Fasten your seat belts for first (maybe only) Ear Taxi Festival

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Composer Augusta Read Thomas, creator of the Ear Taxi Festival. (Photo: Anthony Barlich)

This is how Grammy-winning composer Augusta Read Thomas, a fervent champion of “contemporary classical art music,” recently explained her thinking about the title of the Ear Taxi Festival, the extravaganza of new music running Oct. 5-10 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance (and several other venues) that she has obsessively devoted herself to realizing for the past three years:

“In my head I had the image of those little busts of famous composers that every kid who has ever studied piano is familiar with. And darting out of the ears of specific composers’ heads were little taxis, so that you had the sense you were being taken on taxi rides through a kaleidoscopic, ever-changing landscape.”

A fanciful description, to be sure. But it all makes sense when you discover the statistics relating to the first-of-its-kind, Chicago-centric festival, which Thomas warns might well be a one-off, “now or never” event (or, at the very least, an undertaking that will not be replicable for another three years or more).

“Ear Taxi” will involve more than 300 musicians and the work of 88 composers in 30 events scheduled in 30- to 90-minute sets, and it will feature 54 world premieres, 25 ensembles, five sound installations and a two-day marathon. That is a lot of listening, but also a rare opportunity to hear what Thomas, a professor of compositionat the University of Chicago, has carefully defined as “notated classical art music.”

EAR TAXI FESTIVAL When: Oct. 5 – 10 Where: Harris Theatre for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph (and several other venues) Tickets: $5 – $36, with multiple event passesbeginning at $36. Info: (312) 334-7777; www.eartaxifestival.com/tickets

As Thomas admits: “From the start we understood there would be no way to include what is new in blues, jazz, gospel or reggae, or to suggest what was new for its time in the classical realm, whether Beethoven, Berio or Boulez. Instead, we have a very defined focus, with about 75 percent of the pieces acoustic works to be performed for the most part on standard instruments. The rest will use electronic media, much of it ‘fixed,’ so that a device is turned on and it plays composed, sampled or compiled music layered into the live performance. Some of the electronic work also involves live interactive media so that, for example, a flute will play a note that is captured and diffused by a computer.

“We’ll also have five installations. The goal is to present snapshots of all the different thinking being used in the making of new art music, from the abstract, to the pointillist and beyond. A great many works in the festival have been created within the past year.”

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The Arcomusical sextet. (Photo: Courtesy of Ear Taxi Festival)

The festival also will have its own “music marathon,” running alongside the International Chicago 5K and Bank of America Chicago Marathon on Oct. 8 and 9, and will feature works by two Pulitzer Prize-winning composers: Shulamit Ran and Bernard Rands. And willculminate in a “Blowout Party!” at Constellation on Oct. 9.

The “thrill of the new” first captured Thomas’ imagination when she was just 8years old and heard a recording of Scriabin’s 1908 work “The Poem of Ecstasy,” which she listened to over and over again.

“But the late Beethoven string quartets still sound modern to me, as does Bach, who is probably my favorite composer,” said Thomas. “And I grew up on Mahler, Stravinsky, Bartok and Ravel. New music and old music need each other.”

When planning the festival, Thomas was determined “that it be held more or less in one prestigious downtown location and with no overlapping of programs, so that we could hold our audience, and a person could truly hear everything being performed, have a bite to eat, and stay on to hear the artist talks. I wanted it to be a very collaborative undertaking, and one in which all proceeds will go to the artists.” (In addition to the Harris Theater, events will be held at the Chicago Cultural Center, PianoForte Studios, Curtiss Hall, Constellation and the Rockefeller Chapel.)

“If you scan the programs for the festival [which has been co-curated by Thomas and conductor Stephen Burns, along with a curatorial committee], you will see there is already a booming scene for new music in Chicago, with the artists making this music so varied, visionary and compelling they really should be heard. ”

Included in the lineup are Patricia Barber premiering her song cycle “Angels, Birds and I” on opening night, Oct. 5; the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), performing with students from the People’s Music School on Oct. 6, and along the way, such new music “heavy-hitters” as the Spektral Quartet, Third Coast Percussion, Ensemble Dal Niente, Chicago Harp Quartet, Arcomusical, the Latino Music Festival and Avalon Quartet, and Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music Contemporary Ensemble.

Composer Kyle Vegter. (Photo: Courtesy of Ear Taxi Festival)

Composer Kyle Vegter. (Photo: Courtesy of Ear Taxi Festival)

A live Oct. 7 broadcast on WFMT-FM (98.7) and wfmt.com will feature the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s assistant concertmaster, Yuan‐Qing Yu, and assistant principal cellist, Kenneth Olsen. On Oct. 8, more than 100 festival musicians will gather to premiere a festival-commissioned work by Drew Baker.

The festivities will conclude on Oct. 10 with MusicNow’s season opener at the Harris, with musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by conductor Cliff Colnot. On the bill will be guest artists Manual Cinema, the remarkable Chicago ensemble that tells stories through shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques and innovative sound (with music by Kyle Vegter), as well as works by Katherine Young, Sam Pluta and Marc Mellits.

“We also will be recording the entire festival, so every musician will have something they can use after the festival,” said Thomas. “That was a major financial decision we made from the start.”

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