Surrounded by palm trees inside the glowing steampunk UFO of the Garfield Park Conservatory, a woman who made her glockenspiel out of a series of hardware store plumbing pipes explained the rules to me.
I was going to write the symphony.
I had been wandering among the coconuts in the west side greenhouse’s Palm House for maybe 15 minutes before the plumbing pipe percussionist explained the “piece,” Occupy Orchestra 無量園 Infinity Garden by Seattle-based composer Byron Au Yong, had been going the whole time.
I was supposed to have filled out the instructions on the 11×17 sheet I had been handed when I walked into the Jan. 9 concert, she said. I was supposed to have given it to the musicians named on the sheet, who would then improvise based on what I wrote and a few notations on the back of the sheet.
“We think it’s bizarre too, but this is fun,” a trombonist said after his — our — performance.
A guitar player can form a bar band with his buddies while waiting for the big break. A singer-songwriter can singer-songwrite to her heart’s content.
But artists in Chicago whose muse calls for 40-piece ensemble with strings, woodwinds and conductors are left to twiddle their perfectly timed thumbs until the 18th chair of the Somewhereville Philharmonic starts thinking about retirement.
That was until the Chicago Composers Orchestra, a group I’ll be writing about all this week.
The founders, who I sit down with for a beer in this Friday’s story, set the CCO up as a place for young musicians to perform the work that moves them. It’s all volunteer. Most of the musicians are in their 20s. They only perform works by living composers.
It’s a garage band philharmonic. A DIY orchestra, down to the original compositions, the non-traditional venues and the occasional handmade glockenspiel.
“Yeah, they make a really cool sound,” the woman said of her hardware store pipes, all with the price tags still attached.
In the Palm House, my 11×17 sheet told me to pick three words to give a trumpet, trombone or tuba.
“Choose one word from each column to make a three-word phrase. Example: Midnight snowflakes flicker. You can also create your own phrase based on the structure Time Place Action, for example, ‘Peaceful encampment assembles.’”
I picked “Towers” from a list of places that included branches, clouds, doorways and icicles and “Awaken” from actions like burn, circle, whisper and voyage. In honor of this project, I took “Afternoon” from a list of times that included cosmic, dawn, eternal and grandmother.
Grandmother is a time. The trombonist told me to find a trumpet.
As I wandered among the musicians and plants, I noticed how many people were capturing the moment. Photographers, mostly. Professional, a lot of them, with sacks and bags and oversized equipment sometimes with the labels of whatever storeroom or newspaper, magazine checkout space they borrowed the damn thing from.
There were a lot of the individual cell phone camera types who can’t look at the world without recording it. Even me, with my little dictaphone, the little Olympus that’s lasted five years and sixty dollars.
Maybe that’s what music is now. Performance has turned from an arrow to a circle.
We tell them what to write, we tell them how to play it, we record it and we do what we want with it. Chop it up, grind it, mix it, little bits and pieces that we’re inspiring in each other. The circle grows as the parts feed off each other. Maybe that’s what culture is. Maybe that’s what it always has been. Now it’s just shorter arcs — trills instead of symphonies. Now we feed back to each other in snippets the length of a YouTube video rather than in works it takes a night to perform and a lifetime to process.
Please Stay On Walk, a chalk sign on slate told me.
At some point a violinist who I saw earlier playing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for a toddler in a stroller started an eerie, lone song whose lyrics were listed in the program.
“Finding power in our sound, we shall gather all around,” she sang again and again. “Finding power in our sound, we shall gather all around.”
She encouraged with motions and hand gestures for people to join along, but got few takers. An older woman with a master gardener program name tag joined. A mother tried to encourage her young daughter to join the song, but the child was pulling to see the pond down a half flight of stairs.
Most just listened to the violinist’s strange song.
Everyone moved into the Fern Room with the small waterfall for the second piece, Spring Song by orchestra co-founder Brian Baxter. It would be a work inspired by Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words, which the chief landscape architect of the Garfield Park Conservatory listed as his inspiration for the Fern Room, completed in 1908. The circle again.
It would be a piece in the round, with musicians lining the arcs of the path among the ferns and waterfalls. Circle again.
I asked a violinist if there was a set time this piece would begin.
“Yeah, you’ll hear four claps. They’re still setting up a bit.” she said. “It’ll make sense when this one starts.”
On Wednesday, come back to hear a story from the more traditional modern pieces. On Friday, meet the CCO’s co-founders.