As more and more of the human experience goes online, it gets easier to assume you're not missing out, so long as you're plugged in. But there's one thing that the Internet cannot, and never will be able to replace: the live concert experience. Because popular music gets more formulaic by the millisecond, it's increasingly vital that challenging, atypical and unrelenting music remain part of the cultural landscape. Avant-garde, improvisation, free jazz and live electronics, especially, are all experiential and ephemeral, and often entirely unique from performance to performance. Unlike, say, the shows where musicians function as automata, robotically offering the same passionless riffs and canned banter.
For 52 years, the New Music Circle has been providing opportunities for people to hear unorthodox sounds, and it has endeavored to make sure not only that St. Louis is a place to hear music but that it is also a place where musicians are granted as much artistic freedom as they desire.
The 53rd season of NMC kicks off on September 17 with 71-year-old legend Joe McPhee and his Survival Unit III at the Kranzberg Arts Center before wending its way through the city in a series of shows between now and May 11, with performances at venues such as the White Flag Projects and the Christ Church Cathedral.
Since its inception in 1959, the New Music Circle has presented luminaries such as Philip Glass, John Zorn and John Cage. The yearly concert series is one of the oldest to explore the outer fringes of music in the nation, and it is certainly one of the premier organizations in the Midwest.
NMC came out of a discussion between local composers Manus Sasonkin, Robert Wykes, Harold Blumenfeld and Elizabeth Gentry Sayad, following a sold-out St. Louis Symphony Society fundraiser on April 17, 1959. The program was entirely contemporary music, which led Sayad to the conclusion that there was an audience in St. Louis for more challenging, contemporary music. Sayad later went on to found the nonprofit New Music Circle with twelve others, and throughout its history, the organization has never had a music director, opting instead to operate as a democratic polity. A few of its core members — mostly musicians themselves — have been on the governing board for more than three decades.
"Music used to be all experimental," says Jim Hegarty, who joined the NMC board in 1998. "When I was a kid I played in a rock band, and we played stuff like the Doors and Stones, and all that was pushing music forward. When I got into jazz, it was the same thing. Back in the '70s with fusion, people were always trying to do something new. By the time the '90s came around, most of jazz started looking backward and trying to re-create the sounds of earlier, more comprehendible — at least in retrospect — times. There's a lot to it, but I want to keep searching and looking for the new thing. It's boring to me to keep hearing the same stuff."
The original concept of "new music" is lost on this new generation — you would be hard-pressed to find an adequate definition of "new music" on the Internet that doesn't lead you to MTV or a long-running Canadian radio program that specializes in alternative rock. And new music, for the circle's purposes, is anything but. Evolved out of contemporary classical, the "greatest" generation will remember it as what the kids were doing in New York in the '50s and '60s. Now, the NMC's own definition of the term has fluctuated slightly, just as its focus has shifted from traditional, written compositions to the fluid expression afforded by improvisation.
"If Mozart hadn't experimented with the symphony, we'd never have Mahler. The arts need to keep moving forward, and the forward motion comes from places like the NMC — we let our performers do whatever they want," says Hegarty. "They value the opportunity to perform on our concerts because they don't have to do anything that meets expectations or plays to a certain style. They can really stretch and try new things. And that's where the forward motion in any endeavor comes from."
Hegarty, an accomplished pianist and eternal seeker of new sounds, spends his off hours planning NMC programming and performing his own music. He also earns a paycheck as an associate professor of music and the department chair at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois.
Last year, NMC enlisted local musician and artist Jeremy Kannapell to help tailor its offerings to a wider and younger audience. Founding member Sayad met with young people in St. Louis 53 years ago to help establish the group, and the tradition continues with Kannapell, who now works as program coordinator and administrator.
"Seeing people like Leeroy Jenkins, Jon Butcher, Thomas Lehn and Gino Robair sparked my interest in what NMC was doing. Growing up in Florida, I always read about those artists but rarely had a chance to see them because there was too little demand and no infrastructure to help bring them in," says Kannapell. "Regardless of whatever size the audience is for experimental and new music, the demand of those who enjoy it, or are even just curious about it, will always make it necessary and worthwhile."
Necessary and worthwhile, to be sure, but unfortunately not immune to the pervasive economic hardships that are the current scourge of art (and everything else) in America. Venues are closing or opting to keep their programming as safe as possible. Hegarty recently visited the Blue Note in New York City and was disappointed to find that at one of the greatest jazz clubs of all time, where Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie have sat, the offerings are increasingly mainstream.
"The venues that have been able to stay open are having to be more and more cautious with their programming so that they keep selling a lot of tickets. That means that the programming is getting more and more conservative and middle of the road," says Hegarty. "There was a time in jazz when everything was new, every night. The number of places where experimental music can be heard is diminishing."
The shrinking audience is a challenge facing the NMC as well. There were fewer than 50 people at last year's performance by trumpeter and Guggenheim fellow Wadada Leo Smith and his Golden Quartet — Vijay Iyer, Pheeroan akLaff and John Lindberg. It was the first time Smith performed his original material in St. Louis.
"The music he writes is totally beyond description. I thought the level of compositional execution he was able to achieve was masterful," says Hegarty.
"Last year many of the artists came from very studied musical backgrounds, so there was an emphasis on modern composition — even Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet — all jazz scene players, but Wadada's pieces for the concert were so detailed and rich that if even you're looking at it from just a compositional standpoint, his music would interest you, and you'd rank it up there with the best modern compositions around," says Kannapell, whose own electronic improvisations have earned him a reputation as one of the most talented underground noise artists in the country.
This year's programming alone features several big names who have never before played St. Louis: avant-garde pianist Matthew Shipp, drone trailblazer Tony Conrad and Chris Corsano. Conrad, an experimental filmmaker and leader of the New York minimalist scene, is credited with helping the Velvet Underground find its name and has collaborated with the likes of John Cale, Rhys Chatham and krautrock innovator Faust.
"He's one of those legends like [Morton] Subotnick and Alvin Lucier that are the real deal, people who were in the scene when a lot of stuff was starting," says Hegarty.
Percussionist Corsano was prominently featured on Björk's 2007 record Volta and has recorded with experimental heavies such as Thurston Moore and Jim O'Rourke as well as being an integral part of new folk group Six Organs of Admittance.
"Chris Corsano has a total firebrand approach to his playing, I think anyone who digs high-energy stuff will love it," says Kannapell. "He's doing a collaboration set with Darin Gray and Dave Stone; something I can already hear in my head — how awesome those three together would sound."