#UMSplaylists: Chamber Arts (yMusic Takeover)
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In advance of their November 1 performance, yMusic has “taken over” UMS’s Chamber Arts playlist with works of their own discography, including collaborations with Paul Simon, Ben Folds, and Regina Spektor.
Hear the virtuosity and variety of sounds, ensembles, and works by composers featured in UMS’s Chamber Arts Series. This playlist updates with new tracks regularly, so be sure to follow/subscribe on your preferred streaming service!
Student Spotlight: Alice Schmitz at The Knights
This post is part of a series of posts by students who are part of our 21st Century Student Internship program. As part of the paid internship program, students spend several weeks with a company that’s on the UMS season.
U-M student Alice Schmitz was paired with The Knights in Summer 2017. The Knights are in Ann Arbor on November 12, 2017.
Photos: On left, a view of the Hudson River from the park next to my apartment. On right, a shot of a double rainbow taken from a subway car in Brooklyn.
While it was inevitable that I would listen to The Knights, a chamber orchestra hailing from Brooklyn, New York, as a classical bass student in college, I first learned of The Knights because of my love of the banjo. As a middle-schooler, I fell in love with bluegrass and listened to Béla Fleck’s recordings religiously. So when Béla Fleck performed a concert an hour and a half outside of my home in Minneapolis, my mom and I, of course, drove out to see him perform. He collaborated with a string quartet founded by two brothers, Eric and Colin Jacobsen, who also, as chances would have it, had recently started an orchestra called The Knights. So when I learned this May that I would be interning with The Knights, with a start date just a week away, it felt like fate. To work with an ensemble that has collaborated with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Shaham, and the rock band Dr. Dog, was beyond any of my expectations for this experience.
Photos: On left, the orchestra rehearses at the Naumburg Bandshell for its performance that evening. On right, members of The Knights perform with Lisa Loeb for a family concert at the Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival.
I think the picture below almost captures the essence of The Knights’ spirit that made their vision so enticing and invigorating to me. I took it during my first evening as a Knights intern, during a celebration for BLUESHIFT, a group of donors the ensemble created to allow young donors the same access to the ensemble and its creative process as other supporters. In the photo, a baby doll lies next to the remains of a barbecue while the audience listens to a Colin Jacobsen’s performance of a Schubert Sonatina, which, Colin casually mentions, would also be performed at the Tanglewood Festival later that summer alongside the legendary Immanuel Ax.
The scene, like The Knights, was the perfect intersection of the exceptional and the everyday. The Knights’ model is revolutionary because they acknowledge and embrace the fact that classical music does not belong on a pedestal, separated from its audience, but rather classical music should be folded into the fabric and beauty of the life of every member of the ensemble’s vast community of listeners. Knights coexist in both the world of Tanglewood and the Elbphilharmonie and the world of Brooklyn parks and breweries. While some ensembles performing the classical repertoire have confined themselves to a rote form, canon, and setting, The Knights easily adjust themselves to any circumstance and eagerly seek a broad range of these circumstances.
Photos: On left, a baby doll lies next to the remains of a barbecue while the audience listens to a Colin Jacobsen’s performance of a Schubert Sonatina. On right, a rehearsal for the Tanglewood performance in the same space.
The Knights’ administrative office, where I spent the majority of my internship, is located in a Brooklyn townhouse, tucked on the floor between the apartments of the two artistic directors of the orchestra, Colin and Eric Jacobsen. As an intern in a small and dynamic team of administrators, I was able to participate in virtually all facets of the work which make The Knights’ success possible.
I researched opportunities for funding, assisted at rehearsals, drafted grant proposals, and learned about the National Endowment for the Arts guidelines, all the while chatting about punk operas and jazz masses with my coworkers. I was also generously included in community engagement meetings, a post-concert celebration in Central Park, and a board meeting. The Kinghts board includes both leaders of brand-name companies and record labels and members of the orchestra. The whiteboard I sat next to at the office was a daily reminder of the ensemble’s commitment to honoring their members’ needs in this way, covered with notes on how to improve the rehearsal process and support the lives and of the musicians.
Photos: On left, lunch with The Knights office staff on the last day of my internship. On right, fellow intern Patricia and I staff the merchandise table during a performance at the Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival.
It is, of course, impossible to write about spending the summer as an arts intern in New York City without mentioning the city itself. In the six weeks I spent living in New York, I was able to attend more performances, exhibitions, and cultural events than I had attended in the past year. During my very first two days in the city, I watched the New York Philharmonic from the VIP section of their concert in Central Park, stumbled upon a musical in a subway station, and scored free tickets to a performance by one of my childhood idols in a tiny eyewear shop. Living in an apartment in the heart of Washington Heights, I would fall asleep to Despacito outside and wake to my apartment-mate working on material for his noise album.
Photos: On left, a musical performance at the Fulton Street Station I discovered after getting lost on the subway. On right, meeting a childhood hero, vocalist José James, after his performance at an eyewear store.
Working with The Knights in one of the most dynamic cities in the world was the most empowering and enriching experience I have ever had. I am extremely indebted for the warmth and support I experienced as an intern in the ensemble’s office, and for this internship opportunity, without which none of this would have been possible. I cannot wait to enjoy a performance by The Knights on November 12 in Ann Arbor, this time with Avi Avital and Kinan Azmeh. Having spent hours researching and writing about this program for a grant supplement, I can promise that this concert is not one to be missed!
See The Knights on November 12, 2017.
Playlist: Powerful Voices
Photo: Vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, who perform with chamber group A Far Cry in Ann Arbor on April 12, 2017. Photo by Bonica Ayala.
My parents started me on piano and violin at a young age, so I’ve been exposed to classical music for almost all of my life. I grew up listening to Pavarotti and Andrea Bocell, and it wasn’t until later that I began exploring more modern Pop and Rock genres. Throughout the years, I’ve listened to most genres of music, including country, gospel, classic rock to name a few. But, funnily enough, I didn’t truly appreciate the human voice until I got strep in 10th grade and lost my voice for a week and a half. It was a classic case of not knowing what you have until it’s gone. The week and half of not being able to communicate with others or sing along to my favorite songs made me realize just how important and powerful our voices are.
In the playlist below, I’m collecting some examples of how we convey emotions, ideas, and beliefs through voice, whether it’s through music, spoken word, or through countless other ways we use our voices.
Whitney Houston’s National Anthem
Our national anthem is one of my favorite tunes, not only because of its beautiful melody, but also because the words have the capacity to instill a sense of pride in the foundations and values of this nation. I like this Whitney Houston rendition because of its simplicity, and yet, its power.
I have always loved spoken word, the way the combination of rhythm and language creates a special kind of emotion. Here is just one example, by College National Poetry Slam champion Neil Hillborn. Joey focuses on the disparity in access to mental illness treatment and on the role that privilege plays in our mental health system.
I didn’t appreciate opera very much growing up, mostly because it was usually in another language, and I had no sense of the stories within the pieces. I’ll be honest, I still don’t know most of the time. However, as an adult, I’ve come to be able to feel the pieces even when I don’t understand the words. So, here is Pavarotti’s performance of Nessun Dorma. For this one, sit back, close your eyes, and feel the strength of his voice.
Voices and Orchestral Works
I know no better way to demonstrate the power and range of our voices than with Carmina Burana. I’m sure you’ve heard parts of this work, which has made appearances in popular culture including but not limited to college football games and commercials.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a dream speech is iconic. The timbre of his voice, its pace, amplify its incredibly potent themes. On the other hand, Robin Williams’s Make Your Life Spectacular speech is softly spoken and wistful; it drifts over as his message sinks in. These two entirely different approaches give a sense of the capacity of the voice to inspire.
Popular song, and then, something in between
Kanye West’s Say You Will, featuring the vocalist and composer Caroline Shaw, explores the sounds that the voice is capable of making in combination with technology.
I’m sure you’ve heard of Kanye West, but you may not yet know of Caroline Shaw. Caroline Shaw, a Grammy-award-winning singer, violinist, and composer. From yodeling to throat singing, Caroline Shaw and Roomful of Teeth expand the capacity of the voice across genres and singing techniques.
This great diversity in sound is showcased in the group’s performance with NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert, shown below. Both the artist and the group are known for continuously exploring the boundaries of the human voice, encompassing both the breadth and depth of our voices. Their works embody the impact and the amazing variety of the human voice. Your chance to check them out in person is coming up. They perform with chamber group A Far Cry in Ann Arbor on April 12, 2017.
Jae Cosmos Lee, a violinist with A Far Cry, has also been kind enough to sit down with us and answer a few questions about his work and inspirations:
A Far Cry with Roomful of Teeth will perform at Rackham Auditorium on April 12, 2017 at 7:30pm.
Artist Interview: Takács Quartet Violinist Ed Dusinberre
On October 6, 2016, Takács Quartet volinist Ed Dusinberre was interviewed by U-M Professor of Musicology Steve Whiting at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor.
Takács Quartet performs the complete Beethoven Quartet Cycle during the 2016-17 at UMS, a tour in conjunction with the release of Dusinberre’s new book Beethoven for a Later Age: The Journey of a String Quartet.
Takács Quartet performs October 8-9, 2016 and January 21-22, March 25-26, 2017 in Ann Arbor.
Chamber Music on the Rise
The chamber group eighth blackbird performs with the percussion group Third Coast Percussion on March 18, 2017.
Music in the 21st Century is evolving. Performers are trying to find new ways to engage and excite audiences. From collaborating with visual artists to performing from memory, musicians are working to distinguish themselves in a competitive field. Orchestral and symphonic music have always been at the forefront of classical music, but chamber music has recently been gaining a lot of popularity among concert-goers.
As a music student at the University of Michigan, I’ve crossed paths with many rising stars as well as artists who have “made it” in the music community. So, I’ve had a few conversations in and out of school about how classical music is evolving and the attendant positive and negative changes.
Why chamber music has momentum
From a programmatic standpoint, small ensembles can play a wider variety of shorter pieces that cater to more musical tastes, while a large-scale symphony might have 1 to 3 pieces on the entire hour-and-a-half long program and appeal to only one musical genre.
In my opinion, attending a symphony orchestra concert can be very difficult for families and people who might not regularly listen to classical music. When I was younger, I remember squirming around, making a ruckus, and being unruly for long symphony concerts, but I think chamber ensembles can be more accessible to a wider range of people.
Chamber groups can choose to play transcriptions of famous works, that range from the medieval era to post-tonal melodramas such as Pierrot Lunaire, a piece so influential that it has shaped the concept of how we listen to and perceive chamber ensemble today.
Many chamber ensembles choose to include a dramatic or comedic aspect into their programs, which draws audience members in and allows them to listen to classical music in new ways.
Above is the renowned Mnozil Brass ensemble performing “Lonely Boy,” with an added dramatic element.
Newer chamber ensemble configurations don’t always have a list of standard repertoire; these groups can often hit roadblocks when working to progress as an ensemble. And one of the greatest resources new ensembles have right now is the multitude of living composers who want to help define the standard repertoire, an effect which is also beneficial for the progression of classical music. As much as I love going to see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform standard repertoire at the highest level, I also get just as excited to see a group such as the Kronos Quartet perform a program of new works by up-and-coming composers I didn’t even know existed.
From a financial view, a chamber ensemble can be comprised from two to a handful performers, and funding a group of this size is easier. Fewer people are employed by the ensemble, so ticket prices don’t have to be as high to generate a successful performance. Chamber ensembles can also perform in smaller and more intimate venues.
Chamber groups aren’t necessarily bound to performing in a “stuffy” symphony hall. As fun as it may be to dress up for the occasion and spend time in a beautiful space, sometimes I just want to hear good music in a more casual and less expensive setting. Chamber group instrumentation is also not set in stone, Options for sound concept, tone color, and blend are unlimited; it really just depends on what the ensemble is trying to achieve.
Chamber music is paving the new path for classical music
One of the most sought after chamber groups in the world, eighth blackbird, is setting the bar for how chamber music can and should be performed. The four-time Grammy Award winning ensemble puts on an array of exciting and diverse programs that attract audience members of all varieties.
eighth blackbird was founded when the original members were still in school at the Oberlin Conservatory and consists of six members and on the following instruments: violin/viola, cello, piano, percussion, clarinets, and flutes, which is the same instrumentation of the Pierrot Lunaire configuration. The ensemble can achieve a wide range of tone colors and sounds and is constantly commissioning and performing new works. The ensemble interacts with the audience and provides information about the works they perform to make the concerts more accessible to people who may not be well versed in classical or contemporary music. eighth blackbird’s visit during the 2016-17 season will be the group’s third performance with UMS.
eighth blackbird. Photo courtesy of the artist.
For this concert, eighth blackbird is teaming up with Third Coast Percussion, an exciting Chicago based percussion ensemble, to perform the instrumental work Music for 18 Musicians (1976) by Steve Reich. If you have never heard the music of Steve Reich, then prepare to have your mind blown. Reich incorporates a minimalist technique in his compositional style, where notes are repeated in an ostinato-like style and the harmonies move very glacially, but you become immersed in the ocean of sound and get swept away. Here is an example of a similar work by Reich: Double Sextet, a Pulitzer Prize winning piece which was commissioned by eighth blackbird.
Performing minimalist music can be mentally and physically straining because it is very repetitive and changes only slightly over time, which can catch the performers off-guard. There are also very few playing breaks in this type of music. The compositions of Steve Reich are very exciting and this all-star group of performers makes for a concert you do not want to miss.
As a musician, I think chamber music has a bright future. There are more and more opportunities arising for chamber groups: including local and national chamber concert series, chamber music competitions for all level players, as well as collegiate degrees that are offered in chamber music at schools as prestigious as the University of Michigan. I think that many musicians are evolving and revolutionizing their playing and how they connect with audiences that are constantly changing. This is a very exciting time for chamber music and I’m happy that I get to tag along for the ride.
Hear Music for 18 Musicians at the Steve Reich @ 80 concert with eighth blackbird and Third Coast Percussion.
U-M Students Get Ready to Play Beside NY Phil
We are feeling so excited for these University of Michigan students! They’re getting ready to play beside New York Philharmonic musicians as part of the side-by-side chamber concert that kicks off the NY Phil residency and Homecoming Weekend of performances in Ann Arbor.
We asked U-M Professor of Bassoon Jeffrey Lyman about getting ready for the performance:
In our studio class this afternoon, I mentioned to the bassoon students how interesting our rehearsal was to me because it was an entirely different exercise for the four professors than it was for the four students. I found it fascinating to play the parts the NY Phil players will play and to guide our students through all the variables they might encounter in a performance of this great piece. It reminded me not only of the countless ways you can play a Mozart serenade, but it brought back memories of my first performance of it back in college, and of the dozens of times I’ve played, taught and conducted it since that first time back in Philadelphia as an undergrad. Reading this piece with the students on Monday night was like opening a great bottle of wine, an experience which is always better when shared.
The New York Philharmonic performs three concerts October 9-11. The side-by-side chamber concert on October 8 is preceded by a keynote address by conductor Alan Gilbert; both events are free and open to the public.
eighth blackbird audience
An excited crowd waits for the eighth blackbird performance! Did you attend? Don’t forget to share your thoughts.
eighth blackbird performs on Saturday, January 17th
Check out our video trailer of eighth blackbird’s upcoming performance Saturday, January 17th at 8 pm here.
UMS Playlist: Evolution of Chamber Music
This post is a part of a series of playlists curated by UMS staff, artists, and community. Check out more music here.
eigth blackbird. Photo by Luke Ratray.
The Chicago-based chamber ensemble eighth blackbird performs in Ann Arbor on January 17. eighth blackbird is on the new frontier of contemporary music. As Los Angeles Times explains, “the blackbirds are examples of a new breed of super-musicians. They perform the bulk of their new music from memory. They have no need for a conductor, no matter how complex the rhythms or balances… [They are] stage animals, often in motion, enacting their scores as they play them.”
How did chamber music, which originated in the Middle Ages, evolve into the music of the blackbirds? Explore the history with our listening guide:
1. Chamber music originated during the Middle Ages as a form of entertainment for guests in palace chambers. “Mille Regretz” by Josquin des Prez (1450-1521) is an example of the style and structure of sacred music translated to a secular song that describes the pain of a lost love. The earliest chamber music often also included lutes, recorders, and early versions of the violin, viola, and cello.
2. The string quartet, one of the most common chamber ensembles, developed into its current form in the early 17th century. Since then, composers from Haydn to Beethoven to Shostakovich have revered the string quartet’s form because of the challenge of writing four unique parts that constantly change and interact with one another. The string quartet includes two violins, viola, and cello. In this track, listen for Beethoven’s mastery of “counterpoint,” the relationships between the voices.
3. Chamber music in the 20th century brought together new instrument groupings. The brass (featuring two trumpets, trombone, French horn, trombone, and tuba) rose in popularity in the 1940s. Victor Ewald is widely considered to the first composer of brass quintet music.
4. Chamber music concepts extend across genre; though “chamber music” is primarily used to describe classical music, the John Coltrane Quartet exemplifies excellent chamber music playing.
5. eighth blackbird illustrates the vast range of 21st century chamber ensembles. On this track, the group performs Steve Reich’s minimalist composition “Fast: 8:39.”
6. eighth blackbird showcases its virtuosic ensemble connectivity with Thomas Adés’ rhythmically complex “Catch.”
7. eighth blackbird collaborates with electronic music composer Dennis Desantis on the track “strange imaginary remix.”
What did you think about this playlist? Share your thoughts or song suggestions in the comments below.
Artist Interview: Flutist Tim Munro, eighth blackbird
Eighth blackbird. Photo By Luke Ratray.
The Chicago-based ensemble eighth blackbird combines the finesse of a string quartet, the energy of a rock band, and the audacity of a storefront theater company in a dazzling performance coming to Ann Arbor’s Rackham Auditorium Saturday, January 17, 2015.
Composer and UMS Lobby contributor Garrett Schumann chatted with eighth blackbird flutist Tim Munro about the group’s unique instrumentation, theatrical flair, and magical moments onstage.
Garrett Schumann: What is eighth blackbird?
Tim Munro: Well, eighth blackbird is a chamber music ensemble specializing in music by living composers. One week we might play music that’s influenced by indie rock, the next music influenced by Balinese Gamelan, the next by an abstract piece of modern visual art.
We often memorize the music that we play, which allows us to take away stands and to have a greater intensity of communication on stage and with the audience. Sometimes that means we actually move around the stage to make manifest some of the relationships that are already inherent in the music. So a lot of the time we are trying to make this new composed music more immediately vibrant and engaging for audiences.
GS: Terrific. When you created the group in 1996 there had been ensembles with the same instrumentation as eighth blackbird for a few decades. How consciously did you guys see yourselves as emerging from that kind of ensemble tradition?
TM: To speak about the instrumentation first, eighth blackbird was sort of a put-together group. At the Oberlin conservatory, this conductor, Jim Weiss, put the group together to play more challenging repertoire, stuff that isn’t normally covered in the run of conservatory conductor. And this instrumentation seemed like the perfect kaleidoscope in everything. You have strings, you have winds, you have piano, you have percussion. You’re able to sound like you’re a string quartet, you’re able to sound like you’re a piano trio, you’re able to sound like a percussion ensemble, you’re able to sound like a full orchestra and there is just every combination possible in this instrumentation. This, I think, is why in the 20th century, it really exploded.
I think the biggest influence on eighth blackbird is an ensemble with a different instrumentation, which is the Kronos Quartet. It plays a hugely diverse range of material. Everything from the wildest, most experimental modernism to the kind of obvious, fun-loving minimalist to collaborations with popular artists and world music– and doing it in a way that made it visually engaging to audiences, but was casual enough that people could feel relaxed. So I think that was the biggest influence on eighth blackbird in its earliest stages.
GS: How do you come with this diversity of programming? What do you think it is about eighth blackbird that does that diversity so well?
TM: I think that’s something that we try very hard to represent in our programs not just because we want to check all the boxes, but because we want people to never feel bored, but to always have people engaged in a concert. The diversity of the programming just reflects the diversity of different proclivities within the ensemble. Each performer in eighth blackbird is part of the artistic direction of the collective. We are all music directors of eighth blackbird and we are all coming from very different places. We all have different music that we love and I think our programs are reflective of the enthusiasm of the group all together.
What unites all of the music that we play is something in it that is unique: a color that we haven’t heard, a particular approach to constructing a piece that we haven’t done before, a spark that inspires the piece that we haven’t encountered before… something that we can then play with theatrically. So each piece on the program in some way captures something that is unique even if they are in totally different worlds. Everything on the program gives us a little something atypical or strange.
GS: Composer and Northwestern professor Lee Hyla passed away suddenly in June 2014. What was your group’s relationship with Lee Hyla and his piece “Wave”?
TM: Well, it was such a shock for everyone in the ensemble and for the whole music community in Chicago because he was such a huge presence. He’s an original. His music has a rawness and an unvarnished-ness that feels so appropriate and typical of someone of that sort of American maverick tradition. Every member of the group has a particular fondness for one of Lee’s pieces and we all loved his music. We don’t know him well personally, I don’t think anyone in the group knew him terribly well, but we are all such huge fans and were all so excited to be able to commission the piece.
I can tell you that already in rehearsing this we’ve discussed how the piece is put together. It’s a lot of fragments, it’s a piece that’s shards of things. Beautiful, pummeling, fractal, little elements that are all in shards, sort of constructed. And when we come to the moment of rehearsal where we don’t quite know our way forward, that’s often when we will talk directly with the composer. And so whenever that happens, we have that voice in the room, but we won’t be able to do that. So I’m not sure how it will affect our performance. It’s too soon for us to say.
Maybe because this is the only piece of his that we’ll ever be performing posthumously, there may be something different about the way that we and future groups approach it. It’s a piece that’s actually in its kaleidoscopic-ness begins with this vast, incredibly slow, incredibly astute music, and the last voice is the cello who has this upward gesture that almost feels like a question mark. I don’t know if one should put any emphasis on that, but for us, this performance asks us to think about those things.
Interested in learning more? Check out other interviews by Garrett Schumann.