By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 11, 2003 at 5:45 AM

Two decades ago Milwaukee musician Kevin Stalheim formed Present Music because, he says, he was bored. Now, Present Music is one of the world's most respected, adventurous and active new music ensembles and it remains based in Milwaukee. See what a little boredom can do? We recently talked to Kevin about the history of Present Music, some of its highs and where it's going.

OMC: Why don't we start by getting you to tell us a little about yourself. Are you from Milwaukee? What was your musical background by the time Present Music was born?

KS: I was born in Milwaukee. In sixth grade I took up the trumpet and played in the bands throughout high school. I played in the Milwaukee Youth Symphony and attended the Interlochen summer music camp in Michigan. I went to Oberlin College in Ohio and had interesting summer jobs like the American Wind Symphony which floats around the world giving concerts on waterways.

OMC: Besides a love of music, of course, what made you start Present Music? Did you feel like there was a paucity of new music ensembles here?

KS: Boredom created Present Music. If you're bored you have to do something about it. I'm not the only one unhappy with the routine mainstream. The mainstream makes more money but it isn't fullfilling to many people. The musicians that helped me create Present Music wanted more than the same old predictible gigs could offer them. When I started Present Music there was a paucity of just about everything here. Milwaukee has grown tremendously since then, and I am happy and proud to be part of that growth.

OMC: Although Milwaukee has what many would consider a pretty remarkable arts scene for a city its size, new and explorative music definitely seems to be one area that could use a boost. Do you agree? What's the new music scene like here?

KS: There will never be enough new music or old music in any city for me. The definition of new music is interesting. The Violent Femmes came out of Milwaukee. The DJs i'm working with for our concert on March 15 are doing new music. A lot of the best "serious" music created uses elements from pop, other cultures, jazz, rap, etc. Every band playing original music is doing new music. Several composers of international acclaim are from Milwaukee. The scene at UWM seems to be growing. There is Music From Almost Yesterday. The Milwaukee Symphony does new music sometimes but could do much more. Bands and composers don't stay here because it's beneficial for them to be in big cities like New York. However, with the Internet that is changing. I know composers in places like Alaska that are doing very well now.

OMC: What needs to change to foment the growth of other ensembles like Present Music?

KS: We don't need a lot of ensembles like Present Music. We need all music organizations to do more new music: They need to integrate new music into their programming. I just went to a High School of the Arts String Orchestra program where they did a lot of new music. That's what we need: enlightened teachers like Pablo Amaya. We need leaders that don't worry about what the audience thinks. If you try to please all the people all the time you end up with middle of the road, boring programs. We should respect the audience and offer them an adventure once in a while to go along with the old stuff. The Brookfield Central High School chorus just commissioned (paid for) a brand new piece and performed it with us last November. That's what we need - teachers and leaders that open up people's ears and minds to an exciting and relevant world of sound. We'll be doing a world premiere with the Milwaukee Children's choir. Young children hearing new stuff. We need more of this and the rest will take care of itself.

OMC: What are the challenges Present Music faces in city like Milwaukee, which has fairly conservative tastes? Do you find it difficult to be taken seriously by lovers of more traditional "classical" music?

KS: There are some advantages of being in a so called "conservative" city like Milwaukee. People here sense when the musicians love what they do. That goes a long way in "selling" anything and our musicians are the best sales people in town. Milwaukee audiences like variety, which new music has in abundance. Our music can be gorgeous, riveting, humorous, provocative, strange, you name it.

If the programs are interesting and varied the audience will love some of it and hate some of it. You don't want an audience half happy all the time. Why go out of your house for that? You are right though, about some of the "lovers of traditional classical" music. A number of them do not want adventure. But I also think a number of them don't realize that they would like adventure and they don't know what they are missing. When we played with the Milwaukee Symphony a few years ago, several people came up to us in a restaurant after the concert and treated us like rock stars. They said it was so refreshing compared to the norm.

But I would say that our audience comes from a very diverse backround. People that like adventure and discovery will like Present Music. People that like new art, modern dance, new poetry, new architecture, new pop music are more likely to like what we do than those that are stuck in the past. I love the past but i'm not stuck there. There are plenty of people like me in Milwaukee. We just need to get them in the door.

OMC: You've had some successes beyond Milwaukee. Does that help your profile back home?

KS: Yes, it helps a lot. I think Milwaukee is proud that Present Music goes to places like China, Japan, Turkey and New York City. Our recordings are going all over the world and the new music that we commission is being playing by other ensembles all over the world. Our biggest reputation however is the size of our audience in Milwaukee. We'll have 600 to 800 people at our next concert on March 15 featuring African and African Amercian heritage. No one in the country gets audiences like we do. I know the national scene and everyone is blown away by our audience in Milwaukee.


OMC: How do you think young musicians come to new music? Are there lots of students out there who are chomping at the bit to join an ensemble performing works by composers like Michael Torke and Kamran Ince?

KS: As I said earlier we need good teachers that lead young people to the water. They will love this water. New music speaks of their time; of course kids will love it. But someone needs to let them know about it. The zillions of piano teachers should introduce new music to their zillions of piano students. All orchestra and band teachers should not only perform this music with their kids, but should also introduce their students to an exciting list of recordings and get them to hear live concerts. There is nothing like a live concert to turn on a kid. And with student prices and deals the cost is almost nothing.

Audience members that already know about new music should "adopt " a few concert going kids. That would be a great gift to a young person. We should also get kids composing. Present Music has a program for that but there could be a lot more of it going on in the schools. If you get kids creating music in addition to re-creating other people's music, they will have a deeper and completely new view of music.

OMC: Tell us a bit about where Present Music is now as far as your mission. Do you have the resources -- financial, human, musical -- to accomplish what you're hoping to do these days?

KS: We had a great 20th year last year. The economy has made it tougher recently but the concerts are still as exciting and interesting as ever. Present Music is open-ended for me. I would rather do seven concerts than six, eight than seven, and so on. I hope to reach more kids in more schools with our composing project. I hope to tour more often, record more often and commission composers more often. It's not complicated. But it is hard to achieve growth in this economy. More IS better in our case. The world could use alot more of what Present Music does, so why set limits? I think our potential is huge. There is not a "natural" size for Present Music. But building doesn't happen overnight, it's a day by day thing and we will just continue building and trying to reach as many people as possible.

OMC: Without trying to get you in hot water with anyone, what's been your most satisfying project in 21 years with Present Music? How about this season's programme; what excites you the most?

KS: I rarely think about the past. Like most artists, for me it's the next thing that's most exciting. Our concert next week, March 15 at the Zelazo Center at UWM has me overflowing with excitement. In addition to the Present Music musicians, we have the great Heritage Choral singing spirituals, a master musician from Ghana, some great DJ's and Break Dancers, kids singing, and the very cool band, Growing Nation.

OMC: What's next for Kevin Stalheim and for Present Music?

KS: We're going to China in May. I think we're the first new music ensemble from the US to tour China. Then we return to Milwaukee and perform with Chinese musicians here at the Zelazo Center on May 31. There's plenty of excitement to go around these days.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.