By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Sep 01, 2016 at 5:56 PM

This year, the contemporary music ensemble Present Music celebrates its 35th anniversary in Milwaukee. But how exactly does one go about trying to define 35 years of creating undefinable music concerts and events, to sum up more than three decades of work that’s spawned dozens of original music pieces spread across plentiful artists and a multitude of ideas, genres and themes?

In Present Music’s case, you take a last glance to the past, set your eyes to the future and call the combination of perspectives "Made for Milwaukee," the ensemble’s season-opening event hosted by UWM’s Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, Sept. 3 at 7:30 p.m.

"This is ours; this is something that’s really special to Milwaukee," said Present Music executive director Meaghan Heinrich. "I’ve been listening to and involved in new music for a long time, and I have a lot of friends playing in Chicago and New York and places where there’s a pretty serious new music scene … but there’s not the same kind of focus on a hometown series. There’s great stuff going on, but Present Music is really tied to Milwaukee."

Thus, together, Present Music and Milwaukee have been the reason for more than 50 brand new original pieces of music coming out of the city and into existence over the past three and a half decades, thanks to commissions from the ensemble. So, to pay tribute to that legacy of music, Heinrich, artistic director Kevin Stalheim and Present Music dug through the past to find some of their favorite and most meaningful pieces made for Milwaukee.

"You have to think about the balance of the music on any program, so as we looked back, we didn’t want two pieces that are too similar to each other; you want to have some variety," Heinrich explained. "Each of these commissions is funded by an individual or a couple of people, so we wanted to have some variety there too. We wanted to honor some of these people who have commissioned some of these works."

After taking those factors into account, listening to the works and thinking about the size of the ensemble necessary – all of the pieces in "Made for Milwaukee" include five to 10 musicians – Present Music concluded on four past works for this special anniversary show: 1994’s "Arches" by Kamran Ince, 1993’s "Four Proverbs" by Michael Torke, 2002’s "Haunted America" by Jerome Kitzke and 2013’s "Breaking Point" from Sean Friar.

Each pick has its own particular purpose and meaning for the show, whether it’s a broad statement or a particular local memory. For example, in the case of the Kamran Ince piece, not only did the two work together on several major commissions over the years, but "Arches" in particular premiered in the Milwaukee Art Museum as a part of opening the new space.

"He was inspired by these arches he saw in Eastern Europe, and when he saw the Milwaukee Art Museum, he had that same feeling, so it was a piece that was written for that space, so that’s special to Milwaukee," Heinrich said.

Some of the selected pieces have striking meaning for the present as well. In the case of Kitzke’s "Haunted America," as a South Milwaukee native who’s made several returns to Milwaukee and provided multiple works to Present Music, a piece from him made sense for the show. But now in the aftermath of the recent unrest in Sherman Park and the growing discussion about race in Milwaukee, Heinrich notes his piece has even more unexpected poignancy for the concert.

"That piece was written as a reflection on 9/11, and the main phrase that you hear spoken in the piece is, ‘Hey America, what haunts you?’" she noted. "We’re really asking our audience in Milwaukee to think about the things that maybe haunt them that they’re afraid to speak about. Especially with the events in Sherman Park, sadly this is going to be a timely question for them."

In addition to turning the audience’s ears to the past, however, "Made for Milwaukee" will also tune into the frequency of the future through a brand new piece – Ryan Carter’s "On a better fitting algorithm" – making its world premiere Saturday night.

"We specifically asked him to think about the future," Heinrich said. "What is the future of Milwaukee? What is the future of music? What is the future of Present Music?"

The resulting piece bypasses the expected electronic sounds in favor of acoustic instruments – albeit creating a rhythmic drive based on algorithms and mathematical formulas. In addition to his "On a better fitting algorithm" premiere, Carter will also be demonstrating a music-based app he’s created that plays algorithmically generated electronica that’s synthesized in the moment and responds to how one tilts, turns or angles their device by altering the sound.

"To me, part of the future is just that people are still creating music, and they’re still finding new ways to do it," Heinrich said. "That’s amazing to me, to look back over these 35 years just in the recent past and see what new ideas have come out of that – and if you trace that way, way, way, way back and look at Brahms and Beethoven and Bach, and see that we’re still moving forward. The composers are still coming up with new ideas. They’re not just rehashing the same old things and trying to do them in a different way. There’s always something new to be discovered."

"That’s what we seek to do in all of our performances," she added. "How can we take this music and not just put it on a stage or put it on a screen, but make it mean something to people because we’re always going to need those points of relevance in order to enjoy live music."

Demonstrations for the app, predictably called "iMonkeypants," are a part of what Heinrich calls the "pre-concert shenanigans" that begin when the doors open at 6:30 p.m. The staff of the Betty Brinn Maker Space will be there, as well, with various interactive musical experiments to demonstrate, such as a collection of small magnetic pieces one can arrange to make a mini-synth and change its pitch, and a surface microphone the team has cast in concrete. All those pre-show elements from the future will be joined by tributes to the past, such as some world maps showing where Present Music’s work has traveled across the globe over its 35 years.

As for those "post-concert shenanigans," "Made for Milwaukee" will wrap up with local rockers Tigernite, bringing a roaring dash of Milwaukee’s musical present into the ensemble’s tribute to the past and look to the bright future – for the city, for music and for Present Music.

"I hope that someone who’s never been to a Present Music concert might come to this concert and walk away wanting to come to the next one – not because they want to come to another concert just like this, but because they want to see what’s next."

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.