Close Encounters of the Chamber Music Kind

Close Encounters of the Chamber Music Kind

Last week I attended the Chamber Music America conference for the first time; I was partially there representing NewMusicBox, and partially there to satisfy the curiosity of my composer self. I should preface this by stating that I am not a big conference person, but I’m really glad I went because it was great to connect with so many old friends and to meet lots of fellow musical travelers.

While other conferences have struck me as gigantic family reunions, this one seemed more like a gathering of inhabitants from the many moons orbiting a planet. A variety of musical worlds were represented, not to mention the different facets making those worlds tick—performers, artist managers, presenters, etc.—all with very specific agendas in tow. Networking was more like speed-dating. “Are you doing my thing? No? Okay. Here’s my card anyway. Nicetomeetyoubye!” As Ellen McSweeney has already pointed out, new music was not much represented, and although the keynote speaker was Tod Machover (who delivered a wonderful, airtight, inspiring speech), electronic music was basically absent from the landscape.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t difficult for anyone there to encounter like-minded folks of one sort or another. The various panels, meetings, and showcases ensured that classical would rub shoulders with jazz, the big presenters with smaller, and that the more seasoned, established attendees would come into contact with the newcomers. I think that both Angela Myles Beeching (if you haven’t read her book, do it now) and Steve Smith should receive awards for exemplary panel facilitation!

The conference also provided a glimpse into the workings of standard ensembles that play primarily standard repertoire. Faced with two piano trios who play Brahms equally well, how does a presenter choose? Will it be based upon the group’s photo? Or on the presenter’s relationship with the group’s manager? On the ensemble’s ability to attract an audience? I do not envy the sort of competition those ensembles, and performers of straight-up classical music in general, have to endure. Many of the panels were aimed at developing creative methods to address exactly those issues. Although I heard more than one panelist suggest that this model for presenting classical chamber music is fading away, last week it appeared healthy, strong, and eager to keep on trucking.

In the end, what I walked away with—in addition to a pile of business cards and CDs—was a head full of very small, yet very smart ideas for enhancing one’s musical life that are easy to implement but that could have a substantial impact. These ideas came primarily from conversations with individuals and less from group activities. Even if you’re not a conference person, it’s still a good plan to dive into the fray; you never know what will happen!

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

3 thoughts on “Close Encounters of the Chamber Music Kind

  1. Alex Shapiro

    When I was launching my concert music career and focusing on composing for small ensembles so I could get my unknown music out into the world more easily, the annual Chamber Music America conference was invaluable! Each frigid January for five or six years, I invested in my business (not only as a composer, but as a publisher) by having a full 6′ display table with scores, CDs, and listening stations (yeah, and shells and rubber duckies, just for a little branding since I lived on the Malibu beach).

    It was a pricey thing for me to do at the time (ok, the duckies were cheap), but it was worth it: the resulting score sales covered my expenses, I sparked lots of performances around the U.S., and my database grew exponentially. But best of all was seeing many of the same people each time I attended, and the long-term reverberation of building those relationships at CMA. As Alex G. cheerfully points to in her essay about the 2008 NPAC in Denver, conferences are tribal events, and they foster a natural, warm familiarity. Kinda akin to the life-long bonds formed with our school classmates, ‘cept without the studying and exams!

    I heartily recommend conferences to composers, no matter how shy you might think you are (Composer Karen Siegel offers an amen to this during her mis-en-cocktail party interview with Frank O.). As my chamber music career became balanced with composing electroacoustic symphonic wind band works, I began attending the gi-normous Midwest Clinic each frigid (there’s a cruel theme here) December in Chicago. Again, the results have been exponential, rewarding, and so much fun (just imagine 15,000 crazed band musicians under one roof. Ok, better not, or your head might explode).

    As much excellent networking as we can accomplish from the confines of our homes, it’s a great thing to occasionally clean oneself up, head out the door, and press the flesh instead of the SEND button!

  2. Angela Beeching

    Thanks for the shout out, Alexandra! I had a great time at the CMA conference and was glad to meet you and Ellen there! And I agree with Alex Shapiro—it can be a terrific investment for composers and other smart folks (miss seeing you at CMA!)


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