We recently had the opportunity to speak with Augusta Read Thomas, Andrew Nogul, and Sam Pluta about the release of the first album, Fountain of Time, from the Grossman Ensemble. We ask them about collaborative efforts, commissioning composers, running rehearsals and recording, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the ensembles current and future plans.
The Grossman Ensemble includes co-directors, commissioning composers, and performers. How did the organic infrastructure of this group come to be? How has it developed over time until the production of this most recent album Fountain of Time?
Augusta Read Thomas: My leadership style is to gather and hire spectacular people and then empower them to do their magic. Although over the past 30 years I have dedicated a colossal amount of my time administrating in order to support the work of other composers and musicians, I am not an “administrator”, I am a composer. To everything, including the Grossman Ensemble and the Center for Contemporary Composition that I founded, I bring a composer’s creativity, mind, and atmosphere. Fairness and transparency are vital to my governance style and thus every artist (composer, performer, conductor, recording engineer, etc.) are paid identical fees. There are no special deals, hidden agendas, or secrets. We are all overwhelmingly privileged to be able to create new music together and I try hard to create an environment that is fun, engaging, and artistically rewarding.
Andrew Nogal: Gusty invited me to join the ensemble more than a year prior to the scheduled date of our first rehearsal in October 2018. Incredible amounts of thought, energy, and administrative planning went into the genesis of this project. By the time we were ready to release our first album, which became Fountain of Time, the musicians had taken on an unusually strong role in shaping the artistic and creative vision for the work we do together. We formed a committee of five musicians to make virtually every decision about the album, from who would design the artwork to which tracks would appear in what order. This also meant I listened to countless hours of dress rehearsal and concert recordings to help shape the finished edits that we would release. All of that work was happening in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, and it was powerful and grounding to assemble this sort of collage to introduce the world to our wonderful ensemble while so much about the future of our industry remains a question mark.
Sam Pluta: Andy’s response is perfect.
Will you describe for us the ethos of the ensemble? What makes it work and what makes it special in the ecosystem of new music?
Augusta Read Thomas: Rehearsals are spirited, interactive and run many times per cycle for long days of work. We all gather, fairly early in the morning, in the greenroom around a table full of coffee and breakfast snacks. 13 musicians, 4 composers (who will have flown to Chicago the night before, 1 conductor, recording engineers (we record every workshop and rehearsal), the Co-Directors, and other members of the team have gathered to make art together. Percussionists are hard at work setting up huge arrays of instruments. The piano is being tuned. The piano is being tuned. The positive and creative attitude of each cog in that gear is paramount. Every artist is empowered to speak up freely and often. No one is the boss. Leadership ping-pongs around the room and throughout the year with ease and grace.
Andrew Nogal: One meaningful trait that distinguishes this ensemble from most other new music groups in the United States is that every piece we play engages every player on the roster. This gives us performers a real sense of duty in that we are building a new repertoire together for a distinctive (though not entirely oddball) instrumentation. As a freelancer who plays all types of music and who also performs trios or quintets or sinfonietta pieces with modular new music organizations, I work alongside dozens if not hundreds of different musicians each year. I feel more permitted and more comfortable to take artistic risks alongside my colleagues in the Grossman Ensemble. We have constancy, familiarity, and intimacy within this group that I don’t believe is always present within the new music ecosystem that spotlights performers with more of a soloist mindset.
Sam Pluta: The consistency of the ensemble is really important. It gives everyone, from the co-directors to all the players a voice. But on the opposite end, the conductor is always different. This is really vital! This allows different processes to unwind in every rehearsal cycle, and for there to be an openness about discussion that is possible with a guest at the helm. It actually diffuses the power structure, sending more agency to the players and encouraging more interaction.
Composers are encouraged and empowered to work more intimately with performers in your ensemble. How does that shape an average rehearsal and the overall performance/recording?
Augusta Read Thomas: Composers ask for the musicians to try something. For example, “can you play that whole passage up one octave and as fast as feasible?” This thought-balloon may be successful or not. Usually though, something like this leads to a burst of laughter, some problem solving, and the creation of further inventive ideas. The composition gets better. We had fun. The composer learned important nuances from the musicians.
Andrew Nogal: There hasn’t really been an average Grossman rehearsal within our first two years together. At their first rehearsal – which takes place nine weeks before the concert – composers have brought us materials resembling concert-ready finished scores to fragmentary ideas about sections of the piece that may eventually get stitched together (or thrown out entirely) to handwritten scribbles and doodles. We have seen great music result from each of these three approaches, which proves that no two composers’ creative processes will look exactly alike!
Sam Pluta: From my experience, as someone who has had a chance to write for the group, I gave the players the material for the rehearsal, then discussed what I wanted to be rehearsed with the conductor. The conductor laid out the rehearsal plan, but during the rehearsals, the performers had a chance to give feedback, ask to do things again, and guide the process. At one point, the group realized that a particular trio needed time to focus, so everyone else left the stage and the trio just worked as a reduced group. There is a lot of input from everyone about how things should go, which has only been a positive experience.
Augusta Read Thomas, Andy Nogul, and Sam Pluta.
Why would you encourage more ensembles to experiment with this kind format? What tips would you give them for getting started?
Augusta Read Thomas: Andy and Sam’s replies are great! I will just add that working with our generous donors, whom I consider partners, has been a privilege and, without their support, it would be much harder to run an ensemble of this many players that performs exclusively commissioned world premieres that goes through our extensive workshop and rehearsal process multiple times a year.
Andrew Nogal: Sam’s response here is terrific. As a working musician, I will say that it is an extremely rare privilege to have a beautiful, comfortable, professional performance space that feels like an artistic “home.” In so many ways, the industry usually treats us like vagabonds; I’ve performed in grimy dive bars, staid classrooms, empty concert halls at liberal arts colleges, on grand festival stages in Europe, and in every kind of room in between. Having the Logan Center as our regular venue has helped the Grossman Ensemble to cultivate a community of listeners in a remarkably short time; there are faces I have dependably seen in the crowd at every single one of our concerts. I would urge newer ensembles to consider carefully where and how to enmesh with communities of artists and listeners, especially during a pandemic when traveling and touring are not safe options.
Sam Pluta: Where this is special is in a group of this size who consistently commissions work from all over the country, and who consistently creates vibrant relationships between a large group of performers and composers. I don’t know another version of this approach. But smaller chamber ensembles who work with living composers are and have been doing this kind of commissioning for years. What they lack are the resources to workshop the way Grossman does, and this kind of workshopping is priceless both for composers and performers. So what really what needs to happen is smaller chamber groups need to get better and more sustained funding. They want to do this work: creating small-scale ecosystems of creative music-making and grass roots commissioning projects while fostering local audiences. If Grossman Ensemble can be a model for this kind of local musicking, great things can happen.
What was the commissioning process like, and how were the pieces for the Fountain of Time selected? Did you run into any roadblocks along the way?
Augusta Read Thomas: To sum it up succinctly: No house style! Diversity of aesthetics, approaches, styles, is key to our vitality. Co-Directors spend a great deal of time planning “menus” of concerts. We ask ourselves: which four composers shall we commission for that concert? The Co-Directors and musicians suggest composers on an ever-evolving google spreadsheet. We work collaboratively.
Andrew Nogal: The pieces for the album were ultimately selected by the committee of five musicians who volunteered for this project. We of course solicited feedback from all of the performers, who had listened to all the original concert recordings. The committee prioritized pieces that we and our colleagues nearly unanimously believed demonstrated the best work of the ensemble as well as a catalog of different musical aesthetics.
Sam Pluta: A lot of thought goes into choosing composers with a broad range of aesthetics and interests. We don’t want the group to play just one kind of music. We want every concert to be an adventure, and so we invite composers from all stages of careers and from different compositional camps to be on the same program. The same went for this album. It has a lot of different kinds of composers on there, and we are very proud of that.
How will you go about brainstorming the future plans for the Grossman Ensemble? What other potential avenues of exploration are you most excited about pursuing?
Augusta Read Thomas: In addition to what my colleagues articulated, I hope we can release more recordings and tour.
Andrew Nogal: We just had a Zoom meeting with the full ensemble and all the administrators yesterday, so we are absolutely still discussing present and future plans within the shadow of COVID-19. Honestly, I am just excited for something resembling normal concert life to return at some point, whenever that is. This year has been alienating, scary, and nerve-wracking for most of us. It makes me optimistic and glad to know that the Grossman Ensemble will exist on the other side of this pandemic to capture our listeners’ attention and imagination with music that hasn’t even been written yet.
Sam Pluta: I think the first step is for us to be able to make music together as a group again. I know we all want this more than anything, and we actually have many of the coming years of commissions already lined up. It will be so rewarding to be hanging out with this incredible group of humans again and to be looking forward to concerts that are the result of so much work and thought. As for the future, I am most excited about a batch of composer/performers that we have coming up. We already had one composer, Kate Soper, perform with the ensemble, but I am super excited to hear Ingrid Laubrock and others blowing over the band as well.