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Classing up music online

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Updated: August 1, 2012 6:03AM

Chicago can claim bragging rights to what experts call a leading-edge online network of classical-music composers whose Facebook-like correspondence gives them the rare chance to hear their scores recorded live, and thanks to technology, in better-quality-than-ever online playback.

Access Contemporary Music, an eight-year-old non-profit in Ravenswood, earned its tech-savvy reputation when it received online submissions from Chinese composer Xiaogang Ye, and put them together to create a recital of the completed work. Ye flew in from Beijing for the event, resulting in a documentary, “Composer Alive: Eastern Expressions.”

The group, led by founder and executive director Seth Boustead, offers a $50-a-year composer membership program, performs weekly readings of composers’ work submitted online, hosts a “Sound of Silent Film” festival and conducts a high-school composers’ workshop for $350 per student to spend nine hours a week for three weeks with professional composers. Its latest “first” was performing in concert on June 22 the top five of the best works that composers have submitted throughout ACM’s eight-year history. Boustead chose the top five after getting the musicians’ recommendations.

ACM’s most recent growth has centered on its four-year-old music school at 1758 W. Wilson, where seven teachers, including Boustead, give piano and composition lessons. The school, which has enabled ACM to enjoy a 45-percent growth rate in revenues, to $225,000, is expanding to teach woodwinds.

The school prides itself on encouraging students to compose their own music and perform it in recital.

“When I was growing up, I was discouraged from making up music,” said Boustead, 40. “We say, ‘By all means, please, make up a song.’ We suggest ideas to expand on the original idea.”

Boustead is eyeing opening a second school site in the Avondale neighborhood.

As the ACM organization explores options, it benefits from technological advances that let musicians use the Zoom H2 portable digital audio recorder, doing away with years of paying big money for hard disk recorders, MP3 recorders that required lengthy online downloads and big microphones with equally large hard drives.

Boustead learned a costly lesson when he encoded ACM’s early recordings in RealAudio files, only to find out that the files became corrupted and couldn’t be retrieved.

“The ones that weren’t corrupted couldn’t be brought back, either,” he said of the experience six years ago.

Listeners now can instantly hear ACM’s streamed audio, which Boustead edits using GarageBand software.

“It’s not for everybody,” he said. “We make it clear this is a reading and not a polished performance.”

Jesse McQuarters, producer of “Relevant Tones,” Boustead’s radio show on WFMT, said he has watched and listened to an amazing transformation of recording equipment that has reduced prices drastically and opened up a new world of home recorders and musicians who can record themselves.

“There will always be a place for professional recording engineers, since their expertise definitely makes a difference in the sound,” McQuarters said. “But the Zoom H2 and H4 transform what used to be hard-to-edit and hard-to-transfer digital recordings into easily set up and Flash-based technology.”

McQuarters, 31, believes the best is yet to come.

“I think the digital revolution is just taking off,” he said.

Indeed, ACM’s Composer Alive program shows how sophisticated online collaboration can be.

This year’s collaboration with Brooklyn-based composer Ben Vida uses pre-recorded tape sounds in his works that the ACM musicians must figure out how to imitate.

“The sounds make for an immersive, hypnotic listening experience and, for the musicians, kind of a game to try to tell what the heck is going on,” Boustead said.

David Keller, a composer and cellist who frequently works with ACM to perform composers’ works, said the chance to hear one’s music performed live is invaluable.

“Each instrument is different and has different abilities and limitations,” said Keller, 33, who holds bachelor’s degrees in general music and music education. The live performances can give a sense of that, showing what the work really sounds like.”

Frank J. Oteri, senior editor at webzine, said the classical music community faces an enviable conundrum: At a time when the tools to access music are unparalleled, more music is being created than at any time in human history.

“Maybe it’s too easy to hear, including people who download music illegally, and we forget it’s something of value and takes time to make, write and perform,” he said.

Yet the real value in ACM’s efforts to introduce creative work to the public lets people see that we’re all capable of being creative.

“When the music you just heard was written by your neighbor who you see at the grocery store, it sends the message: This is something we all do. Perhaps not everyone will write a symphony, but it offers an impulse for creativity,” Oteri said. “In a democracy, you want people engaged, informed and connected to each other. It’s about listening to music, not just creating it; it’s about reading a novel, not just writing it. It makes us richer people and better citizens.”

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