Our conversation with the five composers who volunteer to coordinate the annual New Music Gathering—Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Lainie Fefferman, Jascha Narveson, and Angélica Negrón—marks the debut of a new format for Cover features on NewMusicBox. On June 1, for the first time in our 21-year history online, we conducted our monthly in-depth conversation in real time in front of a live audience—well, virtually at least, via a live stream given the pandemic and quarantine. We also offered some time at the end for audience members to ask their own questions via various social media platforms. It seemed a particularly appropriate way for us to present this talk given the interactive nature of the Gathering as well as the fact that this event, too, has now been reimagined and redesigned for our current surreal time as an online event. Now, on June 15, the day that this virtual NMG begins, we are also making this conversation available, with improved sound, in an on-demand audio format.
But what, you may ask, is the New Music Gathering? I have to confess that I have actually never attended one. I was always already committed to attend another event somewhere else in the United States or abroad. But from what I have been able to glean from its organizers, as well as the many people I know who have made it an annual pilgrimage, it is something of a cross between a conference, a music festival, and a party.
Everyone who has gone to a NMG claims it was a transformative life experience and that I had to be there. Of course, chalk it up to human nature, other folks’ hype about this thing just made me skeptical, even though I knew all the organizers, some of them quite well, particularly Danny, a deep thinker and a long-time friend who should be well-known to anyone who has visited this site. Danny has often told the story of how the idea for the New Music Gathering emerged in a private message chain with Matt Marks after they were frustrated from arguing with someone on Facebook. Matt was the French hornist for Alarm Will Sound as well as the composer of an infectious indie rock-infused song cycle-cum-opera called The Little Death and the author of a sometimes relentlessly snarky but often hysterically funny Twitter feed.
“I wrote to Matt privately and said, ‘Why is Facebook the only place we have to talk about new music?’” Danny remembers. “’Why don’t we have an actual physical location?’ So we met for coffee. … We came up with this idea of having a conference/concert series that was not academic, but was not not academic and really took seriously the idea of how do people put together new music—from the composers to the performers to the producers to the listeners—in a real practical way. … We then involved Lainie and Mary pretty heavily. In fact, those were the first two names Matt brought up.”
Lainie explains that “a lot of the quirky hilarious structure or lack thereof that we have in the Gathering” evolved from a desire to create a space where anyone involved in new music would feel welcome. “Our hope is that whether you feel active in the community for forty years or feel new to it at any age or if you’re a student and haven’t yet established your identity as an artist, that you feel really as joyful and easy as it can be entering conversations.”
“The heart of this is we wanted a space where these folks that we had been talking to on the internet could come together in one physical space and actually meet and become friends and create a sense of community,” Mary adds. “To me the most extraordinary thing about going to any New Music Gathering is that connection with people live and in real time and meeting new people from various disciplines from different parts of the country. And, at the end of the three days, creating these really strong relationships that have seemed to last years after.”
But even throughout their planning for the very first New Music Gathering back in January 2015 at the San Francisco Conservatory, Danny still had some reservations. Maybe they’d somehow pull it off that one time, perhaps even twice, but that would be the end of it.
“I thought it was going to fail,” Danny confesses. “They’ll be like sixty people here. We’ll shove in for photos and make it look like way more people and then we would apply for the grants and do the second year. And lo, I think 500 people came, so there was a need.”
At that initial NMG, they also roped in a fifth coordinator, Jascha, an electronic music composer who was one of the attendees and who also happens to be married to Lainie.
“I married in basically,” he admitted. “But I was just there as an audience member, and it was great. Then they asked if I could help on the technical end, since a lot of what I do is music tech stuff, so I said okay. Then I seemed to keep going to all the meetings.”
And so it continued from 2015 until 2018, with beyond capacity-filled sessions for the second Gathering at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute (January 2016), a third at Bowling Green State University in Ohio (May 2017), and the fourth at Boston Conservatory (May 2018). But only days before they were all scheduled to convene in Boston, Matt died unexpectedly. Somehow, miraculously, the others managed to pull it off, although understandably, it was difficult and draining. So they decided to take a year off to re-coup. But they were determined to make another NMG happen in 2020, this time in Portland, Oregon. They also decided to bring on someone they got to know from her performances at previous NMGs—Angélica, another fascinating composer whom we spoke with for NewMusicBox back in 2009 and whose choral sound installation at the New York Botanical Garden was one of the most magical events I’ve ever experienced.
“She thinks so hard about community and every aspect of art making and music making,” said Lainie. “Her voice was so in our heads before she was an official organizer in the thoughts that we had. So when we were looking to add to the organizational team, it was such an obvious choice. … We had an Angélica-shaped hole and then she filled it.”
And Angélica fit right in with, as she puts it, “this force of nature from a distance that is New Music Gathering that I’d been watching with admiration from the outside. I am also really grateful now to be part of the team; I’m in awe of how they keep careers and do this at the same time. It’s been really great to observe the dynamic of how everything is a conversation and there’s always room for dialogue.”
It’s particularly awe-inspiring since NMG’s coordinators have made it a firm rule that their own music can never be performed during the Gathering. In fact, from the outset, they envisioned NMG as a space that would exist beyond self-promotion or promotion of any kind.
“It’s part of the charter: we’re there as advocates,” says Danny. “We laid out some ground rules that formed a charter of what we wouldn’t do. Like we wouldn’t have things available for sale. We would not have any event have primacy over any other event. There’d be no private parties. All the things that we’d been to conferences and seen and didn’t exactly like we decided to simply just not to do.”
So how does this warm and fuzzy in-person togetherness translate into an online experience? First, instead of a continuous three-day extravaganza chock full of different activities, this year’s Gathering will spread across two weeks with concerts every evening at 9:00pm EDT / 6:00pm PDT and panels, “speed dating,” etc. during the day, mostly scheduled for 1:00pm EDT / 10:00am PDT and 4:00pm EDT / 10:00am EDT. A complete schedule of all the events is available on the New Music Gathering website. It all kicks off this evening, Monday, June 5, 2020 at 8:00pm EDT / 5:00pm PDT, with a keynote address by Nathalie Joachim. I was so thrilled to see that NewMusicBox’s previous two Cover subjects, Nathalie and Third Coast Percussion, both have prominent roles in this year’s virtual gathering.
Of course, this year’s Gathering is taking place in the midst of a frightening global pandemic and now large-scale social unrest, something we were all mindful of during our conversation, which took place only days after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the third of three racially charged killings in different American cities that seemed to occur in rapid succession while most of the nation was in quarantine.
“If there wasn’t already enough to be upset and anxious about, the events that triggered the protests in the past weekend have been awful,” says Jascha. “The protests that have happened have been largely pretty inspiring. It’s always instructive to learn how they get hijacked for people’s less scrupulous ends. I’m a big believer that if you want to do politics, just do politics—write postcards, make calls to your representatives. I don’t want to make rules for anybody else but If I want to feel like I’m politically engaged it’s going to be through action like that; it’s not going to be through music I make.”
“I’ve been struggling a lot with creating,” adds Angélica.
A month after the arrival of the pandemic in the United States, Mary wrote an impassioned essay for I Care If You Listen about why she has taken a hiatus from composing during this unprecedented time. But, of course, there are now many other issues facing the world in addition to the pandemic.
“The world really has changed,” Mary acknowledges. “A lot of time has passed since I’ve written that essay, and I’m very grateful for the time that I took away from music-making because I think it did allow me space to recharge and process what was happening around me.”
I certainly know that this year I will be taking time away from my own music-making and every other activity that keeps me beyond busy 24/7 to attend my first New Music Gathering. At least we don’t have to hop on a plane or crash on someone’s couch to experience it this year. I hope everyone else in the new music community will participate in this, too, starting tonight!