Chamber Cartel

This story appears in the Pre-Fall 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below. 

Story by Malika Gumpangkum | Photography by Max Ermine

Classical music ushers to mind claustrophobic imaginings of older musicians, regimentally dressed in blacks-and-whites, performing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture for the millionth time. But traditions in art also exist to be challenged, ultimately by a younger group of creatives banding together. The French Impressionists defied the obtuse and glorified realistic standards set by the historical Académie Royale. Jean-Luc Godard subverted the tired-out conventions of mainstream cinema with the La Nouvelle Vague movement. In-yer-face theatre witnessed a band of 1990s young British playwrights calling for a more experiential, political and ultimately non-mainstream mode of dramatic expression. However, in the 21st century, it seems, there is a severe scarcity of artistic movements.

But in Atlanta, Chamber Cartel is reanimating the classical music scene by performing experimental contemporary music written by only new and emerging composers around the world. If they sound like renegades, it’s because they most certainly are, smashing all stereotypes and preconceived notions of what classical music can be. “It was a dare,” is artistic director and percussionist Caleb Herron’s candid answer as to how Chamber Cartel, a classical chamber ensemble of about twenty rag- tag, misfit, underground musicians, came into being. It’s a promising answer — quite fitting for the experiential ethos of the Cartel. The hearty laugh that suffixes the answer is that of certain self-deprecating geniuses.

I had the privilege of sharing a bar table with the Cartel after their latest concert performance, “Riding with Death.” It was close to midnight by the time I got down to chatting with Herron about his brainchild and passion project. Southern barbecue, cold draft beers and live bluegrass music lent a mellow, casual atmosphere to our conversation that was often punctuated with moments of silly, geekish jokes and laughter. “It’s not the first time I’ve been called a genius,” he jests to a fellow Cartel fan at the table before he laughs again.

Herron’s journey to Chamber Cartel has an epic number of chapters.

He earned his Bachelor of Music Performance in percussion at Georgia State University, studying under Dr. Stuart Gerber, who worked with controversial composing legend Karlheinz Stockhausen and continues to teach at the Stockhausen Courses in Kürten, Germany; Stockhausen’s final percussion solo Himmels Tür was written for Gerber. In addition to collaborating with some of the movers and shakers of contemporary classical music, Herron helped assemble and perform in the group Cerberus, an aptly named percussion trio. “I’ve always been one to start things,” the musical pioneer professed.

After graduating from GSU, Herron pursued a Masters in percussion performance in Alaska. It was a prolific two years: with his musical comrades and artists-in-arms, he formed Ensemble 64.8, named for the latitude it was founded on. And he even conducted the pep band for Sarah Palin’s homecoming.

But two years proved to be too long; winters in Alaska, Herron explained, are particularly depressing because there are only three hours of sunlight in a day. In that time, he dealt with a break-up and grew a frighteningly massive neckbeard (“Will the beard make a come-back?” I ask the now clean-shaven percussionist. He’s thinking about it.) He moved back to Atlanta and plummeted into a dark time of creative burnout. “I was just floating around, searching for things to do.” Fellow creatives can sympathize; writers block, whatever the medium, is a bitch, and having to be em- ployed to practice and give meaning to your art is tough shit. But even English rock star Sting recently confessed to suffering from an 8-year creative drought.

Then, Herron discovered Invent Room Pop — a monthly event in Atlanta where six musicians who’ve never met each other play in duos and trios, which are randomly determined by hat drawings. He was invited to perform in this exercise of artistic serendipity by Robert Kee of eyedrum (a non-profit organization developing an interdisciplinary approach to the arts by incorporating a wide range of contemporary art, music and new media in its gallery space), who was a key person in the genesis of Chamber Cartel.

Now back to that dare: Kee challenged Herron to seek out an ensemble and perform, in concert, an all-new repertoire every single month — something unheard of, especially with pieces of such modern complexities. “My initial response was ‘Fuck you,’” Herron laughs. But by November 2011, after doing absolutely nothing for two years, he formed Chamber Cartel.

Since its inception, Cartel has kept up its mission to put on a concert every month for its first season; its second season spanned 6 concerts, and now their current incarnation Arcana will feature 8 performances. They have performed more than 40 hours of contemporary classical music over the years, with an uninterrupted 24 hours dedicated to one single performance—the stuff of an urban legend—of Vexations by the French composer Erik Satie; members of the Cartel took turns playing the piece transposed for their instruments, from vibraphone to cello, in the middle of the Goat Farm’s Goodson Yard. The response has been overwhelmingly supportive, and their audience keeps growing with every concert. “L.A. has a scene, New York has a scene, Boston has a scene, Chicago has a scene ... We’re building a scene in Atlanta. We are building a scene that inspires people,” he declares. And the Cartel has a great many artistic allies: with deep gratitude and respect, Herron and the Cartel attributes ensembles Sonic Generator, Bent Frequency (his mentor Dr. Stuart Gerber’s project) and Terminus for inspiring and pioneering the New Music scene in Atlanta.

The Cartel’s performance was filled with wonder and captivating zealousness; beyond that was the special imagination and sheer audacity of the repertoire they chose to pour their high-proof spirits into. A piece they performed by John Turner called “The Space Between One Stone and the Next” begins with an atonal flute that filled the hall with mystique. A loop machine was connected to the flute’s melodies. The flautist performed her solos only to have those measures echoing back to her a moment later, as if a fading memory, as the silence reflected the distance between two incarnations of the same, melodic idea meeting one an- other in the universe of the concert hall. The Chamber Cartel enabled me to understand this stunningly beautiful and poetic concept. I never knew such metaphysical music could be inspired by, or inspire, contemplative thoughts of multiple universes and infinities. Films and orchestra conductors and poets always claimed that infinity and God could be heard only in the music of Beethoven. But this was different.

“I can play other gigs, but ... I don’t want to,” Mr. Herron says with a smile that very few people can wear — the illuminated smile of someone who has found what they truly love to do in this life. I say, play on.