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The future of Philadelphia music: String quartets in helicopters?

Once a comfortably conservative music town, Philadelphia is turning into a hub of musical experimentalists.

Robert Whalen is one of many performers taking Philadelphia beyond the edge..
Robert Whalen is one of many performers taking Philadelphia beyond the edge..Read moreTodd Rosenberg Photography

Sometimes you just have to plug your ears — and not care who notices.

The occasion was the debut of the Barnes Ensemble weeks back in a program that delved into Ligeti, Scelsi and other composers who go to the edge of what's possible for the human mind to conceive. Much was fascinating. But the opening dissonances in Eric Wubbels' Viola Quartet were so confrontational that I hit overload. Off the cliff. Unable to take another second. Fingers went in the ears. The diabolical enthusiasm of Barnes Foundation curators Katherine Skovira and Robert Whalen left me nearly begging for mercy.

Not that I'm complaining. In fact, this is great news. Really.

The concert was the artistic equivalent of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft sending back pictures of Pluto. Maybe it isn't pretty. But look you must.

Such events haven't been available to Philadelphians on this scale until recently. But 2017 has been a succession of large-scale, at-the-edge events. Bowerbird's Julius Eastman festival recovered lost works of the late African American composer (1940-90), whose music was scattered to the winds at his death but who is now emerging as an infectious visionary. It was historic. Meanwhile, Philly Fringe, Opera Philadelphia's O17, the October Revolution, and PRISM Quartet have all had concerts that were artistic successes and that carved out a larger-than-usual space in the musical ecosystem.

This month alone has Network for New Music with new pieces by Cynthia Folio and Robert Maggio inspired by the artwork of Martin Puryear (best known for Big Bling —  along Kelly Drive since June) at the Print Center  on Sunday, the Crossing with David Lang's National Anthems Monday at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, and Orchestra 2001 producing Steve Mackey's full-evening theater work Slide Thursday at Venice Island Performing Arts.

"People's ears have changed," said Princeton composer Mackey, whose main instrument is electric guitar. "Twenty years ago, my appearance on stage with electric guitar and a string quartet was a super novelty. If people liked it, it was because I was a badass rebel. And if they didn't, I was a heretic. It was hard to get people to actually hear the music. Now, it's not a big deal."

Some perspective: When Mackey's Eating Greens was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1998, listeners were outraged that the piece called for a pizza delivery on stage at the Academy of Music. Audiences paying money for traditional classics might now be equally annoyed when not given that. New music finds alternative audiences in alternative venues, where it's not confined to typical concert formats. Mackey's full-evening Slide is a theatrical, though hardly linear, journey into the brain of a lonely psychologist.

New technology, whether computer-generated stage images or electronic augmentation of the sound, allows composers to dream big without orchestral conservatism breathing down their necks, such as the 17-year-old Curtis Institute flute phenom Emma Resmini, whose Nov. 17 recital at the Rotunda has works by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Kalevi Aho that promise an expansive electronic element. She's the latest discovery by Bowerbird, which produces 35 to 40 events every year that go as far afield as Mongolian throat singing.

Note that most of these pieces aren't actually new. Slide dates from 2009, so performers won't be wrestling to make sense of something that's never been heard before. Listeners, with any luck, have a point of reference from other pieces — in contrast to premieres, which have prestige but leave people thinking, "Thank goodness that's over."  Variations on a Theme by Hugo Wolf, by local composer Michael Hersch, seemed to be booed into oblivion at its rocky 2005 premiere by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. But it rises again this month in Vienna, another city that's recovering from its own conservatism, by the new-music group  Alban Berg Ensemble Wien with an audience that's no doubt eager for Herschian angst.

What was once radical is perhaps less so now. Mackey, 61, jokes about his grandfatherly relationship to "indie classical," saying, "Now, I'm a centrist instead of somebody out on the fringe."

Other culture capitals don't have this. The difference here is made by individuals who took steps toward the impossible — and kept stepping. The Crossing began 12 years ago as a bunch of friends who like to sing together with music not heard elsewhere. Founder/director Donald Nally was commuting between Philadelphia and his day job at the Welsh National Opera. Once underway, the Crossing resisted the traditional institutional trappings, such as a board of directors. "We made mistakes," says Nally, "but I wanted to do pieces of music that I knew our singers would love. Our budget was formed by projects, rather than the other way around."

Projects are also chosen according to what needs to be said. The Crossing's commissions have addressed all manner of social issues, from ecology to equality. "We don't propose to offer solutions. I think that would be presumptuous," said Nally. "I'm just a singer, you know." At the moment, he's consulting with composer Lang on a new outdoor piece to be performed on the High Line, New York's elevated walkway. Carnegie Hall is asking the Crossing for a full-length work by New York composer Michael Gordon for  spring 2020. But for the more immediate future, the Crossing has a $240,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage for a new work titled Aniara, based on the science fiction poem by written by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson in collaboration with the experimental Klockrike Theatre in Helsinki.

The arc from vision to fruition can be long. Under the heading of the Ars Nova Workshop, Mark Christman produced ad hoc experimental music events for 17 years before consolidating into this year's weekend-long October Revolution festival, enabled partly by FringeArts's attractive riverside venue that encourages serious listening beyond edgy jazz/classical/fusion needs. Some 360 festival passes were sold, which might not seem so impressive until you realize the price was between $200 and $400. That's a serious audience commitment.

Bowerbird shrewdly claimed its place in the community with festivals of difficult composers, such as Morton Feldman and John Cage, starting in 2006 with the use of social media before its current state of congestion. Enlightened local philanthropy and the relatively low Philadelphia production costs were also essential.

Accomplishing the impossible means something different every year. Freelance harpist Elizabeth Huston came out of nowhere in 2014, wowing Fringe Festival audiences not as a performer but a producer who envisioned Luciano Berio's super-virtuosic solo-instrumental Sequenzas played in different rooms decorated in the spirit of the decades from which they sprang. Now, she's planning an April 7 opening of Klang, Stockhausen's 21-part, 14-hour-long cycle of chamber music pieces, representing each hour of the day, performed in conjunction with MusikFabrik from Cologne. Even more ambitious are future plans for Stockhausen's Licht, a cycle of seven operas written for each day of the week, including the infamous "Helicopter Quartet" with four string players in their own individual helicopters. The Jefferson Hospital helipad is a centrally located venue. But will audiences go there?

The groups with an unusually high success rate with new music know their audience — and in the case of the Crossing, edit accordingly — though tactfully. "At times, there's a really great piece inside of a problematic piece," said Nally. "I know our artists and our audience really well, and I know what will ring unintentionally false."

Interestingly, Opera Philadelphia decided to do the 2012 George Benjamin opera Written on Skin in February at the Academy of Music but not in the artsy production that has been seen all over the world. Maybe there are better ways to tell its story about jealousy and cannibalism in suffer-no-fools Philadelphia, especially with a new-music community that's increasingly likely to know lapses in artistic judgment when they hear it. New music performances become ever more cognitively clear with an emerging generation of musicians who regard fringe music — not Beethoven — as their first love.

Hurt sees that among Curtis and Temple University students. "That's a really big change,"  he says. And when the performers understand more of the music, so does the audience.

Network for New Music:  3 p.m. Nov. 12 at The Print Center, 1614 Latimer St.Tickets: $10-20.  Information:

The Crossing:7 p.m. Nov. 13 at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Tickets: $20-$35. Information:

Orchestra 2001: 8 p.m. Nov. 14 at Taplin Auditorium in Princeton and 7 p.m. Nov. 16 at Venice Island Performing Arts in Manayunk. Tickets: $15-35. Information: 267-687-6243 or

Bowerbird: Emma Resmini's recital is 8 p.m. Nov. 17 at the Rotunda, 4014 Walnut St. Free.