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American Modern Ensemble Interview

Posted on 10 October 2006. © Copyright 2004-2020 Composition:Today

C:T talks to Robert Paterson, composer and Artistic Director of American Modern Ensemble

Tell us something about your background.

I am a composer, percussionist and more and more these days, a conductor, although I would say that I am more a composer who conducts rather than a full-fledged conductor. Victoria, my wife and Managing Director, is a professional violinist.

Tell us about American Modern Ensemble, how it was formed, it's raison d'etre.

Over the last few years we've noticed that there are a lot of great ensembles that play new music, but not a lot that focus exclusively on American music, and even fewer that offer a wide variety of styles. We formed AME with this goal in mind: to program the widest possible repertoire by American composers, especially works written by living composers. Each season, we choose one American composer to feature on a program devoted to his or her music. AME is also dedicated to education and outreach programs that expose communities to American music, and particularly to new music written by living composers.

We also have personal reasons for forming this ensemble. We both love playing new music, and since Victoria mostly performs in orchestras and on Broadway and I am a full-time composer, we have few outlets for performing new music. AME gives us an opportunity to play music we love and keeps us sane!

Does the group focus on playing specific types of music?

We only program American music and mostly new or "modern" music, primarily from the U.S. and occasionally from Canada, but in the future we also plan on including music by composers from Central and South America. We try to include all styles, and we have programmed or will program works that are Neo-romantic, Neo-classical, Minimalist, 12-tone, Uptown, Downtown, part of the "New Complexity" genre and everything in between.

How do you go about programming your concerts?

Every program we present has a theme. So many groups present concerts consisting of random works, and we want to get away from that by providing a focus for each concert. We fee that programming is an art, and everything from instrumentation, length, style, when the work was written, titles and extra-musical meanings influence our programming.

Right now, we're primarily playing works that use subsets of the entire ensemble—solos through sextets. As our audience grows and we secure more funding, we will program larger works. Our ensemble consists of a Sinfonietta-sized, core membership of fifteen players, with a few instruments doubled or tripled (we currently have three pianists in the group).

How do you respond to unsolicited work- do you give feedback? Do you ever commission new work yourself?

AME accepts unsolicited submissions on an ongoing basis (see our website for details). We do not give feedback unless we are interested in a work and might be able to find a spot for it on a future program. If a composer is very young or just starting out, we might offer a few constructive comments, but we generally avoid giving feedback unless specifically asked for.

We feel strongly that one of the main responsibilities of any chamber group is to play music of our time, especially by living composers, and hopefully through commissioning new works. We will eventually begin commissioning at least one new work each year, and hopefully more, but in order to do it properly, we need funding, which we hope to acquire by the next season.

What do you see as the role (intended and actual) of new music in the modern world?

New music is similar to any other art form: it takes our minds away from our daily lives and gives us a way to reflect on everything around us. It also gives us a way to reflect inward. Hopefully, a piece of new music will allow you hear or feel something you have never heard or felt before. What better way to experience something new and refreshing—and in such an open, wonderfully abstract way—than through new music? For people like us, having new experiences becomes almost addictive. Those are the types of people we love to have in our audiences, those who want to experience something "new" and refreshing.

Aside from that, new music in America today is different that what it was (or is) in other societies. There are thousands of tributaries now: new music can be pure entertainment, or entirely about invention, or both at once. It can be commercial or or "art for art's sake." Although it is my whole world, there are millions of people who have never been to a "new music" concert, yet they hear it daily in films, commercials and even video games.

New music has become a niche market—or thousands of niche markets—for better or worse. I do not think this is necessarily bad, as many "normal" ensembles program contemporary music, but it is ironic that a long time ago, new music was really all that anyone played. Today, many ensembles—especially orchestras—are really just ear museums. Luckily, the older crowd that found new music distasteful during the mid-twentieth century is quickly being replaced by a younger crowd that loves new music. Our audiences now are fresh and everyone seems to love what we're up to.

Is it a good time to be running a new music ensemble?

As for audiences, I think it's better now than it was years ago, and it's going to keep getting even better. My prediction is that baby boomers and older generations will be even more receptive to new music as they age, but it's difficult to tell. I guess I am definitely an optimist.

Financially, it could be a lot better. It would be fantastic if composers and chamber groups had more funding. Then again, there are so many new music ensembles that funding them all well would probably be impossible. It is an extremely competitive, especially in NYC, yet there seems to be room for it all.

Interestingly, we currently have many politicians and others who make decisions about what gets funding who were never brought up to appreciate fine art, and especially new music, and this filters down to our lives, even though it is difficult to make the connection. What does this mean? We need to elect politicians, representatives in the licensing agencies (ASCAP, BMI, etc.), Unions, etc. who look out for our best interests. Every vote counts.

Tell us about American Modern Ensemble's current projects

We have three programs this season. Our first concert this October 14th, called Midtown Sound, will feature NYC composers who are neither Uptown nor Downtown, but somewhere in-between. We are delighted to present works by some of NYC's best composers, including Adam Silverman’s Ricochet, James Matheson’s Pound for solo piano,Joseph Pehrson's Levitation for viola and piano and a new work by me entitled The Thin Ice of Your Fragile Mind. We will also perform two recent works by two Pulitzer Prize winning composers: Melinda Wagner's Wick, an exciting, tour de force for chamber ensemble and Paul Moravec’s thrilling Scherzo for Piano Trio. Finally, we are including two small works by John Cage and Milton Babbitt just for fun!

Musical Mavericks the title for our second program of the season. These concerts on March 3rd and 4th will feature some of America’s most innovative composer/performers. Come hear Robert Dick demonstrate his amazing flute technique and sliding head-joint, Stuart Dempster play his trombone like no other and John Eaton play two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart. You will also hear Mike Lowenstern blow you away with his bass clarinet, Pamela Z sing her other-worldly music,
Todd Reynolds play his innovative music for looped violin, Bill Smith amaze you with his double clarinet playing, and I will play marimba with six-mallets. Plus, we will present the winning work and composer/performer of our Second Annual Composition Competition. This is an extremely rare event, and one that you definitely won’t want to miss. Never in the history of American music have these fascinating musicians come together, and this program promises to be one of the most unforgettable events in the history of American music.

Each year, AME features one American composer on an entire program. Last season, we featured the music of Steven Stucky, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in music and one of America's greatest living composers. This season, we are proud to feature not just one, but two of America’s most treasured composers—who just happen to be married! Chen Yi and Zhou Long will share a rare double-billed program on two evenings, May 4th and 5th. We will perform an evening of their finest works, including Chen Yi's Sparkle, Chinese Ancient Dances, Near Distance and the ultra-exciting Blue Dragon Sword Dance, and Zhou Long’s Dhyana and riveting three-movement work Metal, Stone, Silk, Bamboo. Both composers will be in the audience for both concerts and we will interview them during intermission, leaving room for questions from the audience. There will also be a reception afterwards where you can meet both the composers and the members of AME. Please join us for an evening of fine music by two of the most treasured American composers alive today.

What are your plans for the future?

Our mail goal is to produce three programs every year, and we are extremely interested in repeating each program in multiple locations in and around NYC and beyond. We are also working on eventually commissioning composers. Additionally, we are putting together an innovative, educational program which we cannot elaborate on at the moment, but it promises to be like nothing you have ever heard or seen before.

How can people find out more about you?

Visit our website at where you can see our concert schedule, read reviews of our past concerts, listen to past performances and check out the bios of our fantastic group members.

We look forward to meeting you at our upcoming concerts!

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2020

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