By Hans Thomalla
Director, Institute for New Music

New music has played an important role at Northwestern University for many years. From the long list of alumni who have become leaders in the field to the school’s ties to Chicago’s contemporary music scene, and from the distinguished collection of contemporary music at University Libraries to the establishment of the Nemmers Prize in Music Composition, Northwestern has long supported the music of our time.

Established by Bienen School dean Toni-Marie Montgomery in fall 2012 as a cornerstone of the school’s strategic plan, the Institute for New Music has strengthened and increased our new-music activities and become a center for those activities on campus, distinguishing the school as a leading American institution for contemporary music.

The three focus areas defined at the institute’s founding still hold true today. First, it invites leading performers and composers in the field to work with students and faculty. The Nemmers Prize plays a central role, bringing John Adams, Kaija Saariaho, Oliver Knussen, and other important composers of today to campus for residencies. The institute also hosts numerous contemporary-music composers, performers, and scholars each quarter, providing invaluable opportunities for students from all areas of the school to engage with leaders in the field.

A second focus area is the school’s Contemporary Music Ensemble (CME), which provides a wide range of performance experiences for students and has presented many notable concerts. Memorable performances include the now legendary concert featuring Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, the ensemble’s participation at two Chicago Ear Taxi Festivals, a collaboration with Jennifer Walshe on her experimental score Hygiene, and the performance of Helmut Lachenmann’s Mouvement—one of the most demanding pieces written in recent decades. Without a doubt, CME has grown into an excellent ensemble that performs some of the most challenging scores of our time.

The institute’s third focus is the large-scale conference and festival NUNC! Every two years, Northwestern’s campus turns into a new-music nerve center, presenting current developments in composition, performance, and scholarship. Through calls for scores, performances, and presentations, an entire generation of new-music enthusiasts from all areas of our field has participated in the conference, as have Bienen students and faculty. NUNC! has brought numerous guest artists and scholars to campus in its five iterations, including Brian Ferneyhough, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Julia Wolfe, Claire Chase, Ted Hearne, the Jack Quartet, Ensemble Dal Niente, Third Coast Percussion, and the Arditti Quartet.

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Institute Highlights


Sō Percussion headlines the John Cage Festival with a performance in Deering Library


John Luther Adams’s "Sila" is performed at the Ryan Center dedication


Donald Nally leads a performance during NUNC! 2


CME, BCE and several other students and faculty participate in the inaugural Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago


Artist-in-residence Claire Chase presents a Bienen recital


Alan Pierson conducts CME and NUSO in Chicago’s Millennium Park


Nemmers Prize winner Steve Reich speaks with students


Northwestern Opera Theater presents David T. Little’s "Dog Days"


The Bienen choral ensembles present a socially distanced world premiere of “Eclipse” along the lake


NUNC! 5 guest composer Julia Wolfe speaks on stage with Ben Bolter


Institute Director Hans Thomalla welcomes guests to NUNC! 5

Behind these many activities lies an understanding of new music that is based on the idea of fostering collaboration. It has become clear that artists—at least in the field of music—can no longer rely solely on their own practice but must work with others to address today’s artistic questions. The long-lasting collaboration of students and faculty from different areas of the Bienen School that the institute has initiated is, for me, our most important success story. None of this would have been possible without the people who have supported this endeavor from the beginning: my codirector in the first two years, Timothy McAllister; the codirectors of CME, Alan Pierson and Ben Bolter; the composition faculty; numerous other faculty members who have lent their support, including Donald Nally, Taimur Sullivan, Ryan Dohoney, Joachim Schamberger, and She-e Wu; institute assistant Chelsea Lyons and her predecessors; and director of concert management Jerry Tietz and the Concerts at Bienen staff.

As I reflect on the past 10 years of the institute and prepare to step down as director at the end of the academic year, I am proud of the many graduate and undergraduate students who have filled the institute with their musicianship, creativity, and artistic spirit. Thanks to a new endowment by a generous donor, the Bienen School will continue to expand the important work of the Institute for New Music for years to come. I look forward to the next decade and beyond of new-music collaboration and innovation at Northwestern.

  • Institute For New Music
  • Hans Thomalla
  • Nemmers Prize
  • composition
  • NUNC!
  • Alan Pierson
  • Ben Bolter
  • Donald Nally
  • Ryan Dohoney
  • Joachim Schamberger
  • She-e Wu