The Sound Ensemble: A crucible for new ideas in music

In Nature’s Realm
Saturday, October 29, 2016 @ 7:00 pm
The Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center, Seattle

“One of the best parts of going to concerts is having the freedom to disagree,” Bobby Collins tells me over coffee at Ada’s in Capitol Hill. “When I go see a live performance, I’m simultaneously enjoying and critiquing it, thinking things like, ‘That was interesting. I might have done it differently, but it works.’ We’ve all been to concerts where you go and the whole thing washes over you. But nothing challenged you or changed in you, and you forget about it the next day. That’s not what I’m interested in creating. I’m interested in creating immersive experiences of art.”

Bobby is the conductor and co-founder of The Sound Ensemble, a self-governed group of professional musicians seeking to “break down the expectations of the traditional concert hall and provide transformative musical experiences.” He also enjoys a good triple entendre: “[W]e create sound, we’re based near Puget Sound, and we’re a sound investment.” He says he likes to use the word “sound” – rather than a specific genre – when describing the product of the ensemble, in order to avoid labeling the many kinds of music they perform.

(Photo courtesy of The Sound Ensemble)
(Photo courtesy of The Sound Ensemble)

In 2015, Bobby connected with his former high school classmate and tubist Jameson Bratcher over the great experimental and community-building properties of music. They discussed what they could do to bring this into Seattle communities and formed The Sound Ensemble. Bobby sees great potential in the group, formed in August 2015 and now in its first full season, as a crucible for new ideas in music, and works to “bridge the gap between old and new music.”

As for being a sound investment, Bobby cites the ensemble’s 10-member core group of seasoned professional performers. His 10-year plan for the ensemble includes expansion to a sufficient size for orchestral performances (35-45 members), development of programs on Seattle’s east side, and steady wages for its members.

Predisposed to classical music, Bobby did not immediately take to contemporary forms and structures. “I had to get over an ‘Oh, that’s weird’ factor and see the beauty in [more textural soundscapes]. Although I love a good melody, I have always been drawn to dissonant music, and music that communicates powerful images or emotions,” he says. “When I encounter a piece I don’t understand, I want to take it apart until I figure it out. In entering into the world of contemporary music over the last five or six years, I have found a diverse palette of techniques that become powerful expressive tools in the hands of skilled composers. I am continually inspired and challenged as I learn how to harness those tools as a conductor and help realize their full potential.”


Great music prepares us to engage with those around us, those who are different from us.


As a child, Bobby was gripped by the idea of experiencing life through the perspectives of others. “I heard Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony when I was in a youth orchestra. I was immediately drawn in, and experienced emotions I could not have had otherwise,” he tells me, adding that great music challenges people to have experiences outside of themselves. “It prepares us to engage with those around us, those who are different from us.” Now, he is the enthusiastic and selective curator of The Sound Ensemble’s programs.

The Sound Ensemble’s next performance, In Nature’s Realm, pays homage to the eponymous Dvořák overture. Each piece in the program was inspired by nature, and allows us to explore nature through the minds of each composer. Also on the program: John Teske’s susurrus, Greg Dixon’s Cedar Forest, John Cage’s Litany for the Whale, John Luther Adams’ songbirdsongs, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Hrim.

Bobby plans on doing the entire 25 minutes of John Cage’s Litany for the Whale and is excited to perform Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Hrim; Anna inspired the theme for this concert when speaking on the podcast Meet the Composer.

“A concert is essentially a listening party,” Bobby says, and this is particularly true in the case of Greg Dixon’s Cedar Forest, in which a track is played through a sound system with a video accompaniment, without live performers on stage.

Another multimedia element will be introduced at their January concert, when the ensemble is joined by accelerometers for Marcin Paczkowski’s Deep Decline.

One of the cornerstones of Bobby’s vision for The Sound Ensemble is accessibility in terms of music, location, and cost. It is important to him that audiences be able to come and have their own experiences with this music. With help from donors, the ensemble has been able to keep ticket prices low: $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and students, and $5 for youth symphony members.

The low price point for members of youth symphonies comes from conversations between Bobby and other musicians, in which they realized why they hadn’t gone to concerts when they were young: there was a real or perceived inaccessibility to those concerts. He aims to mitigate that perception – and reality – and provide quick-moving, engaging experiences for kids.

Further opening up channels of accessibility, Bobby tells me about The Sound Ensemble’s equally well-punned happy hour event, The Buzz. Ensemble members, composers, and audience members will have a chance to meet and mingle over a drink and some bar food.

“Ultimately,” he says, “we want to connect with the community and let them know that we’re just people who want to share some really cool stuff with them.” Agree, disagree, be transformed, or remain unmoved – whatever your experience, The Sound Ensemble wants to connect with you.

The Sound Ensemble will perform on Saturday, October 29, 2016 @ 7:00 pm at The Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center. Full program and details are here.

BrendanHoweOakland native Brendan Howe grew up surrounded by music and has been performing since the age of six. He has been listening to a lot of Tom Waits, Sviatoslav Richter, and Kate Bush lately.