Face the Music’s Pannonia Quartet, David Harrington, Alexandra Vrebalov – Photo by Meg Goldman

5 questions to Vasudevan Panicker (pianist, composer, managing director of Face the Music)

Could you introduce yourself and Face the Music to our readers?

My name is Vasudevan Panicker, but my friends call me Vasu. I’m a musician and native New Yorker who focuses on creating and sharing modern music. Lately, my music practice requires me to tap in and to let go—when I feel good, my music is good. I also work for New Music’s teenage dream-team, Face the Music. Jenny Undercofler directs and conducts this group of 75 kids, most of whom are from New York City’s public schools. So far this season, the group has given 23 concerts, and we have 3 more to go!  The kids rehearse at-least once a week, with some rehearsing up to 3 times a week. A sample of this season’s rep includes “Double Sextet” by Steve Reich, “Glassworks” by Philip Glass, “Horses of Instruction” by Steve Martland and collaborations with Angélica Negrón and LJOVA.

Vasudevan Panicker

Vasudevan Panicker

Before Face the Music was born, classical pre-college students were only taught the 3 B’s. Generally, young classical students are programmed to believe that nothing exists after that. Despite New Music having gained tons of popularity over the past 20 years, this is still the pre-dominant belief in our society, and in classical music culture and other sub-cultures. How many times a week do you have to explain to people what “New Music” or “Contemporary Classical” is? Lots of young people, after going through classical pre-college and conservatory training, get out and just don’t understand that the old 19th-20th century model of a classical performing career doesn’t work anymore. Then Jenny Undercofler came along and was like “Na, this has to change.”

Are they trained in a “traditional” way?

A lot of the members have “traditional” Western Classical training, but looking deep reveals that the word “traditional” loses  some meaning. We have some members (as young as 8), who’ve had only a few years of Western Classical training, and now they’re performing music written during the last 20 years. There are some members who don’t have any serious “formal” training, but they love music and they want to be part of an intense performing group  (because ultimately that’s what music is about –sharing with an audience). One of the members quickly taught himself to play electric guitar, in order to perform Phil Kline’s “Exquisite Corpses”, a piece written for Bang on a Can All-Stars. Is that “traditional”? We also have a handful of students who do it all — they practice classical, they play jazz, they analyze death metal, they perform in rock bands, and they study in pre-college composition programs.

Face the Music's Pannonia Quartet, David Harrington, Alexandra Vrebalov - Photo by Meg Goldman

Face the Music's Pannonia Quartet, David Harrington (Kronos Quartet), Alexandra Vrebalov - Photo by Meg Goldman

Face the Music will be opening for the Philip Glass Ensemble this coming Wednesday, June 20 as part of the River To River Festival. Can you tell us more about the concert?

This is a really big deal on a bunch of different levels. It is unprecedented to have kids this age perform the earlier music of the Grandmaster at such a professional level. Face the Music is a group of mostly born and bred NYC public school students who have proven to classical music culture of the old that kids love contemporary music AND they play it really well. What this also means is the definition of classical music is changing, and this change is happening through a gradual paradigm shift in classical music pedagogy. Face the Music is at the fore of this paradigm shift. The group has worked the entire year on Glassworks, and now they are having a chance to perform it for New York City and Philip Glass Ensemble, near the very neighborhood where Glass cut his teeth. For people who are currently in their 20s or older, FTM is like some sort of twisted dream from a parallel universe come true.

Do you think that very young (too young?) musicians might lack the maturity to perform New Music or are they better suited to express the Zeitgeist?

Based on what I’ve witnessed, the young ones very much “get it”. The kids respond really enthusiastically to the “downtown” aesthetic, and to post-minimal, groovy sounds. Actually, they play it naturally. I’d love to know if, when they head off to college, they will get into the music of Elliott Carter or Jason Eckardt?

Face the Music - Photo by Meg Goldman

Face the Music - Photo by Meg Goldman

If they are already playing this kind of music that young (the oldest musician was born in 1994), what do you see them play/create in 5/10/20 years?

Basically, the teens who play in Face the Music now, will create what we listen to over the next 10+ years. I think that the next generation of 20-30 year old musicians will establish a seamless connection between improvised and composed classical music, treating the relationship more as a gradient rather than separate categories. I think they’ll continue to explore groove and rhythm, but in a much more technically demanding way (informed by the music of a particular death metal band and a particular jazz pianist). I think we’ll also see more highly advanced chamber music being performed by memory. I am curious to know how they’ll organize pitch: will it remain largely tonal or will it re-explore and re-create the 20th century’s atonality? I think history repeats itself, and since the 20th century, our taste buds have become really fickle and we seek change very quickly. Only time will tell. All in all, we teach our youth to be better than we are and usually they do end up being better. Every new generation raises the bar and Face the Music is doing it now.

For more information about the River to River Festival happening through July 15, visit: http://www.rivertorivernyc.com

For more information about Face the Music, check out this New York Times article by Allan Kozinn: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/arts/music/face-the-music-teenage-alt-classical-ensemble.html