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.

9 thoughts on “Scratch That: Cutting Edge or Marginalized?

  1. Frank J. Oteri

    Ellen,

    It was great to meet you at CMA this past weekend. I was hoping to write an essay covering the conference, but you’ve pretty much covered all the bases and I’m totally crazed since I fly out to France in 2 1/2 hours for IAMIC and MIDEM. (More on that on these pages soon.) But before we leave CMA, I wanted to share the thoughts of composer Karen Siegel, a first time CMA conference attendee, with whom I briefly spoke about the opportunities for composers at this conference as well as how best to move forward for greater gender parity in concert programming. (I was very disappointed that after that fabulous panel you described, women composers–with the exception of the formidable Mary Ellen Childs thanks to ETHEL–were completely absent from all showcases and concerts. Even the jazzers! Aside from Mary Halvorsen, who was a sideperson for Taylor Ho Bynum’s excellent group, it was a sea of guys.)

    Here’s Karen…

    Reply
  2. Ellen

    Thanks for sharing this, Frank! What a nice interview. It’s great to get my fellow first-time attendee’s take, I loved meeting Karen. And Frank, it was great to meet you too. Have an amazing time in France! I am going to go look up what those acronyms mean now. ;)

    Reply
  3. Arlene and Larry Dunn

    Ellen: thanks for this great post. We have tracked CMA with both admiration for
    much of what they do and dismay for other things that just don’t seem to jive. Great observations about the vibrancy of the Chicago new music scene. And we love your idea about that “New Music Conference” especially if it’s in Chicago and has evening performance events open to the public. Not sure if there could be a meaningful “audience track” for the conference part, but if there were such a thing we would probably attend.

    Keep up the great work. We love having you Chicago-anchored perspective on New Music Box.

    Arlene and Larry Dunn

    Reply
  4. Eric V.

    As a fellow Chicago resident, I would echo everything written by Arlene and Larry Dunn, keep up the great work Ellen (particularly the boasting :)!

    Reply
  5. Ellen

    Arlene, Larry, Eric: my heartfelt thanks!

    Arlene & Larry: an audience track? Be still my heart. I wonder who could help organize that … !!!!!

    Reply
  6. Karen Siegel

    Ellen, it was great to meet you at the conference as well. Thanks Frank for posting this interview with me.

    I would like to add to Ellen’s spot-on observations about the CMA conference that even though new music was underrepresented in the showcases, the response I received when I asked the performers if they would like to see my scores was always positive. Of course I have yet to see how many of these ensembles will go on to perform my music, but CMA is definitely a good place for an emerging composer to be. I encourage other composers to attend, especially students (as a graduate student, the cost of CMA membership and conference registration is greatly reduced for me) and composers under 25, for whom registration is only $10.

    A new music-focused conference would be wonderful – I would certainly be there.

    Reply
  7. Rain Worthington

    Plus, isn’t ACM (Access Contemporary Music) based in Chicago? They’re exploring new models for contemporary music performances and exposure for contemporary composers.

    Also, as Artistic Administrator/Composer Advocate for the NYWC (New York Women Composers) organization, I have heard arguments against the “segregation” of women composers.

    To this point, I’d like to reiterate a comment I posted March 16, 2012 on NewMusicBox in response to Rob Deemer’s blog post “A Helpful List.” My own comment was also especially in response to the discussions flying about Amy Beth Kirsten’s “The Woman Composer Is Dead” article as well.

    This is an excerpt of that posted comment:
    I absolutely agree with your statement that “It is only through awareness that one can identify that “excellent” music to begin with.”
    Increased awareness of contemporary women working in the field of composition is not a limitation, but an expansion of resources and knowledge. This provides an enrichment of perspective, rather than a reduction or narrowing.

    Reply

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