You might have heard them playing their post-Valentine’s concert on February 18. Perhaps they provided the perfect cadence to study to during midterm season. Or maybe you’re just looking for an early music group on campus.
The UCLA Early Music Ensemble is all of those things, and more. Since 2009, the EME has provided a diverse array of free concerts containing Western vocal and instrumental pieces written prior to 1800. We interviewed Ryan A. Koons, the current Director of the EME, to learn a little bit more about the ensemble.
How did the EME start?
The EME was a standing ensemble back, I believe, in the 1980s in what used to be simply the Department of Music. After a 20 year hiatus, current Department of Musicology Chair Elisabeth Le Guin re-established the EME in 2009.
Who comprises the EME? Is it just UCLA music majors?
We welcome UCLA students, faculty, staff, and members from the greater Los Angeles and Southern California areas. We do occasionally have music majors involved in the ensemble, but more often we attract majors from outside the School of Music. This is both fortunate and unfortunate—fortunate in that we are able to develop a diverse ensemble with students across North and South campus majors; unfortunate in that a quorum of music majors are not taking advantage of the programmatic wealth available through the EME.
Why choose historical music from before 1800?
Around the 1960s, an international movement that focused on pre-1800s repertoire grew in parallel with the international folk revival and gained a great deal of traction. What began as a sort of counter-culture movement has since become institutionalized, with early music programs opening at flagship music institutions around the world. Despite its institutionalized status, "early music" as a genre is a recent invention—post-1800 repertoire is given a great deal more emphasis and "play time" than pre-1800 repertoire. By observing these temporal boundaries, we in the early music world are able to educate and entertain audiences about/with musics and cultures they would all too likely not be able to access.
What were some of your previous performances?
We have had typically three concerts per school year since 2009. Some of our highlights include programs on Eastern European early music (2014), colonial era music derived from interactions between Indigenous peoples and Europeans in the Americas (2015), early music from the Near East (2016), a J.S. Bach program (2014), a concert featuring excerpts from the medieval Galician Cantigas de Santa Maria (2017), and many others. We have also engaged in a series of collaborations with other ensembles, including productions of Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato (2014), and Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, and L’incoronazione di Poppea (2012) with Opera UCLA; and with UCLA's new music group, Contempo Flux under the direction of Gloria Cheng (2011). We've also been privileged to engage in a series of masterclasses with early music virtuosi, including the vocal ensemble Anonymous 4 (2012), viola da gambist Niccolo Seligmann (2014-17), and vocalist Emily Lau (2016-17), among others. During the 2016-17 school year, the Herb Alpert School of Music inaugurated a new grant, the Dobrow Fund. We applied for and received a Dobrow Fund grant to stage a February 17 concert entitled "Half Empty," co-directed by Niccolo Seligmann and Emily Lau and featuring 500 years of sad love songs performed by members of the EME.
Do you play, or just direct?
I typically sing and/or play, and direct. The performance practice of much of the repertoire we perform does not require or desire a conductor. Much more often we perform "chamber music," in which performers collaborate together in a much more egalitarian fashion without a conductor directing all the action. Of course, members' lack of chamber music experience, preferences, and musical and choreographic complexities sometimes dictate that a conductor is necessary to a piece, so I have also conducted a few pieces here and there.
What is the goal of the EME, for its members and for the public?
Our goals for both members and audiences are two-fold: to explore specific historical repertoires and performance practices in depth and to bring the result of those explorations to a high performance level. We essentially want both members and audiences to enjoy themselves while they learn about something brand new, be it a new repertoire, style, technique, or era.
Describe the transition to directorship under Elisabeth Le Guin (the previous director).
The transition has been remarkably smooth. The EME has an unusual TAship associated with it, in which graduate students in the School of Music apply to be EME TA for an entire school year. Across that year, they are mentored from assistant, to co-director, to director, holding complete responsibility for one concert a year. While completing my doctorate in ethnomusicology I was the EME TA for the 2014-15 school year, during which Elisabeth mentored me to be able to direct the ensemble. In addition to being my supervisor then, she has also been my instructor and a member of my dissertation committee, so we have developed a comfortable and collegial relationship during my time at UCLA. This relationship has stood me in good stead a number of times—whenever I have needed advice in this new position, Elisabeth is accessible and very supportive.
What do you see in the future of the EME?
I'm frankly not certain what the future of the EME looks like. I want to develop that vision in collaboration with Elisabeth, although I do know that I/we want to create a program on musical cross-dressing, and another program on the intersections between nature and music in early music—something in the realm of ecomusicology. Beyond that? Time will tell.
If you want to stay up to date with the EME, make sure to follow their Facebook page. Their next concert will be on Saturday, June 3 at 8pm in the Powell Library Rotunda. We’ll see you there!