This group wants to surprise you.
With music. In unexpected places. At unexpected times.
Since its debut in 2010, New Muse — short for "New Music Everywhere" — has brought contemporary classical music to the Dane County Farmers' Market in the guise of a "flash mob," performed within an exhibit at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, and carried its music stands into a nightclub to put on a vaudeville show.
The brainchild of current and former UW-Madison graduate students, New Muse this month also is helping to produce Jerry Hui's "Wired for Love," an original comic opera based on a strange-but-true online scam, with a nine-piece orchestra and characters that include a snake-charming underwear supermodel. This spring, the group will host its first Muse Fest at spots along State Street, partnering with dancers, singers and spoken-word artists, and featuring world premieres by up-and-coming composers.
"Every concert or event that we do is designed based on a specific space. The music we choose, the instruments we program, and the collaborators that we work with are based on a conceptual idea to make music fun, engaging and participatory," said co-founder Jonathan Kuuskoski.
New Muse came about after doctoral candidates Hui and Ching-Chun Lai invited pianists Kuuskoski and Paola Savvidou to brainstorm about how they could introduce more people to classical music of the 20th and 21st centuries.
"The new music going on at the university was amazing. But we felt like sometimes you'd see a great concert and there were about 20 people in the audience," Kuuskoski said. "You'd think, ‘Why aren't more people engaging in this?'"
The group came up with a new approach: Take it to the streets, and bring in other artists. The idea won grants from Yamaha through the College Music Society and from the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission, and New Muse was off and running.
Of the nine core musicians in New Muse, about half are professionals and the rest are high-level UW-Madison music students, a mix designed to give students the chance to work with pros. New Muse also taps the talents of the UW-Madison dance and theater departments to include spoken word and movement in its shows, an attempt to make "new" music more accessible to audiences who might be a little squeamish about giving it a try.
For a vaudeville show staged last year at the nightclub Plan B — to be reincarnated next month at an "Adult Swim" at the Madison Children's Museum — New Muse's classically trained musicians also enlisted a hip-hop DJ.
All those unconventional settings — New Muse has also perched musicians on the glass steps of the MMOCA lobby — can present acoustical challenges, so New Muse keeps that in mind when selecting a program.
"We try to be creative in how we use the space," said Savvidou, who is also a trained dancer. "But at the end of the day, the most important thing is to reach people, to just perform the music. Even if it doesn't have the greatest acoustics, we can live with that, because of the higher goal in mind."
That "higher goal" also includes a commitment to Madison, though many members of New Muse keep getting good jobs elsewhere. Last fall Kuuskoski and Savvidou took posts at the University of Missouri's music school (they continue to coordinate New Muse events with Hui via Google Docs and Skype). Lai is now on the faculty at State University of New York at Potsdam but will return to Madison to conduct Hui's "Wired for Love."
The group's May 5 Muse Fest will include performances up and down State Street, starting with another "flash mob" at the farmer's market. On Sept. 11, 2010, New Muse staged a similar event by inviting musicians to show up on the steps of the Capitol and spontaneously perform Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" in remembrance of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Nobody knew how many musicians would show up. And then came a pouring rain.
The deluge stopped just minutes before musicians began emerging from the farmers' market crowd, pulled out their instruments and began to play, said Kuuskoski.
That first flash mob "was sort of a way to test the waters and to see what kind of reaction we'd get, and also to test our concept," he said. But the experience turned out to be so moving "that I realized that this was exactly what we had to keep doing."
"If we had scheduled that in a concert hall that day, we might have had 100 people show up," he said. "That would have been great, but here we reached 1,000 people in a way where they could walk away thinking, ‘This changed my day — inadvertently.' I think of that as the goal of art in general."