Vermont musician Anne Decker decided it was time to celebrate contemporary composers and music. The result is TURNmusic.
Anne Decker got involved in contemporary classical, or new, music not because of the curriculum she was studying in college. She jumped into this forum because she heard what her fellow students and composers were creating and had an AHA moment. “I said ‘Hey, I’d do that!’” says Decker of her response to the sounds she heard and the thought of helping realize performances of those scores. So she and some friends started a student-led new music ensemble, the first of its kind at the school where she was in Michigan.
That DIY attitude is part of what infuses TURNmusic, a Vermont-based new-music chamber series that Decker helped create in 2014 and for which she is the conductor and artistic director. “I had been listening to all of the latest new music coming out,” says Decker of the formation of TURNmusic, referring to the wide-ranging outpouring of work from contemporary classically-versed composers. “There was this cool genre of music that I felt like wasn’t being represented in Vermont. Quite accessible chamber music is being written. I wanted to bring that stuff to Vermont.”
With encouragement from innovative violinist Mary Rowell, co-founder of the forward-thinking ETHEL quartet, Decker assembled a group of top-notch players committed to performing new music and playing it, in many cases, outside of the traditional high-culture venues where “classical” music often gets played. “She helped give me courage,” Decker says of Rowell, who is also a core part of TURNmusic.
“I just felt like there was a place for new music here,” says Decker. “I believe in this music. I’m a music educator. And I believe in hearing these high-level musicians that I’m working with. They should be heard. And they don’t have to be heard by the elite. It’s music for all.”
TURNmusic has, in its three years of existence, been committed to music written by living composers. That, basically, means someone born after the advent of the age of mass entertainment, pop culture, radio, records, and the embrace of youth as a marketing demographic. These are composers who—unless raised in a classical-music commune—were probably soaking up rock, hip-hop, soundtracks, jazz, electronic music, non-Western music, and all kinds of other traditions beyond Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
Though Decker, 42, was keen to bring new music to Vermont, she was also interested in highlighting some of the new music that was already being made or associated with the state. Composer Nico Muhly is a prominent name in new contemporary classical music circles. In addition to composing his own operas and other pieces, Muhly has gotten a lot of attention for his orchestrations and arrangements for performers within the artsy-leaning end of the indie rock world, people like Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Sam Amidon (also from Vermont), Bjork, Antony and the Johnsons, and Joanna Newsom. Muhly’s work was included in the first TURN series in 2014.
Other artists with a foot in both the contemporary classical and the world of indie rock that TURN has featured include Bryce Dessner, who plays in the band the National but who also has a masters in music from Yale and a highly regarded output as a composer. TURNmusic featured a performance of Dessner’s “Murder Ballads” in the fall of last year. Recently TURNmusic has included performances of work by Richard Reed Parry, a composer and multi-instrumentalist who’s known for his work as a member of the band Arcade Fire.
But highlighting the connection between the world of indie rock and contemporary classical music is just one of the threads TURNmusic tugs on. Decker also helped to create a collegiate composition prize that allows composers still finishing their formal education to have a piece performed by a professional ensemble. She wanted to zero in on collegiate composers because that was the period in her life when she fell in love with new music. TURNmusic also helped launch the North Country Electronic Music Festival.
Decker, whose day job is as a music teacher in the public schools, is also on the lookout for Vermont musicians, particularly those who might be slightly outside the world of new music, to ask them to consider writing for the chamber ensemble. “These are players who can play anything,” she says of her musical collaborators.
If the musicians in TURNmusic are open for just about anything, Decker feels that the audience is in a similarly receptive state. And the work of TURNmusic is, in part, about connecting with listeners, making the experience of hearing new music one that isn’t complicated by much uncertainty or anxiety about being thrust into some abrasive sonic terrain “I feel like I’m just building trust,” says Decker. “The fans are just looking for good music.”