Ensemble 48: New music from Butler 

Ensemble 48, a new music group independently created by Butler graduate music students in 2007, has performed pieces by ensemble members, engaged in improvised “flash mob”-style happenings and tackled a piece or two from the contemporary classical repertoire, but they’ve haven’t yet accompanied a silent film. Until this Friday. Show up early for popcorn — or if you’re late, bring your own to pop in provided microwaves — and sit back for modern accompaniment to Dziga Vertov’s 1929 experimental paean to the workers of the world, Man with a Movie Camera, a film that employs the whole slate of camera and editing room trickery to glorify the industrial process and the life of a city.

Ensemble member Scott Comanzo compares Man with a Movie Camera’s collage documentary style to the three films on which director Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass collaborated — Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi — and says that he thought the film was perfect for the group, as well as more widely available than some other silent classics they had considered (Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Sjostrom’s The Wind).

While a press release suggests that Ensemble 48’s accompaniment will be “entirely improvised,” Comanzo says that plenty of preparation will inform whatever spontaneous ideas they come up with at the performance; repeated viewings of the film — in complete silence, and without soundtracks prepared by other ensembles for video release that Comanzo and other group members think inadequate — will allow the band to come up with a skeleton for the performance, a “failsafe backup,” according to Comanzo.

The group came together in Fall 2007, when a group of students meeting for the first time at a welcome barbecue for music grad students realized that a required class would keep them from being in the Composer’s Orchestra, the Butler new music ensemble. Since then, they’ve performed pieces composed by every member of the group, less one — some mostly improvised, others in a free jazz idiom, one written in a style that deconstructed a typical page of music (lines of music break from their traditional rigid horizontal structure to fork and curve all over the page, forcing the musician to choose what line of music to follow). At the close of each show, the band typically performs a pop tune that bears the name of a member of the band: Beck’s “Debra,” The Dead Milkmen’s “Stuart,” KISS’s “Beth.” Keeping with that tradition, after Man with a Movie Camera, the band will perform Issac Hayes’s “Shaft” (in tribute to the late musician, not because anyone in the band is named Shaft).

Off-stage, the group organized an April Fool’s homage to a stunt first pulled by the New York City-based Improv Everywhere, playing an identical 5-minute scene over and over again through the course of an hour in a public space, with each group member repeating the same behavior and dialogue in each 5-minute increment. (During one five-minute period, one person might talk loudly on a cell phone, another might purchase a bagel and then drop the plate, another might run to catch a bus; then all players repeat the same behaviors five minutes later.) While Improv Everywhere performed the scene in a Starbucks, Ensemble 48 chose a location more familiar to Butler students: the C Club, a sort of coffeeshop and convenience store on the Butler campus. While double-takes abounded during the Improv Everywhere happening, Comanzo says he sensed a “palpable apathy” during the Ensemble 48 performance: a couple professors and staff members noticed, and certainly café employees picked up on the patterns, but students either didn’t stay long enough, didn’t care enough or didn’t have sharp enough senses to pick up on the feedback loop in their immediate environment.

Comanzo says faculty members have told him that Ensemble 48 is the first student-led, independent new music group created on the Butler campus. And while the group may disband after this year — all members except one are graduating — Comanzo says that they are looking for ways to make a living as a new music ensemble, either by joining up with an already established group in Chicago, or seeking out grants and like-minded ensembles (he mentions Orkestra Projekt) in Indianapolis.

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