With help from the Internet, musical ensemble reaches out

Members of the Black Sheep Contemporary Ensemble rehearse.
Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff
Members of the Black Sheep Contemporary Ensemble rehearse.

SOMERVILLE — Finding repertoire for a trio of woodwinds can be an uphill battle. But Boston-based Black Sheep Contemporary Ensemble found a novel solution for an upcoming concert: The players made like the digital natives they are, taking to the Internet to invite composers to send in pieces that fit.

In a bustling Davis Square cafe, cofounder and woodwind player Nicole DeMaio, 26, said she had expected to hear from between 10 and 20 composers in their call for scores. The final tally was “between 60 and 70,” she said, including submissions from seven countries. On Friday, the ensemble will perform eight of those submissions at the Lilypad in Inman Square.

Black Sheep was born from DeMaio’s frustration while working on her master’s degree in composition at Boston Conservatory at Berklee.


“I wasn’t able to be in any of the ensembles, and it drove me crazy,” she said.

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Advised to create something herself, she launched the first incarnation of Black Sheep, a duo with tuba player Liam Sheehy.

“We couldn’t really sustain ourselves,” DeMaio said of those early days. The initial combination of bass clarinet and tuba meant that programs had to be made up of almost exclusively commissions, and the musicians had to pay for those out of their own pockets. So they decided to add more people to broaden the repertoire the ensemble could play.

The current lineup features DeMaio, clarinetist Bradley Frizzell, and horn player Emma Staudacher as permanent members. A guest violist, vocalist, and percussionist will round out the ranks for Friday’s concert. The ensemble frequently performs in art galleries, and has worked with visual artists, choreographers, and dancers.

To solicit pieces for this concert, the ensemble posted on its own Facebook page and made a Facebook event, and also posted on, an online hub for opportunities in that field. Calls for scores generally have submission fees, but DeMaio said Black Sheep deliberately kept it low, at $15, to enable more people to apply. As long as the instrumentation fit Black Sheep’s needs, anything was fair game.


“I think I took the names off all the clarinet solos for Bradley and said “look at these. What do you want to play?” said DeMaio.

Frizzell ended up choosing “Eat Your Vegetables,” by fellow Boston Conservatory alumnus Jonathan Russ. He noted that he liked the composer’s use of extended techniques — methods to produce unusual sounds — because they were “all there for a reason.” Adding too many of these tricks is common in new music, the clarinetist said, explaining that trend as “the equivalent of a buzzword.”

Other winners include works by Francesco Sclafani, Daniel Fawcett, and Clare Shore, the second woman to graduate from Juilliard with a doctorate of musical arts in composition.

DeMaio and Frizzell both work other jobs to support themselves; DeMaio works as a music teacher, and Frizzell is a barista at a Starbucks downtown. “You have to find the right kind of job with the right kind of hours,” said Frizzell. “I pretty much can’t ever take days off.”

But in the absence of spare time, the Internet provides a reliable way for these entrepreneurial musicians to connect with the audience. Frizzell and DeMaio regularly chat on Facebook Live about upcoming performances and larger topics in music, with the goal of educating and connecting the community. Black Sheep also ran two Kickstarter campaigns to fund its 2017-18 season; the first failed to meet its mark of $6,500, so the second set its goal at $550, which DeMaio was certain was feasible.


“Definitely smaller venues, less expensive venues is our big thing that we’re going for, which is a little sad, but luckily with technology we can share things,” said DeMaio.

‘Definitely smaller venues, less expensive venues is our big thing that we’re going for . . . luckily with technology we can share things.’

And Facebook, sometimes thought to be the ultimate distraction, is now vital to these musicians’ careers. “I feel like that’s got me a little phone-glued, which I don’t necessarily like, but it’s happened,” said DeMaio. “There was one time someone sent me a message and I said, ‘I don’t have to answer that,’ but then the next day I looked and it said it changed our response rating. That’s crazy. So now I feel like I have to just do it.”

Friday’s concert will feature a question-and answer-session with the musicians and composers, and beer and wine will be served. But if you’re streaming the show via Facebook Live, you’ll have to bring your own.


At Lilypad, Cambridge, Friday, 8 p.m.

Zoë Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.