Lamont Grads Create ‘Music of the Future’
The Nebula Ensemble looks to save classical music — in the least classical way
A low, slow note oozes out of the cello onstage. It’s almost “Jaws”-like in its effect, drawing the listener in closer, within reach of the jarringly off-key interjections from the horns and woodwinds. Then, silence takes over. The audience waits — and waits and waits — until recorded sounds of the outdoors seep through the speakers overhead.
For anyone expecting classical music in the vein of Bach or Beethoven, it’s all a bit odd. But it’s exactly what Nathan Cornelius means when he proudly says the Nebula Ensemble’s music is “out there.”
“We want to provide an experience for our audience that’s different from what they would get at a traditional concert,” says Nathan Cornelius (MM ‘15), who co-founded the rotating 10-15 member group a few years ago. That’s why you may see the musicians—virtually all Lamont School of Music alumni—using their wind instruments as percussives or tapping on metal plates to round out the sound.
“It’s not just listening,” Cornelius says. “It’s also looking and feeling and experiencing what’s around you. We want to create multidisciplinary, immersive experiences.”
I think music is about creativity at its heart and imagining ways of doing things, new ways of putting objects together to make what we consider beauty and new ways of living your life. So I think everyone, even just music students, stand to benefit from experiencing things that are different than what they're used to and pushing the boundaries of what is considered normal.
It was 2014 when Cornelius, then pursuing a master’s degree from Lamont in music composition, started chatting with classmate Jasper Scmich Kinney (BM ’17). Each appreciated and loved the classics, but felt they sometimes held the music world hostage.
“We like to experiment; we like to do new stuff that hasn’t been tried before,” Cornelius explains, “and we thought: Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a space for composers to try new things and match them up with performers who are interested in trying new things?”
He didn’t have to look far. Other Lamont students, craving an outlet for a different kind of classical music, were ready to help.
The result is a group that brands itself as “the now of music,” performing pieces strictly from contemporary, living composers. It doesn’t always sound “pretty” in the traditional sense — at times it is intentionally discordant — but for Sarah Perske (BM ‘12, MM ‘16), the opportunity was still, well, music to her ears.
“I think a lot of us come in having [for example,] a pop music side to ourselves that we might feel like we suppress for a little while we get our degree,” says Perske, who was among the first students to join the ensemble and who now serves as Nebula’s public relations director. “[Nebula] is very liberating.”
How Nebula’s musicians and composers perform their pieces is just as important as the pieces themselves. Although its compositions may be nontraditional, the ensemble’s goal is to boost interest in classical music. Doing so, Perske says, requires breaking certain barriers.
“I think that maybe a fair number of people avoid the classical music scene because it seems very elitist and very strictly regulated — very different from the experience of going to a pop music concert where you would be more relaxed and free to enjoy the experience,” she says. “We want to reach a wider audience and convince people that there is something interesting about classical music — anything to get them out of the ‘here I am in my seat trying not to cough’ [mindset] and make it a little more interactive.”
Listener participation is a staple of Nebula’s always-free events. During a recent summer concert, for example, the audience was greeted with a pause in the performance and instructed to pull out their phones and visit a website featuring three audio clips. Patrons were encouraged to play one of the clips and mill about the concert hall searching for those emitting similar noises.
Seated in the back of the room behind an audio board and laptop, Stephen Bailey (MM ’15) watched his idea come to life. An alum and adjunct professor, he specializes in electronic music and aims to avoid creating “sit-in-the-seat-and-look-at-the-stage kind of stuff.”
“It’s being in a band with your friends, basically,” he says. “More formally speaking, the Lamont performers are some of the best in the state. The people who come out of the school are really fantastic, excellent musicians.”
All of them, Bailey says, are capable of executing the sometimes strange and highly technical movements characteristic of the pieces. And all have an interest in the music of the future.
“We think of classical music a lot of times as being museum pieces,” he says, “but the genre has continued to exist for hundreds of years. Nebula provides an opportunity to present the newest of new music, the freshest stuff there is, and opportunities to present that music to an audience as a living, exciting, existing genre. Nebula is leading the charge to make this living music accessible.”