Since we’re only THREE sleeps out from our tour, we figured it was about time you got to know who Pushback is! So, we (Ben and Ally) sat down to answer some questions about how this all started, and why we’re so excited about it!

(c) Lynn Lane Photography

(c) Lynn Lane Photography

Where did the idea for Pushback come from, how did this all start?

B: I think this project started out of a kindred spirit of curiosity that Ally and I discovered in each other through our work together in Hear and Now at Rice. Everything about playing chamber music together was a no-brainer, except for the lack of repertoire. So we set about to create new repertoire, and in the process discovered mutual frustrations about and hopes for new music being written today. Those became central to our mission as an ensemble.

A: Ben and I became friends over the course of a couple years, in part through playing in the same new music ensembles, but we wanted to do something more closely together.  As friends, we spend a lot of time talking about politics, the world we live in, and how frustrated we are by how distant that world can feel from our work as artists. So, when we began talking about commissioning repertoire, we immediately latched onto the idea of encouraging our composers to write “beyond the concert hall.”

What was your first impression of other one?

B: I remember meeting Ally in my first week at Rice--she was maniacally running around the halls of the Shepherd School trying to recruit people to play on this crazy program of the Schoenberg, Ligeti, and Adams chamber symphonies. I was like, “I need to become friends with this person.”

A: I remember seeing Ben standing beside his locker with a poster for a duo concert he was playing. The poster was awesome and he was so amped to talk about new music and play with Hear&Now, I knew I wanted to be friends with him! Also, how can you miss that beard? Magnificent.

What have you learned about starting a new ensemble/working as a team?

B: This project has involved a lot of behind-the-scenes work. Lots of skype meetings, grant writing, long email chains, bugging composers, etc. I love that stuff, but after a while it makes you antsy! I can’t wait for the fun part--getting to actually perform all of our new pieces!

A: I think what I’ve learned most is how much you can (and need to) lean on, trust, and communicate with your work partner. There were times this year that were pretty difficult in my personal life and Ben really came through to support me in ways I never allowed myself to expect from a colleague. He’s the best! Also, google docs and writing things down are a must.

Tell us a ~quintessential~ story about the other one?

B: I once made the mistake of challenging Ally to a chicken fight outside of this wonderful bar called Anvil in Houston. For the life of me, I don’t know why I thought this was a good idea, but I have a scar to prove that I lost.

A: Ben stole my story. The most important detail is that it was AFTER that physical altercation that we decided to start Pushback. The other one I’d say, which is ongoing, is that we’ve had almost all of our initial talks about Pushback at House of Pies, in Houston. They’re a big inspiration.

In Pushback’s mission, you invite composers bring the real world into the concert hall. What kinds of topics would you like to see people examining more through music?

B: I feel pretty strongly that contemporary music can and should have something to say about our world, our communities, and issues that are important to us as people. That’s not to say that every piece of new music needs to explicitly respond to real-world issues, but I’m interested in what happens when we as an ensemble invite and encourage composers to take some artistic license in this way. I think the results in our first round of commissions are pretty powerful.

A: Yes! Unfortunately, classical music has a very exclusionary history in terms of what stories are told and whose voices are amplified. I think one of the real advantages contemporary music has is that is can choose to present stories in a modern, thoughtful, inclusionary way. Our hope is that by doing this we can sincerely invite a more diverse group of people into the concert hall.

What would you like to see change most in our industry?

B: I would like to see major musical institutions, especially academic ones, begin to actively work to repair the tremendous damage that racism, sexism, and classism have done in our field. This would start with recognizing the stories of racial and sexual discrimination and violence that are rampant, as well as punishing the perpetrators of those crimes. On a larger scale, though, it would require a reconsideration of the hierarchies of our industry, a change and diversification of leadership, and the allocation of resources to create a more equitable and safe creative working community. I’m in a position of extraordinary privilege as a straight white man, but to hear the stories of my colleagues who have suffered discrimination and abuse is frightening and heartbreaking. I think that we have no right to consider anything we do to have a positive impact unless we are always working to create an environment where everyone can feel safe in doing their creative work.

A: I would like to see arts education change from a young age. Too often the little bodies that are born into less affluent communities aren’t given the access to arts education that wealthy children are. And too often those little bodies are brown and black. How can we expect to change the diversity on our concert stage if we aren’t changing it at a young age, and supporting it all the way to college? Classical music is an expensive field to work in, especially at the early stages. I would love to see more being done, from myself included, to help bridge that gap and offer education and support to those who currently don’t have it.

I’d also love to see the issue of “diversity” addressed in a less tokenistic way. Why not have an actually diverse season filled with different stories that affect a myriad of people, rather than one concert a year that is, at best, an ill-fitting bandaid?

You’re on tour: who is driving?

B: I heard that Ally’s car recently went up in flames, so I think I might call the wheel....

A: Ben is not wrong, my car recently died a pretty violent, smoke-filled death. But also, we’ll see if Ben wants another scar trying to take the wheel from me.

So: Come hang out with us this weekend!! We’ll be in Philly March 23rd, New York City March 24th, and Boston March 25th!

Alexandra Smither