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Spotlight: Wooden Cities

Photos by Megan Mette

On its surface,  the origin story of Wooden Cities—a “new music” ensemble based here in Buffalo—adheres  closely to a common narrative shared by many from the contemporary classical music tradition: a core group of 10 performers and composers with eclectic tastes meet while studying/teaching in the University at Buffalo’s Music department. They click, and begin making music together.

Wooden Cities’ narrative begins to diverge, however, when the listener encounters the group’s interpretation of John Zorn’s Cobra (1984),  the piece that brought the collective together for its first concert in August 2011. Called a “game piece,” Cobra isn’t a standard composition with traditional notation, but rather a series of organized improvisations in which Director Brendan Fitzgerald uses cue cards with predetermined rules  to prompt the musicians to interact with one another. The result is frenetic and mercurial—with each player jockeying for control, fervently trying to dominate the musical discourse through tactical maneuvers.


Video Excerpt of Cobra


And while within a traditional academic context, Cobra could come off as overwhelming and intellectually abrasive, the members of Wooden Cities are not your stereotypically stodgy music educators. “The whole point is to present music that maybe in other circumstances would seem aggressive, and seem kind of uncompromising and inaccessible and bizarre, and make an environment that says, ‘This doesn’t have to frighten you,’ ” explains Jacob Gotlib, one of the composers in the group. This sentiment of inclusion and approachability seems to transcend any concern about the specific form the music may take. “While the music is the most important thing, it almost is secondary to the ultimate experience of feeling like you belong and feeling like it doesn’t matter what the music is, as long as you are listening to it,” says Fitzgerald.

This Wooden Cities director’s inclusive attitude is at least in part an reaction to what he describes as being “the product of total dismissal” during his own musical development.  “Eight years ago, I was the one being alienated by new music,” explains Fitzgerald. “I was the one being alienated by all sorts of academic kind of stances in music...‘Oh if you’ve not listened to all these symphonies, then you don’t even have a place listening to my music’ —which happens on a daily basis in certain circles, you know?” 

An October 2012 roundtable discussion with the band revealed that rather than feeling a strong affinity with any one movement in contemporary composition, Wooden Cities sees its true predecessors  as the DIY  communities of the 1970s No Wave scene and the hardcore music of the 1980s. Vocalist/composer Ethan Hayden views this legacy as the “democratizing of music-making,” and by extension, “a democratizing of listening.” “We’re like No Wave, without the middle fingers,” insists guitarist/composer Zane Merritt.

This connection to DIY was born out of the necessity of survival rather than an allegiance to a specific aesthetic approach. Fitzgerald, who is also a percussionist and music teacher at Canisius High School, dissects the dilemma faced by producers of new music.

“Most school scenarios don’t tell you to go out and get the gig.  They don’t teach you how to create a program, put it together, find the space, find the performers, and put it all together into a program,” says Fitzgerald. “Composing is great—but if you want your music heard, you have to do something other than just write it down.  And I think that’s a huge thing with this ensemble, is that we all acknowledge how absolutely essential it is to go and do the legwork."

Essentially, Wooden Cities acts as its own resident ensemble; its modus operandi is an organic response to the need for more fully realized interpretations of works by the group’s composers.  According to Fitzgerald, this need was not always sufficiently met in previous musical environments in which the individual members worked:

The composers will tell you: it’s really tough to just get your music played, and get it played often and get it played well, and have multiple rehearsals on it.  I think that’s something that we’ve talked about.  Sometimes a resident ensemble comes into town and they have 20 pieces to learn in two weeks, and you get a 20-minute rehearsal where you just kind of get to peck at stuff and pull apart stuff.  It’s to alleviate some of that, to just feel like there’s some time to let pieces grow and get rehearsed and get fleshed out.


Video Excerpt of 7 Broken Points


Wooden Cities curates and produces its own concerts, which often feature works by its member composers—Gotlib, Hayden, Merritt, trumpeter Daniel Bassin, and horn player Nathan Heidelberg.  These programs are performed by the composers along with cellist T.J. Borden, violinist Evan Courtin, clarinetist Christopher Culp, and pianist Michael McNeil. 

In a December 14, 2012 concert at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, Gotlib  spearheaded a Wooden Cities concert that featured works by students in the undergraduate composition class he teaches at UB.  When Gotlib came to Fitzgerald with the idea, the director was firm about the parameters of the program. “They have to do all the work,” he recalls saying.  “They have to go every step of the way—they have to do all the promotion, they have to gain the full experience of what it means to be a composer.” This unofficial mentorship program for up-and-coming composers is the not only way in which Wooden Cities has sought to expand their network of composers, performers, and audiences. On December 21, 2012 at St. Joseph University Parish, Culp produced  an “End of the World concert” featuring Olivier Messiaen’s 1941 opus Quartet for the End of Time to mark the end of the Mayan calendar and engage the community-at-large in dialogue about our human relationship to apocalypse.

As Wooden Cities eyes an upcoming concert in mid-spring and the development of a new arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s intriguing 1918 theater work  A Soldier’s Tale, Fitzgerald takes stock of the collective’s role as part of the music community. “To me, being successful is making music that satisfies you,” he says. “And these guys all do that on their own.  So when I put this thing into motion, everyone just started directing what they already do into one thing, and it’s now bigger because of our work together, and better.”



Daniel J. Kushner covers the arts at his Huffington Post blog, NewMusicBox, and as a contributing reviewer for the Buffalo News.

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