- International Contemporary Ensemble is a music collective that honors the diversity of human experience.
- By fostering an inclusive community of creative leaders, composers and performers, the ensemble builds trust with artists and inspires groundbreaking art.
- Though the landscape has changed in the past few years, the ensemble is excited to continue uplifting emerging artists both in-person and virtually.
The International Contemporary Ensemble is a boundary-breaking, forward-thinking contemporary music ensemble that’s deeply committed to equity and inclusion. The ensemble challenges the status quo in the new music scene by commissioning, developing and performing works by living artists — particularly those whose cultural identities have not historically been represented on the world’s stages.
Now in its 20th anniversary year, the ensemble is taking stock of its trailblazing past, adapting to today’s changing cultural landscape and planning for the decades ahead. First Republic spoke with members of the ensemble’s administration about their dedication to equity and inclusion, how the ensemble has navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, and the future of new music.
Photo by Ian Douglas for NYU Skirball. International Contemporary Ensemble, Henry Threadgill, and Zooid on December 3, 2022.
A commitment to equity in the arts
The ensemble’s commitment to equity drives its creative decision-making at every level. Executive Director Jennifer Kessler says, “We are trying to transform the artistic community — whose stories are being told, who is performing and who makes decisions about what gets performed.”
The ensemble helps emerging artists tell their stories by commissioning and collaborating on exciting new works, supporting student composers and offering innovative programs to lift up new voices — for instance:
The Afro-Diasporic Opera Forum (May 26–28, 2021) was a three-day series of events focusing on three operas centered on different stories of Black experiences and a forum for experts and audiences to discuss modern opera.
The “Call for ______” Commission Program supports the creation of original works from emerging composers, musicians and sound artists from all backgrounds.
Luna Composition Lab, which has an ongoing partnership with the ensemble, is a program that provides mentorship and performance opportunities to young composers who identify as female, nonbinary or gender nonconforming.
Ensemble Evolution is a hybrid intensive program with The New School’s College of Performing Arts to support pre-professional composer-performer student composers.
The ensemble recently welcomed its first Black Artistic Director, George E. Lewis. A renowned musician, composer and scholar, Lewis aims to redefine a new identity for world music — and is bringing his vision to fruition by supporting 50 underrepresented artists who are new to the ensemble.
By fostering an inclusive community of creative leaders, composers and performers, the ensemble builds trust with artists — which in turn fuels collaboration, experimentation and risk-taking. Bridgid Bergin, the ensemble’s Producer & Communications Director, notes that collaboration and experimentation are central to the musicians’ process: “Composers commissioned by the ensemble are not writing for the musicians — they write with the musicians. There is an openness to explore and experiment together that’s really special and rare.”
In addition to promoting equity and inclusion within the organization’s decision-makers and artists, the ensemble invests in relationships with partners who share these values. “We are committed to our mission, as are our presenters and funders, which is really inspiring,” says Kessler. “I am hopeful when I see partners like First Republic Bank investing in organizations like ours.”
Adapting programming during the COVID-19 pandemic
Arts and cultural institutions were particularly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In New York City, where the ensemble is based, a vast majority of arts organizations had to cancel or modify their programming. Organizations saw a dip in revenue from loss of ticket sales or other funding issues. In addition, artists seeking employment were met with far fewer opportunities and faced longer bouts of unemployment.
During this difficult time, the ensemble continued to provide opportunities for musicians. Thanks to its media team’s experience building and maintaining an extensive digital library of new music performances, called Digitice, the organization was well positioned to expand into the digital space. In the early months of the pandemic, it invested in more video and audio equipment, shifted performances online and used technology to connect performers with audiences around the globe.
The organization's leaders are hopeful that virtual performances can continue in 2023 — and they're also seeing an increase in artists interested in exploring work specifically made for virtual spaces. “It’s interesting how the pandemic is affecting what media artists want to explore,” notes Bergin.
The need for sustainable funding for the arts
The pandemic had a complex effect on funding for arts and culture: While charitable giving to the arts dropped considerably in 2020, many arts organizations were initially bolstered by pandemic relief programs that have since expired. This has presented new fundraising challenges to organizations like the ensemble and its nonprofit partners.
To continue to support innovative work, Kessler advocates for more sustainable funding models for the arts. “We would not have been able to survive, let alone take risks, if it were not for supporters who got behind us during the pandemic,” she says. “My hope is that as the arts ecosystem recovers, there will be more opportunities for foundations, government entities, individuals and corporations to invest more in the performing arts. I encourage organizations to think expansively about where there might be new resources available, such as through estate planning/planned giving, or marketing budgets at corporations. I’d greatly encourage anyone in a funding position to support the performing arts and contribute to a more thought-provoking, hopeful, connected, beautiful world. Even a small amount goes a long way, especially when that contribution is committed for multiple years.”
A forward-thinking vision for the future
After 20 years of challenging the status quo, the ensemble is looking forward to redefining how we experience music. Lewis, who has been instrumental in amplifying voices of the African diaspora, takes an even more universal perspective and defines this era of music as the “polyaspora” — leaving the usual labels and genres behind and striving to discover music that has yet to be heard.
Kessler is excited about embracing Lewis’ idea of a “polyasporic” future in new music. She has high hopes that the ensemble will continue to diversify its roster of collaborators, support emerging artists and play new works all over the world. She says, “We are driven by shifting what gets performed on the world stage — not just for a season, but forever.”
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