Sounds Unfamiliar

Believe it or not, the musician who’s done the most over the last decade to promote contemporary classical music in Chicago is not classically trained. Gene Coleman, who leads the collective Ensemble Noamnesia and earlier this month launched a festival called Sound Field, insists that a standard musical education isn’t necessary in a field where conceptual clarity, improvisation, aleatoric methods, and graphic notation are often more relevant than traditional notions of harmony and melody. “You’ve got to wade through four years of counterpoint and sight singing,” says Coleman, 41. “I’m not saying those things aren’t important, but it’s so archaic now to think that you have to wait so long to even be exposed to this stuff. A lot of the musicians who’ve been in my ensemble have got these stories of wanting to do this music when they were in school, and they had teachers saying that they couldn’t do it, that it would ruin their ability to play Mozart, and it just squashed a lot of their enthusiasm.”

Coleman’s enthusiasm has been the guiding force of his career. In 1987, looking at a dearth of outlets for his music, he formed Ensemble Noamnesia, which now draws from a pool of about 20 musicians (most of whom do come from conservatory backgrounds). Since then the group has arguably become the most adventurous of its kind in Chicago, giving more than 350 performances and premiering more than 175 works by American and European composers. Coleman started out by setting up concerts wherever he could–sort of like a DIY punk promoter–at alternative spaces like Link’s Hall, the Chicago Project Room, Randolph Street Gallery, and his own Wicker Park loft space, the RX Gallery. In 1993 he got HotHouse to give him one afternoon a month for a series he called “Face the Music,” which is still running today, and after learning about it by word of mouth, musicians from all over town started coming to play.

In the latter half of the 90s, early supporters of Ensemble Noamnesia ascended to influential positions at more formal cultural institutions: Hamza Walker, a former volunteer at Southend Music Works (a presenting co-op Coleman worked with), is now the director of the Renaissance Society, where about half of the Sound Field events are taking place. Peter Taub, former director of Randolph Street, now books performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and in the last few years he’s worked with Coleman to arrange residencies by world-class composers like Helmut Lachenmann and George Crumb.

Late last fall Coleman noticed that a number of the concerts he’d booked for this year so far were clustered in late May and early June, and in a flash of marketing savvy he “realized that rather than have all of these events just happen it would make a lot more sense to call the whole thing a festival and to draw connections between these things.” The biggest attractions are the premieres of works by German composer Mathias Spahlinger, who’ll be here on his first U.S. residency, and a variety of performances featuring the Austrian electroacoustic group Polwechsel (see Critic’s Choice). But all 12 concerts, the last of which is June 11, are noteworthy in their own right. Most challenge standard classical music practices by embracing improvisation, graphic notation, or some combination thereof.

Some of the local musicians who’re participating, like trumpeter and electronicist Ernst Long and oboist Kyle Bruckmann, come from the jazz and improvised-music scene, which has been attracting larger and more diverse audiences in Chicago recently. Coleman says he’s eager to educate audiences about the places where what he does overlaps with that music. In fact, he himself came to modern classical through jazz and improv. He’d learned trombone in grade school and high school, but by college he’d put it down and was interested exclusively in visual art. Then, as a freshman at the School of the Art Institute in 1979, he heard a recording by AACM legend Anthony Braxton, who’s spent his entire career blurring the line between composition and improvisation. Before long Coleman had purchased a flute at a pawnshop; eventually he switched to bass clarinet. As his art education progressed he spent more and more time on music, learning intuitively but also taking some informal lessons. He graduated in 1984 and a few years later began playing improvised music in public.

Searching for ways to organize his improvisations, Coleman found 20th-century composers like Cage and Stockhausen, and though improvisation remained a key facet of his work, he was soon writing his own scores. In 1990 he received a $5,000 grant from the Illinois Arts Council, and in subsequent years he’s received a steady stream of commissions from organizations in the U.S. and Europe. His egalitarian approach shows in his own work as well as the way he presents music by others. Ensemble Noamnesia performances lack the stuffy formality of symphonic concerts, and he tries to balance more obscure works with well-known ones to lure in novice listeners. But while he acknowledges that he’s performed “some kind of service” for the city’s music scene, he also admits to less altruistic motives. “It becomes another way for me to feed and augment what I’m doing,” he says. “It was incredible for me to bring Lachenmann here. I developed a relationship out of that experience that would have been impossible short of becoming his student.”

Coleman has already announced plans to produce Sound Field 2001 in October of next year, but it won’t be limited to Chicago. He’s coordinating branches in New York, Vienna, and Tokyo–where Coleman will spend the first six months of next year on a fellowship, combining Japanese traditional music and instruments with experimental and contemporary Western art music–and he envisions artists traveling from one location to another during the course of the event. For a full schedule of this year’s festival, visit the Renaissance Society Web site at

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