Meet the Music Makers - Talea Ensemble

In conversation with Alex Lipowski, percussionist, executive director, and co-artistic director of Talea [pronounced TAHL-ee-ah] Ensemble:

UChicago Presents: You cofounded Talea with [U of C Assistant Professor of Music] Anthony Cheung in 2007. What was the impetus behind it?

Alex Lipowski: We felt, at that time at least, that there was a certain sort of music that wasn’t being represented in the United States, and Anthony [Cheung] was really hip to these new composers and pieces that existed. Both he and I had experience working as administrators with other groups, but he had a real artistic vision for what he wanted to program. Early on, the concerts that we played were almost all U.S. premieres. We wanted to represent music that was definitely well-known in other places, but not in the United States. And I don’t just mean composers, I also mean styles, ensembles. Now, I’d say they’re better represented, because other groups have since formed.

Would that have happened without us? I definitely don’t want to take credit for everything that’s happened, but I’m so happy that this music is being recognized. For example, we gave the U.S. premiere of Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee—an absolute masterpiece—and since then, it’s been played everywhere.

UCP: You’re a co-artistic director as well as performer in Talea. What goes into programming?

AL: Sometimes we have an opportunity to program concerts ourselves, and other times, like the Contempo concert, it’s more collaborative: [someone like] Marta [Ptaszyńska, Contempo artistic director] makes suggestions, as do we. We definitely try as hard as we can to have a wide range of genres and styles represented.

Something we try to do as much as possible is tie the program together thematically, and Anthony is a total genius when it comes to that. Early on, we did a series called “Inside Out,” with all kinds of heavily thematic programs, and which often tied together new and old music. For example, we had a string quartet play Janacek’s [String Quartet No. 2] Intimate Letters alongside a seductive, erotic piece by Georges Apherghis [Sept crimes de l’amour].

When we put on our concerts, especially with older modern repertoire, our goal is always to give audiences a new perspective on contemporary music. If we play Boulez, then our goal is to program Boulez alongside composers that put him in a different perspective than this old, staunch composer. We also try not to program a concert by just one ethnicity, gender, or race; we want our concerts to be, as much as possible, like going to an art museum. We really try to bring our audience on a journey, building an arc not just through our concerts but the season, as well.

UCP: Speaking of the Contempo concert, looking through Talea’s rep list online, I noticed that Talea has played works by two of the five composers whose pieces are programmed, with one piece already in your repertoire (Ondřej Adámek’s Ça tourne ça bloque). Has this program required a lot of exploration or discovery on your end?

AL: Yeah! This kind of program is very exciting for us because of exactly that. Marta also loves to learn about new, young composers, and this program [reflects] that: it’s all composers under the age of 40. These composers are hot topics overseas, and she really wanted to focus on younger composers not [born] on American soil. Like you mentioned, some were actually already on our list, and she introduced us into some new composers, like [Nicolai] Worsaae.

I love the question that people ask me, “What are you listening to?” because I don’t always have as great an answer as I did ten years ago. Ten years ago, everything was new; I was pretty young, and I was hearing even well-known composers for the first time. Because I’ve heard all those pieces now, I love doing programs like Marta’s because it gives us a chance to know new composers. It also gives us a chance to play composers that I don’t think have been heard in Chicago, which gives us a real sense of pride.

UCP: I want to ask about Ça tourne ça bloque, the piece which is in Talea’s repertoire. I find it totally fascinating—clearly taking cues from Reich and Scott Johnson but in a completely original and out-there way. How did you first hear of this piece? What do you find compelling about it?

AL: I love the way it incorporates text, and the way the text is imitated by the music. I find its repetitive motifs really effective—not just the musical motifs but [speech samples]. You mentioned Steve Reich; other people to mention would be Bernhard Lang and Georges Apherghis, who use these repetitive, additive figures.

I also like it because I find it really funny. I find [Adámek’s] music very much serious—it’s strict and it’s rhythmic and it’s exciting—but it’s also fun. It gives a certain lightness to contemporary music without sacrificing any of the craft. The way he uses electronics orchestrationally and timbrally is brilliant.

UCP: Talea is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and you hinted at the beginning of our conversation that its direction has changed somewhat. So, reflecting on the past decade, what has changed?

AL: With age comes maturity, and one thing we’re much more aware of in general is how to try to impact the cultural scene in New York, specifically. I think [early on], being a young ensemble, we went from project to project and season to season thinking “This is great, this is going to be amazing!,” and just enjoying the moment. And we still very much do, but instead of programming short-term, we’re thinking longer-term. The groups I admired the most had a seemingly 10-year shelf life. Ensemble 21 or Ensemble Sospeso—these groups were amazing. In my opinion, ICE was the one to really break that mold, which made having a contemporary music group into a serious business. We have an extremely different model than them, but I think we’re all thinking [about] how we can continue to help the contemporary music culture grow.