For over 20 years, SOLI Chamber Ensemble has been holding the flag for modern music in San Antonio. What does modern music mean? To SOLI, it just means that it’s been written recently. Along with performing established masterworks of the 20th century, SOLI has commissioned over 40 pieces of music by living composers. The results have been surprising. “We love the challenges of the more avant-garde sounding pieces,” admits Ertan Torgul, the group’s violinist. “Our audiences have always been incredibly open [to the music]… but we don’t want people to pretend to like something when they don’t.”
“It’s really good to discuss something,” Torgul continues. “Having that dialogue with people is really important.”
Avant-garde is one thing the group does. Pure beauty is another. At a recent concert, audiences swooned to the neo-romantic “Butterflying” by Elena Kats-Chernin, and the pulsating, hypnotic sounds of Philip Glass’s “Metamorphosis.”
The group concludes their current performance season on May 18 & 19 at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts and Trinity University’s Ruth Taylor Concert Hall with an ambitious program that combines video, dramatic lighting, pre-recorded tracks, and live music.
SOLI is also basking in the afterglow of the recent release of two new albums, “Portraits” and “Música, Por Un Tiempo,” both of which are available online, and at the show. I sat down with Ertan Torgul recently to talk about the music business, their selection process, and community engagement. The full conversation is in the audio above. Below is a partial transcription.
Nathan Cone: Most artists get really excited when they put out one CD, but y’all put out two last fall. How did two CDs come about?
Ertan Torgul: I guess that really happens in our business by being very tardy with one of the CDs! [laughs] “Música, Por Un Tiempo” was a long time coming. We recorded it over almost three years… we got a Copland grant for it, and so it was one of those projects that kept getting longer… and we wanted to actually release it a year before the “Portraits” CD so that we could give people time to digest [the music]. And then the “Portraits” CD got ready to be released, and “Música” got ready at the same time. Then we started thinking, gosh, you know classical music, a contemporary ensemble, we really don’t have rules! Let’s just release them both together and make a bigger impact, and feature both Albany Records and New Dynamic Records equally. I think it was sort of making a bigger splash by doing two instead of one.
I’m really familiar with Albany, who do such great work with contemporary music. I guess New Dynamic is a nationwide distributor too?
Yes, New Dynamic is a smaller and much newer record company, and it is affiliated with Indiana University. Composer Erich Stem is the head of it. They have grant money that they use every year to release one CD. And they try to find interesting repertoire and interesting artists around the country … people who don’t get the limelight most of the time, which is a wonderful thing to do, you know, to give people the chance to kind of release and album on a national level. So it’s a really wonderful record label. And so we went to Indiana, and Kentucky, right around the border there, and recorded great pieces [by Stem, Peter Farmer, Diego Vega, and Elliott Miles McKinley].
We’ll talk about the music in just a second, but I want to ask a little more about the business side of things. I’m curious about nationwide distribution, and your hopes for being and ensemble that’s known even beyond San Antonio, because you have a 20 year history in San Antonio, and now putting these nationwide releases out there both in the physical format of a CD but also digitally, provides a new opportunity for the group’s sound to be heard, right?
Absolutely. It’s invaluable. The way we look at it, and I think the way most classical groups look at CD releases is to reach a much wider audience nationally and internationally. Because if you Google a composer or Google a piece, then all of a sudden your [record] is the one that pops out, and that could be heard anywhere in the world, which is an incredible opportunity these days for everyone.
We’ve been wanting to do this, but for 20 years here in San Antonio, we were so happy to be able to just commission works and perform them for the first time for San Antonio audiences. Even though we wanted to do a recording, that wasn’t really on the forefront for the longest time. It was later on that we kind of got the idea that we should put something out there. Even though we released a few things on our own, some live things that we’ve done over the years, they were not released nationally. So this is a great opportunity, and the CMA/ASCAP award for Adventurous Programming also helped put us on the map for a little bit. It’s nice to know that groups like us in Texas or other parts of the country that may not be known for their diversity in arts, to put those places in the limelight in the national scene is a good feeling.
You have composers that have local connections on here, including Tim Kramer [a former Trinity University professor] and David Heuser [formerly of UTSA], some great pieces.
Yeah, we love those guys! The selection process was hard, because we have 43 commissions to pick from. It was a difficult selection process, and you can see from the dates of some of those pieces, they are some of the early ones that SOLI had commissioned. Heuser’s piece is a little bit later, but Tim’s is I think like 1996, maybe? And I believe “Crows” by Alexandra Gardner is a fairly early one. So even though we commissioned really fun pieces recently, these were sort of what we gravitated towards, not only because of the local connection, but I think it’s because of the connection to our past. We wanted to bring these things out because they have not been heard nationally as much.
When you put things on a CD you’re programming for an audience that you don’t see, and you’re programming not for a concert experience, but for a listening experience in a car, at home, on an iPod …what made you decide on these particular pieces with that in mind?
I remember growing up at home, my dad would put on an album, and we would sit and listen to it. Obviously with classical that’s sort of a given, you have a symphony, four movements…but jazz albums too, we used to sit and listen from top to bottom. It was different back then somehow. I don’t know if we had more time, but I think people listen in much shorter bursts [nowadays]. So I guess I thought that the pieces on the “Música” CD aren’t necessarily creating an arc together, but each of them deserved the limelight so much … so I think that most people would put it on and listen to Kramer, or Heuser, or Gardner. And may not go all the way to the end [of the album]. So I wasn’t thinking about an arc, but funny enough, when you don’t think about those things, sometimes they just happen naturally. I think the order they are on that CD creates an incredible arc. It starts with Kramer, which starts very strong, and … Alex’s piece is just so beautiful and euphoric in so many places, and I think it just kind of eases you out of the listening experience. I really enjoyed listening to the disc. The first time I did it was maybe a month ago from top to bottom, and I was feeling like 'gosh, this is a pretty good order!' The other album, “Portraits,” that came to us as a package. The composers who were involved in that project were the initiators of the recording project as well as the concert project that we put together, I think it was called “Hot Off The Press” a couple of years ago. So Elliott McKinley, Erich Stem, and Peter Farmer got together and had the idea of having pieces of theirs on a CD, and Erich said ‘hey guys, I have this record label.' We suggested the idea of Diego Vega.
I love that Diego Vega piece, by the way. Immediately there’s such beauty in that piece.
Yes, he has such a great sense for these colors, and the way he writes for these four instruments, we did another piece of his maybe three or four years ago. The “Divertimento” is much more melodic than the other piece, that was a little bit more atmospheric. This is such a delight to play, and I think it’s a delight to listen to. We were so glad it’s on that CD.
How do you discover new composers when you’re thinking you’d like to commission a new piece?
It’s a combination of things, as usual. The Internet, obviously, is a huge deal, you can put in a search word and come up with all sorts of things just right away.
But there’s SO MUCH stuff, where are the signposts that lead you to those composers?
Either pieces or composers that other groups that we know of work with. Also we hear a lot from other composers [who] suggest new names that are up and coming… even in the classical world, you have these names that come at you, and you don’t know much about them, and they may not have much repertoire for us to do yet, all of a sudden they get some Carnegie grant or the Prix de Rome, and they’re writing operas and symphonies! So it’s an interesting thing to always have your ear out and make sure that you give an opportunity to the young composers, because they’re growing and they’re going places, a lot of them. After all, it is a business, so you’re kind of trying to make sure that you’re current with everything.
I [also] listen to a lot of things online. I go to composer websites and listen to their pieces, and get a sense of their style and whether or not that jells with what we like or don’t like. And then the other thing which is so cool, and we’re proud of, is that composers actually contact us! So that is always such a delight, because you get the sense that San Antonio and SOLI are on the map! So we have a running list of composers that we’re trying to get to. But of course, financially it’s a very difficult thing, because we recognize that they’re professionals, and their commissions have to be paid for.
Well, you have a new way to help fund these commissions through SOLI Sound Investors. Give me a ballpark figure, how much does it cost to commission a new work?
For a known composer, it starts at about $1,000 a minute. For a 20 minute piece, that’s a fairly large sum of money. To come up with that from our budget is always very difficult. It’s so important to involve the community so that they have a certain amount of ownership for that piece too, and they trust us to pick the right composer to write. So we were able to commission quite a few pieces through the Sound Investors program. I invite everybody to check it out! Every little bit helps.
Speaking of the community, let’s close by talking a little bit about last fall’s performance of Terry Riley’s “IN C,” which was a great community experiment [Note: TPR helped recruit over 80 amateur and professional musicians for the performance]. I was impressed with the diversity and number of people that came out and performed.
It was fantastic. What a ride! I think everybody truly enjoyed the experience of rehearsing and putting it together, and hearing different things. It’s such a great fluid piece. It never sounds the same. I think everybody was so into it, and I think that really radiated into the audience both times we performed it. It was such a success. It was a genius idea, I think you and Stephanie cooked it up for many many years before we finally made it happen! Hopefully we’ll try to make that at least an annual event or something like that, so that everyone can enjoy that experience.
Oh, we’d love to do another collaboration!
Hey, we’re open! You know us!
Stephanie and I will have lunch again…
Exactly, cook up something else! Sounds fine to me!
The audience really responded to the idea of the community being involved.
Exactly. I think that a lot of organizations in town try to do events like this, and for us, a smaller organization, to have such an impactful thing on our program for the community was really joyous for us too, because you could see the intensity of everyone who was on stage with us. There were kids who were 16, and we had one violinist who was maybe in in his early 60s. So here’s the wide range of ages and experiences all on stage, for this common goal. It was a great dynamic thing to do.
SOLI Chamber Ensemble performs on Monday, May 18 at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, and on Tuesday, May 19 at Trinity University's Ruth Taylor Concert Hall. Both shows are at 7:30 p.m. Details are online at solichamberensemble.com, or at the Tobin Center's website.
BONUS: From our friends at WUOL, here's an interview with composer Erich Stem about the "Portraits" album.