It’s widely known that southern Wisconsin is something of a hot-bed for New Music in all of its shapes and flavors. With the upcoming performance by NOW Ensemble, Madison has a somewhat rare opportunity to experience a unique and established voice in the music, in an intimate recording studio setting.
Formed about 15 years ago by a group of Yale University graduate students, NOW Ensemble champions new music and young composers. With multiple recordings, and even coolvideos, they stand on the shoulders of the composer-performer collectives that have preceded them.
NOW Ensemble is something of a departure from the BlueStem Jazz fare that we’ve seen to date. Curious about the group’s ethos and goals, I rang up Pianist and Managing Director Michael Mizrahi:
MB: Focusing on the repertoire for the upcoming concert, could you give us a high-level preview or description of what the music will sound like, what we can expect?
MM: So, I’m bringing NOW Ensemble to Madison to play the BlueStem series and it’s a chamber quintet that I’m one of the founders of. The instrumentation is piano, flute, clarinet, double bass, and electric guitar. And if you think about those instruments, that can take us in a few different directions. We’re all classically trained, so the bulk of what we play is in the classical realm, but the sound of the instruments can bring in elements of rock and jazz and most of our repertoire has those elements as well. The electric guitar of course is amplified, we often play all amplified, sometimes we play more acoustic. On this particular show we are featuring a pretty big new piece. It was written for us by a composer named Sean Friar, and he wrote us a piece called “Before and After.” It’s this massive piece in 7 sections; 45 minutes long. And we’re actually headed straight from Madison to one other show at a festival in Illinois, then we’re going to record the piece. We’re going to be in recording mode – we’ll play that piece as much as we can before we go into the studio. That’s kind of getting into the repertoire. I don’t know if you wanted more about the sound of the ensemble or the ethos of the mission?
MB: Well yeah, actually you’ve sort of anticipated some of my other questions. Could you talk about the overarching artistic objective of NOW Ensemble?
MM: Sure, NOW Ensemble is a group that is dedicated to bringing new music into the world, very broadly speaking. We’ve worked with over 100 composers and we have a unique instrumentation that allows for certain kinds of timbres that are really not possible in any other instrument group. So, we’re particularly dedicated to working with younger composers, and helping their compositional voices be heard, also challenging them to write for our instrumentation. We give a lot of performances which — for especially emerging composers– can be a great opportunity to get their music heard. We also have at least 5 recordings — I’ve lost count. We are dedicated to recording these premieres. We also do a lot of work in education, going to institutions around the country, usually college level, but sometimes high school, working with young composers and performers who are interested in playing modern music, and giving workshops and masterclasses to them. So our mission is kind-of two-fold: to champion the music of today, and then to also help teach young composers and performers, and model a framework for presenting the music going forward.
MB: So it sounds like you work interactively with composers to help them frame their compositions for your particular ensemble, and you’re commissioning these pieces for the most part?
MM: Yeah, and I neglected a crucial aspect of our make-up. We’re five performers, who will be in Madison, but the group also contains three composers as part of the group. So we’re a composer-performer collective. Our electric guitarist is one of our composers, so he’s the only person that kind-of does double duty. And then we have two other composer-members in the group, who will not be in Madison, but are consistently in the group. The idea behind that was first of all modeled on some kind of famous composer-performer collectives of the 1980s and 90s: the Steve Reich Ensemble; the Phillip Glass Ensemble. But there’s also this idea of creating an in-house sound for the group. We have composers who are members of the group writing consciously for the group so that there’s this sound that’s out there that then the other composers can kind of build off of.
MB: It seems like a fairly rare situation. Do you tend to get unsolicited works?
MM: We do yeah, we do get unsolicited works. And also as I mentioned, we do a lot of performances at institutions where we are working with students who will sometimes all write us new pieces that we will perform. In fact the day after we leave Madison we’re going to the Red Note New Music Festival in Normal, Illinois, where we’re doing just that. We’re going to get nine new pieces that were going to perform at the festival and then were going to do a show of our own stuff.
MB: I’m a bit more familiar, I suppose, with the jazz and improvised music world, and there tends to be, at least on the regional level, a fairly strong DIY component to that. I wonder if you could talk about how you sustain this group. Can you discuss your funding mechanisms,such as grant support, CD sales? How do you sustain this group?
MM: That’s a great question, I’ll let you know when I have the answer! We’ve been around for about 16 years, and all I can say is somehow when there’s a will there’s a way. It’s a combination of all the things you just said. It’s also having a membership in the group that’s devoted to seeing the group go forward, so that means bringing a lot of energy. Sometimes that means bringing a donor to the group; connections. We are a non-profit 501 c3 so we have access to a lot of grants. We’ve built up over the years — it’s a very slow process — a board, so we have that kind of structure in place. It started as a group of I guess 7 of us who are in the group, in grad school, we were all at Yale school of music together, and at this point that’s 15 years ago. Over the years there have been a couple of personnel changes, but kind of the core of the group is still those original members, and none of us are doing a full time gig, in some ways I think that makes it harder because there’s not this building up towards a huge annual budget, everything kind of stays small scale, but it also allows us to kind of be a project driven group. So if we have something like this piece by Sean Friar that we’re recording, we can do some fundraising and things to make sure we can have time in the studio and take the time we need, and have it not be that we need a year-in, year-out huge budget, that the first project would be to raise money, we’ve gotten more effective at that over the years.
MB: It sounds like a very sustainable model in many ways, and a lot of passion fueling it.
MM: Exactly, and I think probably there are a lot of small jazz groups operating in a similar way.
MB: I agree, and I think it’s interesting for our audiences to understand how their support can fuel these kinds of projects.
MB: I’m very interested to get the word out on that kind of thing. I don’t know if you had anything else that you’d like to add before we wrap up?
MM: Well, maybe only that we’re excited to play in Wisconsin. I actually live in Wisconsin now, I teach at Lawrence University up in Appleton, and our clarinet player is at UW-Madison. And this is not where we all were when we started the group, but somehow two of us are in Wisconsin and we thought we should be sure to perform there sometime. We’re just excited to build a new audience in what is now a new home for some of us.
Michael Brenneisis a drummer, composer, and improvisor based in Madison, Wisconsin. A volunteer blogger for BlueStem Jazz, he wants everyone to know that he’s a musician, not a journalist.