By Bob McMahon
By Allison Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By Carolina de Busto
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
Among St. Louis' revered cultural institutions, only New Music Circle remains dedicated to standing listeners' ears on their heads. The longest-running series of its kind in the country, NMC has exposed a too-often-indifferent public to a range of sonic invention since 1959. In a city with a dearth of genuinely creative musical endeavors, St. Louisans risk taking for granted an organization of international status. (To prevent confusion: NMC is not affiliated with Synchronia, another local new music mainstay that has recently suspended operations.)
Although NMC's mission has remained constant over the decades, its methods have changed. Music director Rich O'Donnell came on board early, joining NMC in 1960. "The idea," says O'Donnell, "[was to provide access to] new music, new ideas. There wasn't much of a voice for that. We still maintain that philosophy. That's our charter: to do things that most other people won't do."
While the charter remains the same, a consistent philosophy does not demand a stabile aesthetic. During his tenure with NMC, O'Donnell has witnessed a methodological evolution within the organization, one that reflects the shifting valences of presenting "new" music over a span of 42 years. "The idea of what we consider new music has changed because culture has changed," O'Donnell says. "We don't use the phrase 'avant-garde' anymore. Now we just call it improv music or free improv. But it's essentially of the same mind: just looking for, or being aware of and delighting in, imagination."
Not every musician performing under NMC's auspices shuns composition, but improvisers are in the preponderance, a tendency noted also by NMC president Gary Gronau: "Over time, our emphasis has been more and more in the direction of bringing in composer/musicians, people who are virtuosos on their instruments, in keeping with what has been the trend of cutting-edge music," Gronau explains. "These people have developed extended techniques and have become such masters of their instruments that they're able to improvise, and it has become to a large extent the lifeblood of their expression."
NMC's longevity and sustained commitment have helped the organization attract talent from a global pool. According to O'Donnell, "There's actually a very healthy underground network of people who do this. We plug into that; we're part of that network. Not that they want to be underground, but it's sometimes not reflective of recognizable forms and structures that have come from the past. There's some really original thinking and creativity going on." The international scope of the musicians who solicit NMC as an outlet testifies to the stature of the institution. "We don't have to search people out," says Gronau. "The New Music Circle has quite a reputation, nationally and internationally. Performers really want to come here. For one thing, we have a reputation in regard to how we treat performers. They really get a lot of respect when they come here."
In linking St. Louisans' access to musicians from around the world with those performers' access to an engaged audience, NMC performs an invaluable service -- one that's increasingly rare. "You can't tell where these people are from by listening to the music," O'Donnell asserts. "It has, I think, reflected what is going on in the world. We're becoming a singular community. The music that's being generated among musicians from all over the world has a common voice." This does not imply that the series lacks diversity. If the music has a common voice, it speaks in manifold dialects, as the series underway demonstrates.
The season's first performance, an installment in the Circle/Cinema subseries, was scheduled for Sept. 11, but was cancelled when national events took precedence. Chicagoan Gene Coleman was to have led the Circle/Cinema ensemble in an adaptation of his score for Aelita Queen of Mars, a 1924 Soviet science-fiction epic. The second performance of NMC's new schedule came but has now gone, as well: nmperign, the duo of Bhob Rainey and Greg Kelley, augmented for the evening by Axel Doerner and Andrea Neumann, played at The Forum for Contemporary Art on Sept. 26.
Of lost opportunities: the less said, the better, except to urge audiences to seek out NMC's spare, mutable improvisations whenever the opportunity arises.
On October 6, Frank Gratkowski will play The Forum for Contemporary Art as part of an NMC "mini-festival" devoted to the saxophone (see also: John Butcher and Andre Vida). At the core of Gratkowski's approach are breakneck shifts from the pure tonalities of a conservatory-trained musician to his unique additions to a variety of alternative instrumental techniques that defines two generations of European saxophone innovators.
Tim Hodgkinson, Thomas Lehn and Roger Turner make up the highly regarded Konk Pack, which performs at The Forum for Contemporary Art on Oct. 15. The trio layers the blips and drones of analog electronics over a percussive soundscape that oscillates from skittish to clamorous, producing a spontaneous interplay that can go from signal to noise at the twist of a knob.
King Chubby will appear Nov. 7 at Focal Point. Despite some discomfiting references to "ambient music," the sounds that emanate from the trio (Robert Dick, Ed Bialek and Will Ryan) stretch that label to the breaking point. Their pieces develop gradually, motivated by the tension between a devolution into new-age melodicism and total fragmentation. A "master of extended flute techniques," Dick has performed for NMC, in various permutations, more times than any other musician.
Probably the best known of the season's performers, British saxophonist John Butcher plays solo at Focal Point on November 28. Butcher has developed an array of instrumental techniques that he has extended, over time, into a personal idiom unlike that of any other musician. At once cerebral and emotive, his playing is full of ingenious detail and sudden revelation.
Saxophonist Andre Vida, who performs on February 23 at The Forum for Contemporary Art, is the owner of a prodigious, pealing tone. A veteran of Anthony Braxton's large ensembles, Vida is capable also of subtlety, spiking the din with whispered asides and upper-register trills. Comparisons with Dolphy are inevitable, but incomplete.
The season closes with The Stephen Scott Bowed Piano Ensemble at the Christ Church Cathedral on March 14. Producing the most conventionally beautiful music of the series via some quite unconventional means, the Ensemble finds a metallic ethereality within the piano. The performance will be accompanied by a live video feed from cameras mounted above the instrument, a set-up that allows the audience a view of the inner workings.
What should have been the second, but will instead be the first, Circle/Cinema performance takes place on Feb. 19 at the St. Louis Art Museum Auditorium. Film and musicians remain to be announced. Also on this season's schedule, though as yet unconfirmed, is a showcase featuring local musicians.
"The hardest thing is to get people to be willing to try something new and to give it that chance by paying serious attention to what they're listening to," Gronau remarks. "If people still think that contemporary music is just dry and difficult, that's long over. There's nothing about contemporary music that excludes wit. And fun." Although it's unlikely that anyone will love everything equally in a given NMC season, all music fans should do their ears -- and heads -- the favor of going once, then going back.