The article below was written by Dylan Mattingly, Executive and Co-Artistic Director of Contemporaneous, a New York-based ensemble dedicated to performing contemporary music and presenting innovative programs. Contemporaneous received a grant from the Paul R. Judy Center for Applied Research to support their project, ORBIT, which Dylan describes and reflects on below.
Recently, with the support of the Paul R. Judy Center for Applied Research, Contemporaneous presented a performance entitled O R B I T. Hosted by the concert series Lex54 Concerts, O R B I T was an immersive musical experience that traced the seasonal cycle through sound and light, exploring several idiosyncratic and alluring spaces with Saint Peter’s Church, a celebrated architectural masterwork in midtown Manhattan. Three different works were performed simultaneously, with the audience—divided into three groups—moving from one to the other, until finally all came together for a final piece.
The program included paired works by Angélica Negrón and Fjóla Evans that convey two different sides of summer. Autumn was evoked in a serene piece by Eve Beglarian, and spring came to life in the strange magic of Nicole Lizée’s music for phonograph and ensemble. Reconvening at the end to hear the wintry beauty of Janice Giteck’s Breathing Songs from a Turning Sky, audience and musicians together may find that they have, in the words of T.S. Eliot, come “to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
This concert, which we described as an “ambulatory musical experience” was unlike anything that most of our audience had ever experienced. These pieces of music were not only beautiful, but all new and unlikely to have been heard before by any member of the audience. And that sense of novelty, of an expansion of the imagination, is fundamental to our goal as a performing organization. With politics and direct social action at the front of the current consciousness of most Americans, it becomes easy to forget just how powerful the abstract arts have. And right at the center of that power is the ability to push the boundaries of what we think is possible. In order to change the world, we must imagine a world that is different. One of our primary jobs as artists is to allow people to experience the world in new ways, and thereby give our audience members a place of perspective from which they can assess their own relationship to the world around them.
Thus it is that through a concert like O R B I T, and more generally through the creation of new music and the fostering of new ideas, we can fulfill a crucial civic duty — belief in the impossible.
One of the movies just nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards was a film called “Hidden Figures,” which told the story of three African-American women whose work was crucial to the early days of the NASA space program. While I’m not going to offer a full movie review here, one thing resonated with me very strongly in Hidden Figures, which was the consistent juxtaposition of civil rights victories for the movie’s main characters and the far more metaphorical pursuit to send a person in space. “If we can put a man on a rocket and shoot him into space,” characters in the movie repeated (in paraphrase), “then why can’t we do __?” And it was this simple demonstration of the strength of the metaphorical, the aesthetic vision preceding the action, that is so fundamental to our mission in Contemporaneous. We seek to provide artists with the opportunity to bring their wildest dreams into reality — our goal is to help them surpass creative boundaries and never to offer pushback based on what we think is “possible.” It is our belief that through an expanded awareness of what music can be and do, we can help foster a culture of self-empowerment and radical empathy. Amelia Earhart once said “never interrupt someone doing something you said couldn’t be done.” If we can create art with that kind of spirit, then we can help offer others a model for imagining and achieving a better world.
Contemporaneous is an ensemble of 21 musicians whose mission is to bring to life the music of now. Recognized for “ferocious, focused performance” (The New York Times) and for its “passionate drive…setting an extremely high bar for other ensembles to live up to” (I Care If You Listen), Contemporaneous performs and promotes the most exciting work of living composers, with an emphasis on music by young and emerging artists, through innovative concerts, commissions, recordings, and educational programs. Contemporaneous strives to make contemporary classical music accessible to younger audiences, through both the highlighting of younger voices in commissions and performance, and the infectious enthusiasm of Contemporaneous’ young musicians for the music they perform.
Founded at Bard College in 2010, Contemporaneous is now based in NYC and active throughout the United States. Contemporaneous has performed over 100 concerts at venues including Lincoln Center, Park Avenue Armory, (le) poisson rouge, Merkin Concert Hall, Baryshnikov Arts Center, St. Ann’s Warehouse, and the Bang on a Can Marathon. The ensemble has worked with artists as diverse as David Byrne, Courtney Love, Martin Creed, Donnacha Dennehy, and Dawn Upshaw.
Contemporaneous has presented the world premiere of more than 75 works, many of them large-scale pieces by emerging composers. Through its commissions and readiness to play challenging music, the ensemble encourages artists to take risks and defy constraints. Contemporaneous also leads participatory programs for public school students, designed to instill a passion for new music and to convey the power of meaningful expression through music.