GVSU New Music Ensemble draws national acclaim

- by Mary Isca Pirkola

"Where next?" has been the number one question about Grand Valley's New Music Ensemble. The question refers not to their performance schedule, but rather to the abundance of great press appearing throughout the country about their performance and recent commercial recording of Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians."
In December their CD was named one of the year's best classical releases by The New York Times, which also ran a feature article on the ensemble in October. It was named a "pick of the week" by WNYC's Soundcheck, and has received terrific reviews from coast to coast in publications.

Prior to their CD release, the GVSU New Music Ensemble was invited to perform Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians" at the Bang on the Can Marathon in New York. Photo by Stephanie Berger

New music is a broad term, referring to recently composed classical music,said assistant professor of music Bill Ryan, who founded and directs the ensemble. It is incredibly diverse, as its composers are influenced not only by Beethoven and Mozart, but by more recent composers, other cultures, popular music, technology, art, philosophy and even mathematics. On one hand it can be highly experimental, in which all ties to traditional conventions are broken, and on the other it can be very accessible and familiar sounding.

Ryan and the ensemble are enthusiastically committed to the presentation of recent music because they believe in it, its composers, and they enjoy sharing their experiences with people that might not otherwise be exposed to it.

Steve Reich is a case in point. Widely regarded as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, Reich's music draws not only from Western classical music, but from the structures, harmonies, and rhythms of non-Western and American vernacular music. Composed from 1974-76, "Music for 18 Musicians," at just more than an hour, is a shimmering journey through lush, pulsing harmonies and slowly evolving melodic patterns. His ensemble's latest recording of the work won a Grammy Award in 1999.

Grand Valley's ensemble members, most of whom were born nearly a decade after Reich's debut of the work in 1976, recorded their CD over three days in the Royce Auditorium of St. Cecelia's Music Center in Grand Rapids. Engineer Silas Brown flew in from New York to handle the sessions. Captured on a hybrid stereo/multichannel, 5.1 surround Super Audio Compact Disc, to best convey the enveloping sound of live performance, it can be played on any standard CD player. Recorded on the Innova Recordings label, it is only the fifth commercial recording of the work.

In preparation, the ensemble traveled to New York City, in October, 2006, to attend the Steve Reich Festival which included Reich's own ensemble performing the same piece. They met with several members of Reich's ensemble to discuss strategies for performing the work, and were able to meet with Reich backstage.

"Just to watch how the ensemble interacted on stage and floated between the instrumental parts was fascinating," said Ryan. "We were all furiously making notes in our scores during their performance."

Their efforts paid off, as the ensemble performed brilliantly on campus later that semester, and was then invited to perform at the 20th anniversary of the prestigious Bang on a Can Marathon in New York City in June, 2007.

The New York Times critic Steve Smith said that despite hearing this piece performed many times before, he had an epiphany during their performance. He noticed two women on either side of him had tears streaming down their faces as the piece ended. At the conclusion the group received a three-minute standing ovation.

Ryan continues to push the ensemble in new directions. In March they will take part in a variety of workshops as part of a music department residency by the noted new music trio Real Quiet. An April 1 performance by the ensemble will feature the world premiere of a new work written for them by California composer Robin Cox.

For more information, including the CD trailer which also appeared on YouTube, visit http://newmusicensemble.org.

Page last modified July 22, 2011