Despite the relentless blistering cold weather in New York City this winter, music makers and shakers from all over the world came together to attend three important annual organization conferences taking place here in succession. Fresh on the heels of the 2004 Conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) are two more major annual events which are a good way to survey what is going on in the field all over the country and to interact with many of the industry’s key players: the annual conferences of Chamber Music America (CMA), January 16-18; and, before you can catch your breath, the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE), which began on Thursday, January 22 and continued through this past weekend.
This year’s CMA Conference definitely felt like “back to business” after last year’s conference, which eschewed an entire day of panels for a 12-hour marathon concert celebrating the 25th anniversary of this non-profit national service organization. Although not every panel discussion was stimulating–a session that began at 9 AM on Saturday morning proporting to be about how to expand your web site’s potential was beyond painful to sit though before any coffee was offered to conference participants–but spirits were high and the energy in the exhibition rooms between sessions felt more positive than it had in years.
Perhaps this had to do with mixing things up a bit. This year, the conference was in a new hotel (one that didn’t even exist a few years ago) and deviated significantly from the almost predictable structure of the conference in years past. The formal banquet in which CMA awardees were honored was moved from the closing slot on Sunday to Saturday evening and the ASCAP Adventurous Programming Awards were given out during the opening luncheon rather than during an evening reception that for years has been more about meeting and greeting old colleagues than to listening to anything said on the podium, despite Fran Richard‘s always valiant attempts to make everyone pay attention to new music and its champions.
New music, in fact, was particularly championed at this year’s conference. One highlight is always the annual wide-ranging Commissioning Showcase concert offering works by three very different composers performed by three very different ensembles. This year featured downtown experimenter Elliott Sharp‘s foray into the world of the brass quintet featuring the remarkably resourceful Meridian Arts Ensemble, Bennie Maupin‘s free-wheeling but never groove-less quartet which boggled the mind with unison runs between bass clarinet and talking drum, among a host of other sonic treats, and, finally, a gorgeous string quartet by Shafer Mahoney confidently delivered by the Corigliano Quartet. (Stay tuned for a NewMusicBox Web cast of all three of these works in May 2004.)
On Friday afternoon, the CMA Conference played host to a New Music Town Meeting discussing the viability of a New Music Network. Facilitated by William E. Terry (Terry & Associates) and co-convened with the American Music Center, Meet The Composer, and manager Sue Bernstein of Bernstein Artists Inc., the way-over-capacity room provided composers, performers, presenters, record company reps, publicists, and others the opportunity to square off in a discussion about how to take the promotion of new music to the next level.
On Saturday afternoon, a session was devoted to ASCAP’s composer/performer showcase series Thru The Walls, curated by Martha Mooke and presented at The Cutting Room, a New York club. The series was offered as a model for thinking beyond the traditional venues for new music events. And on Sunday morning, American Music Center Executive Director Richard Kessler moderated a session with representatives from several of the key music publishers to discuss ways in which ensembles and presenters can forge more effective partnerships with publishers. One wonders why a session as important as this was scheduled so early in the morning, almost guaranteeing that it will not reach most of the people who should have been there. New music needs to reach everyone at this conference and therefore should be scheduled as the theme for one of the conference’s plenary sessions (a prime spot with no competing sessions). As entertaining as architect Rafael Viñoly was, are his rather idiosyncratic descriptions of concert hall acoustics really more worthy of a plenary session than a practical session about new music?
The other plenary session featured a speech by NEA Chairman Dana Gioia which was typically long on biographical details and short on anything specific about what is going on at the NEA. Gioia repeatedly stated that is “apolitical” although his claim that Democrat-led state legislatures reduced arts funding even more than Republican-led ones felt like a stump speech. While he laudably stated, “I don’t want to live in a nation where arts education and access to the arts is only available to people with money,” to resounding applause from the room, he also claimed, “Everywhere I go people tell me that arts education is declining. Whether that is true, I have no idea.” He dismissed the Robert Mapplethorpe controversy–“I’m bored talking about the controversies of the previous century”–claiming that he wants to focus on the future, yet the NEA’s biggest current project is a plan to introduce Shakespeare to all 50 states as well as the U.S. Military.
While Gioia claimed at the CMA Conference that the NEA is “not strong enough to embarrass a politician and win,” attempting to engender the notion that the arts must stand above politics, it was a provocative conference counterpoint that there was a session at the IAJE Conference titled “The Popularity of Anti-Culture and Right Extremism Against Jazz and World Music.”
If the schedule of CMA’s conference guaranteed that not everyone could attend important sessions, IAJE’s schedule makes the New York City Subway System’s schedule feel efficient by comparison. The bursting-at-the-seems conference, which this year absurdly required the space of two different hotels (in this weather no less) frequently featured more than 10 sessions at a time, each only an hour long and none starting on time since everyone (including session speakers) had to somehow find their way through the maze between the hotels.
That said, IAJE on day one was completely mobbed. It was, in fact, the most crowded music-related conference I have ever attended in my life (although from all reports I’ve heard APAP, which I missed this year, was equally rush hour-esque). As such it is cause for celebration and hope. Jazz is more popular than ever, a resounding contradiction to the majority of panelists from television, radio, and daily newspapers involved in a Thursday morning session, “Going Mainstream–Jazz in the Non-Jazz Media” who made excuses for rarely covering jazz artists claiming they need their programming to appeal to “mainstream audiences.” Indeed!