A couple weeks ago, I mentioned I was going to be starting a regular feature on performers and composers active in Seattle's new and experimental music scene. Seattle might appear far removed from the cultural and musical hubs of LA, New York and Chicago, separated by large swaths of "flyover country." But, geographic isolation hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of local musicians and composers.
In fact, Seattle has long been both a destination and an incubator for new music. How could anyone forget the rise of grunge and alternative music? Bright Sheng spent time in Seattle as composer in residence with the Seattle Symphony. The Seattle Symphony also regularly commissions and performs contemporary music. This year, the orchestra premieres a new piece by Kernis. William Bolcom was born and educated here. The University of Washington's own DXARTS program continues to chart new, unexplored musical terrain. Of course, the Seattle Chamber Players continue to advocate for new music. And this is just scratching the surface of what Seattle has to offer.
As founding member of the Corigliano Quartet, Michael Lim knows a thing or two about contemporary music. The quartet has a strong affection for and built a partnership with composer John Corigliano. Closer to home, Lim teaches Violin, Viola and Chamber Music at Seattle's Cornish College of Arts. This is familiar territory for Lim, as he previously taught Chamber Music at Juilliard while an assistant for the Juilliard Quartet. Lim is fairly new to Seattle, providing him a unique insight into the local music scene.
Zach Carstensen: How did you become interested in new music?
Michael LIm: When I was an undergrad in college, a composer friend asked me to play a piece of his. I'd never really done any contemporary music before and was thrilled by the language of the piece, the newness of the sounds, and the fact that I was the first person to ever play the piece. Since then, I've been drawn to new music. It's exciting to bring something new to life as a performer and to interact with composers. I like the fact that there is no performer's blueprint for new works. It's unchartered waters.
ZC: How do you define your own music?
ML: As a performer, I strive to bring energy and a fresh approach to everything I play. Lately, I'm becoming more and more interested in improvising. In addition to being in the Corigliano Quartet, I'm a member of Open End, a New York-based group that performs new works and improvisations. We do free improvs based on our collective musical vocabulary. When you've performed a lot of new music, you start to develop a language that you can call on quickly. We read and react to each other. It's exciting to develop a piece together on the spot.
ZC: What are you currently working on?
ML: 2008 is the 70th birthday of composer John Corigliano, who has been a great friend and source of inspiration. John has long been a leading figure in American music, and is one of the most decorated composers (Pulitzer, Grammy, Oscar). To help honor John, I'll be presenting two of his works here in Seattle. I'm playing his violin sonata with pianist Cristina Valdes in my recital at the Cornish Music Series on February 29, and also on the Transport Series, when Cristina and I present a duo recital on March 19. On May 22, the Corigliano Quartet will perform John's string quartet on the UW World Series.
ZC: Is Seattle's new music scene different from other cities?
ML: All new music scenes are somewhat "underground" and Seattle is no exception. But I don't get the sense that Seattle's new music scene struggles to gain acceptance. It seems to be happy to have its own place, doing its own thing.
ZC: What good things does "Seattle" bring to the scene?
ML: There's just such an artistic openness about Seattle that I love. It's okay to be into whatever you want here, and I find that to be refreshing for new music.
ZC: Have you found a type of music more predominant in Seattle?
ML: I wouldn't say there is one particular type or school that dominates in Seattle. I think that's a good thing, to keep things moving in many directions. It keeps things fresh.
ZC: How does the University of Washington's DXARTS program figure into the local music scene?
ML: Quite prominently. It's a wonderful place where technology and artistry walk hand in hand, with both components being at the highest level. They are taking art into the new millennium and Seattle is fortunate to have DXARTS in its backyard.
ZC: Do you think the programs at the University of Washington and Cornish are more open to new music than schools in other cities?
ML: I just recently began teaching at Cornish and I'm blown away by the spirit of the school. One of the big things at Cornish is inter-disciplinary artistic endeavors. I got to do an amazing show there about composer Erwin Schulhoff called "Tempo of Recollection." It combined theater, music, dance, and art, in a way that really made sense and had a great narrative thread, and was entertaining as well. The music department has a great jazz scene, and historically has been a hotbed of creativity. John Cage taught at Cornish, and even invented the prepared piano there. The faculty is wonderful, and we're really starting to make a push to build the string department there. The students are enthusiastic, and extremely open to new things. It's an exciting atmosphere to work in.
ZC: IPods and the Internet have democratized music, essentially allowing any composer to distribute his/her music. Do you think this democratization is good for new/experimental music?
ML: You have this potential to reach people with new and interesting music, and as a result, you're seeing a lot of innovation in the use of technology. Not only to create music, but to distribute it as well. So in the sense of reaching more people, it's a good thing.
ZC: How would you categorize the composers active in the Seattle new/experimental music scene?
ML: Independent and spirited.