Brooklyn composers and musicians David Little, with curly longish hair… (Jennifer S. Altman, For…)
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Composer and French horn player Matt Marks, 33, has just completed writing a vocal and orchestral work for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the biggest commission of his life, but this Sunday afternoon in March he's playing the ukulele at the New Music Bake Sale.
Marks has trim sideburns and a bowl of black hair with straight bangs above thick black glasses. Wearing a plaid sports jacket and an ironic grin, he is on stage at Roulette, a club in an elegant old Art Deco theater in a building owned by the YWCA, where USO dances were once the ticket.
With a bouncy rhythm, Marks sings, "Sul ponticello makes me mellow, prepared piano I can handle." The musically savvy crowd laughs at his references to a string-bowing technique and an avant-garde music instrument and, at the end of the song, which has rhymed "weird scales" and "sautéed kale," breaks out in applause.
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The New Music Bake Sale is the fourth annual gathering of young classical musicians in Brooklyn, who have come together downtown to perform, party and make a little money selling "orgasm" brownies, black sesame cupcakes and, thanks to food blogger and percussionist Molly Yeh, ridiculously good Sriracha Cheez-Its.
This week the party (without the Cheez-Its) heads to the West Coast, as Marks and members of Brooklyn's new generation of classical and pop composers are showcased in the Brooklyn Festival, a series of concerts from Tuesday to April 22, presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall and other venues.
"There are magical moments in artistic history where lightning strikes," says Chad Smith, the L.A. Phil's vice president of artistic planning, who conceived the festival with his colleague, Johanna Rees, senior programming manager. "There is something really interesting happening in Brooklyn right now."
There really is. Marks and Ted Hearne, 30, the composers tapped for new works by the L.A. Phil, draw on influences so eclectic — Bing Crosby and Shostakovich, Gyorgy Ligeti and Kesha — that their expertly crafted works could sound perverse. In fact, Marks, who grew up in Downey (he won the same Downey High School music award as Karen Carpenter), loves themes that are perverse. In a 2010 chamber work, sung in concert by Hearne, a sailor on a pirate ship lashes out to a sex doll the men prefer to him. "I like things that are creepy," Marks says.
All of the composers in the festival write music without borders, and though most of them did not grow up in New York, they have nestled in pockets of the legendary borough, and have electrified its musical culture. In part it's an old story about upscale Manhattan and down-home Brooklyn.
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"Manhattan is the city that never sleeps, but Brooklyn takes naps," says Peter Silberman, 27. His band, the Antlers, featured in the festival, records its lyrical pop of twilight emotions in a loft on a sleepy outskirt of Williamsburg, hipster central in New York. "It's just more conducive to create here. It's a more expansive, experimental environment."
This new classical scene took flight around 2005, when news of classical music's death was greatly exaggerated, especially in music conservatories. "We were told the music industry is dying, publishers were going under, everything was a mess," says composer David Little, 34, who earned his PhD from Princeton.
"So we didn't wait around for an orchestra to call us and have our works done. We started ensembles, concert series, labels, clubs and just made it happen on our own."
The adventurous L.A. music collective wild Up, conducted by Christopher Rountree (who has been an assistant conductor with the Brooklyn Philharmonic), will perform Little's orchestral work, "Haunted Topography," on Wednesday at REDCAT.
Jim Staley, founder and artistic director of Roulette, says the new Brooklyn music scene is just another step, begun with Steve Reich and Philip Glass in the '60s, of composers fleeing the citadels of classical music in uptown Manhattan. Staley was instrumental in the movement. He began producing avant-garde music and dance shows in his Tribeca loft in 1980, when John Cage and Merce Cunningham dropped in.
"The New Music Bake Sale is the same scene, 30 years later," Staley says. "It's the same energy, same creativity. Artists starting their own places. Manhattan just got too expensive and crowded out the artists and arts organizations." Roulette was forced to move from Manhattan to Brooklyn in 2011, where it is now a hub of the new music world.
As for the sounds of the young composers now echoing in his club, offers Staley, an improvisatory jazz trombone player, "I don't think anybody's work is as challenging or controversial or experimental as Cage's. But who knows whether people like him exist now. The new composers are always interesting and impressive."