To hear the best new music, Californians can go to the Cabrillo and Ojai festivals. New Yorkers can go to Bang on a Can, MATA, or Next Wave. Now folks living on the third coast can get their contemporary music fix in festival form too, thanks to composer Augusta Read Thomas.
Thomas has organized the Ear Taxi Festival, Chicago’s first major festival dedicated to contemporary classical music, which will feature more than 300 musicians, 88 composers, and 54 world premieres during 32 events from October 5-10, 2016.
“Three years ago, I was walking through Millennium Park downtown and I was reflecting on what a vibrant scene for contemporary classical music we have here in Chicago,” Thomas said. In her opinion, the Windy City has the “best scene” for contemporary music because the city has an “interactive vibe, people like each other, people go to each other’s concerts, people collaborate.”
Unlike other contemporary music festivals, Ear Taxi will present music only by local composers. “Everybody lives in Chicago, every player, every composer – expect for a few who have had long life chapters Chicago,” Thomas said.
Those who attend the festival to will have the opportunity to meet the composers whose work they experience, Thomas added, and to say to them, “I loved your piece, or I didn’t love your piece, or can we have coffee?”
Thomas hopes the festival will do more than just present lots of new music, but will also affect “deeper culture building where people can engage with their neighbors.” She’s also literally investing in the culture of Chicago. All of the proceeds go to benefits the artists presented during six-day extravaganza.
Most of the events in the festival take place at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance or the Chicago Cultural Center, “The concept was to have things all in one area so you can come for one group and you can stay for the next group,” Thomas explained.”
Because there are so many different composers and musicians presented during Ear Taxi, the offerings are, not surprisingly, very diverse. “There are some pieces that are dreamy, others are ritualistic, some are abstract, some are more pointillist, others are pop or jazz influenced.”
Most events in the Festival present a smorgasbord of music all in one sitting. “Everything is very fast-paced,” Thomas said. “There are a lot of moving parts – a lot of groups and a lot of music.”
Over half the festival events are free; the others are affordably priced at $20 and $10 for students. Thomas said by making new music financially accessible, “You don’t have to worry, ‘I’m gonna be stuck for 45 minutes listening to a piece that I don’t know if I’m going to like, and it’s going to cost me a lot of money to hear it.”
If you are limited on time and want suggestions on which of the many Ear Taxi performances to attend, Thomas has a few suggestions:
Friday, October 7, don’t miss performances by the Spektral Quartet and Ensemble Dal Niente at the Harris Theater. “You can hear 6 world premieres, meet all 6 composers, and the level of playing is icredible,” Thomas said. “These people can literally play anything!”
Saturday, October 8, in a performance also at the Harris, you can hear almost all the Ear Taxi festival musicians in a single, massive piece by Drew Baker commissioned for the event as “the big blow out, Thomas said. “We’re expecting about 100 people playing and they’ll be sprinkled through the hall.” In addition to Baker’s piece, Third Coast Percussion, Spektral Quartet, Chicago Harp Quartet, and Arcomusical present five works, including two world premieres by Reaction Yield and Carolyn O’Brien, and a Chicago premier by Thomas herself.
Sunday, October 9, hear the Chicago Composers Orchestra perform in Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center. Though the hall, adorned with the largest Tiffany dome in the world, is often filled with music, rarely can you hear a full orchestra in the space. What’s more, “the whole building will be animated with music throughout the weekend,” Thomas said, since the Claudia Cassidy Theater will also host performances. Many events in the theater “involve live and pre-programmed electronics. It’ll be a very interesting sound world in that space on the weekend,” Thomas said.
Though she has enlisted the help of others to mount this massive festival, much of the work has been spearheaded by Thomas. “I’ve been going non-stop for three years, I feel like the Energizer bunny.”
What has fueled her drive to mount such a massive festival?
“It’s important for me as a citizen of the city and as a composer to give back. It’s important for the ecosystem,” she said. When it comes to new music, “some pieces get played and they stick. Some pieces get played and don’t get played again. Some don’t get played and then 10 years later they get played a lot.” But nothing can be performed again if it hasn’t been performed once. “I don’t know of any other festival that has over 50 world premieres,” Thomas said.