Scratch That: Cutting Edge or Marginalized?
Five new music angles on the Chamber Music America conference:
1. What’s the big deal? New music is everywhere at Chamber Music America. The organization is doing a great deal to commission and promote contemporary music, and the conference was a great place to be for the new music community. The keynote speaker, Todd Machover, is a composer from MIT whose mind-blowing talk was a highlight of the weekend. A panel on women composers with Steve Smith, Missy Mazzoli, and several high-profile women composer/curators drew a standing-room crowd at nine a.m. on a Saturday. Even among presenters who serve a more musically conservative constituency, there seemed to be an overwhelming consensus that bringing contemporary music into the fold is essential. The conference made it clear that some of the most exciting developments in chamber music are happening in new music.
2. New music is everywhere … unless you’re a string quartet or piano trio. On Friday and Saturday afternoons, conference attendees heard lots of different ensembles—filed under jazz/experimental or classical/contemporary—perform 25-minute programs. During these showcases, traditional ensembles like string quartets and piano trios hardly programmed any music by living composers. Among these types of ensembles, only BELLA Piano Trio planned to play a living composer on their program. But when it came time to perform Jennifer Higdon’s Fiery Red, the trio ended up swapping in some Dvořák instead. (Contemporary quartet mainstay ETHEL was an exception, as was Chicago’s Axiom Brass, which makes sense given that brass repertoire is newer in general.) The jazz ensemble performances overflowed with newly composed work, but among the Fully Notated, Orchestral-Instrument set, it was still a Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Brahms kind of scene. These showcasing ensembles want to make a great impression on their audience—a group of high-profile artist managers, presenters, and oh right, some musicians, too—and most of them chose not to make new music a part of their “sell.”
3. Do CMA’s membership requirements exclude new music groups doing important work? The most prominent new music ensembles in America were not at the conference. I’m thinking here of groups like ICE, wildUP, Ensemble Dal Niente, and lots of prominent New York-based ensembles like yMusic and Alarm Will Sound. This led me to realize for the first time that many of these ensembles aren’t, by strict definition, chamber groups. They have larger, more flexible rosters and the repertoire often demands a conductor—something that CMA membership precludes. Yet I’ve always thought of chamber music as being the heart of what ICE or Dal Niente does. Is all-contemporary programming too challenging for the moderately old-school constituency of CMA? Or are these enterprising groups more likely to have forged a different organizational model—one that doesn’t rely so much on managers and booking agents? Two days after the conference, I received this amazing newsletter describing the Ecstatic Music Festival and wondered if perhaps the best new music groups are simply too busy to send someone to a conference that doesn’t quite align with their needs.
4. The creative, collaborative, DIY spirit of the Chicago chamber music scene is special and needs to be exported better. Chamber music innovations happening in Chicago aren’t nearly as well-known as they should be. Conference buzzwords like flexible-format concerts, interdisciplinary collaboration, and unconventional venues are so essential to the Chicago scene that they’ve almost become old hat. What’s even cooler about Chicago is that most of these innovations are artist-driven, because almost all our ensembles are artist-run. The lack of staff is exhausting, but it also allows our organizations to take risks, to be more dynamic and adaptive, and to have lower overhead. When you think about Spektral Quartet curating an evening of works about war, or Fifth House creating cinematic concert experiences that redefine music-theater collaboration, or the sheer scope of the Beethoven Festival, you realize what exciting stuff is happening in our city. And most of it is happening without management.
5. 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. By night, we’d all hear great off-site performances at the Hideout, the Empty Bottle, Mayne Stage (which is a decidedly better venue than Le Poisson Rouge), Corbett & Dempsey, and a host of others. Because I forgot to mention one important detail: the first conference should be in Chicago. Let’s make it happen.