The venerable Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University on stately Mt. Vernon Square in Baltimore, MD was abuzz with excitement January 7 through 9, 2016 as more than 500 enthusiasts assembled for the second annual New Music Gathering. The NMG braintrust— original organizers, composers Lainie Fefferman, Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, and Matt Marks, augmented this year by composer/electronics wizard Jascha Narveson– chose “Communities” as the central theme of the event, and a palpable sense of collective joy resonated throughout the weekend.
By the time the lights went out at the After Party late Saturday night, the attendees had feasted on welcoming remarks by Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein; a keynote address by Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony; 18 panels and lectures; 14 concerts featuring 39 acts with 123 performers; repeats of the popular Composer-Performer Speed Dating and Therapy Room sessions from NMG 2015; five instrument performance workshops for composers, featuring tuba, clarinet, viola da gamba, recorders, and harp; and a late night New Music LARP (Live Action Role Playing) game that pitted new music heroes against a horde of zombies . . . Really!
Several panel discussions focused specifically on aspects of building community, both among new music artists and between artists and the larger communities they inhabit. Steve Layton (Playgroundsound) and D. Edward Davis spoke about two different approaches to building virtual music communities online. Ryan Muncy (ICE), Liza Figueroa Kravinsky (The Go-Go Symphony), Molly Germer (Sound Exchange Project), and other panelists discussed their initiatives to use new music as a community organizing tool. Another panel focused on introducing new music programming into communities where there is little or none, featuring panelists Karin and Dean Rosenthal (Making New Music on Martha’s Vineyard), Steve Miles and Ron Silver (New Music New College in Sarasota, FL), among others. And your intrepid reporters led a panel on building community with new music artists in Cuba. Panelists included composers Ingrid Arauco and Patrick Castillo from the recent American Composers Forum artist delegation to the 28th Havana Contemporary Music Festival and a special guest from Cuba,: composer and festival director Guido Lopéz-Gavilán.
Another segment of panels focused on the financial challenges of making a career in new music. A panel of performers discussed their processes for commissioning new works, including conductor Michael Lewanski (Ensemble Dal Niente), pianists Kathleen Supové and Holly Roadfeldt, and others. They spoke of using consortiums to fund new work, the value of arranging multiple performances, and benefits of including a recording in the mix. Kevin Clark (New Music USA) presented an informal lecture on “Baumol’s Cost Disease” and the impact of technology lowering the cost of production in the economy in general, thereby raising the relative cost of art. A third panel of composer Joan Arnau Pamies, and pianists R. Andrew Lee and Eleanor Sandresky presented three different models of earning money making new music. These sessions only scratched the tip of the iceberg regarding the challenges artists face in a capitalist society that today places little value on music and the arts. Over the past few decades, we have morphed into a “gig economy” across all sectors, further eroding the power of unions and other forms of employment security. Can the new music community, as a community, build some kind of framework to establish what musical artists should be paid and ensure that it is followed?
Even if NMG had offered no panels or other community building events, it still would have been a contemporary music festival of the highest order. From the opening performance by Chamber Cartel of Morton Feldman’s 5-hour epic For Philip Guston to the closing multimedia performance by SONAR new music ensemble of premieres of Baltimore Sounds from alumni of their RADARlab Emerging Composers Workshop, there was a flurry of exceptional concerts throughout each day. Toy piano stole the show in “Pianos Big and Small,” highlighted by a performance of untitled for toy piano and looping pedal by Peabody composition professor David Smooke (who also did yeoperson’s work as the local NMG organizer). Soprano Laura Strickling displayed not only fine singing but also impeccable diction in her “Confessions: Women’s Voices in Poem and Song,” featuring works by Gilda Lyons, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Clarice Assad. The first of three evening concerts, “Percussion Your Face Off,” was headlined by Sō Percussion and featured Gun Show, a chilling new work still in development.
Flutist Claire Chase was a surprise addition to a Friday afternoon ICE concert which featured a work from the new ICEcommons score archive initiative, Monte Weber’s Echo, performed by saxophonist Ryan Muncy and percussionist Ross Karre, with the composer on electronics. Friday evening’s concert celebrated theatricality in new music. The Fourth Wall hybrid arts ensemble, augmented by soprano Elisabeth Halliday, wowed with an excerpt of Stefanie Lubowski’s Vassal of the Sun, a musical retelling of Moby Dick. Nouveau Classical Project, with soprano Amanda Gregory, presented the uproarious ribaldry of Vincent Calianno’s Sororatorio (excerpts), which sets an infamous viral email. The ur-theatrical Kathleen Supové played exploding piano works by Guy Barash and Randall Wolf and closed the evening with Hitchcock Etudes, by Nicole Lizée, with video featuring recurring Janet Leigh Psycho screams.
Saturday was dominated by music performance, starting with an homage to NMG 2015. Highlights included violist Michael Hall performing the premiere Rob Deemer’s Canastoria, the fruit of a relationship that began at last year’s event, and pianist Taka Kigawa, a standout from NMG 2015, with a tour de force rendition of the complete Ligeti Piano Etudes. In an afternoon “Flutextravaganza,” Emma Resmini, a sophomore flute major at Curtis Institute, stunned the crowd with a fully-memorized performance of challenging works from Brett Dean, Marcelo Toledo, and Kai-Young Chan.
Local Baltimore/Washington composers and ensembles, including the aforementioned SONAR, brought NMG 2016 to a rousing conclusion. Great Noise Ensemble, with soprano soloist Lisa Perry, performed Sean Doyle’s Letters from Zelda, with music as tumultuous as the missives from Zelda to Scott Fitzgerald which provide the text. Baltimore-based Lunar Ensemble offered works by Natalie Draper and Philippe Hurel, and Perry returned to join them in David Bird’s Series Imposture.
The feeling of community reverberated as NMG 2016 came to a close. The promise of the first New Music Gathering, just a year ago, of a recurring event had been realized. Where will #NMG2017 be held, and what wonders will it bring forth? We have no idea. But we will be there to find out, and you should be, too.