Eco Ensemble on contemporary repertoire and Berkeley’s progressive roots

On a balmy afternoon in early June, the University of California, Berkeley, is bustling with prospective students, maps in hand, scattered throughout the campus grounds.

In the heart of the campus, just past Strawberry Creek and the Faculty Glade greens, lies Morrison Hall, a serene milieu adjacent to the faculty lounge, where three members of the campus’ in-house Eco Ensemble gather around a wooden table and greet one another as old friends. They are clad in casual dress: short-sleeve button-down oxfords or Hawaiian-style shirts paired with jeans or khakis—very Berkeley.

Eco just finished up its 2014–15 season, which included a trip to Italy in September, with 23 of its members presenting two concerts at the 2014 Venice Biennale, an art exhibition that has also encompassed the International Festival of Contemporary Music since 1930. Eco performed works by Berkeley composers (including John Adams’ Gnarly Buttons and Steve Reich’s Nagoya Marimbas), faculty, and recent graduate students. Berkeley’s graduate program for music composition boasts such alumni as the prominent DJ/composer Mason Bates and Jimmy Lopez, who is writing an opera for soprano great Renée Fleming.

David Milnes, Eco’s music director and conductor, violinist Dan Flanagan, cellist Leighton Fong, and I sit in one of the music department’s faculty rooms as the trio recounts the ensemble’s humble beginnings. “He and I have been going back and forth for 20 years on this [ensemble] in one way or another,” says Milnes, pointing to Fong.

The ensemble officially formed in 2011 as a group of faculty members committed to performing new music from established and emerging composers. The size of the ensemble varies based on the pieces performed and instruments required—it’s “a pool of musicians,” Milnes adds, all from the university’s faculty. The pieces the ensemble selects to perform are typically commissioned from Berkeley students or residents, or written by contemporary composers.

“Contemporary—it’s an idiom more than a time frame,” Milnes says. “I mean, we’ve played dead people,” he adds with a laugh.

In October, the Eco Ensemble will perform with Grawemeyer Award–winning Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho as part of UC Berkeley’s  inaugural Berkeley RADICAL season. Eco will present Saariaho’s Notes on Light during the “Natural World” program, which, at press time, is listed as also featuring performances by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, and the Kronos Quartet. The program aims to present a collection of “artistic responses to the natural world in the context of global ecological concerns,” a Berkeley RADICAL press release states.

The ensemble’s moniker lends itself perfectly to a program with an ecological-focused ethos. According to its mission statement, Eco credits Berkeley’s progressive cultural landscape for contributing to the “artistic ecology within which [the ensemble] exists.”

“Is that what it says there?” Milnes asks with a laugh, after I read him part of the mission statement.

“Now you’re informing us!” Fong chimes in. Flanagan directs us back on track, and speaks to whether the name was meant to evoke “echoes” of the past—the Bay Area, and Berkeley specifically, is home to some of contemporary music’s most innovative contributors, including composer John Adams and the San Francisco–based Kronos Quartet, which relocated to the area from Seattle, Washington, in 1978—or if it’s more of a tip of the hat to the rich cultural ecology you find in Berkeley today.

Perhaps, it’s a bit of both, Flanagan offers: “It’s suggestive of a lot of things that we think about.”

“It’s meant to make you wonder,” Milnes adds. “You come to our concerts, and you’re not sure what you’re going to get. There’s a long history of new music innovation at Berkeley that goes back 100 years, so we’re capitalizing on a long, long tradition of experimentation—a West Coast sort of open-mindedness and freedom of experimentation.”

It was that experimentation, and Milnes, in particular, that drew violinist Dan Flanagan to join the group. “I started teaching here, and shortly thereafter [David] invited me to play,” says Flanagan, who also serves as concertmaster of the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera, and is an instructor of violin at UC Berkeley. “It was quite new to me—I’d played some new music before, but not as much, or as interesting or as challenging as the music we program.”

Being on the cutting edge is a pillar of the ensemble’s mission, and the university’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT) allows the group to present and premiere contemporary music that aligns with that very vision.

“[UC Berkeley] is a research university—we consider new music to be a function of research,” Milnes says. “It’s composers finding out new things; it’s people working on technology that affects the performance of music; it’s new ways of playing instruments; and it fits well here [at Berkeley].”

CNMAT is comprised of three legs: education, performance, and research. The center offers a locale for all three areas to intersect and focus on the art of establishing an interaction between music and technology. The center allows students in varying fields—from music composition to engineering—to research the physical properties of sound alongside computer models that demonstrate the physics working behind the scenes. The result allows graduate students to include the research and findings into pieces they compose—many of which are then premiered by the Eco Ensemble.

CNMAT’s innovative mission and UC Berkeley’s progressive roots have allowed the ensemble to breathe new life into contemporary music. “It’s no accident that John Adams moved here from Boston,” Milnes says of Berkeley’s rich, artistic history.

The switch to contemporary repertoire came easily for Flanagan, who says he appreciates how different the pieces were from the classical music he was used to performing. “The attitude toward the music and the approach toward making it was different,” he says of contemporary music and the, at times, avant-garde playing style. “I really enjoyed that—we’re not going for traditional beauty. It’s different, and it’s a different kind of beauty . . . and it tickles me.”

It’s the search for expression that piqued Fong’s interest. “Who’s to say what beauty is?” asks Fong, who also is the principal cellist of the California Symphony and a teacher of special programs for cello at the university.

“But when you get to work with a composer—young or old—he or she is trying to express something and that’s a nice challenge.” The ability to collaborate directly with the composers and musicians, Milnes says, offers myriad interpretive possibilities. “For us, we are creating the interpretation, and the composers have enjoyed working with us because they participate in the aesthetic decisions,” he says. “And that’s part of what’s fun—you’re really a co-
creator, not just trying to reach some ideal that’s already been set by history.”

“Of course, it is just an expansion of that lineage,” Fong adds. “[Contemporary composers] are just extending this classical tradition, so, in some ways, it makes perfect sense in terms of how history plays out.”

It’s with that spirit of growth and innovation, Flanagan adds, that the ensemble is able to cultivate an environment where audiences are consistently introduced to new works and techniques.

“We, a lot of the times, don’t use the bow on the violin in a traditional way,” Flanagan says. “We’re literally making noise. Sometimes the composer gives us a symbol that means we’re crunching to the point where there isn’t actually a pitch created, and we’re just making different overtones sparkle out. We play behind the bridge a lot; we bow on the wood of the violin, or tap on the wood of the violin. There’s a whole spectrum of non-pitched noise that we experiment with and then there’s actually blending that can be done when several instruments are doing this at the same time, and [Milnes has] showed me how to listen for that,” he says.

The physicality of the playing style can take a toll, Fong says. “I find myself going to the violin shop a lot to get a lot of rehairs and new strings,” he says.

“My violin got a little bit of a beating in our last set of concerts,” Flanagan adds. “[It] had a few nicks that weren’t there before, but that’s all part of it.”

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