Composer Nights give Minnesota music makers a way to be heard
There can't be too many pieces of music written for a pair of trombones and a didgeridoo, the Australian aboriginal instrument resembling a length of wooden gutter piping. On a Tuesday evening in April, at Studio Z in lowertown St. Paul, I am listening to one such piece.
Studio Z is the home of the New Ruckus Composer Nights, a monthly gathering where "people who invent original music" can walk the problematic plank of actually airing it publicly.
Emceeing the evening is Paul Cantrell, a soft-spoken man who introduces the composers and gently prompts the discussions that happen after performances of their music. Cantrell has been the point man of New Ruckus for most of the 15 years the organization has been operating.
It began in 2004 as the Tuesday Salon, an offshoot activity of the St. Paul-based American Composers Forum. When the ACF eventually ended its involvement, Cantrell opened participation to non-ACF members and developed a simple, yet compelling, philosophy for the organization, now renamed the New Ruckus.
"As a musician, you get very few opportunities," he says. "Even in Minnesota, which is a wonderful place to be an artist, mostly you hear no. No, you didn't get the grant. No, you can't be a part of this performance.
"There's a lot of no, and it's lonely, and it's demoralizing. So I just wanted the New Ruckus to be an organization that said yes to everyone."
Cantrell's come-one, come-all attitude means that there are virtually no barriers to having your music heard at a New Ruckus Composer Night.
Simply go to the organization's website (newruckus.org), and click a link to sign up for one of the monthly listening sessions.
"It's not curated. You don't have to apply. It's first come, first served," Cantrell says proudly. "The only filtering is logistic. If you want to bring a symphony orchestra with you, well, that can be difficult in Studio Z."
So, too, can Cantrell's emceeing duties, which require a sensitive, diplomatic touch on a typical New Ruckus evening, with four composers presenting new pieces of music.
"There's a lot of psychology behind how I run the thing on stage that I hope is not obvious," says Cantrell, who's also a performer and composer.
"Most musicians who come to that stage come with some kind of baggage, or fear about what they're bringing. 'Who's in the audience?' 'Who's evaluating me?' 'My music's not real music; this other kind is more legitimate.'
"Musicians apologizing in advance for their pieces, or trying to explain them at length — that can be deadly. I've done my best to shift that. So composers say just a few brief words, and then we get right to the music."
Composer Nights have proved hugely popular in the 15 years since the Tuesday Salons and New Ruckus were initiated — more than 500 compositions have been performed, by nearly 300 composers, songwriters and sound artists.
Cantrell's eyes twinkle as he recollects the bewildering cornucopia of music — some weird, some wacky, some wonderful — that he has heard at New Ruckus Composer Nights.
"It's hard for me to think of part of the musical gamut we haven't run," he muses. "Voice and piano art song, musical theater, bluesy jazz, hyper-experimental sound pieces. You cannot imagine the range of tone, content and style that we get."
The conversations that occur between composers and audience members after performances are, for Cantrell, a crucial component of the experience.
"Live connections matter," he says. "Anybody bringing music to the New Ruckus isn't creating it just for themselves. They have some desire to share it, and the audience has some desire to hear it — there's a human thread.
"And these people need to be seeing each other and talking to each other. Listening together is powerful, and the New Ruckus provides a space for that."
Among the rush of New Ruckus reminiscences Cantrell has several that stand out particularly — Alicia Renée singing Sondheim-esque, darkly twisted musical theater numbers at the piano; an atmospheric solo cello meditation by Kathy McTavish; and Bryce Beverlin II improvising sounds on wood, tiny metal objects, and his bare chest and shoulders.
These are the special moments that make Cantrell, a software designer and lecturer by day, persist in trying to ensure that the New Ruckus Composer Nights continue into an uncertain future.
"The New Ruckus' budget is something like $5,000 to $6,000 a year," he explains. "Sometimes we get a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council; sometimes we don't.
"In theory, I get paid, but in practice I don't — we use that money to fund the times we don't get a grant. It's a shoestring operation, but my attitude is, if there's no money let's make it happen anyway."
The feedback that Cantrell gets from the composers who bring their music to the New Ruckus is, he says, another key factor in keeping the operation going.
"I hear a lot of thank-yous. That means a lot. Being a creator of music can be very isolating, and there's a lot of self-doubt and a sense of meaninglessness that creeps in," he says.
"But simply seeing people who care about listening is inspiring. And then hearing what other people are doing in a venue that doesn't filter for style and subculture is inspiring, too. That's why New Ruckus is the organization that always says yes."