A Big Tent
One of Ellen McSweeney’s observations from her adventures at the Chamber Music America conference was that the national new music community needs a professional conference of its own:
Imagine a conference as lively and vibrant as CMA, but more centered on performance and ideas than on a marketplace of acts for sale. By day, the conference could host amazing panel discussions on a range of important issues in the field: perhaps Claire Chase lecturing on new ensemble models, Alex Ross chairing a panel on music writing, Marcos Balter speaking on commission etiquette, or Third Coast Percussion talking about the way they divide organizational work.
This got me thinking about how such an endeavor could actually work—who would be the intended audience, would it be a yearly or biennial event, what umbrella organization would or could provide logistical support, and so on. But as I imagined what such a conference would look like, I began to wonder if an all-inclusive conference that brought performers and composers from throughout the new music community together would be feasible or even effective. I’m not saying it couldn’t work—I think it would be awesome if it did and I’ve got half a mind to talk to someone at New Music USA about spearheading such an event—but there are several issues that would need to be addressed (in my humble opinion) before such a project was put into place.
1) The focus should be balanced between composers and performers. I’m in complete agreement with Ellen that such a conference not be geared towards enticing management and presenting organizations; something that brings composers and performers together on an equitable standing so the performers aren’t there simply to play on concerts (as is the case with composer-centric events) and the composers aren’t there just to sell their music or negotiate a commission. To have everyone there with the intent for interaction and dialogue would be a very good thing; I have seen examples of this in action several times and it always works out well on both sides.
2) There should not be an aesthetic/stylistic/regional/alumnal bias in the programming of the music or the guests. While there’s nothing wrong with celebrating connections between artists, it’s too easy for such gatherings to be pre-connected—those who aren’t already in circles can’t find opportunities to break the ice and those who already know each other simply reinforce those relationships that already exist. There are already more than a few festivals that become echo chambers along a distinct stylistic bent and while it’s helpful and healthy for those like-minded musicians to explore and validate their own musical niches, there are very few opportunities for those various camps/tribes/whatever to interact on an equal footing with each other. Finally, there could be mechanisms set in place to ensure that a certain number of participants came from outside of the top new music markets and were distributed as evenly as possible from around the country and elsewhere.
3) There should be a balance between internal interaction between the participants (both directed and casual) through workshops and discussions and external interaction with the general public through concerts and other public events. While concerts themselves are a great way for us to communicate with each other musically (as well as with a general audience), opportunities for performers, composers, or both (depending on the topic) to explore and debate amongst one another in a safe environment is healthy, necessary, and all too rare.
I have no idea if this is feasible, but I think any opportunity for the entire new music community (both here and abroad) to come together should be explored, and if done, then done right.