For most of a century, listeners knew new music—a.k.a. contemporary classical—as those inscrutable bleepy-bloopy pieces deliberately positioned in the middle of orchestral programs so audience members couldn’t avoid them. But now, instead of being classical music’s egghead cousin, new music is more the quirky little sister, a persona created, at least in Chicago, by a youth-energized new community of performers and composers who are having fun. And they want you to, too.
Many new-music concerts conjure a casual atmosphere closer to a jazz show, an indie-rock show, or a 1960s happening than the dress-up formality of Symphony Center. For example, the nine-year-old chamber group Ensemble Dal Niente hosts an event on November 15 at the Jackson Junge Gallery called Dal Niente: Party 2014, at which attendees can mill around, nosh, sip cocktails, and lie down on couches, all while the musicians play works by new-music celebrities such as John Adams, Augusta Read Thomas, and Thomas Adès. “If we chose not to go to an event like this, we might spend Saturday night drinking with friends and listening to music anyway,” says Chris Wild, a cellist who heads Dal Niente’s artistic committee.
Dal Niente is one of at least a dozen groups taking the dour out of the genre without sacrificing virtuosity or cutting-edginess. Most of the musicians graduated from top conservatory or performance programs and opted to jump off the hamster wheel of chasing orchestral jobs for a life of cobbling together gigs and teaching to support playing the music they love.
Audiences at the Hideout, the Empty Bottle, and Constellation have seen pieces for a swinging microphone (literally just a microphone swinging from the ceiling) and a toy piano and have participated in a scavenger hunt between sets of cell phone ringtone compositions played live. “Good music is good music,” argues Seth Dodson, the program director at the Hideout. “We are trying to constantly push the boundaries of what can work in a rock club.”
One of the most popular series is run by the virtuosic string ensemble Spektral Quartet. These concerts, called Sampler Packs, intersperse single movements or short works with stage chatter over the course of an evening. In June, Spektral set up its Sampler Pack at the Hideout as a choose-your-own-adventure for the audience, with the program printed in installments on balloons. As the audience chose a piece, the musicians popped the balloon with the corresponding work written on it.
“If we can bring some levity, connect with you, show you that we’re human and that we’re fallible, all of that really can make people open up and be receptive,” says Russell Rolen, Spektral’s cellist. “In Chicago in particular, [new-music groups] all seem to be heading in that direction, the intimate connection you get with making people laugh.”
New music’s attitude shift toward fun and its venue shift toward bars have been accompanied by a smaller shift in repertoire. Although much of it still sounds weird to those hewing to Haydn and Handel, the center of gravity has moved far enough away from atonal experiments that indie rockers such as Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and the punk band Deerhoof now experiment with new music, trying their hands at stuff thornier than rock.
Audiences hearing new music used to exit the gilded lobbies of concert halls with their brows furrowed. Now there’s no gilt, and they leave a little tipsy, maybe even smiling.
3111 N. Western Ave.
Aptly named, the Frequency series at this North Center joint happens every Sunday and catholically features nearly every new-music group in Chicago.
Average ticket price: $10
Fall new music: Spektral Quartet, Parlour Tapes, American Contemporary Music Ensemble
The neighborhood: 4 a.m. bars, Western Avenue viaduct
1354 W. Wabansia Ave.
International Contemporary Ensemble hosts a free monthly concert series at this out-of-the-way club.
Average ticket price: $10
Fall new music: International Contemporary Ensemble
The neighborhood: Warehouses, garbage truck parking
1328 W. Morse Ave.
This old vaudeville house has gotten into the spirit of Ensemble Dal Niente’s virtuosity-flaunting program Hard Music, Hard Liquor by offering drink specials in the cabaret-style space.
Average ticket price: $20
Fall new music: Fifth House Ensemble
The neighborhood: Storefront churches and melting-pot restaurants