Something peculiar has been incubating here in Chicago for decades now, something that doesn’t look or sound quite like any other new music community. And it is, at long last, getting top billing. One of our champions here is composer Augusta Read Thomas, who with the help of an army of volunteers is about to unleash Ear Taxi Festival 2016, a city-wide series in which virtually every local new-music-identifying ensemble will participate, offering 54 world premieres and a total of 88 recent works by Chicago-based or Chicago-affiliated composers. We are a DIY music scene, and Ear Taxi Festival is an extension of that dynamic, assembled piece by piece.
“Gusty,” as she’s known to all of us, is one of those composers whose volume of output makes one’s brain do somersaults. The term “Energizer Bunny” pops up frequently when performers talk about her. An email from Gusty will almost always include personal praise that would make your mom jealous, and an affirming preponderance of exclamation points. This is all to say that she is an unshakably positive advocate for us here in Chicago…and that I have zero journalistic distance from my interviewee (Spektral Quartet performs on three of the festival’s concerts).
Traditional newspaper and magazine interviews of the Ear Taxi originator have been copious, so our intention here was to have a more spontaneous conversation, to move beyond the talking points that are admittedly necessary when promoting an endeavor of this scope. The decision to launch something this audacious – essentially from a living room – is nothing short of preposterous. It is also the most highly-anticipated celebration of new music in Chicago history, and, in a way, an opportunity for the city to be introduced to itself.
DOYLE ARMBRUST: I want to start out with a question that is as much to satisfy my own curiosity as it is for this piece, but in terms of the drive necessary to get something like this festival off the ground, what did middle school or high school Gusty’s motivation look like?
AUGUSTA READ THOMAS: I fear that speaking about my past can come across as immodest, but I will say that even in day school, I was incredibly focused and super-energized. I always tried to be nice, to be reliable, and to go out of my way to help someone out.
Was that something that came by way of your folks, or a religious upbringing, or just the culture around the house?
Well, the culture around my house was a bit frenetic, because I’m the tenth of 10 children. When I was four, my parents split and my mother supported the family by teaching kindergarten for 30 years. We were not wealthy, and at one point for three years I was sent to live at my godparents’ house. I saw my mother work very, very hard just to keep food on the table – that kind of thing. My dad was a brilliant, genius kind of person who was never able to hold down a job.
That generosity is evident to any musician in Chicago, and that’s why it’s not immodest. Let me put it in a different frame: Growing up, my dad’s stories about his childhood centered around his finding the kid in class who everyone was picking on and befriending them, So that became a priority for me. So your desire to give – was that innate, or was there someone or something that cultivated that part of your personality?
I don’t really know. My father was extremely violent and scary, and not nice to my mother, who was working so hard just to keep the heat on.
I suppose what I’m getting at is that now, your version of being a good person is doing big, audacious projects like Ear Taxi. To me that’s indicative of something that comes from deep down.
Basically, I love music, and people that have been fortunate, as I’ve been fortunate, should give back. It’s just a piece of supporting and sustaining this art form that I love and to which I’ve devoted my life.
When I talk to out-of-town performers like Claire Chase, or even other music writers, people seem really excited about what’s happening in Chicago. They say it seems different from what’s happening in other cities. I’ve been reading [famed Chicago journalist] Mike Royko, and he talks about Chicago being a bootstrap city, people making their own way. And since I’ve been involved with it, new music has been that way in Chicago. It’s going to be what you make of it, and to me, that’s why there’s not a dominant style or group here. That’s what makes it exciting. What do you think?
I agree, and would amplify what you were implying. I think – well, there’s 25 things coalescing – but I think people go to each other’s concerts and there’s a real sense of collegiality. Maybe I’m in the wrong circles, but I don’t hear people badmouthing each other. There’s a sense of community that I think is incredibly unique, and there are several key leaders who set the tone for that kind of group effort. For instance, [Chicago Tribune classical critic] John von Rhein and [former Sun-Times critic] Wynne Delacoma and [the late Sun-Times critic] Andrew Patner have been writing about new music for 25 or 30 years, giving it a chance and supporting it. Also, there’s [the Chicago Symphony’s] MusicNow series, which I started in 1997, which put new music on the map in the city in a different way.
Why is that, though? I feel like the cheap answer is, ‘Oh it’s the Midwest and people are nice here.’ Where does that camaraderie come from? Is it because there’s not a brass ring, or no such thing as getting to the top of the pyramid? I think of Peter Margasak’s Frequency Festival or Ear Taxi, and these feel inclusive in a way that seems unique to Chicago. Maybe that’s just a construct of my own mind, but it feels true.
I definitely think it’s true. It’s about the people. We all have out-of-town projects, but we’re also working together. It’s a braid of donors and composers and performers and music lovers and presenters and venues – and we’re all living it – that makes Chicago special. We shouldn’t underestimate the goodness of all of these people.
If I were to go to a big presenting organization somewhere in the country and say ‘I have a big idea and no money and I want to do 65 world premieres with 500 people involved’…they’d never do it. A festival like Ear Taxi in a way has to come from the grassroots. That’s also what’s made it so much work, because everything had to be put together literally à la carte. So the last thing I needed was to put something like this together in my living room, both building and climbing the mountain. Big presenters have a marketing team and a closet full of percussion instruments and a caterer…and chairs!
To me this is like a macrocosm of what it’s like to be a new-music performer in Chicago. One thing we’re short on here is presenting organizations for new music. The majority of series that we have here focus on out-of-town or in-house talent. If you are a new-music group, you are doing everything yourself. Really, until Constellation came around, there wasn’t a real home for it. Ear Taxi is essentially that paradigm, exploded.
There’s another side to this that I find interesting, which is that there’s an element in Chicago of doing things ‘in spite of’ or because someone said you couldn’t. On some level, I feel like Ear Taxi is an attempt to introduce the city to something that’s been here for a long time, and that is celebrated outside of Chicago, but perhaps the city is unaware of.
I totally agree.
It’s like our coming-out party on some level. I find that to be a motivation. If classical music is already a fringe music, and new-music is a fringe of a fringe, there’s a sea of people out there who can come to something this huge, if we can get them in the door, and totally find their piece or their group or their composer. We’re throwing it all at them and seeing what sticks.
I want to credit [festival manager] Reba Cafarelli with these two words: She says that Ear Taxi will have a huge “ripple effect,” and I agree. Someone is going to come and fall in love with Spektral Quartet and want to commission [composer/cellist] Tomeka Reid. They’re going to go up to her and find her so dynamic and spiritually rich, and want to dive in and do a project with her. Or join a group’s board. Or go to the next concert by Ensemble Dal Niente. I’m hoping it will have fruitful aftershocks for years and years to come.
One of the things I was very adamant about was recording everything. To be able to hand everyone back their recordings is a big part of this investment. Maybe those recordings help a group win a prize, or help a composer get tenure. Maybe an ensemble loves their commission and tours it and records it, and then it wins a Grammy or a Pulitzer. All sorts of things can come out of it. I worked really hard to arrange for five ETF concerts to be broadcast on the European Broadcast Union, which is a union of many radio stations in Europe.
I’m proud of us all. It’s a gigantic collaboration. As you know, everyone is being paid a minimum amount, and I’ve been raising funds for three years, so in that sense everyone is pitching in. Everyone should be paid more, and many people are volunteering 100 percent of their time to make this thing happen. I could have written a three-hour opera in the time it took to put this together. I’m going to ask myself, was it worth it? Are the halls half-empty, or are they packed? Did new and diverse audiences attend?
Whether or not the seats are filled is an indicator of the festival’s success, but the conundrum is that we’d need to have a few more festivals to know its real longevity, right?
I hope someone will take it over and say, “Gusty, can I do another one in three years?” I can’t do another one – it’s close to killing me. It would need to be led by someone the composers and performers and donors trust to get it done. The fact that this festival is a composer’s vision-project, rather than an administrator’s one…I would imagine that feels different to you performers.
For sure, and I would imagine you’ve had to put some projects on the shelf to make room for this festival.
I actually have not put composing on the shelf. What I jettisoned from my life is sleep and exercise…I haven’t been to the movies or anything like that in three years. I haven’t cooked a meal in a very long time. I wanted to keep composition and teaching at full-throttle through all this. I would never sacrifice composition, and I think it’s important that if this is a composer’s project, that the composer is still writing every day. Artistic street cred and unambiguous hard work is a key part of the endeavor.
So, is what’s going to make this all feel successful something quantifiable? Is it something like attendance, or is it something more elusive than that?
I want people to feel like they made good work, and that they played with great skill and grace and radiance. I want people to understand the depth and breadth of what this all takes. A composer spends something like eight months on a piece, and then a group like Spektral spends so many hours, all before walking out on the Harris Theater stage and playing three world premieres. The amount of time, energy, love, expertise – you guys have been practicing your instruments since you were three – there’s just so much human time that went into this. People need to pay attention to this collective industriousness and hopefully appreciate it.
As for attendance, I approached the Ditson Fund and said, I have this idea and am going to try and get the whole city involved, and I don’t know if there’s going to be big audiences. And the Ditson board unanimously said, “Gusty, we’re not giving you this money to count numbers. If you have 300 people there, if you have 100 people there, or if you have 1,500, it makes no difference to us. We understand ETF is part of this whole bigger vision.” Those words have stuck with me. You asked if butts in seats is going to make the difference, and I just go back to those words: that they know ETF’s got more ripples than just bean counting.
I know that the music community is very excited about this festival, but I don’t have a sense of how on-the-radar it is for the city at large, or city government.
I did reach out to the mayor, and he wrote us a letter of introduction for the festival book with his official seal. I don’t know to what extent it’s on his radar, but I felt it was important that the first thing you see in the festival book is a letter from our mayor.
As for the city, if the poets here were to do something like this, say a hundred of them, from Chicago, reading their poems – where I can hear their syntax and vocabulary and rhythm of their words, and see their body language as they read, and meet them and ask them out for coffee – I would buy a festival pass to that the minute it was announced. That’s basically what Ear Taxi is. I would like to think that poets and architects and school bus drivers and chefs and gardeners and dancers and business people will have that same curiosity.
Ear Taxi Festival 2016 runs Oct. 5-10 at the Harris Theater and elsewhere in Chicago; www.eartaxifestival.com.
Interview was condensed and edited. Doyle Armbrust is the founding violist of Spektral Quartet and a core member of Ensemble Dal Niente. His writing has been published by Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Magazine, Music + Literature, and Q2 Music. Contact Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org.