Randall West is a composer and co-founder of the Chicago Composers Orchestra. The CCO is making giant strides in the Chicago new music scene, kicking off its third season with Popular Influence. I recently spoke with West via e-mail about the orchestra and the upcoming concert.
How was the Chicago Composers Orchestra founded and what is its mission? Is it geared towards Chicago composers?
The Chicago Composers Orchestra was founded in 2010 by myself and Brian Baxter. Brian and I are both composers, and we met a few years prior in conservatory at the Chicago College of the Performing Arts. For our masters’ theses, we were were both writing orchestral works… and like many emerging composers, we were faced with little opportunities for seeing our orchestral works performed. We had our degree recitals a day apart, and decided we would put in the effort to organize an orchestra ourselves to perform the pieces we were writing. It was a fantastic learning experience, and a year later we decided to draw from that experience to organize the Chicago Composers Orchestra. Like any successful endeavor, we were incredibly fortunate to have a fantastic group of people involved to get it off the ground… our artists, our board, our volunteers.
The Chicago Composers Orchestra mission is to perform and advocate for orchestral music by living composers. The orchestra engages the Chicago community through innovative programming, low cost concerts, and a vibrant and welcoming concert atmosphere. It brings the best in contemporary orchestral music to its audiences by connecting with the next generation of emerging artists. We strive to reinvigorate the orchestra experience for performers, composers, and audiences alike, and to create a sense of excitement around contemporary orchestral music throughout Chicago.
Given our mission, we are deeply dedicated to Chicago composers; we also reach out to artists outside of the community to introduce their work to Chicago.
Given the rather bleak circumstances of professional orchestras these days, do you feel like you’re working in a dying industry as an underdog of sorts? Or does your focus on contemporary music sever that connection in your mind?
That’s a difficult question. We may be an anomaly in the orchestra world; I don’t know. We got off the ground at a bleak time not only for orchestras, but bleak for all arts organizations and companies in general. And yet from day one, we’ve produced programs of great artistic value, we’ve organized many fantastic artists who are enthusiastic to be a part of the CCO, we’ve grown our audience… and we’ve been able to do this and cover our costs. I think we’ve benefitted from the fact that we have been “growing up” facing these challenges from the start.
What is the orchestra’s process in working with living composers? Are you able to workshop their pieces with them or is it usually less intimate than that?
We would love to workshop pieces with living composers; however, that is not something we have had the resources to be able to do so far, at least not in the way that many contemporary chamber ensembles do. The very nature of an orchestra means that an enormous amount of collective time and resources goes into every minute of rehearsal time. That doesn’t mean that orchestras should program conservatively, but it does mean that the material needs to be able to be successful given that constraint. In my opinion, that is a constraint that shapes the nature of the art form no differently than the possible string techniques of the violin or range of the oboe. However, even given our resource constraints, we do work intimately with every composer we program. We spend more time rehearsing each piece than most orchestras would (conventional orchestras often spend the least amount of rehearsal time on their new music programming). Composers attend the rehearsals to provide insights or address issues; and we ask the musicians provide feedback to the composers through a written questionnaire. We also provide all of the composers with reference recordings of the performance.
What was the idea behind your upcoming concert Popular Influence?
Well, the core of the program is inspired by popular music of the 20th and 21st centuries. We ran across these fantastic pieces inspired by 1950s love songs, by Led Zeppelin, etc., and decided to put them together into one concert. The really cool thing is that this isn’t simply about arrangements of pop tunes or throwing rock beats on top of the orchestra… this is about distilling ideas from popular music in artistically interesting ways, and putting that in the orchestral context.
Are there any particular projects or collaborations that we should all be looking forward to this season?
Stay tuned at our website, as we will be officially announcing the remainder of our season soon! Our winter concert will be on January 9 at the Garfield Park conservatory, where we will be bringing the orchestra out of the concert hall and into the natural environment of the greenhouse! Our spring concert will be will be May 30 at Ruth page theater.
Andrew Tham is a composer and music blogger living in Chicago.