Tag: Chamber Music America

Composer Advocacy Notebook: A Tale of Three Cities

Man sticking hand inside tuba bell shaped bowl next to another man holding a doll wearing an elf cap.

One of the most exciting aspects of my role as New Music USA’s composer advocate is that from time to time I participate in various music-related convenings around the country and sometimes internationally. I consider these trips to be an extremely important aspect of my work since they often afford me the opportunity to serve either as a mentor to or an ambassador for composers and, more broadly, to encourage and facilitate a wide range of new music (particularly at proceedings that are not exclusively focused on new music or where the definition of new music is narrower than it ought to be). Sometimes my role at these events is official (I’m asked to give presentations, etc.) but just as often it is more informal—I relish being a rabble rouser during Q&A time. An equally important benefit of these activities is that they help to increase my own awareness of the range of the new music scene, plus the experiences and knowledge I’ve gained are things that I can usually translate it into prose here.

But sometimes it takes a while for me to catch up with all of this stuff and to find an effective way to make sense of it. Over the past two months I attended three significant national music events which were extremely different from each other in terms of scope and scale—the Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute (January 25-29, 2016 in Minneapolis), the Midwest Clinic (an annual Chicago-based educational music conference primarily but not exclusively focused on wind bands which most recently took place between December 16 and 19, 2015), and the Chamber Music America conference (which takes place annually here in New York City, this time around from January 9 to 11, 2016). I’ve decided to write about these three events together instead of reporting separately on each since it has been in searching for common ground among these disparate gatherings that I think I’ve come to some clarity about them. I should point out that it made the most sense to offer my thoughts on these three events in reverse chronological order which might seem counterintuitive, but will hopefully make better sense for what I’d like to call attention to here.

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A dusting of snow outside Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.

It was often quite cold outside Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, but it wasn’t as nearly as cold as it has been in New York City the past few days.

In terms of scale, the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute is by far the smallest. It is typically, as it was again in 2016, an opportunity that benefits just seven composers (although in 2012 it was only six and in 2006 there were nine!). While the week’s intensive sessions with various musicians and industry professionals (on topics as diverse as effective public speaking, score and parts preparation, copyright law, and commissioning contracts) can be audited by anyone who is a member of the American Composers Forum, only the lucky members of that chosen small group get to have an original orchestra composition of theirs workshopped. And since 2006, when the program transformed from reading sessions (which began in 2002) to a week culminating in a concert, these composers have also had their works performed on a subscription concert by one of this country’s most respected orchestras and broadcast on the radio as well. The opportunity for such prominent exposure is a really big deal and arguably was a decisive event in establishing the careers of some of today’s most visible composers. Among the program’s alumni are: Lisa Bielawa, Anthony Cheung (the only composer to participate twice), Anna Clyne, Stacy Garrop, Ted Hearne, Hannah Lash, Missy Mazzoli, Andrew Norman, Narong Prangcharoen, and Sean Shepherd. I’m particularly thrilled by the gender balance in that list of names though admittedly it was a somewhat unscientific gleaning from the names of the 92 composers who have had music performed through this program, out of which only 18 were women. Still, though this is shocking in the year 2016, it is a better track record than most of what goes on in our field as a whole.

As in previous years, I was invited there to serve as a mentor to the composers (which on their official materials is described as “faculty”) which enabled me to have a considerable amount of face time with each of the composers and to attend all of the Composer Institute’s events (except for the private one-on-one consultations each composer gets with conductor Osmo Vänskä). As always, it was great to get to know these seven composers. I was impressed by features of all of their pieces, though what has remained most in my memory two weeks after attending the rehearsals and the concert are the progression of luscious harmonies in Kirsten Broberg’s Celestial Dawning, the unbridled humor and almost cinematic narrative arc of Matthew Browne’s Barnstorming Season, the sheer sonic audacity of Anthony Vine’s Transmission (which heavily features real radio static as well as orchestral simulacra of static), and the—to me at least—completely unexpected final chord of Emily Cooley’s Scroll of the Air (which I actually loved even more in the rehearsals than I did in the performance when I obviously knew what was coming). I also really enjoyed being something of a back seat driver during Performance Today radio host Fred Child’s presentation to the group about how to handle being interviewed. One of the seven composers, Emily Cooley, wrote a blog for the Minnesota Orchestra’s website which offers more details on the specifics of the week than I will here. Suffice it to say, every time I attend this thing I have newfound respect and hope for the future of the orchestra.

Kevin Puts and the seven 2016 Minnesota Orchestra Institute Composers sitting on the edge of the orchestra stage/

A group portrait of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Class of 2016 (from left to right): Michael Gilbertson, Anthony Vine, Kirsten Broberg, Composer Institute director Kevin Puts, Nick DiBerardino, Emily Cooley, Joshua Cerdenia, and Matthew Browne.

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The annual conference of Chamber Music America, an event which has been on my calendar every year for nearly two decades, offers plenty more, albeit smaller scale (by definition), opportunities for composers. There are numerous occasions for attendees to check out a really broad range of music and, perhaps even more importantly, to engage in conversations with potential future collaborators. Unlike many of the conferences of national music organizations, which often tend to attract a much larger percentage of administrative personnel than folks who actually make music, the folks who show up to CMA’s get-togethers are a real cross-section of the music ecology—composers, interpreters, booking agents, presenters—and music always seems to be everyone’s primary focus. Above and beyond that, what keeps me coming back year after year, is that the range of music focused on there is pretty wide and much of it is new. It has been a long time since CMA first opened its doors to jazz in a very significant way, in terms of topics that get featured in panel discussions and ensemble showcases as well as through the grant opportunities it offers to its members. In recent years, the borders between so-called contemporary classical music and work that incorporates improvisation have grown more and more porous and CMA seems to be doing better than most organizations in reflecting that paradigm shift.

So I really looked forward to this year’s conference. It also helped that I didn’t need to hop on an airplane to attend it, plus two-thirds of it took place over the course of a weekend so it didn’t cut too deeply into the rest of my work schedule. And thankfully, it didn’t overlap with the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute like it did last year. Sadly, though, it almost completely overlapped with this year’s New Music Gathering in Baltimore. I was hoping I could at least witness the Gathering’s first day, but I was asked to be a mentor for a group of first-time CMA conference attendees which required being with them at an orientation session an evening before the official schedule began and being as present as I could be for them for the duration. I sincerely hope that in 2017 none of these events will overlap. Folks seeking to establish themselves in this community as well as the folks who can help facilitate that need to be at as many of these convenings as possible; it is a disservice to everyone in the community at large to schedule such important powwows at the same time.

I must admit, however, that I experienced several disappointments in addition to my usual aesthetic epiphanies by staying in NYC for CMA; I will try to address these in a way that I hope will be helpful as I offer a few of the weekend’s highlights. As they now have been for quite a few years, CMA’s panel discussions were relegated exclusively to the 9:00-10:15am time slot. Since the closest coffee was outside the hotel and was sold at Times Square tourist prices, scheduling these talks so early did not always yield the most engaged interaction. That said, there were some great insights proffered during a session on programming in the 21st century moderated by Del Sol Quartet violinist Charlton Lee. While Lee claimed that “an all-new music concert brings in a different audience because it’s more relevant,” Oni Buchanan, who runs Ariel Artists, countered that while “an all-new music concert is a completely different kind of experience … including a new piece on a [mixed] program gets audiences to listen to the old pieces in a new way.” Certain approaches are more effective than others depending on the community you are trying to reach. During the question and answer period, Atlanta Chamber Players’ general manager Rachel Ciprotti pointed out that concerts of mixed repertoire sell better than concerts only containing new work. Even more interesting was another session devoted to the Southern Exposure New Music Series that was basically a conversation between its founding director, composer John Fitz Rogers, and its current one, Mike Harley, a bassoonist who plays in Alarm Will Sound. Harley, in what seemed like a direct refutation to the aforementioned discussion led by Lee, claimed that “Mozart is a way harder sell than most contemporary music.” Admittedly Southern Exposure is a relatively small scale operation and they want to keep it that way. It has been central to their mission that all of their concerts are free and take place in venues that can only seat a couple of hundred people. Since the series operates on a somewhat tiny budget (accrued from funds raised from loyal patrons, grants and a small stipend from the University of South Carolina), visiting artists must often purchase their own travel and lodgings from a relatively small all-inclusive performance fee. But the option of home stays are offered to guests to help defray costs, plus they get taken out for great barbecue! And because it is a positive experience with a really engaged audience, many new music luminaries have still been willing to participate.

Mike Harley and John Fitz Rogers

Mike Harley and John Fitz Rogers

One of the reasons panels are only scheduled in the mornings is to reserve the most optimal portion of the day—the afternoon hours—for ensemble showcases. These showcases have been the heart of the CMA conference for several years now and they probably should be. But there are some logistical problems to the way they are presented. All of the ensembles featured perform in the same room, an acoustically-challenged, partitioned-off ballroom space, yet surprisingly most groups usually make the most of it and sound relatively good in that environment. However, every half hour a new group takes the stage—for four consecutive hours on Friday and five consecutive hours on Saturday. With no breaks! Aside from the inevitable auditory fatigue of processing so many performances at once, the format makes it a real challenge for musicians to make deeper connections to the people who just heard them and vice versa. Talking to someone who just performed—a conversation that could lead to bookings, commissions, and who knows what else—requires walking out on the next ensemble and missing the music they have to offer. So often quick chats happen right outside the door, but the sound proofing is inadequate. I confess to being someone who runs out to chat with performers immediately outside the door, but I usually try to run back inside before the next showcase starts, sometimes losing my seat in the process. There’s got to be a better way to organize this to ensure that all the musicians have a chance to both perform in the most optimal possible conditions (it can never be perfect) and also to have sufficient opportunities to speak to people who could further their careers in a meaningful way.

Still some extraordinary music-making took place during this year’s ensemble showcases. I was very impressed with the energy as well as the tone quality of the Kenari Saxophone Quartet, which was particularly well displayed in their performance of an extremely moving piece called In Memoriam written for them by Joel Love who flew in from Texas to hear their performance. And I was completely floored by Organ Monk, a trio led from a Hammond B3 by Greg Lewis which totally funked out on a series of original compositions named in honor of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. They also included some unexpected twists in their interpretations of the classic standard “Lulu’s Back in Town” and material by the group’s namesake Thelonious. (Lewis and his group are performing at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola on February 16, 2016.)

Hammond B3 organ accompanied by drums and electric guitar.

Organ Monk in action. (Pictured from left to right: Greg Lewis on Hammond B3, Jeremy “Bean” Clemons on drums, and Ron Jackson on guitar.)

As I already mentioned above, the blurring of lines between strict score-based interpretation and improvisation-oriented performance has yielded some fascinating musical hybrids and some of the most interesting music that took place during the showcases fell into this zone. Though nominally a “classical” group, Sybarite5, a string quintet (quartet plus double bass) which released a disc of Radiohead covers in 2012, played much more than what was on their music stands. Similarly Matt Davis’s Aerial Photograph, though described on CMA’s webpage for the 2016 showcases as jazz, ultimately shouldn’t be pigeonholed. Davis, an electric guitarist, exclusively performs his own compositions, which tend to be long form and chuck full of subtle orchestrations. For the showcase, he was joined by nine other musicians—which included a tenor saxophonist, a drummer, and a string quartet—who performed music he wrote based on conversations he had with people in different communities around New York City. The Westerlies, a brass quartet (two trumpets and two trombones) who released a terrific CD of music by Wayne Horvitz in 2014, played their own comprovisational music this time out as well as an arrangement of a song by Charles Ives. The Carpe Diem String Quartet also proved equally adept at navigating classical and jazz idioms as well as Iranian microtonal inflections, in an excerpt from a work by Reza Vali, and even bluegrass, in a selection from the Fiddle Suite by their Montana-born violist Korine Fujiwara.

Another string quartet, the Argus Quartet, a youngish, more exclusively classical-oriented group from L.A. that is now in residence at Yale, made a really compelling case for Peculiar Strokes, a collection of miniatures by Andrew Norman which each explore particular a bowing technique. They had planned to play only selections, which would not have left the audience feeling cheated since the work is designed to be modular, though it was great to actually hear the whole thing. However, by playing all of it, they had to cancel their performance of a movement from Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas, which actually would have additionally given audiences an opportunity to hear their interpretation of traditional Peruvian sonorities. Even more distressing is that since they cancelled Leyendas and Sybarite5 did not perform a piece by Jessica Meyer that they had been scheduled to play according to the printed program, the only female composers represented during nine hours of showcases were women who performed their own music—the aforementioned Fujiwara; Montreal-based Lorraine Desmarais, who fronts a relatively straight-ahead piano trio; and Jen Shyu, who mixed jazz vocals, traditional East Asian instruments, and ritual theatre in a stunning duo with violinist Matt Maneri that ended with her simulating self-immolation. (I was there for the whole thing but couldn’t help but wondering what the experience was like for people who just showed up at the climax.)

But that’s not all. In addition to those nine hours of music during the showcases, there was also an off-site intermission-less two-hour-plus CMA concert on Friday night at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music which featured performances by four additional groups who had received CMA commissioning grants. Talk about sonic overload. Directly before the concert and immediately following the last Friday showcase (that of Sybarite5 which seemed to attract an audience that was well beyond the room’s capacity) there was an opening reception hosted by BMI which is one of the year’s most intense networking hangs. Usually nothing else is scheduled that evening which seems more prudent since conversations that begin over drinks at that reception often spill over to more informal dinners among various attendees. I imagine that they did this year as well since only a small percentage of the seats at DiMenna were occupied. So there weren’t many people in the audience for Duo Yumeno’s performance of Gene Coleman’s Kirigami. The work was an intense exploration of the timbral subtleties of the duo’s two instruments–Japanese koto (played by Yoko Reikano Kimura) and cello (Hikaru Tamaki)–that I, at least, would have benefited more from hearing earlier in the day. The same was true for pianist Fabian Almazan’s Alcanza, which he performed with his largish band Rhizome (another group that incorporates a string quartet into an ensemble of jazz improvisers), though I found the voice of Sara Serpa utterly mesmerizing. Trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson’s Touch Move, performed by his quintet Sicilian Defense, seemed mostly a platform for individual virtuosic flourishes rather than a cohesive composition, but again it was pretty late in the day at this point. I imagine that the somewhat disjointed form of the piece was by design, considering the chess references in both the name of his group and the title of the composition; I probably would have been more attuned to it had there been a program note or some pre-performance onstage commentary explaining what was going on. By the time PRISM came on stage to perform Julia Wolfe’s Cha I was ready to pass out, but the music thankfully wouldn’t let me. Though far shorter than anything else on the program, it was an incredibly dense 10 minutes filled with hockets and other kinds of tightly woven counterpoint that was completely seamless, both from a compositional and interpretational standpoint. (It was only the only time during the entire conference that a composition by a woman was performed by an ensemble that the composer was not a member of.) At 10:15pm I was completely wiped out and eager to finally have dinner, but I would have gladly stayed for more.

There’s undoubtedly a lot more I could describe about the 2016 CMA conference, but I will only make a few more small observations here. One of the conference’s highlights for me has always been the CMA/ASCAP Awards Ceremony which acknowledges ensembles and presenters whose programs have featured the most new music (music that was composed during the last 25 years). Additionally, during the ceremony, ASCAP member composers and publishers in the audience are invited up to the podium to briefly tell attendees about their own music. It is always a good way to gage what is going on around the country and in years past, I always wound up learning about a few more folks I had not been previously aware of. However, this year’s ceremony, which was scheduled on the last day right before the dismantling of the exhibits, was so poorly attended—only four ASCAP members (myself included) went up to the podium. Plus, unlike in previous years, no printed program was distributed to attendees listing all the qualifying new music repertoire on winner’s programs—an extremely useful list. It was a lost opportunity. Perhaps the distribution of these awards, which is a collaboration between ASCAP and CMA, should take place during the luncheon and membership meeting on the first day of the conference. It would reach a much larger percentage of the attendees and would set an appropriate exploratory tone for the weekend.

Lucy Shelton

One of the bright moments of this year’s CMA-ASCAP Adventurous Programming Awards was the introduction by new music championing soprano Lucy Shelton, who is a member of CMA’s board.

Many of the sessions of the 2016 conference were devoted to more effectively interacting (both personally and professionally) with other members of the community. New Music Gathering co-founder Mary Kouyoumdjian, in an essay she wrote for NewMusicBox in anticipation of that weekend’s contemporaneous NMG in Baltimore, claimed that she “really doesn’t like conferences” because they make her “think of barriers” and feel “pressure.” The folks at CMA did their very best to help attendees overcome this very real perception and it is perhaps a testimony to their success that I’ve received even more follow-up communications from folks I met for the first time at this year’s conference than I had in previous years, and I receive a ton of emails.

One of the best things that CMA did was to make first-time attendees feel more comfortable by assigning them mentors. I’d like to offer some space to the folks I mentored that weekend—all of whom are composer/performers active in the jazz scene, though as I can’t emphasize enough, the parsing of members of our community into jazz vs. classical slots is becoming less and less meaningful in today’s new music scene. I mentored four really interesting musicians. I’ve already described the music of Matt Davis, whose ensemble was a highlight of the showcases. Stephen Griggs is an extremely thoughtful Seattle-based saxophonist/composer, one the recipients of this year’s CMA/ASCAP Adventurous Programming Awards, who has composed suites about the Japanese-American internment camps and the plight of a still not-completely-recognized Native American community, the Duwamish, whose most prominent chief, Seattle (c1786-1866), lives on in the name of Griggs’s hometown. Will Holshouser fronts Musette Explosion, an extremely unusual, though completely delightful trio—consisting of his musette (a button accordion) plus guitar and tuba—that offers post-modern re-imaginings of gilded age Parisian café music. Finally, Sheryl Bailey, a guitarist who co-leads a delightful duo with bass legend Harvie S. as well as a Hammond B3-organ trio that would make an interesting double header with the group led by Greg Lewis featured during the showcases. (What’s with the sudden resurgence of the B3?) Unfortunately, when I wandered around recording chats with people during the final hours of the conference I couldn’t find Sheryl, but here are some brief musings about the weekend from Matt, Steve and Will:

 

 

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If the breadth of activities I experienced at the Chamber Music America conference dwarfed the Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute, the Midwest Clinic possibly drowned every other music convening I have ever attended, in terms of its scale as well as potential, including the massive biennial conference of the American Choral Directors Association I wrote about last year that boasted more than 12,000 registrants. I attended the Clinic for the first time eight weeks ago and I still can’t completely make sense of its size and benefits to the greater new music community. It was simply overwhelming.

Lots of cymbals.

Have you ever seen so many cymbals in one place?

Part of why I’ve couched my description of the Midwest Clinic alongside two other events to which I’ve have a long relationship is in order to attempt to explain it. The first Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute (as I stated at the onset) did not occur until 2002 (and the first “official” concert wasn’t until 2006). The CMA conference has a much longer history; it first took place in 1978. But the Midwest Clinic has been going on now for 70 years (though alternately under the names “Band Clinic,” “Mid-West Band Clinic,” “Mid-West National Band Clinic,” “Mid-West National Band and Orchestra Clinic,” and “Mid-West International Band and Orchestra Clinic”). So what is it and why is it called a clinic (the only thing that has been consistent about its name these past seven decades)? Everyone in the music community I’ve talked to who had no familiarity with this event was utterly baffled by the name when I told them I had been there: “Were you sick? Are you having a midlife crisis and enrolling in med school?”

Female and male mannequins in marhing band uniforms

At least I didn’t come home wearing one of these band uniforms!

By the end of my latest trip to the Windy City I came to understand that the term “clinic” is common parlance for a masterclass within the music education community and the folks who lead such sessions are called “clinicians,” a term which to the rest of humanity refers to medical doctors who have direct contact with and responsibility for patients. Yet considering how many “clinics” take place during this annual Windy City marathon, the singular form “Midwest Clinic” is still somewhat misleading, and “clinics” are not the only kind of activity that goes on there. It isn’t exactly a conference though many conference-type panels occur during its super jam-packed four days. It’s also not a music festival, though there were more concerts packed into that relatively short amount of time than during either Gaudeamus Music Week or the ISCM World Music Days, both of which consistently wow me with the sheer amount of music they present. And then there’s the larger-than-life exhibit hall which is a major locus of activity. In addition to being chock full of promotional fare from various universities, music organizations, and branches of the military, there are also tons of items for sale that many attendees flocked to—everything from band instruments and uniforms to sheet music and CDs. (Yes, people were actually buying physical recordings there; I personally came home with a bounty of 62 discs which I’m still attempting to listen through.)

Of all the music-related events I’ve attended during my professional life, the Clinic most resembles MIDEM, which is something of a cross between a conference, a festival, and an industry trade show. Though that’s probably not a completely accurate description, either, since MIDEM is pretty much a closed-door event for music industry insiders. The Clinic attracts a much broader range of music aficionados, everyone from numerous members of military, university, and high school bands (many of whom I witnessed delightedly trying out instruments in the exhibits) to some of America’s most prominent bandleaders and composers: I ran into Eric Whitacre and Michael Daugherty, both of whom led sessions during the Clinic, just walking around the supersized McCormick Place, which boasts being the largest convention center in North America.

Man sticking hand inside tuba bell shaped bowl next to another man holding a doll wearing an elf cap.

One of the more entertaining booths I visited was the one for the Northshore Concert Band in Evanston, Illinois. I wound up buying several of their discs.

The first day of the Clinic got off to an extremely early start—registration began at 7:00am, and by 8 (let’s be real here), there was still a massively long line but luckily it moved pretty fast since there was so much to see and ultimately precious little time despite each day’s activities going on pretty much non-stop for twelve consecutive hours. As a first time attendee, I was given a special sticker to affix to my badge, but there was no special welcoming reception. Certainly nothing resembling the TLC of the mentors for first-time attendees at the Chamber Music America conference. So I plunged right in. Throughout those four days, the only acknowledgment I received as a newbie was an occasional comment from an exhibitor who noticed my sticker. I now wonder if it was something of a Scarlet Letter and I might have fared better had I not worn it; despite how many people were there, I got into way fewer conversations with complete strangers than I normally do at music conferences. It’s a lesson learned for the next time there, although it is only possible to be a first-time attendee once.

Attempting to enumerate all of the various things I attended and all of the people I met there would probably require me to take another eight weeks to write, so I will only recount some of my most salient memories. Among the concerts I heard, the performances by the North Texas Wind Symphony (which, under the direction of Eugene Corporon, is the gold standard in the windband community), the Atlanta-based Tara Winds, the VanderCook College of Music Symphonic Band (the Chicago hometown favorites), and, most impressive of all, the Shujitsu Junior and Senior High School Wind Ensemble (who travelled here all the way from Okayama, Japan) were as proficient as any top tier symphony orchestra, including Minnesota. So as great an opportunity as a performance by a high profile orchestra is for an emerging composer, it might be equally satisfying to secure a windband gig and also probably more career savvy—these ensembles are far more eager to perform new music, will play your piece a lot more frequently, give it much more rehearsal time, and also be thrilled to give you a recording of it. People have been telling me this for years but witnessing it first-hand repeatedly is even more convincing.

A sprawling line of people that snakes around multiple times.

One of the most heartening thing I witnessed during the Midwest Clinic was the seemingly endless line of people waiting to attend a session featuring four composers–John Mackey, Eric Whitacre, Jonathan Newman, and Steve Bryant. The only disappointment was that because there were so many people ahead of me in the line, I ultimately wasn’t able to get in.

My other big epiphany was that the Midwest Clinic is not exclusively a gathering for folks involved with wind band music. I heard a demonstration by a mariachi band during one of the clinics as well as part of a concert by the Beckendorff Junior High School Honor Orchestra, a string orchestra from Katy, Texas, which featured works by two female composers: Soon Hee Newbold and Keiko Yamada. [Ed. Note: Subsequent to the publication of this article, it was discovered that Keiko Yamada was a pseudonym for the male composer Larry Clark. (See September 1, 2019 comment below.)] Few concert experiences I attended last year were as exhilarating as the concert I heard by the Michigan State University Jazz Orchestra (who call themselves The Be-Bop Spartans) despite it taking place in a convention center! I’d also be remiss if I did not write something about the Hendrickson High School Saxophone Ensemble (from Pflugerville, Texas). A transcription they performed of a Double Violin Concerto by Vivaldi was surprisingly very effective but I was even more smitten with what they did with a new work written expressly for them by Daniel Montoya, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek nod to Philip Glass titled Einstein on 6th Street which juxtaposed the sound world of Glass’s motoric arpeggios with melodic shapes more characteristic of the various popular music traditions that co-exist in Montoya’s hometown of Austin, Texas. I had to talk to him about it:

In terms of saturation and inundation nothing prepared me for the New Music Reading Session given by the National Guard’s Bands of the Air, one of several such sessions that took place during the Clinic. Their plan was to get through over a hundred submitted works, playing about a minute from each one. After the first fifteen I thought my head would explode and I had to leave. It was impossible for me to distinguish any of these pieces from each other with so little to go on and constant bombardment from yet another piece of music before having anytime to process what I had just heard. Much more poignant, I thought, was a presentation called “Birth and Life of New Music” that was devoted to an explication and performance of a single piece of music, an extremely vibrant and timbrally thrilling concerto for bass trombone and wind band by David Gillingham that was passionately delivered by the Central Michigan University Symphonic Wind Ensemble under the direction of John E. Williamson featuring the New York Philharmonic’s George Curran, for whom the work was written, as soloist. But the most moving thing I attended the entire time I was there, however, was a session called “Teaching Children to Create,” co-led by Glen Adsit from the Hartt School of Music and maverick composer Michael Colgrass, in which students from the Plymouth-Canton High School band program (again, from Michigan) created and then performed some incredibly far out music using graphic notation. If the “professional” orchestras performed stuff as wild as this even twice a year, I’d become a lifelong subscriber! But it wasn’t just about being avant-garde. There was a remarkable formal cohesion to one of the pieces they played, a short aleatory work by one of the girls in the class whose name I regret I am unable to include here. (I jotted it down on a piece of paper that does not seem to have make it back to New York with me.)

Disappointingly, aside from her and the two women [Ed Note: actually one, see Ed. Note above and September 1, 2019 comment below] who wrote string orchestra pieces, the only woman composer programmed during the entire Midwest Clinic was Julie Giroux, three of whose wind band compositions were featured. I was grateful to get to hear two of the three and I brought back some additional pieces of hers on recordings I got there as well. Nevertheless, such a lack of representation is shocking in the year 2016. I already know tons of worthy repertoire for wind band composed by women and I still consider myself a rookie in this scene. African-American, Hispanic, and Asian composers were also marginal to the proceedings. In addition, the winners of various awards that were given throughout the four days were all white men. Banners of photos of previous Clinic honorees, all male and all white as well, greeted me when I entered the space to register on the very first day. For such an inclusive music event (in terms of its breadth and range) to be so exclusive was very disturbing.

A series of banners with photographs.

The banners of honorees that greeted 2015 Midwest Clinic attendees.

Since there were so many simultaneous competing events, it was hard to decide from moment to moment where I should be. Most of the sessions I attended were less than stimulating, however, with many clinicians simply reading from handouts they distributed to attendees as they entered the rooms. So by the third day, I figured out the best way to gather information was to circulate among as many conference rooms as I could, grabbing all the handouts without sticking around for too long. I also wanted to devote a significant amount of time to wandering the exhibits since that seemed to be a congregating place where attendees actually had an opportunity to converse with one another. I managed, in addition to bumping into Whitacre and Daugherty, to chance upon other composers I knew—among them composers Jim Bonney, Jennifer Jolley, Martha Mooke, Jonathan Newman, Alex Shapiro, Jim Stephenson, and Stephen Bryant (who has the best business card I’ve ever seen–a thick card containing his photo that is also a USB stick containing perusal PDF scores and recordings of his band compositions). I also bumped into Scott Tegge from the Chicago-based super new music friendly brass quintet Gaudete Brass whom I met several years ago at a CMA conference. Plus I got to meet composer Joel Love whose saxophone quartet I had the pleasure of hearing a few weeks later, again at CMA. There’s clearly a connection here and yet several people who knew me seemed very surprised that I was attending the Midwest Clinic since they all associate me exclusively with new music. But there was so much new music there, which is why I was there and why they were there as well. Jonathan Newman perhaps summed it up even better than I could:

Chamber Music America Announces 2013 Commissioning Grant Recipients

Chamber Music America (CMA) has announced the recipients of its 2013 commissioning grants, supporting the creation of new works for small ensembles. CMA will distribute $421,950 to 19 ensembles through two of its major grant programs: New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development, supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and Classical Commissioning, supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The grantees in each program were selected by independent peer panels this spring.
A total of $208,500 has been awarded to nine jazz ensembles through the New Jazz Works program, which provides support for the creation and performance of new works in the jazz idiom, as well as funding for activities that extend the life of the work, and allow the ensemble leader to acquire or cultivate career-related business skills.

The 2013 New Jazz Works grantees are:

World Time Zone (led by Michael Blake)
Sheldon Brown Group
Robin Verheyen NY Quartet
Ben Kono Group
Manuel Valera and New Cuban Express
Dapp Theory (led by Andy Milne)
Alan Ferber Nonet
Jacob Garchik Trio (joined in its commission by the Caravel String Trio)
Sicilian Defense (led by Jonathan Finlayson)

Ten ensembles have also been awarded a total of $213,450 through the Classical Commissioning program, which provides support for U.S.-based professional classical and world music ensembles and presenters for the creation and performance of new chamber works by American composers.

The 2013 Classical Commissioning grantees are:

Duo Scorpio / Nico Muhly
Kontras Quartet / Jens Kruger
Melody of China / Yuanlin Chen
Michael Winograd Ensemble / Michael Winograd
Music from China / Chen Yi
Mivos Quartet / Eric Wubbels
PRISM Quartet / Julia Wolfe
Talea Ensemble / Oscar Bettison
ZOFO / William Bolcom
Ensemble N_JP / Gene Coleman

(—from the press release)

Close Encounters of the Chamber Music Kind

Last week I attended the Chamber Music America conference for the first time; I was partially there representing NewMusicBox, and partially there to satisfy the curiosity of my composer self. I should preface this by stating that I am not a big conference person, but I’m really glad I went because it was great to connect with so many old friends and to meet lots of fellow musical travelers.

While other conferences have struck me as gigantic family reunions, this one seemed more like a gathering of inhabitants from the many moons orbiting a planet. A variety of musical worlds were represented, not to mention the different facets making those worlds tick—performers, artist managers, presenters, etc.—all with very specific agendas in tow. Networking was more like speed-dating. “Are you doing my thing? No? Okay. Here’s my card anyway. Nicetomeetyoubye!” As Ellen McSweeney has already pointed out, new music was not much represented, and although the keynote speaker was Tod Machover (who delivered a wonderful, airtight, inspiring speech), electronic music was basically absent from the landscape.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t difficult for anyone there to encounter like-minded folks of one sort or another. The various panels, meetings, and showcases ensured that classical would rub shoulders with jazz, the big presenters with smaller, and that the more seasoned, established attendees would come into contact with the newcomers. I think that both Angela Myles Beeching (if you haven’t read her book, do it now) and Steve Smith should receive awards for exemplary panel facilitation!

The conference also provided a glimpse into the workings of standard ensembles that play primarily standard repertoire. Faced with two piano trios who play Brahms equally well, how does a presenter choose? Will it be based upon the group’s photo? Or on the presenter’s relationship with the group’s manager? On the ensemble’s ability to attract an audience? I do not envy the sort of competition those ensembles, and performers of straight-up classical music in general, have to endure. Many of the panels were aimed at developing creative methods to address exactly those issues. Although I heard more than one panelist suggest that this model for presenting classical chamber music is fading away, last week it appeared healthy, strong, and eager to keep on trucking.
In the end, what I walked away with—in addition to a pile of business cards and CDs—was a head full of very small, yet very smart ideas for enhancing one’s musical life that are easy to implement but that could have a substantial impact. These ideas came primarily from conversations with individuals and less from group activities. Even if you’re not a conference person, it’s still a good plan to dive into the fray; you never know what will happen!

Scratch That: Cutting Edge or Marginalized?

Five new music angles on the Chamber Music America conference:

1. What’s the big deal? New music is everywhere at Chamber Music America. The organization is doing a great deal to commission and promote contemporary music, and the conference was a great place to be for the new music community. The keynote speaker, Todd Machover, is a composer from MIT whose mind-blowing talk was a highlight of the weekend. A panel on women composers with Steve Smith, Missy Mazzoli, and several high-profile women composer/curators drew a standing-room crowd at nine a.m. on a Saturday. Even among presenters who serve a more musically conservative constituency, there seemed to be an overwhelming consensus that bringing contemporary music into the fold is essential. The conference made it clear that some of the most exciting developments in chamber music are happening in new music.

2. New music is everywhere … unless you’re a string quartet or piano trio. On Friday and Saturday afternoons, conference attendees heard lots of different ensembles—filed under jazz/experimental or classical/contemporary—perform 25-minute programs. During these showcases, traditional ensembles like string quartets and piano trios hardly programmed any music by living composers. Among these types of ensembles, only BELLA Piano Trio planned to play a living composer on their program. But when it came time to perform Jennifer Higdon’s Fiery Red, the trio ended up swapping in some Dvořák instead. (Contemporary quartet mainstay ETHEL was an exception, as was Chicago’s Axiom Brass, which makes sense given that brass repertoire is newer in general.) The jazz ensemble performances overflowed with newly composed work, but among the Fully Notated, Orchestral-Instrument set, it was still a Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Brahms kind of scene. These showcasing ensembles want to make a great impression on their audience—a group of high-profile artist managers, presenters, and oh right, some musicians, too—and most of them chose not to make new music a part of their “sell.”

3. Do CMA’s membership requirements exclude new music groups doing important work? The most prominent new music ensembles in America were not at the conference. I’m thinking here of groups like ICE, wildUP, Ensemble Dal Niente, and lots of prominent New York-based ensembles like yMusic and Alarm Will Sound. This led me to realize for the first time that many of these ensembles aren’t, by strict definition, chamber groups. They have larger, more flexible rosters and the repertoire often demands a conductor—something that CMA membership precludes. Yet I’ve always thought of chamber music as being the heart of what ICE or Dal Niente does. Is all-contemporary programming too challenging for the moderately old-school constituency of CMA? Or are these enterprising groups more likely to have forged a different organizational model—one that doesn’t rely so much on managers and booking agents? Two days after the conference, I received this amazing newsletter describing the Ecstatic Music Festival and wondered if perhaps the best new music groups are simply too busy to send someone to a conference that doesn’t quite align with their needs.

4. The creative, collaborative, DIY spirit of the Chicago chamber music scene is special and needs to be exported better. Chamber music innovations happening in Chicago aren’t nearly as well-known as they should be. Conference buzzwords like flexible-format concerts, interdisciplinary collaboration, and unconventional venues are so essential to the Chicago scene that they’ve almost become old hat. What’s even cooler about Chicago is that most of these innovations are artist-driven, because almost all our ensembles are artist-run. The lack of staff is exhausting, but it also allows our organizations to take risks, to be more dynamic and adaptive, and to have lower overhead. When you think about Spektral Quartet curating an evening of works about war, or Fifth House creating cinematic concert experiences that redefine music-theater collaboration, or the sheer scope of the Beethoven Festival, you realize what exciting stuff is happening in our city. And most of it is happening without management.

5. The national new music community needs a professional conference of its own. Imagine a conference as lively and vibrant as CMA, but more centered on performance and ideas than on a marketplace of acts for sale. By day, the conference could host amazing panel discussions on a range of important issues in the field: perhaps Claire Chase lecturing on new ensemble models, Alex Ross chairing a panel on music writing, Marcos Balter speaking on commission etiquette, or Third Coast Percussion talking about the way they divide organizational work. By night, we’d all hear great off-site performances at the Hideout, the Empty Bottle, Mayne Stage (which is a decidedly better venue than Le Poisson Rouge), Corbett & Dempsey, and a host of others. Because I forgot to mention one important detail: the first conference should be in Chicago. Let’s make it happen.

Scratch That: Nothing More Than Feelings

Drama alert: we’ve received word of a Photographer Debacle at the Chicago Composers Orchestra concert last week. Apparently, an ill-informed photographer passed out his business card and introduced himself to many orchestra members…while they were performing. We’ll resist linking to his website for fear of retribution; wronged orchestral players and their allies can be a fierce and unforgiving bunch.

January is a difficult month for Scratch, as our usual concert-going days are occupied by unmissable NFL playoff action. Fortunately, someone in the advertising department understands that there’s a niche audience that wants to see legendary football players pretending to be piano virtuosos with great hair:


Does Scratch That seem a little jittery? That’s because we’re packing a suitcase and heading to New York City for the Chamber Music America conference! We’re especially excited for Saturday’s panel on women composers, and a career advising session where we can finally ask Astrid Baumgardner if writing this column is a good career move for us. You can follow @ellen_mcsweeney for live tweets of the conference, assuming we’ll be able to tear our naive Midwestern eyes away from the bright lights, tall skyscrapers, and impressively large attitudes.

Chicago will continue to hum with winter concerts while we’re away, including ICE bassoonist Rebekah Heller’s solo recital at Corbett vs. Dempsey. She’s performing new works by Chicago composers Marcos Balter and Daniel Dehaan. This evocative blog post from Dehaan describes the epic motorcycle trip he took in order to capture the sights and sounds of Alaska (and much of the West Coast). You know—just your average “creative process” post.

Is it just us, or are musicians starting to blog about their feelings more? Either way, we’re in favor. This post from Luke Gullickson resonated, and this one from Emily Wright inspired. Keep up the good work, people.

2013 CMA/ASCAP Adventurous Programming Awardees Named

Three ensembles and five presenters will be recognized with CMA/ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming during the 35th Chamber Music America National Conference in New York City. A ceremony will be held at the Westin New York at Times Square on January 20, 2013.

Established jointly by Chamber Music America and ASCAP, the annual awards recognize U.S.-based professional ensembles and presenters for distinctive programming of music composed within the past 25 years. The recipients, chosen by an independent panel of judges, were evaluated on the basis of their programming and innovations in attracting audiences to performances of new music.

The 2013 CMA/ASCAP Awardees are:

ENSEMBLES

Contemporary: SOLI Chamber Ensemble (San Antonio, TX)
Through its commissioning activities, the SOLI Chamber Ensemble has expanded the repertoire for its instrumentation—clarinet, violin, cello, and piano—a combination inspired by Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. The group was cited for an award based on its programming and commissions, which included premieres of works by such composers as Brian Bondari, Xi Wang, Dan Welcher, Doug Balliett, and Paul Moravec, as well as Prelude to the End—created for the group’s 20th anniversary by composer Steven Mackey and video artist Mark DeChiazza.

Jazz: Slumgum (Altadena, CA)
Among the innovations of the jazz ensemble Slumgum is its practice of choosing a single concept, based on which all four band members agree to create at least one new piece. Other recent projects include the creation of a new work for octet (Slumgum musicians plus a chamber ensemble of flute, horn, clarinet, and voice) and performances of original works interpreting the written word, ranging from a passage in Charles Mingus’s autobiography to poems, a Biblical passage, and a Buddhist reading.

Mixed repertory: Radius Ensemble (Concord, MA)
To introduce new music to its classically oriented audience, Radius Ensemble has been offering programs that pair contemporary composers with past masters—Jan Bach and Katherine Hoover with Mozart and Françaix, György Ligeti with Robert Schumann. The ensemble (wind quintet, strings, and piano) was cited for its programming and related audience-engagement activities, including accessible spoken introductions to the works performed, meet-the-artists receptions, podcasts of live recordings, and live streaming of concerts.

LARGE PRESENTERS (10 or more concerts per year)

Contemporary: Miller Theatre at Columbia University (New York, NY)
Columbia University’s Miller Theatre was cited for its many original new music events, in particular its Composer Portraits Series, evening-length programs exploring the catalogs of Tobias Picker, George Lewis, John Zorn, and Hilda Paredes; its Sounds of a New Century (SONiC) Festival, which included a 12-hour marathon curated by the JACK Quartet and eight world premieres; and Pop-Up Concerts, a newly inaugurated free series.

Mixed repertory: Yellow Barn (Putney, VT)
Yellow Barn is being honored for its summer festival programming and for emphasis on new music in its year-round concerts, lectures, and educational offerings.  The 2012 festival routinely juxtaposed new music and iconic classical works, and included several works by composer-in-residence Brett Dean. A May open-air performance featured Gérard Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Étoile (for six percussionists surrounding the audience)—a composition inspired by the discovery of pulsars—and included a pre-concert talk with an astrophysicist. An artist residency in public schools, featuring the ensemble Due East, also highlighted the music of today’s composers.

SMALL PRESENTERS (9 concerts or less per year)

Contemporary: Musiqa (Houston, TX)
Musiqa (Houston, TX) is being honored for its wide-ranging commissioning, performance, and educational activities. “Free of the Ground,”—part of Musiqa’s Downtown Series—was an exploration of fellow artists’ influences on composers’ works; a concert in its Loft Series, held in conjunction with Contemporary Art Museum of Houston’s survey of the career of visual artist Donald Moffett, included politically charged works such as Frederic Rzewski’s No More War. Audience-engagement activities include talks by the composers, question-and-answer sessions, and a variety of new music concerts for children.

Jazz: Magic Triangle Jazz Series/UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center (Amherst, MA)
The Magic Triangle Jazz Series at the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center is being honored for its programming and associated activities organized by music curator Glenn Siegel. James “Blood” Ulmer, Joshua Abrams, Wadada Leo Smith, the Frank Lacy Trio, Shakers ’n’ Bakers, and Steve Coleman and the Elements performed on the series, conducted student workshops, and participated in live radio interviews that were later made available as podcasts.

Mixed repertory: Kyo-Shin-An Arts (New York, NY)
Kyo-Shin-An Arts integrates Japanese instruments into contemporary Western  music. A typical collaboration, supported by the Japan Foundation, was titled Kammerraku (Kammer is “chamber” in German, and raku “music” in Japanese) and featured new music performed by the Voxare String Quartet with koto, shakuhachi, and shamisen players.  Another partnership, with the Colorado Quartet, featured four works composed for shakuhachi and string quartet, including a commission from Paul Moravec. The works were toured to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts during the 100th anniversary of the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

(—from the press release)

An Honor to Celebrate (and a Shame Long Forgotten)

I’m a bit late this week in contributing my regular ad-hoc chain of paragraphs to the NewMusicBox blog area, something I still think of as “Chatter” and, in my most nostalgic moments, as “In the Second Person” commentary. And there’s plenty of reason for me to feel nostalgic, which is the same reason why these paragraphs are getting posted later than usual. I spent the entire weekend at the 2012 conference of Chamber Music America which culminated in honoring (with its highest honor, the Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award) one of my mentors and a lifelong role model, American composer and music advocate John Duffy. (And I do mean the entire weekend—the panels, plenary sessions, showcase performances, concerts, and awards ceremonies spanned early Friday morning to late Sunday night.) While there was no time to write over the weekend and on Monday (a national holiday) I was in no shape to string sentences together, I tried to the best of my time and ability to report on stuff as it happened via Twitter.)

Ed Harsh and John Duffy

A meeting of generations: New Music USA CEO Ed Harsh and Meet The Composer Founder John Duffy. Photo by Shelley Kusnetz, courtesy Chamber Music America.

Although he has written over 300 compositions including operas, symphonic works, scores for films and television programs, and incidental theatre music, Duffy is perhaps most broadly known for being the founder of Meet The Composer. Aside from the fact that Meet The Composer is one of two organizations (the other being the American Music Center) that merged last year to form New Music USA (the umbrella under which NewMusicBox, and many other programs, now exist), MTC and John Duffy will always hold a special place in my heart. I was among the myriad composers who received support from MTC for premiere performances of my own music which might not have happened otherwise (since I was not on its staff, I was able to). At one point in my life, I worked for a firm that handled public relations for MTC and in so doing learned how much the organization contributed to the sea-change in the presence of contemporary music and its variety in the established classical music landscape. Duffy was one of the first people to decry the artificial lines between musical genres—famously declaring Charlie Parker’s alto saxophone improvisations to be music on par with the counterpoint of Johann Sebastian Bach. And the concept of a composer-in-residence is now pretty easy to grasp; before MTC, not so much.

But, above and beyond that, the persona of John Duffy made me realize that if you are a composer, your entire life is a composer residency. Everything we do as composers and how we interact with everyone in our community affects our field as a whole. On a personal note, Duffy has been among the most generous people I have ever met. Many years ago when he was moving and decided to get rid of his many LP recordings accumulated over decades (which was formidable), he learned that I was a vinyl obsessive so he actually gave me his entire collection. Acquiring these recordings was my introduction to lots of extraordinary repertoire including the symphonies of William Schuman and—believe it or not—the first recordings I ever heard of wind band music. Hearing these recordings, like everything else I got from knowing Duffy (corporeal and non-corporeal), broadened my mind and helped to open me up to the whole world of new American music which is something that needed to happen in order for me to do what I do now.

The entire 2012 Chamber Music America conference centered on advocacy and musical diversity, which is a tribute to the legacy of John Duffy. Often CMA’s Bogomolny awardees are honored with chamber music concerts highlighting their work. Duffy has only composed one chamber work to date (would that he would write more) so only that work was presented. But even if he had composed 66 string quartets (as did Joseph Haydn, a factoid the Attacca Quartet proclaimed during their showcase when they announced that they intend to record all of them someday), the only way to honor Duffy would be to play one of his pieces along with the music of others, since honoring him is ultimately about embracing all composers. So on CMA’s celebratory concert at Symphony Space entitled “Sounds American,” alongside Duffy’s composition, We Want Mark Twain, was the performance of a new work for oud and wind quintet by Palestinian-American Simon Shaheen performed by Shaheen with the Imani Winds, Cuban-American jazz pianist Martin Bejerano’s compositions for his own trio, and performances by the genre defying group Fieldwork of compositions by each of its three members: Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, and Tyshawn Sorey.

Amir ElSaffar's Two Rivers Ensemble

Amir El-Saffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble. Left to Right: Carlo DeRosa, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, percussion; Amir El-Saffar, trumpet and santoor; Ole Mathisen, tenor saxophone; Tareq Abboushi, buzuq; and Zaafir Tawil, oud. Photo by Shelley Kusnetz, courtesy Chamber Music America.

If that concert seems all over the map, the showcases went even further. I already mentioned the Attacca Quartet who before playing Haydn opened with a selection from John’s Book of Alleged Dances by John Adams–the provocatively titled “Toot Nipple.” Three brass quintets were on hand, among them the Gaudete Brass, 75% of whose showcase repertoire was by living Americans, and half of it by women composers. Then there was bassist Mario Pavone’s sextet whose pianist Peter Madsen blew my mind with his ability to make a fast tremolo ring out like a brass instrument, and Todd Marcus’s Quartet whose percussionist Eric Kennedy, even when comping the other players, carved out compelling melodies from striking all different areas of his various drums and cymbals. I was perhaps most balled over by Amir El-Saffar’s ensemble which navigated a musical realm somewhere between the traditional Iraqi maqams of his heritage with swinging jazz in charts he described as being “bitonal in the keys of F and B half flat”!

The panel discussions I attended—broaching subjects from using social media for audience connectivity to the future of recordings—spanned a similar broad reaching aesthetic, as did the two plenary sessions. The second, by Randy Cohen of Americans For the Arts, reaffirmed Duffy’s sentiments in how he tied the arts to society. He also introduced much of the audience, myself included, to the “shame flute”—a Medieval instrument that was clasped around the neck of bad musicians who were forced to parade around the town playing on it to humiliate them for the awful sounds they inflicted on their neighbors. I think we need to reclaim the instrument for new music. The first plenary, a talk by Aaron Dworkin, founder of the Sphinx Organization (which advocates for Black and Latino classical musicians), led me to a whole day of listening on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day instead of writing this report. Once again, it all goes back to John Duffy (except for the shame flute); it was a joy to see him so publicly acknowledged and honored for his commitment to all of us.

John Duffy CMA Group Photo

Left to right: Fran Richard (of ASCAP), Tania León, John Duffy, Frank J. Oteri and his wife Trudy Chan, ASCAP’s Michael Spudic, and Ed Harsh. Photo by Shelley Kusnetz, courtesy Chamber Music America.