PHAWKER TAWK: How To Get To Carnegie Hall

The PRISM Quartet performs tonight at Art After 5 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, starting at 5:45 p.m.

DaveAllenBYLINE_1.jpgBY DAVE ALLEN The saxophone, that iconic American instrument, is perhaps more freighted with artistic significance here in Philadelphia, where John Coltrane spent formative years and where other formidable, if less iconic, reedmen have launched their careers. In the Germantown section of the city, not all that far from where Sun Ra’s legendary Arkestra set up shop and where Arkestra saxophonist Marshall Allen still lives and sometimes assembles the group, another musical summit — an all-saxophone one — is regularly convened. The members of the PRISM Quartet assemble at Matt Levy’s house, coming together from disparate lives in academia, music-making and arts administration in Michigan, Arizona, North Carolina and here in Philly. This year, the group celebrates its 25th anniversary, and though Levy, director of the Philadelphia Music Project, is the sole remaining member of the original lineup, he doesn’t dominate conversations about the group’s makeup or ongoing projects. It’s an evenly-divided discussion, with the four guys weaving their voices in and out, interjecting stories and opinions here and there. It’s clear the four of them are comfortable together; some were still in stocking feet when arrived for the interview and hadn’t had their morning coffee. In looking at both the group’s history — they once played for omelets at a restaurant in Michigan — and current activities, we covered a lot of ground, including the challenges of ancient Chinese instruments, subversive and reverent views of American pop culture, and making a case for the saxophone outside of jazz.

PHAWKER: I feel these meetings are almost like the Blues Brothers: “We’re getting the band back together.” Logistically, how hard is it for you all to get together, and how do you keep a group chemistry if you don’t see each others for months at a time?prism-quartet3.jpg

MATT LEVY: We see each other and are in touch constantly. We get together usually at least once a month, sometimes more, for practice, recording projects or performances. So there’s a lot of activity, and then when we’re not together physically, there’s constant interaction. There’s not really a loss of chemistry or momentum. It’s really something that’s always going.

On the administrative side, because we’re a non-profit organization, we all take on certain responsibilities managerially. We sort of divvied up the work in that way, so there’s always collaborations and interactions. We’re helping each other for the organization to grow and evolve. We have a board of directors, so it’s really more than just a musical ensemble. There’s this ongoing activity that doesn’t really ever stop.

The Quartet was founded at the University of Michigan, we were students there and that’s sort of a center of saxophone study. There’s a guru of classical saxophone, Donald Sinta. People come from around the world and gravitate to study with him. He’s a consummate artist. We were founded there and we migrated to different parts of the country. At one point we were LA, Detroit, New York, Philly, and then we were all sort of near New York, and as people have taken on other jobs – teaching at different schools – we’ve continued to migrate in that way. But logistically, it’s not that much different – you either take a train for an hour or two or get on an airplane and fly for an hour. It’s surprisingly not that difficult or challenging. We just are very organized about planning our schedule a year ahead of time. We have a common calendar we keep – every rehearsal, every recording session. We have to be on top of that stuff so we can keep things tight and integrate our own schedule.

PHAWKER: Tim, you’re in Arizona. Where were you before that?

TIM MCALLISTER: Before that, I was in upstate New York, so there was a point in time when all of us — Matt was in Philly, but he had a residence in New York, Taimur was in New York, and the previous alto member was in New York, and I was upstate, so there was a period when we felt like we were together a lot. We might have rehearsed every weekend. I would drive down from upstate New York, and it’s easy now to fly from Phoenix than it was to drive from upstate New York to get to Manhattan. To me, I get work done on the plane. It’s actually much better. Especially in winter. But I’ve been in Arizona for four years.

MATT LEVY: He has a house with a swimming pool now. No more long winters.

PHAWKER: If you’re only getting together once a month, what’s going on back and forth between you guys? Are you recording yourselves playing and sending it?prism-taimur-sullivanrecitalcard_sml.gif

TAIMUR SULLIVAN: We’re all working on our individual parts. There’s no real musical collaboration while we’re gone. What we do when we’re apart is all the administrative side of maintaining a chamber music ensemble, which is not unlike maintaining any corporation or organization. But we have a lot of repertoire to learn while we’re apart, like any professional ensemble. When you’re a student group, you get together everyday and you rehearse, and that’s the learning process — everyone learns their part together. But in a professional ensemble, it’s really incumbent upon each member to learn their parts on their own time, and then we get together for these intense rehearsal weekends where we spend 10 hours a day rehearsing, it’s sort of taken for granted that we come with our parts learned, and then we put it together over these few weekends.

MATT LEVY: We have a gig in two weeks in Boston with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. We’re playing a concerto, and yesterday was our first rehearsal on the piece. We had the parts for about two weeks before then. This is the time where we’re really honing on the music, but as Taimur said, the piece is especially difficult and we couldn’t learn it together as students might learn a piece. The technical part of that music really demands that we’re dedicated and that we know our parts before we get together.

PHAWKER: What’s the new piece?

TIM MCALLISTER: It’s by Wayne Peterson, who won the Pulitzer Price in Composition in 1992. It’s a Fantasy Concerto for saxophone and winds, brass and percussion. Written in 1994, it’s about a 25 minute concerto with the Boston Modern Orchestra, and we’re really excited about that. “…and the winds shall blow” is the title of the piece, and this will be the world premiere recording of the piece on BMOP Recordings.

PHAWKER: You’ve done a lot of work with them — the Bolcom and the Mackey Concertos, right?

MATT LEVY: Yeah, we like it when we can identify other ensembles or orchestras that we have a connection with. We like to develop those relationships, and that’s happened with BMOP, and we did this project with Music from China, which resulted in the “Antiphony” CD, and we’re already planning our next project with them — volume two. And we received a commission from Chamber Music America to get Bright Sheng, and that’ll be the centerpiece of a whole new project. It’s important for us to built on relationships when we feel like there’s real simpatico between groups.

PHAWKER: I was curious about the nature of classical saxophone. For an instrument that has this tradition in jazz and improvised music, why go for notated chamber music? What’s the impulse for classical sax?

TAIMUR SULLIVAN: I think it’s the same as it is for any other classical musician. For us, we’re lucky that the saxophone has this great history in both things. I think we’ve all played jazz at some level, but our paths as we were learning and growing up was steeped in the conservatory tradition of prism-quartet.jpgpedagogy and in the classical repertoire. It wasn’t so much a question for us of “Well, the sax has this great tradition, but we’re gonna go do this side thing,” but the saxophone was invented a good hundred years before jazz was invented. It was an instrument in the mid-1800’s, and of course there was no jazz happening then. So the history of the instrument is more of that, and the tradition of it is a rich one, in Belgium and Paris, and through great teachers in Europe and the US, so I think there was a great background that we were just interested in. So I guess it wasn’t “even though there’s other things going on, we’re gonna choose this route,” but there’s this whole world of classical music, just like there is for clarinetists or oboists or flutists. That’s sort of where our hearts lie.

TIM MCALLISTER: We’re four people who took different paths to the same place basically. Growing up in school, if you were a trombonist, you’d understand growing up in the school band tradition, and of course, saxophone in those contexts is meant to be played in a “classical way” or whatever, and then the beginnings of these solo and ensemble pieces, and you’re performing these solo works, and you get tracked in that kind of early on, but I think for all of us, it was something that sparked in us at that time. Going into college and whatnot, you’re able to be part of these great bands, like the University of Michigan Symphony Band, and things being held up to this high place is what made us see that the saxophone can do that.

But like Taimur said, we all played jazz, and I think there’s a chance — I think we’re all confronted with the issue where we’re saxophone players but we’re not really pushing to be some world-class jazz artist. A lot of times we’ve felt that world is so saturated with great artists that even to be good is to be lost amongst that huge group. There’s something about being able to be trendsetters in what we do. There’s something very attractive about laying down, hopefully, a documented legacy that other groups would follow. I sometimes will tell people it’s a matter of being a specialist in an area where you can make a difference, or being a specialist where everyone is as good as you or better. That can sometimes be overwhelming. So somewhere along the line I think we felt that way about ourselves is that we could make a bigger difference as a classical musician, maybe, in addition to just the sheer love for it.

MATT LEVY: I think the attraction of the instrument in this context is something that inspired us and attracted us to it, and recognizing, as Tim said, that there’s a whole world of new repertoire to be commissioned and developed that just doesn’t exist. That’s been our mission, to really establish a repertoire for our medium that isn’t widely recognized and hasn’t been. So that’s multiple reasons to pursue this. But we have collaborated with lots of great jazz artists, and our second CD is actually all jazz, all original jazz. We’re sort of interested in all kinds of music, and you can’t escape – nor would we want to – the entire musical culture associated with the instrument. You can’t not play or at least be able to interpret jazz, even in a classical saxophone quartet. So many composers who write for us are drawing on that culture, and otherwise you wouldn’t be playing using the right performance practice or understanding a lot of the style of the music we play.

TIM MCALLISTER: As Matt has said before, so much of contemporary music being written now is informed by world music, and by jazz and other vernacular idioms. You can’t be successful without some background in that area, because music is overwhelmingly moving in that direction anyway. We’re not really seeing the archetype modernists dominating the music scene. They’re their own niche that are doing their own thing and have their own champions. But when we see these people who are achieving mainstream recognition, like the Bang on a Can group or the success of composers like Steve Reich. When you see that music being influenced by so many kinds of music, we like to think that we’re doing our best to honor all of those traditions.

MATT LEVY: Even on this recording by Music from China, we had to learn what is the performance practice of playing the erhu. We have to meld our prism-quartet3.jpgplaying with an ensemble of traditional Chinese instruments. It’s sort of like Baroque ornamentation. And the guy we played with is a virtuoso. If he were playing traditional violin, he’d be one of the world’s great violinists. And so we got to learn from him.

TIM MCALLISTER: He was very vocal about how he wanted us to play things, and he really challenged us. It was great to have that kind of inspiration. If he couldn’t explain what he wanted, he would just play the way hee wanted it to sound. And if there was something in the actual idiomatic practice of playing the erhu that we could imitate on the saxophone, he wanted us to imitate it. If the erhu had a slide as part of the pitch, we had to put a slide into everything we were playing. That plays into the strengths of a saxophone more so than maybe a clarinet or a flute. We can do that. You see that more in the traditional areas of saxophone playing -the flexibility.

PHAWKER: So you were able to hang with these Chinese musicians… what challenged you most?

TIM MCALLISTER: When we played with the yangqin, we had to play a little bit out of tune. You couldn’t play traditional 440 all the time, ‘cos all those instruments are kind of detuned in an interesting way.

TAIMUR SULLIVAN: Also, balancing. The saxophone can really overpower some of those instruments, especially the four of us.

TIM MCALLISTER: Except the erhu. The erhu is loud! And there’s a smaller one we play on one piece. That thing is LOUD!

TAIMUR SULLIVAN: And the timbre of the instrument really cuts through.

MATT LEVY: There’s a guy who plays the erhu on 16th and Walnut. And I think that’s people’s impression of playing the erhu. Nothing against that guy, but this is something totally different. This is the highest art music when you hear Wang Guowei play. It’s just transcendental. We were just moved and inspired by this guy. And that’s what we look for when we collaborate: performers and ensembles that make us think about the context of our instruments in different kinds of orchestral settings, or orchestrations.

PHAWKER: Listening to the recordings, just two of the Chinese instruments can sound like an entire orchestra. I was also impressed both by the blend and also by the contrast – you might say “lack of blend” – and by how the colors and sounds can be so different. It’s like there’s two elements: how they fit together, and how they don’t fit together.

MATT LEVY: Zhou Long’s piece was really interested in that idea, and then Chen Yi’s piece blended the ensembles more. It was like trying to find the timbres of each instrument that overlap with the instruments of other ensemble and try to find that middle ground coloristically. That was really interesting for us.

PHAWKER: So, back to Ann Arbor, this hub of the classical saxophone world. What got the original group together? Why the four of you versus three of you and some other guy?

TIM MCALLISTER: Well, Matt’s the last original member of the group.

MATT LEVY: I like to say “last surviving member.”

TIM MCALLISTER: It’s a running joke.

MATT LEVY: But the way the group was originally founded was that the original soprano player had just spent a year studying with Jean-Marie prism-taimur-sullivanrecitalcard_sml.gifLondeix, another highly regarded saxophonist in Bourdeaux. He spent a year studying after finishing his master’s at Michigan. He came back and he approached the three other original members and said, “I’d really like to do this.” We were in school when he was coming back from a year abroad. I was a sophomore; I was the youngest. Now, I’m the elder.

TIM MCALLISTER: There’s a joke about that, too.

MATT LEVY: We thought, you know, we all play in sax quartets as part of our curriculum, and it’s something we all love to do, Let’s see if we can make a professional group. We had a meeting, we had a dictionary and looked for names. The typical kind of throwing out all kinds of absurd ideas. We wanted to originally call ourselves the Detroit Saxophone Quartet, but there was another group with that name, and even though they hadn’t played for a number of years, they still wouldn’t let us have the name. We liked the idea of a prism because of the idea of light refracting into a number of different directions, and that seemed appropriate for the kind of music we wanted to play.

We started off small, playing at the Union League, at the mall, in small series. One of our first gigs was at a restaurant, and they couldn’t pay us in money, but they promised us omelets. We just wanted to play to get experience. And actually, the very first name of the group was the Prism Ensemble, because we thought, if one of us can’t make the gig, we can still take it.

(widespread laughter)

MATT LEVY: We weren’t that committed to being a quartet.

TIM MCALLISTER: We should still do that!

TAIMUR SULLIVAN: I didn’t know about that. Or about the Detroit Saxophone Quartet.

MATT LEVY: Eventually, we started self-producing some series, and a local manager came to us. Her name is Donna Zajonc, and she really liked the group. We started to get a following, and she asked if she could represent us. Then we began to tour regionally, and then nationally, and it just built up over the years.

PHAWKER: So how long has everyone been in the group now?

TAIMUR SULLIVAN: I joined the group in 1994, so 16 years.

TIM MCALLISTER: I joined in 2000, and I subbed in the group a little before that.

ZACK SHEMON: I joined in 2007. I was at Michigan, finishing up my undergrad and ended up doing my master’s after that.

PHAWKER: Zack, tell me about getting in and getting started with an established group.

ZACK SHEMON: Yeah, I was really tossed right in from the beginning. I had literally just graduated from college, walked and then got an airplane for a two-week tour literally that afternoon.

MATT LEVY: And a recording session.

ZACK SHEMON: It was very, very exciting and intimidating at the same time, and a lot different than any experience I’d had in student group. I’d had a pretty successful student group at Michigan, but it’s really making that jump, like Matt said, getting management and starting to tour and that kind of thing, and making that commitment to the group. So jumping into a preformed that had been established for 20 years was obviously much different.

TIM MCALLISTER: We had a national audition for his chair, and we looked at a lot of people. We looked at professors at other colleges and esteemed conservatories, we looked at people who were part of our immediate generation and even maybe older than us, and he won out of all of that. And we prism-quartet3.jpgknew that he was the best fit for us because he was part of that lineage, that sound. We didn’t necessary plan to target someone coming out of Michigan again, but it was just such a natural fit.

MATT LEVY: When he sat down with us, he was the last person to audition. When Zack sat down with us, not only did he fit in, but he kind of led the group. We were playing some pieces and he kind of pushed and elevated the interpretation of the music, and we were kind of like, “Wow, that’s really what we’re looking for — someone who can be a leader when it’s needed.”

TIM MCALLISTER: He was like the number one draft that invigorates the football team… that was important for us. We needed that.

MATT LEVY: He’s also good at football. (laughter)

PHAWKER: Obviously in a string quartet, you have a set hierarchy — first violin, second violin, viola and cello. How does it work in a sax quartet? How does the leadership role shake out?

TAIMUR SULLIVAN: I think it’s similar to a string quartet in a lot of ways, in that in traditional music, some of the early quartets that were written in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, it’s often melody in the soprano voice and harmony and counterpoint in the lower voices. In more contemporary music, there’s certainly more equality of line, as there is in a string quartet. Sometimes it’s not about melody or harmony, it’s about timbre or another focus that the composer is writing. But even in a contemporary string quartet, often the first violin has a lot of the predominant material, and we find the same thing in a lot of contemporary saxophone quartets – that the soprano voice still has a lot of primary material. In terms of tessitura, it’s heard the most, but Modern composers are sort of divvying up the work in a more democratic way.

TIM MCALLISTER: They’re also trying to change the sound a little within the quartet by really exploring range issues within the group. We’re playing this piece now where the soprano might be in the lowest register, and the baritone sax might be playing the upper altissimo extended register. You get this loss of timbral identity in the quartet. You can’t tell what voice is what. And I think composers are really into that, the homogeneity. A woodwind quintet can’t do that, and some would a brass quintet struggles to achieve that because the five instruments are very different. They’re very different physical machines. The string quartet, they’re four versions of the same instrument. And some composers have really tried to explore that with saxophones. They’re four versions of the same machine. But there’ll be times where you don’t know who’s playing what. There’ll be a lot of times we’ll come to a quartet and we’re all most proficient on the alto saxophone. We all come out of college playing alto saxophone the most. So you walk into a quartet situation, and a lot of times early on, the alto sax player can sometimes be the strongest player while the soprano player’s learning to get the intonation really together, and baritone player’s exploring better use of air support to get that machine to work. You’ll sometimes find an early quartet work with younger groups where the alto tends to be the stronger player. It takes a while to develop leadership on every one of those instruments, to feel like you can carry the quartet. We’re completely comfortable with every member of the group taking on a leadership role, but that’s not always set with some groups. With some groups, it’s predetermined that the soprano player is the most important, and we try not to do that. Some quartets are named after the soprano player. The Marcel Mule Sax Quartet – that was a group from the 1930’s – but that’s very arrogant and egotistical. We’ve seen that with a lot of groups

MATT LEVY: I do think that composers are interested in all four saxophones in a way that they may not have been in Romantic music. There’s more prism-quartet.jpginterest in looking at each instrument and its potential. When we interpret that music, the leadership role constantly shifts according to what the music demands.

TIM MCALLISTER: And not every piece is soprano, alto, tenor, baritone. There have been some really landmark pieces – one by Gavin Bryars, out of England, is for two soprano, alto and baritone. In his program notes for his piece, he says he believes that that lineup most mimics the string quartet. There’s kind of some validity to that, as far as range issues goes. We played a concert two years ago of music for all baritone saxophones. We had some original music written for us written for four baritone saxes. It was kind of a trip.

PHAWKER: I was fascinated by the music of JacobTV on your CDs. It’s kind of political music, though, the way he uses cut-up speech — almost mocking or commenting on the subjects. How did you find out about this guy from the Netherlands, and why did you do a whole CD of his music?

TAIMUR SULLIVAN: A couple of us had been to a big sax conference in Montreal around 2000, and a saxophonist came out during the concert, and he had a boombox with it. A couple people had been doing saxophone and piano, more traditional works, but this guy comes out, puts the boombox down, and starts introducing the composer’s work to the saxophone community and sort of shook things, and from there, he started gaining more popularity, particularly in Europe. He hadn’t been done a lot in the US, and four years later, we were coming up with our recital series in Philadelphia and New York, one of the things we were doing was five Composer Portrait concerts, composers that had enough music that we could do an entire night of their music for saxophone quartet. I was really intrigued by what he’d done. He had three quartets and three solo pieces for alto and boombox, or alto, tenor and boombox, and it was sort of odd that it hadn’t done a lot in the US because a lot of his work explores his fascination with American culture, whether it’s Chet Baker or Billie Holliday, samples of them, or death-row inmates. One of the pieces we’ll play at the end of January samples a religious fanatic in Times Square, and so it sort of takes the things we’re well-known for, or the underbelly of American pop culture, and sort of shines this other light, or makes it humorous, or amplifies it in some way.

I think his language is one that really spoke to us: it was pretty unique, in its grittiness and vernacular, in a way. It also seemed honest – some composers that might delve into those worlds, it might seem a little gimmicky, but I don’t think we found that at all with his music.

TIM MCALLISTER: I don’t think it’s gimmicky because there’s a lot of tragic undertones that he writes. Even in the upbeat poppy stuff he writes, if it’s not overtly tragic in a way, it’s actually pointing fun at popular culture, even though in itself it’s popular-sounding. I mean, the piece “Jesus is Coming” borders on sacrilegious. There’s a lot of contradictions in his own stuff. There’s another piece that’s not on our album that’s based on Charlie Parker, and of course, he was one of the great icons for saxophone, and everything he did was emblematic of the saxophone. Yet, he died at his own hands essentially, so I think those kinds of figures – the ones who have risen to this level of prominence and then, in many cases, either died or committed suicide – these people had the most impact on Jacob’s musical upbringing. So there’s something very deep in that music, something very powerful to us, even though the music itself comes off almost jazz-y or rock-infuenced.

He really shook things up in the Netherlands at a time when a major figure like Louis Andriessen or other composers were really the icons, and he’s an iconoclast. I think we’ve been interested in some of those types of composers in America, like Steve Mackey. He was branded an “iconoclast” by people like Michael Tilson Thomas and John Adams, who were labelling themselves iconoclasts, and I think that’s what the saxophone is in itself.prism-taimur-sullivanrecitalcard_sml.gif

MATT LEVY: He wasn’t taken seriously by the establishment in New York, in terms of winning competitions or recognition. He wrote melodies and the trend was to look at more rigorous, Modernist type music, and he only received recognition when people realized there is rigor in what he’s doing. It’s just not the kind they were looking for. his musical style is one that’s very unpredictable and that evolves, and that’s what attracted us is that it’s very fresh, and even though there’s a minimalist quality to it, it sustains this kind of unpredictable nature that keeps us interested.

PHAWKER: David Harrington from the Kronos Quartet told me about getting the group together to play George Crumb’s “Black Angels.” Is there a touchstone piece for PRISM?

MATT LEVY: When we first started, there really wasn’t. There was the core, mid-20th century repertoire of French music. We were focusing on that until we began commissioning music. But there was one piece we commissioned early on by a composer who was a mentor for the group, William Albright. He was teaching at Michigan and we were founded there, and we had always had a close personal connection to him. He came to one of our first concerts and really dissuaded us from continuing on this path of French conservatory music and encouraged us to start commissioning music, and eventually we commissioned him, with a grant from Chamber Music America, and that piece has really become a signature piece for us, a touchstone we always come back, and it’s become part of the core of saxophone curriculums throughout the country. “Fantasy Etudes” — that’s one of the pieces we most identify with, of all the commissions we’ve done. It’s something we strongly feel is a masterwork in many regards.

TIM MCALLISTER: That would have to be our “Black Angels,” for us it’s a piece that, I believe, we would probably be able to look back in 10, 20 years and say, “There’s an iconic American piece that came out of the sax quartet repertoire,” it’s going to be the “Fantasy Etudes” of William Albright, because it’s reached this point where it’s been studied and critically analyzed. He himself was a bit of a tragic figure, dying so early, and he was always in the shadow of William Bolcom, his colleague at Michigan. The two of them forged a whole tradition together. That piece changed what’s expdcted of quartet playing. It changes the idiom itself, where we’re being called on to do more things than would ever be asked. Trying to imitate sounds throughout the piece – at one point you’re trying to imitate bagpipes, at one point you’re trying to imitate steam engines and whistles. Other times, you’re supposed to sound like singers. Other times, you’re asked to sound like a train. It’s really interesting. It changed our group fundamentally, at the core. Before that, it was either jazz-influenced music or some of the French conservatory music, but that piece changed the direction of the quartet, single-handedly. We could say that everything we’ve commissioned since then, we’ve been comparing its place next to the Albright. I think we’re proud of that. There’s hopefully a legacy we’re leaving because of that piece.

We feel we’re beginning to document some repertoire that will be recognized musicologically, if that’s a word. I remember we played the Albright etudes at a new music festival in 2003, and there was a composer that was in the audience. After our concert, he said to us, “As far as I’m concerned, that piece is Opus 1 for the saxophone quartet.” The most important piece, and the kind of piece that would someday be discussed in musicology circles. It’s hard to say that about any other core repertoire.

PHAWKER: So you’re four American guys, playing European instruments but doing American music. What’s the identity of the group going to be in the future? Will you play more American music? Or more European music, like JacobTV?

MATT LEVY: We’re sort of strategic about how we think about future projects and our goals artistically. We have a list of composers we’re interested in commissioning. Because we’re an organization and have to develop support for these projects, we have to plan everything out, in terms of: here are the composers, here are the foundations. It’s very business-like. It almost seems counter-intuitive when you think of “artistic planning.” But we’re actually always in the process of saying, in the next three years, what 5 major composers would we like to approach? That’s part of ongoing planning that we do. It’s often more about the aesthetic or the excellence of the composer, regardless of what school of composition he or she comes out of. I don’t think we’re focusing on a really narrow path in terms of an aesthetic, but looking at different composers from different backgrounds whose music speaks to us because of its quality. We were telling David Patrick Stearns (of the Inquirer), we don’t care about the topic of the composer, it’s about what the composer does with it, whether it be vernacular music, or some kind of non-Western music, or European Modernist traditions. Our interest is in what composers can create, the development process and how that does or doesn’t appeal to us, when we decide who to commission.

TIM MCALLISTER: I think everything either has the ring of truth to it or it doesn’t. Good music is good music; it doesn’t matter what the genre is.

TAIMUR SULLIVAN: We really enjoy that flexibility too. We did a night of transcriptions of music from Gesualdo to Cole Porter by Salvartore Sciarrino, whose this Italian modernist but he’s an amazing arranger. Just sort of his eye and ear toward these transcriptions and his approach to transcribing created this whole evening, program of great works. Something pretty off-the-beaten-path for us — we don’t play transcriptions normally, but I think we really enjoy the flexibility of doing something that comes honestly and organically from the composer and is artistically fulfilling both for our audience and for us. We enjoy going in that direction.

MATT LEVY: After that, we did a concert of all spectral music. We’ve done programs collaborating with jazz artists in New York. We’re really just prism-quartet3.jpgeclectic in our tastes, but I think the thing that connects all the programs is that the music speaks to us both in terms of its merits and its craftsmanship.

TIM MCALLISTER: I think sometimes we’ve been surprised. Sometimes something we didn’t think we’d like turned out to be amazing, and sometimes something we expected to be amazing was kind of a dud. You can run into that. That’s part of commissioning so much new music. You’re going to have hits and misses sometimes. It’s part of the game, but that’s also what makes it fun, because you don’t know what the next thing’s going to be.

MATT LEVY: We set up these young composer commissioning awards, for students from Philadelphia and New York-based schools, and some of those students have produced some of the best piece that we’ve played. Not only because of their own background and training, but because they are so invested — for them, it’s a really great opportunity and they’re putting everything they have into it. One of the pieces on the Breath Beneath piece is by Kati Agocs. She was a student at Juilliard, and it’s a landmark piece that treats the quartet in a way that’s new to us, and it’s really appealing. We love the piece. It’s an example not only of looking to established and eminent composers, but also to young composers who are really talented and can make great contributions.

PHAWKER: Last thing: of course, I heard about this DAVE program coming up in June — all music by composers named David. It’s just sort of serendipity, isn’t it? How did this happen?

MATT LEVY: It started because Taimur was in touch with David Lang, and he wrote a piece for another quartet, and it hadn’t been played in Philly or New York. We really wanted to play it, and David wanted us to play it, so we said this will be part of our premieres program, which is usually world premieres, but also a couple of local and regional premieres. So we added a couple of composers, maybe two more, and they were both named Dave. So we said, what if we just add a few more named Dave? (laughter)

Anyway, I proposed to the group, what if we add another Dave or two, cos it’s already going in that direction. Even though we always do these premieres concerts, we thought it would be really fun to tie the programs together.

TIM MCALLISTER: And hopefully kind of humorous. We’re looking to do more and more to build audiences. We talked to this publicist in New York, and she thought it was a great idea.

PHAWKER: I think it’s nice that even though you’re a group that has a board of directors and does all this artistic planning, you can still find the room to do something silly.

MATT LEVY: You know, we want the audience to enjoy it and to have fun. We’re looking for different kinds of venues as well, outside of the traditional proscenium, like a club. We’re playing Le Poisson Rouge in New York. We’re interested in connecting in different ways with audiences, not always in a formal setting.

The PRISM Quartet performs tonight at Art After 5 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, starting at 5:45 p.m. Tickets free with museum admission: $16 for adults; $14 for seniors; $12 for students; free for members and kids 12 and under.

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