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New Music: What it is, where to hear it, and why it's such a stupid name for a genre

Wednesday, Sep 17 2003
Writing about "new music" -- in this case, the seventh annual New Music on the Mountain event, presented by Rova: Arts -- is a tricky road to navigate. The term may baffle those unacquainted with the radical developments of classical, jazz, and improvised forms since the '60s, which is generally what it refers to; it's also the expression musicians use to suggest their most avant-garde explorations. But what, really, is new about any music? On the other hand, in a postmodern culture where hyphenated hybrid-genres rule and even Bruce Springsteen fuses qawwali singing from Pakistan with his American troubadour aesthetic, what isn't new?

So how then does one deal with the artists performing at this weekend's celebration of "innovation and improvisation"? Perhaps the first step is simply acknowledging the bold originality of their respective visions. Composer/trumpeter Darren Johnston, who leads a heavy-on-the-horns nonet called United Brassworkers Front, elegantly mines everything from bebop to post-bop to N'awlins-inspired collective jams to free improv to contemporary groove-based, harmonically complex pieces that both are and are not "jazz" (another hazy term). Cheryl Leonard makes her own instruments out of found objects (from box springs to pine cones) and uses the calls of wild animals in her soundtracks. Will her "Instruments in Trees" seem new to the tech-attuned pomo listener or really, really old? Rova Saxophone Quartet, the internationally recognized leader of, uh ... something else, blurs the lines between jazz and classical, composition and improvisation, and harmony and dissonance with a clarity that rarely fails to bend the ear -- which, fundamentally, is what so-called new music is all about.

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Sam Prestianni


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