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Tell Your Story, MIT


When Spoleto Festival USA recently announced its 2024 festival, something was conspicuously absent: the Music in Time (MIT) series. Music in Time had served as a core element of the festival since 1990, and had a tangible impact on the evolution of the festival’s reputation for innovative opera and orchestral programming. Music in Time also developed a personality and relationship with many audience members over its 31 seasons, so its death would seem to call for an obituary and some honorific closure, at least noting the broad strokes of its life.


I offer this overview not to lionize my own work in starting and leading the series, but to highlight how a new music series played an important role in the ecology of not only the festival, but in the field of new music and the cultivation of young musicians. MIT was a crossroads for hundreds of notable composers and performers of our time. So in the spirit of another program I played a pivotal role in launching at Spoleto – Tell Your Story – here is MIT’s.


The seeds of the series were planted in 1988, when as a member of the festival orchestra, I was invited by festival Music Director Spiros Argiris to present what was called the “Percussion Concert.” Spiros was a brilliant and generous musician who led the festival with imaginative programming, and a commitment to nurturing and highlighting the young musicians in the orchestra. With a fellow orchestra colleague (credit – Scott Wilkinson), we put together a program of John Luther Adams, John Cage, Frederic Rzewski, and a piece by Charles Wood, the co-founder of my New York group Essential Music. Adams, eventually a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2014, surprised us with his attendance and slept on our dorm room floor (in subsequent seasons, visiting composers were hosted more honorifically). Scott and I were joined by two fresh-faced percussionists from the University of Michigan to be a quartet with us in the program: Shannon Wood, now Principal Timpani of the St. Louis Symphony, and Mark Suter, who became a long-time member of the Silk Road Ensemble and is now in the Singapore Symphony. The concert was a hit with the audience, and the chief festival overview critic of the Post and Courier, Robert T. Jones, declared it “the sleeper hit of the festival … brilliantly chosen and dazzingly performed, and it left the big crowd in a state of euphoria.”


The success of the program spurred talk of starting a series for new music, which finally came together two years later. General Director Nigel Redden was aware of the work I was doing both as a performer and composer in New York with Essential Music (named for the Jacques Attali quote, “Nothing essential happens in the absence of noise”), and how we were gathering positive reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere. Between the advocacy of Spiros and Nigel, Artistic Director Gian Carlo Menotti acquiesced to a smaller, contemporary equivalent to the Chamber Music series hosted by Charles Wadsworth. And so was born a series christened “20th Century Perspectives” by the Charleston staff, which while academic sounding, was something I could live with because I could run with the multiplicity of perspectives in the century influencing music and the arts. But, the title reminds us how fundamentally conservative the festival’s music programming was as late as 1990; it was telling that a “new music” series would be named for a century that was almost over.


From the beginning, I had complete freedom with the programming, a feature which endured throughout my tenure and which I used to build threads to other elements of the festival, and invite curatorial ideas from participating artists and orchestra members. I ran into Menotti on opening weekend in 1990, and he playfully berated me and punched me in the chest, saying “Gianni! Gianni! What are you doing playing John Cage at my festival?!?” He knew I was working with Cage in New York, and touring with him with Essential Music – but Gian Carlo was always respectful of me, and had invited me to be a soloist on his chamber music series at the Italian festival. In retrospect, this was also the year marking the emergence of his simmering struggle with the board and Redden around programming control of the festival – the 1990 season also included Redden’s programming of the premiere of Philip Glass’ Hydrogen Jukebox and Paul Dresher’s Pioneer.


So there I was, granted an artistic license in this fertile artistic milieu, with a working relationship with the two composers who represented the stylistic polarities of contemporary music. For me, this begat a generosity of spirit and ethos of openness in the spirit of the series. Think what one might of Menotti’s music, he was a composer who built festivals and advocated for young artists. I came to see stylistic “wars” among composers as tiresome, and knew that if the more challenging forms of contemporary music were to have an audience and place in the mainstream, they needed to be presented without manifesto or apology, but rather as music that deserved to be presented as naturally accessible as any other. The Post and Courier wrote a preview with the headline “New Music Comes With Guarantee,” and the first concert was sold out. The vibe was anticipatory and positive – I wrote in a program note:


I think the greatest thing about living in the Twentieth Century is the stunning plethora of styles in our arts and music. There is only the illusion of a contemporary mainstream in any of our art forms. We are able to embrace Gian Carlo Menotti's lyricism, John Cage's notion that "music is sounds heard", and everything in between. We are lucky to be able to enjoy a kaleidoscope (kalos /beautiful + eidos /form) of perspectives, knowing that diversity is a virtue in human endeavor as well as in nature.


We had no idea if the concept would stick, but it did. Robert T. Jones proclaimed his fandom in the Post and Courier, giving it the moniker “Weird Music at Five” (our concerts were then always at 5pm), and a loyal cohort of followers and enough buzz developed to afford it a quirky, wild and wooly niche in the fabric of the festival. At the end of the festival, Jones wrote in his review of all the events:


“The most consistently exciting festival component was 20th Century Perspectives, three concerts organized and emceed by John Kennedy … I hope Kennedy’s concerts continue, and on an expanded basis. Perhaps, though, he should find a catchier title than ‘20th Century Perspectives’, for it suggests a far stodgier experience than these vital concerts actually are.” – June 12, 1990


In its first three seasons through 1992, the series continued amidst the backdrop of Menotti’s increasing conflict with the board over his artistic control, Redden’s ouster in 1991, and Argiris’ ouster after 1992. These were the days when local and national press covered the festival with zeal. When Argiris’ replacement as music director told me that he wanted to program the series for the 1993 festival, and that it would consist of Ravel and Gershwin, I joined the exodus. I wrote in my resignation letter (parts of which were quoted in The New York Times), that because of our disagreement over programming, it would be in the best interests of the festival for me to move on: 


“With the limited resources given to contemporary music in this society, and the abuse and neglect that most Twentieth Century music has suffered at the hands of classical music institutions, programming is for me the deepest consideration of how I extend my energy. I cannot compromise my programming mission and aesthetic integrity. It would mean silencing my heart, which is what I use to make music … One of the Twentieth Century Perspectives I advocated through the series was that of perceiving the creative acts of individuals with magnanimity of understanding. With a bittersweet heart, I wish the Festival continued success and all future prosperity.”


Yes, I learned something from my mentors there about dramatic flourish. And I thought I was done with Spoleto.


The drama only deepened. The 1993 festival was not an artistic or fiscal success. Alex Ross, then a young critic for the NY Times, noted “the contemporary programming was discouragingly limited,” and Jones wrote, “20th Century Perspectives has lost its perspective.” After the 1993 festival, Menotti and the American festival agreed to a “divorce,” in which he and his artistic team remained only with the original Italian Festival dei due Mondi, which followed the American festival each summer. The U.S. festival reinstated Argiris, he brought me back on board, and with the band mostly back together for the 1994 festival, the New York Times cited me and the series in chronicling the redemption of our return.


By 1997, as the 20th Century was winding down, I knew the title “20th Century Perspectives” had to go. My wife and sounding board, Rozie, listened to my mullings and suggested “Music in Time.” It had the flexibility to be interpreted with multiple meanings, was open-ended, and accessed for me a quote from John Cage: “The most important parameter of music is time, because it is the only parameter which exists in silence.” In announcing the change, I wrote, “If time is change, and music is a way of sculpting time, who knows what we might hear now and in the future.”


Nigel Redden had returned in 1995, and until his departure in 2021, the festival grew and prospered, and the series maintained its relatively small but special place as a valued component of a rich and varied multi-arts festival. I enjoyed increasing artistic purview, first working with the talented and supportive Music Directors Steven Sloane and then Emmanuel Villaume, and then from 2010 on, being the chief conductor for orchestra and opera. My own place in the new music world gained further traction, with wider conducting work beginning in 1996, and my serving as President of the composer membership organization The American Music Center in the mid-2000s, helping bring the series wider attention.


Throughout its program history, Music in Time was a nexus of synergistic and collaborative activity linking elements of the festival together. Composers who were with us for a production of their opera were often featured on MIT to showcase the spectrum of their music, where they could speak to and mingle with the audience in person. Sometimes the series would do a large work of a composer on the chamber music series (such as Osvaldo Golijov), or feature compositional work by artists who appeared on the jazz series. Singers from the operas appeared in chamber works, and even actors in residence appeared in works involving text (such as when Alan Stanford of Dublin’s Gate Theater performed in Morton Feldman’s Words and Music).


Over the 31 seasons of the series (we’ll leave out 1993), a rough count tells us the series presented the work of 475 composers. Representational diversity was there from the beginning, not as virtue signaling, but as putting a primacy on inclusion by paying attention to underrepresented creators and lesser-known work. Most programs featured a world premiere, or a U.S. premiere of international work.


Composer/performers who were present for a full feature program of their work, included Philip Glass, Malcolm Goldstein, Anthony Davis, Neely Bruce, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, Nathan Davis, Michael Nyman, Huang Ruo, Pamela Z, Helmut Lachenmann, and Tyshawn Sorey (all but Reich also performed). Countless other composers joined us, including Kaija Saariaho, David Lang, Somei Satoh, and Jessie Cox. One joyous moment was premieres by all eight members of the Common Sense Composers Collective.


U.S. premieres by composers who were then little-known, included works by Michel van der Aa, Thomas Adès, Gavin Bryars, Britta Byström, Tansy Davies, Brett Dean, Kui Dong, Pascal Dusapin, Bernd Franke, Toshio Hosokawa, Giya Kancheli, Steve Martland, and Saariaho, early in their exposure to U.S. audiences. While there was an ongoing focus on presenting little-known composers and works which I believed would “stick” in the repertoire, we also presented new music “classics” and concert-length works such as Music for 18 Musicians (Reich), Exil (Kancheli), Schnee (Abrahamsen), in vain (Haas), De Volharding (Andriessen), and Extinction Events and the Dawn Chorus (Lim).


And because the series often moved around Charleston to repertoire-appropriate venues, the audience could be immersed in spatial performance such as Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning (performed by local citizens dubbed the Charleston Confucian Choir), Cage’s Lecture on the Weather, or Henry Brant’s Rainforest.


And they could be up close to the artists. There were many wonderful pianists on the series, but those who performed solo programs included Philip Glass (twice), Michael Nyman, Judith Gordon, Margaret Leng Tan, Sarah Cahill, Jenny Lin, Lydia Brown, Michael Harrison, Pedja Muzijevic, as well as many other pianists featured in collaborative programs. Steven Drury came to solo in The People United (Rzewski), lead chamber works, and conduct.


Guest appearances by ensembles included the Bowed Piano Ensemble, So Percussion, Equal Interest (Joseph Jarman, Leroy Jenkins, Myra Melford), Ensemble Sirius, Imani Winds, Brooklyn Rider, The Living Earth Show, and Departure Duo. Other soloists included Guy Klucevsek, Margaret Lancaster, Darynn Zimmer, Seth Parker Woods, Parker Ramsay, and the shamisen virtuoso Yumiko Tanaka (who was at the festival as composer/performer of a score for a play).


Taking risks on young artists was also part of the series’ ethos, and when there was fiendishly difficult music to sing, there were professional debuts by Marisol Montalvo, Kiera Duffy, and Sua (Pureum) Jo. A pianist named Conor Hanick played his first major festival solo recital (invited to do so after first coming aboard as a pianist in the festival orchestra). I shared the podium often, with young conductors traveling through the series during their time at Spoleto assisting opera productions: Ari Pelto, Anthony Barrese (also as a composer), Marc Williams, Daniel Black, Alex Kahn, Aik Khai Pung, Jeff Means, Kellen Gray, and Kamna Gupta.


The festival orchestra always played a central role in the series, with many programs built around its members and their repertoire suggestions, as I sought to preserve and replicate the invitation and opportunity that Argiris gave to me. This always presented a sense of meaningful regeneration, to highlight new music activists early in their careers – such as in the final concert of the series last summer, when Austin Lewellen shared his immense undertaking in performing one of Eliane Radigue's Occam solos.

There are literally hundreds of other young orchestra members who contributed their talents to Music in Time, but let me cite a few festival orchestra members who were featured in prominent and solo roles, and where they are now: Beth Guterman (now Principal Viola, St. Louis Symphony), Rob Dillon (Third Coast Percussion), Eric Shin (Principal Percussion, National Symphony), Ab Sengupta (Director of Artistic Planning, Carnegie Hall), Paul Cannon (Ensemble Moderne), George Nickson and Samantha Bennett (Ensemble SRQ, and much more), Steve Parker (sound and visual artist, Austin), Sidney Hopson (WildUp! and much more), Vanessa Rose (President and CEO, American Composers Forum), Ben Roidl-Ward (ICE, Chicago Sinfonietta), Giancarlo Latta (Argus Quartet), Alfonso Noriega (many European new music groups). Forgive me for leaving so many others out, in what could be a lengthy compendium.


In addition, in my role auditioning and assembling an orchestra each season, I kept an eye out for young orchestral musicians who also were composers, to bring them into a festival where they could be featured in both roles. These included Piotr Szewczyck (his wide-ranging Violin Futura project), Gleb Kanasevich, Alice Hong, Zach Sheets, and Joy Guidry.


It can’t be overstated how important it was for so many young musicians to be able to cut their teeth on challenging new music and be featured at a festival as prominent as Spoleto, and for young composers to have their work validated by being presented within the context of a festival with such a rich history and in the milieu of so much amazing activity around it. Music in Time served an important role in the festival’s mission of presenting new and provocative work, in maintaining a perspective at once global and local, and in providing a platform for young performers and creators. Its success led to my increasing role at the festival, which extended into numerous adventurous orchestral and Intermezzi programs with premieres of new work, and the 11 World and U.S. opera premieres presented from 2010 to 2022.


And for over 30 years as one of the most respected ongoing series of contemporary music, MIT also served an important place in the larger ecology of the worldwide field of new music and composition, as an ongoing commitment by the festival to the underserved sector of contemporary music, reverberating far beyond Charleston.


There were many moments which stand worthy of historical note, but one obscure one must not be forgotten. In 1998, we brought William Duckworth to the series. Duckworth (who died in 2012) was a visionary composer who had turned his attention to the creative possibilities of the new World Wide Web. At the time, I was working with him on his “Cathedral” project, in which he and his wife Nora Farrell had built one of the first interactive websites at which anonymous participants could help forge a participatory virtual musical work (like the anonymous artisans who built cathedrals).


But Duckworth saw something else as possible: live streaming over the web, which was being tested by organizations like Microsoft (with whom he consulted), RealNetworks, and ESPN. So on May 29, 1998, we live audio streamed the premiere of his Ghost Dance for orchestra through the Cathedral website, in what as far as is known, was the first live stream of a public concert. Our server told us that over 300 people around the world went online with their modems to hear it, which given the limitations of the technology, was huge. Getting a CAT-5 cable temporarily installed at the College of Charleston’s Recital Hall – that’s another tale.


The life of Music in Time has many other tales to tell. So thank you to Spiros Argiris and Nigel Redden for inviting the inclusion of this series and understanding its importance and fecundity in being a synergistic cross-pollinator within the festival. And to Carmen Kovens, Nunally Kersh, and Nicole Taney, festival producers who helped us engineer tricky and unusual programs. It’s a shame that today, the Festival would cancel the series and erase this proud history without comment.


Perhaps there is some poetry in that the first and last works performed on the series were by composers from New Orleans, William Russell and Courtney Bryan. And, from the title of a work by Charles Wood on that very first concert: Nothing Lives Long, Only the Earth and Mountains.



–      2/28/24



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