Making Friends at New Music Gathering

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When you participate in an obscure art such as contemporary classical music, it can be easy to feel alone. Contemporary classical, new music, or modern classical (there isn’t a unified name so synonyms abound) refers to music written with heritage in classical composition either by living composers or in the past century or so.

It can feel isolating to participate in “new music” for a variety of reasons including the baggage the larger classical community has with that term and the obscurity of the genre. Often, non-musician friends haven’t heard any contemporary classical, and there are mainstream classical musicians who believe quite sincerely that nothing good has been written in the past one hundred and fifty years. All of this can make a new music aficionado feel very alone, especially in a smaller city.

If there’s one thing I brought back with me from the New Music Gathering early in January, it was that I’m certainly not alone.

Recap of the 2016 New Music Gathering

New Music Gathering is a young conference (this January being the second) that brings as many new music musicians together as possible, and the results are quite spectacular.  When Milo Fultz and I packed ourselves onto a plane bound for Baltimore to represent Sound of Late at the Gathering, little did we know that we would be in for such a fascinating and thought provoking overview of the contemporary classical scene in all of its glory.

The conference primarily consisted of lectures, panels, and concerts scattered through Peabody Conservatory and the surrounding area. The panels were especially interesting, and I appreciate that the organizers decided to accept so many applicants to speak on panels, so much so that often there were at least seven participants per panel.

Milo and I represented Sound of Late when we spoke at a panel about creating community. We talked about the organization’s desire for equity in programming, as well as our work in creating the Northwest Arts Exchange to facilitate artistic community and resource sharing. I felt humbled and honored to be on the panel especially as the other panelists brought such a breadth of experience and knowledge to the discussion.

In particular, it was inspiring to hear from the Tenderloin Opera Company, a group that showcases works written and performed by homeless and recently homeless artists in Providence, Rhode Island. A member of the group posed the question, “How will you feed people with what you do?” and meant it literally: how will your music meet the basic needs of your community. I strongly believe as artists this is a question we need to grapple with in our work.

It was also inspiring to hear from Liza Figueroa Kravinsky, who build the Go-Go Symphony in D.C. for the community that created go-go music. The symphony, which plays at parties with top go-go artists, is locked into the local community, so much so that community members asked to come dance at their very first rehearsal.  

While discussion was very fruitful at all of the panels I attended, the one issue with these large panels was that on occasion, the folks who I wanted to hear from the most ended up saying fairly little. I found this to be true on the education panel I attended especially. Having upwards of eight people on this panel didn’t give enough time for each person to speak enough.

I also felt that having a public school music educator would have rounded out the panel a lot. The panels were created from the proposals sent to the organizers, so I would encourage music teachers in the school system who are interested in new music to submit proposals to the next New Music Gathering. Still, the plethora of presenters created fruitful discussion in many other instances.

Fantastic Concerts

The concerts were GREAT. What I appreciated more than anything else was the sheer variety of performance. The transition from a Friday afternoon performance by the International Contemporary Ensemble, in which Ryan Muncy, Ross Karre and Monte Weber showcased fantastic electronics, skilled multiphonics and theatrics, to Ensemble 50, a group that is closer to contemporary improvised jazz and an absolute blast to listen to, was almost culture shock. I loved that I could experience that in one concert.

Honestly, the strongest link between all of the performers was the joy and passion in all of their performances. It was wonderful to hear (and see and feel etc.) the breadth of our community through the multiple daily concerts. How lucky am I to be part of such a broadly skilled and passionate community?

In addition to the inspiration, new ideas, and questions I got from attending panels, lectures and concerts, there was a fantastic chance to connect with others in the community, in my case especially with other west coasters. There was a whole plane load (I exaggerate, but it felt like it being one of two Portlanders) of Seattle folks who I had the pleasure to meet. I was lucky enough to come up to a meeting last week in Seattle hosted by Maggie Stapleton from Second Inversion to talk about the Gathering and plans for the local community.

As a relative newcomer to new music advocacy, it means a lot to have local peers to collaborate with and learn from. I could certainly write an additional blog post about all of the amazing people I met at New Music Gathering, but I’m especially excited about meeting so many folks that are less than 200 miles away doing so much amazing work.

In the end, though, I realized that our community is larger and easier to connect with than I had thought before the Gathering, which is quite important if you live in a city with a smaller scene (i.e. not New York or Chicago). So many folks are extremely active online streaming concerts, sharing resources and discussing the issues we all face.

Keep the spirit of #NMG2016 alive

If you get a chance, check out #musochat on Twitter or at musochat.com, which is a weekly conversation curated through a set of questions presented by a community member. In the few weeks I’ve been taking part in the conversation, topics have included writing for the voice, the role of radio, and a huge “getting to know you” connection fest. It feels like the Gathering is continuing over the internet.

I came back from the New Music Gathering with so many new ideas (deeply collaborative education programs, props as a constraint for commissions, collaboration to bring Cuban musicians to Portland), and so many new friends in the new music scene. It was a great opportunity to connect with so many like-minded folks. While there may not be a lot of us in every city and community, across the country we are a strong, passionate and creative community. Huge kudos to the New Music Gathering organizers.  Thank you for the outrageous amount of work that you put into the conference. I can’t wait for next year!

Rebecca Olason
Rebecca Olason is a horn player and the director of development with Sound of Late. She currently lives and performs in Portland, Oregon.