Artists rarely know when their muses will appear and what form they will take. Some arrive as the result of calculated risk and others seem just dumb luck.
For Kevin Stalheim, artistic director for the Milwaukee contemporary ensemble Present Music, the most recent muse was a string of words convoluting the name of a famous anti-war song. In Stalheim’s artistically fertile mind, the words led to one of the group’s most eclectic concert concepts yet.
“The title ‘Give Chance a Piece’ came from fellow musician and violinist Eric Segnitz, who thought something interesting could be done with it,” Stalheim says. “I contemplated it for some time, but I never thought it would go in the direction it did.”
Segnitz, obviously, took an initial spin on “Give Peace a Chance,” the 1969 hit by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band recorded as a sing-along with friends in a Montreal hotel room.
The anti-war message found new and interesting ways to emerge into Present Music’s current concert playlist, including some harrowing visions of warfare through the eyes of children.
But Stalheim also got stuck on the spelling of “piece,” as it refers to individual musical works, and “chance” as a compositional style. The latter notion involves more loosely defined and somewhat improvisational performance standards that allow participating musicians to follow their own muses within a work’s broader compositional guidance.
The result is a list of seven compositions of varying lengths, emotions and intentions that range from an elegy to 60 Afghan children killed during a U.S. bombing raid in 2008 to a critical examination of musical elements used by the late soul artist James Brown.
From there, the concert’s moving parts become even more complicated.
“I have been trying to explore composers from places other than the European dead white male tradition,” Stalheim says. “We have composers who are Iranian-American, Armenian-American, Serbian-American and Indian-American, and equal numbers of women and men composers.
“I think we perform more compositions by women in one year than the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra has done during its entire existence,” he adds.
Diversity within the compositional ranks in some cases helps promote the concert’s “chance” aspect.
Seven decidedly unique pieces
The four Present Music performances will begin with “The Banshee” by avant-gardist Henry Cowell, Stalheim’s single nod to a dead white male composer. In this 1925 composition, a pianist plays the inside of a piano, plucking and stroking the strings to frightening effect, while an assistant mans the piano bench and works the instrument’s pedals.
“Sounds from Childhood” by electronic art composer and accordionist Pauline Oliveros is a sing-along of sorts. Audience members are asked to conjure three to five specific sounds from their individual childhoods and contribute them to the performance.
From there, the works take a decidedly more serious tone. Iranian-born Sahba Aminikia contributes two works. “Shab o Meh (Night and Fog)” recounts the night he was accosted in the desert outside Tehran and had the barrel of an unloaded gun shoved into his mouth and the trigger pulled — twice. The second composition, “Elegy,” recounts the Afghan bombing raid.
“Children of Conflict: A Boy and a Makeshift Toy” by Armenian-American composer Mary Kouyoumdjian is one of several “sonic portraits” of children in war inspired by the work of American Pulitzer Prize-nominated photographer Chris Hondros.
The concert’s tone lightens from there. Indian jazz pianist Vijay Iyer’s “Dig the Say” musically dissects the music of James Brown, examining the complex interlocking of bass, drums, horns, guitar and vocal parts.
Serbian-born composer Aleksandra Vrebalov’s “My Desert, My Rose" offers performing musicians chances to improvise within various patterns of length, meter and tempo. She credits her 20 years of writing for the Kronos Quartet as helping her establish this style.
“The pieces move toward various horrible things, and then they become life-affirming toward the end,” Stalheim says. “It’s sort of my job to come up with ideas for our concerts, and there seemed to be some possibilities here in a murky way that caused me to just keep thinking.”
‘Better in small spaces’
If that musical equation weren’t complex enough, Present Music has scheduled its four performance in four decidedly different venues.
In addition to returning to the downtown Women’s Club of Wisconsin, the group will give two different house concerts, as well as an inaugural appearance at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts in Riverwest.
“This may be the fifth year for our ‘In the Chamber’ series and we’ve been all over the place,” Stalheim says. “Chamber music is better experienced in small spaces and we’re like this little group of travelers taking our shows to more intimate venues.”
Are the various audiences going to click with the eclectic playlist and variety of venues? Stalheim never knows for sure until after the fact.
“I will know at the end because I get to talk to the audience and they will tell me what they think,” he says. “One of the great advantages we have is an actual physical connection with audience members.”