Ear Taxi Festival 2016: Blowout Party!

Zoom out. The Ear Taxi Festival is (or rather, was) six days of music celebrating the contemporary classical music scene in Chicago. In more than 32 events around the city, it included more than 350 Chicago musicians, 88 Chicago composers, 54 world premieres, 5 sound installations, a colloquium from George Lewis and numerous panel discussions which ranged from the celebratory (NewMusicBox LIVE!) to advisory (‘Championing Emerging Composers’) to contemplative (‘New Music, Old Problems’). The Festival was advertised on the normal streets of Chicago with banners. It provided the national anthem at the Chicago marathon. It included a live concert on WFMT Radio, and many of its performances will subsequently be broadcast in Europe.

Zoom in. Ear Taxi’s penultimate evening–on 9th October 2016–took place at Constellation, a venue that has been vital in building the city’s flourishing new music community. This concert was a series of short pieces. It had a generally more informal atmosphere than the concerts that preceded it, and opened with the polyrhythmic textures of Gravity by Marc Mellits, performed by Third Coast Percussion and Mark himself, on two vibraphones and two marimbas.

Third Coast Percussion are one of Chicago’s most loved new music ensembles, both by audiences and their fellow musicians. This short performance made it easy to see why. They are a precise, virtuosic, and energetic ensemble whose performances are simply a lot of fun. Here, Third Coast were practically dancing along as they played, constantly communicating with one another through head bobs and sideways glances. Mellits stood back for much of the piece, but when he did finally join in at the bottom of the 5 octave marimba, the smile on his face was one of a composer who had just won the lottery. 

Third Coast Percussion-- Photo by Saverio Truglia

Third Coast Percussion– Photo by Saverio Truglia

Zoom out. As a snapshot of a new-music community that was all but non-existent a decade ago, the Ear Taxi Festival has unambiguously announced Chicago as one of the world’s great cities for new music. There are a plethora of talented and dedicated performers and composers in Chicago now, and more are flowing into Chicago each year. 

By no means was Ear Taxi an all-white, all-male affair, but we do need to keep recognising that diversity is one of the major issues facing our community–and that is as true in Chicago as it is anywhere else. For the record, it looks to me like roughly a quarter of the programmed composers were women (24/88), while perhaps a dozen (or so…) were non-white. My sense of the performers involved is only intuitive, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find more parity in terms of gender, while finding even less in terms of race. 

Zoom in. Back at Constellation, Gravity was followed by a series of experimental solos and duos. We started with Nicole Mitchell’s Wild Card for Flute and Piano. Mitchell had spoken in the aforementioned NewMusicBox LIVE! panel of music’s “endless possibilities,” and the reason she started using her voice in her music (“so they’d know a woman was there in the recordings”). The piece was as vivacious and robust as she seemed, and I only wish–though the performance was very good–that we’d gotten to hear her play it herself.

Violist Michael Hall brought us an Elegy from Marta Ptaszynska, written in memory of Pope John Paul II. The irony of bringing an elegy to a ‘blowout party’ was not lost on him, but his introduction before the piece emphasised the fond childhood memories he held from growing up down the street from (as he was then known) Karol Wojtyła. Christopher Wendell Jones’ solo work for 10-string guitar (an awesome instrument I should like to see again and often) was an extensive exploration of a single melodic line with microtonal inflections, echoes and variations. It’s 15 (or-so) minutes were performed in an unrelenting and eventually claustrophobic piano dynamic. Soprano Nina Dante then brought us an extraordinary performance of Aaron Cassidy’s short I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips, which sets three concurrent texts in a nonstop texture of cross-cutting, vocal leaps, wild vibrato and outbursts.  

The night ended with LJ White’s short quartet Zin zin zin zin. The Spektral Quartet–another of Chicago’s beloved, world-class ensembles–have been performing this piece for years. It’s recorded on their very first CD, and, as Spektral’s cellist Russel Rolen put it: It’s “in their bones now.” The music goes off like a firework, a raucous and wonderfully noisy affair, and it was a throughly fitting conclusion to such a celebratory concert. 

Fade Out. The night doesn’t actually quite end there. Instead co-curators Augusta Read Thomas and Stephen Burns get us all on our feet, and lead the entire audience through an improvisation thanking and honouring the festival’s manager Reba Cafarelli. Naturally. Where most would give flowers or a short card and say a few (forgettable) words, Augusta and Stephen are doing what they have spent three years doing here: joyfully bringing us all together to make and play together as a community of artists and friends. We head for pizza, and all of us are smiling from ear to ear.