GV musicians play national parks

The New Music Ensemble of Grand Valley State University play commissioned compositions at the National Parks that inspired them.



Autumn Pitchure, Staff Reporter

For most college level musicians, performing means playing in their hometowns. But for some Grand Valley State University musicians, it means playing music in National Parks across the entire country.

The New Music Ensemble is polishing off their commercial CD featuring commissioned works that represent the attitude and beauty of national parks. The group strives to touch the lives of others through their contemporary classical music everywhere they go. 

“We’ve been working on this project since 2014 where we ask composers to write for a specific park,” said Ensemble Director and Grand Valley Professor Bill Ryan. “Then we go to the park to play the music that inspired it. There will be 11 total compositions from Arches, Capitol Reef, Wind Cave, Badlands, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks,”

Their commercial CD, titled Dawn Forest, releases April 24, 2020. It showcases a collection of music that The New Music Ensemble has commissioned and played in the 14 national parks they have traveled to. The music on the CD reflects the immense diversity of the parks while capturing their breathtaking landscapes and nature.

Ryan started The New Music Ensemble in 2006 with a vision for students to achieve more with their musical experience at GVSU. The ensemble is an undergraduate classical chamber ensemble that is dedicated to leaving an impact through music. The group promotes contemporary classical music through commissions, tours, recordings, collaborations, outreach events and workshops. 

“I am a composer myself and advocate for new contemporary music,” Ryan said. “We have student compositions that we play as well as new professional pieces that are being written for us by composers. We didn’t have anything like that in place when I was hired. I wanted to start something where we would have a vehicle in place and to bring in composers and play students new compositions.”

The ensemble not only gives students the opportunity to advance as musicians, but encourages them to be creative, display their passion for music and prepare them for a future in the musical field.

“I think it’s a unique opportunity for students to present new music that has never been presented before,” Ryan said. “You don’t get that opportunity a lot with classical music.”

Students are able to work directly with the commissioned composer that wrote the pieces specifically for each instrument. This gives students insight to the direction in how each part is played. It also allows students to understand the emotion and meaning the composer wants the audience to take away from the piece.

“I tell the composers the instruments and they write for them,” Ryan said. “If they are local, they will come in with rough drafts and performance material to work with the students on.” 

Through fundraising, donations and grants, The New Music Ensemble has been able to showcase their music to a wide variety of people across the country. They have performed in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New York and so many other fascinating venue’s.

The New Music Ensemble is no group of amateurs when it comes to dynamics, technique and skill level as they now play on a national level and are quickly being recognized for their hard work. One of their biggest accomplishments was receiving the $4,000 New Music USA grant in July to help cover the costs associated with having the CD professionally mastered for commercial release. This is the second New Music USA Project Grant they have received.

“Historically, our recordings have gotten a lot of attention on the national level, and we are very excited about this award,” Ryan said.

The grant isn’t the only way the group has been recognized for their talent and outreach. The New Music Ensemble has been profiled in numerous publications including The New York Times and Billboard Magazine. They have also been featured in WNYC’s Radiolab and have released four critically acclaimed recordings named to year-end best release lists by the New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post, The LA Weekly, Time Out Chicago and many others. Their recordings have appeared in film and television shows on MTV, Showtime, at over 75 film festivals around the world.

The New Music Ensemble has also completed five tours: The Mid-Atlantic in 2011, National Parks in (2014, 2016, 2018) and Midwest in 2016. Ryan says the group is going to continue to travel and share music.

The commercial CD being released this spring is a huge way the ensemble is connecting with others. The CD will be available everywhere and is a way people can experience the journey The New Music Ensemble has crafted.