LOVE IN: Reflections on my first New Music Gathering

425421825I’ve just returned from attending my first New Music Gathering, which in only its third year has become arguably the premier annual congress of the American new music community. Based on my experience there, that doesn’t surprise me: this was one of the most fantastic events I’ve participated in. Such an amazing assemblage of warm, enthusiastic people from around the country: composers, performers, administrators, multiple-hat-wearers, spending three days getting to know one another, exchanging ideas, savoring contemporary concert music in a spirit of support, conviviality, camaraderie and inclusion that I haven’t experienced since I was at conservatory.

After an inception year in San Francisco, and last year in Baltimore, the Gathering was invited to occur at Bowling Green University in Ohio, which put a wealth of resources and personnel behind the event. In hindsight, I’m glad this slightly remote location was my first. Word is that attendance was a little lower this year compared to last, which helped one feel not overwhelmed. Plus it was good to get out of my East Coast bubble and meet so many people I might not have otherwise.

Some thoughts in no particular order:

  1. Go. If your budget and schedule and logistics permit it, make this event a priority.
  2. Take lots of business cards. If you don’t have any, get some, they’re easily and economically acquired: moo.com or vista.com are both very reasonable. And on this subject, check out the invaluable Portfolio Composer’s very sound guidelines on this subject.
  3. I arrived with a bit of an “acquisition” mindset: commissions, performances, financial or portfolio expansion. I quickly lost that and am really glad. Attend for the camaraderie, the sharing and experiencing of new ideas, the sheer joy of being immersed in an event and community devoted to the creation, support and promulgation of new music of all varieties.
  4. Don’t worry about whether your style fits into what you think or have heard is the primary aesthetic at NMG. All styles, genres, and levels are embraced.
  5. I wish I’d reached out a little more to people on the sidelines. For some people, events like these can be intimidating: who will I talk to, eat with, rely on. Many of us were probably at some time that person clinging to the wall in the corner, struggling to interact. Reach out to those people, who knows where it may lead.
  6. On this theme: have at least one meal a day with a person or group you don’t know, either well or at all. Take advantage of this unique opportunity to expand your horizons and circles. I inadvertently found myself with the same group much of the time, and while I reveled in their company and wouldn’t have missed that for anything, still I wish I’d had just a little wider interaction. Ask to join a group for a meal who you don’t know. If you’re the group being asked, say yes.
  7. If you’re a performer or composer, participate in Speed Dating (see below). Don’t just watch or audit: plunge in. It’s a little nerve wracking but so empowering and satisfying.
  8. Attend things you might be skeptical of. The concert offerings are almost overwhelming in their wealth, many of which I didn’t get to and wish I had. Best example of this: A performance of Variations 3 by John Cage, a composer whose theories I’ve admired more than enjoyed the actual experience. This performance blew my mind and left me on a heart-stopping, teary high I won’t soon forget: mesmerizing, ethereal, breathtaking, goose bumping, a reaction I suspect was universally shared by all those in attendance. All hail Tim Feeney, Lou Bunk and the army of participants they gathered for making this happen: it was magical.
  9. Don’t be afraid to take a break, even if it means missing something you want or feel you ought to catch. Each day is an intense slate of back to back, conflicting temptations and it’s easy to get burned out. By day 3 I  was glad that I’d taken the time to recharge for a bit in the afternoon or evening – even if it meant missing something – and finding myself in better shape for the later activities.
  10. Last, but most important: GO.

I’m fairly confident I speak for all those who attended in not being able to adequately express thanks to BGSU, Kurt Doles and his amazing team, the indefatigable Larry and Arlene Dunn who put everyone else to shame with their energy and enthusiasm, and most importantly the Gathering’s tireless, generous founders: Lainie Fefferman, Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Matt Marks and Jascha Narveson. I can’t wait for the next one.

speedddateSo what is Speed Dating?

NMG Speed Dating was founded by Brooks Frederickson, who gives a soignee precis of the idea. But if, as I was, you’re  looking for more detail prior to this undertaking:

  • Speed Dating connects performers and composers for short bursts across a one hour span to  learn about each other and see if there is potential for collaboration.
  • Two circles of chairs are set up, one set facing the other. Composers sit in the outer circle, performers on their inner circle.
  • Every four minutes, an alarm is sounded and the performers all move one chair to their left, the composers remaining stationary. Meaning that theoretically across a  60 minute span you should meet 15 different people. In reality I met 10, which is 10 more than I’d ordinarily meet in a 60 hour period, much less 60 minutes.
  • Both sides are encouraged to have brief audio samples of their work available. The onus is on the composers, but I was delighted so many of the performers brought theirs: I’m still catching up on those.
  • Materials: Some sort of portable audio playing device with headphones and your selections easily accessible, and optionally a method of displaying your scores. On the headphones: I recommend proper large scale headphones rather than earbuds, which depending on the brand can take some figuring out, and time is precious. Some people brought physical scores, most of us used devices (laptops, tablets, etc) to display our scores digitally. I don’t think having scores was a major issue: I’d say half of the performers concentrated on listening to the samples and didn’t worry about the scores. Still, it doesn’t hurt. If you’re not on issuu.com, this is a fantastic free resource used by many composers, and increasingly the major publishers, for displaying perusal scores.
  • Have your business cards (see above) easily on hand. Make sure you have a secure, reliable receptacle (an envelope, box, pocket) to stash the ones you get.
  • Bring paper:  take notes on you who met, who they were and what if any connection there was.
  • What should your conversation be? With no background to guide me, I opted for the approach of  “Oh, you’re a [insert type of performer here], let me play you this which I think will be up your alley and which you will hopefully perform or be interested in creating something new of the same kind.” In hindsight I’m rethinking that: the sagacious Garrett Hope opted to spend those four minutes more talking with each performer to get to know them and their aesthetic and mutual sympathies, and was less interested in pushing this or that piece on them. Choose for yourself.
  • Assemble and test your sound clips ahead of time (soundcloud is great for this). Curate them carefully. Remember you’ve only got about four minutes per exchange. If you’re like me and write broad structured music where it can take a while to get into a piece and grasp its diversity, you might want to create 30-second clips to offer variety, rather than hoping to get through one minute or so of the opening of a piece which may not reflect its variety and breadth within that limit.

It might sound a little gimmicky and perhaps a little contrary to making deeper connections. But as with all things at NMG, you never know, and in those four minutes you might dazzle a new collaborator. Despite the intensity of the session and the strain that the noise level puts on the throat, I wish it had gone on at least another 30 minutes, if not an hour. At the very least you’ll walk out with no less than you came in with, and you might walk out with people wanting to follow up and work together. By all means, go for it.

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