On Friday, August 21, 2020, the Grossman Ensemble releases its debut album, Fountain of Time, on its own imprint, CCCC Records. The recently formed Grossman Ensemble, founded by composer and director Augusta Read Thomas, is a supergroup of 13 Chicago-based contemporary music specialists, exclusively performing new works from leading and emerging composers at the CCCC. The ensemble engages in a unique workshopping process focusing on interaction between composers, musicians, and conductors. To date, the CCCC has commissioned 36 composers for the Grossman Ensemble, and Fountain of Time features five premiere performances from the ensemble’s first two seasons, including Shulamit Ran’s Grand Rounds, Anthony Cheung’s Double Allegories, David Dzubay’s PHO, Tonia Ko’s Simple Fuel, and David Clay Mettens’ stain, bloom, moon, rain.
Thomas took several years to bring the ensemble to life—securing funding, and then inviting Anthony Cheung and Sam Pluta to co-direct the ensemble to assist in identifying musicians and finally commissioning a first round of 24 composers. Conductors and composers change each concert cycle, but the lineup of players is fixed. This process allows the music time to grow in the mind of the composer, and to fully inhabit the minds of the players. Of the ensemble’s first performance, The Chicago Tribune wrote, “First seasons don’t get much bigger, smarter or more multi-dimensional than this.”
Thomas, Cheung, and Pluta choose a conductor and four composers for each cycle, then over the course of three months, the Grossman musicians meet for one full day every three weeks. One week before each meeting, composers submit materials and the intensive working days are part-workshop, part-rehearsal. The process allows each composer to take more risks and to live longer with their pieces than would be possible with a traditional world premiere with a larger ensemble. “When you have a permanent conductor, there’s a game of ego,” says the ensemble’s pianist Daniel Pesca. In Grossman rehearsals, players feel more empowered to chime in, to have direct communication with composers. The structure, says ensemble violinist Maeve Feinberg, “gives players a continuing sense of agency.” Feinberg continues, “Because we see the piece from sketch to final product, we individually have had an impact on the result. It gives us buy-in during the concert.”
In the end, says Thomas, it is all about creating a healthy and vibrant community. “For us to go through this process together is beautiful in the cosmic sense,” she says. “Sometimes it’s difficult. But to gather human beings to create art together over time? It’s essential.”
Shulamit Ran’s Grand Rounds (2018) was commissioned as the first piece in the Grossman Ensemble’s inaugural concert. “For this festive occasion,” says Ran, “I wanted to create music that would be upbeat and bold, saying unabashedly and in full color—‘we are here!’” Ran also wrote a work “that would highlight the ensemble’s virtuosity, at the individual level as well as collectively.”Shulamit Ran taught at the University of Chicago Department of Music, and has been awarded most major honors given to composers in the U.S., including the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for her Symphony. Learn more at www.presser.com/shulamit-ran.
In Anthony Cheung’s Double Allegories (2019), he explores senses, elements, seasons, and affects. The music imagines heat and sparks being set off by the instruments, evokes a frigid and desolate landscape, and captures the sounds of rushing air. Anthony Cheung writes music that explores the ambiguity of sound, engages poetic imagery, natural phenomena, and is influenced by improvisatory traditions. Cheung has been commissioned by leading groups across the globe, and was a co-founder of the Talea Ensemble. Learn more at www.acheungmusic.com.
In David Dzubay’s PHO (2019), PHO stands for Potentially Hazardous Objects, natural or human-made objects with orbits close enough to be a constant danger to humans’ survival. Dzubay was inspired by Walt Whitman’s “Year of meteors,” in which forces are perceived as threats to America. Dzubay felt that Whitman’s threats remained relevant—conflicting forces and ideologies, and the increasing number of PHOs, cosmic and earthly. David Dzubay is Professor of Music, Chair of the Composition Department and Director of the New Music Ensemble at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington. Learn more at www.pronovamusic.com.
Tonia Ko’s Simple Fuel (2018) grew out of two images. First, a snail moving slowly, with antennae responding with speed. Second, a freight train barreling at high velocity, but appearing slow from afar. While writing Simple Fuel, Ko had in mind the classical adage, festina lente (“make haste slowly”). Ko’s music is whimsical, questioning, and lyrical. The recipient of the 2018 CCCC Post Doctoral Fellowship and a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship, she has been commissioned by leading soloists and ensembles, and performed at venues across the country. Learn more at www.Toniako.com.
David “Clay” Mettens’ stain, bloom, moon, rain (2020) is inspired by a collection of 9th and 11th century Japanese poems and when he read the English translation, felt a kinship. “The poetry aligned with the dream worlds and delicate textures of my music,” writes Mettens. “I was struck by the simplicity of these short poems, the range of emotions exploding out of modest forms.” David “Clay” Mettens reflects the experience of wonder in music that ranges from sonorous to crystalline. The Chicago Tribune has called his music “a thing of remarkable beauty,” displaying a “sensitive ear for instrumental color.” Learn more at www.mettensmusic.com.
The Grossman Ensemble is made possible thanks to generous support from the Sanford J. Grossman Charitable Trust. The CCCC is made possible thanks also to generous gifts from Carolyn (Kay) S. Bucksbaum and the Carolyn S. Bucksbaum Recording Fund; and by the support of Gay K. Stanek.
Fountain of Time Track List:
1. Shulamit Ran – Grand Rounds (2018) [13:40]
Ben Bolter, conductor
Anthony Cheung – Double Allegories (2019) [14:51]
2. ...of touch/heat [4:53]
3. ...of winter/solitude [5:30]
4. ...of breath/air [4:28]
Michael Lewanski, conductor
5. David Dzubay – PHO (2019) [15:58]
David Dzubay, conductor
6. Tonia Ko: Simple Fuel (2018) - [12:14]
Ben Bolter, conductor
David Clay Mettens: stain, bloom, moon, rain (2020) [13:31]
7. stain [4:33]
8. bloom/moon [4:39]
9. rain [4:19] Jerry Hou, conductor
Total - 70:14
Tim Munro, flute
Andrew Nogal, oboe
Katherine Schoepflin Jimoh, clarinet (Ran, Mettens, Dzubay, Ko)
Andrew Hudson, clarinet (Cheung)
Taimur Sullivan, saxophone
Matthew Oliphant, horn
Greg Beyer, percussion
John Corkill, percussion
Ben Melsky, harp
Daniel Pesca, piano
Clara Lyon, violin
Maeve Feinberg, violin
Doyle Armbrust, viola
Russell Rolen, cello