The funny thing is that we have these places called concert halls, erected for the purpose of hearing serious art music, temples of culture which loom large in matters of civic pride and identity, and the first answer to the question of where is the best place to hear new music is: probably not there. Most concert halls are home to institutions which are basically 19th-century music theme parks with modern bottom lines, so they’re too big, set up for Brahms symphonies and their recognizable kin, and while the chances of hearing something really new there might not be zero, they’re not much better.
The ideal new music venue, like the composer who uses it, is flexible, not to mention accessible and affordable. In fact, often the best performance situations are provisional, floating, and nomadic rather than permanent, for with permanence comes power and authority and the need to protect them, things that foster orthodoxy rather than freedom of expression. Sometimes it seems the best spaces and the works made for them co-invent each other, as presenter and creator improvise and meet each other on new and unexpected ground.
New music generally originates from the edges rather than the center, so the audience is small and can be comfortably housed in intimate spaces such as lofts, small clubs, and galleries. At the same time, the means of production in music have changed so radically in the last few decades that a whole new kind of physical plant may be needed to present it, one which can accommodate sound reinforcement, video, and digital media, not to mention one which has a good, knowledgeable tech staff with the saintly patience to run it. Recently, I was in the audience for several performances of a work of mine for amplified ensemble, two of them in concert halls and one in a rock club. Can you guess where the sound was best?
When I was starting out I wanted to make orchestral music but, like most young composers, had no hope of gaining access to an orchestra, so I came upon unconventional means of producing such sonorities, massing together large numbers of portable tape players and making through-composed sound sculptures that could travel, indoors or out. With these works I literally went out and found my audience, or they found me. More recently I have written for all kinds of ensembles, including the most traditional and have presented my work in a wide variety of venues. In the past year I’ve had gigs in jazz and rock clubs, ambient lounges, art galleries, several churches, public parks and streets, a multimedia performance center, a small concert hall, the BAM Opera house and a hillside in Vermont. All of those venues worked for me and my audience, which leads me to believe that the best place to hear new music is wherever you can find it, and you should be ready to find it anywhere, cuz it’s an opportunistic feeder that likes to roam.