ACO’s Playing It UNsafe

A groundbreaking R&D lab
for cutting-edge new music

Five Lab Workshops
FREE & open to the public
Oct 18, Dec 9, Jan 29, Mar 1 & 3

Culminating in
Orchestra Underground:
Playing it UNsafe Concert

Friday, March 4, 2011 at 7:30pm
Zankel Hall, at Carnegie Hall

Composers Sean Friar, David Heuser, Joan La Barbara, Laura Schwendinger & Henry Threadgill create new works-in-progress incorporating lost/found objects; theatrical integrations; interactive lighting & projections; electronics & altered special elements; & new approaches to conducting & improvisation with the orchestra.

Watch video about Playing it UNsafe

ACO announces Playing It UNsafe, the first and only professional research and development lab to support the creation of cutting-edge new American orchestral music through no-holds-barred experimentation, encouraging composers to do anything but “play it safe.” The composers participating in Playing It UNsafe areSean Friar, David Heuser, Joan La Barbara, Laura Schwendinger, and Henry Threadgill, selected from a national search for their willingness to experiment and stretch their own musical sensibilities, and their ability to test the limits of the orchestra. Playing It UNsafe grew out of ACO’s ongoing mission to commission and perform new music that expands the range of possibilities for – and challenges convention notions about – orchestral music.

Playing It UNsafe is a season-long initiative that includes a unique incubation process of laboratory workshops and public readings, and collaborative feedback, many open to the public. Audiences have their next opportunity to see and hear the composers’ works-in-progress at the lab workshops Tuesday, March 1 andThursday, March 3 at 2pm at Aaron Davis Hall, Theater B. Admission is free. (Click on the lab date to make a free reservation.) Playing It UNsafe will culminate on Friday, March 4, 2011 at 7:30pm with a concert featuring all of the “unsafe” new works at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, conducted by ACO Music DirectorGeorge Manahan.

ACO executive director Michael Geller says, “Great art is about new ideas and risk-taking. Too often in orchestra music, that ‘on-the-edge-what-happens-next’ element is stripped out. Rehearsal time is limited, standardization prevails, box office pressures restrict possibilities. With Playing It UNsafe, we wanted to create a paradigm that was more open-ended, that invited composers to stretch themselves, to give us their best new ideas, no matter how out-of-the-norm they might be.”

ACO Music Director George Manahan says, “Orchestra commissions are usually about orchestras telling composers what they should deliver: x minutes duration, winds in twos, something that pairs well with a Brahms Symphony, etc. It’s no wonder many really creative musical voices turn to other vehicles besides the orchestra. We wanted to turn the tables, so to speak, to have really innovative composers tell us what they’ve always wanted to do. Then we created a program that helps bring their ideas to life. We invited listeners to follow the trajectory and development of these pieces, rather than treating the premiere as an isolated event.”


UNsafe Composers & Projects


Sean Friar: Clunker Concerto

watch video about Sean creating Clunker Concerto

Sean FriarSean Friar’s work will be a percussion ensemble concerto for junk car and orchestra. Beginning intact in the middle of the stage, the percussion ensemble will walk on and gradually break down the car into its component parts, removing pieces from it and creating an arsenal of familiar and unfamiliar percussion instruments in the process. With little room for subtlety, much of the fun of the piece will be the discovery of the new and wacky sounds that can be made with the car, and the way in which the orchestra will interact with and respond to them. The percussion ensemble Line C3 will serve as soloists.

Born in Los Angeles in 1985, Sean Friar’s first musical love was rock and blues piano improvisation: piano bad-boy Jerry Lee Lewis his first musical idol. While his focus later shifted toward classical music, his work still maintains the raucous energy of those early influences, now along with a diverse classical sensibility that has seen him write for ensembles as varied as string quartets, medieval dance bands, and laptop orchestras. His honors include the Aaron Copland Award, a First Music Commission from the New York Youth Symphony, the Lee Ettelson Composers Award, and three ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards. Friar graduated from UCLA, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University. He was a participant in the ACO/Penn Presents Reading Sessions in 2009.

Line C3, percussion soloists

Formed in 2003, Line C3 is a collection of percussionists committed to sharing the best of percussion repertoire in the most entertaining way possible. The group convenes in many different settings for a diverse array of projects and is known for combining an uncompromising standard of performance with a rigorous emphasis on fun.


David Heuser: Dysfunctional Families

David Heuser’s Dysfunctional Families will not be performed on the culminating Playing It UNsafe concert on March 4 at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. Sometimes, an experimental process like Playing It UNsafe leads to the desire for further experimentation. The composer is making revisions to this piece based on the feedback he received during ACO’s unique Playing It UNsafe laboratory this season. ACO is proud to have included as talented a composer as David and as risky and intriguing a project as Dysfunctional Families in our Playing It UNsafe initiative, and we look forward to his further development of the work.

Dysfunctional Families is a piece about the orchestra reacting to itself, where the supremacy of the conductor is undermined as the top-down hierarchy of the orchestra meets grass-roots uprisings, and where the audience finds themselves literally in the middle of inter- and intra-family battles. The piece will marry orchestral music with theatrical elements, particularly those that break the fourth wall. Performers fight within their section as well as across sections in what ends up being an all-out war for control of the symphony. The conflicts play out physically, with performers moving to different parts of the stage as their allegiances change. The conductor strives always to be in command of the ensemble, but, like war everywhere, he might put down a rebellion in the brass only to turn and find out the strings in an uproar.

David Heuser’s music has been called “thoughtful, beautiful, and wonderfully made” (San Antonio Express-News), “all-American music at its most dynamic and visceral” (Houston Chronicle), and “just the sort of music classical music needs more of” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). Heuser considers himself a musical storyteller. His most characteristic works are rhythmically active, strongly melodic, and often deal with extremes of tempo, dynamics and register. Heuser began composing almost immediately after his first piano lessons at the age of seven. He attended the Eastman School of Music and then the Indiana University School of Music, where he received his doctorate. He is now a Professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio teaching music composition and theory, and electronic music. He has received commissions from such ensembles as the San Antonio Symphony, the New York Youth Symphony, the SOLI Chamber Ensemble, and the Texas Music Festival Orchestra.DOTS

Joan La Barbara: In solitude this fear is lived

Joan La BarbaraIn solitude this fear is lived will be a sound painting for voice, orchestra and electronic sonic atmosphere inspired by the work of artist Agnes Martin. In 1977, Joan La Barbara began creating “sound paintings” by layering her voice on multi-track tape. In this new piece, she will expand the concept by placing orchestra players throughout the audience. In addition, she will create a sonic atmosphere using elements of breath and voice – both natural and electronically processed – to produce a wash of sound that will function as the primed canvas over which instrumental sounds float and interact. Mixed in stereo, this will be played back on speakers surrounding the audience. Solo amplified voice will also be part of the work, with the composer-vocalist moving freely around the audience as well. The title is taken from Martin’s journals.

Joan La Barbara is a composer/performer/sound artist and an acknowledged pioneer in exploring the human voice as a multi-faceted instrument expanding traditional boundaries, developing a unique vocabulary of experimental and extended vocal techniques: multiphonics, circular singing, ululation and glottal clicks that have become her signature sounds. She composes works for multiple voices, chamber ensembles, music theater, orchestra and interactive technology. Her awards include an American Music Center Letter of Distinction, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Meet The Composer/Creative Connections grants, and annual ASCAP Composer Awards. She has produced eleven recordings of her own works. In 1977, La Barbara composed a multi-layered score for voice with electronics for a signing-alphabet animation for Children’s Television Workshop/Sesame Street, which has been broadcast worldwide. Her soundwork73 POEMS, in collaboration with text-artist Kenneth Goldsmith, was included in The American Century Part II: Soundworks at The Whitney Museum of American Art. She was Artistic Director of the Carnegie Hall multi-year series When Morty met John, co-Artistic Director of New Music America festival in LA; and co-founded the performing composers collective ensemble Ne(x)tworks. Her multi-layered textural compositions have been performed at international festivals including Brisbane Biennial, Festival d’Automne à Paris, Warsaw Autumn, Frankfurt Feste, Lincoln Center, Metamusik-Berlin and Olympics Arts Festivals. La Barbara is a member of the Composition Faculty at New York University and maintains a private studio in New York.


Laura Schwendinger: Shadings

video: Laura and Leni Schwedinger on light & sound

Laura SchwendingerComposer Laura Schwendinger will write a work in collaboration with internationally known lighting artist Leni Schwendinger (the two are cousins), which will use lighting art as a jumping off point for an orchestra soundscape. In 1993 Leni undertook a photographic research project in Japan, an exploration of ephemeral architecture and the “kare sansui”; Buddhist dry landscapes. Schwendinger’s image montage has inspired her cousin, Laura Schwendinger, to create an orchestral world of shimmery sounds and dramatic orchestral shadings for the ACO. The orchestral colors reflect the rich pearlescent tones, with shades of grey, found in Leni’s projected images. The music will be completed only in the presence of the lighting and vice-versa. Unlike other recent multidisciplinary forays, this work seeks to be a true collaboration between these two artistic mediums, offering a door to a possible synesthetic connection between the two approaches, combining two different levels of perception – aural and visual.

Laura Schwendinger was the first composer to win the prestigious American Academy in Berlin Prize fellowship. Her music has been performed by Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish, Jennifer Koh, Chris Taylor, Matt Haimovitz, the Arditti Quartet, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, American Modern Ensemble, Eighth Blackbird, and at venues including Wigmore Hall, the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, the National Arts Center in Canada and at the Tanglewood and Ojai Music Festivals. Laura has been honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and has received fellowships and commissions from the Guggenheim and Fromm Foundations. She is a Professor of Composition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is also the Artistic Director of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley, where she studied with Andrew Imbrie, Olly Wilson and John Thow.

Leni Schwendinger, lighting and projections
video: Laura and Leni Schwedinger on light & sound

Leni SchwedingerLeni Schwendinger creates lighting environments for architectural and public spaces all over the world. These works energize architecture, landscape, and infrastructure with the ultimate objective of connecting people to each other and to their surroundings. Recent projects include Chroma Streams: Tide and Traffic, which explores the relationship between the flow of traffic and the changing tides below Kingston Bridge in Glasgow, Scotland. Another project, a towering landmark in Brooklyn, New York – the Coney Island Parachute Jump – utilizes illumination reflecting calendar events and tidal patterns. The relationship of light and music is not new to Leni. She designed the light installations for the front of the Seattle Opera house, and early in her career worked with Pierre Boulez at the Bayreuth Festival.


Henry Threadgill: No Gates, No White Trenches, Butterfly Effect
video: Henry Threadgill on Improvisation in the OrchestraHenry Threadgill

Saxophonist and composer/improviser Henry Threadgill will create a new piece embracing improvisation that will require new levels of interaction and collaboration with the orchestra conductor and players, and new strategies for rehearsal and preparation of the piece. Threadgill’s major goal is to find workable methods for integrating improvisation into American orchestras. A unique aspect of the piece will be the expanded role the conductor will play in facilitating the improvisation within the structure of the piece: in addition to setting tempos and dynamics, the conductor will be asked to use a series of gestures to cue different sections of the orchestra to improvise. The piece will also approach the orchestra in a different manner than the traditional homogeneous “sections” of woodwinds, brass, and strings by dividing it into more heterogeneous groupings. The piece is dedicated to Hale Smith, one of the leading African-American symphonic composers of the late 20th century.

Henry Threadgill has been a seminal figure in avant-garde jazz since the early 1970s. He has created a body of music that includes more than 150 recorded works that, while firmly rooted in America’s Great Black Music tradition, often integrate forms and instruments historically associated with chamber or orchestral music. Threadgill won Best Composer honors in Down Beat‘s International Jazz Critics Poll in 1990, 1989 and 1988. Threadgill has fronted a number of adventurous instrumental ensembles: the trio Air, which emerged from the core membership of Chicago’s visionary cooperative the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians; the Sextett; his 20-piece Society Situation Dance Band, and his current group Zooid. Born in Chicago in 1944, Threadgill began playing music when he was five. Saxophonists Lester Young, Wardell Gray, Gene Ammons, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins were major influences. Threadgill continued his formal musical education at Wilson Junior College and received a degree in flute and composition from the American Conservatory of Music. Threadgill moved to New York City in 1975 and began connecting with writers, poets, dancers, actors and artists active in the downtown scene.


George ManahanGeorge Manahan, conductor

George Manahan has had an unusually wide-ranging career, embracing everything from opera to the concert stage, the traditional to the contemporary. His most recent appearance with ACO was in May 2010 during the 19th Annual Underwood New Music Readings at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. In February 2009 at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, Manahan led a concert of world premieres, which included the much-praised multimedia works BREAKDOWN! by Margaret Brouwer and Kasumi, Rand Steiger’s Cryosphere, and Fang Man’s Resurrection. In 2006, he workshopped and led performances of music by emerging composers Anna Clyne, Fang Man, Robert Gates, and Paul Richards during ACO’s Underwood New Music Readings. In addition to his work with ACO, in fall 2010, he furthers his commitment to working with young musicians by joining the Manhattan School of Music faculty as Director of Orchestral Studies.

Manahan has been Music Director at New York City Opera for twelve seasons. There he helped envision the organization’s groundbreaking VOX program, a series of workshops and readings that have provided unique opportunities for numerous composers to hear their new concepts realized, and introduced audiences to exciting new compositional voices. In addition to established composers such as Mark Adamo, David Del Tredici, Lewis Spratlan, Robert X. Rodriguez, Lou Harrison, Bernard Rands, and Richard Danielpour, through VOX Manahan has introduced works by composers on the rise including Adam Silverman, Elodie Lauten, Mason Bates, and David Little.

George Manahan’s wide-ranging recording activities include the premiere recording of Steve Reich’s Tehillim for ECM; recordings of Edward Thomas’s Desire Under the Elms, which was nominated for a Grammy; Joe Jackson’s Will Power; and Tobias Picker’s Emmeline. His enthusiasm for contemporary music continues today; he has conducted numerous world premieres, including Charles Wuorinen’sHaroun and the Sea of Stories, David Lang’s Modern Painters, and the New York premiere of Richard Danielpour’s Margaret Garner. As music director of the Richmond Symphony (VA) for twelve years, he was honored four times by the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) for his commitment to 20th century music.


Tickets & Info

Tickets for the March 4, 2011 performance in Zankel Hall are $40 and $50 and can be purchased via CarnegieCharge at 212-247-7800, www.carnegiehall.org, or at the Carnegie Hall Box Office.

Audiences have their next opportunity to see and hear the composers’ works-in-progress at the lab workshops Tuesday, March 1 and Thursday, March 3 at 2pm at Aaron Davis Hall, Theater B. Admission is free. (Click on the lab date to make a free reservation.)

For more information call 212.977.8495.

Playing It UNsafe is made possible with the support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts, The Greenwall Foundation, Fromm Music Foundation, The Booth Ferris Foundation, Phaedrus Foundation and with public funds from the National Endowment for the Arts.


Playing it UNsafe Videos
composers in the act of creation

ACO’s Playing it UNsafe


Sean Friar’s Clunker Concerto
Part 1

Part 2


Henry Threadgill: Improv & the Orchestra

Part 2


The Schwendingers: Light & Sound

Playing It UNsafe is made possible with the support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts, The Greenwall Foundation, Fromm Music Foundation, The Booth Ferris Foundation, Phaedrus Foundation and with public funds from the National Endowment for the Arts.