The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: UW-Madison composer Laura Schwendinger talks about the state of contemporary classical music. Part 2 of 2 | February 26, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

On Tuesday night, March 2, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (below) will perform a concert of largely contemporary classical music.

Admission is free and unticketed.

University of Wisconsin-Madison prize-winning composer Laura Schwendinger (below), who also directs the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble – recently gave The Ear an e-mail interview about the concert and about the state of contemporary classical music in Madison and elsewhere.

Here is the second and final part of that interview:

Q: What are the obstacles confronting contemporary composers today and what can be done about them?

A: Quite frankly, the situation is grave in many ways.

The economic downturn doesn’t help. Arts organizations across the board are cutting back as they see less support coming in from benefactors. For instance, several granting organizations that have supported the commissioning of new music have suspended their support for this year and possibly the foreseeable future.

Orchestras are premiering less new music than in previous decades and larger percentages of their programming efforts are now going into “pops” concerts.

In places like New York and Chicago, there are still many performing organizations that somehow prevail and are able to present exciting concerts of new music. But in large portions of our country it’s not easy to find these sorts of concerts.

That’s why our mission with the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, educating young musicians about the music of our time is so important so that they bring this experience out into the larger community where they will eventually have careers.

Finally I’d like to invite those who want to see new music flourish in our community, and have resources, to consider supporting our mission through donations to the School of Music.

Q: What can you tell about the “Van Gogh Nocturnes” that UW pianist Christopher Taylor (below) will perform – along with Beethoven’s Variations in C minor and Chopin’s Sonatas, Nos. 2 and 3 – on Friday, March 12?

A: The “Van Gogh Nocturnes” were written by invitation to the Van Cliburn Composer’s Invitational. The three-movement set includes “Starry Night Over the Rhone,” “Night Café at Arles” and “Starry Night” (below), each inspired by the paintings by Vincent Van Gogh.

I would also like to mention an upcoming concert of my works at the Music Institute of Chicago that is quite an honor for me. They will be playing an entire evening of my works March 6 at the Music Institute in Evanston, by some of Chicago’s greatest musicians.

The Four Score Festival 2010 honors three of today’s most esteemed American women composers Augusta Read, Stacy Garrop and myself.

The three-day festival, directed by Abraham Stokman, features concerts, lecutures, an exhibit, and workshop presentations. Festival special guest artists and MIC faculty include Rachel Barton Pine, Winston Choi, Matthew Hagle, Dal Niente, Christie Miller, Lincoln Trio, Duo Diorama, James Setapen, the MIC Academy Chamber Players, Caroline Pittman, Julia Bentley, and Roland and Almita Vamos.

FOOTNOTE: If you’d like to hear some of Laura Schwendinger’s music, you can hear samples of music at the following places on the web:

An excerpt of Waking Dream for flute and orchestra Soundfile at the following URL:

International Lighting Artist Leni Schwendinger’s video NIGHT CITY, featuring Schwendinger’s work HIGH WIRE ACT

Have you heard Laura Schwendinger’s music? What do you think of it?

What do you think of contemporary classical music and its current state in Madison and the US?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. I’ve heard a lot worse. We don’t know what her objective was writing this music, and we only heard a little bit of it. If she wanted to produce a memorable work, then this could have been an interlude. The memorable part would, as does all memorable music, start with a memorable tune. A sampling of all enduring music will confirm that. Coming up with one of those has to be one of the the hardest things a human being can do. If she writes one great piece in her life, that’s something. There is no more cruel, thankless, exacting, and intoxicating task than that of a serious composer.


    Comment by Spencer — March 18, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

  2. Schwendinger’s music: safe, tame, and trendy.

    State of contemporary music in the US: getting better and better, with strong scenes in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, and emerging scenes in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Houston, Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, Ann Arbor, and Cleveland.

    State of contemporary music in Madison: woefully inadequate. Contemporary music falls into two categories: the CCE’s tour of non-contemporary music (Ravel, Schoenberg) and then music by Schwendinger and Schwendinger’s friends and aesthetic cohorts. The CCE is an under-produced “extra” ensemble, not meeting regularly and lacking strong leadership and representation. There are many spontaneous student new music groups that spring up due to the lack of a good new music ensemble at the university. The state of the city is hardly any better. There is a lot of electro-acoustic improvisation, but that is hardly sufficient on its own to be a new music scene. Milwaukee even has us beat in this cultural area with Present Music (cue Madison hippies, hipsters, and yuppies to wince).

    If Madison actually wants to be a cultural mecca, it NEEDS a serious contemporary music presence, a group or organization that will present works by composers beyond just the Schwendinger and electro-acoustic improv aesthetics to embrace all the magnificent and brutal music of the 20th and 21st centuries.


    Comment by Madison Observer — March 26, 2010 @ 9:08 am

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