Liquid Music 17.18 || Interview w/ Series Curator Kate Nordstrum / by Liquid Music

by Patrick Marschke 

Patrick Marschke is a Minneapolis-based musician, member of the music collective Six Families, and works for the American Composers Forum.

6th isn’t as widely lauded an anniversary as a 10th, or 50th, but this year's Liquid Music season feels like a milestone. It’s probably just as easy to say this about any of the previous seasons, but 17.18 seems like the most “Liquid Music” of any season yet. Subjective as this might be, a truth emerges from this vague feeling — “Liquid Music” has become its own adjective, especially for longtime followers of the series. You’ve probably caught yourself listening to something and thinking “this would be perfect for Liquid Music” or maybe been caught with a lack of words when describing the series to a friend who has somehow remained unfamiliar. Perhaps you have discovered an artist watched their career flourish since. Each year the definition of “Liquid Music” gets refined but no less familiar and useful. This seemingly intuitive distillation has a source – Liquid Music curator Kate Nordstrum has quietly turned the cogs and connected the dots of the national and international New Music scene for a decade and created a vital new musical resource for the Twin Cities

If you have been to a Liquid Music show in the past you know that in most circumstances Kate lets her incredible projects speak for themselves. In celebration of this season’s lineup, we thought we would give some space for the voice of Liquid Music Curator and Executive Producer of Special Projects at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra to tell us about her beginnings and visions for the future.


Liquid Music Curator and Executive Producer of Special Projects at The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Kate Nordstrum. (photo by Cameron Wittig)

Liquid Music Curator and Executive Producer of Special Projects at The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Kate Nordstrum. (photo by Cameron Wittig)

How does this season of Liquid Music compare to what you thought the series would be like when you first conceived of it?
Over the years, Liquid Music has evolved in its role as an instigator in the development of new and one of a kind projects. We are always looking for opportunities to partner with artists in project building, not simply to present road-tested work. This season you will see this in full effect.

Dance is a recent addition to the series, which I hadn’t thought about including initially and am thrilled it’s happening (Orpheus Unsung; TU Dance & Bon Iver; Ashwini Ramaswamy & Jace Clayton).

From the beginning, Liquid Music encouraged artistic exploration, risk-taking, collaboration, and an openness to new sounds and ideas at the highest level – that has stayed the same!

How does LM’s programming compare to series’ in other cities?
This is a question I prefer to have others answer!

I will say that Liquid Music is an anomaly when compared to other subseries of U.S. orchestras. The SPCO is incredibly progressive in its openness to supporting a flexible, dynamic program that is meant to foster a love of music without borders and broader understanding of the new music landscape. The orchestra is then part of a dialogue; not sequestered.

Liquid Music has sister series/festivals/institutions across the country like Contemporary Art Center Cincinnati led by Drew Klein, Ecstatic Music Festival at Kaufmann Center curated by Judd Greenstein, Big Ears in Knoxville, MASS MoCA in North Adams, EMPAC in Troy (NY), and there is a kinship now in some Eaux Claires programming. Each has its own thing going and distinct brand, but there are through-lines. I am very conscious of and interested in this ecosystem.

What do you imagine the series looking like 5 years from now?
I like the idea of Liquid Music satellite series with a few national partner institutions – it would be wonderful to premiere work and move it along a track cost-effectively. On a more boring but important note, I imagine a much larger base of individual donor support to underwrite and expand projects and commissions (which could include albums, staged work, writing, multi-media elements, residency possibilities as well as performance). Perhaps in five years there’s been a Liquid Music spin-off involving new music for dance…

I hope for enhanced project documentation and media output, as the SPCO is doing with its concert library. It would be a dream to live-stream Liquid Music world premieres. I’m interested in more process documentation and behind the scenes footage too, arguably more interesting!

What are some projects that have gone on to live on in other iterations? 
The collaboration between Poliça and stargaze really took hold. They continue to work together and will release their second album (Music for the Long Emergency, a LM commission and premiere) this February. Without giving anything away, it’s clear that the TU Dance & Bon Iver project will live on in a plethora of incarnations. Daniel Wohl’s Holographic (album, visual art and live performance commissioned by Liquid Music, Baryshnikov Arts Center, MASS MoCA and Indianapolis Museum of Art) has had a nice life, scaled up (LA Phil and Ate9 dance company at Hollywood Bowl) and down (various incarnations in the U.S. and Europe) – still ongoing.

Saul Williams and Ted Hearne met through a 2015.16 Liquid Music commission and now have a huge new work together premiering with LA Phil in the spring. That makes my heart sing!

Looking at the season ahead, there will be a lot of “next iterations” post-premiere – Rafiq Bhatia’s Breaking English, Nathalie Joachim’s Fanm d’Ayiti, Emily Wells’ The World is Too ____ For You.

How do you keep seasons fresh from year to year?
It’s hard! I challenge myself to seek new relationships and reach out to artists who aren’t reaching out to me. The very point of the series is exploration, so predictability is really not an option. We move around to different venues… I keep tabs on other presenters’ offerings – locally, nationally, and internationally – and work to give Liquid Music its own profile. I want Liquid Music to have an edge and stand out in the world.

photo by Cameron Wittig

photo by Cameron Wittig

Can you talk about the process of building these projects? How do they start and develop? What do you look for in potential LM projects?
Artists reach out to me/the SPCO, I reach out to them (or in co-presentations with the Walker, Philip Bither and I share this role), and artists/colleagues make introductions. I’m looking for A) special project ideas, not a rep concert* pitch or club tour, B) a variety of perspectives across the season, C) cultural relevance, timeliness and storytelling, D) emotionally engaging, generous work, E) extraordinary minds and musical abilities, and F) artists who are taking risks.

*[Repertoire Concert: a concert made up of pre-existing music from an artist’s catalog]

What are some of the first projects you put together?
The first ever concert featured Chamber music of Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurðsson in 2007 (pre-Liquid Music). The first couple concert programs I worked on were in partnership with Wordless Music.

Some of the first Liquid Music-developed* projects were:

  • Reid Anderson: The Rough Mixes, a full-evening work for electronics (Anderson), string trio and percussion, with video design by architect Cristina Guadalupe
  • An evening of new music involving Zola Jesus, composer/pianist Stephen Prutsman, SPCO quartet, cellist Ashley Bathgate, percussionist Ian Ding, and composer Ted Hearne 
  • Olga Bell: Origin/Outcome with Angel Deradoorian, local Russian-speaking vocalists, chamber ensemble, and visual design by Alejandro Crawford; a Walker co-presentation
  • Sufjan Stevens, Serengeti, Son Lux: Sisyphus album commission and release party; another Walker co-presentation/co-commission

*Origin/Outcome and Sisyphus projects were co-developed with the Walker Art Center.

What’s the difference between curating, programming, and producing?
Programming involves selecting artists and presentations for a series, season or festival. Curators are called upon not just to select, but to organize, contextualize/interpret and present. Producing is the process of bringing a project to life logistically and technically, from idea/concept to premiere/final incarnation.

What does curation mean for you in your role at the SPCO?
I take seriously that I am at an orchestra, that Liquid Music exists within an organization committed to classical music. I want there to be connective threads with the orchestra each season, so I think a lot about what is fitting (and expansive) given that environment. I work closely with Kyu-Young Kim, who sets the orchestra seasons, and we’ve just begun annual festival programming that involves both Liquid Music and orchestra presentations under a conceptual umbrella (last season’s Where Words End; this season’s No Fiction; and we are actively working on next season’s festival offering with SPCO Director of Education Erin Jude and Artistic Programming Manager Paul Finkelstein).

One of the goals of Liquid Music is to encourage a culture of curiosity, exploration, and a genuine hunger for discovery — in our audience and our artists. This is an essential investment for a classical organization: it infuses the whole organization with possibility.

What makes the Twin Cities an ideal place to host this series?
The people! The culture! Liquid Music was tailor-made for Twin Cities audiences, who are some of the most musically adventurous, curious and art-forward people in the country. Also, this is a great place to build and premiere new work – not only is the audience hungry for it and very responsive, but artists are better-supported here in their endeavors than in larger U.S. markets. We are able to go above and beyond in ways that just aren't feasible other places: being able to house artists, give lots of time and space for rehearsing and checking sound, and carrying the brunt of the marketing/PR load so that artists can focus on what they do best.

Kate and LM alum Roberto Carlos Lange aka Helado Negro at Whitewater Preserve near Palm Springs, CA.

Kate and LM alum Roberto Carlos Lange aka Helado Negro at Whitewater Preserve near Palm Springs, CA.

Is there a space in the Twin Cities that you would like to host a show? Nationally?
Mancini’s in Saint Paul would be a psychedelic dream.

Nationally, Hollywood Bowl!

I also think about nature preserves, conservation sites and National Parks. Site specific works. I spent a fair amount of time in California this past year and can imagine some incredible possibilities out there. I’d love to work with park rangers and environmentalists to draw attention to land and spaces where federal protection is in jeopardy. The best kind of music experiences to me feel like worship – my heart, soul and body one with a higher power – and nature brings me to the same place.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Whittling 75 strong project ideasby artists worthy of Liquid Music investmentdown to 10 each season.

How do you keep up on the state of New Music in the US and abroad?
Talk, listen, read, travel as able… I do what I can as a mother of two! It’s easy to feel overwhelmed because keeping up is rather impossible. And maintaining a rich inner/personal life also necessitates antidotes to constant information-gathering, so… there’s that to consider. I challenge myself not to rely on old favorites, old relationships, old judgments, conference offerings (or I’ll become a predictable old curator quickly), so that means I have to get out of my house, kick habits, get uncomfortable, learn about stuff I don’t know.

Kate at age 6

Kate at age 6

What lead you to curating and programming music? How did you first get involved in New Music?
I did not set out to do the work I’m doing today (you’ll notice not many performing arts curators do) but was incrementally led in this direction over time. I can now look back and see a path that adds up, but I didn’t see it at the time. I played violin (Suzuki) and danced (classical ballet) from a young age and especially loved dance, though my skill level was mediocre. Still, the magic of art and performance was very real to me. I ended up going to business school (Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota) and it didn’t take me long to realize that the only way I could survive emotionally in a business setting is if I applied my work toward something I was highly passionate about. So I created my own major, took internships in NYC in the summers, and figured out what arts administration was all about. One of my internships was at Lincoln Center, and that experience sealed the deal. I was determined to land there permanently. Post-college in NYC I worked in the marketing departments of Lincoln Center and City Center – I loved being close to dance, but learned a ton about music presentation as well. I soaked it all in; it was the best education. I loved the high art and performance values of Lincoln Center and City Center but countered it with time spent at the Knitting Factory, The Kitchen, Arlene Grocery, CBGB, Living Room, etc. Randomly, I met a number of musicians (ones I still work with today) through a yoga class I taught in Hell’s Kitchen (Sonic Yoga, how fitting). Tony Award-winning actor/musician Michael Cerverisyoga student for a seasonmade me mix CDs full of great slowcore music that I used in my classes and internalized.

Fast-forward to Minneapolis: I was doing marketing & communications work for the Southern Theater and found the venue to be ideal for music acoustically and atmospherically. I was inspired when I noticed a programming gap in the Twin Cities that I thought I might be able to address. The Southern was only a 200 seat house, a good size to start a new series, so I asked the Artistic Director at the time (Jeff Bartlett) if I could try my hand at some music programming. He was encouraging – what a gift. I was also in touch with Ronen Givony who was starting Wordless Music in NYC at the time (Ronen came from Lincoln Center too, the Chamber Music Society) and we partnered on some of the initial Southern presentations. It was great to connect with and be sharpened by a colleague embarking on a similar mission. The programming was driven by the particularities of the venue and by what wasn’t happening elsewhere in the Twin Cities. I learned on the job and made a lot of mistakes, but overall the series succeeded because it had its own profile and purpose. I loved growing into this work (I still do).  

New Music, the genre, was an important part of the mix of music presentations but it wasn’t alone. Electronic, traditional classical, experimental, and multi-disciplinary offerings were also core components. I was always going for ‘new music’ un-capitalized and chamber music without borders.

Kate at age 13

Kate at age 13

With my background in dance, I’ve always gravitated to music and sound that resonates deeply in the body, that is first and foremost felt. This is very subjective, but it is why I am drawn to the work of Ben Frost, Caroline Shaw, and Ryoji Ikeda for instance, and the resonant vocal texture and word choices of Saul Williams.

Some of the first artists I worked with also shaped my course. Bedroom Community and New Amsterdam Records were both founded at the same time I started programming (Bedroom Community in 2006, New Am in 2008). We all connected back then, shared our values, and navigated the industry on somewhat parallel pathsat this point they feel like family.

Nico Muhly as artist advocate #1 (in 2007) did not hurt the new music connections early on.

What music do you listen to at home? In the car? 
At home: A lot of ambient, electronic, orchestral/chamber, choral… Julian (my son) called this weekend’s selection “sad music”. It does sometimes veer toward the melancholy. I defer to my kids’ choices a lot too – I try to encourage music in their lives without too much judgment.

In the car/running: Podcasts (On Being, Modern Love, The Daily, Song Exploder, Nadia Sirota’s Meet the Composer), Radio K, and an evolving personal playlist of lyrical music that pumps me up / brings joy. If I’m driving late Monday or Thursday nights, I’ll tune in for David Safar’s New Hot or Jake Rudh’s Transmission.

My love for Nick Cave and TV on the Radio knows no bounds.

One of my all-time favorite songs is Radiohead’s "Staircase".

A fun party song that LM commissioned is Sisyphus’ "Rhythm of Devotion".

I’m lucky to own a lot of great unreleased music. My Infinite Palette colleagues Daniel Wohl and William Brittelle have tracks that I want so badly to share with the world! Keep an eye out for "Melt" by Daniel and "Spiritual America" by Bill. The Polica/stargaze track "Agree" is very binge-worthy (out in February!). And Tunde Adebimpe’s A Warm Weather Ghost, commissioned last season by Liquid Music and the Walker Art Center, is listened to regularly. I pray that Tunde releases this album!

I was recently so pleased to learn of the artist Rhye via an interview with Bonobo on Song Exploder. I heard Rhye’s song "Open" years ago and thought it was Sade… and searched and searched for this beautiful, illusive Sade song using only the lyrics I could remember (which sadly did not include the title of the song “Open”). Fortunately years later Bonobo asked Rhye to do a song with him ("Break Apart"), talked about it (and what attracted him to Rhye’s voice) on Song Exploder, a bell rang and now I can (and do) listen to the little gem "Open" regularly. The journey to this song makes it sweeter!

Who are some of your idols/heroes? Who inspires you?*
Artist and developer Theaster Gates - for his investment in Chicago’s South Side through his Rebuild Foundation and Dorchester Projects. Gates is an incredibly gifted artist who’s chosen to pursue a calling far beyond the gallery – he seeks the transformation of a neighborhood, a city and its people.

Krista Tippett, creator and host of On Being - for her singular voice and vision, business acumen, pursuit of answers to big questions of meaning, a local treasure

Nick Cave - for his honesty, strength and ecstatic vision; my dream collaborator. I was introduced to him by Warren Ellis years ago and froze… I’ll never forgive myself.  

Barack & Michelle Obama - where do I begin? My gratitude overflows.

Writers Hilton Als and Frederich Buechner - for turning our gaze from the subject at hand to the greater picture

The New Amsterdam Records crew: Sarah Kirkland Snider, Bill Brittelle and Judd Greenstein - brothers and sister in the industry, friends and collaborators from very the beginning

Toni & Uri Sands - for their investment in Saint Paul through their company and school, their undeniable grace and technical prowess, their kindness, and powerful honesty. They lift our community.

Mom & dad - my teachers, cheerleaders and second parents to my children; models of faithfulness who instilled my love for nature and the arts.

Eddie, my husband - whose taste is better than my own! He should get artistic advisor credit for all things Liquid Music. In all seriousness, it would be impossible for me to do this job without his support. He is my spiritual partner; his own work [as a developer] and passionate environmentalism inspire me.

*Tip of the iceberg.


Learn more about the 17.18 lineup and buy individual or season tickets.

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Patrick Marschke is a Minneapolis-based percussionist, composer, and electronic musician trying to make all of those things into one thing. He is a member of the Minneapolis-based music collective Six Families and occasionally writes about music for the SPCO, the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series, and Walker Art Center in addition to working at The American Composers Forum