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.

29 thoughts on “A Big Tent

  1. David MacDonald

    Rob, this is a great idea. Some friends and I used to talk about a conference much like this that we jokingly referred to as a “new music summit.” I think you’re exactly right that such an even would have to include representatives of all the major stakeholders in the music-making endeavor.

    Part three would be an interesting challenge. You’re essentially proposing a simultaneous festival and conference.

    What about including stakeholders outside of just composers and performers? How about people that manage artists, venues, or advocacy groups?

    Reply
    1. Armando Bayolo

      Dave-

      Ellen’s article, to which Rob is responding here, specifically asked that managers and advocates NOT be included in such a conference. Which begs the question, why not, then, host this at a university, since it starts looking like every other academic conference out there (and, thus, potentially less interesting to some while becoming more interesting to others)?

      Reply
      1. David MacDonald

        I’m not sure that’s what she was saying, but if it is, I think it’s awfully myopic. I love DIY organizations. I love composers and performers that do all their stuff on their own. It’s great. However, to think that we don’t have anything to learn from them seems silly to me.

        I like to work on DIY electronics as a hobby. I do things on my own and do research in books and on the web. However, when I run into a problem, I call my brother. He’s an electrical engineer.

        Reply
      2. Ellen

        I think there’s a balance to be struck between academic centers (which, at least in Chicago, make AMAZING and lively contributions to the scene and whose performers & composers are working ‘off-campus’ constantly) and more hip centers which, as Armando points out, would draw different constituencies.

        Also, I didn’t mean that presenters & managers should be excluded — just that the conference shouldn’t have such a strong focus on sales.

        Reply
  2. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    One piece is missing: Who goes?

    If it’s like CMA, which I attended once at an enormous economic loss, it’s unaffordable in terms of attendance fees, transportation, and housing.

    Without sponsorship for composers to guarantee wide access to ideas, it might be good the first time, but would likely devolve into just one more gathering where only the academically sponsored or well-heeled could attend.

    Unless transportation & housing sponsorship were widely available, your #2 criterion could not be met. It would be dominated by the host city’s bias and the echo-chamber opinions of the academic or commercially successful.

    Much better: Use the energy to build a serious virtual conference infrastructure for new music, with performance and panels distributed in public space and homes nationwide, democratic in makeup and diverse in approach.

    Dennis

    Reply
  3. David MacDonald

    Dennis, that is certainly a problem, but I don’t think it’s solved by the web. Panel discussions on the web already exist in various forms (this comment thread for example), and I’m not sure that performances over the web would be particularly meaningful, especially without some serious investment in infrastructure and logistics.

    Reply
  4. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    David,

    I don’t mean the ‘usual’ web presentation — rather, the coordinated efforts of a nationwide conference. Something with momentum. Something in performers’ and composers’ living rooms, town halls, pubs, small concert halls, etc.

    Right now it’s scattered. Some on YouTube, some on Vimeo, some live, some recorded, but nothing that draws a coordinated audience (except sports, really).

    An in-person conference is just being schmoozy, no?

    Dennis

    Reply
      1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

        I thought it was to learn new stuff, attend presentations, and engage in commerce & trade. I have almost never gone to these things with social expectations. When I ran a computer company, we worked conferences from a commercial POV. The only schmoozing we got was from the press.

        At CMA, I was a given a booth by the bathrooms. No one from CMA welcomed me. I visited booths and met some folks, but most were already in an unwelcoming knot of friends. Those I’d come to meet left PR people or just a pile of brochures at their booths.

        The internet has been more than welcoming.

        Reply
        1. Ellen

          Sorry to hear about that alienating experience! I think people who are “schmoozing” with an agenda are pretty easy to pick out, while people who are interested in making a human connections are also easy to find. Those are the conversations I liked best at CMA and I had many of them! This, of course, gets into personality, interactions, needs, and other stuff we’ll save for our therapists. :)

          Reply
  5. Matt Marks

    It’s not quite so formal an event as you’re envisioning, but our New Music Bake Sale has been a very cool new music gathering for us NYC new music folks. Our fourth annual NMBS is coming up this March. It’s been a great time every year, and a big draw for people looking to gather and geek out about new music. I could see a more formal conference being pretty successful, especially here in NYC.

    Reply
    1. David MacDonald

      Matt, I think you’ve identified precisely one of the things that Rob is trying to avoid, and that Dennis is getting at in his comment above. You say that the New Music Bake Sale, which by all accounts is an excellent event, is a “a very cool new music gathering for us NYC new music folks.” I don’t mean to scandalize any New Yorkers, but we make pretty good music in the rest of the world as well.

      As Rob says, this is one of the big challenges that would need some attention.

      Reply
      1. Matt Marks

        Well, the NMBS has always been about the NYC new music scene gathering, meeting, and supporting each other. It’s been a regional event, by design, and we’ve spoken with folks in other cities about putting on their own Bake Sales. But just because it’s a regional event doesn’t mean there isn’t anything that could be applicable to a new music event that brought in people from around the country (and beyond). As a horn player I’ve been to both the International Horn Symposium and the Northeast Horn Workshop (I’m a preeeetty swingin’ guy) and it’s not like those events were somehow at odds.

        Although, I’ve come to expect that any comment here along the lines of “something cool happened in NYC” automatically elicits a “COOL STUFF HAPPENS OUTSIDE OF NYC, OK??” response.

        Reply
        1. Ellen

          Yeah, in spite of what you may have heard, planes DO LAND HERE, MATT.

          But in all seriousness, I think formats like the Bake Sale are super useful to get new ideas about conferences/gatherings that avoid some of the stuffiness, cliquishness, boring-ness, etc. that anyone would worry about when planning an event.

          Reply
          1. Philip Fried

            One thing I’ve learned in my many years as a musician is that composers have absolutely no sense of humor about their art, their careers,their profession, or their geographical locations.

            Reply
    2. Ellen

      Matt, that’s so cool about the Bake Sale. I love it. Looks like a really fun event.

      Also, you are one of the panelists on my dream Chicago conference. Putting it out there. Do you come to Chicago much? If you do, holler at us!

      Reply
      1. Matt Marks

        Awesome! I should let you know though, that part of my rider includes mandatory Disney karaoke duets with each of the organizers.

        Butsrsly, AWS has been working towards doing more in Chicago, especially since Gavin, our Managing Director, lives there now, and we’re also doing a ton in St. Louis as of late.

        Reply
  6. Ellen

    Wow! Rob, your ideas have already sparked great response and I love it. You’ve hit the nail on the head in terms of echo-chamber niche problems. I think we’d want to gather a broad and diverse group from various regions, factions, etc. as a kind of steering committee, before planning ever began.

    And while I sympathize with Dennis — my trip to CMA cost me around $500 and I’m a freelance violinist, so you do the math — I feel like it was worth every penny. And that’s with all its imperfections!

    Reply
  7. lawrencedillon

    I’ve been enjoying NMBx’s reporting from Chicago and Houston of late: seems with the way airfares have climbed those two cities would be ideal locations for national gatherings. Sure, they are only the 3rd and 4th largest cities in the country, but size can’t compete with location in this case. How about a summer conference in Chicago and a winter conference in Houston? And lest anyone thinks I’m suggesting this for personal reasons, it’s actually faster and cheaper for me to get to NY. Just seems wasteful to do anything with a national scope there, jammed all the way up against the right edge of any landscape-oriented map.

    Reply
    1. Rob Deemer

      I agree, Lawrence – there’s a lot of good stuff going on down in Houston (and Austin as well), and Chicago would be a great place to start things off. But I can also see rotating it around a number of communities that have new music scenes to support…Kansas City, Minneapolis, and San Francisco are three more out west of the Mississippi, and Baltimore/Washington D.C., Boston, and Pittsburgh would be three more to the east that could serve as host cities for such an endeavor.

      Reply
  8. Greg

    While the idea of a conference in Houston is appealing, it seems to me that we ought to begin branching out new music outside of huge cities and into average size communities. Although these communities may lack big city amenities, there is definitely less competition for concerts/entertainment. If we can expand art beyond the larce cities, we would all benefit. I know I constantly hear, “there is nothing to do here!” Cheers

    Reply
  9. Luke Hubley

    This is an excellent idea. I think that the Percussive Arts Society International Convention would be a great model, or a least an effective source of practical ideas. PASIC conventions are held yearly and serve the interests of a very wide range of percussionists, which include educators, performers of all types, students, and industry folks. There are always a wealth of performances, masterclasses, workshops, panel discussions, and competitions, but also paper presentations and a listening library that includes a large amount of sheet music with recordings. The exhibit hall is very large and includes music publishers, manufacturers, and retailers. The admission fees are reasonable, and the convention changes location quite often, in an attempt to keep the convention accessible.

    Reply
  10. David Pay

    This conference already exists in Canada.

    It’s the Canadian New Music Network’s biennial forum, a national conference (often with international guests) that focuses on discourse and networking for Canada’s new music community. The host city changes for each forum. And while there is no formal showcase or sales outlet/exhibit hall, the CNMN Forum allows art, ideas, and aesthetics to be shared by practitioners and communitiy members alike.

    The next CNMN Forum is January 24-26, 2014.

    Reply
  11. Kevin Clark

    Hey everyone,

    As probably the New Music USA-er who would be on the other end of the hypothetical conversation above, I thought I’d chime in. I think a conference like this would be awesome, and would be very, very difficult to find funding for. Usually conferences per se are funded by industries that can afford to send representatives away for the weekend and pay the fee and put them up in hotels. We’re new music, we can’t subsidize that sort of thing. That’s part of why the NMBS, which I’m helping out with this year, isn’t a Big Conference in a Big Hotel.

    A lot of conferences look seriously at how to address funding for attendees that need it, and at how to include more artists. I’d suggest looking in particular at ReaderCon (which I’m going to this year), and XOXO (which I went to last year) and not at the National Arts Marketing Project Conference (which I spoke at this year, was great, but relies on subsidies from industry, which our industry can’t afford). I ran an event in September called Ruckus NYC that combined performance and presentation content in a way that I think might be relevant to this discussion as well.

    All that said, I’d be down for working on something like this no matter whose aegis is eventually involved.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.