Fresh, wild and free

The annual 12-day Festival of New American Music, at CSUS, continues to present the cutting edge of concert-hall music, free of charge

Keith Terry

Keith Terry

At the end of 2004, the year’s most important musical events will be evaluated, collated and dissected by music critics. It’s safe to assume that one of the most heralded events will be the long-delayed completion and release of Smile, a new recording of a visionary album by pop-music composer Brian Wilson, who began recording the original version of it in 1966 with collaborator Van Dyke Parks. Originally slated to be the Beach Boys’ 1967 follow-up to the previous year’s Pet Sounds, Smile got shelved in the wake of the Beach Boys’ internal dissension and Wilson’s mental and emotional breakdown.

The music on Smile still sounds fresh—indeed, shockingly so—and the album is packed with enough startling musical ideas as to come across as ahead of its time, even today.

The point is that the evolution of music—and other artistic endeavors, for that matter—is not advanced by imitating what’s currently popular. One must go out on a limb, artistically speaking, to push music into new frontiers.

And that metaphoric limb doesn’t exist just in pop music; it also can be found in serious music for the concert hall—what we often call “classical” music. And the two worlds are connected—as composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein recognized, in a “concert for young people” special televised in December 1966 on CBS, in which he featured Wilson singing the middle section of the Smile composition “Surf’s Up” while accompanying himself on piano.

The classical world also has strong conservative forces that keep innovation in check, whether those restraints come from the market or from guardians of the status quo. Nevertheless, there are intrepid souls who dare to steer music into uncharted territory, and innovation can be found if you bother to look for it.

One of the easiest places to shock your conventional ideas of what music should sound like in a concert hall is the Festival of New American Music (FeNAM), which takes place every November at California State University, Sacramento. Beginning in 1978, when Gene Savage organized a series of concerts on campus, FeNAM evolved into a nexus for composers, performers and fans who were interested in hearing something other than the latest recorded version of a Wolfgang Mozart warhorse.

Bernard Rands

Sadly, Savage died this year, in July. But FeNAM lives on, as a legacy of Savage’s forward vision and a showcase for musicians who choose to buck convention.

Sprawling over 12 days and a number of venues, most of them on the CSUS campus, FeNAM was scheduled to begin Wednesday, November 3, with a gala performance featuring guitarist Eliot Fisk, San Francisco-based ensemble Earplay, the Sun Quartet, and composers Bernard Rands and Robert Beaser.

“He writes beautiful music,” said Stephen Blumberg of Rands. Blumberg is the CSUS assistant professor of composition and one of FeNAM’s two co-directors. “It incorporates all the contemporary and avant-garde elements. His earlier music was more avant-garde, but he became more lyrical and wrote in sort of a universal voice.”

Blumberg said he is excited that Rands’ Canti Trilogy (Canti lunaciti, Canti del sole and Canti dell’eclisse), one of which won a Pulitzer Prize for music in 1984, will be performed. Rands, a British-born composer who taught at Harvard, will deliver FeNAM’s keynote address at noon on Friday, November 5. And that night, at 8 p.m., the Boston Modern Orchestra Project will offer an evening of works by Rands, which will include his Canti Trilogy.

Other composers present at FeNAM include Beaser, Jerome Begin and Kathleen Ginther, along with George Crumb, a 75-year-old West Virginia native. Crumb will perform an evening of his works on percussion, with guitarist David Starobin, soprano Tony Arnold and pianist Robert Shannon on Saturday, November 6, at 8 p.m., after giving a talk at 7 p.m. Crumb was featured at FeNAM four years ago, according to Daniel Kennedy, the CSUS instructor of percussion who serves as FeNAM’s other co-director.

If there’s a dominant instrument this year, it’s the guitar, represented by two key players. “Eliot Fisk is one of the greatest guitarists in the world,” Blumberg said, “and so is David Starobin. They’re both at the very top of contemporary guitar music and players.” Starobin has played FeNAM several times before, but Fisk is a newcomer, although he has played at CSUS. Fisk will play an 8 p.m. program of music by Beaser, Luciano Berio, William Bolcom and George Rochberg on Thursday, November 4. “A lot of people have written music specifically for him,” Blumberg said of Fisk.

“They’re both responsible for hundreds of works being written for their repertoire,” Kennedy added. “Between the two of them, they’ve really changed the repertoire, in terms of inspiring so many other composers to write for their instrument. They’ve really done a lot to expand the contemporary-music repertoire greatly. I think Starobin alone has had over 300 pieces dedicated to him. And Fisk is world-famous.”

Eclipse String Quartet

Aside from the composers, a number of performers and ensembles will be adding their interpretations of what constitutes new music. Among them is the Sacramento Experimental Music Group, which is made up of CSUS music-department faculty. That group will make its debut on Sunday, November 7, at 3 p.m. with a slate of works by Brent Chancellor, Michael Crain, Michael Dale, Shane Kalbach and Matt McFarland. Later, at 8 p.m. (which is when all evening performances begin, unless otherwise indicated), Earplay, a group of composers and musicians from San Francisco, will play works by Rands, Richard Aldag, Eric Moe, Wayne Peterson and Marc Satterwhite.

Monday evening, November 8, the CSUS Percussion Group and Keith Terry—a percussionist and dancer of whom Kennedy said, “He combines dance and movement and vocals and props and body percussion into this presentation that’s just unique”—will play works by Terry, Ross Bauer, Eric Ewazen, Mark Ford, Lukas Foss and Lou Harrison.

Tuesday evening, November 9, Pinotage—a Chicago-based quartet featuring flute, harp, viola and voice—will perform works by Ginther, Rands, Robert Lombardo, Marla Plaszynska and Elizabeth Start.

Wednesday evening, November 10, the Eclipse String Quartet from Los Angeles will play a program featuring works by Morton Feldman, Zeena Parkins, Terry Riley, Julia Wolfe and John Zorn. “They are an ensemble that is dedicated to new music; that’s really what their mission is,” Kennedy said.

Thursday evening, November 11, the CSUS Festival Ensemble, along with Curvd Aire—a local brass quintet—and the Fair Oaks Woodwind Quintet, will play works by Begin, Blumberg, Ewazen, Emma Lou Diemer, Terry Longshore and Marion O’Leary.

Friday evening, November 12, jazz pianist Kenny Werner and the CSUS Jazz Ensemble will perform works by Werner, who has played with a number of well-known jazz artists, including Charles Mingus.

Saturday evening, November 13, the CSUS Festival Ensemble will play a retrospective of works by Daniel Kingman, a local new-music composer who died in 2003.

Boston Modern Orchestra Project

The festival will conclude on Sunday, November 14, with a 3 p.m. performance by the CSUS Symphonic Wind Ensemble, conducted by Robert Halseth and featuring soprano Robin Fisher and alto saxophonist Keith Bohm, playing music by Lewis Buckley, Jim Colonna, Samuel Hazo, Jeremy Irish, John Paulson and John Williams. Later, at 7:30 p.m., at the Westminster Presbyterian Church at 1300 N Street, the Meridian Arts Ensemble will perform works by Milton Babbitt, Nick Didkovsky, Daniel Grabois, Jon Nelson and Kirk Nurock.

Many other FeNAM events take place during the day, including lectures, master classes and performances. One of the latter, by a Los Angeles-based trio called Dark Wing—which features marimba, bass and Persian percussion—takes place at noon on Wednesday, November 10. “They have their roots in world music and jazz,” Kennedy said. “They’re new to the festival this year.”

You may not recognize many of the names above. But that’s the point: to provide that kind of mind-opening experience to people, free of charge.

The FeNAM’s free-concert aspect is something that Savage spelled out in his original mission statement, back in 1978. “Some people have tried to suggest that we should charge,” Blumberg said. “But we don’t do it that way. The performing artists themselves are always saying, ‘Oh, we want to make sure we get some comps; we’ve got some friends coming,’”—which made Blumberg laugh—“and I say, ‘Um, all the concerts are free.’ It’s like it’s something we have to remind people of, and it’s great.”

The other part of that mission statement, to present new and unusual combinations of music in the concert-hall tradition, also is still very much alive, even though Savage won’t be around to experience it this year. “It still hasn’t hit me,” Kennedy said of Savage’s passing. “I didn’t really see him a lot during the year. But the day of the festival, we saw him just about every day; he was there. It just doesn’t seem possible.”

Kennedy has been director of FeNAM since 1993, when Savage passed the baton to him after 15 years of directing the festival. “He felt like he was handing it off to us,” Kennedy recalled, “but at the same time, I felt like it was still his, that we were carrying on the tradition that he started.” Blumberg came on board as co-director in 2000.

“Dan and I make a great team,” Blumberg said. “I’m a composer, he’s a percussionist, and we know a lot of people in the field.”

As for Kennedy, he still finds delight in FeNAM’s thirst for new frontiers. “We try to keep it fresh,” he said, “and look for things that are unusual and might be of interest to people who are into not only new music, but also unusual combinations—world music, things like that.”

And that should make anyone who’s enamored with the new and unusual, well, smile.