Longform interview with Michael Avitabile, artistic director of Hub New Music

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Hub New Music, from left: Mike Avitabile, flute; David Dziardziel, clarinet; Orin Alan Laursen, violin; Allison Drenkow, cello. This and all other pictures by Nile Scott Shots, courtesy HNM.

I first met Michael Avitabile at a house show hosted by his group, Hub New Music. It was a Friday night in Jamaica Plain and I was looking for a musical fix. You never know what you’ll find at these Groupmuse-type things, but Michael and his group played an ambitious program, including music by red-hot composer Mason Bates (The Life of Birds) alongside Bach’s The Art of Fugue.

Hub New Music are a collective specializing in exacting new-music performances and collaborations with living composers. As the orchestra job market tightens and audience numbers dwindle, groups like Hub New Music offer an enticing way forward. In short, Hub New Music is a group you should pay attention to.

You can read much more about Hub New Music here.

In the following interview some answers have been lightly edited and condensed.

–THE ORIGINS–

Where did you grow up, and how did you end up in Boston?

Mike Avitabile: I was born in Port Jefferson NY, lived in the city for a few years, and then moved out to NJ with my family after that. While I was in NJ, I still commuted back to NYC to study music at Juilliard Pre-College (where I think I found my love of playing chamber music). After that, I was very lucky to receive a scholarship to attend the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor which will always be a second home for me. That was another place where I fell in love with playing in small ensembles and started to develop my love for new music. Following my undergrad, I came to NEC for grad school in 2013 and here I am now!

​How did Hub New Music come together?

When I came to grad school, I was dead set on playing in an orchestra. I had always loved playing chamber music and new music, but never thought much about trying to make a career out of it. At some point in the beginning of grad school I got kind of disenchanted with the prospect of an orchestral career and around the same time heard Claire Chase’s (founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble) commencement address at Northwestern University. It was essentially a call to arms for a new generation of arts entrepreneurs and after listening I’d never felt so inspired. I think immediately after I called my friend and asked her to start a new music band and spent hours researching composers and repertoire I wanted to play. Since then, I don’t think I’ve looked back.

I don’t know if it was something at NEC that made me want to do this, but being surrounded by a group of colleagues there who were into new work was definitely a large inspiration. Also hearing stories from my teacher Paula Robison about working with people like Takemitsu, Crumb, and Berio was inspiring.

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Is the atmosphere at NEC conducive to new groups & experiments like Hub New Music?

NEC was a good experience in that I was surrounded by really exceptional music making. I had great coaches and training from the Entrepreneurial Musicianship Office to whom I owe Hub’s existence. I would be in that office almost daily asking questions and workshopping new ideas for the ensemble. I still regularly go in to ask questions.

Did you have mentors helping you when you started, or any groups you modeled Hub New Music after?

I’ve a had a couple of mentors throughout my time with Hub both in and outside of school. NEC’s EM office is probably the biggest one since they helped me transform this nebulous idea of starting a new music group into a concrete project with a clear mission statement. The summer between my first and second year of grad school, I went to intern with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) which was also such an incredible learning process. Getting to work for the ensemble and the person who essentially sparked this entire process was a dream come true and I learned so much from my time there. Other mentors who include composer Robert Honstein, and Hub’s guest percussionist Maria Finklemeier who are two of my best closest friends here in Boston.

How did you arrive at the instrumentation for your group? Is it always a quartet?

Hub had actually started as a more free-flowing collective model like what ICE is. But at some point in the middle of last season I found myself programming a lot of these quartets (flute, clarinet, violin and cello) commissioned by the Seattle Chamber Players around 2008. (The first one was by Mason Bates which was the concert we met at!) The instrumentation struck me as just an exciting opportunity to cultivate a new body of repertoire and to be part of the community of non-standard ensembles creating unique pathways in contemporary music (i.e NOW Ensemble, Akropolis Reed Quintet, eighth blackbird, SO Percussion etc). The repertoire feels so close to us since we’re one of few if any ensembles playing it, and to be part of the standardization of an ensemble makes me feel that chamber music really is a living breathing art form.

However, in the spirit of collaboration (which I think is vital to music in the 21st century) we do have a roster of local guest artists who we work with. Usually our musical collaborators include piano, percussion, and voice for larger projects like our recent portrait of Kati Agocs.

–THE PRESENT & THE FUTURE–

On your programs you’re most often tackling 21st-century repertoire in non-traditional settings. What do you have against Beethoven & Mozart?

For someone who has two degrees in classical flute, it’s pretty strange for me to say that I rarely play Beethoven or Mozart. It kind of reminds about the time I sparked a bit of controversy in Orchestral Excerpt class at NEC for thinking liking Messiaen more than Brahms.

But I guess this takes me to a bigger point that I actually don’t have anything against classical music even though I don’t play it that often (and if I sacrilegiously don’t really like Brahms). I actually have a lot of respect for classical music (I’m a firm believer that Bach is near perfection) and see contemporary repertoire as an extension and a diversification of that tradition.

Hub’s programming is all 21st-century repertoire, but we apply a lot of the training we’ve received as classical musicians and try to interpret Mason Bates and Judd Greenstein as meticulously as Mozart or Beethoven. When we stop furthering the art form and pushing into the future, that’s when I think it dies.

How different is it working with composers and commissioning pieces, versus just playing the music of more established (and often deceased) composers?

It’s so drastically different and I think that’s where the beauty of specializing in contemporary music comes from. Working with a composer on a piece whether it’s existing or if you’ve commissioned it has this incredible fluidity to it that I never got with playing classical music. A composer may change something in a rehearsal or while they are writing it, or you may offer a suggestion that becomes integrated into the piece. I mean how cool is it to think that the ensemble/performer had a role in shaping the music that people will be writing dissertations on 100 years from now?

We’re shaping the canon of tomorrow and I find that so exciting! I love the collaborative element that comes with that and the pioneering feeling that comes with playing new work. It builds such a strong sense of community between creator and interpreter that makes the process deeply rewarding.

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What kind of people do you hope to attract for HNM shows, and what do you think is the key to growing classical audiences?

I think the audience for new music is one that’s intellectually curious – say the type of person who will go see a new film or contemporary art gallery – in addition to the existing community of classical music lovers. However, what I love about Hub’s repertoire is that we’re pulling musical ideas from EDM, pop, and funk, and then collaborating with dancers, film-makers, and the visual arts. In turn, I think we have an appeal to these communities and are able to bring audiences together that may have never crossed paths before. So much of 21st music is about integration and dissolving boundaries between art forms which naturally opens your work up to a larger community of listeners.

Who are a few artists or groups you’d like to work with in the future? Or, what would be a bucket-list collaboration for you?

As a new music ensemble, there’s a mile long list of composers who we’d love to work with. To name a few (and if you’re reading we’d love to work with you!) Missy Mazzoli, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Sean Friar, Tristan Perich, Christopher Cerrone and many many more. (We honestly could do entirely separate interview on this).

As for performers, I’m dying to work with singer/songwriter/composer/super-musicians like Gabriel Kahane and Shara Worden who toe the line between pop and art music. Their work is so fascinating to me with how global and versatile it is.

Then there’s always the random thought that pops into my head about commissioning a massive piece of music with some of my colleagues in other ensembles, but there’s nothing specific about that . . . at least not yet.

Outside of collaborators, I definitely have a lot of heroes in the field who I would love to play for. Some of them include groups like eighth blackbird and SO Percussion who inspire me daily to keep doing what I do.

I also really really really want to play a Tiny Desk Concert on NPR. Like really really want to.

–BOSTON VS. THE WORLD–

What makes Boston such a great city for ensembles like yours? Is Boston just a stopover on the way to a classical hotbed like NYC, or does it feel like a scene unto itself?

It’s a good time to be a musician in Boston, especially one who plays a lot of new music. There’s this vibrancy that I’m starting to feel in Boston strengthened by a strong sense of community that I think comes with living in a city that is a little bit smaller than somewhere like New York.

I recently collaborated with percussionist Maria Finkelmeier on her “Waking the Monster” project which was part of Hub week. It was one of the most inspiring moments of my life to see Arts Boston projected on the Prudential center and to see 1000 people come to an interdisciplinary arts block party in the Fenway. I felt so tied to my community, being surrounded by mind-blowingly creative musicians, videographers, poets etc – all of whom were showcasing new work.

There is such an exciting art scene here. Drawing on that, I hope that Hub can be a source of pride for the Boston community as an innovative contemporary music ensemble.

How well do you feel Boston and the state of Massachusetts do supporting the arts? Is it hard to be an artist and to make ends meet? Is there a way they could make it easier?

I did recently read an article on the lack of government support for the arts in Boston which is something I hope increases in the coming years. I do, however, believe the work that Julie Burros is doing in fantastic and will inevitably increase the sustainability of artists and arts organizations here in Boston.

As a musician, I would also like to see the emergence of more concert venues and series in the city which we are lacking in. Earlier you compared Boston to New York and this is one area I think we fall behind. We simply need more opportunities and infrastructure for music to be performed.

On the flipside of that argument, I think artists in Boston are extremely resourceful and are finding non-traditional methods of performing and strengthening our community of art lovers. My friend Keith Kirchoff runs a concert series held in local breweries called Original Gravity that pairs craft beer with new music in an environment that could never be created in a standard concert hall.

What’s the best show you’ve been to recently?

Being the unabashed fan boy that I am, I recently drove 16 hours to Detroit to hear eighth blackbird premiere the Sleeping Giant Collective’s new project Hand Eye which was the most awe-inspiring performance I’ve ever seen. My friend Robert Honstein is part of the collective and gave me comps. After the concert, I got to meet the ensemble (who are some of the most inspiring people I will ever meet), and they asked why I drove 16 hours to hear a concert. My response, “because I had free tickets.”

Other recent favorites were Roomful of Teeth with the Celebrity Series, and Times Two (a concert series Robert and Maria run) with the Brooklyn percussion Avant-pop band Tigue.

–EXTRACURRICULARS–

Do you listen to any non-classical music? Are you a top 40 fan? Would we find Adele or Beyoncé or Kanye on your phone?

I listen to a lot of music and a ton of non-classical music. Looping back to your earlier question about my bucket-list of collaborators I listen to a lot of Gabriel Kahane’s and Shara Worden’s (My Brightest Diamond) non-classical work. (Kahane’s song “Empire Liquor Mart” is one of those songs that I have to stop everything I’m doing when it comes on).

Other favorites include Top 40, Adele, Amy Winehouse, Florence and the Machine, Yasmin Levy, Kayhan Kalhor (he has an amazing album out with Brookyln Rider), Punch Brothers, Silk Road, Lady GaGa, Souxsie and the Banshees, the Killers, The Cranberries, Alanis Morissette, Queen, and I have been known to embarrassingly wash my dishes dancing to Taylor Swift . . .

I’m curious to know what you think of this.

John Cage, in addition to being a complete visionary, created a framework for so much work that is being done now. And I answer your question with another question. What do you think of this?

That’s madness. I love those guys.

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