I Am Curious—Yellow: Navigating Composers through the National Performing Arts Convention

I Am Curious—Yellow: Navigating Composers through the National Performing Arts Convention

Joseph Dalton
Joseph Dalton
Photo by Lori Van Buren

The composers were yellow. Or rather, they wore yellow. On their nametags. It made them easy to spot, once you figured it out.

Everybody had nametags at the National Performing Arts Convention in Pittsburgh last month. But with the exception of the composers, you had to get up close to read what world they came from—symphony, opera, chorus, or dance. It would have helped to have more color-coding or other handy ways of identifying who did what.

On the other hand, it might have been a problem if the conductors had red nametags since they already got plenty of attention from eager composers.

“As soon as they hear you’re a conductor, they’ll unload scores and CDs on you,” said a smiling Michael Slon, a conductor from the University of Virginia.

Actually, convention attendees were pretty easy to categorize, even without nametags. Wardrobe, attitude, and body language often spoke volumes.

Easiest to spot were the trim and stylish dance folks. The women especially. They had messy hair and slacks that stopped above the ankles or they were earth mother types with long graying hair and loose cotton outfits. As for the men, they were fit and aloof.

The chorus people were always in groups, smiling and talking a lot.

Also chatty and groupy were the opera folks. But a bit more serious. After all, they have much bigger budgets than choruses do.

The symphony managers were the most business-like. You could usually tell the size and financial health of a fellow’s orchestra by the quality of his suit. Whether men or women, they carried lots of papers in their hands and numbers in their heads.

The groups pretty much kept to themselves for the convention’s first three days until finally, on the fourth day, the walls were broken down for joint sessions. But many were exhausted and departing by that point.

Throughout it all composers were like bees. They floated around, dropped in to the various greenhouses of artistic growth, and cross-pollinated between the disciplines.

Networking is another word for it.

“I’m here to get connections with conductors and prospective organizations that will commission my works,” said Jaroslaw Golembiowski, a Polish American composer from Chicago. “I met a lot of open minded people that said ‘Send your score’ and gave me their business card.”

Golembiowski knows first hand that such brief encounters can pay off. At an industry convention a few years ago, he met a pianist who ended up recording his complete keyboard works. But as a self-employed composer, he found it hard to take the time off to be there and suggests that some funding be provided to help composers attend in the future.

New to the industry is Cody J. Wright, a 27-year-old composer from Pittsburgh. By speaking up during the question and answer period of some sessions, he got noticed and had people approaching him. And rather than giving out CDs of his music, he invited people to listen on his iPod.

“I got a sense of the state of affairs,” he said of the over-all convention. Also a wealth of new contacts. He estimated that he would be taking home some 150 business cards.

Daniel Brewbaker of New York distributed at least 40 CDs of his music. “It’s been a lot of fun,” he says. “There’s been a lot of reconnection with old friends for all four worlds.”

After wearing himself out attending sessions and working the hallways, Brewbaker did express some concern that panels remember their primary purpose, saying, “It’s important to keep art at the center.”

With an estimated 70 composers in attendance, that represents less than two percent of total conference turnout. But that made for a strong presence, according to veteran convention goer and long-time Pittsburgh composer David Stock.

“I’ve never seen so many of us at such a conference before. We infiltrated,” Stock said with pride.

Minnesota composer Mary Ellen Childs was on hand to convene with other participants in Meet The Composer’s Composers’ New Residency Program. The group, which included composers Jon Jang, Francis Wong, and Beth Custer, all of San Francisco, met on two mornings. Childs checked out other sessions in her remaining time.

“I would say that the overall mood is stimulating,” she said. “You’re with fellow artists and people who make art happen. Ideas get sparked either in conversation or back at your hotel room when you start thinking…”

It wasn’t just composers who found the event heartening. On the last afternoon of the last day, two conductors, Slon and Frank S. Albinder, who is Music Director of the Washington Men’s Camerata, got excited when asked to name some composers that they had met while in Pittsburgh. They rattled off a list that included David Conti, Alice Parker, and Conrad Susa.

“I met more composers here today than at any other conference,” said Albinder.

Like many others Slon remarked at the irony of having to go out of town to meet people from his own area. His example was getting a chance to meet Adolphus Hailstork, a fellow Virginian. But Slon was also happy to be meeting less well-known composers. Without divulging how many scores and CDs he’d be taking home, he did say: “We have a responsibility to go through some of (these composers’) music.”

Lest it sound like the convention was one big cocktail party, it was also an opportunity for composers to gather information—both facts and impressions—on the four host organizations: the American Symphony Orchestra League, Chorus America, Dance/USA, and OPERA America.

Suffice it to say that each of these service organizations provides advocacy for its art form and training on artistic and business matters, through workshops and publications, for administrators, artists, board members, and volunteers.

On the following pages are some salient facts on each group, along with some insights garnered from convention participants and a couple of rather opinioned scores for services for and attitudes toward composers.

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.

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