In the big pond full of big fish that is the New York contemporary classical music scene, the Argento New Music Project, led by composer and conductor Michel Galante, is an unusual and irreplaceable specimen. As artistic director of the ensemble, Galante combines two qualities that rarely go together: An ear for logical and creative curation, and a meticulous rehearsal style that gets the music right down to a 12th of a tone. I mean that literally: Argento has developed a speciality in microtonal and spectral music from Europe and the United States, creating transparent and striking interpretations of works by composers such as Gérard Grisey, Tristan Murail, Giacinto Scelsi, Georg Friedrich Haas, and more. Galante moved to Berlin in 2018, but still works with Argento regularly; we spoke on Zoom, since we had both come down with different flavors of this season’s popular illnesses. 

VAN: The Argento New Music Project is especially well-known for its interpretations of spectral music, and for advocating for that style of contemporary music in New York (and the United States more broadly). How did you first get in touch with spectral music?

Michel Galante: In 2000, I went to the masterclasses at Fontainebleau, France, and [Italian composer] Marco Stroppa did a presentation on Grisey’s “Partiels.” All of a sudden, I felt so liberated and excited about compositional materials. It was a redefinition of parameters: thinking about duration rather than thinking about meters, thinking about frequency instead of thinking about notes, thinking about the relationship between timbre and harmony as being, in some ways, inseparable. Encountering those early works of Grisey’s was a redefinition of music for me.

At that time, I felt the way I could grasp these works was to perform them, to put them together physically. So much of the music was based on the physicality of the sound. And since there were only a few groups doing it, I decided to take the plunge and start a group  that could tackle a lot of these works that had never been played in New York before. It was just sheer excitement; I didn’t have any ambitions to change the scene. I was optimistic about the fact that there was this huge world of composition that seemed unexplored, at least to me. 

In Grisey’s “Périodes,” you have this section where there’s a detuning of the viola; Grisey orchestrates this little strange pantomime between the violinist and violist in which the violinist gets angry at the violist for having disrupted the rehearsal. It’s a little break outside of what we would call the realm of music. According to people like Tristan Murail and Joshua Fineberg, that thing never really seemed to work until New York players did it. Because the New York players could actually ham it up in a way that was a little bit unembarrassed. 

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What did you think of the elements “outside the realm of music”—the pantomime in “Périodes,” the crash cymbal that doesn’t crash between “Partiels” and “Modulations”—when you first started conducting Grisey’s music? 

It’s funny, because the first few times we performed the first three pieces of “Les espaces acoustiques” [“Prologue,” “Périodes,” and “Partiels”], I was a little bit embarrassed by the acting parts. You know, I was a very serious musician. [Laughs.] I was really passionate about the musical materials. I even once had a conversation with Tristan Murail where I said, “Would you object if I cut that section out?” And he said, “No, I wouldn’t.” Of course, he didn’t have the authority. He wasn’t the composer. I never did cut that out, and I’m glad I didn’t.

We did one performance of “Les espaces acoustiques” in New York, and I introduced the piece. As the curator, I was eager for the audience to experience all of the temporal and sonic journeys in this piece. I didn’t want them to get distracted by the shenanigans. So I made a huge mistake. I said to the audience, “These are great masterworks, but they are pieces from the ‘70s. They had a particular naïve approach to theatrical presentation, and so we live with it, but please pay great attention to the music.”

That was a condescending thing to say. I mean, my intentions were good. But afterwards I realized: Who’s to say they didn’t have deeper or wiser insights, or even a more liberated or more adventurous spirit than we have now? And then maybe their quirkiness is something that we shouldn’t scoff at, and we shouldn’t condescend to, but actually should even be liberated by. 

There are a number of works like that from the ‘70s. Another one is Salvatore Sciarrino’s opera “Aspern.” If you read the original Henry James short story, it’s hard to square the libretto with what happens in the short story; in the opera, there are all these strange hermaphrodites that pop out of nowhere, there are all these unexplained events. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s never performed. 

But if you look at the movies of the late ‘60s and the ‘70s—“2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Chinatown,” “The Exorcist,” even funny movies like “Blazing Saddles”—they were doing things that you could never do now. And that taught me, because a lot of what we’re doing is interpreting music from all times… it’s a transgressive experience where you’re trying to actually cross an uncrossable boundary of time and space. When you try to perform something that was written in Norway 150 years ago, that’s a difficult challenge. Working on Grisey’s pieces taught me to be humbler, and to basically suspend my disbelief about other time periods, other locations, even other attitudes. Because who’s to say they don’t know better than I do, or than we do, culturally speaking? 

New York has this whole Uptown vs. Downtown division in music—maybe it’s artificial, but it’s there. Where does spectral music and where does Argento fit into this divide? 

Argento was started in 2000 and incorporated under that name in 2003. Until 2012 or 2013, I was really focused on musical materials. To me, the most idealistic, adventurous, and valuable thing we could do was to explore music, whether it be with electronics, noise, microtonality, or lesser-used instruments or techniques, that would add to the musical discourse, to what’s happening with the materials themselves. That’s generally an exciting starting place. The reaction that I would always be most excited to hear [after a concert] is, “I’ve never heard anything like that.” 

Around 2013 or 2014, the times changed, and I changed: We were no longer exclusively focusing on musical language. The focus [on spectral music and other works dealing specifically with musical materials] took us out of the conversations that were happening in terms of uptown versus downtown. It certainly took me out of that. We weren’t part of that conversation. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. It’s probably bad. Because we could have reached a larger audience had we been more involved in that conversation, but we weren’t.

What changed around 2013–2014? 

There were a number of intrinsic contemporary music problems, that we’d learned to live with—like we’ve learned to live with the inevitability of global warming—but they’re still really big problems. One of them is that the experience of doing a premiere and playing a new piece just once, especially if it’s difficult, can be soul crushing for the performers. It’s very difficult to grow as a performer when you play something once, because it’s such a success to get through it and to present a composer’s work in a way that they’re happy with, that you don’t really have perspective. When you have a second performance, you’re less afraid of destroying a composer’s work by making mistakes. You can be a little bit freer and more creative in your performance. This was something that concerned me a lot. 

And the other thing was, I wanted to reach a wider audience. There is still a large divide between classical music audiences and contemporary music audiences. Contemporary music audiences want something new: They want the adventure of hearing a new voice or having a new experience. I should say “us” because I’m one of them. Adventurous moviegoers or readers are also like that. But classical music audiences largely know what they like, and like what they know. 

I’ve always wanted to pay close attention to this, for a number of reasons. One is that the ability to cross the threshold of another time and place will also help us cross the threshold into someone else’s world, even someone who is in our own time and place. Practically speaking, there’s a paradigm of a stage and an audience, and a listening experience, which to many non-Western cultures might be considered artificial. We go into a hall, we sit in these chairs, we don’t move or dance. We’re accepting this written score by a composer that needs to be presented in a quiet space. Despite the boundary between classical music audiences and contemporary music audiences, we could build a larger contemporary music audience if we somehow incorporated classical music audiences into the experience, because the listening paradigm is the same. 

This is important to note, because it’s not a normal listening paradigm for most people in 2022. Most people listen to music through headphones or loudspeakers. We don’t listen to live music very often at all, certainly not comparatively. And then, how often do we listen to a record from beginning to end? I’ll bet that happens much less frequently than it used to. Classical music audiences, contemporary music audiences, and also jazz audiences share the listening paradigm. And that is a very particular experience that is more and more unusual for the general population.

So how does that connect with what changed for Argento? What are your strategies to bring in more classical music listeners? 

In 2015, we did a performance of Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” along with some really cutting-edge works: Mathias Spahlinger’s “Furioso” and György Ligeti’s Cello Concerto. The Mahler is the first song cycle that I know of where basically every movement starts in one key and ends up in another. It’s constantly moving. It doesn’t have any tonal stability; it’s always traveling. That’s a real departure from the classical tradition, where the idea of “returning” was essential. If you look at the Ligeti Cello Concerto and “Furioso,” they start in opposite ways: “Furioso” starts with polyphony and ends with homophony, and the Cello Concerto starts with homophony and ends with polyphony [until the last minute or so—Ed.]. The aspect of a linear journey that doesn’t return to any place really came across to the audience in the feedback we got. And the audience was like 1,400 people. That gave me a sense of, If I can present things like “Furioso” to a larger audience, wouldn’t that be a much better service to contemporary music? It’s not the only reason we would do it. But it is one compelling reason. 

Around the same time, I started becoming more interested in doing different types of historical music along with contemporary music, which has been a bumpy road. The bar I set is really high: We almost never do anything that you can hear somewhere else. Even if it’s a so-called canonical composer, we’ll do a different version or framing. The listening experience will still always be new. And that’s hard to do with music that has been played before. 

The other thing is that some contemporary music audiences get turned off when they see historical works on the programs. I understand that, because if I go to MOMA to see a new exhibit, I’m grateful that Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is in another part of the museum. I don’t want to be bombarded with iconic images of masterpieces that I’ve also seen on postcards and tote bags. However, if any of the people who are turned off by [the inclusion of historical music on a contemporary music program] had come to our events, they would quickly find out that everything we do is still musically driven. Whereas a lot of the classical music world is brand driven. Let’s face it: It’s why the repertoire is so narrow. Most conductors only know Sibelius One and Two, even though Four and Six are better symphonies. Why? Because One and Two are brands. 

And then there are also classical music audiences who may not be interested in going to see contemporary works. But to those people, I’m a little less forgiving. I want to shake them and say, “Listen to this.” 

But the thing is, in this cultural landscape, sitting down and using your ears for an hour and your brain receptively as a participant is already kind of a revolution. It means your phone is off for a whole hour. 

You’ve said that when you are preparing a concert, you have to learn the music, but also “prepare psychologically.” What does psychological preparation mean for you as a conductor? 

We mentioned “Furioso.” A lot of times you get excited about a piece, but you don’t have an opportunity to perform it for a long time. I think I heard “Furioso” ten years before I was able to program it. I was completely taken with it. Then when I came back to it [ten years later], I found I had no emotional connection to it at all. It was a little bit of a crisis, in fact, because when music is this difficult to decipher for the musicians, often it’s the conductor’s commitment and passion that allows the musicians to suspend their disbelief about whether these are just some crazy scribbles or whether there’s something behind it. And I’m a very transparent person: If I’m not excited about something, everyone knows it. 

So I went to Illinois to hear [conductor] Stephen Taylor rehearse the piece, I hung out and listened to his rehearsals so I could find an approach to dealing with the technical challenges in the piece. And also, [pianist] Malcolm Bilson told me, “When you perform something, you might be right or wrong. But everyone should know how you feel about a work. Not that you’re there to just show your feelings. You’re there to show the music, of course. But you are the messenger, you are the presenter. There should be some kind of emotional commitment.” The audience should feel something from you—not because you’re trying to show them something, but because of the way you really feel, and because of what you’re hearing in your head. These are all aspects of preparation.

You moved to Berlin from New York in 2018 with your wife, clarinetist Carol McGonnell. How has that changed your relationship with Argento? 

The momentum of working with my ensemble never stopped. Before COVID, I was going back [to New York] to do concerts and was as involved as ever. Now I’m also looking for the right people to work with in Berlin. At Argento, I have an incredible board, an incredible general manager, a wonderful group of musicians. It’s important, if humanly possible, to have a positive working relationship with people. Not just good behavior—but where you actually share values and where the common work has meaning. Otherwise, it’s just too hard. It doesn’t pay enough. The organization, the fundraising, the publicity, the potential of not getting an audience, the risks that don’t pan out… It has to be about the joy of sharing music. ¶

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Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.