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Milwaukee Talks: Kevin Stalheim

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.

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OMCreader | Dec. 8, 2005 at 1:23 p.m. (report)

susie said: yeah oberlin! represent!

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