Tag: music conferences

2020 Chamber Music Conference Continues Focus on Equity and Inclusivity

The audience gives Joan Tower a standing ovation on the final morning of the 2020 Chamber Music America conference.

The annual national conference of Chamber Music America, which takes place in New York City in January, has long been a meeting place for a wide range of musicians and arts professionals and typically offers a wide range of thought-provoking speakers as well as performance showcases for a broad range of small ensembles. But in recent years, the CMA conference has also placed a specific emphasis on equity, diversity, and inclusion in the music sector and has aimed to be a catalyst for positive change within our community. This year’s conference (January 16-19), which was chaired by bassoonist, Memphis-based PRIZM Ensemble Co-founder, and the Community Music Center of Boston’s Executive Director Lecolion Washington, moved the dial still further with a heady mix of provocative talks and diverse approaches to music-making.

George Lewis in front of a CMA podium,

George Lewis gives the Keynote Address for the 2020 Chamber Music America conference.

The tone was set during the opening keynote address by composer, trombonist, and Columbia University composition chair George E. Lewis who declared that “far from being sidelined as identity politics, identity reaches into the core of aesthetics.” Perhaps his most poignant salvo was that if you “grew up believing in autonomous art, you might be like those coalminers who need to lean coding.” Lewis claimed that the notion of autonomous art “is an addiction” that “might kill you” and is a by-product of what he described as a “fake meritocracy.” Ultimately Lewis advocated for a process of “creolization“ for the arts in the 21st century. Given how much of what Lewis said resonated with the conference events over the course of three days, it’s hard to believe that he was actually a last minute replacement for actor/playwright Anna Deavere Smith. (At the onset he quipped, “There is no reason to assume I’m not Anna Deavere Smith.”)

The notion of “autonomous art” is a by-product of “fake meritocracy.”

Mary Anne Carter, who was appointed last August as Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, gave an address during CMA’s annual membership meeting in which she implored the audience not to assume that people who are against government funding for the arts are against the arts, but rather they believe that private funding is a better solution. However, she acknowledged during her time at the NEA, she has become aware that private funding does not reach every county in the United States, but public funding does, which is a very strong argument for the preservation of public funding.

NEA Chair Mary Anne Carter standing in front of a podium.

NEA Chair Mary Anne Carter addresses the membership of Chamber Music America on Friday, January 17, 2020

I attended part of a session in the afternoon focused on Overcoming Structural Racism co-led by Quinteto Latino hornist/director Armando Castellano, Equity in the Center’s Executive Director Kerrien Suarez, and PRIZM Ensemble Executive Director and Pianist Roderick Vester. The goal was to look at how racism operates along a four-tied system—internalized (stereotypes, etc.), interpersonal (where microaggressions live), institutional (the codification of implicit biases) and structural—and to go from “wake to woke to work.” Suarez pointed out that “the way orchestras look today is the desired outcome of structural racism” and that the lack of people in color in many music organizations is a by-product of “white people living in homogenized circles.” This panned out when the session attendees were asked to break up into groups; various members in the audience representing chamber music series in different communities acknowledged that they mostly chose to work with people they already knew, who were mostly white, and that their audiences were almost exclusively white.

Attendees acknowledged that they mostly chose to work with people they already knew.

Unfortunately I was unable to stay for the entire session, because I wanted to catch at least a part of a performance showcase by Fran Vielman and the Venezuelan Jazz Collective, which was one of nine different ensembles featured in 30-minute showcases on Friday. I’m glad I did, but wish I could have heard more; I only managed to catch their closing number, “Minanguero,” which featured a very exciting interplay between instruments typically associated with a standard jazz combo and an array of indigenous Venezuelan percussion instruments performed by Vielma. All in all, I only missed two of the showcases in their entirely, though I’ll confess that I did not feel obliged to attend showcases whose repertoire consisted exclusively of works by familiar dead white European male composers.  I was, however, totally smitten by the repertoire choices as well as the performances of them by the Argus Quartet—whose playlist consisted of a quartet transcription of the Contrapunctus IX from J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, excerpts from works they have commissioned by Christopher Cerrone and Juri Seo (the latter of which they have recorded for innova), and the Adagio from the String Quartet in E-flat Major by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, which in 2020 seems only excluded from the standard repertoire through a combination of ignorance and the legacy of patrimony. That showcase was clear proof that new and old music can co-exist in a performance and that both can benefit from the linkage. Also of note were Andy Milne & Unison’s piano-bass-drums trio performance (I particularly loved their rendition of McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance”), everything performed by the PUBLIQuartet (whose setlist combined exciting original compositions by Jessie Montgomery and Matthew Browne with fascinating arrangements of music by Nina Simone and the 17th century Italian nun Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, and the extraordinary German unaccompanied five-voice ensemble Calmus (though everything they sang was composed by men and none of it was American). I must also call attention here to an amazing feat that the PRISM Quartet pulled off—their alto saxophone player was stranded in Kansas City but they managed to perform convincingly with Hunter Bockes, a saxophone student of the other three players who happened to be in town and available to rehearse with them earlier in the day. They blended seamlessly!  And when they were joined on a fifth saxophone by Rudresh Mahanthappa for his composition I Will Not Apologize for My Tone Tonight, they totally smoked!

A Saturday morning panel discussion at the 2020 Chamber Music America conference with Aaron Flagg, Tania León, Tomeka Reid, and Jerry Medina.

(Pictured from left to right) Aaron Flagg, Tania León, Tomeka Reid, and Jerry Medina

There were 11 additional performance showcases on Saturday afternoon which I’ll get to in a bit, but first, Saturday’s activities began with a lively group discussion between four very different musicians—composer/conductor Tania León, composer/cellist/AACM member Tomeka Reid, composer/arranger/trumpeter/vocalist/bandleader Jerry Medina, and trumpeter/Juilliard Jazz Studies chair Aaron Flagg, who served as the moderator. Flagg began by asking the group to share stories about feeling not included and what to do when your art is not welcomed. “If you don’t see a space, you create a space,” said Reid who described her transition from being an orchestra musician to working in improvisatory music, which to her felt more inclusive since she “came up under a lot of female bandleaders.”  Medina recounted people telling him that salsa was “too ethnic,” but that it never stopped him from making the music he believes in: “My purpose on Earth is to keep going forward trying to reach people ‘cause music heals.” León, however, stated that she “always felt it was not my problem. … I treat everybody equally even if the person doesn’t treat me equally … Labels diminish the value of a person. … We are global, but we insist on separation.”  Reiterating Lewis’s message from the previous day, León asked, “What is the difference between a salsa and a waltz? Nothing! … That jambalaya is going to create the future.” Reid acknowledged that “things need to change, but don’t let that stop you.” Medina described how music was at the forefront of the protests that led to the ouster of the corrupt governor of Puerto Rico in 2019: “What was the gun? What was the bullets? What was the bomb? It was the music!” Flagg expressed concern that “some people are saying that CMA is now turning into a Civil Rights Organization” as if it was possible to separate culture from the society in which it is created and experienced.  Perhaps the most impassioned comment from the entire session was a remark León made in response to a comment an audience member made about being someone “of color.” “Everybody has a color,” said León. “We need to change the words we speak with.”

“Everybody has a color. We need to change the words we speak with.”

I only managed to catch five of Saturday showcases, since I wanted to check out some of the panel sessions as well; it’s a shame that these activities had to compete with each other this year, but the alternative in previous years was to schedule the various panel talks very early in the morning which was also not ideal. The staff of Chamber Music America will hate me for writing this (and I’ll probably hate myself as well if they actually were to take me up on this suggestion), but maybe the conference needs to be five days! Anyway, I broke my rule about attending a showcase that only included music by dead white European men and went to hear the Minnesota-based Sonora Winds whose repertoire consisted exclusively of mid-20th century Polish repertoire for oboe (Madeline Miller), clarinet (Anastasiya Nyzkodub), and bassoon (Marta Troicki). I was so glad I did, because I had never heard any of the three pieces they performed previously—works by Antoni Szalowski and Władysław Walentynowicz, plus an early piece I was unfamiliar with by Witold Lutosławski, the only familiar name. (After the conference, I listened to their excellent disc on MSR Classics which also features a wind quartet—adding flutist Bethany Gonella—by another new name to me, Janina Garścia, so thankfully the disc was not devoted exclusively to male composers.) Sonora’s showcase gave me the same thrill I get from hearing so-called “new music” premieres: encountering something I didn’t know. It’s the most rewarding of listening experiences, though I was also delighted to hear a live set of Nuevo tango by Emilio Solla, whose music I already knew but had only previously experienced on recordings.  I was wowed by the energy of the Roxy Coss Quintet which exclusively performed her original post-hard-bop compositions which included her sardonic response to the zeitgeist “Mr. President” and the fiesty “Don’t Cross the Coss.” But the Del Sol String Quartet’s all new music set was even more exciting—the totally idiomatic inflections in Turkish composer Erberk Eryilmaz’s Hoppa! – Íki; the altered tunings of Michael Harrison’s Murred; and the unbridled visceral aggression of Aaron Garcia’s makeshift memorials, composed in response to the horrors of recent mass shootings, in which the players shout as they saw their bows across their instruments.

Roxy Coss performing on saxophone with members of her Quintet.

Roxy Coss and members of her Quintet.

When I was not attending performance showcases, I rushed between conversations with people in the exhibit rooms (which is always a great way to catch up with lots of great people), and some of those aforementioned concurrent panel sessions. The first of the ones I caught part of was Music and Healing: Understanding Cognitive Difference Through Music, which was centered around Loretta K. Notareschi’s 2015 String Quartet OCD which is an attempt to convey, through the medium of chamber music, her postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder in the year following her daughter’s birth. It is a deeply moving and powerful piece, but its impact was significantly diminished by being presented via a pre-recorded video performance rather than by live musicians. Perhaps rather than dividing activities between performance showcases and panel talks, these formats should be combined.

Sunday morning was devoted to a 90-minute tribute to composer Joan Tower, recipient of CMA’s 2020 Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award, which included performances of three of Tower’s compositions—by violist Paul Neubauer, flutist Carol Wincenc, and Gaudete Brass—as well as a spirited conversation between Tower and radio host John Schaefer. Tower regaled the audience with her wry observations about the music scene which was sprinkled with tons of spicy anecdotes from her long career. She has frequently said that she believes that there are two types of composers—instrumental music composers and vocal composers—and that she is an instrumental music composer who has only rarely, and with trepidation, dabbled in writing for voices. She recounted “one drunken night” saying to John Ashbery, “I don’t understand your poetry.” To which he replied, “I don’t understand it either.” When Schafer asked her how she felt about the term “woman composer,” she exclaimed that she “identifies as a woman and as a composer,” although later she acknowledged, interestingly, that she has trouble with the term “American.”

John Schaefer and Joan Tower.

John Schaefer and Joan Tower.

Joan Tower exclaimed that she “identifies as a woman and as a composer.”

The conference ended with a final concert devoted to two works commissioned by CMA: Chris Rogerson’s luscious String Quartet No. 3 performed by the not yet but since Grammy minted Attacca Quartet and the expansive The Color of US Suite by jazz percussionist Donald Edwards scored for his Quintet. Given that the theme of the whole conference was inclusion, it was a bit of a shame that the final concert featured only two long works by two men. In previous years these concerts typically featured a greater number of shorter works by a wider variety of composers. Though in previous years, female composers were barely performed during the two days of ensemble showcases and happily this year’s mix struck a much better balance. Putting together such a varied and immersive conference is admittedly an extremely tough balancing act and the formula will never be perfect. And folks will complain even if it is. But two weeks later I’m still filled with sounds and ideas that will stay with me throughout the year as I eagerly anticipate next year’s iteration of the conference, which will take place January 14-17, 2021. Be there.

Seeking to Facilitate the “New Normal”

orchestra in a concert hall

There’s a first time for everything and this is the first time anyone has ever asked me to write a blog post. So here I sit, on a train en route to the Czech Republic just after treading numerous, long-haul carbon footprints on musical discovery trips between my Berlin home and Miami, New York City, Cape Town, and Johannesburg. Not unusual in my life since starting work on Classical:NEXT, an annual international art music professionals’ gathering, and these travels reinforce for me the importance of cross-cultural pollination.

The USA has a plethora of exciting, often genre-blurring new music that deserves a global audience.

Worlds collide and coalesce at Classical:NEXT. On the expo floor, dubbed “the music Olympics” by International Art Managers Magazine, Canada meets Belgium meets Poland meets Brazil meets Britain meets Australia meets France meets Lithuania meets Poland—well over a thousand art music professionals from every branch of the industry tree and a good 45+ countries, each with their own version of normal, looking to partner up, to find and share the best new ideas, projects, and creative content. And while Classical:NEXT focuses on innovation generally, for the 2019 edition (May 15-18 at De Doelen in Rotterdam, Netherlands), in addition to the usual offerings of new approaches to communication, audience development, repertoire and performance, concert formats, digital themes and so on, we are seeking to facilitate a “new normal” – where the stage, the management, and the audience is in direct reflection of the communities in which the music takes place, where all voices are encouraged to sing out and be heard, and the goings-on connect directly to the hearts, minds, and situations of the societies each calls home.

The USA is a big country. An awful lot is going on in its orchestras, opera houses, alternative performances spaces, musician collectives, music schools, and DIY operations. An awful lot of good stuff is going on – initiatives such as the National Alliance for Audition Support, a collaboration between the League of American Orchestras, Sphinx, and the New World Symphony, which aims to bring more musicians of color into the country’s orchestras. Other regions could learn from this model, adapting it to their own situations. The US has a plethora of exciting, often genre-blurring new music, music which is uniquely different in sound and in approach to that of other countries. This music and these musicians deserve a global audience. Yet in order to do that, it, and they, need to get across the border. Classical:NEXT can, and does, fulfill that need. Brooklyn venue and collective National Sawdust, for example, is taking that step this May and will show its approach to inclusive, relevant curation of excellent new artistic work at the opening concert on May 15. Such participation opens doors to opportunities. But, just as valuable for US-American participants, it is an opportunity to learn from, and to experience, the rest of world.

Rick Steves of PBS fame preaches the gospel of travel as a way of better seeing one’s home. It “wallops your ethnocentricity” and “rearranges your cultural furniture.” According to his New York Times interviewer Sam Anderson, Steves seeks “the enlightenment of Americans through their extraction from America.” As a working class kid from Detroit who never planned to go any further abroad than over the Ambassador Bridge to Canada (a 30-minute drive from home), I can personally testify to the radical rethinking which occurs every time I am out of my comfort zone, my “normal,” and into the multifarious other “normals” that exist in the big wide world beyond Border Control.

I can personally testify to the radical rethinking which occurs every time I am out of my comfort zone.

Classical:NEXT brings the world of art music together. Being in the same room at the same time as people from around the world approaching similar challenges, designing new concert experiences, creating new music from different influences and ingredients – this is enriching, enlivening, and enlightening.

On Networking: A National Conference Preview

Dominick at the exhibit hall in Minneapolis in 2017 with conductor Maria Ellis.

At the end of February, choral directors from all over the country will descend upon Kansas City, Missouri, for the biennial national conference of the American Choral Directors Association. Do not be fooled by the moniker of “national”; this is truly a global event for thousands of conductors, composers, educators, publishers, and other industry professionals from around the world. For five days, choral leaders will meet in one place and be inspired by performances, attend interest sessions presented by teachers they admire, and forge new connections that—for the composers present—often lead to new commissioning projects and second and third performances of just-written works.

I am grateful to serve ACDA as the chair of the Standing Committee on Composition Initiatives. In this role, I work with my colleagues—composer Susan LaBarr and conductors Andrew Crane and Nancy Menk—to consider how ACDA can better serve the community of composers that exists within and just outside our choral orbit. We’ve been working diligently for two years, asking ourselves how we can welcome new composers into our choral profession. The national conference is one of the best ways to do just that, as it serves as a perfect place to build new connections through networking.

It can be incredibly daunting to attend a national gathering like this for the first time. Composer Dale Trumbore has already laid out so eloquently the “how to” of negotiating the professional choral conference in a terrific blog post. I recommend it to you highly as essential reading in preparation for any choral conference, whether it be your first or fifteenth. She speaks with great clarity of insight, and I have learned much from reading her personal stories. I know you will, too.

Dale Trumbore

Dale Trumbore, inaugural winner of the Brock Competition for Professional Composers

Dale is also being honored this year as the inaugural winner of the Raymond W. Brock Competition for Professional Composers, “professional” to distinguish this competition from the “student” competition which will now be offered in alternating years). (Aside: Prior to this year, the Student Competition was offered annually since 1998. ACDA decided recently to begin offering a professional competition, in response to many remarks from composers who felt there were fewer opportunities for composers who had aged out of “young” or “emerging” status.)

Dale’s winning work In the Middle will be performed by The Aeolians from Oakwood University and conductor Jason Max Ferdinand on Thursday, February 28 from 2:00-2:45 p.m. in Helzberg Hall (Gold Track) and 4:15-5:00 p.m. in the Muriel Kauffman Theater (Blue Track).  You can preview this work below, performed by Brandon Elliott and Choral Arts Initiative.

If you’ve never attended a choral conference, I welcome you to join us! Below, I’ve included a preview of some things that composers will not want to miss at the coming ACDA National Conference, along with a few pieces of advice.

1. Hang (i.e. “network”) with other composers and conductors at the first-ever Composer Fair and Happy Hour.

On Wednesday, February 27 from 5-7 p.m. in the Kansas City Convention Center Exhibit Hall B, we will feature our first-ever Composer Fair & Happy Hour, a meet-and-greet opportunity for ACDA members to have quality face time with composers from around the world. Distinct from the exhibit hall area, the Composer Fair is a two-hour “pop-up” experience, where members can all gather in the same space and move from table to table, interacting with composers of many ages and backgrounds. Conductor members will gain valuable time with composers of the music they love, while also having the chance to meet a composer they’ve heard about but never met in person. This is a chance for composers to also meet conductors of ensembles they’ve admired.

Here is the list of composers who have registered to take part in this inaugural event, in alphabetical order:

Ivo Antognini
Kim André Arnesen
William Averitt
Timothy Banks
Sergio Barer
Eric William Barnum
Josh Bauder
Bud Wayne Bisbee
Matthew Brown
Richard Burchard
Peter Burton
Michael Bussewitz-Quarm
David N. Childs
Charles Dickerson
Dominick DiOrio
Melissa Dunphy
Daniel Elder
Bradley Ellingboe
Donald Fraser
Daniel E. Gawthrop
Stacey Gibbs
Howard Goodall
Amy Gordon
Joseph Gregorio
Jocelyn Hagen
Elaine Hagenberg
Marjorie Halloran
Mark Hayes
J. Edmund Hughes
Victor Johnson
Ron Kean
Lee Kesselman
Katie Allison Kring
Susan LaBarr
David Michael Layne
John Leavitt
Mary Lynn Lightfoot
Karen Marrolli
Richard McKee
Jacob Narverud
Kyle Pederson
Diane Laura Rains
Philip W. Riegle
Paul John Rudoi
Kevin Siegfried
Z. Randall Stroope
Roger Towler
Bruce Trinkley
Michael John Trotta
Dale Trumbore
Christina Whitten Thomas
Deanna Witkowski

Also, for very early rising composers attending the ACDA conference as well as choral directors/choristers interested in new music and in meeting a bunch of composers, there will be an informal meet-and-greet at the nearby Chez Elle creperie on Friday, March 1 at 8:00 A.M. with Laura Krider and William Lackey from the American Composers Forum and Frank J. Oteri from New Music USA. I’ll be there, too. But in order to make sure there’s room for everyone, please let us know if you are able to be there as soon as you can, so we can give the folks at Chez Elle a head count and also inform us of any food allergies/intolerances (e.g. gluten-free, vegan, etc.) so the kitchen can be prepared. Separate checks will be provided; see Chez Elle’s website for menu and pricing.

2.) Be inspired by performances of new music, such as “The Music of Chen Yi and Zhou Long: Legacy from the East.”

This may come as a shock to many composers, but the overwhelming majority (greater than 75%) of music performed at ACDA National Conferences was written in the last fifty years. Stop and admire that statistic for a moment. It’s quite impressive, and immediately shows as false the oft-cited claim that choruses are fearful of new or contemporary music. Nothing could be further from the truth.

From glancing at the conference programs in the Choral Journal (ACDA’s monthly magazine), nearly every choir performing at the conference has a work by a living composer (or several living composers!) on their program. Any concert you attend will feature new music. That being said, there’s one special event you won’t want to miss…

On Wednesday, February 27 at 6:30 p.m. (Blue Track) and Thursday, February 28 at 6:30 p.m. (Gold Track), the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory Singers (Robert Bode, cond.) and UMKC Conservatory Concert Choir (Charles Robinson, cond.) will give a featured performance of the music of Chinese-American composers Chen Yi and Zhou Long. The presentation will feature a wide range of choral a cappella and choral-instrumental music by these two dynamic and long-established composers. The performance will conclude with Zhou Long’s major work, The Future of Fire, for the combined choirs and wind ensemble.

3.) Go to interest sessions, but not all of them. Here’s a curated list.

The ACDA National Conference features a veritable smorgasbord of possible interest and literature sessions for attendees to witness. It’s impossible to go to everything, so don’t even try. (Literally, actually impossible.) So for your guidance, here is a curated list of some of these sessions, earmarked in the conference program booklet as “of possible interest to composers.” Reading the titles alone gives you a good sense of the diversity of perspectives present at this gathering.

  • Choosing, Adapting, Composing, and Publishing for Middle School Choir
    Presenter: Emily Holt Crocker
  • A Conversation with John Rutter
    Presenter: Moderated by Tim Sharp, ACDA Executive Director
  • Finding Common Ground:
    A Panel Discussion on Conflict Transformation through Choral Music

    Presenters: Arianne Abela, Emilie Amrein, Micah Hendler, André de Quadros
  • Heartbeat and Harmony: Exploring Vocal and Choral Repertoire with Percussion
    Presenters: Susan Brumfield and Lisa Rogers
  • It’s About All of Us: The Collaborative Future of Choral Music in Empathy, Servant Leadership, and Selflessness
    Presenters: Geoffrey Boers, Clara Osowski, Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, Paul John Rudoi
  • Making it Plain: Transcribing Contemporary Gospel for the Mixed Chorus
    Presenters: Brandon Waddles and Brandon A. Boyd
  • Meaningful Improvisation in the Choral Rehearsal
    Presenter: Leila Heil
  • Performance Practice of Latin American Music
    Presenter: Cristian Grases
  • Programming for the 21st Century: Quality, Inclusion, and Diversity
    Presenters: Hilary Apfelstadt, Lynne Gackle, Eugene Rogers, and Jo-Michael Scheibe
  • Quality Accessible Repertoire for Intermediate and Small-but-Mighty Women’s Treble Choirs
    Presenter: Shelbie Wahl-Fouts
  • Tarik O’Regan: Orchestrating Voices
    Presenter: Tarik O’Regan
With Cameron Chase McCall and Dale Warland at the ACDA national conference in Salt Lake City, 2015. (Photo courtesy Dominick DiOrio).

With Cameron Chase McCall and Dale Warland at the ACDA national conference in Salt Lake City, 2015. (Photo courtesy Dominick DiOrio).

4.) The Exhibit Hall: Be overwhelmed, yes, but be present.

The Exhibit Hall is unquestionably one of the most overwhelming places to be at the national conference. Located this year in the Kansas City Convention Center, there are literally hundreds of exhibitors, from publishers and composers to tour companies and instrument makers, and it’s always very loud. The chaos of people moving in and out and about can be difficult if you’re not used to such activity.

But, some of the best conversations I have during the entire conference occur in this room, when I’m walking around with no purpose in particular. I’ve met conductors for the first time who have performed my music. I’ve run into composers who are present at the conference for the first time, hoping to meet a friendly face to show them around. On more than one occasion, I’ve started the conversation about a commission in the exhibit hall, and then I’ve followed up the next week with an email. So much business and connection happens on the Exhibit Hall floor, and I encourage you to plan unstructured time there to allow for such serendipity.

The exhibit hall is also the perfect place to meet with potential publishers. Representatives from all of the major publishers have booths in the hall, as well as many of the online distributors (MusicSpoke, Graphite Marketplace, etc.) that allow composers to keep the copyright to their scores. Go and meet with these people, and bring copies of your scores to share.

This gets to one larger point about networking in general: never be afraid to say hello, even if you don’t think you have anything in common. Taking that first step to make a connection with a simple hello and a handshake will lead, step-by-step, to a greater professional network of colleagues.

5.) Finally: Do something that has nothing to do with choral music.

Maybe you step away from the conference for an afternoon to go to a museum. Or maybe you decide that on Friday night, even though you want to go to a concert, it might be better to have a leisurely dinner with a friend you haven’t seen in years. Whatever it is, we can’t all be “on” for four days straight without going a little crazy, so step away for a bit and don’t feel shame in doing so.

So…

If you’re already registered for the ACDA National Conference, great! I look forward to seeing you there. If you haven’t, it’s not too late. To do so, you first must join as an ACDA member and then register for the conference. Please note that the cost to attend, even with the cost (and benefits!) of annual membership, is cheaper than many other music industry conferences. The cost is well worth it.

If you are interested, online registration closes at 11:59 p.m. Central Time on February 18. Learn more at the ACDA website.

Conference attendance has been one of the great joys of my career, as it combines the best parts of being a professional with belonging to a community of colleagues and friends. I hope you will feel welcome to join our choral community at the ACDA National Conference this year and take part in the wealth of new music offerings that will be of interest to composers from all walks of life.

An Introvert’s Guide to the New Music Gathering (and Other Networking Events)

Last May I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend the New Music Gathering, an assembly of music makers in the new music field who have been meeting at locations across the country for the past few years now. It was a wonderful experience and is still a highlight from 2017 for me.

Near the end of the three-day event, I remember having a conversation with composer Aaron Jay Myers and violinist Nicole Parks during which we laughed at the idea of a conference full of self-identified introverts who were suddenly behaving like extroverts.

The nearly universal feeling seemed to be, “These are my people. I must meet them all!”

The nearly universal feeling seemed to be, “These are my people. I must meet them all!”

For those of us who do find ourselves on the introverted side of life, such concentrated social activity can be exhausting. While speaking with Aaron and Nicole, I imagined all the attendees returning home and retreating to their studios to live in silence for a week just to recover.

And can you blame them? Being around people is a lot of work for the introvert. It’s not that we don’t enjoy other people. Quite the opposite. It’s more that we take people in controllable doses with large chunks of alone time. The smaller the groups of people, the better.

The reality about the New Music Gathering (and all conferences, really) is that we can’t space the doses of people out. Conference organizers, especially the NMG organizers, design the event to be an intensive incubator of ideas, performances, meaningful conversations, and networking. And this is a good thing!

Sadly, I am unable to attend the 2018 gathering. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot and wanted to pass on many of the strategies I’ve used to make conferences such as the New Music Gathering powerful and memorable experiences.

Below is my guide for the introverted composer or performer attending this year’s New Music Gathering in Boston May 17–19.

The focus is on the New Music Gathering because it is just around the corner. More than that, if I was the kind of person to make bets, I would wager that nearly everyone I have met at NMG would self-identify as an introvert. To do what we do as composers and performers requires the ability to spend many hours in solitude.

The difference between introversion and extroversion is a matter of degrees.

The truth is that most people are ambiverts who exhibit both introverted and extroverted qualities depending on the context and situation. The difference between introversion and extroversion is a matter of degrees—think of it as a sliding scale—and we all have a natural inclination to be on one side or the other.

I hope this guide is universally helpful, even for the extroverts. The ideas can easily be applied to any conference or networking event. But if you self-identify as an introvert I wrote this for you. I hope to encourage you to get the most out of the conference. You do not need to feel pressure to do all the things. Nor should you feel guilt for doing only some of the things.

Set a clear intention for the conference

Decide in advance what you will get out of the conference. Last year I wanted to meet some people, deepen some relationships, and, in general, just observe. It was great! Setting an intention or two allows you frame the experience in advance. I know people who have used intentions to have better relationships and experiences. You can do this at NMG, too.

Do you intend to become better informed about trends in new music? Do you want to learn more about a specific topic/idea? Do you want to lay the foundation for a new collaboration? Do you hope to meet and network with performers?

Plan your schedule in advance

The NMG organizers have already published this year’s schedule of events. You can find it on the NMG website: http://www.newmusicgathering.org/.

Taking the time to plan things out now will reduce the stress of having to make a last-minute decision.

Except for the evening concerts and the keynote address, there are multiple events within each session block. Look at the schedule and consider in advance what you most want to attend. Taking the time to plan things out now will reduce the stress of having to make a last-minute decision. Decision fatigue is a real thing—especially, when you’re hungry, tired, or overwhelmed by the previous session you attended. Take the time now to map out the things that are of interest to you. This will also give you a good sense of the range of things happening at any one time, and will likely allow you more energy to be flexible once you’re there!

A solo instrumentalist performs on a violin that is sitting on a table top.

Build in alone time

One marker of introversion is that alone time is what recharges, energizes, and makes you feel capable and sane. It is okay to plan an hour or two in your schedule to be by yourself. Maybe you want to take an early afternoon nap. Maybe you need to spend an hour in the local coffee shop.

My experience is that conferences like NMG are inspiring and life-affirming, yet they require a high level of engagement. They require meeting and speaking with many people. They often include discussions of high-level topics that are not easy to parse or even talk about. In fact, reading through the schedule I see many sessions that promise to provide these very things.

There are also evening concerts and performances throughout every day of the conference. I’m positive you’ll want to listen carefully to the work of the composers and enjoy the skill of the performers. As I’m sure you’re aware, giving a performance your full attention can be both inspiring and taxing—and I don’t mean in a bad way! Nothing inspires me to compose more than attending a concert, but actively listening is also exhausting.

You may find, like me, that just taking an hour to be alone or with only one or two others is all it takes to be ready for the next session or concert. You want to get the most out of each session.

Give yourself permission to skip something

Some of my favorite memories from last year’s NMG, as well as the many other conferences I’ve attended, are the spur-of-the-moment opportunities to grab a coffee with someone I just met or to have deep, meaningful conversation over an extra-long lunch. These are the times when you have to throw your schedule out the window.

And when you do that, you have to give yourself permission to miss a session. Whether you’re recharging by yourself or building community, don’t beat yourself up when this happens.

Yes, you want to be at everything (which is impossible). Yes, you wouldn’t want anyone to skip your session (but people do for a number of reasons). But it’s okay to miss something.

I used to feel enormous guilt after returning home from a conference because I didn’t do all the things. I realize now that that is a ridiculous expectation to have. Be present. Be involved. But also give yourself permission to miss something.

A view of the large audience for one of the panels at NMG 2017.

Don’t network in order to get, network in order to give

NMG is an ideal place to meet new people who love new music and who are interested in making it happen. In fact, they encourage it! Every year the organizers host a Speed Dating event where performers and composers can meet each other, share information, and see if there would be ways to work together.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that the Speed Dating event is the only networking opportunity at NMG. Every interaction you have is an opportunity to build a relationship. And that’s how you should view networking.

Every interaction you have is an opportunity to build a relationship.

For some of us introverts, networking can feel like we have to put on armor and go slay a dragon. From just outside the door, it appears to be a heroic and difficult task—but it doesn’t have to be! If every interaction is networking, then the first step is to just enjoy each interaction. The next step is to work to add value to those you’re meeting and interacting with. Don’t network to gather the names and contact information of people you can ask something of. Instead, network to give to others. Network to build relationships with people who live and work in communities far from yours.

Some of the best tips I have for networking include being genuinely interested in other people; searching for ways to help other people, either with your skill set or other connections; and truly listening. The worst kind of networking experience is when you find that other people only want to talk about themselves.

As Dale Carnegie said in How to Win Friends and Influence People (one of the oldest books on networking), “To be interesting, be interested,” and “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

Networking is also more than building the connections you have. It leads directly into the next point: network to build community.

Build community

When Lainie, Daniel, Mary, Matt, and Jascha founded the New Music Gathering, they intended for it to be different from any other conference available to composers and performers of new music. As they say in their mission statement, the conference is a way to “focus on the needs and desires of the community directly.”

This is why you will not find vendor booths or anyone selling anything at NMG.

Some of my friends have described NMG as a breath of fresh air. I have experienced this myself. It is a place to be with like-minded individuals who want to make music, explore ideas, and support each other.

By attending NMG you are participating in this community. Your networking, conversations, and interactions are all part of the bigger picture.

Work to build the community by developing your own relationships, by participating in the discussions, by attending sessions and concerts, and by encouraging those who have put in many hours of uncompensated work.

Some of you are thinking that the above work doesn’t fit in an introvert’s guide to NMG. If you are truly an introvert, sometimes the idea of building community can be terrifying. It requires engaging with others. It requires showing up when you don’t want to. Sometimes it requires engaging with those who you would rather avoid. More than that is the fact that the community that NMG supports extends across the nation and even internationally. Many introverts build rich and supportive communities around themselves with a small circle of friends. The introverts I know, including myself, can name a handful of people they’d enjoy seeing and spending time with. We can be, at best, ambivalent about everyone else.

It’s important to join and be a part of the larger community.

At the New Music Gathering, however, you have to leave the small community mindset at the door. It’s important to join and be a part of the larger community. It will benefit you in ways you can’t imagine, and it benefits others because they need to hear your voice, too. The community needs you to show up, contribute, share your music and ideas, and offer your support. And it might mean that you will go against your natural inclinations about engaging with others to make it a reality.

The gathering, as are most conferences, is only three days long. Set the intention to join and participate in what normally could be an uncomfortable setting. You can choose to make the community building an exciting and energizing part of the conference.

Don’t be negative

It’s trendy to be snarky. The mocking sarcasm can be most biting on social media. I’ve had to work hard to avoid trying to appear smart or clever by expressing sarcastic statements that come at the expense of others. Sure, they may be funny, but they certainly are not building community.

It’s normal, and even expected, to dissect the sessions and performances you attended. But I’ve participated in too many of these conversations where the snark becomes negative. The mutual dislike of a composition, topic, or presenter turns into an excuse to sling mud. Instead of building up, we tear down.

This doesn’t mean you have to like it all. I’m not sure that’s even possible. Just be careful with your words.

Be careful with your words.

One question I’ve found helpful with this is to ask, “Is this the person I want to be?” When I find myself saying the kinds of things that the person I want to be would not say, I stop. You can literally flip a switch and start acting like the person you want to be.

Just because you’re an introvert does not give you the excuse to belittle those who are putting their work and ideas out into the world. If you dislike what you hear, start a more constructive conversation about it. This, too, will build community.

NMG attendees crowd a room to watch a dance performance.

Enjoy yourself!

Lastly, have fun! If you go to NMG with the intention of having a great experience, you will. If you go thinking about how hard it will be to sustain conversations and network, that is what you will experience. Henry Ford supposedly said, “Whether you think you can or think you cannot, you are right.”

I encourage you to choose to enjoy yourself. Go into NMG expecting to hear great music brought to life by superlative performers. Look forward to meeting interesting people who are doing interesting things. Expect stimulating discussions on topics that matter.

Go with the attitude that you’re going to have a great time!

Go with the attitude that you’re going to have a great time!

Many of my composer friends have commented on how spending three days attending NMG has provided them with enough fuel and encouragement to sustain them for months afterward. If you want, you can also be so inspired.

Look at networking as an opportunity to help others with your unique set of skills. Choose to think of community building as an energizing experience.

And don’t be afraid to give yourself some self-love with the occasional break. It will make the other things so much easier.

Composer Advocacy Notebook: Staying Focused on Next

Last month I visited the Netherlands’ second city, Rotterdam, to attend Classical:NEXT for the first time.  Five years ago, when I was first approached about attending this new international forum combining conference sessions, concerts, and exhibition rooms, I was skeptical, bordering on dismissive. I doubted that any convening with such a name could be inclusive enough to embrace the pluralism of 21st-century new music, which is—after all—the music that lures me to travel around the world.

It’s no secret that I don’t feel comfortable with the term “classical music.” First, there’s the inexplicable anachronism. (E.g. Why is a term for an 18th-century aesthetic being used for music from other times? And wait a minute, what does this music have to do with Ancient Greece or Rome?) Then there’s the not very subtle racism of assumed cultural specificity related to the name. (Without a qualifier, like “North Indian classical music” or “Chinese classical music,” it is assumed that music described as “classical” is exclusively from the Western world.) Even worse is the term “contemporary classical” which is simultaneously oxymoronic and an unbridled display of hubris. (No recent music has yet stood the test of time and no one can predict what ultimately will.) Because of this combination of confusion and seeming obliviousness, I believe that the use of the word “classical” to describe a millennia’s arbitrarily grouped together collection of extraordinary music, particularly the stuff being created right now, discourages many people from experiencing it.

Classical:NEXT has the potential to be the most viable international gathering place for open-minded music-focused people, despite its name.

However, after three days of transformative concert experiences and spirited discussions, both during official sessions and through casual conversations with the numerous high profile music professionals from around the world who showed up, I’m willing to eat crow on this one. I’ll say unequivocally that the 2017 edition of Classical:NEXT (c:N) was the most vital music get-together I’ve participated in in the last 12 months, quite possibly even longer. And, more importantly, I think c:N has the potential to be the most viable international gathering place for open-minded music-focused people, despite its name. In fact, so much of what I experienced there—in terms of sounds heard live, as well as people I connected with (plus all the recordings I brought back home)—was not only mostly newly created music, but music that falls outside the rubric of what many folks might consider “classical music.” Ultimately, the capitalized NEXT is the more important word in this event’s name.

(Before I attempt to give a brief summary of my mere 72 hours in Rotterdam, which is where c:N has been taking place annually for the last four of its five years, I should acknowledge that the reason I was there was because I had been asked to moderate one of the panels, so my conference fee and 2/3rds of my hotel stay were covered. All I had to work out was one night in a hotel and getting there.[1] )

A completely packed foyer for the opening reception of Classical:NEXT

A completely packed foyer for the opening reception of Classical:NEXT

As soon as I retrieved my conference badge and walked inside the foyer of De Doelen, the huge complex of concert halls and meeting rooms where c:N was held, I was greeted by familiar faces from all over the globe. Folks I originally met at the ISCM World (New) Music Days and the IAMIC Conference, as well as people closer to home who attend the Chamber Music America conference. I navigated my way through an extremely crowded room, balancing trying to remember who everybody was who clearly knew who I was, catching up with them as best I could under the circumstances, and introducing them to each other. But soon we were quickly ushered in to Juriaanse Zaal, a medium-sized concert hall, to hear a performance by Chineke! Orchestra which, as per their website, was “established in 2015 to provide career opportunities to young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe.” Although their performance was impeccable, I must confess that when they opened the program with Edward Elgar’s three-movement Serenade for String Orchestra, composed in 1892, I began to revisit my fear that this gathering was not for me. But they quickly made amends when vocalist Nicole Jordan joined them on stage to perform two passages from Sarah Kirkland Snider’s indie rock-infused Unremembered, a work by a female American composer written in the past five years. The audience was ecstatic. Too bad Sarah couldn’t be there to witness that. Even more euphoric was the audience reception for the work with which they chose to end the program, a frenetic quasi post-minimalist Double Concerto by Belize-born, London-based composer Errolyn Wallen who thankfully was there to experience it. After that, the reception continued—more introductions, more conversations, and a valiant fight against jetlag which I ultimately lost a couple of hours later. Many of the conversations centered around Chineke’s strange program—so great that two of the three works they performed were by living composers and both were women, but why did they play Elgar? And why did they open with it? Strangely, musing back on it a month later, it seems an apt metaphor for what this whole gathering was about. Elgar epitomizes what people think classical music is. The Serenade is a beautiful piece and they played it tremendously, but they can do so much more than that, and they went on to prove it. It began with “classical,” but it was ultimately about NEXT.

The Chineke! Orchestra take a bow after the opening concert of Classical:NEXT (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland)

The Chineke! Orchestra take a bow after the opening concert of Classical:NEXT (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland)

I woke up the next morning feeling completely refreshed and oblivious to the fact that the clocks were set six hours earlier than they had been in New York. (Note to self: the best way to combat jetlag is to be insanely tired when you go to sleep the night before.) Unlike just about every other music conference I’ve attended in my life, c:N does not begin as early in the morning as possible. The exhibition hall doesn’t open its doors until 9:30 a.m. and panel sessions don’t commence until 10.  While it reduces the amount of time available for connecting with other attendees, do you really want to connect with anyone before your third cup of coffee? And speaking of that third cup and beyond, coffee was free and available to anyone wandering around in the exhibition area, as were stroopwafels (my favorite Dutch sweet snack) and other sugar-laden edibles.

Panels throughout c:N took place on De Doelen’s upper floors and, in order to get to them, attendees needed to ride escalators up that were situated in such a way that it ensured passage through all of the exhibition displays that were spread out on several floors. Planners of conferences such as the League of American Orchestras, OPERA America, Chorus America et al—whose exhibitors have sometimes complained about low traffic to their booths—should follow c:N’s example here.

Classical:NEXT attendees wandering through the expo area. (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)

Classical:NEXT attendees wandering through the expo area. (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)

While the layout makes it take longer to get where you ultimately think you want to go, it allows you to discover a bunch of stuff you might not have known about—in my case (as a result of myriad treks up and down) some highlights include recordings of Latvian and Swiss jazz, Korean multi-instrumentalist Park Jiha (more on her later), unaccompanied choral music by Austrian composer Beat Furrer sung by the Helsinki Chamber Choir, the Grieg piano concerto on period instruments (yes, I learned a few new things about older music, too), as well as, later the following evening, Scottish gin!

As it turned out, the first panel session I attended was not nearly as interesting as the stuff I discovered on my way up there. The organizers of c:N led an orientation session for new attendees to help them learn how to network with each other comfortably. Since I was a new attendee I thought I should show up, but since I’ve been attending music industry gatherings all over the world for decades at this point, I was probably not the target audience for their sage advice, though I did manage to meet and exchange business cards with Gabriël Oostvogel, who as the (albeit outgoing, as I later learned) director of De Doelen is one of the most powerful impresarios in the Netherlands. I also didn’t hear anything I hadn’t heard many times before in a session on the death of music journalism called “Professional Commentary on Music is Dying Out, Do We Care?” led by Shirley Apthorp, a Cape Town, South Africa-born, Berlin-based journalist who has written for publications throughout Europe and North America as well as Europe. But again, I probably wasn’t the target audience. (It’s hard to see the web as a negative force after spending 18 years online with NewMusicBox.)  I was, however, very intrigued with the multimedia performances by Carmina Slovenica I heard described during a session about choral music initiatives that I caught the tail end of.

Lunchtime in the Expo Area of Classical:NEXT. (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)

Lunchtime in the Expo Area of Classical:NEXT. (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)

After a standing lunch provided free of charge in the exhibition area, which allowed more time for interactions between the attendees, there were three back-to-back sessions that I was asked to participate in. First was a networking session for Music Export Centers organized by Music Estonia’s director Virgo Sillamaa. I was only able to stay for the first 15 minutes but nevertheless, as the only American participating, it was somewhat awkward to address concerns about visas and international collaborations in the current political environment.  Luckily I had to rush off to moderate a session about how the digital environment has changed the artist-agent/manager paradigm, both for the better and the uncertain.  Joining me on the podium were: Stephen Lumsden, who has more than 35 years of experience as an artist manager and is currently the managing director of the U.K.-based Intermusica; Sune Hjerrild, a Denmark-based tenor who, to end the “agent monopoly” and give more power to individual artists, spearheads an online platform called Truelinked; and Australian percussionist Kaylie Melville, who has built a successful career for herself as a soloist and chamber musician completely DIY. It was often an extremely heated discussion, especially in the Q&A period when a presenter acknowledged that he won’t book a musician, no matter how talented, if he thinks it will not be an audience draw.  But it all came to a crashing halt after the allotted 45 minutes since we all had to go on to the next thing.  For me, the next thing was a networking session for members of the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC) led by IAMIC president Kostas Moschos, who also runs IEMA (the Greek Music Information and Documentation Centre). It was great to re-connect with these folks, some of whom I’ve known since I first started participating in IAMIC back in 2000. (And, as further fodder to my assertion that c:N might be the most viable international gathering place for open-minded music-focused people, there were more IAMIC members here than at the 2017 IAMIC Conference in Cyprus this past weekend, which I sadly was also not able to attend.)

After a quick meal at a Vietnamese noodle shop down the road, I returned to De Doelen to catch most of the evening’s showcases. Once again, for an event called Classical:NEXT, the emphasis was firmly on next. I walked back in during the tail end of a performance of a quartet blending Balkan Gypsy and tango elements led by Buenos Aires-born pianist Gerardo Jerez Le Cam, who has lived in France since 1992. Combining two instruments that are culturally specific, the Roma cimbalom and the Argentinian bandoneon, with two that more easily cross cultural boundaries, the piano and violin, the Jerez Le Cam Quartet made music that sounded simultaneously familiar and completely new and also hard to describe as “classical.” Next up were Zwerm, a Belgian electric guitar quartet which is no stranger to contemporary American repertoire. (They’ve recorded Larry Polansky’s The World’s Longest Melody for New World Records, as well as a disc of 12 one-page pieces by Earle Brown, Alvin Curran, Nick Didkovsky, Daniel Goode, Christian Wolff, and others.) But they devoted their c:N showcase exclusively to music from the English renaissance, though it sounded nothing like early music. My favorite was probably their performance of In Nomine by John Taverner (as opposed to John Tavener) which they rendered exclusively through effects boxes. Again, more NEXT than classical. But the highlight of my evening was an improvisatory quartet led by Park Jiha that seamlessly combined traditional Korean and Western instruments. She sang and performed on piri, saenghwang, and yanggeum amidst cross-cultural improvisations by New Zealand vibraphonist John Bell, Korean tenor saxophonist KimOki (a.k.a. YoungHoon Kim) whose combination of global mindedness and mellow tone recalls Yusef Lateef, and percussionist Kang Tekhyun, who is equally comfortable performing gnawa music and reggae. It was truly mind blowing. But don’t just take my word for it, track down the quartet’s debut album Communion (at least here or here) which, as I’d mentioned, I was lucky enough to pick up in the exhibition hall earlier in the day. There were other showcases off-site that lasted well into the night, but that was enough for me for one day.

Park Jiha's mind-blowing quartet captured live in performance, (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)

Park Jiha’s mind-blowing quartet captured live in performance, (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)

I began Friday morning having breakfast in the hotel I had just checked out of with music consultant and consummate blogger Andy Doe, whose byline will hopefully reappear on these pages before too long. Then it was more coffee and conversations in the exhibition area, as well as grilled cheese and vegemite sandwiches cooked up fresh at the Australian booth, before heading up to a session about fostering collaborations in Latin America led by Brazilian experimental composer Thiago Cury (who also runs Águaforte, which recently became an associate member of ISCM). The most valuable takeaway was a piece of advice for musicians wanting to organize concerts in South America: make sure that you are paid in dollars or Euros rather than local currency (given the instability of many of these currencies). I’ve previously commented on the ironies of making more musical connections with Latin Americans in Europe than at home in North America, but those ironies are laden with a greater degree of disappointment nowadays.

If you book a gig in Latin America, make sure that you are paid in dollars or Euros rather than local currency.

The highlight of my afternoon was an informal conversation that led to a lengthy discussion with information technologist Simon Chambers, who developed the website for the Australian Music Center and is currently engaged in an extensive research project about music industry professionals from around the world. He’s got a lot of provocative ideas and I’m eager to learn more from his research. I managed to catch the tail end of a session about the role of music publishers in the 21st century, but I didn’t walk away with any enlightening tidbits.[2] Discussions with folks attending the c:N publishing session, which were largely complaints about declining standards in performance materials, derailed my attending a session after that called From Trump to Brexit: Classical Music in a Post-Truth World. All I can say is, Lordy, I hope there are tapes. Before heading out for dim sum with colleagues from the Canadian Music Centre, I was lured by the folks from the Scottish Music Centre into trying two different gins made by Scotland’s Arbikie Highland Estate Distillery.

Rotterdam Philharmonic, conducted by Bas Wiegers, performing in De Doelen's Grote Zaal. (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)

The Rotterdam Philharmonic did lovers of new American music proud. (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)

Though I was already extremely impressed with how new music dominated the performances I had attended thus far, there was probably no greater investment than that of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, whose concert that evening consisted of only two works, both by living American composers. First, Michael Gordon’s The Unchanging Sea, for which the orchestra, under the direction of Bas Wiegers, was joined by pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama—though it would be inaccurate to describe Gordon’s relentless musical arc as a piano concerto.  A film by Gordon’s frequent collaborator Bill Morrison (Decasia, Gotham, etc.) was also projected during the performance, though to call Gordon’s music a film score also doesn’t adequately convey the symbiosis that Gordon and Morrison achieve in their collaborations. After a brief intermission, the orchestra performed John Luther Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean, a similarly intense, slowly developing, single movement of music. I had never previously heard The Unchanging Sea and hope to again soon, but after attending the New York premiere of Become Ocean and hearing the recording several times, it’s like standard repertoire to me. But it was still transformative to hear both of these pieces live back-to-back in such committed performances in the fine acoustics of De Doelen’s Grote Zaal. I was overjoyed, though a British artist manager who happened to be sitting next to me, was not happy at all.

“I thought it would never end,” he opined while most of the audience was giving the orchestra a standing ovation. “There was nothing going on at all. I like things that develop, like Beethoven.”

Trying to find an in any way I could, I asked him if he’d been to the Rothko room at the Tate Modern, one of my favorite spaces in London, suggesting that the music we heard might be the sonic equivalent, and to which he replied, “I hate those paintings; I’m not even sure if they’re art.”

I write all of this not to disparage either the music that was performed or the man who didn’t like it. We otherwise had a delightful conversation; he even told me he enjoyed the session I had moderated the day before. But I do write this because part of what convenings like Classical:NEXT must continue to do is work toward convincing folks who love “classical” music that what comes NEXT is also something worthy of their love.

What convenings like Classical:NEXT must continue to do is work toward convincing folks who love “classical” music that what comes NEXT is also something worthy of their love.

While that concert and the conversations I had at the reception afterwards with Michael Gordon, Louis Andriessen and his wife, violinist Monica Germino, and many others should have provided me with enough inspiration to end my day and head back to my hotel for some sleep, I decided I would barrel on to some of the late night c:N showcases at a club called The Worm. I heard the last third of the set by Breath + Hammer, the duo of clarinetist David Krakauer (who is no stranger to these pages) and pianist Kathleen Tagg who together play improvisatory music inspired by klezmer. Tagg, who frequently sticks her fingers inside the piano to alter the timbre of the strings (often making it sound like a cimbalom), is the perfect foil for Krakauer’s virtuosic pyrotechnics—it is a wonderful rapprochement of traditionalism and experimentation.

Breath + Hammer (pianist Kathleen Tagg, left, and clarinetist David Krakauer) performing at The Worm. (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)

Breath + Hammer (pianist Kathleen Tagg, left, and clarinetist David Krakauer) brought klezmer into the 21st century at The Worm. (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)

Then came American-born Netherlands-based flutist/composer Ned McGowan, who performed his entire set on contrabass flute, albeit with some technological wizardry that at one point allowed him to play a contrabass flute sextet by himself. Again, it seemed to be all new music all the time at Classical:NEXT, and even more than that, all new American music.

Ned McGowan and his amazing contrabass flute. (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)

Ned McGowan and his amazing contrabass flute. (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)

On the final day, most of the exhibits had already been taken down by the time I arrived back at De Doelen. It was only 9:30 a.m., but thankfully there was still coffee and stroopwafels. John Davis, the director of the Australian Music Centre, led an Asian-Pacific Rim networking meeting which seemed to attract most of the people who were still there. Fun fact: this year a total of 23 Australians were registered for c:N which seemed like quite a lot until I learned that 30 had registered for it in 2016. For comparison, only 33 people showed up from the United States, which included the Sphinx Organization’s president and artistic director Afa Dworkin, Nicholas Alexander Brown from the Library of Congress, composer and radio host Seth Boustead, Charlton Lee and Kathryn Bates of the Del Sol String Quartet, composer/pianist Andrew Shapiro, Paul Tai from New World Records, composer and New Amsterdam Records co-founder Judd Greenstein, Sean Hickey from Naxos who is also a composer, and Karen Ames from the Berkeley-based audio manufacturer Meyer Sound. It was interesting to observe which countries had a strong presence at c:N and which ones didn’t. Classical:NEXT evolved, in part, out of classical music sector professionals’ frustrations with MIDEM, the annual international music trade fair which used to attract a huge contingent from just about everywhere who showed up to promote their nations’ music. I encountered people from at least 25 different countries at c:N. I’ve already acknowledged in this attempt at a brief overview of c:N; folks from Denmark, Greece, Estonia, England and Scotland (which behaved like separate countries there), as well as Brazil, Canada, and South Korea. I also reconnected with colleagues from Lithuania and made new contacts with people representing the music scene in Chile and Armenia. Still, it was mostly Europeans. This, of course, is par for the course if the event always takes place in Europe, and it probably will remain that way for the foreseeable future. It’s already an enormously complex undertaking for its organizers, Piranha Arts, who are based a mere 380 miles away in Berlin.[3]

It seemed to be all new music all the time at Classical:NEXT, and even more than that, all new American music.

But there was still plenty of internationalism on display at the closing event of 2017. Classical:NEXT’s annual Innovation Award went to Buskaid Soweto String Academy of Performance and Teaching in South Africa, beating out competition from Greece (the Molyvos International Music Festival) and Germany (the PODIUM Festival Esslingen), though as c:N’s Director Jennifer Dautermann pointed out, all of the nominated organizations are worthy of our accolades. The final showcase, featuring a fabulous guitar trio from Colombia called Trip Trip Trip, was, again, exclusively new music—all by Colombian composers whose music I had never heard before.

The guitar Trip Trip Trip (Guillermo Bocanegra, Camilo Giraldo Ange, and César Quevedo Barrrero) in performance (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)

The Colombian guitar trio Trip Trip Trip (Guillermo Bocanegra, Camilo Giraldo Ángel, and César Quevedo Barrrero) ended Classical:NEXT on an upbeat note. (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)

There is so much music still to discover thanks to all the recordings I brought back with me. I actual harbored some worries that my carry-on suitcase exceeded the weight allotment, but all was fine. Now to find the time to listen to it all!



1. I flew on one of the cheapest possible routes, which was also a rather counterintuitive one: via Turkish Air from New York City to Amsterdam via Istanbul. The 9 1/2-hour layover at Ataturk Airport on route to Schiphol following a 10-hour JFK-Istanbul flight was not ideal, nor was the merely 3-hour layover from 3:30-6:30 a.m. on the return, but the price was hard to beat. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the speed of the train ride from Schiphol to Rotterdam’s Central Station, which turned out to be just a few blocks away from my hotel as well as the site of c:N. Though it’s roughly 37 miles, the train ride was more than twice as fast as my interminable daily subway commute between my home and office, which are just 14 miles apart and both on the island of Manhattan! In fact, after departing JFK on Tuesday afternoon and finally arriving in Amsterdam by one of the longest routes possible slightly after 6 p.m. on Wednesday, I got on a Rotterdam-bound train and managed—thanks to the quickness of the ride—to check into the hotel, quickly shower and change clothes, and still have seven minutes to spare before the opening event began. [scroll back up]


2. Maybe there’ll be some this Friday when I chair a panel about how the digital environment has changed the marketplace at the annual meeting of the Music Publishers Association of the United States. [scroll back up]


3. I’d like to give an appreciative shout-out to c:N’s director Jennifer Dautermann, their director of communications Paul Bräuer, project manager Jana Schneider, and, in particular, their general manager Fabienne Krause who invited me to moderate the talk there which enabled me to attend. [scroll back up]

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:

Get Vulnerable

The official logo for the New Music Gathering

Happy Holidays, NewMusicBox Readers! I’m supposed to talk to you fine people about the New Music Gathering, write the last piece in this four-part series. My problem is, I think it’s all pretty much been covered by my lovely co-organizers! Danny and Matt and Mary told you how the idea came about. They shared with you why we do what we do to organize this fabulous monster of an event. They described for you what a gift we’ve been given in the institutions and presenters and performers and participants who have given their time, their resources, their brain and heart power toward the success of this event. They told you everything. You get it.

So what is there left to say?

I will take this space to issue unto you a personal request, Lainie’s wish for this New Music Gathering 2016, and for all the New Music Gatherings to come. It’s a request I make to all those coming to the Gathering, in body or in spirit:

I want everyone to get vulnerable.

I think many folks involved in new music (as in so many other fields of endeavor) can feel they need to project an air of mastery and success to carve out a career for themselves. That pressure is natural in a world where scarce resources, little money, and loose association with academia are ever-present. To get the commission, win the grant, get on the label, be programmed on the festival, get the teaching job–it’s natural to want to present the strength to win these opportunities. I’m hoping though, in however large or small a way it plays out for each participant, that Gathering 2016, with the amazing David Smooke as our tireless co-conspirator, and with the remarkable community and facilities Peabody has shared with us for this event, can be a space where we can all shed the need to project individual strength and can take the time out of our shells to ask the questions and voice the concerns we might usually refrain from sharing.

Matt Marks, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Lainie Fefferman, and David Smooke standing outside Peabody.

Matt Marks, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Lainie Fefferman, and David Smooke standing outside Peabody.

What does this vulnerability look like?

Last year, I was so moved by the moments of vulnerability I witnessed! One parent voiced her fear that having a baby forced her to opt out of so many residencies and tours that she feared the impact on her career would be lasting. Immediately, two others chimed in with the same host of concerns. All of a sudden, a conversation began about how best to maintain a rich musical career within the changing parameters of parenthood, and how the various systems and mechanisms of music making might better evolve to let musician-parents have thriving careers. YES. In another room the day before, I heard one young performer admit (very quietly) that he had submitted over a dozen grant proposals in the last year and had been turned down for every single one. Rather than it becoming uncomfortable because people dismissed him as somehow unworthy, the room, filled mainly with older folks, became a hotbed of questions and suggestions for how he might better his chances or seek funding from different mechanisms. YES. Before one very technically involved performance, a composer confessed to a small gaggle of folks “I’m in a state of panic every time this piece gets performed.” We all had similar pieces and stories to share, and in the end we all told him we’d be there to applaud if the whole piece crashed and burned. YES.

This is just a handful of moments I relished from last year. To get more joy and agency in our music-making lives, having a big crazy multi-day performance/conference/meet-up/whirlwind where we can help each other get over the rough spots and enjoy the sweet spots is just what I wish for the world this holiday season.

Good Old-Fashioned Human-to-Human Connection on a Very Honest Level

The official logo for the New Music Gathering

[Ed. note: In the third installment of our series of posts by the founders of the New Music Gathering, Mary Kouyoumdjian explains how she went from being a reluctant participant in music conferences to helping design a new type of music convening. She hopes the same kind of positive engagement that attendees felt from the first NMG in San Francisco, which has continued online on various social media platforms, will take place at the next NMG in Baltimore next month. The previous posts in this series were by Daniel Felsenfeld and Matt Marks. To conclude next week, Lainie Fefferman will give us a sneak preview of what is on the agenda in Charm City.-FJO]

Many moons ago, say, some time in 2010, a youngish Mary attended a new music concert at New York’s (Le) Poisson Rouge for the first time. She enjoyed the music very much and, when the show finished, she applauded. Then she sat alone… somewhat awkwardly–okay, very awkwardly. With no one to talk to, she watched the rest of the audience socialize, reunite as if they had known each other for years prior, and chat up all of the amazing projects they were working on together. Why did she feel this social isolation? Well, if this were “Early 90’s Mary,” I’d say it was because of her clunky braces and frizzy hair, but this felt different. It was, if one could guess, because she had just moved back to New York after a string of years in L.A. working in the film industry, and she didn’t really know anyone in this “scene.” She didn’t feel a part of it. In fact, she felt far outside of this scene and generally unknown to her new music peers. And so, she paid her tab and returned home to the unconditional love of her canine roommate.

Now, I’m not sharing this story so you’ll feel sorry for my social failures. Most of us have felt like an outsider at some point in our lives, if not regularly. Rather, I’m sharing this to illustrate the opposite feeling and the opposite social environment I want people at New Music Gathering to experience. All of us at NMG desperately want people to connect with one another, to share their experiences, to build each other up, and (let’s embrace the inevitable mushiness here) to become friends. We don’t want cliques, and we don’t want people to feel alienated or alone with their art.

Being a composer is lonely enough. You’re locked in your little room for months at a time, with the curtains closed, trying to ignore the outside world for the sake of your work. For me, being a composer who lived in solitude felt unhealthy; I needed another role in my life that allowed me to interact with others artistically. When I heard that Daniel Felsenfeld, Lainie Fefferman, and Matt Marks were creating this conference, I wanted in. These individuals were creating a safe place for old and new friends to perform and share their thoughts on the production, promotion, support, and creation of new music. Their mission was one I believed in, and, as with all things I am proud to be associated with, I very actively pushed to be involved. The only problem: I didn’t really like conferences.

Daniel Felsenfeld standing and talking in the middle of a room with people sitting on the floor all around him listening.

NMG Co-founder Daniel Felsenfeld leads an open discussion with attendees at NMG2015

What are the things you imagine when you think about a conference? For me, it’s people in polished attire, hidden behind podiums, reading from papers placed directly in front of their faces. In other words, I think of barriers. I think of people on panels who feel the need to fluff up their résumés in the hope of appearing more accomplished than the person next to them, people who never tire of schmoozing even when at the snack table, and people who try and squeeze every drop of opportunity from those around them.  In other words, I think of pressure. Admittedly, this is an over-simplification of conferences, one that clearly leans toward my own phobias about them. That said, there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with the scenario described, and some of this behavior can prove to be quite successful.

Am I personally uncomfortable with these practices? Heck yeah, I am! They give me the heebie jeebies, and I feel icky when I put them into motion myself. Take this icky stuff away, and, in my opinion, you get good old-fashioned human-to-human connection on a very honest level. One of my favorite memories from last year’s NMG was a presentation by Aaron Siegel called “Getting Better? (How to Make Sure You Are).” It was a room of just 8-10 people, some strangers, all huddled close together sharing their innermost wants and desires to improve their art and themselves. Another favorite was Samantha Buker’s “The Art of the Possible: The Role of a Board and a Clear Vision,” where she approached the often-taboo topic of money and how one could seek it out. Take self-aggrandizement and/or alienation away, and you’re left with conversations and ideas being exchanged between people who simply want to create art and people who want to facilitate the making of that art. My new music wish: Let’s not compete, let’s create.

Aaron Siegel standing in front of a raised stage speaking to a sitting audience, to his left the following text is projected on a screen: "Identify one goal you have for your work right now. What's the next big thing for you?"

Aaron Siegel leads a discussion on “Getting Better? (How to Make Sure You Are)” at NMG2015

Let’s also learn. At last year’s NMG at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, one of the attendees in the “Women in New Music” roundtable shared a thought that stuck with me: “If you don’t know any music by women composers, and this is why you don’t program music by women composers, it is your responsibility to educate yourself and actively seek out music by women composers.” As a woman, my response to this was clearly “Rock on!” and now that this thought has sunk in even further, I realize that this methodology applies to my limited knowledge of music happening outside of New York City. It’s my responsibility to educate myself about the music happening outside my little bubble in Brooklyn, and it’s my joy to share these findings with others through New Music Gathering. Looking towards Baltimore in 2016, my heart was over-flowing after going through all of the applications filled with Baltimore locals, Peabody Institute students, and artists scattered throughout the U.S. (and a few international applicants too)!

There’s so much excitement about the music being made in Baltimore recently and the music coming from current students and alums of Peabody. It’s inspiring to see Maryland groups like Lunar Ensemble, Sonar new music ensemble, Great Noise Ensemble, and LuSo Percussion being represented this year and to learn about what these artists are contributing to their respective cities. It’s great to see the NMG community already engaging with each other on Facebook and Twitter, pre-pow-wowing presentation topics, doing field research together, plugging each other’s shows, and even offering to organize carpools and couchsharing for the event. It feels like community, it feels like friendship, and suddenly the old barriers that mark who’s in or out feel like they’re fading away.

People sitting across from each other in pairs in a room. In front a woman listening to music with an earbud that is emanating from a man's laptop.

Artists connect and share their work via Brooks Frederickson’s “Composer/Performer Speed Dating” at NMG2015

Tempering My Friends Anxiety and Doubt

The official logo for the New Music Gathering

[Ed Note: This month, in anticipation of the next New Music Gathering at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore (Jan 7-9, 2016), we’ve asked each of the founders of this now-annual event to reflect on the whys and wherefores of the new music community coming together in this way. Last week, Daniel Felsenfeld described the initial conversations, online and off, that led to the conceptualization of NMG. In the coming weeks, Lainie Fefferman and Mary Kouyoumdjian will offer some observations about the upcoming NMG and will also look ahead to its future, but this week Matt Marks takes us from those initial conversations to the first gathering at San Francisco Conservatory. – FJO]

Daniel Felsenfeld’s lovely post before this one – which elicited from me a good amount of teary-eyed nostalgia – was called “Gathering Storm: How We Made a Conference”. Based on my experience, I might amend that subtitle to “Oh shit… We made a conference”, a phrase I’ve used when asked exactly how New Music Gathering came about. One of the strange and beautiful things about growing up and becoming a professional is realizing just how rarely things come together in the Grown-up, Professional way you expect they will.

As Danny mentioned, I was still high from a meeting of new music organizations that was set up by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where I was representing Alarm Will Sound, when I made the Facebook post that sparked NMG. In the meeting we discussed the glaring lack of a centralized event in which new music professionals could come together and do what we in that room were doing: sharing our challenges, successes, failures, hopes, and fears. Afterwards, I clacked out a quick sum-up onto Facebook, ending with that big question: “Why isn’t there something like this?”

Along with a flurry of supportive comments from members of the new music community, I received two fateful direct messages. One was from Danny saying, essentially, “There should be, and we should do it.” and another was from MaryClare Brzytwa of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music saying, essentially, “There should be, and you should do it here.”

Now, Danny already did a great summary of what happened at the first NMG. I thought I’d give a, let’s say, emotional summary of my experience, in the interest of demystifying the process of taking on such a challenge. Hopefully it might encourage other people to try and do more crazy things like we did.

My first reaction to these messages was: “Yes! Hell yes! Let’s do it and let’s kick ass at it!”

My second reaction was: “Matt, there is no goddamned way on Earth you could do something as complicated and high-stakes as starting a brand new music conference.”

Enter my good friends Anxiety and Doubt. They set up shop and didn’t leave until after this whole thing was finished.

Whenever I thought about the narrative of what we were doing: the scope, the commitment, all the people involved, all the people I would let down if it didn’t work, how a conference should go, the type of person who organizes a conference (in short, whenever I created fictionalized versions of our endeavor) it seemed far too challenging an overall task to surmount. But whenever I focused on each individual task to get done—setting up a coffee meeting, shooting off an email, making a list of things we might have to buy—the grand idea of a conference appeared less and less insurmountable.

Throughout the long process of organizing NMG, it became a daily battle of my imagination vs. the reality of small things to get done. I’d find myself delaying on sending an email because of my fear that, say, the featured performer might not be available to perform on the day we needed them to, or I might ask too much of someone and they might get offended. My imagined consequences were always catastrophic. And they never really came true. When difficulties did arise, they were almost always manageable and, at worst, meant a commitment of plain-old time and effort to work through.

One very smart decision of Danny’s and mine was to invite more people to join the team in order to help alleviate the load and make smarter decisions. Enter Lainie Fefferman and Mary Kouyoumdjian. Lainie I’d known from her incredible organizational work with the New Music Bake Sale and Mary from her indefatigable production work with the ensemble Hotel Elefant. Our regular meetings at Nunu Chocolates in Brooklyn Heights were a fascinating blend of the wild dreaming of possibilities with the cold, hard pragmatism of making it all function—and with a minuscule budget to boot! We had the ideals of what we wanted of a new music conference –the spirit of collaboration, support, sharing, creating– and what we didn’t want –the spirit of competition, commerce, hierarchy.

Lainie Fefferman, Matt Marks, Mary Kouyoumdjian, and Daniel Felsenfeld sitting together at a round table.

An early meeting of the four original founders of the New Music Gathering: (left to right): Lainie Fefferman, Matt Marks, Mary Kouyoumdjian, and Daniel Felsenfeld. (Photo courtesy Matt Marks.)

I think it was this sense of creating something new, unique, and supportive that helped temper the efforts of my old friends Anxiety and Doubt. To a large extent, organizing NMG felt more like creative work than any production work I had done in the past. This has also led to a new-found admiration in me for people who do great work in fields that aren’t typically considered “creative.” I’m not sure if the fact that all four of us are composers made us better at our task, but knowing our ultimate goal was to facilitate the creation and performance of new music certainly helped it from feeling too laborious.

It also helped greatly having our main collaborator at SFCM be MaryClare Brzytwa (another composer/performer). All of this could have easily remained yet another lofty idea in another Facebook thread if she hadn’t stepped up and recognized the potential in such an event and how it aligned with her long-term vision and that of SFCM President David H. Stull; a major goal of theirs is to become the modern center for classical and contemporary music. Inviting Claire Chase to be our keynote speaker was their great idea and, coincidentally, Claire—in addition to being a true symbol of our spirit—was also in attendance at that very Mellon Foundation meeting (and was a classmate of President Stull’s from Oberlin!). I think what attracted SFCM to our budding conference was its freshness, its experimental approach, and the fact that we didn’t have the baggage of a long tradition of former conferences or solidified preconceptions of how a conference should happen. It still stuns me to this day that they had enough faith to offer their space and support for us to try and pull off an event like this. And excitingly for us, their new provost and dean, Kate Sheeran, is an alum of NMG 2015!

Now, before this starts to come off as yet another inspirational “Believe in yourself and you can achieve anything!”-post, I want to note that we were extraordinarily lucky with putting on the first NMG. The stars aligned, we had great support, and the time was right. There are any number of things that could have gone wrong and perhaps I wouldn’t be writing this post right now. But, speaking personally, I found myself assuming that many more things would go wrong than actually did, and those difficulties we did face (and there were many) all ended up being relatively manageable. For me, the greatest challenge in putting on a new music conference was conceptual. In the end, it wasn’t a matter of asking myself “Can I organize and put on a successful conference?”, it was a matter of having a rough plan and asking myself “Can I do this concrete amount of work today?” and the answer was almost always “Yes.”

As a composer, I’ll sometimes have the experience of hearing a piece of mine being performed and thinking, “Wait, did I write that? How did I write that?” because the hours and hours of plunking away at the piano and shifting dynamics in Sibelius blur away in my memory. Similarly, I’ll sometimes think to myself, “Wait, did we really put on a conference? How on Earth did we do that?” But, wonderfully, we get to see the fruits of our labor in the form of new collaborations and commissions continually happening due to people who formed connections at last year’s NMG, such as the Twitter-based new music discussion forum Musochat and commissioning projects by Michael Hall and Christian Hertzog, to name a few. Witnessing new art and ideas arising from our little conference is a creative feeling completely unlike that of mere self-expression. It’s what makes me experience more excitement and anticipation for the next NMG at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and less anxiety and doubt.

The Gathering Storm: How We Made a Conference

The official logo for the New Music Gathering

[Ed. Note: The initial New Music Gathering, which was organized by Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Lainie Fefferman, and Matt Marks at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from January 15-17, 2015, seemed to have emerged out of nowhere but it was a remarkably successful event that attracted composers, interpreters, and new music aficionados from all over the country. Its second iteration, which will take place from January 7-9, 2016 at the Peabody Institute of John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, promises to be equally impressive. To get some grounding in what this is all about, we asked each of the four founders to share some thoughts about the whys and wherefores of putting together a new music conference and festival for and by its practitioners. We will post their respective musings here on consecutive weeks. We start with Daniel Felsenfeld, who is no stranger to NewMusicBox, describing how it all began. – FJO]

Claire Chase, Lainie Fefferman, Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, and Matt Marks standing together in an empty room.

Claire Chase, the keynote speaker for the first New Music Gathering with NMG founders Lainie Fefferman, Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, and Matt Marks standing together during the initial convening of NMG in San Francisco in January 2015. (Photos courtesy Mary Kouyoumdjian.)

It began, as so many things do, with a moment of discourse on social media, a Facebook thread that got—as these things tend to do—heated on a topic I cannot recall. Matt Marks mentioned he’d been to some kind of new music summit wherein the oft-vaunted crises facing contemporary art music (or whatever—call it what you will) were discussed in hopes of drawing up solutions. As the thread ran to predictably pugilistic, I messaged Matt privately—the modern equivalent of repairing to the hotel bar for the sanity of a quiet drink—and said, simply, that we needed an actual space where these things could be talked about, wondering why we had only online spaces to discuss these matters. We can all romanticize (and I sure do) the days of the San Remo Bar or Specs where artists talked face to face rather than from the safe distance of their screens, but there is a lot to be said for it. Could we not, I wondered, make such a space?

Matt and I met in person (already advancing the spirit of the New Music Gathering) to discuss, in a realistic way, if we could actually make something happen—a thing that, to our knowledge, had no precedent. While I am short on details of exactly what we discussed (not for reasons of drunkenness but more for reasons, at least in my case, of the persistent exhaustion of parenthood), I do remember a few things laid out by one or both of us that contributed a lot to the success of the eventual gathering, notions cribbed from our admittedly scant experience of other conferences: some do’s, mostly don’ts. Not academic, but not not academic; no exhibition floor where people set up stalls to hock wares—in fact, no commerce whatsoever; no competitions—one could not arrive and subsequently lose. But above all, what we envisioned was a truly grassroots organization that never would billow or bloat into an organization. We would keep our overhead not just low but essentially non-existent. We would take no salaries (nor, for that matter, present our own music), rent no office, hire only staff we needed and nobody permanently. Unlike so much that claimed to be about a community, we wanted to do our best to make good on the promise.

Wisely, we asked Lainie Fefferman and Mary Kouyoumdjian to aid and abet and co-found—Jascha Naverson was also pressed into service—and lo!: a conference-concert series hybrid with the hard-earned (and coded-ly nerdy) moniker New Music Gathering.

I was skittish about our maiden voyage, which was to take place at the San Francisco Conservatory. What if nobody came? What if we did not meet our expenses? What if the blissful esprit that was our aim turned out to be impossible to manage. What if, what if, what if…? I steeled myself—and we steeled one another—for this as a distinct possibility. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be among the best weekends of my life. Now I can only remember it with the amber-dipped distance of, say, my wedding or the first days of my daughter’s life, but images and musical scenes too numerous to mention continue to surface that do not fail to re-enchant: Taka Kigawa striding casually to the stage to play (from what can only be a prodigious memory) the complete piano music of Pierre Boulez in a single sitting; Megan Ihnen and Hillary LaBonte’s set for two unaccompanied singers that opened the proceedings; an overstuffed and overheated (in both the sense of the climate and the rhetoric) tiny room addressing—for far too short a time—issues women face in our field; Sarah Cahill’s playing of the music of Terry Riley (and a chance to hug the great man himself, a hug I will always cherish); the local new music chorus Volti filling the stage; and, perhaps most strongly, Claire Chase’s astonishing keynote speech, which included the line “Every time you premiere a piece of new music you change the world.” There was our mission, one I believe we accomplished, and one I cannot wait to continue accomplishing, alongside the four amazing co-founders who double as revered friends in the year and decades to come.

Matt Marks, Sarah Cahill, Terry Riley, Daniel Felsenfeld, MaryClare Brzytwa, Lainie Fefferman, and Mary Kouyoumdjian standing together.

The NMG founders Matt Marks (left), Daniel Felsenfeld (center), Lainie Fefferman, and Mary Kouyoumdjian (far right) joined by pianist Sarah Cahill and composer Terry Riley (between Marks and Felsenfeld) and multi-instrumentist/improviser MaryClare Brzytwa (between Felsenfeld and Fefferman).