A group of musicians sat in a ring of chairs in the old Trunk Space’s parking lot. It was an unusually hot February day to sit outside and play music for more than an hour, but that’s exactly what the ensemble did. As bewildered foot traffic and motorists passed by on Grand Avenue, the ensemble played Terry Riley’s hypnotic “In C.” They played the kind of instruments you’d expect to see in concert halls; instead of an orchestral pit or heavy curtains, though, their stringed instruments and sheet music were surrounded by chain-link fences and asphalt.
Short fragments of melody looped in our ears, almost as ethereal and insubstantial as the rays of sunlight baking us as we, the small but devoted audience, stayed outside to immerse ourselves in it. Immerse is the right word: You don’t really listen to a piece of music like “In C” so much as you sink into it, wallow in it, and let it float in your consciousness for a while like a body on salt water.
That hour-long performance of “In C” was the opening performance of the first annual “Oh My God! My Body! My Ears!” marathon concert in 2014. Organized by composer Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer, the concert was a ten-hour showcase of “new music.” If you’re wondering what constitutes “new music,” you’re not alone.
“'New music' is a vague term for a reason,” Bayer tells us as we talked to her about this year’s fourth annual OME Marathon Concert. “Best way I can describe it is music that has academic roots — but people that usually perform in our shows don’t have to have degrees.”
“New music” is a strain of music that the music critic Kyle Gann (whose book Music Downtown is essential reading) used to call “Downtown music.” It was classical music that was liberated from the concert hall and the academy, that prized playfulness and experimentation over polishing the bones of old masters — music that was complex and occasionally “difficult” but also strived to have conversations with the outside world.
The influence of “new music” can be seen all over rock music: It would be impossible to imagine Sonic Youth’s warped guitar tunings without the prepared piano work of John Cage or the mass-tuned guitar armies of Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham. The Velvet Underground’s sinister drones wouldn’t have existed without the band’s association with avant-garde composers like Tony Conrad and La Monte Young. David Bowie’s astonishing “Berlin Trilogy” would have been radically different without Brian Eno’s ambient soundscapes and Robert Fripp’s looping guitars, both musicians taking their approaches from groundbreaking new music artists like Steve Reich. Groups like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Rachel’s, and 90 percent of most noise bands wouldn’t be what they are without the thumbprints of new music on their imaginations.
New music’s continued relevance is one of the reasons why a series like the OME Marathon Concerts have been able to grow in size over the years, transitioning from smaller spaces like the Trunk Space to the Mesa Arts Center.
“The concert settings are more familiar, the sounds are more familiar. Think of your favorite band — this is the shit they listen to,” Bayer said.
Arizona is an unusually fertile hotbed for this kind of music. PVCC puts on an annual Experimental Arts Festival (this year’s fest happens on Saturday, February 11) that plays “classic” cutting-edge works by composers like Xenakis along with locals playing stunning three-piece works on toy pianos. Last year, the Experimental Arts Festival set up a theremin in the lobby, connected to a chain of pedals, and invited audience members to experiment with the touch-free instrument for as long as they liked. It’s that kind of D.I.Y., “everyone is welcome to play” spirit that separates new music from the cloistered world of classical music.
Composer Jacob Adler puts on an annual Otoacoustic Emissions concert on Halloween night at St. Augustine’s in Tempe. Clocking in at more than an hour, Adler and an ensemble of musicians drawn from the community (including OME’s Bayer) play a droning composition that grows so loud in intensity and power inside the church that it feels like the heavens themselves are crashing down. There are also other active new music ensembles in town like Pincushioned and the Driftwood Quintet that tour the country and regularly perform at university events and venues like the Nash.
While local educational institutions provide much of the backing and talent for the Valley’s new music, Bayer and her OME partner Michael Ferraro have proudly kept OME running as an independent organization. The pair says that not being tied to an institution frees them to book performers and ensembles that don’t have an academic pedigree.
That isn’t to say that their nonprofit organization is averse to collaboration. Ferraro, a recent ASU graduate with a master’s degree in music education, has used his ties to the ASU community to help put together combination shows, including a recent ASU concert in November where OME played original works alongside compositions by venerable masters like George Handel.
The university is also donating a number of Ableton Pushes (an $800 electronic music composition tool) to this year’s OME Marathon for an audience participation event.
“At last year’s marathon, we had an open call for people to submit sound clips to our website,” Bayer says. “And then Josh Bennet, who performs as Black Air, took these clips and used them to create a new piece for that marathon. This year, we’ve gone further with that idea. All our audience submissions will be available on a sound pad and an army of Ableton Pushes that will be available for audience members to use to make new songs out of each other’s materials. And then you can send those songs to our Soundcloud and hear the music that other audience members are making.”
This kind of interactivity has long been a hallmark of OME events. The organization has also hosted “Musical Maps” events, where audience members are given paper and drawing implements and are encouraged to sketch what they see and feel while listening to a live ensemble play. “It’s interesting afterward to see how other people respond to the music,” Bayer muses. “This one time, my friend and I drew a ridiculously similar picture — we even had a blue circle on the same spot on our pages!”
Happening on Saturday, January 28, this year’s OME marathon will feature a guest composer from Los Angeles: Jason Barabba. Bayer and Ferraro invite a different composer every year to not only feature some of their works but to help them program the event.
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“We try not to just pick artists that we like, but work with the aim of creating a diverse program,” Bayer explained. “We want to bring in music that’s new to us, not just stuff that we like.”
When asked if she had any advice for anyone looking to start their own ensembles and festivals, Bayer advised being prudent. “Do not expand outside of your current operation’s abilities. It’s okay to expand slowly. You can take risks, just don’t take $5,000 risks and hope that you get a grant to cover it!”
It’s a lesson that Bayer learned the hard way. “After we did the first marathon, I e-mailed a composer that I really liked: Jay Batzner. I invited him to the next one: ‘Oh, we’ll fly you down.’ But we didn’t get any of the grants we thought we were going to get. But he flew down anyway. This is someone in their 40s, who been composing for a long time, who’s like ‘No, this is awesome.’ He slept on an air mattress that I had. I was totally not prepared, but he was fine with it. Just having someone who’s been composing for a long time to tell you to keep you going was really encouraging.”
The fourth annual OME Marathon is scheduled to happen from noon to 10 p.m. on Saturday, January 28, at Mesa Arts Center.