What’s “serious” music today? ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) categorizes its members as “popular” composers, “jazz,” “theater,” “serious,” and so on. Of course the great unwashed would probably refer to ASCAP’s “serious” composers as “classical,” but if you define classical as something that has withstood the test of time, this label for living composers becomes problematic.

Sidney Friedman prefers the term “new music” to “serious” music. His preference may be influenced by the fact that he is executive director of New Music Chicago, a group that provides a forum for young and emerging local composers. Friedman–who is one of those young composers–thinks there are only three kinds of music: good, bad, and great. And he thinks calling modern “serious” music “new music” is less restrictive, and perhaps less intimidating–and thus may do more to attract potential listeners.

But choosing the right label can’t do it all. So Friedman and William Neil, New Music Chicago’s artistic director, conceived “Music at High Noon.” Subtitled “a celebration of music and architecture,” it was inspired by an aphorism attributed variously to the Greek composer Xenakis and the German poet Goethe: “Architecture is frozen music.” If that’s so, says Friedman, isn’t music defrosted architecture?

“Music at High Noon,” to start at noon on Monday, April 11, will be the first event in New Music Chicago’s annual spring festival. It will feature the works of four Chicago composers commissioned especially for this event. And here’s the angle: the pieces will be performed sequentially, at four different downtown sites. WFMT will do a live broadcast, with audio units at each end of the sites, and Kerry Frumkin will coordinate the broadcast from the studio.

Those who listen to the event–whether on the radio or at one of the four sites (TV monitors at each site will cover the music at other sites)–will hear Friedman’s piece first, in the lobby of the 222 N. LaSalle building at Wacker. Shawn Decker’s work (a collaboration with visual artist John Boesche) will follow at One Financial Place, 440 S. LaSalle, then Elizabeth Larsen’s composition for eight flutes and percussion at 33 W. Monroe. Roscoe Mitchell and his quartet will be last, performing at the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall, 78 E. Washington.

The entire event will probably last about an hour. In the program finale, artistic director Neil will “layer the sounds of each site one on top of the other.” All four groups will play at once, and Neil, back at WFMT, will mix the sounds.

New Music Chicago intends to disabuse people of the notion that popular and classical music can’t intersect. And if they can convince more people of the value of “serious” music by enlisting real estate developers anxious to have their properties bask in the glow of a genuine cultural event, how can we fault them? Still, this marriage of music and architecture is a bit uneasy.

The promoters of “Music at High Noon” have called the four locations “Chicago landmarks,” but let’s get serious. Bradley Hall, with its Tiffany glass dome and glistening expanses of mosaics, can certainly lay claim to landmark status. But of the other three, only the 222 N. LaSalle building carries any real attraction: built in the late 1920s and designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White (successors to Daniel Burnham), it has remarkable lobby recently restored after decades of neglect, and it’s well worth seeing.

Curiously–and a bit ironically–the architects who did such a good job with the 222 N. LaSalle restoration–Skidmore Owings & Merrill–also designed the other two sites, which are substantially less interesting.

Currently SOM Chicago, like many other large architecture firms, is turning out office towers popularly called “postmodern” but probably more aptly described as “decorative revival”; they are essentially modern towers overlaid with eclectic ornamental touches. Spearheaded by SOM design partner Adrian Smith (in such buildings as 225 W. Washington and the AT&T and NBC projects), this thrust in design has a certain popular appeal. But One Financial Place and 33 W. Monroe are from a period earlier this decade and, markedly more minimalist than recent constructions, have been critically less well received.

As sites for an event, however, they are not completely devoid of merit. The lobby of One Financial Place contains an extremely arresting bronze by Italian sculptor Ludovico de Luigi. And for whatever it’s worth, 33 W. Monroe is the home of SOM Chicago.

New Music Chicago’s Spring Festival ’88 features a total of 13 events, at various locations, to run through April 17. For information, call 477-1379.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.