Mount Allison University’s New Music Ensemble

The Music Department at Mt. A has been in an ongoing state of flux since March of 2020. Ever-changing COVID-19 regulations have meant that many music professors, especially ensemble directors, did not know how their programs would be able to operate week by week. However, out of challenges comes creativity and growth; the biggest addition to the Music Department this year is the New Music Ensemble directed by Dr. James Kalyn. The New Music Ensemble is something that Dr. Kalyn has wanted to start up for a number of years now, and this year was the perfect opportunity to get it off the ground.
This is not only a music ensemble that is new to the department (although it is a new ensemble), but an ensemble that specializes in new music. “Instead of focusing just on existing published scores for specific instruments, with conventional notation, New Music Ensemble will explore the many other ways of engaging with sound, many that involve elements of chance or choice by the performers, or improvisation, and some works with little or no score to follow,” Dr. Kalyn told me. The idea is that as the members of the Ensemble rehearse throughout the year, improvisatory and composed pieces will organically start to come forth. As Dr. Kalyn explained to me, some of the “pieces” the ensemble are looking at now are just a set of guidelines, and others are game pieces with rules and flashcards!
One of the challenges of rehearsing as an ensemble these days is always accommodating for COVID-19 regulations. The ensemble is able to meet together once a week, but in order to allow for air circulation, they cannot stay in the band room and practice for hours at a time. This does not mean practice stops; in fact, it allows the ensemble to go outside and explore the sounds of their environments. They also take some time to study, listen to, and talk about trends of contemporary music. “John Cage is often thought of as the father of much of this alternative approach to music, but we have already touched on minimalist works of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, chance music with Cage and Alexis Porfiradis, and game pieces by John Zorn,” explained Dr. Kalyn.
Deciding what pieces the New Music Ensemble is going to program and perform at their end of term concert on November 26th is their biggest ongoing hurdle. The ensemble is open to any instrumentalists or singers from any background, so Dr. Kalyn was not able to plan any repertoire ahead of time because he did not know what the makeup of the ensemble was going to be. This is great though, because everyone in the ensemble gets to make things up as they go. When discussing the goals of the ensemble, Dr. Kalyn said, “I really hope people are open to expanding their thinking about what an ensemble is, what music performance can look like, and how they can be active participants in creating something new. Most of the time we spend many hours learning the ‘perfect’ way to play or sing this or that particular thing on the score, and much of this music is working the other way: thinking, feeling, imagining, and then taking chances.”
In this style of rehearsing/performance practice, the weekly interactions amongst the members of the ensemble are just as important as any performance. It will be an adjustment for the musicians to feel comfortable with these concepts and skills, given how different they are from a typical conservatory rehearsal/performance structure. Nevertheless, I have heard nothing but enthusiasm from the members of the ensemble, and I cannot wait to hear their performances throughout the year!

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