Last Friday night, the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra performed their concert at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

I thought I had an idea of what I was going to listen to. I had no clue.

The concert was part of the fifth Northwestern University New-Music Conference, "NUNC! 5" for short.

NUNC! is all about showcasing modern music, leaving Beethoveen, Mozart and many other classical musicians behind. NUNC! is a new way of both creating and experiencing music, as evident in the symphony’s performances.

The first piece they performed was already unsettling. "Nautilus" was composed in 2011 by Anna Meredith. According to the performance's program, the inspiration came to her “whilst stomping along a beach in Scotland.” It's a piece filled with dramatic and dissonant noises, and the fluorescent purple lighting added to the disquieting effect of the music.

As the percussionist played, a spotlight shone on them, casting a large and menacing shadow. (Photo courtesy of Hannah Zhou / North by Northwestern).

One piece is an anomaly, but two pieces is a pattern. When the second piece "Harmonium #1" began, the audience realized they would not be hearing any harmonious chords and melodies.

"Harmonium #1," composed by James Tenney in 1976, ebbs and flows between consonance and dissonance as the first semi-circle of players slide from note to note. The rest of the orchestra sits silent, still as the piece flows without a conductor. Unlike classical music, there is no climax. It simply gives space to the audience to feel.

Perhaps for people who are attentionally-challenged (like I am), it may have been pointless or even impatience-inducing. Yet I slowly became captured into this space. Sitting in the dark, with only the lamps on the music stands glowing, the atmosphere was reminiscent of a worship space. I felt like I was at church. But high. It was as if my reality was distorting and reverting as the music teased the audience, oscillating in and out of harmony.

The eerie glowing lights amidst the cover of blue. (Photo courtesy of Hannah Zhou / North by Northwestern)

The audience received a little blast from the past when the percussionist pulled out washboards, a tool designed for hand-washing clothing. "Fountain of Youth," composed by Julia Wolfe in 2019, led the audience “towards a delightfully ‘gritty’ nucleus of a spring of eternal youth,” according to the performance’s program.  

The looming shadows of the percussionists scraping the washboards, echoing the lighting from “Nautilus.” (Photo courtesy of Hannah Zhou / North by Northwestern). 

The music brought the audience into a jungle world with the wheezing and trumpeting of the brass instruments. There was a sense of chaos and lack of direction as all the instruments frantically created sounds. The harsh sounds of the washboard have no pitch – simply scraping.

Before the last piece, there was an onstage conversation between the conductor Alan Pierson with Julia Wolfe, the composer of "Fountain of Youth." She described the complexity of writing music for sociopolitical change.

“Music can’t change the world. Music won't lower the price of bread. Music won't give people the right to vote,” Wolfe said. “You can't change everything, but you can start a conversation.”

No matter what the true power of music is, the last piece may have been the most perturbing.

"Sinfonia" is a piece with five movements composed by Luciano Berio. It included vocalists reading “quotes and references to composers of Berio’s past and present,” according to the performance’s program.

The lips of the vocalist moved rapidly, yet the speech was almost completely unintelligible (or it was just in French). It was like watching a musical, but the voices were not the spotlight. The words were metafictional, mentioning the composer of the prior piece. Thankfully, the stretches of cacophony were occasionally broken up with actual singing.

I left that night having a much greater appreciation for classical music and how structured and harmonious it sounds. Yet, albeit disturbing, classical music has never left such a great impact on me.