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The New Now

Contemporary composition in Baltimore goes DIY and leaves the concert hall behind

Photos By Frank Hamilton
Brian Sacawa

By Lee Gardner | Posted 3/31/2010

Erik Spangler's Mandala Of The Four Directions world premiere

MICA's Brown Center, April 1, 8 p.m.

For more information visit

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Brian SACAWA first came to Baltimore in 1999 with a bachelor's in music performance and the secret to making it as a classical musician. "I had this book from the Concert Artists Guild about 'things you need to know' to be a performer," Sacawa says with a wry smile during a chat in a Mount Vernon cafAc. "It's so hysterical to read that today. Like, 'How to write a press release.' And there might have been a little thing in the appendix about the internet."

To that point Sacawa, now 32, had gone about his musical career in the Guild-approved manner. As a saxophonist, he could never hope for a steady orchestra gig, the ultimate goal of many classically trained players, but he had landed a prestigious spot in The U.S. Army Field Band in Washington, D.C.--"basically like the New York [Philharmonic] of the saxophone," he says. He earned a performance certificate from the Peabody Institute and, in 2002, gave up his spot in the Field Band and his new home in Baltimore to work on a master's and Ph.D. in music performance at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He had his official Guild-style New York recital debut in 2005, with the appropriate press releases written and sent. "My plan was I wanted to pursue the college-teacher track and groom myself as a soloist and recitalist and so on," he says.

Adolphe Sax didn't invent his namesake woodwind until the mid-19th century, meaning that Mozart never wrote a saxophone concerto and the instrument was still a novelty as the last chapters of the traditional orchestral canon were being written. Playing the classical saxophone meant performing 20th-century music. "I was playing Stockhausen and more established names in composition circles," Sacawa recalls. "When I got to Michigan, I started reading more about what was happening now. Who are the composers living who are making an impact now?"

Sacawa eventually wound up teaching at the University of Arizona. He loved the students, but "it wasn't my thing," he says. "A lot of academic stuff just perpetuates itself, and it's all playing for each other in this little bubble." When tenure didn't materialize, he returned in 2006 to The U.S. Army Field Band and to Baltimore.

Though Sacawa occasionally guests with orchestras (he joined the BSO for Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in February), such ensemble gigs are rare and soloist gigs rarer still. "I've seen the generation of guys before me, they put all their eggs into that basket--championing the [saxophone] as a solo instrument in front of the orchestra," he says. "And what saxophonist gets to play in front of orchestras? Branford Marsalis. Or Kenny G."

But not only had Sacawa been keeping up with contemporary composers, he had been making contact with many of them. Jerry Bowles had heard about Sacawa's New York debut and enlisted the saxophonist to write for Sequenza21, his influential new-music blog ( Via blogging and the overall ease of web connectivity, Sacawa came to know plenty of contemporary composers looking to get their work performed and plenty of new-music players looking to play.

Sacawa can recall no eureka moment that led to the idea for Mobtown Modern. As he speaks, it sounds like an outgrowth of what he and others are beginning to understand as a new path for trained musicians to build a career--a path that's still faint and branching, but which leads inexorably forward.

"You can't just be a performer," he says. "If you can, that's great. I envy that. But you've got to be so versatile, and not just musically. You've got to have an entrepreneurial sense, a marketing sense, a design sense. There are just all these components a modern musician has to be. No one taught me any of this stuff. I just threw myself in and learned as I went."

He certainly beat the usual learning curve when he made his first cold-call about his idea for a contemporary-music series in Baltimore to Irene Hofmann, executive director of the Contemporary Museum. "She said, 'That sounds great. Let's do it,'" he says. "In the beginning, it was just a trial kind of thing. She loved the idea, but I needed to convince her that, yes, there was an audience for this kind of stuff, and that they'll come."

The first concert, on Jan. 29, 2008, was scheduled to coincide with George W. Bush's annual (and final) address to both houses of Congress. Entitled "State of the Union," the program offered politically minded compositions ranging from percussionist Tim Feeney's performance of Vinko Globokar's harrowing, body-centric Corporeal to Mobtown Modern co-founder Erik Spangler's turntable-driven Iraq Mix to Steve Reich's minimalist tape-loop classic Come Out. It was a program that announced serious musical ambition as well as a willingness to package serious music in an engaging way for neophytes--such as playing politically charged music near the height of an unpopular president's unpopularity.

"Obviously, there are ways to frame [the music] so that it's more marketable," Sacawa acknowledges. "But nothing is ever a compromise in terms of musical integrity, and it's never a gimmick."

From the first three concerts during the early months of 2008, the Mobtown Modern series expanded to six concerts over September-May 2008-09, to monthly concerts for 2009-10, and this season moved from its initial home in a bare-bones upper-floor room at the Contemporary to the Metro Gallery, with its club-like vibe and bar. Not only is Metro bigger, but it also helps advance one of Sacawa's goals: making music people often assume is serious and forbidding as approachable as possible.

"It doesn't have to be all buttoned-up," he says. "It should be an inviting experience where you don't have to go and worry, Should I clap now or can I talk? There is no proper way that you should experience it. It's presented as it is, and you can enjoy it in this setting."

When British composer Oscar Bettison first came to Baltimore in the fall of 2009 to teach composition at Peabody, a Mobtown Modern concert was one of the first events he took in. "I really like the mix of music that they're presenting in the show," Bettison, 34, says of the series. "They've got so many things right."

He especially likes the informal presentation, more akin to the concert scene in the Netherlands, where he studied for three years, or to New York's Le Poisson Rouge, which has become a sensation among younger classical and new-music fans simply for occasionally presenting the music in a cabaret setting, complete with cocktails. "I like the fact that there's a bar at these shows," Bettison says. "There's been some kind of resistance to this format in some places, cause people think that the music isn't going to be listened to as seriously, but I think the opposite happens, ironically. I think that because people are more relaxed and they can have a drink and mill around before the concert and you don't have to get dressed up, they sit down and relax and listen to the music."

Mobtown Modern is still a fledgling enterprise, despite the support of the Contemporary and a handful of sponsors and donors; Sacawa has covered many of its expenses himself and musicians are paid modestly (occasionally, as with the Cobra performance, via a case of good beer). But it's a raging success by new-music standards.

"Being a new-music player, I'm used to playing shows where there's 15 people in the audience and I know them all," Sacawa says. "With these shows, we regularly have 50 to 70 people, and I have no idea who half the people in the audience are. We're doing something that's interesting to people beyond just the usual suspects."

WIND THROUGH the warren of gates, passages, buildings, and hallways that make up the city-block-sized Peabody Institute and you eventually find yourself in an office whose sparse decoration consists mostly of a set of fliers for the Evolution Contemporary Music series. It looks like a space barely used, perhaps because its occupant, Judah Adashi, is busy teaching composition and music theory at the conservatory, working on his Ph.D., curating and running the Evolution concerts, and working on his own compositions as well.

A compact, composed Baltimore native, the 34-year-old Adashi first dispels the notion that new music is somehow new to town. David Zinman's stint as the BSO's music director from 1985-'98 was marked by a dedication to presenting American composers and new commissions before packed houses at the Meyerhoff, Adashi reminds. Zinman's successor, Yuri Temirkanov, focused on opulent versions of time-honored European classics, but current BSO Music Director Marin Alsop "is picking up where [Zinman] left off," Adashi says.

For many years, however, if new music was performed in Baltimore, it was mostly performed at Peabody, by student ensembles or visiting musicians. It was still relatively rare. As Adashi says, for some students Peabody remains "a trade school, an apprenticeship." They come to polish and refine traditional musical skills they've honed for years in hopes of making a career out of playing Sibelius or Chopin like generations before them.

Adashi attended Peabody Prep before going to Yale for his bachelor's degree. After college he returned to Baltimore, and, eventually, to Peabody, beginning a master's program in composition under the late Nicholas Maw in 1999. He acknowledges that the conservatory was still "pretty quiet" on the contemporary-music front when he first came back, but its conservatism had started to loosen thanks to Maw and a wave of other faculty members with an active interest in contemporary composition. It helped that the battles fought throughout most of the 20th century between the defenders of the traditional classical canon and the proponents of the mid-century musical avant-garde were finally winding down and, indeed, becoming irrelevant.

"Baby-boomer composers come through [Peabody] all the time talking about, 'When I was in college, I had to write like Schoenberg or Stravinsky and that was it,'" Adashi says. "At this moment, there's no dogma. You don't have to be writing tonal music or atonal music. It's OK if you invoke rock, it's OK if you use electronic means. You can do what you want."

By the mid-'00s, the music of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s was finally getting more attention at Peabody. "You started to see more and more concerts of Berio, Ligeti, Davidovsky, Stockhausen, and I think that's fantastic," Adashi says. "But I thought, You know what's not happening? People don't know that contemporary music is also the last 20 years, the last 10 years, right now."

Adashi had made attempts to add to contemporary music performance to the conservatory, but an option farther off Mount Vernon Square made sense. "Part of [the reason for starting the series] was practical," he says. "Peabody is getting bigger and bigger with more and more students, and hall space was getting scarce."

Having worked at An die Musik when it was a CD store, he knew proprietor Henry Wong, who had expanded the business and its purview by opening an on-site concert venue booking classical and jazz performances and the occasional new-music-friendly bill. Evolution came to life in November 2005 with a chamber performance of works by Robert Beaser, Joan Tower, and Adashi himself. Each season has brought a slow growth in the number and breadth of events, from themed concerts (the Obama-inspired "Music for Change," presented in October 2008, presented a program of hopeful works by contemporary-music marquee names Arvo PA¤rt and John Adams, but also Baltimorean Will Redman) to informal encounters with the likes of the BSO's Marin Alsop and New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. The recently concluded 2009-'10 season was organized under the banner "A Sense of Place" and presented concerts of contemporary music from countries such as Finland and England, including an Oscar Bettison world premiere.

The plush appointments of An die Musik are a far cry from the somewhat grungier Metro Gallery, and Evolution's marketing remains more traditional than Mobtown's. (The promotional art for "Low Art," Mobtown's October 2009 program of music for lower-pitched instruments, featured a neon-red low-rider street rod.) But both put a premium on contemporary-music advocacy.

"There's sort of a do-it-yourself energy that composers and musicians in the classical world [now], and we're starting to do what bands have been doing since time immemorial--find any old place and set up and play," Adashi says, though he adds, "that's not a new model in classical music--Steve Reich and Philip Glass were doing that, and people before them as well."

One thing that minimalist godfathers such as Reich and Glass didn't have going for them was the internet. The rise of the web has not only allowed for better networking, it has allowed composers the opportunity to connect directly with listeners and for listeners to seek out information about more obscure sounds, as well as the sounds themselves. In years past, a curious music fan might have had to go to the trouble of special-ordering a costly CD from a European label to sample new work by Kaija Saariaho or Harrison Birtwistle. Now, a relatively inexpensive download is just a few clicks away.

"The fact that music is so easily shared on the internet, and people becoming aware of lots of different types of music, everything is happening so much faster," Bettison says. "I had a piece [played] in New York recently, and there was a review up before I'd even got back home from New York. Everything's being disseminated in a much more rapid fashion."

There's enough contemporary music--and enough growing interest--that having two new-music series in Baltimore doesn't lead to competition. The two series even compare dates so they don't book opposite each other.

And unlike traditional independent music, there seems to be little compartmentalization between one school of contemporary music and another. "I write fairly tonal music, and I write fairly lyrical music," Adashi says. "But I don't feel any need to justify that and to stake a claim for it as the one true path. I could easily put together a concert of young composers in their 30s with one of them writing serial music, one of them writing electronic music, one of them working with beats. It's all going on now, and each one of those or all of them together can [bring] people into something that beforehand they might have considered foreign or forbidding."

Neither Sacawa or Adashi is interested in promoting new-music as superior to older composed music or even whatever's playing the other nights of the month at An die Musik or the Metro Gallery. "I don't think it's about converting people to Team Contemporary Music," Adashi says. "It's about opening doors."

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