In preparation for a Multiple Choice Quiz, read the following which reference the press received by a certain ensemble:
a) Turtle Island String Quartet
b) The Bad Plus
c) The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble
d) Evelyn Glennie
(Alternately, with the list above, let’s play a game of “One of these things is not like the other”!)
The success of Grand Valley State University’s New Music Ensemble is truly amazing. A medium-sized and largely unknown music department in West Michigan has a New Music Ensemble that suddenly lands on the national scene as a serious artistic force, garnering multiple reviews in the New York Times and a slew of the nation’s most prominent newspapers and magazines, releases three CDs on major new music labels, and performs at Carnegie Hall, Bang On A Can, and Le Poisson Rouge? In addition to the obvious artistic and pedagogical successes involved, this is also a college recruiter/development officer/music department chair’s dream come true, something that no other university ensemble I know of has ever achieved. (A small ad in the New York Times costs $3,000–this ensemble has delivered at least ten times that amount in free advertising for the university). It’s strange, wonderful, unlikely, and improbable, like some kind of “New Music Mighty Ducks.” That’s probably why I am constantly asked about GVNME’s success (usually with a quizzical look of bemused disbelief); so I decided to write about my experience as a member of the ensemble, and an observer of its remarkable achievements under the leadership of Bill Ryan.
First, a little background: I was on the Search Committee to hire a composer in 2005. We received over 150 applications, which was both amazing and somewhat depressing (how many doctoral students are churned out by the nation’s graduate programs and how many positions are there available?). My usual approach to reviewing applications is to read the cover letter, browse the CV, and then listen to and study some examples from the accompanying CDs and scores. On average, thirty minutes per file is usually enough to determine whether I am interested in the candidate, in which case I look closer. With over 150 applications, that approach was not possible, so I decided to modify it a bit–open the folder (usually a binder, 1-3 inches thick), take out a CD and listen to each track for minute or two. If I liked the music (I was listening only for quality, without any particular style in mind), I put the candidate on my “short list” to revisit later.
During that process, I reached into a folder and pulled out a CD entitled “Blurred” by Bill Ryan (aka “BillBand”). The title of the CD and the tunes intrigued me–”BillBand, Blurred, Blend”? Too many “Bs” to be accidental–was this composer building his “BillBand” using his “Bill Brand” as a motif? Smart, clever, and subtle. I then listened to the first track (“Original Blend”) and was transfixed. I called my wife and said “Listen to THIS!!” I listened to the whole CD, and said to my wife: “This is incredible music–great writing, great playing, professional packaging and sharp marketing. This guy goes to the TOP of my list and he’s going to be hard to beat.” I then looked at the rest of Bill’s file and it was stellar–great teaching reviews, strong degree pedigree, lots of experience as a teacher, varied background in different styles and genres, national award for new music programming, and a direct, no-nonsense approach in his cover letter and application.
Well, to make a long background story shorter, we brought Bill in for the interview, he was offered the position, and started teaching at Grand Valley State University that fall. Bill immediately started a New Music Ensemble and accompanying concert series, both of which were immediately successful. Everything was high quality–great music, interesting guest artists, meticulous organization, and a keen, consistent, and almost preternatural eye on marketing.
He told me he was planning on programming Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” and the look on my face must have shown my disbelief and mild amusement. Was he serious? A 60-minute landmark minimalist piece, groove-based, at an average 3rd tier education school with no jazz or commercial music program and a fledgling New Music ensemble? Really? He was dead serious. Total confidence–”We can do it.” I watched from the sidelines as he started organizing this extremely ambitious project, but the sidelines is not where I ended up. A few weeks into the semester, Bill asked me if I would play one of the piano parts. I politely declined, but Bill really needed someone and asked me again, so I agreed to help out.
I then watched what I have referred to as the “Ryan Miracle” materialize before my eyes. The initial rehearsals were rough, with seemingly little progress being made from week to week. How could it be otherwise, I thought to myself? Music programs don’t teach this kind of music, and Grand Valley is not Julliard (most of the students are education majors and the New Music Ensemble is not a standing ensemble recognized as such in the curriculum). Unless the students are involved with jazz or pop music, which most aren’t, they can’t play groove-based music. The ensemble did have a few ringers though–several current or former jazz students who were adept at playing in a groove (Sam Gould, Dan Redner, Craig Avery, Alex Hamel), several faculty members (Lee Copenhaver, Pablo-Mahave Veglia, Greg Secor, and myself), and a professional vocalist from the community (Gwen Faasen).
Honestly, it seemed a little touch-and-go for the first couple of months, but we had a performance scheduled for November, so there was no turning back. Then something happened that marked a turning point. There was a concert scheduled in New York, at Carnegie Hall, to celebrate Reich’s 70th birthday. Bill decided to bring a handful of the students along (writing grants and securing other funding), and arranged for them to attend rehearsals, hang out with the musicians, turning it into a virtual job shadow experience. Spending time in New York with the best musicians in the world, watching them rehearse and interact with each other, socializing with people like Pat Metheny and Steve Reich: this was a transformative experience for these lucky students. After seeing the piece performed, they came back with a deeper understanding of it, and a palpable hunger to play it well. This field trip was a master stroke on Bill’s part, going far beyond the usual emulative assignments found in general studio and ensemble classes.
In subsequent rehearsals, it was clear that something had changed. The piece was quickly coalescing and taking shape in the hands of this unlikely and improbable group of musicians. As we approached the concert, it was obvious that we had a reasonable performance of the piece, which I thought was quite remarkable given the circumstances.
The concert was recorded, and Bill called me up and said: “The recording is really strong, you should hear it.” So, we listened to it, and it was very good (my miserable shaker playing notwithstanding!). I assumed that was the end of it–an interesting semester without a doubt. Daring programming, creative teaching, excellent leadership. But that was just the beginning of the story.
During Bill’s time teaching on Long Island at Suffolk Community College, he had a lot of contact with the best performers in New York. He is, therefore, known and well-respected there as a first-rate composer and as a particularly wise and strategic concert promoter. He’s also a decent and honest person, so those relationships tend to be strong, deep, and long-lasting. When he sent the recording to some of his contacts there and elsewhere he had, within weeks, secured a recording agreement with Innova Records, as well as a performance at the Bang On A Can Festival at the World Financial Center in June, 2008.
The recording session presented more problems, seemingly insurmountable at the time, the least of which was the logistics. Due to various (some that were totally absurd and unnecessary) scheduling issues, the recording was done in three days. Professionals can handle those stresses, but for most of the students involved, this was their very first recording session. Nerves were quickly frayed, tension was high, but Bill handled it like a seasoned therapist, letting the tension vent through humor and gentle redirection. (Keep in mind that the timeline from first rehearsal to recording session is under five months!)
The Reich CD and the BOAC performance led to another equally surprising recording project of Terry Riley’s “In C: Remixed.” This time, however, the recording contract was penned prior to the concert. The Riley remix project also led to a performance at Le Poisson Rouge, along more national and international press. GVNME was now more than a fluke, or a one-trick pony–the group’s position as a significant national New Music Ensemble was firmly established. The concert at LPR was recorded, and was immediately accepted by Ghostly International. The resultant CD was recently released with strong online sales on iTunes. Nice work for a 2-credit elective at a quiet little music department in the Great Lakes Region.
How did he do it? Aside from his strengths as a composer, Bill is a master teacher. He rarely “conducts” the ensemble, preferring instead to gentle direction, which is done in a collaborative manner, allowing input from everyone in the group. He treats students as adults and as peers, and expects them to rise to the responsibility of being a peer. He listens to the ensemble’s input, but does not accept that uncritically. Instead, a dialogue, a forum, sometimes evan a friendly argument takes place. Bill talks to the students and listens to them, and gives reasons for his ideas, none of which are inflexible or arbitrary. In the process, students learn what a seasoned professional is listening for, and (without demands or Stokowski-esque heavy handedness) they respond by giving him their very best effort, each and every time. This collaborative and cooperative environment gives ownership to the students. The result may not always be “perfect” but it always has their full and honest commitment which provides authenticity that is impossible to manufacture or cajole into existence. On top of his phenomenal teaching, he also has the most brilliant marketing sense I have ever seen. He finds connections that most others miss, and he capitalizes on them quickly and decisively, with the instinct of a cheetah. And you would never, ever know any of this from meeting him–he’s humble, soft spoken, and respectful to all.
Bill’s multi-faceted and subtle approach shows what can happen when style and substance are married as equals, and how to make the whole much greater than the sum of its parts. This is College teaching at its finest. I am looking forward to seeing what’s next from this unlikely and improbable ensemble as the Ryan Miracle continues to unfold.