Over the past 11 years, Grand Valley State University has quietly fostered a bonafide hub of contemporary music.
Now, the New Music Ensemble has accomplished a new feat that reaffirms its legitimacy as an incubator of talent. In October 2017, the New Music Ensemble released a collection of electroacoustic works, RETURN. The album features music written by three program graduates: Adam Cuthbert, Matt Finch and Daniel Rhode.
“(RETURN) was a project where we could feature talent that has come through our program and create a music project that was entirely homegrown,” said Bill Ryan, founder of the ensemble.
The beauty contained in the album’s 15 calming, yet sophisticated tracks has not gone unnoticed. NPR’s First Listen gave RETURN an enthusiastic review soon after its release. Later, NPR included one of the album’s tracks, Glass Surface, in its 100 Best Songs of 2017.
“Emerging from a reedy drone, a glistening shard of melody begins to reproduce — it sounds synthetic, but it’s actually a violin riff, tweaked via skillful processing,” Tom Huizenga wrote. “After a calm passage of lower-pitched waves, the theme returns and blossoms ecstatically.”
For his part, Ryan said the ensemble is thrilled with the attention, considering how much hard work went into the project.
“The recognition is really satisfying,” he said.
Founded by Ryan in 2006, the New Music Ensemble has commissioned more than 60 compositions. In 2014 and 2016, the group traveled to various national parks to perform music inspired by treasured lands.
Glowing reviews followed their recordings of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Terry Riley’s In C, two seminal works of minimalist music. The New York Times, Time Out Chicago, Washington Post and other publications recognized the recordings in year-end lists.
For its fourth studio recording, Ryan intended to create a vehicle for his former composition students to explore and promote their craft. He also wanted to approach the album as a hybrid of electric and acoustic music to create lush landscapes of sound.
“Sometimes with electronic music, it’s very clear when there’s a non-electronic instrument playing,” Ryan said. “I was more interested in a world where they fused. We tried to create a bit of mystery.”
Ryan approached GVSU graduates Cuthbert, Finch and Rhode with his vision. All three pursue various professional activities in music, with a common thread of composing. Together, they founded slashshound, a record label and experimental music collective.
“Bill Ryan was very supportive,” said Rhode of his experience as a GVSU composition student. “We had the freedom to explore electronic music, and also the opportunity to explore orchestral writing.”
The process for creating RETURN started with the composers sending short sketches to Ryan, which the New Music Ensemble then rehearsed and recorded. After listening to the recordings, making tweaks, and sending back drafts to be recorded again, the composers ended up with a collection of material they could shape electronically in their studios. Grammy Award winner Randy Merrill at Sterling Sound — whose other clients include Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Adele — mastered the album.
For his current students, Ryan hopes working on RETURN instilled a sense of curiosity and broad interest in music.
“We always play a diverse range of contemporary music, and incorporating electronics is a natural part of what we do,” Ryan said.
For the three young composers, the success of RETURN has yielded new projects that are in the works. Rhode is looking forward to working on a new album with Todd Reynolds, trailblazer in digital looping and violinist of choice for Steve Reich, Meredith Monk and Bang on a Can.
“Composition is usually a very personal, solitary process, so I am grateful for this experience,” Rhode said.
Listen to the album here.