Ever since it burst onto the global new-music scene back in 2001, the International Contemporary Ensemble has busied itself with breaking new ground for contemporary music: not just with consistently excellent performances across a broad range of musical disciplines and styles, but also through envisioning and implementing fresh ideas about generating, promoting, preserving, and sharing the diligent work it has done on behalf of composers from around the world.
Now, ICE is introducing its newest groundbreaking initiative, announcing its new ICECommons Composer Residencies and naming the first six Artists-in-Residence: Helga Arias, Kate Gentile, Murat Çolak, Ylva Lund Bergner, Fernanda Navarro, and Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir. Representing a diverse range of backgrounds and musical practices, this group was selected by a panel of ICE musicians and outside experts who, over the course of six weeks, explored music from more than 700 composers who submitted their creative work for consideration via a new “call for scores” on the ICEcommons web portal.
The new residencies evolved out of ICE’s highly successful ICElab program, which between 2010 and 2014 served to develop new works by Tyshawn Sorey, Suzanne Farrin, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir, among others, while also providing a platform for emerging talent. The six composers selected for residencies each will receive a paid commission, workshop opportunities, promotional support, and world premiere and repeat performances – integrated throughout the ICE season, rather than isolated in a single concert – as well as video and audio documentation throughout the entire creative process.
International Contemporary Ensemble co-artistic director Ross Karre recently sat down with National Sawdust Log to discuss at length the impetus for the new program, and what it will make possible for composers, for ICE, and for other performers and ensembles.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Your new ICECommons Residency program developed out of a very successful existing initiative, ICELab. How did you come to determine that ICELab could and should become something new?
ROSS KARRE: I think the first part of the process for ICELab was identifying a problem, which was that there wasn’t enough time to work with a composer in the same space and share extended techniques and find ways of approaching the instrument from the performer’s side and from the composer’s side. Reconciling those two takes time. There were tons of workshops prior to ICELab, but ICELab really hit the time and space question perfectly. So we worked with Anna Thorvaldsdottir in making In the Light of Air in the ICELab project with two full weeks of time spent researching lightbulbs and how they can react to music—and that was totally essential to make that piece work at all.
So that part we knew we wanted to preserve. The part we also learned, along the way, was that when we say to the world of composers, “Hey, we’d like to work on a piece with you and commission you to write a piece over a year and a half-long span,” hundreds of people will apply. And that’s a good thing. Many hundreds of those, we didn’t know who they were, so we’re also discovering new composers through the application process.
Their applications, and the work samples supporting those applications, now live in a spreadsheet. Josh Rubin [ICE clarinetist, former co-artistic director, and program director of the ensemble’s management software, LUIGI] corralled all of those applications into a really well-organized spreadsheet. You could assess piece by piece, composer by composer, and start to figure out who we wanted to work with, based on their work samples.
And then those spreadsheets die, and they don’t have an outward-facing, public, searchable library. So we decided, around the end of ICELabs in 2013, that we were going to take that same concept of composers submitting their work samples to a thing, and make sure when they’re submitting those work samples that those samples could also be viewed by other groups. The ICELabs submission process became a public crowd-sourcing concept, which is ICECommons.
So the ICECommons approach means that if you’re Anna Thorvaldsdottir in 2013 and you submit your two pieces – let’s say Aeriality and Shades of Silence – as work samples, you’re also checking a box to say, “I’d like other people to know about these work samples, too.”
It’s optional, then, for the composer who might be submitting?
It’s optional. They can also say “ICE-only.” And it’s not their scores that are going into the library; it’s whatever they want to represent the piece. It could be a YouTube recording, it could be a work sample that’s 30 seconds long, it could be a screenshot or a photo or video. Whatever they want goes into this public database, which is then searchable by important metadata, including instrumentation.
So now, if there are 3,000 pieces on this database and you want to search on pieces that involve the bassoon, you check the “bassoon” box. And Rebekah Heller [ICE bassoonist and co-artistic director] sees: “Okay, these 200 pieces involve bassoon; I’m going to get to work and figure out what’s interesting out there.”
That project became understood by composers. They knew the value of submitting their works not only because we’ll take a look at it and consider performing it; they also knew that other groups could look at it, as well, and it enters a permanent archive that’s publicly visible at whatever level they desire. So if a composer doesn’t want to have a score sample on the site, or a recording on the site, that’s fine. It’s up to them.
What it ultimately ends up being is this multi-thousand piece database that we search all the time. So in February, knowing that there were so many pieces on there, we decided to make a comprehensive process that would look first at the composers that we’d never heard of. So we actually sat in a room—seven ICE members in a classroom at the New School.
I have to admit, I almost find it hard to envision seven ICE members not knowing everybody, collectively.
That was the test. With just seven – maybe a quarter to a fifth of the entire ensemble – in the room, we went name by name and said, Do you know this person? Do you know their work? Have you worked with them? And it resulted in about 300 names that we had not heard of, and about 600, 700 names that we were very familiar with.
So in this group of 300 composers that the collective had not worked with or heard of, we did our research. We started going composer by composer, listening to all of their work samples really comprehensively over six weeks, researching and discovering new composers. And that resulted in these six composers: three of whom we’d never heard before, and three we knew about, who also rose to the surface of a varied set of interests, and at a perfect stage in their emerging careers.
This also is part of an increasing effort from ICE to not use the words “call for scores.” The word scores creates limits in a really unnecessary way. What we learned from ICELab was not only that all that data we collect from composers should build in a living archive that is searchable, improvable, so that all ensembles can find out about their work; we also found out that the language we were using in our invitation to apply was limiting, just incidentally.
We have to be more intentional about the language we’re using. We’re refining that, still. Words like composition or score… or piece versus song, or installation versus piece, or concert versus installation—we don’t actually want to limit that format or method. We want those things to be completely open to the composer, to tell us what their desired method of sound production and presentation is.
We started doing that with the National Composers Intensive in Los Angeles; we tried to change the language so it didn’t say the word composition or piece. It’s a slow process of calibrating the language, and also getting feedback from composers who were like, “Oh, I didn’t know I could apply for this,” and I was like, “Whoa, what prevented you from applying?”
So any of the barriers that either intentionally or subconsciously are artificially built up around the ivory towers of composition—we don’t want to reinforce those. We all come from conservatories and did grad-school degrees in that kind of academic music, most of us. So we have to actively fight our intuitions that we built up from those experiences, and make sure that we are not just reinforcing those pedigrees and the kind of cycle that they create.
This selection of six is a representation of that, a little bit. But I think the next years of this search process are what will hopefully redefine who feels welcome in this process. That’s the most important thing we can do, is to make sure that everyone who expresses themselves in sound feels welcome and invited to work with us.
So, someone who literally is accustomed to putting sounds together in their bedroom on a laptop could figure out a way to transfer those impulses, and translate those sounds, via the musicians of ICE.
Basically, what we don’t want is for there to be any preconceptions about whether they can’t, because we know we can make it happen. We know that any musician, regardless of their practice, can somehow communicate with another sound-based artist. We can make that communication, facilitate it. And whether that makes they’re going to realize the same type of work they’ve been facilitating without ICE, or a new thing because the hybrid of both of our sensibilities creates a sum-is-greater-than-its-parts kind of result, is an open question.
What’s also interesting is the notion that this is so community-minded. There seems to be nothing especially proprietary about it. What is the benefit to ICE of making your fundamental resource available to the world? Where would you draw the line in terms of not wanting someone to slip in and take away some prize discovery? I’m being a bit willfully naïve here, because I just wonder how it works when you open your resources to the world while still reaping its benefits?
I think another realm of this would be… let’s call that exclusivity. What is it that we want to create? An exclusivity of identity? Of collaboration? We want that identity to be unique, to speak to the sensibilities of the artists who are collaborating in it, but we don’t want it to be exclusive. In fact, most of what we’re trying to do when we commission new pieces is to ask the question along the way: How can this grow legs so that ensembles in Europe can play it, and ensembles in South Africa and in Australia and in Asia can play it, so that it doesn’t die with us, or with some unique combination of techniques, or technical aspects?
Even with Anna’s In the Light of Air, one of the hopes we have is that the unique technology that Levy Lorenzo and Nick Houfek brilliantly designed isn’t unique to their participation in it. We want it to spread far and wide, as much as possible, because our main goal is advocating for composers and the collaborations that they bring to us. It’s not advocating for the ICE performance; it’s advocating for the piece, and its future.
That perspective is markedly different from the model in which a group commissions a new piece and retains some kind of exclusive grip on it for a potentially lengthy period of time. It can become a sort of calling card for the performers, and it’s probably a nice thing for a composer to add to a C.V. But it also means far fewer people will be able to hear the piece while it’s still new.
That exclusivity radius of time is interesting, but it’s not interesting to us. Thinking about the future of contemporary music, and how few resources there are, it doesn’t make sense to fly International Contemporary Ensemble to Australia to play a piece. We will do that, and we have. But more and more the way we’re doing this new collaboration between Offspring in Sydney and Adapter in Berlin and ICE in New York, those three ensembles—we could combine and make a group, which we’ve done for these three concerts over the last year, or we could say, let’s pool our resources – standard consortium commission – and make sure that it has three-continent premieres right away, but no one gets on a plane. No one wastes that carbon and that money.
So, we’re deciding that, as well. And I think a big part of that is making sure that when you invest in a piece, you’re investing in the piece, not in the ICE-only exclusive relationship to that piece. We want to invest in a piece that lasts for 50 years, and will tour around and be played by as many people as possible. What we haven’t added to our ICECommons process yet, but it will a huge part of the next few years, we’re jokingly calling “PWAG,” which stands for “Pretend We Are Gone”—which means, if we’re not here, can this piece survive? Can we still advocate for it, beyond our investment in it and our commitment to it as performers?
The way we’re hoping to realize that… even in Ashley Fure‘s The Force of Things this spring, when we’ll be doing it in Dartmouth, one of our goals is to make sure that that’s the last performance where there’s any sort of proprietary information stuck in our brains. So we have people coming who are just going to observe our process and take notes, and basically just create the whole front matter and videos documents, to make sure that that piece is not stuck with ICE. So if there’s a young group in Manchester or Melbourne that wants to do it, there’s a document that will get them started, at the very least. And they won’t have to waste carbon and money on ICE doing it.
So for the six creators selected for the first round of ICECommons Residencies, what is the sum total of the experience you envision for them? What do they get out of the process, and what’s the end result?
The process will be modeled almost exactly on the ICELab model, for which we learned to create an initial workshop where there’s no obligation to bring scores or sketches—just meet and greet, share ideas, combine sensibilities, and create a hybrid path forward. And then on their chosen and designed timeline, six months to a year later, we meet again. This time, if they work in notation, maybe we discuss notation. As a lot of composers have done with us, we start to memorize macquettes that they’ve made, that are just auditory—an oral transferal of information, as opposed to notes on a page.
Is that common, for you?
It’s definitely becoming more common. Instead of a composer saying, “realize this graphic iconography,” or “this text instruction,” say, “This is the sound I want you to make,” and then hit play on a Dropbox file. It’s okay, it happens all the time—and Ashley all the time is doing that.
So someone conceivably could give you a digitally generated abstract sound, and then your first assignment is to figure out the acoustic means by which to replicate it?
Precisely that. Because technology means that either with a cellphone or a Zoom recorder or any manner of hardware, you can distribute a sound around the world instantly using the cloud, it just means that that sort of convenience is more readily available than putting some sort of note to a page that is unique to that sound result. It’s in the same way that more composers like Sabrina Schroeder or a younger composer we’re working with in Los Angeles, Nick Morrish, who’s currently at Harvard—they’re using InDesign and Photoshop to create their scores, not Sibelius or Finale.
So that process might be step one for these composers. And then step two might be, we’re trying to design not only how to rehearse a piece, but also how to install it into a specific space. So at that time we’re not just thinking about pitch, volume, rhythms, and rehearsals, but also what’s the site-specific concern of this piece, because we know that the premiere will happen here, and then a second performance will happen here. Working with people like Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen, they have a really great intuition about that: the last piece we created, In Plain Air, was designed for a church, and then for Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan.
So the next question we’re asking of a composer in the second round is, how can this piece be site-specific, but also transferable from site to site—which, to steal a John Luther Adams term, we call site-determined. So it’s not site-specific in terms of that site informs the piece, but each new site determines the piece’s manifestation. So bringing composers into that world is super-important for us, and that happens in the second workshop.
Then maybe the end of that workshop is a preview showing, so with our partners at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the Abrons Arts Center we’ve done that kind of thing. And then we find a presenter who wants to take a risk with us on a brand-new piece, and that’s the third step.
Once a piece is premiered, then a bunch of new steps get added in. We’ll add it to DigitICE, the online platform, so that people can discover it. The piece will also enter the ICECommons database, so that other composers can find out about the nuts and bolts of a piece, and other performers can discover it. And then, finally, this new initiative: How can we make sure that this piece has a life beyond ICE? That hopefully will start to infuse every other piece of this process, so that we don’t have any pieces die with us. That whole life cycle of a piece is basically informing our mission. That is what ICE does: creating the life of a piece through the development of it, the amplification of it, the digitization of it, and keeping that life cycle going.
For more information about the International Contemporary Ensemble and its new ICECommons Artist Residencies, visit iceorg.org