Ken Vandermark and the Problem of Program Music: Momentum 3 at the Sugar Maple

Aug. 16, 2016
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The idea of program music – music meant to accompany and/or represent a pre-existent narrative structure or object; for instance, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” Duke Ellington’s “Monologue (Pretty and the Wolf),” Luiz Bonfá’s “A Brazilian in New York,” and Garoto’s “Um Rosto de Mulher” [“A Woman’s Face”] – raises philosophical questions. If you accept Alfred Schütz’s definition of music as a “meaningful context which is not bound to a conceptual scheme,” then what is the nature of the “connection” between sound that does not point to anything in the world with the unmistakability of a portrait and the stories and objects that these sounds purport to paint? Philosophers’ answers are ingenious and varied, but it is Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist and composer Ken Vandermark’s answer that we are concerned with here.


Saturday, August 21, at 7 p.m. is the latest installment of Option Milwaukee, an experimental music series hosted (nearly) monthly at the Sugar Maple in Bay View. Vandermark will perform Momentum 3, a recent long-form composition, with four musicians who he deems “among the most exciting people working in this country.” Joining Vandermark will be Tim Barnes (drums, percussion), Nick Macri (acoustic bass), Lou Mallozzi (turntables, CDs, microphones, mixer) and Mars Williams (saxophones, toys). Along with Momentum 3, the concert features a series of improvised solos, duos and trios.


Momentum 3 was commissioned by the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art to celebrate Monster Roster, an exhibition of postwar artists credited with establishing the first distinctive Chicago style. Vandermark was thus faced with an essentially programmatic situation, yet he describes himself as “wary of programmatic music.” He elaborates: “Usually, when music is used in conjunction with other work, it ends up like most film music- as a background that wants to tell you "how to feel."” It is this imperialistic attempt to dictate the listener’s feelings that Vandermark sought to avoid. In its place Vandermark hopes that that “Momentum 3 allows members of the audience the chance to shift their focus as they choose, and to follow a narrative that they create out of the material, that is particular to them.”


Here is Vandermark’s discussion of how Momentum 3 differs from traditional programmatic music and the variegated influences on its composition.


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