The Contemporary Group

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"A remarkable new musical organization" footnote 1 is how Wayne Johnson, Arts and Entertainment Editor of The Seattle Times, described the UW's Contemporary Group when it was formed in 1966. The Contemporary Group was founded with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation by William Bergsma (see also William Bergsma: UW Composer of International Renown), UW music professor and director of the music school.

The musical group not only brought in a distinguished group of musicians to the UW to stage performances of contemporary music, but also involved those musicians in the educational mission of the University.

At the time, Johnson noted that "this arrangement…is a remarkably solid and inventive idea, which gives the U.W. the only group of its kind in the United States."footnote 1 He explained that "other academic groups for the performance of contemporary music--such as those at Buffalo, Rutgers and the University of Chicago--have been constituted by musicians who have been associated with the schools not as full faculty members but only as associates for a specific purpose: that is, the playing of contemporary music.

"Unlike those temporary, tangential groups, the Contemporary Group is fully integrated into the total operation of the U.W. School of Music. Its members have faculty appointments, which not only enriches the school's teaching capabilities but also gives the individual members a permanent academic involvement which differs significantly from the tentative arrangements of other similar groups."

The Contemporary Group has its origins in a Rockefeller grant obtained in the 1960s by UW composer William Bergsma (see William Bergsma: UW Composer of International Renown). The grant provided funds to bring to the UW the Philadelphia String Quartet, the Soni Ventorum Wind Quintet, William O. Smith, composer and clarinetist, Stuart Dempster, trombonist, Robert Suderburg, composer, and a percussion teacher. When the Group was formed, Smith was appointed director and Suderburg served as associate director. Suderburg's wife, a soprano, also joined the Group.

Johnson further remarked: "The idea for the Contemporary Group is good but, in a sense more important, it has been superbly executed: that is, the musicians who have been brought in as members of the Contemporary Group are a highly talented, widely experienced, altogether remarkable group of performers-teachers… The 16 professionals in the Contemporary Group are supplemented by students who participate in its programs of instruction and performance…"

Over the years since its founding, the Contemporary Group has undergone a series of transformations. As funds from the State dwindled in the 1970s and 1980s, support for student involvement was lost, and the Quartet left. Despite budget cuts, the Contemporary Group has demonstrated its resiliency, continuing to provide a format for various types of concerts. The Soni Ventorum Wind Quintet and the work of faculty members including Dempster and Smith have continued over the years. An improvisation ensemble, added in 1974, continues to operate. And the Group continues to serve the Composer's Lab, as it has since 1966, by helping to organize performances of student works both in the lab and in the student ProConArt concert series.

  1. Wayne Johnson, The Seattle Times, Nov. 21, 1969.

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