by KATE LEMMON / photos by KATE L PHOTOGRAPHY
Second-Year MM Flute
Mike Avitabile and I have just finished a promotional photo shoot for the group he recently founded, the Boston Young Composers Ensemble (BYCE). Coordinating a group of eleven people is no small feat, and I’m exhausted—but Mike has enough energy for both of us. He excitedly launches into the story of the ensemble before I even have a chance to start taking notes.
I can’t help but notice the contrast between the Mike that now sits in front of me and the Mike that I knew back in the fall semester. After finishing his Bachelor of Music at the University of Michigan and spending a busy summer playing in the National Repertory Orchestra, Mike arrived at New England Conservatory feeling lost.
“To be honest, I had a hard time adjusting to NEC because it’s so different from the large and diverse university scene,” Mike admits. “At Michigan, I gigged a lot and enjoyed a very established life. When I moved here, I had to remake my entire world. The joke amongst the new graduate students was, ‘How do we make friends again?’”
Mike found the answer in NEC’s new music community. Inspired by his teacher Paula Robison’s personal work with composer Luciano Berio, he began to work with student composers in Boston. Mike found joy in working one-on-one with the original source of music, and the unconventionality of new scores helped bring him out of his comfort zone.
“In new music, you have to be a little more daring and adventurous [than when you play orchestral music],” Mike explains. “If someone hands you an unconventional score and you don’t know how to play it, sometimes you just have to dive in and figure it out. You can’t always judge a score on its first appearance.”
That mentality helped Mike feel more connected to the NEC community; he began hanging out with people outside of the classical department, including Contemporary Improvisation majors. He found contemporary music to be socially stimulating and intellectually challenging because he couldn’t resort to “auto-pilot” thinking and playing. “When working with a composer, nothing is set in stone,” says Mike. “The piece might change ten minutes before the performance if the composer decides to change a detail. You’re always on your feet!”
Mike remembers the exact moment when his musical approach changed: his discovery of Claire Chase’s 2013 commencement address at Northwestern University. Founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble, after which BYCE is modeled, Chase spoke about creating one’s own opportunities.
“It was the first time I had ever heard someone say the music world is not dying, it’s just changing,” Mike recalls. Chase encourages musicians not to wait around for management to produce CDs and concerts, but instead to bring a grassroots approach to classical music. “I said to myself, I want to do that at NEC. I want to play the music of my peers.”
Out of that moment, BYCE was born. Mike started with just one colleague, a talented, humble, and purple-haired flutist named Allison Poh. As he began the planning process, the Entrepreneurial Musicianship office became Mike’s new home. “I must have been in that office at least once a week with a new version of my grant proposal,” he laughs. Through the process of revising the proposal, he refined his mission statement.
“Initially I just wanted to play new music, but I had to figure out how to distinguish the group,” Mike tells me. The city hosts many small groups and a large orchestra, but few that follow BYCE’s model of a large core membership with rotating personnel. The group will produce and promote its own concerts. “There are so many qualified musicians and not a lot of managers, so you have to manage yourselves. We’re bringing art out into the world.”
BYCE will display that art for the first time in their inaugural concert on May 11th at 8 p.m. in St. Botolph 113. The group will survey electro-acoustic music by a number of composers, including four new pieces by NEC’s own artists. As BYCE’s founder, Mike will take center stage along with two colleagues in a daring performance of George Crumb’s Voice of the Whale, featuring black masks and blue lights. As BYCE continues to grow, the ensemble will eventually incorporate interdisciplinary work featuring dance, theater, and other multimedia presentations.
“I’m a lot more fearless in everything that I do now; I just don’t see limitations anymore. Before starting BYCE, I felt as if I was always waiting for an acceptance letter. Now, if my group can think it, we can do it, and that gives me a lot of faith in being a musician and an artist.”
“IF MY GROUP CAN THINK IT, WE CAN DO IT, AND THAT GIVES ME A LOT OF FAITH IN BEING A MUSICIAN AND AN ARTIST.”