All from nothing
Local ensemble dal niente shakes the dust off chamber music with Radiohead and ragtime.

By Bryant Manning
Time Out Chicago
Published: November 24, 2008

dal niente
dal niente

Conservative classical types might turn up their noses at a chamber performance of tunes by a British rock & roll band in a rickety jazz bar. Kirsten Broberg, founder of new-music ensemble dal niente, is no such snob. Earlier this year at the Green Mill, her contemporary ensemble delivered an anguished take on Radiohead’s “Nude,” with Masahito Sugihara’s sax standing in for Thom Yorke’s vocals. Broberg, who composes from 40 to 80 hours a week, arranged the work herself, which required the iconic band’s permission. Adhering to its tenet of unpredictability, dal niente also worked with CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence Mark-Anthony Turnage for a jazz-based concert in March.

“We want to bring some of the most revolutionary, difficult, ambitious, complex, daring, virtuosic, exciting music to the forefront,” Broberg, a 29-year-old Saint Paul native, tells us by phone. Formed in 2004, the group comprises members ranging in age from 22 to 31, variously selected from trusted recommendations and through word of mouth. The ensemble took its name from a work by 73-year-old German composer Helmut Lachenmann (dal niente means from nothing in Italian). As a principal artist of the musique concrète instrumentale school, Lachenmann put an emphasis on electronics, amplification and unconventional playing techniques, such as a clarinetist whispering through the instrument. The idea for Broberg’s own group materialized when she took an extended techniques class at Northwestern, where she’s now finishing her doctoral studies in composition with hopes of becoming a professor. “People would come in and do contemporary technique on instruments and make really cool things happen,” Broberg says. She was fascinated in particular by the bowed piano: Fishing line is woven through the piano strings and then bowed.

Broberg, who teaches theory and composition at several area colleges, cites three pioneers of spectralism—Gérard Grisey, Kaija Saariaho and Salvatore Sciarrino—as her biggest influences. Charmingly, she names “old guy” influences like Beethoven and Debussy seemingly out of obligation. A student of former CSO in-house composer Augusta Read Thomas, Broberg is fast becoming a force of her own, writing works for the internationally recognized Kronos Quartet, Third Coast Percussion and the New Millennium Orchestra.

To discover fresh music, Broberg hunts down composition professors from around the world, racks up heavy international phone bills and combs MySpace with a vengeance. “I like at least one piece per concert to be new,” she says. It’s a goal that’s surprisingly difficult to achieve and not nearly as common for “new-music” groups as one would think. But there’s another crucial element in Broberg’s search for new works: “Not only should they be revolutionary, but extremely challenging. Music that other groups don’t dare to play or have the patience or perseverance for.”

On Sunday 30, dal niente pays tribute to American composers at the Chicago Cultural Center. Violinist J. Austin Wulliman describes Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s concerto Suicide Squeeze as a cross between the New York ragtime of Fats Waller, the minimalism of John Adams and the virtuosity of John Coltrane. The group also takes on Lee Hyla’s 2002 string trio “Amnesia Redux” as well as works by Shawn Jaeger and Morton Feldman.

Though rooted firmly in Chicago, dal niente plans to begin touring, including an upcoming visit to the University of Illinois. Broberg sees no reason dal niente won’t be around for another 50 years or longer. With the group’s annual budget “quadrupling” every year thanks to the generosity of private donors and local institutions like the Cultural Center, why wouldn’t it?

Dal niente performs at the Cultural Center Sunday 30.

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