Northwestern University’s school of music recently revamped its contemporary music activities, and one of its major changes is the addition of “New Music Northwestern,” a series of concerts by graduate students in its Contemporary Music Ensemble and local pros, organized by composer Amy Williams. The daughter of a Buffalo-based percussionist fond of the avant-garde, Williams grew up listening to John Cage and Conlon Nancarrow and studied piano with Yvar Mikhashoff and Alan Feinberg, both avid champions of the new. At the State University of New York at Buffalo, she started a piano duo with a like-minded student, Helena Bugallo, a partnership that earned praise for its dexterity and intellectual curiosity. For several years the duo made Nancarrow’s intricately patterned music a priority; they’ll soon release a CD of all his pieces for solo piano and piano duet. In performance Williams meets the technical demands of modern compositions, but her strengths also include a grasp of rhythmic sleight of hand. The theme of the inaugural concert in the new series (which is also part of the monthlong Sound Field 2002 festival organized by clarinetist Gene Coleman) is twofold. This being the 90th anniversary of Cage’s birth, half of the program focuses on a pivotal period in his compositional life, the 1950s; the crosscurrents between America and Asia, which permeated much of Cage’s music, are also emphasized. Williams has picked three works–“Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard,” “591/2 Seconds for a String Player,” and “Concert for Piano and Orchestra”–to illustrate Cage’s shift from precise design into chance and the use of graphic scores (each of the five soloists in “Concert” plays to a sketchy set of directions). The East-West confluence is represented by new compositions from Asian composers at Northwestern–“Dancing Hanumann for Five Snail Drums” by Chaipruck Mekara from Thailand, two songs by Mari Takano that filter a fusion of American jazz and energetic Japanese rhythms through Ligeti, and “Haze,” a minimalist-inspired work from Korea’s Aekyung Han. Cage’s aleatory aesthetic informs Austrian trumpeter Franz Hautzinger’s “Atman III” (2002), which offers a chance for much improvisation between Hautzinger (on Eastern-sounding quarter-tone trumpet) and Coleman (bass clarinet). Wednesday, October 23, 7:30 PM, Lutkin Hall, Northwestern University, 700 University, Evanston; 847-491-5441.

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