Last month I visited the Netherlands’ second city, Rotterdam, to attend Classical:NEXT for the first time. Five years ago, when I was first approached about attending this new international forum combining conference sessions, concerts, and exhibition rooms, I was skeptical, bordering on dismissive. I doubted that any convening with such a name could be inclusive enough to embrace the pluralism of 21st-century new music, which is—after all—the music that lures me to travel around the world.
It’s no secret that I don’t feel comfortable with the term “classical music.” First, there’s the inexplicable anachronism. (E.g. Why is a term for an 18th-century aesthetic being used for music from other times? And wait a minute, what does this music have to do with Ancient Greece or Rome?) Then there’s the not very subtle racism of assumed cultural specificity related to the name. (Without a qualifier, like “North Indian classical music” or “Chinese classical music,” it is assumed that music described as “classical” is exclusively from the Western world.) Even worse is the term “contemporary classical” which is simultaneously oxymoronic and an unbridled display of hubris. (No recent music has yet stood the test of time and no one can predict what ultimately will.) Because of this combination of confusion and seeming obliviousness, I believe that the use of the word “classical” to describe a millennia’s arbitrarily grouped together collection of extraordinary music, particularly the stuff being created right now, discourages many people from experiencing it.
However, after three days of transformative concert experiences and spirited discussions, both during official sessions and through casual conversations with the numerous high profile music professionals from around the world who showed up, I’m willing to eat crow on this one. I’ll say unequivocally that the 2017 edition of Classical:NEXT (c:N) was the most vital music get-together I’ve participated in in the last 12 months, quite possibly even longer. And, more importantly, I think c:N has the potential to be the most viable international gathering place for open-minded music-focused people, despite its name. In fact, so much of what I experienced there—in terms of sounds heard live, as well as people I connected with (plus all the recordings I brought back home)—was not only mostly newly created music, but music that falls outside the rubric of what many folks might consider “classical music.” Ultimately, the capitalized NEXT is the more important word in this event’s name.
(Before I attempt to give a brief summary of my mere 72 hours in Rotterdam, which is where c:N has been taking place annually for the last four of its five years, I should acknowledge that the reason I was there was because I had been asked to moderate one of the panels, so my conference fee and 2/3rds of my hotel stay were covered. All I had to work out was one night in a hotel and getting there. )
As soon as I retrieved my conference badge and walked inside the foyer of De Doelen, the huge complex of concert halls and meeting rooms where c:N was held, I was greeted by familiar faces from all over the globe. Folks I originally met at the ISCM World (New) Music Days and the IAMIC Conference, as well as people closer to home who attend the Chamber Music America conference. I navigated my way through an extremely crowded room, balancing trying to remember who everybody was who clearly knew who I was, catching up with them as best I could under the circumstances, and introducing them to each other. But soon we were quickly ushered in to Juriaanse Zaal, a medium-sized concert hall, to hear a performance by Chineke! Orchestra which, as per their website, was “established in 2015 to provide career opportunities to young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe.” Although their performance was impeccable, I must confess that when they opened the program with Edward Elgar’s three-movement Serenade for String Orchestra, composed in 1892, I began to revisit my fear that this gathering was not for me. But they quickly made amends when vocalist Nicole Jordan joined them on stage to perform two passages from Sarah Kirkland Snider’s indie rock-infused Unremembered, a work by a female American composer written in the past five years. The audience was ecstatic. Too bad Sarah couldn’t be there to witness that. Even more euphoric was the audience reception for the work with which they chose to end the program, a frenetic quasi post-minimalist Double Concerto by Belize-born, London-based composer Errolyn Wallen who thankfully was there to experience it. After that, the reception continued—more introductions, more conversations, and a valiant fight against jetlag which I ultimately lost a couple of hours later. Many of the conversations centered around Chineke’s strange program—so great that two of the three works they performed were by living composers and both were women, but why did they play Elgar? And why did they open with it? Strangely, musing back on it a month later, it seems an apt metaphor for what this whole gathering was about. Elgar epitomizes what people think classical music is. The Serenade is a beautiful piece and they played it tremendously, but they can do so much more than that, and they went on to prove it. It began with “classical,” but it was ultimately about NEXT.
I woke up the next morning feeling completely refreshed and oblivious to the fact that the clocks were set six hours earlier than they had been in New York. (Note to self: the best way to combat jetlag is to be insanely tired when you go to sleep the night before.) Unlike just about every other music conference I’ve attended in my life, c:N does not begin as early in the morning as possible. The exhibition hall doesn’t open its doors until 9:30 a.m. and panel sessions don’t commence until 10. While it reduces the amount of time available for connecting with other attendees, do you really want to connect with anyone before your third cup of coffee? And speaking of that third cup and beyond, coffee was free and available to anyone wandering around in the exhibition area, as were stroopwafels (my favorite Dutch sweet snack) and other sugar-laden edibles.
Panels throughout c:N took place on De Doelen’s upper floors and, in order to get to them, attendees needed to ride escalators up that were situated in such a way that it ensured passage through all of the exhibition displays that were spread out on several floors. Planners of conferences such as the League of American Orchestras, OPERA America, Chorus America et al—whose exhibitors have sometimes complained about low traffic to their booths—should follow c:N’s example here.
While the layout makes it take longer to get where you ultimately think you want to go, it allows you to discover a bunch of stuff you might not have known about—in my case (as a result of myriad treks up and down) some highlights include recordings of Latvian and Swiss jazz, Korean multi-instrumentalist Park Jiha (more on her later), unaccompanied choral music by Austrian composer Beat Furrer sung by the Helsinki Chamber Choir, the Grieg piano concerto on period instruments (yes, I learned a few new things about older music, too), as well as, later the following evening, Scottish gin!
As it turned out, the first panel session I attended was not nearly as interesting as the stuff I discovered on my way up there. The organizers of c:N led an orientation session for new attendees to help them learn how to network with each other comfortably. Since I was a new attendee I thought I should show up, but since I’ve been attending music industry gatherings all over the world for decades at this point, I was probably not the target audience for their sage advice, though I did manage to meet and exchange business cards with Gabriël Oostvogel, who as the (albeit outgoing, as I later learned) director of De Doelen is one of the most powerful impresarios in the Netherlands. I also didn’t hear anything I hadn’t heard many times before in a session on the death of music journalism called “Professional Commentary on Music is Dying Out, Do We Care?” led by Shirley Apthorp, a Cape Town, South Africa-born, Berlin-based journalist who has written for publications throughout Europe and North America as well as Europe. But again, I probably wasn’t the target audience. (It’s hard to see the web as a negative force after spending 18 years online with NewMusicBox.) I was, however, very intrigued with the multimedia performances by Carmina Slovenica I heard described during a session about choral music initiatives that I caught the tail end of.
After a standing lunch provided free of charge in the exhibition area, which allowed more time for interactions between the attendees, there were three back-to-back sessions that I was asked to participate in. First was a networking session for Music Export Centers organized by Music Estonia’s director Virgo Sillamaa. I was only able to stay for the first 15 minutes but nevertheless, as the only American participating, it was somewhat awkward to address concerns about visas and international collaborations in the current political environment. Luckily I had to rush off to moderate a session about how the digital environment has changed the artist-agent/manager paradigm, both for the better and the uncertain. Joining me on the podium were: Stephen Lumsden, who has more than 35 years of experience as an artist manager and is currently the managing director of the U.K.-based Intermusica; Sune Hjerrild, a Denmark-based tenor who, to end the “agent monopoly” and give more power to individual artists, spearheads an online platform called Truelinked; and Australian percussionist Kaylie Melville, who has built a successful career for herself as a soloist and chamber musician completely DIY. It was often an extremely heated discussion, especially in the Q&A period when a presenter acknowledged that he won’t book a musician, no matter how talented, if he thinks it will not be an audience draw. But it all came to a crashing halt after the allotted 45 minutes since we all had to go on to the next thing. For me, the next thing was a networking session for members of the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC) led by IAMIC president Kostas Moschos, who also runs IEMA (the Greek Music Information and Documentation Centre). It was great to re-connect with these folks, some of whom I’ve known since I first started participating in IAMIC back in 2000. (And, as further fodder to my assertion that c:N might be the most viable international gathering place for open-minded music-focused people, there were more IAMIC members here than at the 2017 IAMIC Conference in Cyprus this past weekend, which I sadly was also not able to attend.)
After a quick meal at a Vietnamese noodle shop down the road, I returned to De Doelen to catch most of the evening’s showcases. Once again, for an event called Classical:NEXT, the emphasis was firmly on next. I walked back in during the tail end of a performance of a quartet blending Balkan Gypsy and tango elements led by Buenos Aires-born pianist Gerardo Jerez Le Cam, who has lived in France since 1992. Combining two instruments that are culturally specific, the Roma cimbalom and the Argentinian bandoneon, with two that more easily cross cultural boundaries, the piano and violin, the Jerez Le Cam Quartet made music that sounded simultaneously familiar and completely new and also hard to describe as “classical.” Next up were Zwerm, a Belgian electric guitar quartet which is no stranger to contemporary American repertoire. (They’ve recorded Larry Polansky’s The World’s Longest Melody for New World Records, as well as a disc of 12 one-page pieces by Earle Brown, Alvin Curran, Nick Didkovsky, Daniel Goode, Christian Wolff, and others.) But they devoted their c:N showcase exclusively to music from the English renaissance, though it sounded nothing like early music. My favorite was probably their performance of In Nomine by John Taverner (as opposed to John Tavener) which they rendered exclusively through effects boxes. Again, more NEXT than classical. But the highlight of my evening was an improvisatory quartet led by Park Jiha that seamlessly combined traditional Korean and Western instruments. She sang and performed on piri, saenghwang, and yanggeum amidst cross-cultural improvisations by New Zealand vibraphonist John Bell, Korean tenor saxophonist KimOki (a.k.a. YoungHoon Kim) whose combination of global mindedness and mellow tone recalls Yusef Lateef, and percussionist Kang Tekhyun, who is equally comfortable performing gnawa music and reggae. It was truly mind blowing. But don’t just take my word for it, track down the quartet’s debut album Communion (at least here or here) which, as I’d mentioned, I was lucky enough to pick up in the exhibition hall earlier in the day. There were other showcases off-site that lasted well into the night, but that was enough for me for one day.
I began Friday morning having breakfast in the hotel I had just checked out of with music consultant and consummate blogger Andy Doe, whose byline will hopefully reappear on these pages before too long. Then it was more coffee and conversations in the exhibition area, as well as grilled cheese and vegemite sandwiches cooked up fresh at the Australian booth, before heading up to a session about fostering collaborations in Latin America led by Brazilian experimental composer Thiago Cury (who also runs Águaforte, which recently became an associate member of ISCM). The most valuable takeaway was a piece of advice for musicians wanting to organize concerts in South America: make sure that you are paid in dollars or Euros rather than local currency (given the instability of many of these currencies). I’ve previously commented on the ironies of making more musical connections with Latin Americans in Europe than at home in North America, but those ironies are laden with a greater degree of disappointment nowadays.
The highlight of my afternoon was an informal conversation that led to a lengthy discussion with information technologist Simon Chambers, who developed the website for the Australian Music Center and is currently engaged in an extensive research project about music industry professionals from around the world. He’s got a lot of provocative ideas and I’m eager to learn more from his research. I managed to catch the tail end of a session about the role of music publishers in the 21st century, but I didn’t walk away with any enlightening tidbits. Discussions with folks attending the c:N publishing session, which were largely complaints about declining standards in performance materials, derailed my attending a session after that called From Trump to Brexit: Classical Music in a Post-Truth World. All I can say is, Lordy, I hope there are tapes. Before heading out for dim sum with colleagues from the Canadian Music Centre, I was lured by the folks from the Scottish Music Centre into trying two different gins made by Scotland’s Arbikie Highland Estate Distillery.
Though I was already extremely impressed with how new music dominated the performances I had attended thus far, there was probably no greater investment than that of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, whose concert that evening consisted of only two works, both by living American composers. First, Michael Gordon’s The Unchanging Sea, for which the orchestra, under the direction of Bas Wiegers, was joined by pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama—though it would be inaccurate to describe Gordon’s relentless musical arc as a piano concerto. A film by Gordon’s frequent collaborator Bill Morrison (Decasia, Gotham, etc.) was also projected during the performance, though to call Gordon’s music a film score also doesn’t adequately convey the symbiosis that Gordon and Morrison achieve in their collaborations. After a brief intermission, the orchestra performed John Luther Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean, a similarly intense, slowly developing, single movement of music. I had never previously heard The Unchanging Sea and hope to again soon, but after attending the New York premiere of Become Ocean and hearing the recording several times, it’s like standard repertoire to me. But it was still transformative to hear both of these pieces live back-to-back in such committed performances in the fine acoustics of De Doelen’s Grote Zaal. I was overjoyed, though a British artist manager who happened to be sitting next to me, was not happy at all.
“I thought it would never end,” he opined while most of the audience was giving the orchestra a standing ovation. “There was nothing going on at all. I like things that develop, like Beethoven.”
Trying to find an in any way I could, I asked him if he’d been to the Rothko room at the Tate Modern, one of my favorite spaces in London, suggesting that the music we heard might be the sonic equivalent, and to which he replied, “I hate those paintings; I’m not even sure if they’re art.”
I write all of this not to disparage either the music that was performed or the man who didn’t like it. We otherwise had a delightful conversation; he even told me he enjoyed the session I had moderated the day before. But I do write this because part of what convenings like Classical:NEXT must continue to do is work toward convincing folks who love “classical” music that what comes NEXT is also something worthy of their love.
While that concert and the conversations I had at the reception afterwards with Michael Gordon, Louis Andriessen and his wife, violinist Monica Germino, and many others should have provided me with enough inspiration to end my day and head back to my hotel for some sleep, I decided I would barrel on to some of the late night c:N showcases at a club called The Worm. I heard the last third of the set by Breath + Hammer, the duo of clarinetist David Krakauer (who is no stranger to these pages) and pianist Kathleen Tagg who together play improvisatory music inspired by klezmer. Tagg, who frequently sticks her fingers inside the piano to alter the timbre of the strings (often making it sound like a cimbalom), is the perfect foil for Krakauer’s virtuosic pyrotechnics—it is a wonderful rapprochement of traditionalism and experimentation.
Then came American-born Netherlands-based flutist/composer Ned McGowan, who performed his entire set on contrabass flute, albeit with some technological wizardry that at one point allowed him to play a contrabass flute sextet by himself. Again, it seemed to be all new music all the time at Classical:NEXT, and even more than that, all new American music.
On the final day, most of the exhibits had already been taken down by the time I arrived back at De Doelen. It was only 9:30 a.m., but thankfully there was still coffee and stroopwafels. John Davis, the director of the Australian Music Centre, led an Asian-Pacific Rim networking meeting which seemed to attract most of the people who were still there. Fun fact: this year a total of 23 Australians were registered for c:N which seemed like quite a lot until I learned that 30 had registered for it in 2016. For comparison, only 33 people showed up from the United States, which included the Sphinx Organization’s president and artistic director Afa Dworkin, Nicholas Alexander Brown from the Library of Congress, composer and radio host Seth Boustead, Charlton Lee and Kathryn Bates of the Del Sol String Quartet, composer/pianist Andrew Shapiro, Paul Tai from New World Records, composer and New Amsterdam Records co-founder Judd Greenstein, Sean Hickey from Naxos who is also a composer, and Karen Ames from the Berkeley-based audio manufacturer Meyer Sound. It was interesting to observe which countries had a strong presence at c:N and which ones didn’t. Classical:NEXT evolved, in part, out of classical music sector professionals’ frustrations with MIDEM, the annual international music trade fair which used to attract a huge contingent from just about everywhere who showed up to promote their nations’ music. I encountered people from at least 25 different countries at c:N. I’ve already acknowledged in this attempt at a brief overview of c:N; folks from Denmark, Greece, Estonia, England and Scotland (which behaved like separate countries there), as well as Brazil, Canada, and South Korea. I also reconnected with colleagues from Lithuania and made new contacts with people representing the music scene in Chile and Armenia. Still, it was mostly Europeans. This, of course, is par for the course if the event always takes place in Europe, and it probably will remain that way for the foreseeable future. It’s already an enormously complex undertaking for its organizers, Piranha Arts, who are based a mere 380 miles away in Berlin.
But there was still plenty of internationalism on display at the closing event of 2017. Classical:NEXT’s annual Innovation Award went to Buskaid Soweto String Academy of Performance and Teaching in South Africa, beating out competition from Greece (the Molyvos International Music Festival) and Germany (the PODIUM Festival Esslingen), though as c:N’s Director Jennifer Dautermann pointed out, all of the nominated organizations are worthy of our accolades. The final showcase, featuring a fabulous guitar trio from Colombia called Trip Trip Trip, was, again, exclusively new music—all by Colombian composers whose music I had never heard before.
There is so much music still to discover thanks to all the recordings I brought back with me. I actual harbored some worries that my carry-on suitcase exceeded the weight allotment, but all was fine. Now to find the time to listen to it all!
1. I flew on one of the cheapest possible routes, which was also a rather counterintuitive one: via Turkish Air from New York City to Amsterdam via Istanbul. The 9 1/2-hour layover at Ataturk Airport on route to Schiphol following a 10-hour JFK-Istanbul flight was not ideal, nor was the merely 3-hour layover from 3:30-6:30 a.m. on the return, but the price was hard to beat. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the speed of the train ride from Schiphol to Rotterdam’s Central Station, which turned out to be just a few blocks away from my hotel as well as the site of c:N. Though it’s roughly 37 miles, the train ride was more than twice as fast as my interminable daily subway commute between my home and office, which are just 14 miles apart and both on the island of Manhattan! In fact, after departing JFK on Tuesday afternoon and finally arriving in Amsterdam by one of the longest routes possible slightly after 6 p.m. on Wednesday, I got on a Rotterdam-bound train and managed—thanks to the quickness of the ride—to check into the hotel, quickly shower and change clothes, and still have seven minutes to spare before the opening event began. [scroll back up]
2. Maybe there’ll be some this Friday when I chair a panel about how the digital environment has changed the marketplace at the annual meeting of the Music Publishers Association of the United States. [scroll back up]
3. I’d like to give an appreciative shout-out to c:N’s director Jennifer Dautermann, their director of communications Paul Bräuer, project manager Jana Schneider, and, in particular, their general manager Fabienne Krause who invited me to moderate the talk there which enabled me to attend. [scroll back up]