Notes from the underground

FeNAM rising: Sacramento’s Festival of New American Music has become the showcase for a whole generation of composers and performers who produce experimental music.

Behind the scenes, every event needs orchestrators: Gene Savage.

Behind the scenes, every event needs orchestrators: Gene Savage.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Music, like beauty, is in the ear of the beholder.

On a recent October afternoon, Daniel Kennedy and Stephen Blumberg sat at a picnic table on a patio on the California State University Sacramento campus. Both Kennedy and Blumberg teach music at CSUS. And, on this day, they were talking about what their trained ears have beheld.

For the past 10 years, Kennedy, a tall man in his 40s with a quiet but slightly bemused mien, has directed the Festival of New American Music (FeNAM). The 12-night, 11-day event takes place every November—much of it on campus inside Capistrano Hall, which is the university’s music building. Other events take place around Sacramento at various high schools and in sundry venues. With the exception of one event at the Crocker Art Museum, everything is free of charge.The music played at the festival may come from the classical-music tradition, but much of it sounds unlike the music many people consider “classical.” For example, on a recent Wednesday night inside one of Capistrano Hall’s third-floor band rooms, a chamber group gathered to rehearse “Sextant,” an eight-minute piece Blumberg composed a decade ago and, on this night, was conducting with a baton. While the piano marked time with block chords, a percussionist carried the figure by working his mallets across a combination of vibraphone, marimba and concert toms. Meanwhile, a viola player and a cellist built tension by scraping the strings, colliding in odd, dissonant sonorities; a bass clarinetist foraged around underneath, laying down deep, woody tones; and a flutist played high, fluttery notes that bounced around the room. The six players sounded like they were hesitantly crawling through a dusty attic together while a gray autumn storm rumbled overhead, clattering leaves hard against the roof. This particular Blumberg piece will not be performed at FeNAM, but another will: the first movement of a recent work of Blumberg’s entitled “Old Maps for the New World.”

Blumberg, like Kennedy, is in his 40s. When he talks, he comes across as more intense and animated than Kennedy; he also has a charming off-speed delivery not unlike that of a stand-up comedian. The New York-born composer grew up in the garlic capital of Gilroy. He has taught at CSUS since 1995 and has helped to shape the festival’s direction since 2000, when he became its co-director.

When the afternoon conversation shifted to something called “deep listening,” Blumberg brought up Pauline Oliveros, a composer who appeared at the festival in 1996. Oliveros developed and named the concept of deep listening—when the listener absorbs sounds intently by using the inner as well as the outer ear, a technique similar to meditation.

“It’s really being present and listening to whatever arises, and that we make it music,” Blumberg explained. “Pauline and Robert Erickson, who was her teacher at UC San Diego, used to go out to the electric company and just listen to these machines generate electricity. They loved the sound.”

Apparently, so does Blumberg. “I’ve sat in the laundromat and listened to clothes spinning around in the dryer,” he said. “And sometimes, you get these incredible rhythmic solos and things, and you kinda go, ‘Ah, this machine is making this music. No, I’m making this because I’m hearing it that way.’ And so, it’s like you can hear that and create music by creating a framework for it.”

“And then remembering not to label it,” Kennedy added. “Not to say, ‘Oh, that’s a good sound’ or ‘That’s a bad sound,’ because then you’ve limited yourself. Like the sound of that drone over there.” Kennedy gestured toward the nebulous source of an electrical hum. “Actually, that’s annoying,” he said. “Then again, if you really listen to it, it’s a pretty cool sound.”

And when that electrical hum or the sound of clothes spinning in a dryer is replicated onstage by a string quartet in front of an audience, some might say it’s even cooler.

A week after that conversation, a four-piece percussion group, with a fifth man conducting, assembled in Capistrano Hall’s third-floor percussion room one afternoon to rehearse “Simfony #13.” The work was composed by Lou Harrison in 1941, who then misplaced the score he’d written in his Aptos barn—for 50 years. The group will perform “Simfony #13” at FeNAM and also at Sheldon High School in Elk Grove, at one of FeNAM’s many outreach concerts. As a hand drummer worked the concert toms, two players clacked away on tuned blocks, one of them also making old brake drums ring while the other finessed a set of large Austrian cowbells. Over that racket, a fourth player alternated between cymbal, Balinese gong, triangle and a No. 10 can of chili beans. The net effect sounded like a Nonesuch Explorer Series field recording of Santa’s elves performing some obscure pagan ritual.

Kennedy observed the scene from a corner of the room and smiled at the rhythmic beauty emerging from “found” junkyard instruments, one of many surprises awaiting intrepid music fans in the days and nights that follow.

FeNAM began in 1978 when Gene Savage, a now-retired music professor at CSUS, noticed that contemporary composers and performers were not being served very well by the classical-music establishment.

Savage came up with a mission statement for the festival that, according to Kennedy, would aspire to bring serious music written by contemporary composers to culture-hungry Sacramento audiences. “Gene felt like Sacramento was really ready,” Kennedy said.

Behind the scenes, every event needs orchestrators: Stephen Blumberg (left) and Dan Kennedy.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“It’s interesting what wasn’t going on in Sacramento at the time,” Savage said during a recent interview. Then, in the late 1970s, Sacramento had a symphony that performed six concerts, with nothing scheduled for November. UC Davis and UC Berkeley, two Northern California bastions of academia, had music departments but didn’t have a lot going on. CSUS had Dan Kingman, an active composer who later became the conductor of the Camellia Symphony; and Ron Holloway, the university’s percussion ensemble director. “But, by and large,” Savage said, “there just was not a lot of 20th-century music—and certainly not a lot of contemporary music.”

Savage was exposed to the music of living composers while attending the University of Colorado in the early 1960s. “I had gotten interested in contemporary music—music of my own time—when I was a graduate student,” he said. Composer George Crumb was there, as was pianist David Burge, who premiered Crumb’s “Five Pieces for Piano” at the university in 1962.

A few years later, Savage taught at the University of Evansville in Indiana, where he ran a festival of the contemporary arts and fine arts after the original promoter had died. Then, Savage came to Sacramento.

In what appears to be synchronicity, the Kronos Quartet had been in residence in New York and found the weather too cold, so it moved to San Francisco. The modern chamber-music group, formed in Seattle in 1973, would become one of contemporary classical music’s leading attractions by the 1990s. Savage had read about the group and had heard composer and jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin playing at a festival at Stanford University a few years earlier. Then, Savage got a letter from Burge, who said, “I’ve got some money from the National Endowment for the Arts, and I’m putting together a tour. Would you like a concert?” When Savage responded that he had no funds, Burge offered his services to fit Savage’s limited budget.

“So I began,” Savage recalled. “I had no credentials in fund-raising. I made the loop at the university: ‘No, we don’t have any money.’ ‘No.’ ‘No.’ About the time I went back around the second time, at least they saw that there was some seriousness to the effort, so they arranged for the Alumni Association to pop for $600.”

That had the same effect a busking musician tries to get when he puts a few of his own dollars into his hat. “Once you get one little grant, you can get a little more money and a little more money,” Savage said. “And our first budget was something like $2,800. With that, we got a concert by David Burge, and the Kronos Quartet came up, and Denny Zeitlin came up, and Robert Commanday—who, at that time, was the classical-music critic at the San Francisco Chronicle—came up to give an opening lecture. We house-produced the whole thing. We had faculty contributions, we had student contributions, we got people from the schools to come in to various things because we knew we had to bring them in to make it work. And that was how it got going the first year.”

The nascent festival took an enormous amount of effort to pull off, and Savage wasn’t so sure he was up for a reprise the following year. “Honestly, the first thing you do is say, ‘I’m never going to do this again,’ ” he said.

What made Savage reconsider was that he had stopped playing public concerts, and his piano students needed to hear professional musicians playing contemporary music. “I was no longer a role model for them,” he said, “and there weren’t visiting artists coming in. So I realized that it was ridiculous to expect the students to become interested in playing a certain kind of music that they were not hearing professionals play.”

By 1980, when CSUS students who had played the festival won awards in all three categories in the Rockefeller Foundation Kennedy Center New Music Competition, FeNAM was on the map. Bradford Gowan won the piano competition, Curtis Macomber got second place in the violin category, and baritone Sanford Sylvan scored in the vocal competition.

A little recognition was all Savage needed. “What happens is that composers don’t have enough venues to satisfy them, nor do the performing groups that specialize,” he said. “So they were happy to come. In some cases, we had people come for no fee; they would cover it with a grant they had, sort of like David Burge did.”

The festival began to pick up support during its first five years. The California Arts Council came on board, then the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and then the National Endowment for the Arts. “Not big grants,” Savage said. “Our first grant from National Endowment probably started at $2,000, and I think it maxed out at $5,000 for us.” The festival also got considerable support from CSUS, along with plenty of in-kind contributions, and members of the music-department staff volunteered their time and energy to make it happen.

“All things were pretty much in place, in terms of faculty performances, student performances, visiting artists and lectures,” Savage said. “The things we added to it were some meet-the-composer events and then a very successful event where high-school students auditioned for recital.”

The vision Savage put forward was simple: Audiences should be able to hear music written by living composers, in a concert-hall setting, free of charge. “In the history of music,” he said, “if you go back to so-called classical—that’s the identifying term—composers like Mozart and Beethoven, they wrote pieces for audiences in their own time. As did Liszt. And music lost that connection in a way that, for example, film has not; people go to see what film was made this year.”

Savage recalled that a former colleague named Rod Whitaker, who wrote such novels as The Eiger Sanction under the nom de plume Trevanian, always told Savage that what the arts needed to ensure future success were small local productions, using local talent and geared toward a local audience. Whitaker was talking about theater, but his maxim applied to music, too. “If we were going to have what I wanted to have,” Savage realized, “we would have to produce it ourselves.”

You call them brake drums. Composer Lou Harrison would call them fine percussion instruments.

Photo by Larry Dalton

It seems strange that, with such emphasis placed on novelty in the arts, serious music would be so resistant to change. Even pop music thrives on constant flux. But music for the concert hall, until recent years, has been an anomaly, somewhat of a dead composer’s society.

Walk into the classical-music section of even a deep-catalog record store, and most of the compact discs you’ll find will be war horses—plenty of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart; plus such Romantic favorites as Debussy and Ravel; and such 20th-century names as Stravinsky, Ives, Copland and Schoenberg.

A few of the more modern composers, typically from the minimalist stream, will be represented, usually if the store also has a decent amount of textural electronic CDs on hand. Works by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, which weave together recurring, threadlike musical motifs into dense tapestries of sound, can be found in quantity. So can works by such composers as John Adams, Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki and Aaron Jay Kernis (who played the festival in 1998), all of whose compositions can be appreciated by mainstream listeners. Discs by such minimalist pioneers as LaMonte Young and Terry Riley are usually harder to find or frequently go out of print. And a sizable number of active composers—along with modern-era composers whose works are too challenging for listeners not well-versed in advanced concepts of musical theory—are lucky to be represented at all.

Part of this has to do with certain aspects of modern merchandising, such as offering a limited inventory of choices while pushing the illusion that those choices constitute a broad spectrum. Call it managed diversity. In this milieu, a couple of Philip Glass titles among the smartly packaged “Mozart is for thinking” and “Bach is for relaxation” CDs, with the latest teenaged violin-crossover phenomenon tossed in for good measure, makes for a solid classical-music section.

Savage said other factors contributed to the problems affecting contemporary classical music’s continued acceptance. He mentioned Proposition 13, the historic property-tax rollback that passed, in a twist of irony, in June of 1978, five months before Savage staged his first FeNAM. Its effects would not be felt for a few years, but, by the 1980s, high-school band and music programs across California started getting axed after the school districts’ tax revenues began drying up. Over time, there were far fewer kids coming out of the public-school system with any kind of deep musical knowledge or appetite for serious music, and certain genres—jazz and classical, in particular—suffered as a result.

In addition, the success of music retail, along with the consolidation of dozens of independent record companies into five multinational conglomerates in a period of two decades, favored big sellers over esoteric, difficult-to-grasp composers. And, when hard times hit the music business in the late 1990s, the big labels’ classical divisions suffered big cutbacks.

Fortunately, a network of composers, players, schools, venues and smaller independent record companies was there to fill the vacuum, and FeNAM is a part of that. “The longevity of this festival is amazing,” Savage said. “I did it for 10 years, and then I realized that it takes an enormous amount of work.”

When Savage decided to step down after the 1992 FeNAM, he figured his festival might retire with him. That might have been the case if it hadn’t been for Dan Kennedy, perhaps a case of the right person being in the right place at the right time. Kennedy, Savage said, had played with all sorts of new music groups—such as New York’s illustrious Bang on a Can ensemble and various others in the Netherlands.

Kennedy likes to joke that he has never written a note of music in his life. He grew up in upstate New York and always had an affinity for the kind of music the festival champions. “When I was in school,” he said, “I was playing contemporary music. That’s what avant-garde music was. But if you say ‘contemporary music’ to general audiences, they think ‘contemporary popular music.’ It’s hard to use that term anymore.”

Through his involvement in new-music circles, Kennedy already knew about FeNAM. When he landed at CSUS in 1991, he began teaching music-appreciation courses; two weeks later, a percussionist director who had been at the university for 26 years suddenly announced his retirement. “An hour later,” Kennedy said, “I was in the music office, telling them I wanted to apply for the job.” In the process of applying and auditioning, the department learned about Kennedy’s longtime ties to and deep knowledge of contemporary music. When Savage announced his retirement the following year, and the music department began casting about for someone to run FeNAM, Kennedy was ready.

What Kennedy walked into was a well-organized situation; Savage had set up most of the support system, which included the university, private donors and a network of arts grants.

Kennedy and Blumberg are planning next year’s event already, but they won’t start inviting acts until February. “But fund-raising is year-round,” Kennedy said. “The deadlines are various times throughout the year.” When the logistics are taken care of, then Kennedy and Blumberg can concentrate on the music.

Kennedy and Blumberg are the kinds of guys who don’t mind explaining the difference between uptown and downtown music. Uptown means serialism, which, in a nutshell, is a compositional technique where 12-tone music—think the sounds produced by the white and black keys on a piano—are ordered in rows, and the relationships between the pitches, intervals, rhythmic pulses and spatial elements are governed by an overarching pattern. Because it isn’t locked into any one key, serialism makes for seriously academic music, the concert-hall equivalent of math rock, or King Crimson-style progressive rock. But, in the hands of such composers as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and later Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen, serialism became a handy tool for dismantling any lingering onus of classicism.

If uptown is Robert Fripp, downtown is more like Sonic Youth: feedback, weird guitar tunings and a sense that anything is possible. As Kennedy put it, “Downtown is music that is less academically inspired; it might have more rock influences.” FeNAM, despite its academic connection, seems to be a little closer to downtown than uptown in its openness toward experimentation and its embrace of composers who broke away from academic strictures to pursue a more maverick path.

Part of the score for Lou Harrison’s “Simfony #13,” and some tuned wooden blocks.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“Sometimes the composed music involves improvisation, sometimes it involves world-music influences, sometimes it involves a lot of jazz and electronic influences and things like that. And I think now, more than ever, there’s not a single modernist style, there’s not even a single postmodernist style. Everybody’s got—I mean, they’re talking about post-minimalism now,” he said, laughing. “All of this stuff is just kind of coexisting now. They’re different traditions, simultaneously.”

That may be confusing and intimidating to the average person. Kennedy realizes that some of the music offered at FeNAM can be quite challenging to listen to. “Not all of it is, but some is,” he said. “And I can’t blame some of my students for feeling that way, when they’ve grown up listening to, well, turn on the radio. You hardly ever hear new American music on the radio. So, the music deserves an enormous amount of recognition, but it doesn’t have the market behind it to promote it, the kind of market that drives popular music.”

“I had a teacher who used to call it ‘unpopular music,’ ” Blumberg joked.

“Music for the non-masses, I guess,” Kennedy admitted. “But it’s incredibly important, and that’s part of the mission: to make it available to everyone.”

The challenge is to do that on a budget of $80,000, three-quarters of which will be spent on the performers. It’s the reason the Kronos Quartet opts for the Mondavi Center instead of FeNAM now when the quartet’s tours bring it through Sacramento, and it’s why bringing in Laurie Anderson didn’t quite make it past the nice-idea stage. When you’ve got $60,000 to spread over 11 days and 12 nights of music, it’s foolish to blow it all on a couple of star performers at the expense of the rest of your program. Of what’s left over, not much of it is spent on publicity, so word-of-mouth really has helped; Kennedy cited longtime Sacramento Bee culture writer William Glackin as someone who consistently has supported FeNAM for its 25 years.

Another fan was Marc Weidenbaum, who lived in Sacramento in the late 1980s to mid-1990s. When the former senior editor of Tower Records’ Pulse! Magazine lived here, he made it a point to go to FeNAM whenever he could. “It was the highlight of my year, culturally speaking,” he said. “I could drive to San Francisco, but there was something really special about this event that happened in Sacramento.”

Weidenbaum’s bailiwick was and still is serious music, from contemporary classical and avant-garde jazz to all things electronic, including hip-hop. Now, he lives in New Orleans, where he writes about electronic music. His Web site,, contains some of the more intelligent writing on textural music to be found on the Internet. He recalled seeing Pauline Oliveros perform a composition under the State Capitol rotunda a few years ago. “It was [expletive deleted] amazing,” he enthused, remarking on how Oliveros used the building’s acoustic space to shape her piece. “It was more like public sculpture than anything composed.”

Other composers he remembered seeing at FeNAM were Lou Harrison and Terry Riley—“they have a wonderful Northwest sentiment in their music,” he said—along with John Adams. “Not the John Adams,” he insisted, “but someone named John Luther Adams is the thing that really sticks in my mind. He’d written and performed a spatial music composition in quadraphonic sound about the Arctic.”

Weidenbaum was relieved to hear that the festival is still a going concern. “There’s no overstating the importance of the festival,” he said. “I think that the music [FeNAM presents] is very much the modern classical music, the bridge between early futurists and the contemporary electronic movement.”

What does this year’s FeNAM promise? The festival opened with a gala at the Sterling Hotel (held last night, November 6) and will close with a concert at the Crest Theatre on Sunday, November 17, with the pioneering minimalist composer Terry Riley, who was born in Colfax, Placer County.

Composer Joan Tower will deliver the keynote address, “Choreographing Sound,” at noon on Monday, November 11. “We’ve been talking about her for a couple of years,” Kennedy said; he was familiar with her chamber works, having played a lot of them because many of them contain a part for percussion. Tower was a founding member of important New York new-music chamber ensemble the Da Capo Players; she played piano for its first 15 years. She also won a Grawemeyer Award. Her piece Fascinating Ribbons, whimsically riffing from a Gershwin platform, will be performed by the CSUS Symphonic Wind Ensemble on Sunday, November 10.

Other guest artists include guitarist and electronic composer Paul Drescher, flutist and composer Robert Dick, pianist Lara Downes, percussionist Glen Velez and pianist-composer Anthony Davis—who has written operas based on the characters Malcolm X and Patricia “Tania” Hearst, among others. Additionally, the festival features the piano trio Triple Helix, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players—of which Kennedy is a performing member—and more. And there’s even room for a No Depression-style country-rock band, the Trailer Park Rangers, to play a free lunch concert on Wednesday, November 13. Blumberg is an admitted fan of Wilco, one of the more experimental bands in that genre.

One of the more novel and experimental parts of the festival is a multi-media event on Saturday, November 9, when the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the U.S. will perform works that involve tying ensemble playing to computer animation. During the days, a number of master classes—sessions in which a piece is performed and then sections from it are explained and discussed—in addition to workshops and composers’ forums will take place, along with performances at the college. (A full listing of the events is available at events/fenam2002.html.)

As FeNAM is pointed toward the future, Kennedy and Blumberg are naturally situated to observe where music is going. Blumberg sees a return away from experimentalism toward more familiar forms—neo-romanticism, he said, mentioning young composer Aaron Jay Kernis. “You have to welcome audiences back in with sounds that are warm and inviting, and not just sharp and dissonant,” Blumberg said. “But dissonance has always been in the ear of the beholder.”

“And that always varies from culture to culture,” Kennedy said. “It’s so hard to predict things because, as human beings, we tend to use what we know in the present as a model for the future, and it doesn’t really hold. If, 200 years ago, you would have asked somebody what the future of transportation would be, they would probably say, ‘Really big carriages, with 20 horses.’ So they’re using what they know and thinking bigger, not having any concept of jets and who knows what else.

“Music is kind of the same way,” he added. “Regardless of where it goes, there will still be the love of playing an instrument, just grabbing a guitar or a clarinet or a drum and playing, or singing. Even if music goes more and more electronic, or who knows what other technology will be there. But, regardless of that, there will always be that love of grabbing an instrument and playing it, just for the sake of doing it. And I’m confident that that will never fall out of use—regardless of what happens.”