A HEALTHY COMMUNITY
Composers know the story well. After a year spent dreaming, writing, and fine-tuning, you turn in a finished composition. A personal, intimate document. Then comes a short, impersonal rehearsal, the only contact you will have with the finished product. “It’s all over in 92 minutes,” says composer Augusta Read Thomas.
Thomas, a University Professor of Music Composition at the University of Chicago and the Director of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition, knew there was a different way. A way to give time and love to new works. To gather a community around a shared vision.
It took several years to bring the ensemble to life. Thomas found support and partnership from the Sanford J. Grossman Charitable Trust, Gay K. Stanek, and Carolyn (Kay) Bucksbaum, and appointed Co-Directors—her colleagues, Anthony Cheung and Sam Pluta. The Co- Directors then identified musicians and commissioned a first round of composers. The Grossman Ensemble was born.
Conductors and composers change each cycle, but the lineup of players is fixed, with thirteen musicians drawn from across the city’s vibrant music scene. For Maeve Feinberg, a violinist with the ensemble, the Grossman Ensemble is both a close-knit community and “a supergroup of Chicago musicians.”
“When you have a permanent conductor, there’s a game of ego,” says the ensemble’s pianist Daniel Pesca. In Grossman rehearsals, players feel more empowered to chime in, to have direct communication with composers. The structure, says Feinberg, “gives players a continuing sense of agency.”
The process: Thomas works alongside the musicians of the ensemble and Co-Directors to choose a conductor and four composers for each cycle.
The math: Over the course of three months, the Grossman musicians meet for one full day every three weeks. One week before each day, composers submit materials. The intensive working days are part-workshop, part-rehearsal.
The process allows each composer to take risks. “Composers talk directly with the musicians,” says Thomas, “we reconsider what we’ve written, we might throw out a huge chunk of our piece.” She says, emphatically, “With large ensembles, composers never get this opportunity.”
For Feinberg, the opportunity to work with a shifting roster of conductors and composers allows “the best of both worlds: the ensemble is consistent, but we get lots of new perspectives. It’s a playground where we can bounce ideas off one another.”
Composers generally fall into three broad categories, says Pesca. First, those whose works are largely complete at the first rehearsal, like Shulamit Ran and David Dzubay. “We have many weeks to live with these pieces,” Pesca says. The advantage is clear: “Their music can become part of our body. The premiere already feels like a fourth performance.”
Second, composers who steadily build their music in blocks. David “Clay” Mettens, for example, wanted to allow his piece “to take shape during the process.” He came to the first rehearsal with one completed section, a list of sounds to try, and questions for players.
“I was able to see what the ensemble gets excited about,” Mettens says. The process also gave him permission to fail. “Normally, there is so much pressure on composers to get the piece exactly right at the beginning,” he says. “With this commission I felt free to experiment, which gave me greater fluency and flow while working on the piece.”
Third, composers who come armed with preliminary thoughts. Composer Tonia Ko “sent pages with sketches and drawings and verbal instructions,” says Pesca, “and coached us through improvisations.” Pesca found joy in this looseness, and, since Grossman rehearsals are recorded, the ensemble’s improvisations became part of Simple Fuel’s DNA.
The working method was new and challenging for Ko, who had never worked in this way before. “It forced me to almost compose on the spot—I had to react immediately to the musicians.” The process resulted in a work, Ko says, “with a different kind of pacing than my other pieces,” one with larger, broader arcs.
This album captures five performances from the twenty premieres of the ensemble’s first two seasons. Feinberg says the performances feel dialed-in, personal. “Because we see the piece from sketch to final product, we individually have had an impact on the result. It gives us buy-in during the concert.”
There is always an element of risk, says Pesca. “Typically one piece in each program has a palpable feeling of danger. Where we say, ‘Is this really going to work?’ It is a nail-biter.” But that edge-of-the-seat situation has a benefit. “It creates electricity in performance.”
In the end, says Thomas, it is all about creating a healthy and vibrant community. “For us to go through this process together is beautiful in the cosmic sense,” she says. “Sometimes it’s difficult. But to gather human beings to create art together over time? It’s essential.”
--Liner essay and notes by Tim Munro
Shulamit Ran: Grand Rounds (2018) Grand Rounds was commissioned as the first piece in the Grossman Ensemble’s inaugural concert. “For this festive occasion,” says Shulamit Ran, “I wanted to create music that would be upbeat and bold, saying unabashedly and in full color—‘we are here!’” She also wrote a work “that would highlight the ensemble’s virtuosity, at the individual level as well as collectively.” The “Rounds” of the title refer to a number of contrasting musical ideas that recur and evolve through the piece, each time altered by their appearance in a new context.
For more than forty years Shulamit Ran taught at the University of Chicago Department of Music, where she is the Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor Emerita. She was also Artistic Director of Contempo (the Contemporary Chamber Players). Ran has been awarded most major honors given to composers in the U.S., including the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for her Symphony. presser.com/shulamit-ran
Anthony Cheung: Double Allegories (2019) Cheung explores senses, elements, seasons, and affects in this work. The first section (“...of touch/heat”) imagines heat and sparks being set off by the sensations of touch between instruments. In the second (“...of solitude/ winter”), references to older music dot a frigid and desolate landscape. A turbulent storm transitions to the final section (“...of breath/air”), where musicians breathe short, hushed phrases (chosen in the moment by the conductor), while a saxophone/harp duo breathes one continuous current.
The music of composer and pianist Anthony Cheung explores the ambiguity of sound sources and the manipulation of timbre when joined with harmony. He engages poetic imagery, natural phenomena, and is influenced by improvisatory traditions. Cheung has been commissioned by leading groups such as the Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and Ensemble Modern, and was a co-founder and pianist of the Talea Ensemble. acheungmusic.com
David Dzubay: PHO (2019) Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHO) are natural or human-made objects with orbits close enough to be a constant danger to humans’ survival. In Walt Whitman’s “Year of meteors,” forces are perceived as threats to America: the Great Comet of 1860; ships loaded with immigrants or gold; national unrest. Dzubay felt that Whitman’s threats remained relevant: conflicting forces and ideologies, and the increasing number of PHOs, cosmic and earthly. Dzubay’s score has the performance instruction, “dangerously fast; transient and strange—of unearthly light...”
David Dzubay is Professor of Music, Chair of the Composition Department and Director of the New Music Ensemble at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington. Recent honors include a Fromm Commission, and Guggenheim, Bogliasco, MacDowell, Yaddo, Copland House and Djerassi fellowships. pronovamusic.com
Tonia Ko: Simple Fuel (2018) Simple Fuel grew out of two images. First, a snail: moving slowly, with antennae responding with speed.Second, a freight train: barreling at high velocity, but appearing slow from afar. While writing Simple Fuel, Ko had in mind the classical adage, festina lente (“make haste slowly”). Hesitant stutters at the opening of the work give way to unstoppable acceleration, exploding into a pointillistic, pixelated sound world.
Ko’s music is whimsical, questioning, and lyrical. She is guided by thoughts about texture, physical movement, and the relationship between melody and memory. The recipient of a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2018 CCCC Postdoctoral Researcher, she has been commissioned by leading soloists and ensembles, and performed at venues across the country. toniako.com
David “Clay” Mettens: stain, bloom, moon, rain (2020) Mettens, reading a collection of 9th and 11th century Japanese poems in English translation, felt a kinship. “The poetry aligned with the dream worlds and delicate textures of my music,” writes Mettens. “I was struck by the simplicity of these short poems, the range of emotions exploding out of modest forms.” Four recurring images from the collection stayed with him: stain, bloom, moon, rain. Soft dissonances and noisy sounds “stain” the texture of his first movement. The second movement “blooms” into richness; later, chimes illuminate distant solos. “Rain” transforms brittle points into a blurry watercolor.
David “Clay” Mettens reflects the experience of wonder in music that ranges from sonorous to crystalline. He seeks immediacy in clear forms and dramatic shapes. The Chicago Tribune has called his music “a thing of remarkable beauty,” displaying a “sensitive ear for instrumental color.” mettensmusic.com
Conductor, educator, and writer Michael Lewanski is a champion of new and old music. His work seeks to create engaged connections between audiences, musicians, and the music that is part of their culture, society, and history. Based in Chicago, he is conductor of Ensemble Dal Niente and Associate Professor at the DePaul University School of Music. He is a frequent guest conductor and recording artist. A native of Savannah, Georgia, he began conducting at 13. At 16, he studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Ilya Musin. He attended Yale University; he subsequently studied with Cliff Colnot and Lucas Vis.
Conductor, educator, and performer Ben Bolter devotes his career to both traditional and contemporary music while constantly exploring new ways to conduct and enhance modern performance. He serves as co-director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble and associate director of the Institute for New Music at the Northwestern University Bienen School of Music. Bolter has worked with groups including the International Contemporary Ensemble, Fulcrum Point New Music Project, Third Coast Percussion, and Spektral Quartet. An active singer/songwriter and keyboardist, Bolter performs solo in venues across Chicago and has played in bands across the Midwest.
Known for his flexibility in many styles and genres, Taiwanese-American conductor Jerry Hou is Associate Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He has conducted orchestras across America, and has led groups such as Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Signal, Remix Ensemble, Musiqa, and Alarm Will Sound. He is on the faculty of Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in Houston, Texas, where he conducts the Contemporary Music Ensemble. He has collaborated with composers such as Steve Reich, John Adams, Steve Stucky, John Harbison, George Lewis, and Bernard Rands, and works closely with the next generation of leading composers.
Lorado Taft’s monumental sculpture The Fountain of Time (1920) sits just a block away from the Grossman Ensemble’s home venue, the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. By naming our debut album for this artwork, we pay homage to our locality in the city of Chicago and recognize the rich artistic ecosystem that nourishes our work.
This CD is made possible by generous gifts from Carolyn (Kay) S. Bucksbaum and the Carolyn S. Bucksbaum Recording Fund; the Sanford J. Grossman Charitable Trust; and the extraordinary support of Gay K. Stanek.
We extend our thanks to John Bierbusse, Seth Brodsky, Kay Bucksbaum, Reba Cafarelli, Anthony Cheung, Frank Gilbert, Mary Lou Gorno, Ingrid Gould, Naava Grossman, Sanford Grossman, Landon Hegedus, Berthold Hoeckner, Robert Hsiung, Jennifer Iverson, Amy Iwano, Travis Jackson, David J. Levin, Daniel Meyers, Bill Michel, Debra Karen Moskovits, Will Myers, Sam Pluta, Greg Redenius, Anne Robertson, Emmanuel Roman, Maria Savannah, Barbara Schubert, Claire Snarski, Gay K. Stanek, Margo Strebig, Christopher L. Willis, and Sean Wills.