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"It's something I've wanted to do for a while," says Minnesota Contemporary Ensemble director Duane Schulthess: "going into a very loud, resonant space and doing a bunch of really loud music."
Welcome to The Loud Concert, the latest edition of the MCE's annual Weisman Gallery Crawl. The Ensemble, usually numbering a dozen, has been pumped up to twenty-one players for this year's Crawl, appropriating personnel from the Motion Poets, the Wolverines Big Band, and the Vienna Sax Quartet. "A lot of bodies, a lot of noise," Schulthess promises.
Among the bodies is Australian-born percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson. The MCE first encountered the San Diego-based musician in the Loring Bar, where she performed the compositions of fellow San Diegan Eric Griswold last year. "We were blown away by Vanessa's stage presence and her performing ability," says Schulthess. Besides playing one of the two percussion parts in Leonard Bernstein's Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, Tomlinson will also present an arrangement--now stay with me, here--of a short film piece from the 1930s, by the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, "where she has to yell and talk and scream and accompany herself on percussion," says Schulthess, looking like a kid who just packed a spitball into the end of a straw.
He looks like that a lot, actually. He uses words like "hilarious" and "a lot of fun" more than any "classical" musician I know. "A little less brow-and-scowl," he promises, "and a little more smile."
The Weisman Crawl, in which the MCE programs different pieces throughout the museum and the audience moves from space to space to hear them, has struck a resonant chord among an atypical demographic. "The first show we did there was jam-packed," says Schulthess, "and it was a great, bizarre, wild mix of people--not just the clove-smoking, black-wearing, funky-hat art-house crowd, but a real mix, including kids."
Schulthess takes this success as confirmation that the conventional wisdom about new music is more conventional than wise.
"When I moved here," he remembers, "the common theory was, you can do a concert at the Walker Art Center, and you'll get seventy people at most--that's a good new-music audience. But I remember telling people, 'We're going to get over 200, 300 people at these concerts,' and people just laughing and shaking their heads. But the first concert we did at the Walker we had 200-plus people."
The Ensemble grew this audience themselves, initially, with a lot of pavement-pounding and pamphleteering. Fear of new music among classical concert-goers, and of serious music generally among everyone else, leaves groups like MCE--devoted to living music by living composers--with a lot of reassuring to do. "Contemporary music does not have to be some mock-intellectual ya-ya stuff," Schulthess says.
Dale Warland Singers' audiences--one group that regularly hears a lot of new music with no ill effects--have already encountered the work of Stockholm-based composer Sven David Sandstrøm--the DWS presented his emotional Agnus Dei in one of their "Cathedral Classics" concerts. Sandstrøm's brass quartet Heavy Metal, part of the "loud" lineup, is a very different outing: short, repeating patterns hypnotically recombine and realign like an auditory kaleidoscope, making aggressive dissonance and rhythmic drive as much fun as they are in the pop form from which the piece takes its name. No, this piece is not "Headbanger's Ball" material, but it could be, if MTV were cool.
In fact, the border between serious and pop music has always been porous. It's been seventy-four years since George Gershwin "made a lady of jazz" with Rhapsody in Blue, and many composers of the last two or three generations had contact with jazz while it was still essentially a pop form. Now, in the fifth decade of the rock era, its hard to find young musicians without at least some rock and roll in the soul.
"The fact is," says Schulthess, "most of us grew up listening to rock and roll. I listened to Led Zeppelin a long time before I listened to Mozart. I played bass in a punk band in high school--I didn't play in an orchestra."
Thus began the wooing of Lady Loud, who bestows her blessings daily on us all. As much as we seek refuge from her, she can be herself a refuge of sorts. In an old Peanuts cartoon, Linus discovers that he is unable to hear Lucy while eating toast, because the crunching echoes inside his head, drowning her out. "Eating toast," he realizes, "is like going on vacation." In the age of the short attention span, with so much competition for our full-and-undivided, Lady Loud may be an object of contemplation, a sound-mandala, a Club Med for the mind.
Scott Robinson writes frequently about music for many local publications.