Caution doesn't come easy to experimentalists. Adventurous artists who thrive on sloughing off convention aren't the kind to hang back and gauge public opinion before moving forward with an idea.

So it was perhaps predictable that the first genre to have an indoor multiconcert festival in the Twin Cities since COVID-19 began was the avant-garde. The Twin Cities New Music Festival has returned, and Thursday's opening concerts both paid homage to the ground-breakers of decades past and revealed talent that's not only fresh but also local.

A product of the imaginations of the 113 Composers Collective, the festival is split in two this year, with live concerts at Park Square Theatre's Andy Boss Thrust Stage in downtown St. Paul, and short films with scores by contemporary composers screening at Studio Z in Lowertown.

I spent opening night with a crowd curious to hear intrepidly experimental live music, and the hour of works that launched Thursday's programming was never afraid to baffle as well as inspire.

While it may sound strange to start a "new music festival" with a piece written circa 1970, German composer Dieter Schnebel's "Maulwerke" received its North American premiere, as did all of the evening's music.

As interpreted by vocalists Adam Zahller and Justin Anthony Spenner, "Maulwerke" was an improvisation that followed a set of structural guidelines from the composer. One vocalist manipulated his voice with electronics while the other wore noise-canceling headphones and attempted to echo him using only visual cues. Later in the concert, they traded roles for another round. It was a wild and anxious ride.

Another premiere from the past was Argentine composer Mauricio Kagel's "Zwei Akte." For this theatrical venture, Zahller and Lizz Windnagel began the piece naked, seemingly discovering clothing for the first time and trying to deduce how to don it. While I didn't find their characterizations particularly involving, Kagel's music proved gripping in the interpretation of harpist Amy Nam and multisaxophonist Jeffery Kyle Hutchins.

The second concert of the night was devoted to the music of Twin Cities-based composer Joe Horton, and I recommend keeping an ear out for his work. A new untitled piece was premiered by the Dream Songs Project, and soprano Alyssa Anderson's urgent vocalise was suffused with the passion I craved during the overly academic first concert.

The evening's magnum opus was the first live performance of Horton's "Vessel," a piece that provided the score for a film he created while a resident artist at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2019. It was like ambient chamber music, as an intriguing mix of strings, winds and percussion sent sounds bubbling up from a primordial stew of drones, overtones, wisps of melody and long, low notes of menace. The visuals behind the musicians, courtesy of Patrick Pegg, were akin to a large petri dish full of morphing patterns.

After the challenging works of the early evening, there was a calming tone to Horton's "Vessel." But I found myself desiring a happy medium between the two. There's a good chance that such works await audiences at the festival's remaining concerts.

Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. •

Twin Cities New Music Festival
With: Music by Bethany Younge, Anthony R. Green, Steven Kazuo Takasugi and others.
When and where: Concerts at 7 and 9 p.m. Fri. & Sat. at Park Square Theatre's Andy Boss Thrust Stage, 408 St. Peter St., St. Paul; Bethany Younge "Portrait" concerts, 8 p.m. Fri. and 4 p.m. Sat. at Studio Z, 275 E. 4th St., St. Paul; film screenings at Studio Z, 6:30-10:30 p.m. Fri., 4-8 p.m. Sat.; and a sound art installation by Benjamin JM Klein in the Park Square Theatre lobby.
Tickets: $10-$5 (children free); festival pass, $50; available at