Seventeen years ago, my wife bought a television after seeing an ad on Craigslist. It was a small cathode-ray-tube TV, the kind you never see now in the days of flat-screen monsters. A few years later, a man came to our house to pick up a bed and dresser we were getting rid of after he’d seen an ad we’d posted on Craigslist. There was nothing remarkable about either of these transactions, but not everything that’s come about as a result of an ad on Craigslist is quite as mundane, and certainly one of the finer things that have arisen from a simple ad therein is the musical group known as the Great Noise Ensemble.
Led by composer and conductor Armando Bayolo, the ensemble was formed in 2005, when Bayolo placed an ad on Craigslist in the Washington, D.C., area seeking musicians passionate about contemporary “classical” music—which, for G.N.E., means everything from a serene string quartet to an atonal symphony. Focusing on the work of contemporary composers, G.N.E. has performed works for small groups, like Jonathan Newman’s “These Inflected Tentacles” (for marimba, piano, violin, and cello), as well as works for larger ensembles, such as Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.
“I honestly was thinking about finding like-minded people to share not only music that I was writing, but also music that I loved, with as wide a public as we could find,” Bayolo explains. “It was always something I wanted to do, and I took a plunge, not knowing what to expect. Eight seasons later we’re still here, going strong, and getting stronger every day. That’s, quite simply, mind-blowing.”
Among the musicians who responded to the ad was percussionist Chris DeChiara, who had met Bayolo nearly 10 years earlier at the Aspen Music Festival but had not seen him since. DeChiara is a member of the United States Navy Band as well as several pop bands. “I bring more instruments to a G.N.E. gig than any other situation I think I’ve been involved with,” DeChiara notes. “Playing such recent works usually means composers are more knowledgeable about percussion, which results in a lot more instruments.”
One such additional instrument turned out to be a pistol, fired in the air during a performance last year of New York composer Robert Paterson’s piece “Looney Tunes.” “One aspect of being in a new music group,” DeChiara continues, “is that you can relate to the audience in many different ways, whether it’s through comedy, the music itself, visual aspects, spoken word, movement, prerecorded music, even the attire for performers. We performed Chicago-based composer Marc Mellits’s ‘Paranoid Cheese’ while there was an open bar. People could walk in and out during the performance.”
When G.N.E. first formed there were a few groups in the D.C. area devoted to new music, but with a core of some 20 members, it was larger than any other. This enabled the ensemble to take on more ambitious projects and develop a wide-ranging repertoire for which, it turned out, there was an enthusiastic audience.
“I think G.N.E. has been well received in the area in large part because of our commitment to a less staid format for our concerts,” says Bayolo. “It’s always been my belief that contemporary music is far more accessible than it’s given credit for, particularly by traditional classical music audiences. I’ve found that even the thorniest music can be well received given the right context.”
G.N.E. performs all over the D.C. area and, on occasion, in New York. (Their most recent concert here was in April 2012 at Symphony Space.) This coming May, ensemble cellist Natalie Spehar and several other members of the group will be performing on the Lower East Side at the Spectrum.
“I’m probably way too idealistic and a tad quixotic,” Bayolo declares, “but I really do believe in the power of music to change the world. Not in a ’60s way, mind you—that’s definitely too ambitious and idealistic. But I think that the arts can play a critical role in the transformation of a society.”
In a small way, I saw that transformation myself, after taking my 9-year-old daughter to a G.N.E. concert at D.C.’s Atlas Performing Arts Center, where it is the Ensemble in Residence. The last piece performed that evening was “Sacred Cows,” one of Bayolo’s own compositions, which he describes as “a set of quasi-pop songs dealing with doubt and the ills of unquestioning spirituality.” The lyrics were inspired by a range of sources, from Aristotle to Abbie Hoffman. Hoffman is cited as most likely the first to proclaim, in what is of one of the composition’s key lines, that “sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.” Weeks after the concert, my daughter, who often passes the time absent-mindedly singing to herself, could still be heard walking about the house singing that very line.
I realize that not all parents welcome such an outlook in their children, but it suits me just fine. And for my daughter’s introduction to the words of Abbie Hoffman (or at any rate, his attitude), I thank the Great Noise Ensemble.