Musicians today can’t ask Mozart what he was thinking. They can’t argue with Brahms about phrasing or counterpoints. For advice from Beethoven, they’ve got to stick to what’s on the sheet.
But when instrumentalists play new American music, the composer is likely a lot more accessible – maybe even on stage or in the audience.
“You can ask the composer, ‘Is that what you want?’” said bassoonist David Wells, co-director of the Festival of New American Music, held each year at Sacramento State. “That part of the process you don’t get with Mozart or Beethoven.”
The festival, which kicks off Friday, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Over its 10 days, attendees can experience a broad sampling of new, boundary-pushing music from a host of modern composers, who often are the ones who are performing their own works.
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“Most of the time when you’re going to a (classical) concert, you hear dead white guys’ music,” Wells said. “At the festival, we have a crazy-diverse group of living composers, most of them in the room. Women and people of color bring different perspectives to traditional white European classical music. You may hear something you’ve never heard before.”
That element of perpetual discovery is what makes the festival so electric and vital, even after four decades, Wells said.
“Keeping the festival fresh; that’s the easy part of our job,” Wells said. “We’ve presented so many brand new pieces, world premieres or U.S. premieres over the years. This is new American music. Just by virtue of our mission, we never get stuck in a rut.”
Over its run, this Sacramento festival has grown into an international powerhouse, attracting top performers and composers throughout the United States and beyond. All concerts are open free to the public.
“The Kronos Quartet, completely unknown at the time, performed at our very first festival in 1978,” said composer Stephen Blumberg, the festival’s co-director for 18 years. “We set a very high bar right from the start and kept going. We’ve literally presented a who’s who in American music.”
That tradition continues this year with such well-known performers as guitarist David Tanenbaum, ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble), pianist Gilbert Kalish and the Daedelus String Quartet. On Nov. 7 composer Gabriela Lena Frank will present the keynote address, “Self-determination for a 21st-century musician.”
“We’ve become the longest running annual festival devoted to just new American music in the country,” Blumberg said. “The older (the festival) gets, the more prestigious it’s become. Everybody wants to play here.”
With more than 40 events, the festival includes just about anything new but pop and hip-hop. Electronic music is presented alongside new works for harpsichord, string quartet or marimba duet.
“New American music can mean a whole lot of things,” Wells said. “For our purposes, it reflects what we do in our own school of music. That includes music from the Western classical tradition, jazz and things we consider ‘art music.’ In recent years, it’s expanded to include other musical traditions from around the world.”
Playing new music isn’t easy. There rarely is a recording to fall back on for instruction or inspiration. Musicians often may be asked to make music in unusual ways, too.
“It demands different ways of playing and different ways of thinking,” Wells explained. “For example, if you’re playing with an electronic track, you have to learn to make good music along with something that’s unwavering. Or you may be asked to stomp your feet on the ground like a metronome while playing your instrument.
“The challenge is you have to think how to play it while doing these physical things. This music is investigating things in new ways – it expands horizons.”
40th annual Festival of New American Music
Where: Capistrano Concert Hall and other venues, California State University, Sacramento, 6000 J St., Sacramento
When: Nov. 3-12
Highlights (all at Capistrano Concert Hall):
▪ 8 p.m. Nov. 3 – Opening night gala with guitarist David Tanenbaum and other artists
▪ 8 p.m. Nov. 4 – Line Upon Line percussion ensemble
▪ 3 p.m. Nov. 5 – Harpsichordist Fayth Vollrath, composer/santur player Roozbeh Nafisi and visual artist Sarah Granett
▪ 8 p.m. Nov. 5 – Guitarist David Tanenbaum
▪ 8 p.m. Nov. 6 – Festival ensemble
▪ Noon Nov. 7 – Keynote address by composer Gabriela Lena Frank
▪ 8 p.m. Nov. 7 – Lois Harbine, piccolo, and pianist Jooyoung Kim
▪ 8 p.m. Nov. 8 – Marimba duet with Chris Froh and Mayumi Hama
▪ 8 p.m. Nov. 9 – ACME
▪ 8 p.m. Nov. 11 – Daedalus String Quartet
▪ 8 p.m. Nov 12 – Pianist Gilbert Kalish