The audience gives Joan Tower a standing ovation on the final morning of the 2020 Chamber Music America conference.
2020 Chamber Music Conference Continues Focus on Equity and Inclusivity
The audience gives Joan Tower a standing ovation on the final morning of the 2020 Chamber Music America conference.

2020 Chamber Music Conference Continues Focus on Equity and Inclusivity

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

George Lewis in front of a CMA podium,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roxy Coss performing on saxophone with members of her Quintet.

Roxy Coss and members of her Quintet.

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

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

John Schaefer and Joan Tower.

John Schaefer and Joan Tower.

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

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


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