Nebula Ensemble Is Shaping the Future of Classical Music

Nebula Ensemble performs on Friday, April 27.
Courtesy of Nebula Ensemble
Nebula Ensemble performs on Friday, April 27.

At a Nebula Ensemble concert a few years ago, the forward-thinking chamber group had a different audience-participation prompt for every piece. “Audience members were invited to come on the stage,” says Sarah Perske, a composer and guitarist with Nebula Ensemble and its public-relations director. “They could sit on the floor; they could stand in the aisle. Just any sort of configuration that wasn’t the normal just-sit-in-your-chair-and-be-quiet sort of format. We were just trying to get people to feel comfortable sort of moving through the space."

Other prompts? "We asked people to applaud not using their hands — to do something vocally or something that wasn’t the usual applause to interact with the piece and show their approval or disapproval.”

Another Nebula Ensemble concert was organized in an art-gallery format. “We held a photo competition for photos of Colorado, because the music was all based on themes of Colorado landscapes," she says. "We had the photos up on display around the concert hall, and the audience was supposed to sort of move around through the concert hall and vote on their favorite photo.”

These are just a few examples of what the group is doing to make concerts out-of-the-ordinary experiences. Perske says the focus of Nebula Ensemble, which comprises alumni from the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, is on cross-disciplinary and cross-genre music. “We’re a classical group, but we’re all very interested in kind of breaking down some of those genre boundaries."

“We kind of have the philosophy that music is music,” she explains. “So we do it all, and we’re really into collaborating with filmmakers, dancers, artists and just trying to get a total experience.”

On Friday, April 27, the ensemble will give another adventurous performance at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church that delves into improvisation, storytelling and film. The concert will include a live performance by Denver-based sound painter Evan Mazunik.

“The sound painter is kind of a combination of conductor and composer,” Perske says. “They use hand gestures to communicate to the performers more or less what they should be doing. So Evan might give us a hand gesture that means to play all long tones, and he might ask for it to be high or low. He might just ask for three people in the group to play it and another person to do something else. But basically, he’s using these gestures in the moment to make decisions about what’s happening musically, and we have to respond to that instantly. Like, 'Okay, Evan just made some kind of hand gesture that means I’m supposed to play a lot of short attacks very high in my range.'”

Perske also wrote a piece for the concert called “The Spectral Cat,” a children’s story about a cat who likes contemporary classical music. It’s kind of a pun, since spectralism is a genre of contemporary classical music.

“There will be a narrator reading the story, and the musicians have a bunch of prompts that they just have to respond to,” Perske says. “So it will say something like ‘cat leaping through a window,’ and they have to react to that and come up with some kind of music to play that goes with that.”

While “The Spectral Cat” has a lot of improvisation, there are also excerpts from composers Tristan Murail, Sofia Gubaidulina, Elliott Carter and Kaija Saariaho that musicians will be playing as written.

“Then elsewhere, they’re instructed to improvise on any of the material from those composed excerpts,” Perske says. “It’s kind of a nice introduction to some of the classics in contemporary music written in the last thirty years or so, but then there’s also quite a bit of free improvisation.”

When DU composition students Nathan Cornelius and Jasper Schmich Kinney founded Nebula Ensemble in 2014, they were thinking of creating their own opportunities, Perske says; they were both writing and performing music but weren’t really finding performance opportunities for the kind of music they wanted to write.

“I think the thinking there was to create their own group that would be dedicated to performing new music of the kind they were interested in,” she says. “So a very diverse, kind of eclectic approach to classical music and genre blending.”

Perske says that a big part of what the ensemble has been doing over the last three years is getting international composers — especially young ones — to write for the group.

“We have connections to people in Europe and around the U.S., just because the composing world tends to be kind of a small world,” Perske says. “I think we’ve performed works by composers from about six or seven different countries at this point that were written specifically for us.”

Nebula Ensemble, 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 27, Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church, 303-779-9909, free.