Youth In New Music

Dal Niente guitarist Jesse Langen describes his experience with youth new music ensembles from Germany and Chicago. This extraordinary collaboration culminates on October 16, 2015 at the first-ever International Youth New Music Festival in Chicago.

Studio Musikfabrik performed at Darmstadt 2012, and all of us who were there felt that their concert was as good as the concerts by professional ensembles that we’d been hearing all week.  Obviously it was a revelation to hear teenagers playing at this level, and we all came home full of ideas and energy.  Over the course of the next couple of years I organized my students into a new music ensemble, and we commissioned pieces that year from a number of Chicago composers.  In the summer of 2013 Thomas Osterdiekhoff, the director of Ensemble Musikfabrik, visited Chicago and heard a recital my students gave.  They had been studying with Fred and Morgan, and Thomas heard my students play pieces by these professional composers next to pieces my students wrote that came from coachings with those composers.  He was impressed enough to propose a collaboration between Studio Musikfabrik and my students.

I was simultaneously ecstatic and terrified.  The way I saw it at the time, what my students had going for them was a relatively high level of composing skill, sensibility, and experience, and performance instincts shaped by these strengths.  What they didn’t have was technique on their instruments anywhere near those of Studio Musikfabrik, who are all essentially professional level players.

At the same time, I think Thomas understood for the first time what my students actually are.  For the year leading up to that summer concert, Thomas and Peter Veale would occasionally ask questions like “Are your students composers or performers?  Or do you have two sets of students?”  The educational system in Germany is very different from ours; they focus earlier.  It was foreign enough for them that I had a group of students who composed for themselves that it took a year of emails and a visit for that picture to make sense.

Our tendency with talented kids is to encourage them to do everything; so the first chair violin will also be a composer, and play guitar in a band after school, and play in the jazz combo, etc.  This tendency showed in an evolution in my youth ensemble; the kids went from playing commissions to writing pieces for themselves to writing collaboratively.  The collaborative writing started within a year, and it was new territory for me and for all of the coaches I hired.  More than once I got questions from my American colleagues like, “if no one is composing the piece, who is supposed to get credit for writing the piece?  Who is responsible?  Whose vision are they supposed to be executing?”  And I didn’t know how to answer these questions, to my wonder and embarrassment.  After all, this is supposed to be my field, both as a teacher and as a player; but more and more I would show up to my students’ rehearsals knowing that I had no idea what was going to happen.  These kids were becoming a super-mind that I couldn’t always keep up with.

In November 2013 I went to a youth new music ensemble festival in Berlin.  Germany has many youth new music ensembles, and there was a day of concerts of ensembles from all over the country.  Seeing all of these ensembles, I had a two-part revelation.  First, every one of the kids I heard played at a higher level of technical proficiency on their instruments than my students.  Second, none of these ensembles did anything like what my students did; they exclusively played pieces by professional composers.  By this time, my kids were more like a rock band than like any equivalent in classical music or new music.

At dinner that evening, we discussed the event and all of the performances.  I expressed my perspective on how my ensemble fit into the picture (with some trepidation!), and happily the feeling across the table was one of enthusiasm.  My ensemble does something that none of the other ensembles do.  It’s hard to imagine a youth new music ensemble, modeled after a normal adult ensemble, contributing to Studio Musikfabrik’s experience, as they are simply the best youth new music ensemble of that sort in the world.  However, what my ensemble does may not have any equivalent at all, educational or professional.  We have something to contribute.

In my wildest dreams, the way these kids work will shift the ground in my field, or create new ground, where a number of players who were educated by learning to compose, perform, improvise, and collaborate simply continue doing all of that into their adulthood, and find ways to generate audiences and get paid.  At my most enthusiastic moments I allow myself to imagine that my students will make a new new music, or that they are already doing that.

The concert next Friday night at DePaul will have four parts: Ensemble 20+, Studio Musikfabrik, Chicago Arts Initiative Ensemble, and a collaborative concert with Studio Musikfabrik and Chicago Arts Initiative.  The collaborative concert will involve creative contributions from Studio Musikfabrik, both in material they’ve sent us and throughout our rehearsal process next week.  I can say that this is the most important thing that I’ve done, and I believe it will be an important night for education and for music.

A number of people and institutions have been instrumental in all of this.  The students in the ensemble are all either current or graduated students of Chicago Academy for the Arts.  Monica George, executive director of Chicago Arts Initiative and a true visionary, has made this project conceivable on the American end.  There is no doubt in my mind that Monica will change the world for the better, starting with this project.  It probably comes as no surprise that Ensemble Dal Niente is deeply involved in a number of ways.  Reba Cafarelli, Dal Niente’s executive director has been immensely enthusiastic, supportive, and full of indispensable help.  Michael Lewanski has worked with all of my students for years, knows my teaching inside and out, and has facilitated this project in particular in more ways than I could count.  DePaul University opened their doors to this project without hesitation, and have gone to great lengths to help us with a variety of elements of the project.  Irmi Maunu-Kocian from the Chicago Goethe Institut has been working with me on this idea for more than a year; I’d go as far as to say that many of the good ideas and clear thoughts in this project have been hers. 

Finally, a number of composers and performers deserve mention with this project as coaches who have shaped both my own teaching and the culture of my students.  Jenna Lyle worked with the students extensively last summer, and upped every aspect of our game.  Rachel Brown has had that role this summer, and walked in the door the first day seeming to already understand everything we were doing.  Fred Gifford has worked with the kids many times over the years, and his ideas are in the room with us all the time; he will eventually run into a teenager he’s never met who can explain “timbre wheel” and other unique ideas of his to him. Eliza Brown, Chris Fisher-Lochhead, Morgan Krauss, Ray Evanoff, Marcos Balter, and Pablo Chin have all had a significant impact on this ensemble.  Amanda DeBoer Bartlett has coached my students extensively to our great benefit, and Quince, both as an ensemble and as individuals, has been instrumental.  Among the many Dal Niente players I owe thanks to I would mention Mabel Kwan in particular, who has probably been involved in the majority of my students’ creative activities.

-- Jesse Langen, Ensemble Dal Niente Guitarist


International Youth New Music Festival
Friday, October 16, 2015
8:00 PM
DePaul University Concert Hall
802 W. Belden Avenue