The West Garden Court of the National Gallery of Art is a verdant, humid space where plants, staircases and folding chairs surround a fountain created for the palace at Versailles. This month, it will also be home to a mind-bendingly broad collection of contemporary and 20th- century American music.
The National Gallery of Art has been hosting its free American Music Festival almost continuously since 1944. This year, for its 66th iteration, the composer Roger Reynolds — who has had a few major works of his own performed at the gallery over the years, and who did such a fine job co- curating the city-wide John Cage festival in 2012 — has brought together a striking range of composers and performers for six concerts, three lectures and one film.
Presenting a unified picture of “American music” is a perennial challenge.
“How do you embrace something that is so ungainly and big and bulky and full of vitality and also problems?” Reynolds asked in a recent interview.
The curator decided to put it all under the informal rubric of “personal visions.” The idea emerged in conversation with Charles Ritchie, the gallery’s associate curator of modern prints and drawings (and an artist in his own right), who used the term when talking about a recent show he curated at the gallery, “Modern American Prints and Drawings From the Kainen Collection.”
“I thought, ‘That is a nice way to begin to look at this,’ ” Reynolds said. “Not only, ‘What have they accomplished,’ but ‘Who has a personal vision and whose personal visions do I think have merit?’ ”
You’d hope every artist has a vision. But Reynolds came up with a group of notable mavericks. There are Ives and Copland, almost obligatory staples of any American music festival, as well as more offbeat 20th- and 21st-century visionaries: Morton Feldman; John Zorn, the prolific avant-gardist of the New York scene; and Conlon Nancarrow, represented here not by one of his signature scores for player piano, but by his third string quartet.
Then there are Augusta Read Thomas, a darling of American conductors (the National Symphony Orchestra has played eight of her pieces since 1992), and Pauline Oliveros, a major figure in American experimental music. There are Lewis Nielson and David Felder, two composer-teachers who have had, Reynolds said, “a really significant impact on the American music scene,” as well as two young composers you may not know yet — Michelle Lou and Tyshawn Sorey.
Reynolds “is reaching out in many more directions than he has for any of the individual projects” he has done for the National Gallery, said Stephen Ackert, who recently retired after 10 years as head of the gallery’s music department and who invited Reynolds to curate the festival. “He really has pulled together a broad spectrum of styles and approaches to composition.”
Equally exciting are the powerhouse artists who will be performing. Festival audiences will be treated to what amounts to a sampling of the cream of the New York and Chicago new-music scenes, led by the JACK Quartet and Claire Chase, the MacArthur Award-winning flutist and founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble. The finale will feature Third Coast Percussion, a Chicago-based ensemble that has become a notable presence on the new-music percussion scene.
“It’s great not to just have composers represented, but also performers who have very interesting and inventive and idiosyncratic outlooks,” Reynolds said.
The festival also will feature lectures and discussions on topics such as “Personal Vision and the Education of Young Composers in America”; a film of the esoteric opera “Dust” by the late composer Robert Ashley; and, of course, Reynolds’s own music. Having enjoyed the teamwork on his uneven multimedia piece “george WASHINGTON,” which he wrote for the NSO in 2013, Reynolds has worked with some of the same team and the JACK Quartet on “FLIGHT,” a multimedia meditation on what he calls “one of the great themes through human history: the aspiration to fly.”
The organizers of the 66th American Music Festival have picked some of their personal highlights.
Stephen Ackert, recently retired head of the National Gallery of Art’s music department: “For my part, I am really looking forward to the piece [‘Resounding Earth’] by Augusta Read Thomas. This is one of her percussion pieces; it involves bells, lots of bells, and we have an opportunity to arrange them in and around the Garden Court in a way that I think will be a unique presentation.”
Thomas, 50, is one of America’s leading living composers. Her work is dense, lyrical and inventive, usually graced with unusual titles from American poetry, which she reads voraciously. “Resounding Earth” is a four-movement piece written for and dedicated to the Chicago-based ensemble Third Coast Percussion, which will perform it here. The work is a melting pot in microcosm: It’s scored for more than 125 bells from a range of cultures and traditions, including Burmese spinning bells and Thai gongs. The piece also pays homage to a cross-section of composers, each movement dedicated to two or three of them. For example, the first movement, “Pulse Radiance,” to Olivier Messiaen and Igor Stravinsky; the last, “Crystal Lattice,” to Edgard Varèse, Harry Partch and John Cage.
“Resounding Earth,” March 22 at 6:30 p.m. in the West Garden Court.
Danielle Hahn, music program specialist at the National Gallery: “We’ve got one concert that’s of [particular] interest to me — the Mark Dresser Trio. It’s going to be improvisation, sort of jazz fusion. . . . I think [it will be] a little bit outside the box, hopefully more accessible than some of the esoteric things that are going to be featured.”
Dresser, 62, a renowned double-bassist, composer and bandleader, has played with a bevy of leading composers and performers, from Anthony Braxton to John Zorn (whose music also will be performed at the festival). His interests include extended techniques and technologies, including performances via Internet2 (the high-speed successor to the Internet that’s installed at many institutions of higher learning). His trio features Matthias Ziegler, an electro-acoustic flutist, and Denman Maroney, who plays what he calls a “hyperpiano,” whose sound palette is expanded through the use of bows, sticks and other objects interacting with the piano’s strings. The trio’s work, “From the Known to Invention,” will be, like many improvisational pieces, a world premiere.
“From the Known to Invention,” March 18 at 1 p.m. in the West Building Rotunda.
Roger Reynolds, composer and curator of the 66th American Music Festival: “I’m probably most eager to hear Tyshawn Sorey’s piece [‘Trio for Harold Budd’]. I’ve heard recordings of it.”
Sorey, 35, plays several instruments, including jazz drums and trombone, and is working on his doctorate at Columbia University while performing, curating and recording. In a January review in the New York Times, Ben Ratliff wrote that Sorey’s set at the Winter Jazzfest “invalidated the boundaries between improvised and classical music; it was intricate, full of space, and commandingly quiet.” Sorey, who also will participate in a discussion with Mark Dresser called “Two Approaches to Making a New Music Out of the Traditions of Jazz,” wrote “Trio for Harold Budd” as an homage to the composer and poet. In a program note, Sorey says he hopes to write “music that is melodious and resonates emotionally and spiritually with listeners.”
“Trio for Harold Budd,” March 22 at 6:30 p.m. in the West Garden Court.
National Gallery of Art, Sixth Street
and Constitution Avenue NW.
Dates: Sunday through March 22.