Concert to Come: Kansas City Contemporary Music Festival

The Event Enters its Second Year with Ace Local Lineup, Adventurous Repertoire and a First Fridays Vibe

The Kansas City Contemporary Music Festival, now in its second year, brings together some of the region’s premier new music practitioners for a post-genre celebration during May’s First Fridays.

The festival runs from 5 to 9 p.m. in the third-floor event space of the Bauer, the rehabbed warehouse warrened with artists’ studios and gallery spaces, a central hub for an evening of gallery stalking and art gazing.

newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble is the driving organization for the event, but the participating groups represent the depth and variety of contemporary music happening in KC. “This isn’t newEar’s night. newEar is providing a platform for other groups, and sharing a space,” said Sharra Wagner, vice president and artistic director for newEar.

Ted King-Smith, who serves on the board for newEar and the advisory board for KcEMA, the Kansas City Electronic Music and Arts Alliance, instigated the idea for the festival with soprano Liz Pearse. “I wanted this evening to be a showcase of new music or contemporary music in Kansas City, for a very public and wandering audience, because that’s the nature of First Fridays. I wanted that exposure to an audience that probably we wouldn’t otherwise get to.”

There were some hitches with last year’s event, but it did show proof of concept. “It was really electric that night. It was such a great experience to have all those people up there, even though it was a little chaotic at times,” said King-Smith. “There were also instances when the large mass of people cued in to a powerful musical moment and suddenly got quiet, making it all the more impactful.”

With a longer planning process and some practical experience, organizers plan to make the performances more present and obvious, while retaining the casual atmosphere of discovery. Prominent signage, a centrally focused set-up, and more guides at entrances will inform visitors of the event, without diluting the exploratory vibe of the evening.

“I didn’t want to get rid of that atmosphere,” said Wagner.

“That’s the challenge. It sounds great, it looks great, a lot of people go there, it’s centrally located, but we need to be better about branding, so people know what they are walking in to.”

As another mainstay of the region’s new music scene, KcEMA aids considerably in that regard, providing amplification for the groups in the main space, making the subtleties of sound more present and available. They’ll also set up a series of multichannel works in The Bauer’s auxiliary space, down the corridor from the main room, where people can mingle and react.

The Talent Pool

In the main space, the festival presents a diverse lineup throughout the evening.

Mnemosyne Quartet, a woodwind and electronics ensemble, previews work they will perform at the Open Spaces festival later in the year.

Brad Cox, founder of the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City, performs in trio with bassist Jeff Harshbarger and saxophonist Matt Otto. Somewhat jazz-based, they perform original music combining acoustic and electronic effects. “The music we are playing relies heavily on improvisation and is based around small musical sketches and sonic environments that I’ve prepared that will (I hope) lend themselves to improvisation,” said Cox.

Percussion ensemble arx duo, now based in KC, grounds its repertoire in works for dual marimbas, but presents a range of acoustic elements.

In the corridor of the Bauer, as one travels between the two spaces, visual artist Benjamin Rosenthal sets up a video installation. Rosenthal, assistant professor of expanded media at the University of Kansas, often creates multimedia works in collaboration with performing artists, as well as his own sound design.

“There has been a strong connection between visual art and music for centuries. Since that evening typically features visual art I wanted to include it as well,” said King-Smith.

Last year, Mnemosyne did a segment that included animation. This year, instead of the traditional printed program, they’ll project the information onto the main space’s back wall.

A Pre-Pride Celebration

newEar ends the festival with an hour-long set featuring the work of LGBT and allied composers. “It flowered into a kind of pre-Pride celebration,” said Wagner.

“Of course, the challenge of programming LGBT composers is that they don’t always self-identify and there is no database. So we were going off who we know,” she said.

That makes the work of Julius Eastman an excellent choice. Unapologetic in his identity and an enormously talented and inventive musician, he is finally getting his due. Eastman died homeless in 1990 and much of his work was lost, never published or existed only as bootleg or archival recordings.

J.J. Pearse, a locally based conductor, suggested using Eastman’s work as the cornerstone of newEar’s set, advocating for his legacy as performer and composer. “He is incredibly relevant in today’s current climate, especially for his roles as a proud Black and gay man.”

His work is inflammatory, refreshing, unique and astounding. newEar performs from a transcription by Cornelius Dufallo and Chris McIntyre, based on a 1973 recording.

“‘Stay On It’ is a stubborn and compelling piece that persists in its happiness,” said Pearse. “Eastman is one of those ground-breaking minimalists you don’t get to hear about in most textbooks — yet.” (It was recently announced that Eastman’s work will finally be professionally published, causing a stir of excitement in the contemporary music world.)

The concert also includes Eastman’s “Thy Father,” for two male voices written in organum, a medieval tradition in which a second voice is overlaid on a traditional plainchant.

newEar will perform Meredith Monk’s gorgeous “Stringsongs,” written in 2005 for the Kronos Quartet. In a New Sounds “Meet the Composer” recording, she said, “I think of . . . the whole string quartet as breathing together out — haaaaa — and then breathing together in — hhhh — like one giant string or one giant accordion.”

The newEar program also includes UMKC’s Barr Laureate Jennifer Higdon’s “Southern Harmony,” local advocate Lee Hartman’s “Banshee Reels,” and a commissioned work by ally Nick Omiccioli. Last year, they performed Omiccioli’s “Grind Core,” with influences from heavy metal. “It sounded incredible in the space,” said King-Smith.

newEar has commissioned more than 80 works throughout the last 25 years, an integral part of their mission. “We are very passionate about featuring local composers and musicians and we are adamant about diversity in programming, public engagement and outreach,” said Wagner.

The festival is an extension of that, bringing different groups and viewpoints together, presented to an artistically adventurous audience.

“People might be there for an hour and then move on, and I think that’s just kind of the nature of the evening. I’m hoping that people come up, get entranced and stay for a little bit.”

Whether one stays for one set, ten minutes or the full evening, the 2nd Annual Kansas City Contemporary Music Festival offers a slice of what’s happening now in new music.

The 2nd Annual Kansas City Contemporary Music Festival runs from 5 to 9 p.m. May 5 at the Bauer Event Space, third floor, 115 W. 18th St. The event is free and open to the public; suggested $5 donation collected at the door. For more information, visit newear.org.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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