Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble Pairs Visual Art With Tunes In Latest Performance Series

Jul 19, 2017

Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble performs works that are hard to describe, like an amalgam of Mozart and Frank Zappa.

And at City Theater, on the South Side, the group is pairing its music with an art gallery showcasing large colorful canvases and sculptures carefully chosen to be displayed on stage during this summer’s performances.

It’s a multi-sensory experience. After one recent concert, Harry Hockheiser, of Squirrel Hill, explained how he enjoyed the combination of mediums.

“I think it’s fantastic, here are people doing some new and different things,” he said, “where we have this new music going on and we have people pushing the envelope.”

Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble violinist Nathalie Shaw lives in Paris, but comes to Pittsburgh each summer for the opportunity to play the work of contemporary composers and present it in a unique way

“I don’t think any of my colleagues who play or are associated with PNME, I don’t think any of us do anything which comes remotely close to what we do at PNME,” Shaw said. “Lots of staging, lights, sounds and very much a performance.”

Jeffrey Nytch, a composer, educator, and the president of the board of directors of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, said Pittsburgh has its own artistic vibe with a tradition of experimenting and a willingness to try new things 

“But without any of the, oh, I hesitate to say this, without any of the pretense of a place like New York, or Paris, or London, you know?” he said. “It’s just very direct and authentic and I think that is part of the Pittsburgh spirit too.”

David Stock’s founded the organization in 1976, with a very clear goal in mind.

“He said, ‘I started it because I needed a job and I wanted a venue,’ for his own music to be performed, for him to perform the music of other composers who he admired and nobody was doing that in Pittsburgh,” Nytch said.

Stock personally chose conductor and stage director Kevin Noe to succeed him as PNME’s artistic director. Noe said it’s hard to imagine this ensemble being from anywhere else.

“There's something to the stick-to-it-ness of the people in this town and they care that they express toward each other,” Noe said. “That's what I think has made it possible.”  

As an active composer connected to practically every other composer in the country, Stock’s vision was to found a high level professional ensemble and make Pittsburgh the center of new works and commissions. 

“What we're talking about in our world is classical new music so it's the Beethoven's of our time,” Noe said.

The presentation of the music is unique to Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and began with Noe’s tenure as artistic director

“I just believe passionately in mixing up the arts and learning from one and bringing elements of one into another,” Noe said. “And so I set about incorporating all of the elements that we now call at PNME we call them theater of music. A kind of more immersive quality about presentation.”

Jeff Jarzynka, the curator for visual art, said he selected works from three local artists who he thought would speak visually to the music being produced.

“We wanted to create a diversity of artists and art styles and mediums that had a lot of different colors and textures and movement. Some pieces are actually dimensional and sculptural,” Jarzynka said. “So I think a lot of what we're seeing here is some of the emotive qualities that are being produced within the music are being expressed also in the artwork.

Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble includes piano, cello, flute, violin, clarinet, percussion and two voices – a bass-baritone and soprano.

Noe wants to continue to push the boundaries and is currently working on a project with a microphone which picks up sound much like our ears pick up sound, using binaural technology.

“Involving the audience all in headphones where we're playing around this microphone and each individual member of the audience feels like they are the centerpiece of where the action is,” Noe said. “And there is a collective intimacy I'm interested in the audience having a deeply saturated immersive experience that is unforgettable to them and moves them.”

Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble’s season runs through July 29 and this weekend’s performance will include a new composition by jazz great Rufus Reid.