Where can you see a saxophone quartet, a bowed vibraphone ensemble, a robot-building collective of sound installation artists, and even more artists playing some of today's most cutting-edge classical music all performing together?
Look no further than Strange Beautiful Music, a far-reaching, all-day festival now in its eighth year. It's taking place at the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center on Saturday Sept. 19. SBM is a marathon performance for dedicated fans of the avant garde strain of classical music as well as newcomers to these sounds.
Ten years ago, six fellow musician friends in the Detroit Symphony began talking about wanting to have an outlet in the city for new music: contemporary classical compositions. They felt there was a void in the city for not only modern but also adventurous new classical works.
"We all think [that] classical music is all Mozart and Beethoven; but there is actually quite a bit of music being written by composers today," says clarinetist Shannon Orme. "There wasn't really an ensemble in Detroit that was utilizing that."
The friends formed a group called New Music Detroit — both an ensemble of musicians and a group that puts on concerts. After starting out with some smaller performances, they began hosting an annual festival, Strange Beautiful Music.
"It's a half-day event celebrating the music of today," says Orme, who is also a contributing member of NMD and one of the festival's organizers. "Every year we try to change it up a little bit with the style that we present. We really try to have no boundaries. We try to find music that is interesting to us and that challenges us, and perhaps is also new to Detroit. It's a big collaboration of various composers and artists — we bring them all together. It's a great journey throughout the day of various music styles."
This year, thanks to grant funding, NMD was able for the first time to hold a contest in which they asked composers to submit original scores specifically for the NMD ensemble to perform at the fest. The winning score, Iranian composer Mohammad 'Hadi' Ayanbod's "Gravity," is sure to be a highlight. It will also be the North American premiere of the piece.
"When we organized this contest, we thought we might get a couple dozen submissions," Orme says. "We actually ended up getting over three hundred! It was a really hard decision, but what it came down to is, 'What do we think is good for Detroit, and what is good for our group?' We have several dozen pieces that we would love to share with Detroit now. But ['Gravity'] just really spoke to us. We felt like [Ayanbod's] piece deserved some recognition."
Current core members of NMD who will perform "Gravity" include saxophonist Erik Rönmark, percussionist Ian Ding, violinist Gina Dibello, cellist Una O'Riordan, pianist Vicky Chow, and Orme. As well as performing "Gravity," the ensemble will perform with eclectic New York-based composer Andy Akiho.
In addition to performing with the ensemble, founding NMD member Ian Ding will also perform a solo set at 5 p.m. Currently serving on the percussion faculty at DePaul University School of Music, he is a highly in-demand percussionist known for his versatility. He frequently performs with world-renowned Boston, Cleveland Symphony and Chicago Symphony Orchestras, as well as the infamous new music ensembles Alarm Will Sound and Bang On a Can. We aren't sure what piece he will be performing at the festival, but it's sure to showcase both Ding's inventive use of and mastery of the dynamic range of percussion in a contemporary context.
The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble is a rare undergraduate group based here in Michigan that focuses on a wide variety of works in contemporary repertoire. It's rarer that the GVSUNME regularly commissions and premieres works by renowned composers as well as provides a platform for student composers' works to be performed. Their CD release of their version of Steve Reich's "Music For 18 Musicians" was called the "surprise new music hit of 2007" by the San Francisco Chronicle. This is the group's fifth appearance at Strange Beautiful Music, and they will premiere works from Anna Clyne, Michael Lowenstern, Marc Mellits, Gyan Riley, and Sarah Kirkland Snyder as part of their "Music In Their Words" project.
Other performers include Chicago-based new music mixed chamber ensemble Latitude 49, the all saxophone Donald Sinta Quartet (taking its name from the group's mentor, University of Michigan professor Donald Sinta), composer/singer/programmer Elliot Cole (whose book of bowed vibraphone works has become a staple of contemporary percussion), and Midwestern mixed media art ensemble the Willo Collective.
Detroit-based electromechanical art and sound collective Apetechnology will perform in the lobby toward the end of the festival. The group states that "the core premise of the design of our electromechanical devices is to explore the intimate but uneasy relationship that humans have developed with our own creations." And in case you were wondering, "electromechanical" means they build instruments — and yes, robots. "What they do is really incredible" Orme says.
The festival will end with all the performers reconvening to play minimalist godfather Terry Riley's "In C," a definitive work in the canon of new music. "It's one of those pieces that's really timeless and it's really close to our heart," Orme says. "Whoever wants to join in can join in."
Does all this sound intimidating? Don't sweat it. You can leave the suit and tie at home. Just bring your ears and an open mind. "It's a very casual atmosphere," Orme says. "There's gonna be something for everyone."