Sunday, February 26, 2017

Ensemble Dal Niente: Music from Nothing

This profile of Ensemble Dal Niente kicks off a series of profiles introducing composers and ensembles featured at this year’s June in Buffalo festival. Founded in 2004 by students at Northwestern University, the ensemble's professional profile has risen at a noteworthy pace. The group’s acclaimed performances at the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music were a crucial break, as the ensemble took top prizes (2010 & 2012) and then returned as invited guests (2014). This recognition led to invitations to perform at concert series and festivals such as Concerts from the Library of Congress, Ecstatic Music Festival, Festival International Chihuahua, Latino Music Festival, Music Arte Panama, Ravinia Festival, and SALT Festival, to conduct workshops at universities such as Northwestern, Chicago, Harvard, Stanford, Indiana, Illinois, and Western Michigan, and to record on labels such as New Amsterdam, New Focus, Navona, Parlour Tapes+, and Carrier labels.

Ensemble Dal Niente performs at June in Buffalo 2016
The group has developed a range of innovative approaches to concert curation. Perhaps most striking is Dal Niente’s annual “THE PARTY,” a marathon concert in “a non-traditional performance space, a flexible floor plan,” where music is “paired with food and beverages,” in “a relaxed environment where audiences can mingle and move around, and musical performances that run the gamut from the hilarious to the sublime.” Hard Music, Hard Liquor” concerts are another Dal Niente fixture, featuring group’s phenomenal players in adventurous ultra-virtuosic solo and chamber works, which are often innovative new works by emerging composers. The group also ventures outside the bounds of new concert music, for instance in their genre-bending collaboration with the rock group Deerhoof and composer Marcos Balter, resulting in a critically-acclaimed 2016 album on New Amsterdam records.

Dal Niente’s story is different from that of many other new music groups in light of its origins in a Midwestern city. The group has not only succeed despite the obstacles inherent in this trajectory (such as limited access to well-funded new music presenters and to important professional networks, etc.), but has also helped put the wider Chicago new music scene on the map, together with groups like the International Contemporary Ensemble, Eighth Blackbird, and recent Grammy award winners Third Coast Percussion. Today, the city is a destination in its own right for new music activity (probably more so than any other non-coastal US city), with significant new ensembles (, mocrep, Fonema Consort), festivals (Frequency, Ear Taxi), record labels (Parlour Tapes+) and publications (Cacophony Magazine) emerging regularly across the city. As more attention is paid to new music scenes in mid-sized and middle-American cities, the work of Dal Niente and others in Chicago appear in retrospect to have played a pioneering role in new models of arts programming. Dal Niente's name, meaning "from nothing" in Italian (taken from the title of an important work by Helmut Lachenmann), alludes to these humble beginnings.

Dal Niente has forged a range of connections with the Center for 21st Century Music over the years. The ensemble was an invited guest at last year’s June in Buffalo, where their performances were well received. However, the group’s relationship with the Center goes back much further in its work with UB doctoral composition students, particularly alumnae/alumni Megan Beugger, Aaron Cassidy, and Evan Johnson, and current PhD candidate Colin Tucker. In 2012, Johnson received a Meet the Composer Commissioning Music/USA grant for a new work for the group, which was premiered on a high-profile concert at the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music in Germany; the piece was awarded a prestigious Stipendpreis. Both Tucker and Beugger wrote solo works for the group’s violinist, Austin Wulliman, and all four UB composers have been regularly programmed by the group.

At UB we look forward to Dal Niente’s return this June. In the meantime, you can check out their website, audio clips from the group’s commercially available recordings, videos, photos, and the group’s blog.

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