Ensemble Evolution brings treetop sounds to arboretum
This weekend, the percussion trio Ensemble Evolution visits the Arnold Arboretum for a three-day residency, at the center of which is a performance of its collectively composed piece “Sounds From the Treetops.” It’s a nicely tailored bit of programming — bringing a work inspired by nature to the most arboreal spot in Boston.
In a way, though, the residency is also the result of a long series of decisions and chance interactions that began when Maria Finkelmeier, one of the group’s founders, decided to forsake further graduate study and set off for a small town in Sweden she’d never heard of. It’s a case study on how musicians need to be creative about entrepreneurship, and the things that can happen when they are.
“I never imagined myself going abroad to live,” said Finkelmeier, who also works at New England Conservatory, during a recent phone conversation in which she sounded unfailingly energetic. “But I guess I’m the kind of person where if I have that kind of opportunity I want to get the most out of it. And one thing led to another.”
Finkelmeier had always seen herself on track to becoming an academic: getting a doctoral degree and teaching percussion at the university level. Approaching the end of her master’s degree at the Eastman School of Music in 2009 she decided she’d had enough formal schooling. Instead, she wanted to study with Anders Åstrand, a percussionist whose work bridged jazz and classical and was heavy on improvisation. He was based at a school in the small Swedish town of Piteå, and they planned a course of study that emphasized creative practical experience. Finkelmeier was excited about the resources she’d have access to, including rehearsal space and a recording studio.
“Then I went to a map and realized that Piteå is, like, an hour south of the Arctic Circle,” she said. “And I thought, what did I just get myself into?”
A lot of cold and darkness, as it turned out. Still, Finkelmeier began organizing concerts and establishing connections. She’d intended to stay only a year, but Åstrand was so enthused about what she was doing that he asked for her help recruiting more students. Soon she was joined by an Australian, Charles Martin, and a Texan, Jacob Remington.
Thus was born Ensemble Evolution. The three lived together, composed, jammed, and created projects, including a three-day percussion festival and tours of Europe and Australia. It helped that at the time, higher education in Sweden was free. “As two Americans and an Australian, this opportunity is just crazy,” Finkelmeier said. “We’re used to fighting for practice rooms, equipment, and all of the sudden, it’s the opposite.”
Toward the end of their stay in Sweden last year, they decided to visit Treehotel, a set of sleekly designed tree houses in the northern village of Harads. Stunned by the physical beauty, they hit on the idea of using the rooms as the inspiration for a musical work. Thus “Sounds From the Treetops,” a six-part suite mixing notated music and improvisation, each movement inspired by one of Treehotel’s futuristic rooms.
Finkelmeier admits that it took some convincing to get its owners to allow the group to perform there. “Contemporary percussion music isn’t really the most popular genre,” she admitted. But she showed them instruments and talked about what the group had done in Piteå. Eventually, Treehotel ended up not only sanctioning the performance but also paying for a recording of the piece.
When the trio reconvenes to play the piece at the Arnold Arboretum on Saturday, it will do so inside the Hunnewell Building, rather than outside, as they did in Sweden. “Experience has taught me that if there is a way to bring it indoors, do it,” Finkelmeier advised. “Especially in winter.” Videos from the performance at Treehotel will be projected during the performance.
The trio is also writing a piece to conclude the Saturday concert, with photos from the Arboretum to be projected during the performance. Their residency includes a free open rehearsal on Friday and a family concert on Sunday.
Being creative about matching up ideas and institutions, digging up financing, doing the legwork — all these are crucial to musicians today. It’s fitting that Finkelmeier’s day job is in the entrepreneurial musicianship department at NEC, because she’s had to acquire many of those skills on her own.
“I think a lot of my project creation just came out of the fact that I just had to figure out how to do things,” she said. “I had to figure out how to communicate with a recording engineer, how to use [the online music store] CD Baby, how to negotiate with a venue, write an invoice.
“This ensemble, these projects, were just me learning the ropes, throwing myself and my colleagues into the deep end and swimming,” she continued. “And I feel so fortunate to say that I did get to swim to the top and breathe fresh air. Now I feel like I can fall back on all these skills.”