From the Cistern to the Cross-Country Chamber Consortium: Musiqa charts an ambitious new path

Musiqa took a turn underground. In November 2023 the Houston-based new music organization had the opportunity to present the world premiere of a site-specific work by Houston composer Pierre Jalbert in the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern as part of its popular Underground Sounds series. The Cistern is an ideal location for experimenting with sound, with its otherworldly 17-second echo. Jalbert’s piece Voices from the Underground made full use of the unique acoustical properties of the 87,000 square foot space. Employing an unusual ensemble of violin, cello, saxophone, trombone, and percussion, Jalbert highlighted the distinct timbre and characteristics of each solo instrument in the first half of the piece. The audience was mesmerized as variegated sounds reverberated amidst the 221 individual columns standing in water. When the ensemble finally came together, punctuating and filling the chamber with motifs that echoed throughout the entire space, the effect was extraordinarily haunting. Each of the six performances of the run was sold out and audiences who had never heard of Musiqa got an inspiring introduction to the organization.

The fresh creative energy driving Musiqa these days is a wonder to behold. At the New Voices concert last fall, the audience was treated to world premieres of works composed by winners of Musiqa’s multiple commissioning initiatives—the national Emerging Composer Commission, the local Catalyst Commission, and the Cross-Country Chamber Consortium’s Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Emerging Composer Commission. The packed house, which included a sizable coterie of composers, was abuzz with excitement and enthusiasm for the new works. Each piece on the program was thoughtfully conceived and Musiqa’s core musicians delivered superb performances.

After 21 years on the new music scene in Houston, Musiqa, led by composers and artist board members Anthony Brandt, Karim Al-Zand, Pierre Jalbert from the Shepherd School at Rice University and Marcus Maroney from the Moores School at the University of Houston, is still finding innovative ways to engage with contemporary music and make it vital to audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

“It’s a continual challenge,” says Musiqa Artistic Director Anthony Brandt. “In the classical music world, audiences largely go to concerts to hear something they already know. That’s not necessarily true for theater, or film, or going to a contemporary art gallery. We really want to change that, and add the same level of risk and adventure and joy of discovery that people are very comfortable with in other modern art forms.”

One of the most important recent initiatives is the Cross-Country Chamber Consortium, co-founded by five ensembles from around the country at the height of the pandemic to support emerging composers, particularly those from the traditionally under-represented Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. “In some ways the model for commissioning a world premiere is flawed because it’s a big investment of time and money to have a piece performed once in one place with no guarantee of a future for the piece,” says Brandt. The consortium model ensures that each commissioned work will be performed in five major US cities by the five ensembles. “We’ve been lobbying over the years for making the consortium model more of a best practice.”

The increasing awareness in recent years of the lack of diversity in the classical music field, particularly in composition, gave urgency to the need to address composer deficiencies in chamber music. “It’s very hard to make classical music backward compatible with the idea of diversity because all those people who were marginalized just never had the opportunity,” explains Brandt. “One of the great contributions that modern music can make is to bring new works into being that are much more representative of our country and our world.”

Musiqa went through a major transition during the pandemic, bringing on board the prolific multi-disciplinary artist Anthony Barilla as its new Executive Director. “Tony has been an incredible gift to us,” exclaims Brandt. “He has really taken the mantle and been 24/7 Musiqa.” A Renaissance man equally adept as a writer, experimental theater maker, accordion band leader, singer-songwriter, sound artist, and concert producer, Barilla has brought fresh perspectives and new faces to the mix.

Several pandemic projects ventured into territories Musiqa had never gone before. Barilla brought in filmmaker James Templeton to reimagine Trevor Weston’s Stars as a film. Brandt relates the story of his hesitation when Templeton wanted to use practical lighting for the filming. “I said look, new music is marginalized enough, we are not going to have our household lamps in this thing. This is a concert. It’s got to look like a concert.” Barilla convinced him that they are essentially making a music video and anything goes. “There were some things that were nailed down in my brain and Tony took a screwdriver and loosened it, and it was so much better,” reflects Brandt. The lamplights looked like stars throughout the film, creating a magical environment. “We took full advantage of it being a film, switching the configurations of the performers in different movements in a way you wouldn’t do on stage.”

Barilla also brought in the brilliant T. Lavois Thiebaud, a fellow creative and experimental artist. “The great thing about T is that they always have too big of a concept and they won’t jettison any aspect of it,” exudes Barilla. Thiebaud crowdsourced a collage film during the pandemic, filming dozens of musicians who showed up at Menil Park one weekend. Natalie Lin of KINETIC and Matt Detrick of Apollo Chamber Players played the leads in the film gamely, taking a crew of Houston artists with them on a wacky journey through the city, set to music by Karim Al-Zand. Musiqa celebrated its 20th anniversary during the pandemic with a collaboration between Thiebaud and Templeton. In Musiqa’s Sight & Sonic Houston Parade, each of the artist board members picked one movement of their music to be filmed in a different Houston location. Thiebaud, in the role of the inimitable and fictitious reporter Morton Bergamot, served as guide and commentator. Barilla thinks of these experimental film projects as love letters to the city and to the people.

Thiebaud’s next Musiqa project is an ambitious multimedia collaboration with composer Marcus Maroney. Teaming up with Houston Cinema Arts Society, Musiqa’s debut at the historic DeLuxe Theater (March 2, 2024) will feature The Book of the Heavenly Cow, a modern adaptation of the ancient mythological story of the Egyptian Sky God(dess) Nut. They are sometimes depicted as a cow. Thiebaud uses collage technique in the film to incorporate crowdsourced childhood photographs from queer, trans, and non-binary people raised in the South. Maroney has composed a large-scale work set to Thiebaud’s text. Thiebaud will perform the spoken words live in front of the film while the musicians perform the score, written for the unusual ensemble of oboe, clarinet, double bass, harp, and percussion. Nut is reimagined as a “bovine divine” Texas longhorn, protecting the queer-bodied children of the South.

The interdisciplinary approach has long been a hallmark of Musiqa’s ethos. Music and film, music and dance, music and poetry–Musiqa concerts are designed to engage with other modern art forms. In Meeting of Minds (January 19-20, 2024 at the MATCH), Musiqa and NobleMotion Dance join forces once again in collaboration with Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal and the University of Houston BRAIN Center. It’s Brandt’s third collaboration with Contreras-Vidal, after the success of LiveWire and Diabelli 200. In the first two, Brandt’s music was inspired by the brain. For this one, Brandt and the husband-and-wife team of Andy and Dionne Noble have designed the music and the dance to support Contreras-Vidal’s experiments. “One of the things he’s really interested in is neural synchrony, which is basically the neural signature of two brains cooperating with each other,” explains Brandt. “Brains that are cooperating predict similar things. Dance is a beautiful way to study this because when you master the choreography you know how each other is moving and you are able to connect properly and avoid colliding.” Brandt takes it one step further and builds a musical scenario around conflict and cooperation, exploring the idea of polarization.

The work features music for live and recorded string quartet by Brandt, choreography by the Nobles, and visual projections based on live data by Badie Khaleghian. Throughout the piece two dancers will be wearing portable EEG caps that measure the electrical activity in their brains and neural synchrony. The opening movements introduce two competing characters, each dancing on their own with film projections of themselves, creating an echo chamber. Stress and discord characterize the music in the middle movements. The dancers come into conflict with each other, leading to a frozen standoff. In the final movement they begin to cooperate and learn to fit together while preserving their own identity. Contreras-Vidal will have clear indications of periods in which the dancers are either ignoring each other or in conflict versus the times when they are working together. “He will be able to study the brain thanks to the art in a real world circumstance,” says Brandt. “There is no constraint on the art at all in these collaborations. We are doing something together.”

Brandt thinks a lot about the role of music and the arts in the world right now. “So much is tilted toward STEM, but it alone is not the answer to everything. When you get to the domain of human psychology and social dynamics, the arts are among the greatest resources for science there is.” He points to MusiqaLab, a semester-long composition workshop for aspiring young composers, as one of the most important pieces in Musiqa’s mission. “It has real deep potential to change lives. It doesn’t matter if they become composers, it matters that they know they can do it. We are laying a pillar in the ground to say this is also contributing to bettering the world.”

“We never want to be the only one. We want to create a whole wave. We want to create such a strong presence in the city that people start to associate new music, new art with Houston. Creativity is happening vigorously right in our own neighborhood.”