The Gathering Storm: How We Made a Conference
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. I messaged Matt Marks 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
[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]
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.