File under: music, new

CSUS’ annual Festival of New American Music once again offers locals a chance to experience the avant-garde—often, free of charge

Cassatt String Quartet

Cassatt String Quartet

Percussion groups, using sticks and mallets to play a propulsive, hard-driving array of drums, bells and blocks.

Spooky, almost otherworldly sounds based on a non-standard tuning system designed by a mid-20th-century American composer—one whose idiosyncratic music is attracting a growing number of followers, more than a quarter-century after his death.

Conventional lineups like a string quartet, but ones that deploy the classic combination of cello, viola and two violins in service of edgy, adventuresome scores freshly written on this continent rather than on European works from the 18th or 19th centuries.

Talujon Percussion Quartet

A new theater piece written by a local composer, based on a tragic arson fire in a circus tent that killed 168 people—mostly women and children—some 50 years ago.

And large-scale arrangements for brass—as well as talks about brass—from a composer who loves instruments with metal mouthpieces.

These are some of the offerings in the Festival of New American Music, a sprawling, 12-day series of events—almost all of them free—organized through CSU Sacramento, which will take place in venues all over town.

Trying to give a thumbnail description of this diverse festival is a little like trying to summarize the animal kingdom after a brief visit to the Sacramento Zoo. The variety doesn’t lend itself to a short, easy phrase. But the critical terms are found in the festival’s name: “new” and “American.” And as “new” now includes the 21st century, and “American” comes to embrace instruments and styles from all over the world, the festival’s range has become very expansive indeed.

Just Strings

Below we’ve listed some highlights. All the events mentioned are free; all of them will be held in the CSUS Music Recital Hall.Talujon Percussion Quartet, with CSUS Percussion group, 8 p.m. Monday, November 12. “There’s a visual aspect to a percussion concert, as well as the music itself. It’s very physical, almost acrobatic,” says Dan Kennedy, who teaches percussion at CSUS. “You have a stage filled with instruments, some recognizable and some unusual, some Western and some non-Western. There are also ‘found’ instruments like brake drums and billie cans—some people might call them ‘junk.’ ” Talujon—a tight-knit professional ensemble from New York—will be doing a percussion suite by Lou Harrison, the 84-year-old dean of West Coast composers, who helped pioneer percussion music back in the 1940s, when Harrison was a hot young turk on the New York scene. (Harrison once told this reporter: “Back then, organizing a percussion concert was a great, inexpensive way to get yourself noticed as a composer.”) Talujon will also play a new work, Dividing Time by Steven Ricks, and the group’s own composition, Fear of Dancing, in addition to collaborations with Kennedy’s CSUS group.

Just Strings, 8 p.m. Tuesday, November 13. This string group uses an alternate tuning system that produces acoustically pure intervals, resulting in music that can sound both sweeter and more dissonant than music from the standard Western tuning. The program will focus entirely on music written by Harry Partch, the now legendary, self-taught California composer. Partch lived as a hobo as a young man. Then, while working as a lumberjack at age 42, Partch won a Guggenheim award that allowed him to move to the Mendocino County coastline, where he began inventing his own musical world—creating his own musical instruments with names like the “marimba erotica.” Partch wrote a string of avant-garde works between the 1940s and his death in 1974. His idiosyncratic compositions—with titles like On the Seventh Day, Petals Fell in Petaluma—have an internal logic and integrity that are still winning him new listeners. The last few years have seen all of Partch’s recordings reissued, as well as new biographies, and retrospective documentaries from the BBC and other international media. This concert will be a rare local opportunity to venture into Partch’s unique musical realm.

Music Now, 8 p.m. Saturday, November 10. This program features The History Lesson, a brand-new theater piece by Nevada County composer Howard Hersh, a former music director of Berkeley FM station KPFA. Actually, it’s a collaboration that includes poetry written by the composer’s daughter Francesca Hersh, a recent graduate from the creative writing program at UC Santa Cruz, and the award-winning Nevada Union High School Chamber Choir. “It’s about the 1944 fire that destroyed the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey big top in Hartford, Connecticut,” Hersh explains. “One hundred sixty-eight people died, a lot of them women and children, because most of the men were off serving in the armed forces. The fire was deliberately set. It was a major national disaster, though because it was wartime, people were dealing with death on a daily basis. The piece uses music and poetry to address some pretty tough issues, but there’s something about putting it in the context of music and poetry that has a built-in sense of consolation.” Hersh adds, “This is the first time that the festival has crossed over into doing a theatrically staged work.”

Several compositions on different programs by composer Eric Ewazen, including his Symphony in Brass, at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, November 18. Born in 1954, Ewazen has earned a reputation for his brass compositions, but has recently branched out into percussion music as well. Two compact discs of his brass music have been released. Ewazen has been on the faculty of the Juilliard School in New York for the past 20 years.

Howard Hersh

New guests include contemporary music specialist and guitarist Seth Josel, who studied at the Manhattan School of Music and Yale, and now lives in Cologne (8 p.m. Saturday, November 17.)

Other selected events

The Core Ensemble, a piano/cello/percussion trio performing works by UC Davis composer Pablo Ortiz and others (8 p.m. Monday, November 12.)

Jazz trumpeter Mike Vax, veteran of recording sessions with such greats as Stan Kenton, Clark Terry and Art Pepper. He will appear with the CSUS Jazz Ensemble (8 p.m. Friday, November 9.)

Returning guests include the Dorian Wind Quintet, a group that is marking its 40th anniversary this year. The concert will feature George Perle’s Pulitzer Prize-winning quintet from 1986, commissioned by the Dorian. (8 p.m. Thursday, November.)

Also, the Cassatt String Quartet, which features women from Japan, Canada and the U.S., in a performance of contemporary works (8 p.m. Wednesday, November 14) and the New York New Music Ensemble, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year (8 p.m. Friday, November 16).

And finally, for the kids, there will be an “Instrument Petting Zoo” (10:30 a.m. Tuesday, November 13).

(For a complete online schedule of events in the Festival of New American Music, including master classes, lectures, go to