Tag: conferences

Third New Music Gathering Announces May Line-Up

Composer/Performer Speed Dating

Percussionist Steven Schick, the International Contemporary Ensemble, New Music Detroit, and Michigan’s Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble have been announced as the headlining performers for the third annual New Music Gathering, this year slated for May 11–13, 2017, on the campus of Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Co-founded by musicians Lainie Fefferman, Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Matt Marks, and Jascha Narveson, this practitioner-led conference has become a much-praised space for new music colleagues from across the country to meet face-to-face and discuss challenging issues and exciting trends. The full three-day schedule of panels, performances, and lectures built around this year’s theme of “Support” is now available on the NMG site. Topics will range widely, spanning the use of technology and electronic elements in new music to concerns over the level of diversity in the field. Installations and demonstrations, composer/performer speed dating, and even career-oriented “therapy” will be on offer.

audience at NMG panel

Audience at NMG panel in 2016

Being clear that he was speaking on behalf of all the founders, Daniel Felsenfeld acknowledges the growth of the grassroots event but redirects credit for its success back on the wider new music community.

“Our first year was a bit of a nail-biter—would anyone come?—and we were pleasantly surprised, dazzled even, by the enthusiasm, even more so the second year,” he admits. “And we cannot even take credit for this because the community did all of that heavy lifting: we just gave it space. So as we prepare for year three the usual challenges present themselves, just in greater numbers. Also we have, because of some gracious funding help, significantly lowered the price to welcome more people to NMG.”

Registration is now open at the rate of $50/advanced full-3-day conference pass ($60 at the door); $20/day pass. Complimentary passes are available to BGSU students, staff, faculty, and alumni.

The Curiosity Cabinet

The Curiosity Cabinet in performance, part of the NMG in Baltimore in 2016

Previously held in San Francisco and Baltimore, the Bowling Green location takes the festival into the country’s heartland. Felsenfeld explains that the location was chosen for two reasons. “The first was the school’s legendary commitment to new music,” he acknowledged. “And the other the fact that we’ve been on both coasts and need to look elsewhere—and so much is happening either at the college or in neighboring cities that it seemed like an ideal hub for so much excellent music making. One of the principal missions of New Music Gathering is to never be in the same place twice, which means we get to experience more of the musical landscape.”

Part of that experience means getting out of urban hubs. “In a way, the surprise is part of the fun,” Felsenfeld suggests. “We do not know exactly how things will work in Bowling Green, but we do know it will be different and that, to us, is critical.” Conference attendees who may not have met yet or know each other only via social media can look to share transportation and housing through the event’s couch and ridesharing program.

Scratch That: He Said, She Said

Without a doubt, my favorite new musical activity of the week was browsing the LP bins at Reckless Records in Wicker Park. I know it’s criminal that it’s taken me this long to get to it. But I’ve finally discovered a reason to browse those bins, even though I don’t own a turntable. The staff-written record descriptions, printed on humble adhesive labels and stuck onto the LP’s shrinkwrap, are awesome. Take this description of an Aesop Rock record: “Never really liked this sort of left field Hip Hop, but what stands out to me here is that despite the density of the lyrics and the dark feeling of paranoia, the soundscape has a groove to it.” Or this one: “The kind of dudes you’d expect to see performing at a bowling alley on a Monday night in 1982, playing outdated AM funk, singing unintelligible lyrics to a sad discoball backdrop and a bad teenage makeout session. And they’re totally sincere and it’s the most endearing thing I’ve maybe ever heard.” It’s like having your cool, music-savvy friend stand over your shoulder and give you tips while you shop. Maybe I have room for a turntable after all…and maybe these little labels can teach us a thing or two about how to talk about the “weird” music we’re all working so hard to make.

It was a lot of fun to get some response to my column last week about a national conference devoted to issues and performances in new music. Rob Deemer engaged a few of the potential problems and benefits of my idea, and lots of others piped up in the comments, on Facebook, and in emails to me. Be sure to check out the conversation and contribute to it if you’d like.
There’s a new music-happenings website in Chicago! It’s called chicagomusic.org and it’s a joint venture between scrappy neighborhood organization Elastic Arts and a little corporation called Boeing. The site’s managing editor is Elastic’s Paul Giallorenzo; last year Elastic won a $150,000 grant from Boeing to run the site. Already, chicagomusic.org casts a wide swath— current featured artists include hip-hop groups, improvisers, and a whole page devoted to classical/new music. The page has some great interviews, previews, and other interesting content. We’re excited to see such a vibrant new resource for discovering Chicago artists, and can’t wait to find out what will appear on those pages in the coming months.

While some Chicagoans are headed to New York— Ensemble Dal Niente’s date with Marcos Balter and Deerhoof  on the Ecstatic Music Festival is fast approaching—some New Yorkers are also traveling to us. Nadia Sirota is coming to town for a show with the Anubis Quartet on February 11, and ICE, Carla Kilstedt, and Phyllis Chen will play what looks to be a fascinating show on February 17.
Finally, a note of intention. One of the most important issues raised in my entire experience at the Chamber Music America conference occurred during the panel Steve Smith moderated on presenting the work of women composers. The panelists pointed out the abysmally low numbers of women being programmed by major cultural institutions, and then the low numbers of women on the faculty of composition departments, and the low numbers of women in doctoral composition programs. And that’s when Missy Mazzoli talked about perhaps the most important statistic: the number of young women applying—or, more to the point, not applying—to composition programs at all. The giant question in the room seemed to be: What’s happening to young women between the age of 14 and 18? Why are they less likely to see themselves as composers? Are their talents being properly nurtured, encouraged, and developed? It’s a monumentally complex question, and one very dear to my heart. Over the next few months, I’d like to devote some of my NewMusicBox energies to exploring the issue of creativity and confidence in young women. If you have ideas or resources around this question, please share them in the comments.

A Big Tent

One of Ellen McSweeney’s observations from her adventures at the Chamber Music America conference was that 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.

This got me thinking about how such an endeavor could actually work—who would be the intended audience, would it be a yearly or biennial event, what umbrella organization would or could provide logistical support, and so on. But as I imagined what such a conference would look like, I began to wonder if an all-inclusive conference that brought performers and composers from throughout the new music community together would be feasible or even effective. I’m not saying it couldn’t work—I think it would be awesome if it did and I’ve got half a mind to talk to someone at New Music USA about spearheading such an event—but there are several issues that would need to be addressed (in my humble opinion) before such a project was put into place.

1) The focus should be balanced between composers and performers. I’m in complete agreement with Ellen that such a conference not be geared towards enticing management and presenting organizations; something that brings composers and performers together on an equitable standing so the performers aren’t there simply to play on concerts (as is the case with composer-centric events) and the composers aren’t there just to sell their music or negotiate a commission. To have everyone there with the intent for interaction and dialogue would be a very good thing; I have seen examples of this in action several times and it always works out well on both sides.

2) There should not be an aesthetic/stylistic/regional/alumnal bias in the programming of the music or the guests. While there’s nothing wrong with celebrating connections between artists, it’s too easy for such gatherings to be pre-connected—those who aren’t already in circles can’t find opportunities to break the ice and those who already know each other simply reinforce those relationships that already exist. There are already more than a few festivals that become echo chambers along a distinct stylistic bent and while it’s helpful and healthy for those like-minded musicians to explore and validate their own musical niches, there are very few opportunities for those various camps/tribes/whatever to interact on an equal footing with each other. Finally, there could be mechanisms set in place to ensure that a certain number of participants came from outside of the top new music markets and were distributed as evenly as possible from around the country and elsewhere.

3) There should be a balance between internal interaction between the participants (both directed and casual) through workshops and discussions and external interaction with the general public through concerts and other public events. While concerts themselves are a great way for us to communicate with each other musically (as well as with a general audience), opportunities for performers, composers, or both (depending on the topic) to explore and debate amongst one another in a safe environment is healthy, necessary, and all too rare.

I have no idea if this is feasible, but I think any opportunity for the entire new music community (both here and abroad) to come together should be explored, and if done, then done right.

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.

IndieCade: A Car Crash of Math and Feelings

This last weekend I was at IndieCade, a festival for independent video games held in Los Angeles (conveniently enough for me). I was specifically on the lookout for games that had an interesting approach toward music and sound, and I was not disappointed. I was also glad to find many people looking for deeper connections between music and games. On Saturday, during a talk about non-game inspirations, Naomi Clark described music as a “car crash of math and feelings.” I have a hard time coming up with a better description for music, games, or my experience at IndieCade this year.

The festival gives out awards to various games every year, and this year they also invited composers and musicians from several of the nominated games to perform. One highlight for me was the Czech duo DVA, which wrote the soundtrack to the lovely Botanicula and performed at the closing reception. It’s tough to know what to expect from a live show when a band is heavily electronic in nature, but DVA’s set was a delightful blend of beats and textures with warm and inviting acoustic sounds like clarinet, saxophone, guitar, and enthusiastic vocals. In “Russian Electro Song,” they even created an instantly infectious rhythm out of rubbing and tapping on two contact mics.

At the opening reception, I was excited to perform alongside two other soundtrack composers, David Leon (Contre Jour) and Casey Merhige (A Closed World). What was nice about this is the diversity in approach to live performance. Casey played a really fun chiptune-inflected DJ set while David played more intimate, atmospheric solo piano music. In performing music from Analogue: A Hate Story, I may have gone a little bit overboard in clinging to my chamber music roots, assembling a mini-orchestra of sorts consisting of Chris Votek (cello), John Graves (bass), Corey Fogel (drums), Hiza Yoo (kayageum), and myself on keyboards.

At Saturday’s Night Games, there were also a few featured acts that blurred the distinction between a game and a performance. Fernando Ramallo’s beautifully executed Panoramical allowed users to explore the audiovisual parameters of a projected landscape via a Korg NanoKontrol’s knobs and sliders. This was followed by Cosmic DJ, which had a few moving parts—a live DJ with a laptop running an Ableton Live session, and an iPad with a step sequencer that audience members could play with. This interface also displayed hilariously silly visuals that were simultaneously projected on the big screen. It appears that this will eventually be turned into an iOS app of some kind, but what was great about this performance is that it wasn’t an app, so you could engage with it on multiple levels. While the live DJ could control the performance to an extent (and hype up the crowd by yelling inspirational phrases like “feel the cosmic love!”), as an audience member you also had some agency. You could choose to have a creative role or spectator role by waiting in line to play with the app or simply enjoying the performance. (After this, I hear that Disasterpeace and Rekcahdam played a really raucous set, which I unfortunately missed.)

Of course, many of the games themselves had plenty to offer musically. Dyad, the winner of this year’s Audio award, was also a crowd favorite, and it’s not hard to see why. The experience of playing Dyad is hard to describe concretely, but it superficially resembles flying through a tunnel at extremely high speeds. (Hey, does anyone else remember S.T.U.N. Runner?) What makes it special is its attention to synesthetic detail—everything that happens in the game is accompanied by a simultaneous change in both visuals and music. The overall effect is mesmerizing, and completely dependent on the sound design. It simply would not work without the audio.

Other games were more subtly innovative—Beat Sneak Bandit, a rhythm game in which the player infiltrates a mad scientist’s lair, presents a clever take on a well-worn genre. Each obstacle in a level is on its own timer of sorts, requiring the player to integrate their movements into increasingly complex rhythmic patterns as the game progresses. Sonically, the closest comparison I can think of for the resulting panoply of music and sound effects is this work song from the University of Ghana post office.

Some games stood out in the audio department despite not being specifically sound-focused. In Gorogoa, a visually stunning game with an intriguing comic book-inspired mechanic, players progress by manipulating the arrangement of panels in a 2×2 grid. As new panels introduce new parts of the game world, the ambient sounds subtly change to reflect this. Especially when several panels are in play, the effect is impressively seamless.

On Saturday, the sound panel featured developers of three other audio-centric games: Aaron Rasmussen (Blindside), Richard Hoagland (Open Source), and Robert Lach (POP: Methodology Experiment One). POP boasts a novel process of creation, with a series of mini-games designed to accompany musical tracks, rather than the other way around. Open Source is a kind of live-action audio Pong, where players must discern the location of the ball from audio cues, and move accordingly. Similarly, Blindside is an “escape from zombies” game with no graphics at all, where players must rely purely on sound to survive. (Apparently Blindside originally included up to 40 simultaneous channels of audio, which they had to scale back to 14 due to iOS hardware limitations.)

Berklee professor Michael Sweet, the moderator of the sound panel, mentioned the John Cage and Stravinsky centennials in his introduction, and challenged the panel members to answer the question, “What would John Cage be doing if he were alive today?” Despite the slight absurdity of the question, it brings out some interesting parallels. Independent/experimental video games are in a position of similar social relevance to experimental music in the early-to-middle 20th century, the era when a ballet could start a riot and an avant-garde composer could appear on network television. Like the cries of “that’s not music!” leveled against Cage and friends back in the day, these days you hear a lot of “that’s not a game!”—particularly when a game has a political narrative that is outside the norm.

What’s heartening is that, at least at IndieCade, there seems to be interaction between the experimental and the mainstream, and while there is tension at times, there is also a great deal of mutual inspiration and respect. I may be reaching a bit here, but I thought I detected a deliberately contrarian bent in the awards given out—giving the technology award to a book, or the story award to a wordless game, or the impact award to a student game confined to a single campus. I hope that this trend continues, and that we won’t see an increasingly artificial divide between the experimental and the mainstream, like music in the late 20th century.

I also heard consistently from others that, in comparison to other game conferences, IndieCade is remarkably queer-friendly and diverse in terms of gender and race. I certainly found it to be more welcoming, in a general sense, than any music conference I’ve been to, and I can’t help but think that the two are related. Mattie Brice (@xMattieBrice), Patricia Hernandez (@patriciaxh), Anna Anthropy (@auntiepixelante), Daphny (@daphaknee), Kris Ligman (@KrisLigman), and Christine Love (@christinelove) have all discussed this in the context of the games community, and it’s led me to question many of my assumptions about the role of politics in art. It’s made me increasingly frustrated with new music’s often calculated distance with anything remotely politically relevant, except in the context of the occasional craven marketing push. We all know that composers are still overwhelmingly white and male, yet despite the odd “lol dead white guys” joke, the issue is still rarely discussed with much depth or nuance outside of the (somewhat marginalized) “new musicology” movement. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

It’s possible that I’m conflating a few things here, but I can’t help but think that inclusiveness, collaboration, and creativity are intrinsically linked, and that the true hallmark of a healthy, functional art scene is somewhere in the combination of all three. I don’t think we have this in the new music world right now, and I’m at a bit of a loss as to how to get there.