Since 1998, series director Steve Miles and producer Ron Silver have been revving up the contemporary music scene in Sarasota with New Music New College from their base at New College of Florida, a small publicly-funded liberal arts school. After meeting them at the New Music Gathering in Baltimore in January, 2016, we craved to know more.
What are the keys to the success you’ve had in building an audience for new music in Sarasota?
Miles: Most importantly, we think holistically about each presentation, understanding that we will be offering mostly or completely new material to a diverse audience. We always provide context with Artist Conversations the Thursday before a concert and pre-concert talks, and we keep performances to about one hour in length, the limit we’ve found of how much new information a listener can absorb and process.
We ask ourselves, “How can we present this music so that the audience’s experience will be maximally intense and memorable?” The first and most important choice is that of venue, based on how we intend to dispose the performers and the audience spatially. We usually try to match the music’s compositional structure with an appropriate performance structure. For example, indeterminate music is very ill-served by presentations in determinate spaces, such as recital halls, in which the musicians perform on a stage, facing an audience that sits in rows. But when performed in spaces that allow for performer and audience mobility, the compositional structure and performance structure are aligned, and the audience gets the music experientially. We present music in a number of different spaces on campus, both traditional performance venues and non-traditional spaces, like an outdoor arcade or throughout the entire ground floor of an old mansion.
How have you attracted such a distinguished group of visiting artists?
Silver: We view our relationships with visiting artists as a partnership. It’s not a transaction — it’s how can we make this a rewarding experience for all the people involved. We try to have mini-residencies while they’re here, including interactions with New College students as well as demo/discussions at a local public performing-arts magnet high school. The artists have access to the venue for all the days leading up to the concert, so they can rehearse in situ as much as they want, and I’m there to work with them on sound, lighting, and anything else the entire time. I’m a musician as well as a tech person, so I understand things from a performer’s point of view.
Our students are enthusiastic, and our audiences are focused and engaged, and ready to embrace the new. So the concerts themselves and the receptions afterward, where artists and audience interact, are positive experiences. And yes, we try to pay well, too.
What impact are you having on the local arts scene?
Miles: Although Sarasota has a very rich arts scene, when we started in 1998, arts programming here tended to be very conservative. While it can be hard for the traditional arts organizations in town to experiment, NMNC functions as the R&D department of the Sarasota arts community. The Sarasota Orchestra said this explicitly, and invited us to partner with them on a two-day festival, Crossroads, in 2009. The first night took place at New College, and featured principal musicians from the orchestra playing with student rock bands. The finale included everyone in an arrangement of The Rite of Spring, complete with student dancers. The second night took place at the Sarasota Orchestra’s space, and consisted of contemporary music, including the premiere of a commissioned work by a New College alumnus. Crossroads was so well received that we presented similar collaborations each of the next four years. Crossroads 4 culminated in a group performance of Cooking at the Crossroads with Pauline & John, a new work composed by Francis Schwartz for the occasion.
Over the years, it’s become clear that there is an audience hungry for contemporary art in Sarasota. The Ringling Museum has not only presented wonderful shows of contemporary art, but they’ve also established a performance series featuring artists such as ETHEL string quartet and works like John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit.
How does your association with New College benefit your work?
Miles: NMNC simply wouldn’t exist without New College. It’s an extension of our Music Program, and we plan our season with students in mind – when they can perform, how the programs flow into or out of the curriculum. NMNC has featured lots of student compositions over the years, and our performances have stimulated all kinds of projects, such as NEW Ensemble, which a student started after having worked with NOW Ensemble during their first appearance at New College. (NOW composer and guitarist Mark Dancigers currently teaches at New College.)
NMNC reflects the spirit of New College, which places equal emphasis on academic rigor and experimentation. That combination reinforces the expectation of our audience that we’ll present music that is challenging and thought-provoking, and that it will be performed by first-class artists.
What does the future hold for NMNC?
Miles: We’d like to expand our artists’ visits to become something more like residencies, which will allow us to deepen the conversation with them, our students, and our audience. We’ve developed particularly strong relationships with certain artists, such as JACK Quartet, Kathleen Supové, and Marilyn Lerner, and we want to develop projects specifically for them and with them. In addition, we intend to mount more original experimental projects, which is something that has been hard for me while I have been also serving as Provost at New College.
Finally, we’d like to develop an Advisory Board that would consist of local supporters and national figures. It’s all part of expanding the conversation and welcoming more voices into our creative process.
Saturday April 30, 2016: Third Coast Percussion performs at New Music New College.