LIKE THE KID sneaking cigarettes behind school, modern chamber music has the unfortunate reputation of being a little stinker. It’s atonal. It’s noise. There’s no melody, no harmony, no way to connect. But listen to composer Jeremy Jolley, co–artistic director of the new Seattle Modern Orchestra, for half an hour and you’ll walk away thinking modern chamber music is simply…misunderstood.
“People are kind of afraid of contemporary music,” says the 33-year-old Frenchman, heavy on the accent. “They don’t want to have a bad time. They want to be comfortable.” But Iannis Xenakis’s Syrmos (1959)—one of three pieces SMO will play in this month’s “Strictly Strings” show—isn’t comfortable, opening with 18 stringed instruments in glissandi. This chaotic bow sliding was part of Xenakis’s master plan, a request that his players “do violence” to their instruments. It even alienated avant-garde musicians.
“We have to tune our ears so it makes more sense,” Jolley explains. “If you’re expecting melodies and harmonies, you won’t find that. It doesn’t mean it’s not valid, not an important form of expression. You just have to understand where this is coming from.”
That’s where SMO comes in. Comprised of a rotating cast of Seattle Symphony performers, UW and Cornish faculty, and freelance musicians, the professional ensemble fills what Jolley sees as a void in the Seattle scene: a chamber orchestra dedicated to classic works from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that have long gone underrepresented. Before each concert, Jolley and his cohort, conductor and co–artistic director Julia Tai, will lead a 15-minute discussion about the pieces they’re about to play. Never heard of John Adams’s 1978 Shaker Loops? Didn’t know that Claude Vivier’s 1980 Zipangu takes its name from an island with a golden palace? Tai and Jolley will fill you in, giving context to the grand sounds and colors you’re about to experience.
“Is this making sense?” Jolley asked repeatedly during the interview. He speaks with the passion of a professor, one with grand plans for podcasts, lectures, concerts in unconventional places. All he asks is that you listen.
“The music requires your attention. It’s not necessarily background music for a dinner party,” Jolley says. “It has more meat on its bones—it’s like a good book that has weight… Curious people will enjoy it. Forget what you think you know.”