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New Artists of the Month: ~Nois Saxophone Quartet

April 1, 2024 | By Hannah Edgar, Musical America

Chicago was once a new music town that didn’t take itself too seriously. The birthplace of improv comedy fostered a highly collegial, casual scene where laughter and onstage quips flowed as easily as the drinks.

That approachable ease hasn’t disappeared, but it’s faded a bit. Spektral Quartet, which demystified scores old and new with humor and heart, disbanded in 2022. Meanwhile, Grammy darlings Eighth Blackbird and Third Coast Percussion have gone from homegrown to internationally renowned, slicking up their public persona accordingly.

János Csontos (baritone), Jordan Lulloff (tenor), Julian Velasco (soprano), Hunter Bockes (alto)

~Nois, a saxophone quartet of Northwestern University alums, is a welcome blast from the past. Visitors to ~Nois’s website are greeted by a goofy tableau of alto player Hunter Bockes dangling his instrument over a pool as colleagues János Csontos (baritone), Jordan Lulloff (tenor), and Julian Velasco (soprano) look on in mock horror. All don Crayola-colored suits—a ~Nois signature. “Kind of like the Power Rangers,” Velasco jokes.

But that silliness belies a deep seriousness about the ensemble’s mission, as any conversation with the youthful quartet—all its members are 30 or younger—makes clear. From their first meeting on September 14, 2016, the players pledged to grow the saxophone quartet repertoire. They’ve made good on that promise: to date, ~Nois has premiered 102 new works, 34 of which were commissions. 

Bockes, Csontos, Lulloff, and (former) founding member Brandon Quarles started ~Nois as master’s students at Northwestern, studying with the PRISM Quartet’s Taimur Sullivan. Their cohort was a charmed one: the fifth student was Steven Banks, later to receive an Avery Fischer Career Grant and establish a saxophone studio at the Cleveland Institute of Music. But because Banks was already in the Kenari Quartet, Sullivan suggested the remaining four form a quartet.

“I don't think Taimur expected us to do stuff outside of academia. I think he was just like, ‘I'm trying to get some grad students, and it'd be nice to have a quartet,’” Lulloff says.

The challenge

~Nois’s new-music focus immediately set an uphill challenge. The players had limited funds to buy scores, and the contemporary saxophone quartet repertoire in the Northwestern student library was, naturally, limited. Thus, a modest $1,000 grand prize from a local woodwind-ensemble competition went immediately to score purchases, as did subsequent competition wins playing repertoire exclusively by living composers, such as the 2017 Fischoff Competition, where it took home the wind division’s silver medal.

“They were pieces that were evocative of us as musicians, and not necessarily things that we were playing because they win competitions,” Lulloff says.

~Nois played its first non-competition hometown show at experimental music venue Constellation in 2017. The program was comprised entirely of music written for the ensemble, by Northwestern-affiliated composers: Marcos Balter, David Reminick, Hans Thomalla, Craig Davis Pinson, Niki Harlafti, and Mathew Arrellín. Afterwards, Sullivan asked the group if it would  consider recording that program and releasing it as its debut album. Is This ~Nois was released in June of 2020.

The pandemic could have been a death knell, but ~Nois got lucky, then lucky again. Many of its planned college residencies—a major pillar for ~Nois, then and now— were easily shifted online. Then, for the 2020/21 season, the University of Chicago invited the group and two others to become ensembles-in-residence, when the pandemic deferred the campus arrival of its planned resident ensemble. “That fiscally kept us alive,” Lulloff says.

The forced isolation also enabled the players to strategize for the future. “I don't think we would be here today without [the pandemic]. It gave us the time to sit in our apartments and build the organizational structure of the group,” Lulloff says.

Getting organized

When ~Nois was granted not-for-profit status in 2019, the members formalized their operational titles: Velasco as artistic director, Bockes as development director, Csontos overseeing finances, and Quarles as executive director, a position currently held by Lulloff. Quarles left at the end of the 2020/21 season to accept a teaching position at the University of Georgia, closer to home. By then, Velasco was already an honorary ~Nois boy: He’d subbed for Quarles, and even hosted the ensemble during an early ~Nois tour to Michigan State University. Velasco and Lulloff had already known each other for years: They met as teenagers at the Brevard Music Center, and the two had played in a quartet at Michigan State, After an informal interview, Velasco joined as the new soprano saxophone.

At the time, ~Nois’s operating budget floated around $50,000. It has since tripled, and the bulk of the monies go straight to commissions. A Young Creators Fellowship, now in its second season, invites high school students to write new work for the ensemble. These days, it’s rare to hear ~Nois play repertoire that isn’t a commission.

“Now, we actually have non-offensive amounts to offer big-name composers,” Csontos says.

Once those pieces are in the repertoire, they’re part of the family. Among the offerings on Kinds of ~Nois, the group’s recent album collaboration with composers’ collective Kinds of Kings, is Gemma Peacocke’s Dwalm, performed regularly since 2018, including at last February’s concert, and on the season closer on April 25, which also features premieres by Augusta Read Thomas and their Young Creators Fellows.

When composers see their work incorporated as part of the group’s regular repertoire, says Lulloff, “That shows [them] that this is a group that is going to really take care, time, and investment into the music that they write.”

~Nois is eager to share; indeed, the group’s priority is to get the music it commissions into circulation. For that reason, it rarely negotiates performance exclusivity, unless specified by the composer. The fruits of that decision have already seen Dwalm make its way into the undergraduate repertoire. Hazel, another Peacocke opus written for ~Nois in 2022, was performed at last year’s Fischoff Competition.

“Not only are we a new music ensemble, we're also advocates for encouraging the next generation of …saxophonists, to pick up new repertoire,” Velasco says.



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