Although I take an interest in Frank J. Oteri’s NewMusicBox reports from national and international conferences and festivals that goes beyond the strictly professional, I don’t often have occasion to attend such events myself: Most of my performances take place in Minneapolis, where I live, so my travel schedule is generally light. However, having just returned from the 40th annual John Donald Robb Composers’ Symposium in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I’m moved to look a little harder for composer gatherings in the future; what could be better than three days of listening to and talking about contemporary music with a community of brilliant artists from all over the world? Nothing, is what.
I came to the symposium for the premiere of my piece The Recording You Will Now Hear, which won the 2010 UNM John Donald Robb National Biennial Composers’ Competition, but the sparkling rendition furnished by excellent Albuquerque ensemble Chatter turned out to be only one of the week’s attractions. The list of participants is so kick-ass that I have to present it here in full: New Mexico faculty Peter Gilbert, Karola Obermüller, Richard Hermann, Andrea Polli, Falko Steinbach, and symposium organizer Chris Shultis, NYU faculty Elizabeth Hoffman and Martin Scherzinger, Russian composer Sergei Zhukov, Italian composer Barbara Rettagliatti, American “21st-century phantasmagoric rockin’ vaudeville” ensemble Skümbaag™, and composer/pianists Chong Lim Ng and Ron Newman and composer/cellist Frank Cox (a former teacher of mine), all three performing their own work. Headlining, so to speak, was the eminent Dutch composer Konrad Boehmer, a living legend who discharged his duty as twinkle-eyed European provocateur with great relish and wisdom. Konrad may be the only person alive who has priceless anecdotes about Bruno Maderna, Chico Buarque, and Thurston Moore.
Among the cool stuff that happened during these three days: four concerts, all packed with fascinating music; a paper session on postwar experimentalism; composition seminars with UNM student composers, lectures, and a panel discussion about music and politics. Do get me started.
There are a lot of people to be thanked for this bonanza of sounds and ideas—including all the listeners, performers, guest composers, Robb trustees, and UNM faculty (and, in particular, Director Shultis)—but perhaps the person who should be singled out above all is John Donald Robb himself, whose activities as a composer and ethnomusicologist are celebrated by the symposium. Robb’s fieldwork recording southwestern folk music preserves moments that belong to the past; with the symposium, remarkably, he undertook to preserve music belonging to the future, music that didn’t yet exist. All of us who gathered in Albuquerque this past week owe him our gratitude for that.