5 questions to Preston Stahly (artistic and executive director of Tribeca New Music)

The Tribeca New Music Festival is back this week with its 2014 edition: 5 concerts at The Cell from May 14 to May 18—all at 7PM. We talked to Preston Stahly (artistic and executive director of Tribeca New Music) about it…

When was the festival created? Can you tell me more about the first edition of the festival?

Back in 90s we were called the New York Art Ensemble. We had been programming pieces that didn’t fall into the usual academic “new music” slot. I was working with composers Jared Beynon and Edmund Cionek. Our music was edgy, humorous, crazy, jazzy, atonal, and minimal. (We even built a guillotine for one of the shows that featured a piece based on the Maquis de Sade… I guess it was a little obsessive… Oh well.) The audience had no idea they were going to like us so much. In fact we were interested in works that were not afraid of a wide variety of pop culture influences.

The Flea Theater sent some of their people to hear our concerts. Jim Simpson, their artistic director, asked if we would be interested in doing something at The Flea. I said, sure we’ll do a show. Jim said, how about five shows? That was the tipping point. So, we started bringing together other like-minded artists and planned out a series. We called it the Tribeca New Music Festival for two reasons. First, we were obviously in Tribeca. But second, we really wanted to reflect the downtown pop culture spirit that better characterized our approach to composing. Finally, the Flea had more of an easy, party-like atmosphere. You could have a beer or glass of wine while you watched a show. So, that fit a more “festival” kind of vibe. We programmed our own music, of course, along with music by Michael Lownstern, Todd Reynolds, Evan Ziporyn, and others.


Why this focus on pop culture influences?

Back in the day, the 70s, when I was in college, music students lived in two worlds. This was an extreme period for new music where if you were not writing atonal/serial music, you were OUT. (My favorite book about this time was From Bauhaus to Our House, by Tom Wolfe in which he describes “the colonial complex.”) For music, everything had to be Euro Modern. As students, we’d work hard all day on theory, performance, composition, ear training, harmony, orchestration, etc. Then on the weekends we’d go to a club and play jazz, rock, R&B, or something. These two worlds, academia and pop music, NEVER met. But as young musicians, we felt just as passionately about Bach as we did about the White Album. It seemed crazy that new music would exclude such a rich and vibrant pop culture spectrum. Interestingly, when I first met Jacob TV about ten years ago (we’re the same age), he said he went through the exact same kind of experience when he was studying in Holland.

The fact is, a composer cannot help but reflect his or her environment. I just felt that being honest about what resonated for me personally should be a part of my music. When I moved to NYC in the 80s, I started running into others who felt the same way.

Jazz, R&B, rock, on and on, are all American inventions. To exclude these possibilities from your palette is… dishonest. The whole of pop culture is ubiquitous. Our programming just tries to reflect music that embraces this reality.

What was the overarching idea behind the 2014 program?

Growth. As artistic director I want to keep things fresh and interesting. That’s why I’ve invited two guest curators to program their own thing this year. In light of what I said above, if we were fighting a battle to open up art music to the world of pop culture, we’ve done that. New music has exploded into a galaxy of young new artists that are embracing a full spectrum of influences. It’s really cool, actually. I can’t wait to see what will happen next.

Who will be performing this year?

First off, Sex and the City composer Douglas Cuomo partners with No Country for Old Men composer Carter Burwell, John Corigliano (Red Violin), and others to re-imagine their scores for the stage.

Second, Bang on a Can pianist Vicky Chow will do her thing with piano and electronics performing Steve Reich and others, including a world premiere by composer Florent Ghys, which includes a new video of his.

Third, violists Martha Mooke and Jessica Meyer will share a program of their own works. We’ve commissioned Martha to do a new piece that she’s called No Ordinary Window. And Jessica will be performing a set of original works including two premieres.

Fourth, Pulitzer Prize nominated composer Christopher Cerrone guest-curates a match-up concert of words and music featuring soprano Mellissa Hughes.

And finally, violinist Mary Rowell teams up with electric violinist phenom Tracy Silverman. These two monsters have put together a duo for this concert featuring works by Mary, John Adams, Nico Muhly, Terry Riley, and pieces from Tracy’s new album.
Each show is it’s own gem, and I’m looking forward to it.

You will be streaming all concerts, this year. Is it the first time for you guys? What made you think about streaming?

We have a national following, and our shows typically sell out. Since we video these shows in HD with excellent sound it seemed logical to offer ppv live streaming. We’ve experimented with it before, and we think now is a good time to put these shows out there for more people to experience. There is nothing like being there, live music is still best. But, if you can’t make it, or you’re out of town, streaming is now an option.

For more information, tickets, and streaming links, visit:

Tribeca New Music 2014 Festival
May 14-18 at 7PM
The Cell
338 W 23rd St, New York, NY 10011