Founded by Petr Kotik, the S.E.M. Ensemble is one of the oldest new music ensembles in the U.S., performing and producing concerts continuously since 1970. The composer Julius Eastman and the percussionist Jan Williams were among the founding members of SEM. The ensemble’s first concert was held on April 15, 1970 – under the headline “Ensemble Audience in Retreat,” a review of the concert stated: “An audience of 17, including wives and other relatives, remained out of an original 100 attendees, at the conclusion of the newly-formed S.E.M. Ensemble, setting some sort of local record…”
The S.E.M. Ensemble champions music which is often called experimental or inaccessible, music rarely heard in mainstream productions. It has been a force in presenting new music in the U.S., and overseas. SEM has directly collaborated or performed with composers such as Alex Mincek, Alvin Lucier, Chritian Wolff, David Behrman, Earle Brown, Elliot Sharp, Frederic Rzewski, George Lewis, Jackson Mac Low, John Cage, Jon Gibson, Kate Soper, La Monte Young, Maryanne Amacher, Morton Feldman, Muhal Richard Abrams, Pauline Oliveros, and Roscoe Mitcell, as well as many young and emerging composers.
In 1983, SEM relocated from Buffalo to Brooklyn Heights, where they operate to this day, producing concerts at their own space Willow Place Auditorium. In 1992, the Ensemble expanded into The Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble for a debut concert at Carnegie Hall. Petr Kotik conducted the 86-piece SEM Orchestra with David Tudor as soloist, premiering the complete Atlas Eclipticalis by John Cage. What followed were major orchestra concerts in New York (Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Merkin Concert Hall, Roulette, among others) and Europe.
SEM have specifically been associated with Morton Feldman since 1971, when he was invited to teach at the music department of SUNY Buffalo. After his arrival in Buffalo, Kotik and Feldman struck up a collaboration, which resulted in a 1973 commision by SEM for Morton Feldman’s piece “Instruments 1.” In 1987, Kotik commisioned a new piece for the ensemble from Feldman, but Feldman passed away before composing this new work. In its place, the ensemble began performing Feldman’s trios for flutes, keyboard and percussion. The ensemble’s first performance of For Philip Guston took place in 1988, and featured Petr Kotik (flutes), Joseph Kubera (keyboard), and Chris Nappi (percussion). This same trio has continued to perform the piece up until the present day, and in 1995, they recorded For Philip Guston for the “Dog With A Bone” label in New York.