Tag: new music gathering

Uncomfortably Serious and Disarmingly Fun: The Irreplaceable Matt Marks

[Ed note: On May 11, 2018, the composer, performer, and new music organizer Matt Marks, 38, died unexpectedly in St. Louis. Testimonials from friends and colleagues sharing reflections on his humor, candor, and inspiring work as a music maker have poured in across social media where Matt was a vibrant, pull-no-punches presence. Perhaps illustrating the far reach of his impact, many of these messages were prefaced with variations of “I only met him IRL once, but our friendship here meant so much to me.” Online and off, Matt Marks was a point of community connection, and the absence of his voice—especially in the days leading up to the annual New Music Gathering he helped to found—has been difficult for many. Reflecting on this vital role he played in the field, Will Robin offered to share this interview he conducted with Marks in 2015. Spending a bit more time in the company of Matt’s conversation seemed a perfect way to celebrate him. Acknowledgments to Ted Hearne for the title inspiration.—MS]

As a historian of the recent past, I am in the incredibly fortunate position of being able to speak with the musicians whom I study. Most of the composers and performers I interviewed for my dissertation on the so-called “indie classical” scene were in their late twenties to early forties; I never thought to worry that a subject might pass away before we could talk. That one of them died last week is an unfathomable tragedy, from which the world of new music is still reeling. Matt Marks seemed like the kind of composer who would simply exist forever, whose presence would always be palpable. From his work as a founding member of Alarm Will Sound, to his heartfelt and hilarious compositions, to his organizational efforts with New Music Gathering, to his sardonically prolific Twitter account, it was impossible to overlook Matt or his essential role in the new music community.

In September 2015, I spoke with Matt in the sunny Brooklyn apartment that he shared with Mary Kouyoumdjian, a fellow composer who would become his fiancée, and their menagerie of adorable pets. I was primarily interested in his role in the scene around New Amsterdam Records, the label that released his first album, which was a main subject of my dissertation. The condensed interview transcript that you read below thus focuses primarily on Matt’s life, and less on his music; I hope that the many tributes that we will surely be reading in the coming weeks equally emphasize his compelling artistry. But what I think it does address, importantly, is that community doesn’t just “happen”: it requires the tireless labor of people like Matt to make it happen.

For me, despite—or perhaps because of—the incisive humor and postmodern irony that swirled through his music and writing, at the core of Matt’s work was a willingness to be publicly vulnerable, and to provide his listeners and readers with a sense of his entire self. This is maybe why it’s so hard to feel his absence, especially for those of us who primarily knew him virtually. His sometimes-insightful, sometimes-stupid, always-entertaining tweets are all still there; his music is so insistently written in his own voice, with his own voice. All you have to do is check your timeline and cue up his Soundcloud, and there he is again. On our screens, in our ears, in our presence.

Here is our conversation.

Matt Marks, a.k.a mafoo

Will Robin: Could you tell me a little bit about your musical background, up until college?

Matt Marks: I don’t come from a musical background. My dad owned an auto place and my mom worked with him. It was very much a car family: my brother was into cars, worked with them, my dad raced cars, all of that. I’m from Downey, California, so like L.A. I started taking piano lessons in second grade and got pretty into that but was never really a pianist-pianist, just played and had a good facility for it. And then in sixth grade I started French horn. When I got into high school I started getting more serious with horn, and actually the first big thing I did was—kind of out of the blue—auditioned for the LA Philharmonic High School Honor Orchestra, the first year they did that. I won first chair French horn. That kind of gave me a big ego boost, to “Oh, maybe this is something serious.” I joined more orchestras around there and did a bunch of playing: it was very much horn, horn, horn, classical music, Mahler, everything like that. In high school, I had my Stravinsky thing; I listened to The Rite of Spring and had my mind blown. That was a big thing for me, hearing The Rite of Spring. At this point, I was still pretty ignorant of new music or new music groups, or whether that could be a thing.

I went to Eastman. I did my undergrad there in horn. Like a lot of classical musicians, I started off trying to be really good at my instrument, and not necessary being like, “I’m going to win a job,” but just like, “I guess that’s what I’m supposed to do.” Practicing horn a lot, playing horn a lot, and trying to win auditions and placements at Eastman, stuff like that. My sophomore or junior year, I played the Ligeti Piano Concerto and that kind of blew my mind, and that was this thing for me of like, “Holy shit, this is a new type of music that I don’t even understand yet.” I did a rare thing for me, which was I took the score to the library and was like, “I’m going to sit down and listen to this because it looks really hard.” And then I got lost on the first page. I was like, “What the fuck is going on?” Which is funny, now, because I listen to it and I’m like, “This is such an easy piece,” [hums and snaps the rhythms] but for some reason there was so much going on in the 12/8 and 4/4 stuff that I couldn’t follow it. I practiced it and learned it: in the horn part there are a lot of microtonal partials and stuff like that, which is something I eventually got kind of into. Within two to three years, I went from “Holy shit. What the fuck is Ligeti? How do I do this?” to then soloing on the Ligeti horn concerto at Miller Theatre for the New York premiere of that, and that was one of Alarm Will Sound’s first gigs. That was my senior year, so that would have been 2002.

WR: What was your involvement at the beginning of Alarm Will Sound, which developed out of Ossia, the student new music ensemble at Eastman?

MM: We came to New York, did that [Miller Theatre concert], and it was a success. I think we got a good review. So that was the first kind of like, “Oh, man, maybe we can actually be a thing.” At that point, there was Kronos Quartet, there was Eighth Blackbird, there was California Ear Unit, and a bunch of string quartets. And from my perspective, all the other chamber groups were people who tried to play CMA [Chamber Music America], and tried to just be a chamber group and play colleges, and play hard music or whatever, or French wind quintets or whatever, or brass quintets—I was very plugged into brass quintets, and that was pretty bro-y. What’s your instrument?

WR: Saxophone.

MM: Oh yeah, sax quartets, you know, all that shit. And there’s something really beautiful, but also kinda bro-y about traditional chamber groups—I don’t know, whatever, there’s probably something bro-y about new music groups. When we started, Alan [Pierson] and Gavin [Chuck] were like, “We want to make this a real thing, an actual group with members.” And I was like, “Sure!” But I also had no idea whether that would stick or what. I graduated and then went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music for a year, so I was like, “Sure, if you want to fly me down to play some gigs, okay,” and they did. And that was our first year where we had somewhat of a season, and it was weird because I was in London the whole time so I would just periodically fly back. I left and moved back to the states, first to New Haven and then to New York. I moved to New York in 2004, and from then on it was kind of like, “Okay, now I’m here” and it was actually a pretty interesting time to be in New York for new music groups and shit like that.

You know, I’m your typical composer narcissist so I can just keep talking about myself: feel free to stop me.

I wasn’t really particularly interested in playing random orchestral gigs, and eventually working my way up to getting a Broadway show and playing Mama Mia or whatever.

WR: What was it like starting out in New York?

MM: It was pretty shitty for a few years. I knew just a few people in the city, and I was like, “I guess what I’m supposed to do is try to hound gigs, just make friends with horn players and brass players and bro out, and try to get gigs.” And I did that to a certain extent, but it was never really my thing. I wasn’t really particularly interested in playing random orchestral gigs, and eventually working my way up to getting a Broadway show and playing Mama Mia or whatever. So I pretty soon off decided that wasn’t the track for me, or at least I tried for a while and was like “I don’t have the heart for this. This is not my thing.” It took me a couple years, but I started meeting more people who were involved in new music. I eventually went to Stony Brook for a master’s in horn. At that time, I was starting to write music more—mainly electronic music and weird noise music on my sampler, and building my confidence for like, “Maybe eventually this will be something that’s not just on my headphones.”

At that point, there were maybe about seven Alarm Will Sounders living in the city. We started playing together and doing our own things. I started playing with Caleb [Burhans] and stuff. [Soprano Mellissa Hughes] was like, “Oh, you’re making music. You should keep doing that, and I’ll sing on some of it.” So we started working together. And after a few years, we had A Little Death, Vol. 1, my weird pop opera. That just came out of my weird sample pieces and pop pieces, and having an actual good singer to sing on it. I had that and recorded it and didn’t really know what I was going to do with all that material. Around that that time I started writing more for instruments—Mellissa, myself, and James Moore started this weird chamber group called Ensemble de Sade. It was basically this S&M-themed chamber ensemble, but it was also kind of satirical and making fun of itself. This was at that time when – I guess we’re still in that time – when classical music was all about tearing down the borders between audience and performers. Performers were trying to dress more casually, inviting people from the audience to join them. And we were generally into the idea, but we had this idea of being this satirical ensemble that was the opposite of that, like “Fuck that, there should be more distance! The audience is beneath us and we’re the top, and they’re lucky to be here!” So we put on a couple performances where we all dressed in tuxes and we were all super slick looking. We came out and we would be mean looking, play shit and finish and just leave, and not even acknowledge the audience. We had this dominatrix who would instruct the audience when to clap, and they weren’t allowed to clap unless she told them. We had all these restrictions on them—they had assigned seating, they couldn’t sit near their friends, they were really far from each other. I had been reading a bunch of Marquis de Sade at the time, and so this idea came from 120 Days of Sodom. The audience was seated, and they were super restricted and couldn’t talk, and if they did she would yell at them—she had a switch and shit. And then we had this separate section that was a VIP section with friends of ours. We let them sit there and we let them talk, and gave them food and wine. Some of the people who came were pissed about it, but some were like, “OK, I’m in a theatrical thing.” We did a few of those and that was pretty fun, and through that, basically, Ensemble de Sade and Newspeak, the two of us formed the New Music Bake Sale.

Marks on stage

Marks on stage with Mary Kouyoumdjian (left) and Lainie Fefferman
Photo by Tina Tallon

WR: What appealed to you about New Amsterdam Records—which released The Little Death, Vol 1.—and its scene?

I am interested in this idea of classical music that is appealing to people who weren’t bred to appreciate it.

MM: It’s less of a scene as in like, everybody’s going to the same concerts all the time and hanging out, and bro-ing out. It’s more that they tapped into something interesting that was happening in the mid/late 2000s that seemed pretty cool. And it’s funny, because we talk about it in the past tense because maybe it’s not as much of a thing anymore? But I am interested in this idea of classical music that is appealing to people who weren’t bred to appreciate it. I like this idea of classical music, or pop music written by classical musicians, that is a little bit more immediately appealing to people who aren’t trained to understand how classical music works. That doesn’t mean I think that that’s the only music there should be or anything like that, but I think that the people involved in New Amsterdam are all people who are very interested in pop and involve it in their work in some way. Some people more explicitly than others, I think. Some people take ideas from pop music and involve them in music that’s clearly written in a modernist tradition, or in a classical tradition. And some people like me are more explicit with it, where it’s like, “We’re going to make music that’s pretty much like pop, but with influences from outside of pop.” I think that’s interesting, and it was a unique movement or scene or whatever for a while. I think it got pigeonholed by a lot of people outside of New York and also in New York as being like, “Oh, we’re going to make classical music more fun – or more accessible.” I think a lot of people think that it was really focused on accessibility, or trying to be hip.

WR: What were the early New Amsterdam shows you performed in like?

MM: The vibe at that time at a lot of these things was playing for people or going to their shows to support them, but also, “Oh, this will be genuinely good so I’m going to go check this out.” With Little Death, when we did it and I had the small choir, I think I paid them $100 or something like that. I don’t know if that’d be possible now. That was 2010, and those people are now touring all over the world and shit, or teaching at USC. There was something kind of special about that. We got like a hundred bucks for it, but it was a day’s work and it was fine. I do feel a little bit like it’s gotten a bit spread out though: there’s not the same feeling of everybody’s going to come to everybody’s show and everybody’s going to play on everybody’s show.

WR: How has the new music scene changed since you’ve been active in it?

MM: I’ve been in New York eleven years as of September. It’s funny. I feel like I’ve gotten a bit disconnected from it, mainly because I’ve become more involved in my own things, and I’m also kind of a horrible homebody. It’s hard to get me to go out. In the event I have children of my own, I’m a little worried, because I won’t go to any shows. I always find a reason to miss shows. What are the scenes right now that I think are cool? I really dig the vibe of Hotel Elefant, Mary [Kouyoumdjian]’s scene.It’s a good mix. They tend to be younger—late 20s, early 30s. I guess I like that vibe a lot because, similarly to how I was maybe five years ago or whatever, people are just willing to try shit out and do things, and they aren’t necessarily worried about like, “Okay, this many rehearsals means I need to get paid this much and blah blah blah.” There’s a lot of vitality with younger people, because even though they have less economic freedom, they’re just down to do weird shit.

WR: What are the most interesting things you’re seeing these days?

MM: I think San Francisco will be seeing more cool stuff. The fact that we did New Music Gathering there was really interesting. There’s a ton of stuff happening in San Francisco, and when we were there, a lot of it came on our radar and we were like, “Oh wow, this is great.” We’ll see what happens in Baltimore, but I know that there’s a lot happening there. Part of what we’re trying to do with New Music Gathering is to be like, “Hey, there are all these really great scenes. Let’s go to these places.” Rather than just be like, “Let’s do it in New York where we live.” Let’s go to these places that have these interesting scenes and shine the light on them and let them show the world what they’ve got, and also have other people there too.

WR: What do you think is the significance of the entrepreneurship rhetoric that’s become a significant part of the discussion in classical and new music?

MM: It’s a tricky thing, because I do think that it’s really important to think creatively about how you’re going to run the business that is either yourself or your ensemble or your label or whatever it is, and I think people are getting better at doing that. And I think that’s something that sadly hasn’t been really taught at schools at a practical level. Schools have their entrepreneurship program or arts leadership program which, if you’re a horn player and you’re there to play the horn, you just don’t engage with. I would have gladly foregone taking the mandatory humanities class that I didn’t care about at all to take a class on how to put on a show, how to program a concert, how to schedule rehearsals. That could be a fucking semester class, just scheduling rehearsals. The most stress in my life is about scheduling rehearsals, promoting things. That’s terrifying, and I just learned it from being in New York and doing it the wrong way for ten years. That said, I don’t think you can think too capitalistically with it. Classical music, I don’t know how well it would ever survive as something that is purely capitalistic, purely something people just spend money on.

WR: Those are all my questions. Is there anything else you wanted to add?

MM: Who do you want me to talk shit about?

The New Music Gathering Co-Founders

The New Music Gathering Co-Founders: Matt Marks, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Daniel Felsenfeld, Lainie Fefferman, and Jascha Narveson
Photo by Tina Tallon

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.

New Horizons, Old Barriers

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologists at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

In 1983, the New York Philharmonic presented two weeks of new music programming focused on a single question: “Since 1968, A New Romanticism?” The first of three major Horizons festivals, “The New Romanticism”—curated by the Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence Jacob Druckman—was a major box office hit, fueled by a wave of publicity, extensive coverage in the press, and performances of new and recent works by Druckman, David Del Tredici, John Adams, and Luciano Berio. But the significance of Horizons was not only in its examination of the emerging aesthetic trend of neo-Romanticism. Funded by the organization Meet The Composer, the festivals represented a major shift in how new music was supported in the 1980s, as composers newly embraced the orchestra, turned away from academia, and entered the classical music marketplace.

The Horizons festivals represented a major shift in how new music was supported in the 1980s, as composers newly embraced the orchestra, turned away from academia, and entered the classical music marketplace.

I’m currently in the midst of researching a book project that situates the Horizons festivals within the larger institutional landscape for American new music in the 1980s and early 1990s. When I presented some of my work in Bowling Green at the 2017 New Music Gathering, it centered on the relationship between Horizons and Bang on a Can, an institution that is central to my book. But for this essay, I’d like to shift focus to talk about what Horizons offered, and did not offer, as support for composers entering a new musical marketplace. My brain is a bit too full of information on this topic right now—I’ve spent most of my summer digging into archival collections related to Horizons and interviewing folks who participated in it—but I will try to make this less of an info dump and more of a critical analysis.


Meet The Composer

The three Horizons festivals—presented by the Philharmonic in 1983, ’84, and ’86—were a key component of one of many orchestral residencies sponsored by Meet The Composer, an advocacy and granting organization established in 1974 by composer John Duffy. Beginning in 1982, MTC established a nationwide composer-in-residence program. Modeled in part after the successful collaboration between the San Francisco Symphony and John Adams, the MTC residencies aimed to, as Duffy told EAR Magazine in 1986, create “visible ways to re-introduce and re-invigorate the whole world of the composer and orchestra.” The organization’s substantial funding was representative of the Reagan-era shifts in support for the arts: it combined public support from the NEA and state councils with foundation money from the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as corporate financing from Exxon. In comparison to the present day, MTC’s imprint was huge; in 1990, The New York Times reported that it gave on average $2.5 million to composers per year; in contemporary buying power, that is more than four times the amount of grant support that New Music USA, MTC’s successor, provides annually today.

The growing presence of MTC significantly shaped the marketplace for new music in the United States and deeply informed the idea of a non-academic “market” to begin with. One of the most startling discoveries in the course of my recent research—and this may not be casual knowledge among younger readers of NewMusicBox—is that, as recently as the 1970s, American composers frequently were not paid at all for commissions. Complaints about writing music “for exposure” were likely as common in the ’70s as they are today; orchestras often got composers to write new works simply by telling them their music would be played, not that they would be financially compensated for their efforts. As an organization, MTC argued vigorously that composers deserved to be paid. The institution’s significant fundraising and financing of the orchestral program—which included a full-time salary for resident composers—provided a more widespread understanding that a commission came with money, not just a guarantee for performance.

Complaints about writing music “for exposure” were likely as common in the ’70s as they are today.

This notion extended into their advocacy work writ large: in 1984, MTC published “Commissioning Music,” a pamphlet for composers and patrons that included guidelines for potential commissioning fees; in 1989, the organization published a handbook titled “Composers in the Marketplace,” with basic information on copyright, performance, publishing, recordings, royalties, and promotion. Soon enough, major funding organizations were taking their cues from MTC; the New York State Council on the Arts’s 1990 program booklet based its commission fee guidelines off of research conducted by the organization. As composers entered the marketplace, MTC helped determine how much they would be paid.

Horizons and the New Romanticism

As part of his MTC residency with the Philharmonic, Jacob Druckman was selected to compose music for the orchestra, advise music director Zubin Mehta on programming, and supervise the large-scale Horizons festivals. For the first festival, he proposed “The New Romanticism,” a curatorial theme steeped in his belief that, since 1968, new music had embraced “sensuality, mystery, nostalgia, ecstasy, and transcendence.” It was a tagline from which the Philharmonic could easily benefit, as subscribers perhaps otherwise fearful of dissonant and disarming contemporary work might relax at the notion that it maintained some continuity with the 19th-century music that typically brought them to the concert hall. Indeed, one Philharmonic advertisement promised “[t]hree weeks that could just change your mind about the meaning of new music.” And a big and provocative theme like “The New Romanticism” was catnip for music critics: dozens of articles were published examining just what this new romanticism might be, and whether it represented a sea change from the academic serialism that was perceived (often stereotypically) as dominant in the world of American composition.

Over two weeks in June 1983, the Horizons festival boldly seized this moment, with six concerts of orchestral music, numerous premieres, several symposia, and a glossy program book. It was a box office phenomenon, with hundreds of people lining up outside Avery Fisher Hall to buy tickets on opening night. An internal memo in the Philharmonic archives noted that the festival “attracted a younger audience—a way of replenishing the audience” and that the success of the festival “OBLITERATES NOTION that no one cares about new music and there is no audience.”

It was a box office phenomenon, with hundreds of people lining up outside Avery Fisher Hall to buy tickets on opening night.

Importantly, Horizons also offered a model for young composers to enter a new orchestral marketplace. The then 23-year-old Aaron Jay Kernis was selected by the Philharmonic to have his work dream of the morning sky read by the orchestra. In front of an audience of hundreds, Mehta took Kernis to task for his tempo markings and scoring. At one point, fed up with the criticism, Kernis apparently replied, “Just read what’s there.” The audience cheered on behalf of the composer; as the tiff was more widely reported in the press, it served as a kind of parable for the newfound power and opportunity that composers might have in the American symphonic world. An internal Philharmonic memo in the wake of the ’83 festival reports that Druckman said in a meeting that “composers now see that they can write for full orchestra and expect to be performed.”

The young composers Scott Lindroth and David Lang were also hired as assistants to Druckman for preparing the ’84 and ’86 Horizons festivals, which shaped their outlooks as recent graduates from the academy. (It is not a coincidence that these composers all attended Yale, and that Druckman taught there; I’ll be addressing this connection in more detail in my book.) In a 2014 interview with me, Lindroth said of the Horizons festivals that “when composers began to realize that this too might be available to them—and that it wasn’t all about the Pierrot ensemble plus percussion—we were all very, very excited about that: there might be another way to move forward as a composer.” Horizons represented the emergence of a new kind of “middle ground”—and audience—for young composers primarily familiar with either an “uptown” world of chamber ensembles and electronic music within academia, or a “downtown” world of improvisation and DIY ensembles within alternative venues.

And although Lang was himself writing orchestral music in the mid-’80s, his takeaway from working with the Philharmonic was that this particular corner of the marketplace was not for him. He saw the orchestral world as insular and claustrophobic; as he said in a 1997 interview with Libby van Cleve as part of Yale University’s Oral History of American Music project:

It also was very demoralizing and a very good indication of how narrow the world was, and how for any composer who was saying to himself or herself, “Oh, the secret of my future will be to write one orchestra piece. Every orchestra will play it. I’ll be world famous,” it just showed how impossible, or how narrow, or how unsatisfying that experience would be.

The first Bang on a Can marathon, in 1987, was brainstormed as a direct response to Lang’s dissatisfaction with Horizons. The composer and his compatriots Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe had spent their days in the mid-’80s hanging out at dairy restaurants on the Lower East Side, drinking coffee and complaining about institutional negligence towards contemporary work, before deciding to do something about it. But even if it seemed to offer a model for everything that the scrappy Bang on a Can would attempt to avoid, Horizons did provide new institutional connections that facilitated the upstart organization’s funding: Lang cultivated a relationship with John Duffy during his work for the Philharmonic, and MTC subsequently became the earliest major financial supporter of Bang on a Can.

Lang & Druckman

The Limits of Horizons

In the 1980s, MTC’s advisory board included a significant number of female and black composers, and more diversity than many institutions today.

From my vantage point today, one of the strengths of MTC under Duffy was its broad purview in terms of who was considered a composer and the resources that they thus commanded. In the 1980s, the organization’s advisory board included a significant number of female and black composers, and more diversity than many institutions today. Duffy’s strong advocacy for underrepresented voices was confirmed in my recent interview with Tania León, who served on the MTC board and worked with the Philharmonic as a new music advisor in the early ‘90s. (I haven’t gotten a chance to transcribe this interview yet, so again, stay tuned for the book.) In a 1993 questionnaire assessing MTC’s jazz commissioning program that I found during recent archival research at New Music USA, the composer and violinist Leroy Jenkins wrote of his MTC grant that “the very audacity of the idea of writing for a classical organization…has given inspiration to me and my contemporaries.” I was also struck, at a memorial service honoring Duffy in 2016 at Roulette, that Muhal Richard Abrams, a co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, performed in his honor.

But because MTC partnered with existing institutions and established composers with their own blind spots, this push for diversity did not extend into the 1983 Horizons festival. I raise this issue because, in a recent blog post about the 2017 New Music Gathering at which I presented on my research on Horizons, the composer Inti Figgis-Vizueta pointed out the absence of diversity among conference attendees and, importantly, that very few panels addressed the systemic biases that plague the world of new music today. They suggested that “there needs to be an overhaul of our ethics to require more diverse voices in new music and that starts with each participant in our gathering truly self-criticizing and understanding their own intersections of privilege and power.” As a musicologist, I believe that such an overhaul can also benefit from telling and retelling historical moments in which underrepresented voices were silenced, and in which powerful institutions were subsequently reprimanded for the same reasons they are critiqued today.

The seven orchestras that participated in the first round of MTC residencies were free to choose their own composers: all of the composers they selected were men except for Libby Larsen, who partnered with Stephen Paulus to work with the Minnesota Orchestra, and all were white except for Robert Xavier Rodriguez, who collaborated with the Dallas Symphony. Druckman was known as a non-doctrinaire figure, and the programming of the ’83 Horizons festival was impressively catholic, bringing together distinct musical styles and a wide array of composers from Del Tredici and Adams to Wuorinen and Schuller. But even as it may have included a praiseworthy “diverse” assembly of musical idioms, diversity in terms of race and gender was almost nonexistent. Only one work by a female composer, Barbara Kolb, was presented in 1983; no works by black composers were performed. This issue was raised by the singer and author Raoul Abdul, who accused the orchestra of discrimination both at the festival and in the press; in a column in the New York Amsterdam News, he wrote that “when I asked the question ‘Where are the Black Composers?’ at the opening symposium at the Library of Performing Arts last Wednesday evening, it was greeted with hisses and boos from some of the 300 people present. Philharmonic Composer-in-Residence Jacob Druckman, who put together the festival, refused to address the question directly by saying he couldn’t include everyone. He lumped Blacks in with women and other minorities.”

Understanding the fact that Horizons did not present any works by black composers in 1983 can help us understand the mechanisms that shape how and why underrepresented voices continue to be excluded in the world of new music in the present. Given the dozens of scores that were mailed to the Philharmonic by hopeful composers—the New York Public Library’s Jacob Druckman papers include many, many letters from composers submitting their work for his examination—the composer-in-residence and the orchestra certainly had access to music by African Americans, but they did not program it. And it was an issue that the organizers were aware of beforehand: when actually planning the ’83 Horizons festival, as a document in the Philharmonic archives reveals, Druckman said in a meeting that “two areas have been of concern to Meet The Composer: getting more high-power soloists; and programming a work by one of the minimalists (Reich or Glass) and by a woman or black composer.” There is much to praise in Druckman’s visionary promise of a new Romanticism and the Philharmonic’s wholehearted embrace of contemporary music with Horizons, one that might even eclipse Alan Gilbert’s worthwhile recent efforts. But declining to properly represent the diversity of the American musical landscape was one of its failures.

press conference for Horizons

León mentioned in her interview with me that in the wake of the Abdul protest, Duffy marched over to the Philharmonic’s offices with a stack of scores by black composers to deliver to the orchestra. The second festival, titled “The New Romanticism—A Broader View,” addressed this injustice by including performances of music by George Lewis, George Walker, and Anthony Davis, as well as Diamanda Galás, Thea Musgrave, Laurie Spiegel, Joan La Barbara, and Betsy Jolas. But observers still pointed out the underrepresentation of women and black composers in the public forums that Horizons mounted. As reported by Johnny Reinhard in EAR Magazine, at an opening symposium for the festival in June 1984, an audience member asked of a panel of composers—which included Hans Werner Henze, Milton Babbitt, Roger Reynolds, Greg Sandow, and Druckman—“Why aren’t there any women represented here?”

“The response was an incredibly pregnant silence,” Reinhard wrote. The discussion continued to unfold awkwardly, as someone else asked, “What about Ornette Coleman?” As Reinhard described:

Mr. Sandow fielded the question by pointing out how interesting it is that Jazz musicians prefer to be kept separate from what was being represented on the Horizons series when New York Times music critic John Rockwell cried out, “That’s not true, Gregory!” It appears that Mr. Coleman had told him otherwise. “Maybe it’s because he’s black,” suggested Brooke Wentz timidly.

In 1983, a festival that embraced a new diversity of compositional idioms under the umbrella “The New Romanticism” neglected to include women and black composers. And in a subsequent festival that attempted to rectify this imbalance, a panel consisting of white male stakeholders could not fully account for the biases that those in the audience easily perceived. Meet The Composer and Horizons helped introduce composers to the marketplace, but this marketplace belonged to the institutional world of classical music, entrenched with long histories of racism and sexism that we must continue to fight against in the present day.

William Robin

William Robin

William Robin (@seatedovation) is an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Maryland. He completed his PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a dissertation focused on indie classical and new music in the twenty-first century United States. His research interests include American new music since the 1980s and early American hymnody. As a public musicologist, Robin contributes to the New York Times and The New Yorker, and received an ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award in 2014 for the NewMusicBox article “Shape Notes, Billings, and American Modernisms.”

How OPERA America Has Supported New Works

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologists at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

In a 2015 interview, Marc Scorca, president and CEO of the non-profit service organization OPERA America, conveyed his optimism for the future of American opera:

Today, we see new operas being performed in our major companies and at new works laboratories, which ten years ago didn’t exist nearly in the numbers that they exist today. There are composers, librettists, directors, and designers who really want to do new American opera for a whole variety of reasons…We now have an American opera repertoire.

OPERA America was established in 1970 by professional opera companies for opera companies. While their professional company membership today continues to predominantly feature traditional opera companies in North America, they now offer artistic services to a wider range of nontraditional entities that operate within and beyond the field of opera. As a national organization, it makes sense that OPERA America’s current mission statement prioritizes the creation and excellence of North American works especially. But OPERA America was not always devoted to new works. In fact, this priority only developed after the organization’s first decade in response to critical changes in the field. OPERA America members became concerned with the dearth of new American operas and the stagnation of standard European repertoire. In response to this perceived crisis, they designated a landmark suite of grants to cultivate new music theater collaborations.

American opera’s previous heyday occurred in the 1960s when the Ford Foundation commissioned 22 works, two of which were produced by the Metropolitan Opera, one each by San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, and 11 by the New York City Opera. Familiar titles include Robert Ward’s The Crucible (1961), Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra (1966), and Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1967). These new operas had mixed reception among audiences and singers, who often preferred 18th- and 19th-century standard repertoire. Opera houses also found that the new works required more costly preparations, such as extra rehearsal time for roles that singers usually never had an opportunity to perform again. Although the Ford Foundation successfully extended the American opera repertoire, their commissioning program was not sustainable and it ceased when the money ran out. Thus, during OPERA America’s formative years in the early 1970s, U.S. opera companies encountered a relative downturn in financial support for new works.

Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra

By the late 1970s, a cohort of progressive opera and theater administrators reached beyond the boundaries of opera by galvanizing grants for collaborations. The National Endowment for the Arts debuted the Opera-Musical Theater program in 1979, which enabled interaction between opera and theater companies that previously had been assigned to the separate divisions of music and theater, respectively. The NEA Opera-Musical Theater program’s advisory board listed diverse figures, including opera company general directors David Gockley and Kurt Herbert Adler, opera composers Thea Musgrave and Carlisle Floyd, musical theater composers Stephen Sondheim and John Kander, and theater producers Hal Prince and Stuart Ostrow. Although the Opera-Musical Theater program successfully funded premieres and fostered new works in their early stages, this program alone did not enact the transformation OPERA America professionals were pursuing. In the early 1980s, productions of new American operas by U.S. companies remained limited: 1981 saw four world premieres in the United States, 1982 had seven, 1983 had five, and 1984 had only three. At this juncture, the forward-looking members of OPERA America hoped to stimulate the creation of any new works, even if their ultimate desire was for the works to become canonical with repeat performances.

It was necessary to effect a change within the opera field and not let opera companies be ‘end run’ by the creation of new music theater within other fields.

A network of arts professionals, including Rockefeller Foundation Arts Director Howard Klein and impresarios Harvey Lichtenstein and David Gockley, believed the solution was to look beyond opera establishments to the vital world of experimental music theater, most successfully represented by the collaborative efforts of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson in Einstein on the Beach (1976). Many of these music theater artists were active in the Downtown New York scene—Glass, Wilson, Robert Ashley, Laurie Anderson, and Lee Breuer—but others, including Paul Dresher and George Coates, worked in San Francisco. They had little or no contact with U.S. opera companies at the time. OPERA America President David DiChiera contended that “it was necessary to effect a change within the opera field and not let opera companies be ‘end run’ by the creation of new music theater within other fields, for that would serve to accentuate even more the atrophy current within our industry.”

OPERA America initiated new undertakings to address these issues with the help of Klein and Ann Farris Darling, director of the NEA Opera-Musical Theater Program. In August of 1983, Klein, Darling, and OPERA America Executive Director Martin Kagan and President David DiChiera held a three-day meeting in Detroit with 32 participants: composers, conductors, playwrights, stage directors, and opera house general directors with experience in new opera and related music theater works. The invitees were strategic: the meeting planners specifically wanted to bring together artists from the worlds of opera and musical theater. All attendees considered the particular limitations or opportunities that influenced opera companies in the creation of new American works. They brainstormed methods to minimize the artistic and monetary risks that determined whether or not a company would commission new operas.

Klein believed that opera companies ought to observe the theater world for inspiration: “Unlike theater, which nourished playwrights through workshops and productions, opera had no farm team for creators.” This issue, along with the time and money needed for commissions and productions, drove Klein and others to set up a support system for creating new works titled “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” (hereafter OFTEAB). The program offered three types of grants: Exploration Fellowships (allowing personnel to see new works and meet artists), Team Building Grants (funding artist/administrator meetings for potential works), and Development Grants (subsidizing creative costs for commissions and productions).

Money was only part of the problem.

Yet even as OPERA America personnel launched OFTEAB, they were not convinced all opera companies would take advantage of its grants. Consequently, OFTEAB’s first project director had the key duty of visiting and interviewing opera company administrators across North America to diagnose the reasons why they did not program new works. Their hire, Ben Krywosz, was a stage director who had experience with innovative music theater creation through the National Institute for Music Theater at Minnesota Opera. After meeting with dozens of opera companies, he noted in his final report that “money was only part of the problem. In fact, the implicit (and sometimes explicit) mission of most opera companies was to produce masterpieces of 18th- and 19th-century European opera. Creating new work was a completely different activity that was not particularly compatible with the production process of most opera companies.” In order for OFTEAB to work, Krywosz felt these companies needed to broaden their horizons and mission statements to include the creation of new operas. Some companies resisted OFTEAB, as they were not keen to change their approach. “Playing a pro-active role in challenging the field’s assumptions about the operatic form,” Krywosz explained, “was seen by some in the field as a subversive activity, inconsistent with OPERA America’s broader goals of supporting opera.” The Detroit meeting participants had predicted this issue, which is why OFTEAB’s funding, namely the exploration fellowships and pre-commissioning grants, functioned as educational outreach for general directors who were unfamiliar with emerging artists and new processes of creating music theater.

For more details about the particular works that resulted from OFTEAB and the risk-taking arts administrators involved, see “Funding Opera for the 80s and Beyond: The Role of Impresarios in Creating a New American Repertoire” in the Spring 2017 issue of American Music.

The influence of “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” on the American opera landscape became clear by its completion in 1990. Nontraditional opera companies, among them the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia and the Music-Theatre Group in New York City, now appeared as OPERA America member organizations, which continued to grow in number throughout the 1990s. The annual number of American opera premieres had also increased throughout the decade (e.g., 1998 had 31). In fact, this rate has remained constant to the present day: an average of 30 works premiered each year between 1995 and 2015.

The above average of 30 new works per year resulted from a 2015 OPERA America study that tracked the numbers, names, and composer demographics of North American world premieres over the past 20 years. This document offers a useful window into the organization’s more recent institutional priorities. For instance, the report found that only 71 (11%) of the 589 works premiered during this period have had more than one production. OPERA America’s programs have triumphed with the rise of annual premieres, yet most of these works have not entered the operatic canon with revivals. The exceptions belong to composers Mark Adamo and Jake Heggie, who according to the report enjoyed the highest number of revivals: Adamo’s Little Women (1998) had 66 and Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000) had 42. Philip Glass followed with 25 revivals (of multiple operas) and the highest number of world premieres (12 operas). Another area of concern for OPERA America is the lack of gender diversity. Only 41 out of 373 total composers were female. Today OPERA America has addressed this gap by facilitating a Women’s Opera Network and new grants for female composers.

Despite these achievements, Krywosz looks back at the 1980s as “heady times” compared to today, in which new works are more common. He assessed the situation over email in 2014: “Most of the work is fairly staid, new wine in old bottles, and we are headed dangerously toward a rather boring convention of naturalistic prose librettos, set in an arioso/recit style that doesn’t even begin to take advantage of the power of music-theater.” Today Krywosz continues to advocate for boundary-crossing works over in Minnesota as artistic director of Nautilus Music-Theater, where he works as a producer, director, and dramaturg of new operas and other forms of music theater. Some may perceive OPERA America’s mission of reaching “within and beyond the opera field” as empty talk, but Krywosz points out “there is a contingent within the organization (Beth Morrison, Paul Dresher, HERE, etc.) that [is] more adventuresome and can’t be discounted.”

At the same time, as John Pippen argues in a previous article in this series, “New music is a culture that tends to romanticize risk, and I think we ought to push back on that romanticizing. For all its aesthetic innovation, new music remains a job for many people.” Perhaps the same could be said of new American opera. Debates over its future highlight a complex web of expectations concerning not only the importance of radical artistic vision but also the commercial realities and conventional operatic norms of larger institutions that cannot afford to fail in the same way that smaller organizations might.

Returning to Scorca’s point at the beginning, if “we now have an American opera repertoire,” what kind of repertoire is it? In addition to Beth Morrison Projects, American Opera Projects and the American Lyric Theater aim to shape this repertoire from the ground up. A range of small organizations, Opera Parallèle and The Industry among them, also champion contemporary opera and music theater, and their influence has radiated outward: Opera Parallèle’s artistic director Nicole Paiement is now a principal guest conductor at The Dallas Opera. Such larger institutions continue to sprinkle new works into their programming, often working with arts incubators and shouldering costs through coproductions. But the “American New Opera Machine” still has its downsides: Frank Pesci, for instance, recently described the challenges emerging artists face when trying to break onto the American opera scene. As the field continues to work for change, the legacy of OFTEAB remains at OPERA America with its New Works Forums, Exploration Grants, and Audience and Repertoire Development funds.

Sasha Metcalf

Sasha Metcalf

Sasha Metcalf will begin a new position this fall as a program analyst at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program. Her research, featured in NewMusicBox and American Music, examines the interplay between administrators, artists, and performing arts institutions during the late 20th century. Previously, Metcalf was a visiting assistant professor of musicology at Vanderbilt University and a lecturer in the writing program at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In Support of New Music

How is new music supported?

At the third annual New Music Gathering this past May, a panel of musicologists suggested a variety of answers to this question. In ideal scenarios, new music is sustained at multiple levels: financial, social, aesthetic, and emotional. Over the next few months, we’ll share case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American operas, as well as the interpersonal relationships and ethics that nourish new music communities from Chicago to Stockholm. We’ll also look at where support falls short, and explore what lessons these failures offer.

Thank you to NewMusicBox for hosting this series, to New Music Gathering for creating a space for productive dialogue, and to our families, friends, and institutions for supporting our scholarship.


What Do You Think? By John Pippen
How do we critique each other’s work? What is at stake in such a conversation? For every successful endeavor, there are more failures. As I became aware of this contingency, “What do you think?” became an increasingly high-stakes question.

How OPERA America Has Supported New Works By Sasha Metcalf
In the 1980s, OPERA America members became concerned with the dearth of new American operas and the stagnation of standard European repertoire. In response to this perceived crisis, they decided to take action. But the need for financial support was only part of the problem.

How to Produce Opera Outside the Opera House By Ryan Ebright
How do you get an opera company to produce an opera that’s not really an opera? You don’t—you do it yourself. But it takes a network of support. Ryan Ebright explores the personal connections and professional collaborators that allowed Steve Reich and Beryl Korot to self-produce their first video opera The Cave.

Amateur Hour: Karin Rehnqvist, The City’s Choir, and the Gift that Kept Giving By Per Broman
Karin Rehnqvist was never afraid of being labeled a composer for amateurs (nor was she afraid of being labeled a feminist), and after numerous commissions from professional ensembles and international performances, she didn’t have to prove herself. The amateur path she started on actually showed itself to be an ideal schooling in outreach and entrepreneurship.

New Horizons, Old Barriers By Will Robin
Funded by the organization Meet The Composer, the New York Philharmonic’s Horizons festivals represented a major shift in how new music was supported in the 1980s, as composers newly embraced the orchestra, turned away from academia, and entered the classical music marketplace. But declining to properly represent the diversity of the American musical landscape was one of its failures.

Third New Music Gathering Announces May Line-Up

Composer/Performer Speed Dating

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

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

audience at NMG panel

Audience at NMG panel in 2016

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

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

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

The Curiosity Cabinet

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

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

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

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.