American Composers Orchestra (ACO) announces Playing It UNsafe, the first and only professional research and development lab to support the creation of cutting-edge new American orchestral music through no-holds-barred experimentation, encouraging composers to do anything but “play it safe.” The composers participating in Playing It UNsafe are Sean Friar, David Heuser, Joan La Barbara, Laura Schwendinger, and Henry Threadgill, selected from a national search for their willingness to experiment and stretch their own musical sensibilities, and their ability to test the limits of the orchestra. Playing It UNsafe grew out of ACO’s ongoing mission to commission and perform new music that expands the range of possibilities for – and challenges convention notions about – orchestral music.
Playing It UNsafe is a season-long initiative that includes a unique incubation process of laboratory workshops and public readings, and collaborative feedback, many open to the public. Audiences will have their first opportunity to see and hear the composers’ works-in-progress at the opening lab workshop, free of charge (no reservations required), on Monday, October 18 from 2-4:30pm at the JCC in Manhattan (334 Amsterdam Avenue). Subsequent lab workshops open to the public will take place on Thursday, December 9 (2-4:30pm); Saturday, January 29 (2-5pm), Tuesday, March 1 (2-4:30pm), and Thursday, March 3 (2-4:30pm). Playing It UNsafe will culminate on Friday, March 4, 2011 at 7:30pm with a concert featuring all of the “unsafe” new works at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, conducted by ACO Music Director George Manahan.
None of the new pieces developed for Playing It UNsafe will be conventional or typical orchestral fare. Sean Friar’s Clunker Concerto will be for a percussion ensemble playing a junked car with the orchestra; saxophonist and composer/improviser Henry Threadgill asks orchestra members to improvise and interact at an extremely high level, yielding a new strategy for the conductor to lead the orchestra in No Gate, No White Trenches, Butterfly Effect; vocalist and composer Joan La Barbara’s sound painting for voice and orchestra, In solitude this fear is lived, will utilize orchestra members placed throughout the entire concert hall; Laura Schwendinger will collaborate with her lighting-designer cousin Leni Schwendinger to fuse music and visuals into a seamless mix; and David Heuser’s Dysfunctional Families will pit orchestral instrument families against each other in an uprising that threatens to overthrow the conductor.
Playing It UNsafe is unusual in that it does away with the expectations often associated with orchestral premieres that can squelch composers’ creative impulses – limited rehearsal time, restrictive instrumental possibilities, pre-conceived programmatic or thematic ideas for concerts – and most importantly, the overwhelming pressure on composers to do something “safe.”
Playing It UNsafe will feature Orchestra Underground, ACO’s groundbreaking small orchestra ensemble that seeks to redefine orchestra music by embracing a wide gamut of musical styles, unusual instrumentations and spatial orientations of musicians, technological innovations, and multimedia/multidisciplinary collaborations. Since its launch in 2004, Orchestra Underground has commissioned and premiered nearly 50 cutting-edge new works. The program is a major expansion of a pilot program ACO undertook two seasons ago, and a desire by the orchestra to serve as a catalyst for new ideas within the orchestra community.
About the Playing It UNsafe Composer David Heuser's Dysfunctional Families (http://www.davidheuser.com/)
Dysfunctional Families is a piece about the orchestra reacting to itself, where the supremacy of the conductor is undermined as the top-down hierarchy of the orchestra meets grass-roots uprisings, and where the audience finds themselves literally in the middle of inter- and intra-family battles. The piece will marry orchestral music with theatrical elements, particularly those that break the fourth wall. Performers fight within their section as well as across sections in what ends up being an all-out war for control of the symphony. The conflicts play out physically, with performers moving to different parts of the stage as their allegiances change. The conductor strives always to be in command of the ensemble, but, like war everywhere, he might put down a rebellion in the brass only to turn and find out the strings in an uproar.
David Heuser’s music has been called “thoughtful, beautiful, and wonderfully made” (San Antonio Express-News), “all-American music at its most dynamic and visceral” (Houston Chronicle), and “just the sort of music classical music needs more of” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). Heuser considers himself a musical storyteller. His most characteristic works are rhythmically active, strongly melodic, and often deal with extremes of tempo, dynamics and register. Heuser began composing almost immediately after his first piano lessons at the age of seven. He attended the Eastman School of Music and then the Indiana University School of Music, where he received his doctorate. He is now a Professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio teaching music composition and theory, and electronic music. He has received commissions from such ensembles as the San Antonio Symphony, the New York Youth Symphony, SOLI Chamber Ensemble, and the Texas Music Festival Orchestra.
Now entering its 34th year, American Composers Orchestra is the only orchestra in the world dedicated to the creation, performance, preservation, and promulgation of music by American composers. ACO makes the creation of new opportunities for American composers and new American orchestral music its central purpose. Through concerts at Carnegie Hall and other venues, recordings, internet and radio broadcasts, educational programs, New Music Readings, and commissions, ACO identifies today’s brightest emerging composers, champions prominent established composers as well as those lesser-known, and increases regional, national, and international awareness of the infinite variety of American orchestral music, reflecting geographic, stylistic, and temporal diversity. ACO also serves as an incubator of ideas, research, and talent, as a catalyst for growth and change among orchestras, and as an advocate for American composers and their music.
To date, ACO has performed music by more than 600 American composers, including 200 world premieres and newly commissioned works. Among the orchestra’s innovative programs have been Sonidos de las Américas, six annual festivals devoted to Latin American composers and their music; Coming to America, a program immersing audiences in the ongoing evolution of American music through the work of immigrant composers; Orchestra Tech, a long-term initiative to integrate new digital technologies in the symphony orchestra; Improvise!, a festival devoted to the exploration of improvisation and the orchestra; Playing it Unsafe, a new laboratory for the research and development of experimental new works for orchestra; and Orchestra Underground, ACO’s entrepreneurial cutting-edge orchestral ensemble that embraces new technology, eclectic instruments, influences, and spatial orientation of the orchestra, new experiments in the concert format, and multimedia and multi-disciplinary collaborations.
Extending its mission beyond New York City, ACO launched EarShot in 2008. EarShot is a multi-institutional network that assists orchestras around the country in new music readings and composer development opportunities. EarShot’s recent programs include new music readings for emerging composers with the Nashville Symphony, Memphis Symphony, New York Youth Symphony and Colorado Symphony Orchestra. More information can be found at www.earshotnetwork.org.
Among the honors ACO has received are special awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and from BMI recognizing the orchestra’s outstanding contribution to American music. ASCAP has awarded its annual prize for adventurous programming to ACO 32 times, singling out ACO as “the orchestra that has done the most for new American music in the United States,” including the 2008 ASCAP Morton Gould Award for Innovative Programming. ACO received the inaugural METLife Award for Excellence in Audience Engagement, and a proclamation from the New York City Council. ACO recordings are available on ARGO, CRI, ECM, Point, Phoenix USA, MusicMasters, Nonesuch, Tzadik, New World Records, and InstantEncore.com. More information about American Composers Orchestra is available online at http://www.americancomposers.org/.