromatic piece by George Friedrich Haas, and that contrast puts everything in greater relief.

And last but not least, MusicNOW has positioned itself as an immersive, fun event with ambient information and seamless production.  Over the past five years, Anna Clyne and I have worked to transform the program book into a miniature piece of cinematography. All the dead spaces on the program are filled with projected information, video interviews, and engaging imagery.  It’s not Spielberg, but it’s more imaginative than PowerPoint, and our audience shows up without the anxiety of being clueless.  Developing the digital program book has taken years of trial and error, and thankfully the CSO supported us even while the critics railed against the lack of printed material (they do love ink on paper).  That component has been perhaps most crucial.

As we come around to the final MusicNOW concert of our 5-year residency, Anna and I have been so happy to see the audience grow and diversify.  Sure, there was some squirming in Row Z during Boule’z 45-minute Dérive 2 – but in the end, those kids give a standing ovation.