Thursday, October 13, 2011

SONiC Boom

            I was talking to someone over Facebook a while ago when they sent me a video. It was called “Epic Rap Battles of History.” Expecting to see some sort of weird, cell phone-filmed video, I reluctantly clicked on it. Suddenly, a guy dressed up as Beethoven was being filmed by a high quality camera, rapping against some other guy dressed up as Justin Beiber. Oh god.
            This story technically doesn’t directly have to do with anything I’m about to talk about, but it illustrates an important idea—even in a world where the only classical music stars recognized by the general public seem to be violinists with excessive make up or child prodigies seen on the Today Show, “the composer” is a valid pop culture figure. Whether they show up in 1 million-hit YouTube videos or on shirts with a picture of Beethoven DJ-ing that say “Old School Beats,” composers from this era have become images reproduced by millions. “Where is this now?” we might ask ourselves. However, this era where “the composer” is as eminent as the classics are now might be recycling itself. Maybe in a few years, tee-shirts will be screen printed with pictures of Muhly or Luther Adams, saying something like “I <3’d ‘Inuksuit’ Before It Was Cool”.

            This observation is the central thought to the SONiC Festival, a festival of 21st century music happening from October 14-22 in various locations around New York. Co-curated by composer Derek Bermel and pianist Stephen Gosling, the festival is focusing on over 100 composers under 40 years old (like the Q2/NPR list).  This festival is possibly the most chock filled with ensembles, composers, and artists that dictate the current classical music industry than any other event in recent years. It’s like Coachella for modern music—minus the central location, hundred degree weather, and tent camping. But it’s only like that in appearance—while Coachella is a showcase, a sort of “here’s what we’ve done,” SONiC is a display that is meant to be a lifting-off point. It’s more of a “here’s what we’re becoming.” It’s uncontrollably exciting.  
“Emerging composers today have much greater access to different traditions and influences, and we are celebrating that by not restricting the music we present to any one style, movement, or agenda. We want to bring more public awareness to the many directions contemporary music is moving in, and to show everyone that ‘the composer’ is alive and thriving,” Bermel said on SONiC’s website. Other popular festivals, such as MATA and Spring for Music, focus on the specific aspects of contemporary music (commissioning young composers and orchestra programming, respectively), but SONiC is aiming to be a “big umbrella” of a festival—a variety of events that celebrate a wide range of composers and ensembles. Composers and pieces that will be played range from the iconic pieces of the past few years (Judd Greenstein, “Change,” performed by the NOW Ensemble, Aaron Cassidy, “Second String Quartet,” performed by the JACK Quartet) to works from Brazil being premiered in the US. The second half of the festival includes afterhours concerts, showcasing some of the best contemporary music in the world in quirky settings at dark, buzzing hours. 
Along with contemporary music being played at SONiC, the festival is encouraging contemporary methods of listening and audience-member-being. The festival is integrating three different “projects” into the mix of music that involve audience members in much more interesting ways than, say, a Q&A. The project called “Re:Sound” allows audience members to vote on pieces they would like to hear again through phones or online, and Q2 will broadcast them. “UrbanRemix” is a project that almost commissions the audience itself—SONiC-goers are encouraged to record sounds they hear to, from, and around the festival, go online, and create a mix. These mixes will be showcased on the second to last night of the festival. “Thicket:Sonic” isn’t really a project, but an App. While sort of ambiguous, the website’s description (“a mobile audiovisual world of texture, movement, line and tone that is part art piece, part toy, part wind chime, and part spierweb.”) is ridiculously intriguing.

JACK Quartet/photo by Stephen Poff
A general theme that runs through the programming of the entire festival is the destruction of the term “genre” and the restrictions that come with that term. Contemporary music, especially in the last year or so, has been evolving into something that is difficult to classify (I feel almost awkward typing “classical” when talking about it). Chamber-pop, electronic, minimalist, “new synthesist…” these terms have been used as labels, but it’s becoming almost impossible to label everything accurately. Violins and soundboards are frequently on stage together. SONiC is demonstrating this idea in multiple concerts. The first concert on Oct. 14 features the American Composers Orchestra. In the concert is a piece by Alex Temple, who describes his music as “somewhere between Surrealism and Pop Art,” for soprano, orchestra, and electronics. There’s a piece called “Flowing Water Study II for Orchestra & Video” by Wang Lu. These defy genres in themselves. During the concert featuring the JACK Quartet (Oct. 15), the quartet will play just before an electric guitar quartet. I have a feeling it will seem completely normal.
It’s not often that history seems as if it is being written right in front of you. When it does happen, it’s exhilarating. The SONiC festival itself might not become a chapter in a music history book, but it symbolizes the shifting of a time period, the flip of a page from the music of years past. “The composer” is usually thought of as a pop culture symbol with billowing white hair and a quill pen, but recent times suggest otherwise. And as I sit here, writing this, watching the video on SONiC’s webpage, and I see my hands start to shake with excitement, I know this means something (and I don’t even live in New York). SONiC will surely be a whirlwind of in-the-moment sounds as well as a telescope into the future. And by god, if they’re selling tee shirts, someone please get me one. 

Watch this video if you want to buzz with excitement: 

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