'Try something new' at annual I/O Fest

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Beginning Thursday, new music enthusiasts can welcome in the New Year at Williams College's annual I/O Fest. Four days of contemporary concerts at on-campus '62 Center and nearby Clark Art Institute are offered free of charge, no tickets required.

An slate of boundary-pushing works by established and emerging composers includes several premieres, with selections ranging from soaring choral voices to solo piano and electronically chopped-up rhythms.

Now in its 10th season, the festival has grown from modest roots. In 2010, the Music Department was offered use of '62 Center's CenterStage during January Winter Study, when students focus on one subject for a month. Faculty members Matthew Gold, David Kechley and the late Steven Bodner chose to program a new music concert.

"There wasn't a lot of contemporary instrumental music [then]," recalled Gold, festival director and Artist in Residence in Percussion & Contemporary Music Performance at Williams.

Nowadays, Gold said, students willingly embrace new music, many for the first time, and almost the entire student body of the music department participates in I/O Fest.

"They can try new things and different ways of making music," Gold said. "There are a lot of other skills being asked of musicians today."

Inspired by one of Gold's favorite pieces, composer Lois V Vierk's "Io," the name I/O stands for "Input/Output."

"This is what we do as musicians," he said. "We absorb everything around us, the music on the page and in the culture, things we hear, and turn it into something. Then we go on stage and send it back out, transformed."

I/O Fest bills itself as "an immersive tour through a world of new sounds and adventurous music, with a focus on cutting edge composition and unconventional modes of performance."

"At its core, it's a vehicle for new voices to be heard, new works to be created, for audiences to experience new things," Gold said.

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While Gold champions percussive pieces — an ever-expanding landscape of brass disks, wooden marimbas, tuned flower pots and a miniature drum set on a sheet of paper — I/O Fest showcases instruments from strings to flute, performed by faculty, students and visiting artists.

Brooklyn-based guest trio Bearthoven opens the festival on Thursday. With Bang On A Can connections, pianist Karl Larson, bassist Pat Swoboda and percussionist Matt Evans are no strangers to the Berkshires. Their playing "reaches beyond the boundaries of classical music into jazz, hip-hop and other things," Gold said, with chamber music skills "like watching three people read each other's minds; they were so deeply connected."

Bearthoven will perform two large-scale works written for them — the U.S. premiere of "Spectral Malsconcities" by Sarah Hennies, and a three-part piece by Scott Wollschleger — then stay for a late night session with Chamber Orchestra of Williams and Williams Percussion Ensemble (WiPE). A reception between programs features violin divertissements performed by composer-in-residence Sato Matsui.

Friday features I/O Ensemble, a faculty "house band" that has endured since debuting at the first festival, Gold said. Guests include pianist Daniel Schreiner and composer Matsui, both 2014 alumni who offer "a lot of opportunity for interaction and inspiration for the students," Gold said.

In recent years, Gold has seen festival programming increasingly address social and political issues. On Saturday, Leonard Bopp '19 will conduct the student IOTA Ensemble in Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw's "To The Hands," a meditation on suffering and refuge featuring 12 voices and 10 strings. The concert includes compositions by Matsui and students, including Bopp's setting of Shakespeare sonnets for soprano and percussion.

As student director for the second year, Bopp programs and organizes Saturday's concert, and participates as trumpeter, conductor and composer throughout the festival.

Being invited by Gold to conduct at I/O Fest two years ago "opened up this whole other world of contemporary music to me," Bopp recalled. "The diversity of music has really been eye-opening, I'm constantly exposed to new things."

His experience inspired him to found Blackbox Ensemble, a contemporary performance collective in New York City addressing critical cultural engagement through creative work. "It's really an outgrowth of the work I did for I/O," he said.

Sunday's programming at the Clark includes an interactive Family Concert where kids explore the world of sound and rhythm and hear young Kids 4 Harmony string players. Another concert follows with music for string quartet, percussion and electronics by Tristan Perich, performed by student ensembles Axxea Quartet and WiPE.

Gold sees I/O Fest as offering an open, inviting and exciting environment, with music that is serious, fun and often both.

"It's an opportunity to try something new and really be immersed in it," he said.


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