From January 15-17, 2015, new music makers from across the country gathered at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to share three days of performances, presentations, and discussion. Now that the hustle of this busy conference period is behind them, several participants took a moment to reflect on the ideas they confronted and what their take away was as they returned to their home communities.
Over the three years that I wrote weekly for NewMusicBox, I often discussed issues within the concept of the American new music “community.” Over the past fifteen years, that community has evolved from pockets of composers and performers who formed in mostly urban areas around the country to a much more connected and integrated community located online through social media networks, and we may have seen the next step in the evolution of our new music community in San Francisco this past week at the New Music Gathering. I found myself describing it as a “reunion for friends who had never met each other,” but it was much more than that–it was proof in action that an environment that removes the problems of proximity, competition, and ego can generate an immense amount of collaboration, friendship, and growth.
For a first-run of a DIY conference that encompassed performers, ensembles, and composers equally, this year’s event was an unmitigated success. There was a good balance between known personalities, from Claire Chase’s wise and inspiring keynote address to the recently unshackled Allan Kozinn doing his best to attend everything, and younger professionals and students. There was a healthy tension between time and content throughout the events–so much good stuff and not enough time to cover everything in the allotted schedule. The concert scope was luxuriously wide–a Boulez-by-memory recital by Taka Kigawa was followed later in the evening with a recital honoring Terry Riley by Sarah Cahill, while a touching and plaintive vocal performance by Baltimore’s Megan Ihnen and Hillary LaBonte served as a wonderful counterpoint to the intricate choral harmonies of Volti.
The presentations were just as diverse as well as informative–from Lainie Fefferman’s participative discussion on new music vocal issues to Samatha Buker’s lecture on working with boards to my own panel on presenting new music, there was a lot of listening and questions and discussions that seemed to always pour out into the hallways after the formal presentations were complete. Finally, the Composer-Performer Speed Dating felt extremely valuable to everyone who I talked to; to be able to comfortably introduce oneself to a potential collaborator with no risk of rejection or judgement is something that could easily be replicated elsewhere, but because of the wealth of attendees from around the country, this event seemed to succinctly encapsulate all of the goals of the conference at one time and in one place.
Obviously much gratitude and recognition needs to be directed toward the quartet of New Yorkers who not only came up with the idea, but had the foresight to hold its initial outing on the West Coast, where the San Francisco Conservatory proved to be a fantastic venue. Kudos should also be given to the many professionals who came out and supported this experiment; the New Music Gathering could have been a disaster if it had been weakly attended, but as one of the seemingly overarching themes of the conference was the support of intelligent risk-taking, the successful outcome will hopefully inspire the sustainability of this important new aspect of our community.
It’s really hard for me to pick highlights from the weekend because I had so many positive experiences and interactions, and did my fair share of presenting and performing as well. But the Established Ensembles panel was especially notable, with administrators and artists representing the Kronos Quartet (Sidney Chen and Christina Johnson), ICE (Claire Chase), and Alarm Will Sound (Gavin Chuck and Matt Marks) present. The sheer amount of brain power and experience on stage was staggering. Most interesting were the responses to a question about the challenges of incorporating entrepreneurial or administrative skills into the college music curriculum. All the panelists expressed reservations about this idea, with Chase going so far as to say that anything she could teach would immediately become obsolete. Chuck suggested a practicum class where students would have to do all the work of putting on a concert themselves.
The roundtable on women in new music was also vital, with Lainie Fefferman, Brenna Noonan, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Leaha Maria Villarreal, and Joelle Zigman mediating an extremely lively discussion with the audience. Topics covered included concert programming, young composer competitions, challenges unique to motherhood, ingrained fear of affirmative action, antagonistic teachers, and a lot more. What became abundantly clear is that there is no single solution to achieving gender parity in new music–it’s a war that must be waged on all fronts.
Performance-wise, again, ugh, how can I possibly choose? But I was literally and figuratively shaken by Vanessa Langer’s arresting performance of David Coll’s Position, influence for soprano and sound sculpture. Coll’s metallic sculpture moaned and keened in sympathy with the virtuosic vocals of Langer, who played her part with an exaggerated theatricality perfectly suited to the outsized nature of the piece. On Saturday night, the Living Earth Show put on a multimedia extravaganza with 100 minutes of memorized music including pieces by Brian Ferneyhough and Luciano Chessa, multiple costume changes, video projection, abrasive electronics, choreographed flashlights, and a Moby Dick-inspired interlude in which the audience was served smoked fish and instant coffee. Not all of the individual parts worked by themselves, but as a gestalt experience it was completely engrossing.
So, the New Music Gathering was basically a big party for ourselves, and as a party, it was an indisputably incredible one. But I couldn’t help but wonder what my experience would have been like if I wasn’t the target demographic. I met someone who unabashedly described himself as a composer of “mostly new age music and show tunes.” How did he feel about the whole shebang? I didn’t ask. But the thought kept coming back to me. The Gathering managed to be admirably inclusive within the existing new music community, which is in and of itself an impressive feat. Now, how could we be more inclusive to the uninitiated?
I’m reeling from the sheer volume of ideas, music, and friendliness that filled these past three days. Every conference should be at least half as productive as this one. The recipe: bring together a bunch of people who love what they do and are committed to doing it more and better. Give them a safe forum to talk about what they know, and how they do, and encourage many questions. Create spaces where they can discover kindred spirits with the purpose of future collaboration. Avoid sales and pitches. Be supportive. Make the goal to advance the collective goal. Rejoice. Eat. Listen. And then sleep.
Throughout the New Music Gathering, I heard composers and musicians talk about challenges with documentation, collaboration, defining a vision, making decisions, making a living–issues not unique to new music. Raw, creative, and largely uncharted, new music may be eliciting questions we’ve long forgotten how to ask in other, more established industries.
Sideband Mobile Quartet (Lainier Fefferman, Anne Hege, Daniel Iglesia and Jascha Narveson) performs with tether controllers. Video courtesy Shaya Lyon.
This is my favorite question of the weekend, a gem from Aaron Siegel (to paraphrase): How can we better ourselves? In order to keep improving at our trade, we need to probe that which is unknown to us. How do we do that? How do we figure out what we don’t know, in order to learn about it? One way is to reach for the fringe (of what we know, what we’re comfortable with).
I leapt at this conference: new music, new people. And the newness didn’t disappoint: there was awkward, and there was awesome. So much to learn.
New Music Gathering overall I would say was really successful, and I got a lot out of attending (and presenting) there. Even though it was sort of billed as a “conference-that’s-not-a-conference” it most definitely still was…a conference, which is fine, as this particular one fills a void that exists for a lot of contemporary music. That being said, in the end it still mainly represented the healthy presence of around 100 people who all interact with each other on social media and are in most cases under 40. Is that a healthy cross section of our microcosm? Most definitely! But, it’s not all of it by any means. That’s not the fault of the NMG organizers, as this is the first year and organizing something as big as this is an enormous and oftentimes thankless task, but I do hope that in the coming years people from a more representative cross-section of the music world take notice and apply to be a part of it–I have a feeling that the thoughtful curators will be interested in expanding to represent more ideas in the future.
Also, as great as a lot of the panels, performances, and interactions at the conference were, it also was simply an invaluable time for getting to talk with and meet people from all over the country–some of whom I’d even worked with professionally before but hadn’t actually met. That face-to-face time with folks even if for five or ten minutes seemed to be as much of what the conference was about as anything formally presented.
I had an incredible experience at the New Music Gathering last week, and I think the founders–Daniel Felsenfeld, Matt Marks, Lainie Fefferman, and Mary Kouyoumdjian–deserve a tremendous amount of credit for the event’s success. They led by example as they welcomed a group of wildly different composers and performers to the San Francisco Conservatory, and their enthusiastic selflessness infected everyone who attended and participated in the event. This uncommon leadership resulted in a palpable sense of community that was deeply supportive and encouraging of anyone’s contribution to new music. I left San Francisco inspired but wistful, knowing that feeling of togetherness is a rare thing in our world. However, at least I believe I can count on finding it once a year at future New Music Gatherings.
I was delighted to attend the inaugural New Music Gathering (NMG2015) as a composer, artistic director and teacher. My collaborator, cellist and teacher Lavena Johanson, and I presented a performance and talk entitled Putting on a Show: Bringing the Alternative Venue Into the Concert Hall. Lavena played a short concert, performing Caroline Shaw’s in manus tuas for unaccompanied cello and my own my heart comes undone for cello and loop pedal. My piece was accompanied by the premiere of a short film by Tim Holt, featuring dancer Sara Paul. After the performance, I shared some thoughts about creating an inviting communal experience around new music.
This was an apt topic for a festival-conference hybrid that achieved just that. I came away from NMG2015 deeply impressed by its organizers. It’s hard to imagine four artists more genuine in their intentions or generous in their approach. Lainie, Danny, Mary, and Matt were unfailingly enthusiastic, engaged, and responsive, committed to making NMG2015 the best possible experience for everyone who presented or attended. They set an ideal tone, striking a balance between familial informality and professionalism. The event was a testament to what happens when seasoned grassroots, D.I.Y. artists get together to create something on a large scale.
What excited me most about NMG, both in concept and realization, was the emphasis on the city in which it was held. NMG2015 warmly captured the spirit of San Francisco’s storied and vibrant new music scene, thanks in no small part to the remarkable facilities, resources, and personnel of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, as well as the Center for New Music. This meaningful connection to a city and its musical community strikes me as the singular heart of the NMG enterprise, and a durable template for its bright future.