So, what do we call the work that we’re making? What do we call our roles in it and what do we call the story we’re writing as we build the world that we want to live and work in? I say we just break it down. Let’s call what we do: music. Let’s call our roles in it: human and let’s call our modality, our way of doing it: love.
With these words, keynote speaker Claire Chase harkened back 50 years to the San Francisco of the 1960s and kicked off a New Music Love-In, officially titled The New Music Gathering, on January 15, 2015. It was a joyous celebration of the art and craft, and yes, even the business, of making contemporary music. Several hundred new music stalwarts from across the country and around the globe flocked to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Center for New Music for this first-of-its-kind hybrid conference/festival. Organized by composers Danny Felsenfeld, Lainie Fefferman, Mary Kouyoumdjian, and Matt Marks, with vital assistance from Maryclare Brzytwa of San Francisco Conservatory, The New Music Gathering was three intense 12-hours days of showing the love, via workshops, lectures, demonstrations, and performances. It was a vast world of ideas, sounds, feelings, and possibilities…yet this was only the tip of the new music iceberg
The idea for the gathering germinated from an online conversation between Marks and Felsenfeld, looking for a way to simply get as many new music people as possible together in one physical space to share their enthusiasm, successes, challenges, and frustrations. The underlying, unofficial theme of love—for the music, and for and among those who make it—threaded through the entire event. One of the most common scenes was that of joyous greetings and hugs, as likely to be between virtual friends and colleagues meeting face-to-face for the first time as it was old friends who hadn’t seen each other in too long.
Therapy Room sessions each day featured experts providing one-on-one counseling on topics like recruiting board members, music publishing, and DIY commissioning. There was a match-making session, Composer-Performer Speed Dating, organized by composer Brooks Frederickson. An outer circle of composers displayed their wares to an inner circle of performers who shifted seats every few minutes in hopes of finding true love, in the form of new music to play.
In conference mode, The New Music Gathering offered nearly 30 talks, lectures, panels, and demonstrations. San Francisco Conservatory President David Stull, in his introduction of Chase’s keynote, lauded the spirit of the New Music Gathering, saying that while conservatories rightly celebrate the great canon of classical music, “we don’t necessarily celebrate the culture of the individuals that created the canon, which was innovation.” And innovation was a common theme in many of the conference presentations. Some were light on talk and heavy on demonstration, like electronic music innovators Headless Monkey Attack (Ryan Carter, electronics, and Nick Woodbury, percussion) and Joo Won Park. A panel of leaders from well-established ensembles (including ICE, Alarm Will Sound, and Kronos Quartet) dispensed valuable advice to groups seeking to elevate to the next level of success. An emerging ensembles panel (e.g., Nouveau Classical Project, Hotel Elefant, Wild Rumpus) shared their thoughts on how to get a new endeavor started. A roundtable discussion tackled the vital topic of women in new music with some success, but would have greatly benefited from a larger room and a more determined priority on letting the women in the audience speak.
The most compelling of several talks focused on presenting new music was composer and Evolution Contemporary Music Series curator Judah Adashi’s session “Putting on a Show.” It opened with a short program by cellist Lavena Johanson of Caroline Shaw’s in manus tuas, and, heightening the love theme of the gathering, Adashi’s own my heart comes undone. Accompanied by Tim Holt’s video featuring dancer Sara Paul, my heart… was all about love expressed through music and movement. Adashi followed the performance with a talk about how he presents shows in the Evolution Series, aiming for more more of a community event than simply a performance from the stage.
The other workshops on music presentation included a roundtable discussion with panelists who regularly put on new music shows, ranging from single performances to three-day festivals. Two San Francisco based organizations–Switchboard Festival, which presents an annual one day marathon event, and the Center for New Music, which offers a friendly venue for concerts curated by local musicians–joined in a panel discussion with a theme that the process is all about building community among composers, performers, and the audience, a community filled with the love that permeated every room we entered at The New Music Gathering. The take-away from all these presentations left many participants with a feeling of “I can do this!”
The music festival guise of The New Music Gathering played out in afternoon and evening concerts each day. The first evening concert featured keynote speaker and ICE flutist Chase playing selections from parts i and ii of her density 2036 project, amazing the audience with her artistry and stamina in equal measure. Then Eve Beglarian surveyed her Songs of the River project with Mary Rowell on violin and mandolin and Giacomo Fiore on electric guitar.
Piano was the featured instrument in several concerts. Pianist Nick Phillips performed selections from his American Vernacular project. Composer Garrett Schumann and pianist Jeanette Fang gave a brief demonstration of several techniques for preparing piano, followed by Fang’s breakneck-speed performance of Schumann’s Escapement. Pianist Taka Kigawa, chiseled like an olympic gymnast, gave a crystalline reading of the entire Boulez solo piano oeuvre, from memory, without a break. The second evening concert featured pianist Sarah Cahill celebrating the 80th birthday of composer Terry Riley, who was in attendance. She played Riley’s Keyboard Studies and The Philosopher’s Hand and premiered five of nine pieces she has commissioned to mark the milestone, including works by composers Danny Clay and Samuel Carl Adams, who were also in the audience.
The most thrilling performance for us was Saturday afternoon’s open rehearsal by the Kronos Quartet with pipa virtuoso Wu Man at the Center for New Music. Kronos was our first love affair with contemporary classical music, behind their 1986 release Music by Sculthorpe, Sallinen, Glass, Nancarrow, Hendrix. But we had never heard them playing live. They too were working on a Riley piece, On the Cusp of Magic, which they were scheduled to play the following evening at UC Berkeley. We were thoroughly fascinated to observe the inner workings of this iconic band as they revisited this work originally commissioned for Riley’s 70th.
The New Music Gathering festivities came to a raucous conclusion on Saturday night with a blistering set by the San Francsico-based avant-punk chamber ensemble The Living Earth Show (guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andrew Meyerson), whose tagline is “taking it too far since 2010.” 100 minutes of relentless ear-piercing volume, featuring a hooded Ken Ueno in a blood-curdling, throat-growling rendition of his Pork Roll, Egg, & Cheese on a Kaiser Bun, left us asking ourselves “what the hell was that?” The answer, of course, is new music, in all its filthy, nasty, inscrutable glory.
Love is all you need…love is all you need.