On Sunday, December 16, 2012, the (Un)familiar Music Series will present (Re)new Amsterdam, a fundraiser benefiting New Amsterdam Records. The Brooklyn-based label sustained significant damage to their warehouse and lost around 70% of their CD inventory during Super Storm Sandy.
The event is significant in that it will bring together nearly all of the Chicago new music groups. This impressive roster of individuals and ensembles has been growing steadily over the past decade. So too have the diverse number of venues hosting contemporary music events. All of these topics were on my mind when I posed a few questions to Doyle Armbrust, curator of (Un)familiar Music and a musician who plays many roles within the larger Chicago new music community.
DB: Your partner in the (Un)familiar Music Series is The Empty Bottle. Over the past few years, similar "non-classical" venues in Chicago, Mayne Stage and The Green Mill among them, have likewise hosted new music concerts. What is your reason for partnering with the Empty Bottle and how do you see the landscape of traditional and non-traditional concert settings evolving in the next few years?
DA: The idea for performing in non-traditional venues is not a new one of course, but for Spektral Quartet (I'm the one reading alto clef), we knew that we wanted to avoid the rut of only playing in the obvious halls around Chicago. We picked the Empty Bottle to stage our Sampler Pack concerts primarily because it is my favorite rock/experimental room in Chicago. The real motivation for lugging stands and chairs into a dry acoustic for both Spektral and (Un)familiar, though, is to expose more Chicagoans to new-music. The kabuki (formal dress, lavish venues, expensive tickets) that has developed around classical and even new-music over the centuries has largely given it an exclusionary or off-puttingly sophisticated veneer. While I hold this music in the highest regard and admiration, I certainly don't feel elitist about playing it. Trust me, there's nothing sophisticated about the way I look after rehearsing Carter for four hours…
When a new-music newbie comes to an (Un)familiar show by choice or by happenstance, that preconceived notion of classical or new-music as rarified artifact ceases to exist when they look around and see a young audience with nary a tuxedo to be found and cheap drinks within an arm's reach. This also has an inspiring effect on the performers as well. The audience is relaxed, everyone is bantering with the musicians between movements or pieces, and the bar setting immediately takes (some/most of) the edge off performance nerves. Risks are taken that wouldn't be otherwise by both performer and listener.
I don't pretend to know the future of new-music, but I do think this explosion of expedient ensembles as well as the focus of current composers on writing for them is not to be overlooked. We are fleet, we are embracing to the public, we work like dogs and we don't relegate cocktails exclusively to intermission.
DB: The (Un)Familiar Music Facebook page describes the series' repertoire as "eccentric, experimental and avante-garde" - can you elaborate on what this means and how it compares to other Chicago new music offerings?
DA: This language was not intended to set (Un)familiar apart from other new-music series in Chicago, but from the larger institutions down in the Loop (which for the record, I love dearly). If anything, (Un)familiar is intended to bring the new-music community closer together. Eighth Blackbird has done an incredible job in this realm through the recent "In C" and "Inuksuit" projects, and my series is aimed at furthering this trend. The idea is to feature our city's tremendous ensembles throughout the year at a venue more likely to attract new and unexpected fans, and if I have my way, you'll be seeing some cross-pollination between groups as we grow. But back to your question, audience interaction is a massive part of this endeavor. We want folks to ask questions, to crack jokes with the performers and to give live feedback without the worry that they are "doing it wrong." In addition, I'm scheming to get some groups in from (far) outside the city limits starting next season.
DB: Your first event is a fundraiser for New Amsterdam Records, a Brooklyn-based label that lost much of its CD stock as a result of Super Storm Sandy. The lineup includes virtually every new music group in Chicago. How did this event come together?
DA: Composer Marcos Balter is the catalyst for this amazing event, (Re)New Amsterdam. He approached me about co-producing a fundraiser for New Am and hosting it on my (Un)familiar Music Series. As an Opera & Classical writer at Time Out Chicago, I have the fortune of listening to just about everything this New York-based label releases, and they are doing fantastic work. They also manage to buck the trend of record company exploitation by allowing artists to retain rights to their music as well as 80% of an album's proceeds. Needless to say, it was a very easy decision to partner with Marcos for such a worthwhile cause. What is both astounding as well as totally expected, though, is the enthusiasm with which the Chicago new music scene has responded. One of the reasons I moved back to Chicago was because I missed the collaborative and compassionate spirit of this city, especially amongst musicians. Chicago is proving me right on this in a very real way.
DB: Given your efforts to expand the new music experience to new audiences, I am compelled to ask about how the (Un)familiar series relates to your personal career trajectory? Given that you wear many hats - violist in The Spektral Quartet, free-lancer and teacher, writer for Time Out Chicago, concert series curator - do you see your own activities as representative of the diversification necessary for classically-trained musicians to make a living?
DA: Without any shred of a doubt. My trajectory since high school was toward an orchestral career. While a member of the New World Symphony, I had a bit of an epiphany in realizing that I couldn't visualize my career past (hopefully) winning a professional symphony job. It was a blank in my mind, and it sent me hurtling in the opposite direction. While I would never dissuade anyone from pursuing such a gig, I can say definitively that if you don't go the orchestral route, you need to be adaptable. Stating it as I just did, though, is somewhat misleading. I didn't take on these roles out of necessity. I've just said yes to and worked hard at the projects that get me amped. Mainly, you should just get into new-music because it melts your face.
Note: To get ready for the upcoming (Re)New Amsterdam fundraiser, here is Doyle and his fellow Spektral Quratet mates (who will be performing at the event) playing Hans Thomalla's Albumblatt.