To Sink or Swim (preferably, both)

Greetings from a sponge.  Two big recent premieres — Violin Concerto and Afterlife — required constant swimming from me through a torrent of notes over the past year.  Now I’m halting forward motion, sinking to the bottom of the ocean, and soaking up whatever comes close.  Bottom feeders beware.

Artists of all stripes face the constant challenge of producing.  Classical music is different from, say, the art world, where it is common to turn out a series of similar pieces. That’s frowned upon in our world, and plus it’s no fun.  But the ‘overload impulse’ is hard to ignore as a commission-based life-form: we want to lock in sustenance when it comes, never sure if it will continue.

I’ve resisted this.  While I try to avoid the ‘masterpiece syndrome’ — the urge to make every little piece a magnum opus — I do want every piece to be something I can be proud of years later.  More important to me than a flashy premiere is the tenth performance in a small town; that shows a piece really has a life.  So I need to book enough composing time in the first pass, and part of that is allowing enough time to absorb new music and get a fresh perspective.

Luckily for me, I have to do this take in a lot music in my role as curator in various places.  The Chicago Symphony and its MusicNOW series require many new programs a year, as does my classical/club project Mercruy Soul.  Additional partnerships, such as my year-long residency with the Pittsburgh Symphony, involve many hours of selecting the best new music I can find.  Some wonderful new discoveries for me:

Anders Hillborg, a Finnish mindfreak who wields texture like a light saber.  His Violin Concerto is one of the best of the genre, of any period.  He is perhaps most mind-blowing at the orchestral level, but Hillborg migrates easily to choral and chamber forces.

• German electronica duo Mouse on Mars are the Kraftwerk of our time and have substantive things to bring to classical ears.  We hosted them in our first season at MusicNOW, and they came up with something sounding like early Ligeti.  Plus they design sound like aliens from the future.

Donnacha Dennehey and Oscar Bettison are two excellent UK composers getting a lot attention.  While quite different, they do share an interest in what I’d call “strange minimalism:” enlivening the layering and repetition techniques of minimalism with exotic sounds.  If you tire of the minor-third doodles so fashionable in Brooklyn these days, check out these guys.

Guillermo Scott Herren, the man behind the electronica alias Prefuse73, infuses his music with superb sound design and indigenous soul.  New album in April.

Anthony Cheung freshens up the modernist soundworld with bold sounds and quick changes.  His new piece Vis à Vis retuned my ears for a few days.

There are many more, but those are in heavy rotation this month.  Then I’ll evolve from sponge to fish and try to relearn how to swim.  That’s always painful; but that’s growing.  Meanwhile, new and old works continue to float about the musical ecosystem, living their lives happily without me.  Next month brings several of those performances — tune in then!