By Anna Pulley
In the culmination of its tenth anniversary season, Chicago-based contemporary-music collective Ensemble Dal Niente went out with a literal bang. The group’s Party 2016 event on April 30 featured the North American premiere of Stefan Prins’ Generation Kill, a jarring, explosive multimedia work combining four conventional instrumentalists—cello, violin, percussion, and electric guitar—and four instrumentalists playing PlayStation 3 game controllers.
The game controllers read parts notated with normal time signatures and rhythmic values, in addition to controlling audio and video (some prerecorded), two webcams, and the widely varying speeds, pitch levels, and durations of all of these variables.
“It was the most unusual thing I’ve done,” says Dal Niente’s artistic coordinator Michael Lewanski, “especially because I’m the conductor.”
Dal Niente has always taken a dauntless and unconventional approach to music performance. In addition to presenting a large ensemble, chamber music, and solo repertoire from emerging and established living composers, the 22-member group has collaborated with the indie-rock band Deerhoof and composer Marcos Balter; toured Latin America; performed and recorded works by noted trombonist, improviser, and composer George Lewis; and completed a residency at Harvard; and in 2012, became the first-ever ensemble recipient of the Kranichstein Music Prize at the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music in Germany.
Not that I don’t love that music; I do love it, and I conduct it all the time. But it is inarguable that that music is not our music.
The Party concept started in 2012, and the April 30 concert was the group’s third such event, involving an evening-long concert with short sets of music—in this instance, tonal music, European establishment music, performance art, a show tune, and a quirky arrangement of rock songs—broken up by intermissions during which the audience was encouraged to eat, drink, mingle, and discuss what they’d just heard. “I love our Parties,” says violist, musician representative on the collective’s board, and jill-of-all-trades Ammie Brod. “They strike right at the heart of what is important to me about our work—the art, yes, but also people, community, connection, and how we experience all of those things through the lens of the art we make.”
In addition to meaning “from nothing” in Italian, the name Dal Niente signifies multiple and contradictory concepts, like the group itself. It’s the name of a clarinet piece by Helmut Lachenmann, a German composer whose unconventional works explode the functions and expectations of music. It’s also a common dynamic indication in new music—giving an instruction about how to start a note—and a reference to the group’s origins, Lewanski says. The collective was formed by composers Kirsten Broberg, Robert Reinhart, and Marcos Balter, who were Northwestern University students at the time in Evanston, Illinois. Its first players were also students. “No one got paid for anything and there was no money or resources,” Lewanski says, “so it really started ‘from nothing.’”
Through the last decade that Dal Niente has been presenting and performing new music, the group has always sought to challenge convention and redefine the listening experience, by asking simple yet provocative questions, such as: What is a musical instrument? To what extent are instrumentalists responsible for the sounds they make, and to what extent is that governed by culture? And how does music relate to culture?
“This last question is especially important to us,” Lewanski says. “In the world of so-called ‘standard repertoire’ classical music, US musicians play a lot of music that is from a culture, time, and geographical location that is very distant from our own. Not that I don’t love that music; I do love it, and I conduct it all the time.
But it is inarguable that that music is not our music. We can never understand Beethoven in the way that his contemporaries understood him.
The Parties strike right at the heart of what is important to me about our work—the art, yes, but also people, community, connection, and how we experience all of those things through the lens of the art we make.”
“All living composers are, by definition, writing about life in their time and place,” he continues, “and our time and place is very complex. What Dal Niente is trying to do is listen to what these composers are saying and help audiences experience that as well.”
Part of redefining and embracing that complexity has meant committing some pretty sacrilegious acts to instruments.
“I’ve scraped [my viola] strings with coins, chopsticks, and an espresso cup, and attached paper clips and tinfoil to it in various ways,” says Brod. But the most unconventional reworking of her viola was for Ashley Fure’s something to hunt.
“She wanted a very particular effect, which involved a combination of heavy bow pressure and dragging my bow vertically down the strings from close to the nut to the bridge at an acute angle. The ideal effect is a kind of wail—harmonics and overtones and this mournful otherworldly lament. It sounds really unlike anything I’ve ever done before—alien, almost pained.”
As the group has matured and changed over the years, have these unconventional experiences matched their expectations?
“The amazing thing about being a member of a group that has 22 super intelligent, skilled, thoughtful musicians is that the expectations are always changing based on people’s connections, experiences, and artistic circles,” Lewanski says. “It’s all a process of becoming, not a state of being.”
Brod agrees: “As the group has matured and as my own understanding of, and passion for the work we do has grown, I have to say that we still constantly exceed my expectations.
“Each performance is like a whole universe that I’ve stumbled upon. And I’m eternally grateful that I get to be a part of it.”