The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra announced in May of 2019 that it would no longer sponsor Liquid Music due to budget constraints, making the rather unprecedented decision to relinquish ownership of the series to its curator Kate Nordstrum. As Liquid Music begins to realize its new identity as an independent LLC, there seems to be no better time than now to reflect on the series as a whole. Kate Nordstrum spoke with writer and friend of the series Patrick Marschke to discuss the origins of Liquid Music and what she learned along the way.
Patrick Marschke: Have you had time to reflect on the series as a whole since Liquid Music became an independent LLC?
We wanted to connect to classical music, but also give audiences the opportunity to really explore, and get excited about, the journey inherent in the perpetually adventurous world of contemporary chamber music.
Kate Nordstrum: I think it was fantastic to house a special projects series at an orchestra. I have nothing but gratitude for chapter one – all the commissions, collaborations, partnerships, the best audience in the world and the opportunity to work within an institutional structure. It wasn’t easy work, but it was highly rewarding. I think it was very advantageous to start Liquid Music at The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. I’m very grateful for that platform. I think back on the audiences and what was produced, and I think it mattered.
Marschke: How was the institutional structure of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra valuable in getting Liquid Music off the ground and eventually flourishing?
Nordstrum: An institutional structure brings stability, which is incredibly helpful for a new series. It forces you to plan very far in advance. It also allowed me to think about what would be beneficial to that type of organization – what would truly complement what they were doing programmatically with the orchestra. What could make for a meaningful contrast?
It made me stretch as well. … The SPCO has been around for so many years producing incredible music at such a high caliber. I felt like Liquid Music had to rise to that level while exploring its own distinct aesthetic.
We wanted to connect to classical music, but also give audiences the opportunity to really explore, and get excited about, the journey inherent in the perpetually adventurous world of contemporary chamber music. In turn, that helped develop an audience of hungry seekers, which was good for the SPCO and the Twin Cities arts community in general.
And then, of course, there are some basic things that end up being very practical in being housed at an orchestra: having a box office, production department, development, etc. I can’t imagine it starting any other way.
Marschke: Do you think the fact that Liquid Music was packaged as a series rather than one-off or pop-up shows scattered throughout the year contributed to its success?
Nordstrum: Yeah, I think that feeding an audience regularly is really healthy. So, I stuck to one project a month as the ideal early on. It seemed like good pacing for audiences, and it was feasible from a production standpoint too. I think it went a long way in developing the audience.
Marschke: I really like that idea of “feeding audiences regularly.”
Nordstrum: I think that it is both nurturing and something like exercise. Regularity leads to more of an “appetite” from the community. Another thing I like about the monthly series is that it allowed us to emphasize the journey of a season and it encouraged people to sign on for the whole thing. I was looking for a narrative arc – and thought a lot about the audience’s experience over the course of a season: what it felt like to go from one project to the next. The balance was very significant to me every year. I always felt like: OK, am I actually taking them on a journey through new music, new voices and new perspectives? Are they learning enough? Does it feel like too much of one thing? If we were dealing with a budget crunch, and I [had] to get rid of a project or two, it felt like it threw everything off. I would then have to go back to the drawing board to get that journey right.
Marschke: How did Liquid Music’s brand identity and mission come to be?
Nordstrum: I have a background in marketing communications: That work is really fun and comes naturally to me. My colleague William Brittelle helped me land on the name “Liquid Music.” He really understood the essence of what I was trying to build early on.
The season-to-season artwork was always a reflection of the energy of the projects and the artists who’d be taking part in a given season. I tried to use their creativity to guide the way Liquid Music presented itself to the world. Liquid Music as a brand reflected the bold ideas that were contained within the series itself. So that was really my ammunition: unpacking the art within each season.
Fortunately, the SPCO gave me a lot of freedom and control over the mission, marketing and design aesthetic of the series. I was able to work with trusted independent freelance artists as well as the marketing department of the SPCO. They trusted me to guide the art and communications for Liquid Music. I knew how to speak to the new projects coming our audiences’ way.
Marschke: How have you managed to maintain a cohesive identity from season to season?
Nordstrum: I mean, it’s relatively really simple in that regard. We kept the same typeface throughout…
Marschke: Shout out Gill Sans!
Nordstrum: We used different visual art – I looked for relatively abstract imagery that contained emotional intrigue. I avoided brochure covers or homepage imagery that felt too literal, like someone playing a violin – that never felt like it served the series or cultivated curiosity.
Your brand isn’t really established until you start hearing it spoken back to you by others. When you hear someone say Liquid Music means this, or when I was at a show I felt that. When you see a consistency in media perceptions, patron and artist feedback, you know you’re doing something right.
Marschke: I think an important part of what makes Liquid Music work is that the artists you work with have an unparalleled trust in you as a curator/producer. How do you cultivate these relationships?
Nordstrum: Generally speaking, I ask artists what they want to do that they haven’t been able to do yet. This isn’t 100 percent of the time, but it is often how our conversations start. When we work together to realize a dream project, a bond forms and it carries. I think that the most exciting projects come from that.
Liquid Music commitments [to projects] are sight unseen – there is major trust in our selected artists. I know they have the ability to do great work. I trust that they will be bringing something unique and beautiful to Liquid Music. And we are so fortunate to be part of their artistic growth.
Marschke: You also seem to have an ability to inspire collaboration between artists that might not otherwise work together. What do you attribute this to?
Nordstrum: I think in looking to be stretched, Liquid Music artists often think in collaborative terms. This is a big part of exploring “the new” – getting out of one’s comfort zone. Many Liquid Music artists are looking to learn a new language, communicate differently and expand horizons by working with artists of other disciplines. For example, Justin Vernon writing for dance for the first time with TU Dance, or organist James McVinnie making music with electronic duo Darkstar.
… And we’re asking that from artists of every level. No matter who you are, established or emerging, everyone can stretch further. A good example is the Philip Glass piece that we co-commissioned last season for Third Coast Percussion. It was [Glass’s] first work for percussion ensemble. And we’re giving emerging artists the same platform. It feels good to be so consistent in that respect.
Marschke: Why do you think more organizations don’t pursue a dedicated new music series?
Nordstrum: Perhaps it’s an intimidating investment? It’s hard to say.
Marschke: To unpack some of what you’ve already said: having your new music series be a once-a-year thing sends a message to the audience. It says, “We don’t believe that this music is something worth investing in.”
Nordstrum: Yeah – I think the organization needs a champion. Presenters often reach out to me to learn how Liquid Music works because they love what they are seeing from afar, but they lack an advocate for new music within their ranks. You need someone able to speak to the mission of the organization and how it applies to this new music series. Presenters need to find their bold internal champion. If somebody thinks a series like Liquid Music would “look cool” at their organization, but isn’t able to voice why it’s important under their mission, then it probably won’t work.
Some presenters fear their audiences are “too conservative” and aren’t willing to put a stake in the ground and try out a series – they opt for a one-off instead. That might make for a cool show, but they’re not asking people to participate in a journey. If an institution is able to show a true commitment to new music, through something like a series or a recurring festival, then I think they will have a lot easier time cultivating new audiences.
Bottom line: organizations have to make the investment. Liquid Music started with $10 tickets in smaller spaces and incrementally gained an audience and gained trust. We didn’t assume that people would just show up – we really went out of our way to earn our audience’s trust.
Marschke: Why do you think a classical music organization should consider adding a new music series to their programming?
The classical music of
today tells the story of who we are.
Nordstrum: I think we should want to contribute to the canon of classical music! I’ll go back to the excitement inherent in birthing new music, having access to the creators and being in a place where expectations are impossible. It’s the perfect opportunity to be present and sink into the here and now. The classical music of today tells the story of who we are.
Marschke: Barring current COVID-19 circumstances, what does becoming an independent LLC mean for Liquid Music?
Nordstrum: Liquid Music is now a contractible entity. It is the brand under which I will take contract work as a producer and a curator. I’ll also use Liquid Music to build projects independently, but those will ultimately be placed with presenting institutions. I also have this new full-time job as executive and artistic director of The Great Northern, a midwinter festival here in the Twin Cities that I’m working to expand. So Liquid Music also has to fit around that work.
Marschke: Do you think the Liquid Music series model might become an interesting concept in a post-quarantine society?
Nordstrum: I think it always will be. Bringing people together to celebrate new work being birthed – that will always be important. And even more important when we can all be together again. The hunger will be greater than ever so, in that sense, the future is really bright. I do have a lot of confidence in Liquid Music’s durability.
Marschke: It’s interesting that this societal pause does give us the opportunity to reconceptualize the performing arts from the ground up.
Nordstrum: Yeah. For Liquid Music specifically, we were already kind of in a pause. We had spring projects lined up with some different institutions like the National Gallery, the Kennedy Center and Big Ears, which I was really excited about, and those were cancelled. But 2019 was going to be a transition year for Liquid Music anyway. We won’t necessarily be placing new projects as soon as we would have thought, but we’re always working on a long lead basis.
There is the commissioned project with Cincinnati Symphony, “DeLorean Days,” that is scheduled for January 2021. We’re still looking for residency support, which is challenging right now.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.