Present Music – Kevin Stalheim Interview

Kevin Stalheim (photo: Joo Photography)

Christian Morris talks to Kevin Stalheim, Artistic Director of Present Music, one of the leading contemporary music ensembles in the U.S. with a reputation for creating provocative experiences through performance, education and commissioning.

Tell us a little about the founding of Present Music.

It started out of a powerful motivation: boredom at graduate school. I wanted to do some ‘real’ concerts, not just conduct recordings or piano players so I started organizing concerts. At first we did music from all periods. We were called the very generic ‘Milwaukee Music Ensemble’. It was only after several years that I decided to perform all contemporary music. This came about as a result of a lot of research for programming an all-new American music concert. The criteria for an NEA grant encouraged me to do all-new American music. I was really surprised by the changes in new music from my college years at Oberlin from 1972-1976. There was a whole world of new music that I didn’t know about and it was really exciting to discover.  

So we changed the name to ‘Present Music’ and focused on living composers and never looked back.

How would you sum up its artistic mission? 

We are community based – not touring based. We engage our community in new music experiences and appeal to an unusually large and diverse audience. Our vision is to be a model of how to do this in communities that are not culturally famous hot spots like New York, San Francisco, or L.A. Colleagues from around the country often tell me how amazed they are that we get such a big audience in a place like Milwaukee.

We achieve this not only by collaborating with other arts groups but by working with community organizations outside of the arts. Our concerts have themes that lead to interesting concert settings like the zoo, an empty swimming pool, a cathedral, the art museum, clubs, homes, and sculpture gardens.
For example, the theme of water led to a concert on the river with pre-concert activities like boat races, a puppet parade, visual art displays, and the audience singing along while the musicians arrived by boat. We received support from water technology companies, the universities water science institute, and environmental organizations. The support from these non-arts organizations not only led to funding but to a much larger audience.

We engage the community in music composition in schools and community centres with our “Creation Project”. This is done at all levels and ages: from those that can’t perform or read music to very advanced high school students, and from children in elementary school to people in elderly care facilities. We believe that engaging community members in composition fills a void in music education where the emphasis is on re-creating music rather than creating it.

We create a lot of excitement by commissioning new work. We are bold about how we market premières and all of our activities by embracing adventure, surprise, and discovery rather than the all too common method of presenting music that people can “count on’. Predictability can lead to boredom. I feel that we need to be leaders in programming a variety of music that balances both satisfying and challenging the audience. There are plenty of organizations that do old music that try to just satisfy the audience with the predictable. But in our field of new music there are also plenty of organizations that just try to challenge the audience. If you want to develop a large and diverse audience as we do, it is important to know your audience and realize that the main thing you are trying to do is communicate with them. You can’t constantly challenge them with things they don’t understand or like. It’s like teaching. You need to know your student in order to lead them to knowledge and discovery. 

Tell us a little about your role as Artistic Director.

As a typical founder I did just about everything at first. We have grown to the point now where most of my time is spent doing research, programming, selecting artists and musicians, and engaging with the community. 

You’ve made a special mission of recording the music of Henry Brant. Do you see him as a neglected figure? 

I have the fondest memories of working with Henry. His contribution to music, especially spatial music, is enormous. It’s great to see recent successful spatial music like that of John Luther Adams. Henry was the pioneer and we owe him a lot. I think his spatial music was far ahead of its time. I think spatial music is destined to become more and more important and prevalent. And I think and hope that Henry’s music will be part of that growth. 

Any memorable collaborations with composers?

Our deepest relation with a composer is with Kamran Ince. We have commissioned many works from him and he has been to Milwaukee many times to perform and conduct his music. We have toured in Turkey with Kamran and recorded a substantial amount of his music. There is really nothing like being able to work closely with a composer to develop new work and we are fortunate to have such a strong relationship with Kamran. 

What is the most provocative or thought-provoking concert you’ve put on? 

I think our ‘Water concert’ was one of the most thought provoking concerts we have done. Milwaukee has become an important centre internationally for water technology and research. Bringing together people that love the arts with people that are involved in business, technology and conservation was powerful. Exposing the water ‘experts’ in the audience to new music was a fresh way for these people to think and feel about water. Exposing the music people in the audience to current knowledge about one of our most valuable resources was enlightening.

What projects are you working on now? 

Our biggest project this year is called “Compose Milwaukee’. Throughout the year we will be working with organizations such as businesses, schools, community centres and elderly care facilities to have amateurs explore music composition. In addition to education, this project will inspire amateurs and professionals by placing amateur composers and performers alongside professional composers and performers. We believe that this project has enormous potential to build and strengthen our new music community in Milwaukee. 

What excites you about a new composer’s work?

Bold vision that yields a new voice 

And what puts you off?

Music that is merely derivative. 

Tell us about your next concert.

Our next concert is unique in that it is the first time we have programmed the music of only one composer. The composer is Kamran Ince and will feature three American premieres. I think that this single composer concert will work because Kamran’s music has the unusual combination of a bold vision AND variety. 

Looking ahead, what plans do you have for Future Music?

Simply put, we plan to deepen our connection with our community by building on our current relationships and by creating new relationships. This vision requires imagination and hard work and should provide us with plenty of challenges for years to come.

For more information about Present Music, please visit:

Originally posted at Composition:Today ©Red Balloon Technology