Ear Taxi: Covering the Press

by Deidre Huckabay
photos by Jeff Kimmel

Ear Taxi is underway. Since last Wednesday, the Festival has offered dozens of performances featuring hundreds of Chicago artists. Events wrap up tonight: musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra play the music of Mark Mellits, Katherine Young, Sam Pluta, and Kyle Vegter at the Harris Theater at 7:00 pm. The program should be very good.

I admit it is difficult to achieve perspective on the Festival from this vantage, more than halfway through the event while it is happening. And even if I could attain a view from above it all, I’d still feel reluctant to simplify. Is Ear Taxi a success? Is it good? Am I enjoying it? Or, what is it? What is it, actually?

Each day of activity at Ear Taxi culminates in a program at the Harris Theater shared by two or more ensembles. The sets are brief and feature mostly world premiere performances. Premieres are not collectible teaspoons or girl scout badges, but I can see a reason to count ‘em up at Ear Taxi: its curators programmed six days of music that was, at the time the lineup was selected, unknown to all parties. And the Festival hasn’t just been an occasion for Famous Composers to write string quartets but also a time for students and recent graduates from our city’s universities to write for harp quartet, piano plus electronics, vocal ensemble, solo flute, and mixed-instrumentation chamber groups. The spectacle is impressive, but in being dazzled, it’s easy to overlook the risk of programming mostly unheard works by many different composers for many different performers when the stakes seem so high—and the risk a listener takes in attending, in sustaining the solitude of listening.

Listening is tiring, and I am being gentle with myself. In my hours away from the Harris Theater and the Cultural Center, I need quiet and coffee. I don’t want people to touch me and I can’t stop pawing through this Instagram feed (warning: it’s really gross). I’ve worn a cozy brown dad sweater three days running. I consume Trump satire and guacamole like a koala eating eucalyptus.

Let me be clear: Ear Taxi is taxing but definitely not torture. I hope I see you at tonight’s show.

But is the festival a success? Is it good? I mean, the short answer is yes, but for me, writing through these questions is slow going. The event has certainly been successful according to one measure: the press are attending and they are writing.

John Von Rhein reported on opening night. Yesterday, he covered several more performances. Art critic and freelancer for the Tribune, Alan Artner, got tired during Anthony Cheung’s piece on Friday. Tyler Krause also reacted to Friday’s program. Wynne Delacoma wrote about Saturday’s marathon. Lawrence Johnson made a Hellen Keller joke for some incomprehensible reason.*

I have a real question: what is this reporting doing for you? Not an abstract you, a stand-in for the reading public, but literally, you. If you have thoughts about it, I hope you’ll send me a message.

Look, I admit to writing from within a community of performers, composers, scholars, and well-practiced listeners, so imagining the perspective of an outsider opening the Sunday Tribune and wondering what to do on a free weekend evening is difficult. And for that reader, it might be useful to read words like these about last night’s now-dead concert:

melodic tendrils flowering in different directions as they made listeners feel as if they were living inside a giant loudspeaker were taken up by the any number of brass ensembles wanting to add this finely crafted piece to their repertory deriving its haunting power from intricate rhythmic ostinatos that draw on a kaleidoscopic array of shifting percussion colors built to an ear-piercing climax a panorama of astringent sounds inspired by modern science and before dying away produced haunting, repetitive sequences of plucked resonances**

I ask gently and sincerely: what is this writing doing?

I ask because while I feel proud and excited that some good performers and good composers are receiving due recognition, I am also experiencing a sinking, slick, slimy feeling. The internet exists. Nobody needs a newspaper to know that a concert happened. Nobody needs to listen to a brass quintet by reading. If you missed the concert and are dying for a taste, avoid the pop-ups and paywalls and email the composer for a recording.

I ask because I read contemporary concert reviews and I see dollar signs. An ensemble gets a pull quote, the pull quote goes in the bio, the bio goes in a press kit, the press kit goes to a presenter, the presenter writes a check. The composer clips a clipping, the clipping goes in a portfolio, the portfolio goes to a committee, the committee awards a grant or a commission or a job. Good press early in a multi-day event drives ticket sales. To be sure, ensembles should get well-paid gigs, composers should get good jobs, and audiences should see good music. And critics aren’t the orchestrators of this problematic cycle—I trust that they’re in the business primarily because music is rewarding to think and write about. And what are they supposed to do with a one-day deadline?

But John Von Rhein actually wrote this—

How successfully the Ear Taxi organizers are able to attract new ears beyond those of Chicago's loyal new music community remains to be seen, of course. But the buzz kicked up by the opening joy ride can only help build audiences.

—without even noticing that the “buzz” he is talking about is his.

While I think the question—what is this writing doing?—needs an answer on a larger scale, I ask right now because it is just fucking difficult to write about Ear Taxi. The festival has been as sprawling and ambitious as it promised to be. I saw George Lewis say that the Mars Rover is his favorite improviser. I heard David Bowlin play arpeggios with just the most heartbreaking humility. I saw my friends and collaborators perform monstrously well on a bright downtown stage—and then I noticed that we are almost all white. I’ve repeatedly encountered my own ignorance, skepticism, hardness, quickness, boredom, frailty, and sleepiness. And, from my seat in the press section, I wonder how to write about it without participating in the apparently unavoidable practice of commodifying music through criticism.

So, please. Do let me know what you think about the coverage so far. It would be a huge help.

* I don’t even have the energy to be outraged that in 2016 somebody wrote and then somebody else published a joke about a disabled woman. I am not even surprised.
** Actually while you are writing me about your experience with music criticism why not also make your own collage poem using this flowery JVR piece. It’s good source material. I have some more attempts:

Baker’s
Thomas’
Thomas’
O’Brien’s
Lewis’
Lochhead’s
Mettens’
Garrop’s

Mettens’
Thomas’

group’s
Conductor’s
night’s
Center’s
Ear Taxi’s

one’s
one’s
what’s this

— — a a a a a a a
altogether an an an
and and and and and
and