As the Dead Kennedys’ “Terminal Preppie” screeched overhead, Randall West took a swig of cider and talked about his series of short orchestral pieces based on the periodic table of elements.
“They build new atoms out of bombarding electrons onto the nucleus. They’re building new elements, I think, faster than I can write music,” the computer programmer said.
“I wrote a piece called ‘Tungsten’ for the first concert that we did. Tungsten is in the filament of light bulbs so the image in my head was like these like old-school light bulbs and movie marquees kind of like flashing on and off,” he said.
The Jan. 9 Chicago Composers Orchestra concert in the Garfield Park Conservatory had pulled up stakes and headed north for an after party of booze and burgers at High Dive in Ukie Village. As the classically trained volunteer musicians drank and gabbed and the jukebox blasted punk, orchestra co-founders West, 32, and Brian Baxter, 27, talked modern symphonic composition.
Baxter had to half yell over The Descendents’ “Suburban Home” to say how he wrote the piece performed that night in the conservatory’s Fern Room based off a piece that inspired the Fern Room.
“I think it would be appropriate to extrapolate some material from the Mendelssohn that the architect was inspired by and sort of orchestrate out just one part of that within and around the space,” Baxter said between bites of Buffalo wing. “So that’s how I came up with that.”
Chicago is “an orchestra town,” Baxter said, but the other orchestras lean staid and old-timey, sticking for the most part to classic crowd-pleasers like Bach and Beethoven. History, he said, is to blame.
“Post World War II, composers started writing crazy-ass shit that everyone hated,” Baxter said. “I happen to like a lot of that music, but it didn’t have necessarily broad appeal.”
Faced with classic pieces that could draw a crowd or experimental soundscapes of crazy-ass shit, orchestras headed old. New music became niche.
“Orchestras became museums, for better or worse,” Baxter said. “I think in general, worse.”
The CCO is different. Only modern. Only works by living composers.
“The challenging part is that, as far as I know, there aren’t any or very few start-up orchestras even in general but in particular for new music,” West said.
Case in point: Pos Metaphonos by composer Lawrence Axelrod, which the CCO had premiered earlier that night.
“It was written in ’92 and it hadn’t been performed yet,” West said. “He had hoped it would be performed and just with the focus of orchestras not being on contemporary music, it had not. It took 20 years for the opportunity to come up for it to be performed.”
The jukebox blasted punk. The Ukie Village crowd slammed beer. Baxter and West met while studying musical composition at Roosevelt University.
Both decided to write for orchestra for their masters’ theses in spring 2009. They pulled together an orchestra and conductor to put on their works. After graduation, West went back to computer programming and Baxter got an administrative job with a local youth orchestra.
“About a year out from the program we were like, ‘Look, we need to make this a reality. We need to do this for real,’” Baxter said. “‘We’ve got a great list of performers, we’ve already got connections with all these people. I mean, if we’re going to do this, now’s the time.’”
They got the orchestra from their theses back together with a few new faces, created a board of directors, incorporated as a non-profit and hung their musical shingle in the summer of 2010.
For the musicians they knew, it was a chance to perform new, exciting music now rather than waiting for an opening to play Beethoven’s Fifth now until their fingers go. For Baxter and West, it was a chance to see their work and other work they were excited about performed.
“If you’re comparing it to like the rock, pop world where like say you have a band and you’ve got your four guys playing a basement and you go out and you play shows, you’re writing the music that you’re performing,” Baxter said. “The composer’s got to get together with these performers and sell them his or her music. You have to get other people excited about it and then you need advocates for your music.”
The music blasted, I presume, into the night. The after party went on, I’m taking it, long after I shook the hands of Randall West and Brian Baxter and toddled my way home. The violinists, I gather, gabbed with the clarinetists and maybe did a round or two of shots with the woodwinds or maybe the woman I saw earlier in the night who had made her glockenspiel out of hardware store plumbing pipes.
I’ve done three days of stories now on the Chicago Composers Orchestra. I might tag back in with them sooner or later as this site meanders on over the years, but for now I want to leave them like this. I want to leave them as two young guys sitting at a bar, drinking cider and gluten-free beer, snacking on Buffalo wings and, as a party rages on around them, talking about the music that excites them.