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New music ensemble Wild Up welcomes listeners where they are

The Los Angeles-based group makes its first Boston appearance on March 30

Christopher Rountree, artistic director of Wild Up.Collin Keller

The composer and conductor Christopher Rountree is a musician sharply attuned to the rituals of classical music, and especially to their symbolic importance. Take an ordinary orchestral concert experience: The audience usually sits in the dark, far away from the performers who are on a stage and bathed in light. The musicians create sound, the audience is tasked with remaining silent. The whole format, Rountree said during a recent phone interview, accentuates the distance and the sheer unlikeness of audience and performer.

So when he founded Wild Up, a chamber orchestra-size new music group based in Los Angeles, Rountree tried to undo as many of those tradition-bound norms as he could. At Wild Up’s inaugural concert, in 2010, he made it a point to have the musicians as close to the audience as possible, on the same level and in the same light. Concertgoers were encouraged to drink and move around. “Your typical classical concert has this strange thing called a stage,” Rountree told the Los Angeles Times before the performance. “The musicians are placed on a pedestal and the conductor is even higher on his own pedestal. That’s not what we want to do.”


These were aesthetic choices; but as Rountree, the group’s artistic director, gradually realized, they were also ethical ones. In fact, they formed a kind of mission statement for Wild Up, which makes its first Boston appearance on March 30, in the Celebrity Series of Boston Stave Sessions.

“I realized that the thing I was missing in classical music was something where the warmth of bringing an audience toward the music, and to our side of the music, was the central goal,” Rountree said.

This approach is especially unusual in new music, a sphere that in past decades was accused (rightly, in many cases) of being at best indifferent and at worst hostile to their audiences’ experience. For Wild Up, by contrast, “even when we do our most thorny, unlistenable music, we’re going to do it with an open heart, and we’re going to do it in a way where we really think about the experience of the listener.”


Wild Up’s repertoire cuts a wide swath, from that “thorny, unlistenable” to “music that’s quite beautiful, that anybody could like,” he said. Much of the band’s focus is on the many composers in its ranks, which include violinist and violist Andrew McIntosh and saxophonist Shelley Washington.

Composer Julius Eastman. Ron Hammond

Lately, much attention — and critical praise — has centered on its recordings of works by Julius Eastman (1940-90), a pathbreaking composer whose music took elements of minimalism, indeterminacy, and experimentalism and from them created ecstatically strange and powerful works. But Eastman was an outsider, a Black gay composer at a time when such a figure was unknown to the world of composition. His life spiraled in the 1980s, and during a spell of homelessness some of his pieces were lost. By the time of his death, few in the music world knew of or remembered him.

Eastman’s subsequent rediscovery and near-lionization has been one of the great musical happenings of the 21st century. Wild Up has recorded two of a projected seven volumes of his music (on the New Amsterdam label), and the Stave Sessions concert juxtaposes four of Eastman’s compositions against works by Felipe Lara, Jürg Frey, and Anthony Braxton.


It was after Wild Up had developed its musical persona — a visceral, freewheeling performance style that Rountree describes as coming “from the center of the body, not the head” — that the musicians discovered the wildness of Eastman’s music suited it perfectly. Proof of this synergy can be found in the group’s vivid performance of the 75-minute “Femenine” (pronounced feh-meh-NEEN), on its first Eastman recording. Endless repetitions of a single phrase and tightly controlled timing sit side-by-side with eruptive, improvised solos and an almost crazed intensity.

That combination of strict constraints in some elements of the composition and performer agency in others is key to Eastman’s work. “We’ve all spent 100 hours rehearsing [”Femenine”] over the years, so we know how it goes,” Rountree explained, noting “it’s going to be better if we just roll the dice, because it’s improvised. So it’s both of those things, which is quite unusual.”

When I asked Rountree about future plans for the group, he said that one of his dreams is to make it “like Black Mountain College in Los Angeles.” He was referring to the short-lived yet deeply influential experimental art school in North Carolina, whose faculty included John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Buckminster Fuller.

“That’s the big dream,” he said. “It’s like, how do we codify this into something that feels like it influences the next few generations of people making music?”


Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston Stave Sessions.

At Crystal Ballroom, Somerville, March 30, 8 p.m. Tickets $24. www.celebrityseries.org/productions/wild-up/


David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.