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New Music Circle marks 50 years with Tom Hamilton

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 28, 2009 - St. Louis has a reputation as a city that is solidly Midwestern in its respect for heritage, tradition -- and determining your social caste by where you attended high school.

But St. Louis is also home to one of the oldest organizations dedicated to presenting contemporary and avant-garde music with a decided focus on improvisation, multi-media events and electronic techniques.

That organization is the New Music Circle, a nonprofit group that was founded 50 years ago and has presented a wildly eclectic concert series ever since. Over the past half century, NMC has presented everyone from renowned composers Philip Glass and Morton Subotnick to jazz legends such as Elvin Jones and avant-garde artists such as John Zorn.

NMC celebrates the end of its 50th season this Saturday at the Kranzberg Arts Center with a concert featuring former St. Louisan Tom Hamilton and a fascinating mix of area artists. Called "Fifty (or More)," the performance blends an electronic soundscape with live improvisations by seven artists - including percussionist Rich O'Donnell, who has been part of the NMC scene since almost the beginning.

O'Donnell was a fixture in the percussion section of the St. Louis Symphony for decades, and now directs and teaches at Washington University's Electronic Music Studio.

"I actually got involved in New Music Circle in its second year, when I came back to town to play with the Symphony," recalls O'Donnell during a recent conversation. "Back then, the focus was more on presenting contemporary, primarily notated music by the likes of Berio and Stockhausen. But over the years, the emphasis has changed to more of a focus on improvisation."

According to O'Donnell, the focus of NMC is to always keep the music fresh, interesting and thought provoking. And NMC's commitment to improvisation is something that also ties in with his own early experiences as a teenager listening to jazz greats such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane at the long defunct downtown club, Peacock Alley.

"Going to Peacock Alley to hear those great musicians and others like Elvin Jones and Philly Jo Jones was such a huge influence in terms of the music itself - but also in the atmosphere," recalls O'Donnell. "Sometimes the place would be half empty, and I would wonder how much people would pay years from now just for the chance to hear these amazing musicians live. So that is what NMC is about ... presenting artists with the idea of trying to second guess the future influence of the artists we present."

According to O'Donnell, that's why NMC continues to evolve and try to create an environment for innovation. As part of that commitment, he helped establish the CAMA (Collaborating Artists Manifest Adventure) project at NMC, which is designed to spotlight multi-media collaborations between national and St. Louis artists.

"The only constant is change, and that's what we're trying to do with CAMA. In fact, Tom Hamilton's performance this weekend is a CAMA event."

Hamilton, who moved to New York City in 1987 after establishing his reputation as one of the leading electronic composers in the St. Louis area, is delighted to have the opportunity to come back to town to perform in a 50th anniversary NMC event. He's been involved in 15 NMC performances over the years and vividly remembers his first experience with the organization back in 1970.

"The first time I was involved in a New Music Circle event was for the 10th anniversary concert," recalls Hamilton during a phone conversation from his Manhattan apartment. "It was called 'Sensorium,' and I showed up as a volunteer to help them construct these various rooms that each had different music and media happening in them. I eventually was asked to compose electronic music for one of the rooms, so that was my NMC debut."

"My desire was to do something within the 50th anniversary season that would be a broad stroke tribute to NMC's contributions over the years," he says. "Then when I found out through Rich about the CAMA initiative, and its focus on bringing together mixed-media collaborations between St. Louis artists, that really gave the event a focus."

According to Hamilton, the May 2 performance will bring together the history of NMC as a starting point for improvisations created during the performance.

"Basically, I'm providing a format and a musical foundation for the live performers by bringing together excerpts of source recordings done by other artists and friends at earlier NMC performances," he explains. "On top of this base layer of musical activity, the live performers will add their music in succession. It's a continuous piece. And if it's successful, they will transform the original identity of the piece into something new and interesting."

Hamilton chose the artists who will perform live.

"I remember working with R. Scott Bryan, Rich O'Donnell and Bill Schulenburg in NMC in the late '70s," says Hamilton. "And I selected the other artists because of their creative backgrounds. It's something I've really loved working on, and it's going to be exciting to see how it evolves in performance. I understand that the Kranzberg is set up like a cafe with tables. That's probably a good thing, because the audience should probably have drinks in hand for this one!"

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer who is known for his music coverage.