Zeitgeist turns 30by Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
An internationally known new music ensemble in St. Paul has reached a milestone few thought it would achieve. Zeitgeist is turning 30 this year. It's marking the occasion with a series of concerts this weekend and next that celebrates its past and look toward the future.
St. Paul, Minn. — It all started in 1977 when four Macalester College students and contemporary music fanatics formed a basement band in percussionist Jay Johnson's St. Paul home.
Johnson says they knew if they wanted to play the freshest, most innovative music around, they'd have to create it themselves.
"It was very heady, very exciting, playing the coolest music that we thought existed," he said.
Minimalism was the dominant force in new music at the time, and Zeitgeist completely embraced it. Soon, the Jerome Foundation called, offering grant money.
The group started commissioning composers who were giants in the field, including Frederic Rzewski, John Cage and Terry Riley. Its reputation around the country and in other parts of the world started to grow.
Over 30 years, Zeitgeist has moved up from the basement to Studio Z, a cozy rehearsal and performance space in St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood. It's commissioned more than 200 pieces and gone on many international tours. There have also been a few lineup changes.
What hasn't changed is Zeitgeist's focus on the music of the moment. For percussionist Heather Barringer, who joined the group in 1993, that's why Zeitgeist has stayed relevant.
"We're always continually dealing with music that doesn't yet have a context," she said. "We never play Fur Elise. We don't play you tunes that you can have a memory, or that the entire culture has a collective memory of. It's brand new."
But woodwinds player Pat O'Keefe says that doesn't mean Zeitgeist is a bunch of nihilists dressed in black taking on the establishment. He says the group is genuinely interested in as broad a range of contemporary music as possible.
"A lot of people think new music, like 'new' meaning sort of new, experimental, atonal weird, 'I won't like it' music," he said. "And we really just mean, 'Just make some music.' We don't care what style it is. Just make something new."
Zeitgeist's mission is to keep contemporary music alive and evolving. But the group is distinguished by its instrumentation and sound. There are two percussionists, on marimba and vibraphone, a woodwind player and a pianist.
The overall effect captivated composer David Evan Thomas and made him want to write for the group. Thomas says the configuration allows Zeitgeist percussionists to shine in ways orchestral percussionists can't.
"You don't often hear fine percussion playing in orchestral music, not because there aren't fine percussionists but because the parts are often not there to show the percussionists off," Thomas said. "So the unusual instrumentation that they have -- two percussionists, piano and a reed player -- is a sound that you don't find really anywhere else."
Zeitgeist has not only created a unique sound, it's developed a local community of composers to feed that sound. One of those composers is Mary Ellen Childs.
"I think their impact has been quiet and huge at the same time," she said.
Childs says it's great to create a new work and have it performed somewhere, but sometimes the premiere is the only time it's heard. Not so with Zeitgeist. Childs says the group understands a piece has to live a while before its potential is realized.
"So to have repeated performances, to have it recorded, it reaches a wider audiences. It sort of gets in the bones of the performers and comes to life in an even deeper way, and Zeitgeist does all of those things," Childs said.
In recent years, members of Zeitgeist have concentrated on building an audience, and developing future composers and musicians in the Twin Cities.
They hold regular salons to discuss writing and performing. They work with students in St. Paul schools, and solicit new pieces from amateur composers of all ages in the annual Eric Stokes Song Contest.
"We've had a great deal to do with nurturing young creative talent, with nurturing composers at every level, and just creating more art," percussionist Heather Barringer said. "As it turns out, you can make a lot of friends in 30 years."
Zeitgeist will pay tribute to those friends and celebrate its anniversary with concerts this weekend and next at Studio Z. Next week, it will premiere 30 new works by Minnesota composers. They're each about 150 seconds long.
- All Things Considered, 06/13/2008, 5:54 p.m.