I just returned from what was, I think, my first “academic” conference ever: the Society for Minimalist Music's 2017 conference at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. MinSoc was hosted this year by Nief-Norf Summer Festival, an annual festival which gathers young composers and performers to study and perform together. The whole thing was masterminded by my friend Kerry O’Brien and her awesome partner in crime, Andy Bliss, percussion professor at UTK.
My collaborator Sam Scranton and I—also known as Handful of Smoke—gave our first joint talk. We talked about auditory scene analysis, Buddhist meditation pedagogy, Pauline Oliveros, and our music. People laughed at Sam's jokes as hard as I usually do. Then we played a 20-minute set.
This was my favorite conference I’ve ever attended. Here are some takeaways:
Performers and composers can gain a tremendous amount of insight from the work that music scholars do. Throughout the conference, I was deeply impressed by the rigor, commitment, and diversity of scholarship being done on music. This was an environment where it really felt like music mattered—but in a completely different way than it might in a “performance-only” environment. While the Minimalism Society conference was a special event, Nief-Norf has a scholarly component every year, bringing the performance and composition fellows together in dialogue with the scholars.
My personal feeling is that this kind of gathering is deeply important and should happen much more often. For those of us who wear more than one hat—performer, composer, scholar, critic, entrepreneur—these gatherings give us the space to relate to music in a multi-dimensional way. For me as a performer, it’s inspiring to glimpse the big picture of how my musical labor relates to the bigger discourse that surrounds the art. I’m now inspired to see how I can help facilitate interdisciplinary gatherings like this in D.C.
Minimalism has been, and is, a deeply important repertoire for me. Although I didn’t realize it when I went to the festival, minimalism has had a profound influence on my musical development. When I was six years old, my father traveled to Australia to sing the role of Zhou Enlai in John Adams’ Nixon in China. Several years later, my mother mail-ordered the double-disc set of The Death of Klinghoffer; she and I both fell in love with its opening choruses. My violin teacher in high school, Rohan Gregory, coached my violin quartet and taught us Violin Phase.
The ethos of minimalism is, to paint with a broad brush, contemplative and embodied. It intersects with my deepest interests in all kinds of interesting ways. Dear friend Eddie Davis gave a great talk which changed my understanding of silence. My new friend Tysen Dauer shared his fascinating work, which here weaves minimalist reception history together with collaborative EEG experiments. This shot might tempt me to make a sexy summary of his project as "this is your brain on minimaism", but Tysen is much more rigorous than that.
It's also, as my scholar friends revealed to me this week, a complex dance of collaboration. Ryan Ebright beautifully illuminated how Meredith Monk's working methods (hint: barely anything written down; tons of rehearsal time) landed with Houston Grand Opera when they commissioned her work Atlas. Patrick Nickleson shared different ways that ensemble members influenced the work of La Monte Young (controversially, without being credited).
Why had I forgotten my love for this repertoire? Why do I feel slightly squeamish even talking about this? To be totally honest, I think my years in Chicago had a distancing effect on my relationship with minimalist music. As I perceived what the “cool kids” in Chicago were doing (and attempted to fit in), minimalism was definitely not it. I developed an aesthetic value judgment system which, looking back, was deeply influenced by the value systems of the musicians around me. It was influenced even more so by my own insecurities and my own lack of connection to what I liked.
In my early experiences with the Chicago scene, all-male groups of improvisers were wailing inscrutably away at some of the only experimental venues in town. Bearded men sat across from each other in stoic silence, fiddling with electronic contraptions I didn’t understand. “Hard Music, Hard Liquor” was the name of a concert series. For me, the transcendent, the tonal, and the feminine often felt taboo.
I believe Chicago is changing, opening up both in terms of its friendliness to women artists and its aesthetic openness. No condemnation is intended here; I’m just unpacking my own experience. As an artist, it’s important for me to acknowledge how I’ve related to various artistic contexts and how I can develop the muscle to create (and locate) contexts I’m passionate about.
But this brings me to my next point.
Seeing the work of women artists in this setting was a life-changing experience for me.
The keynote speakers and headlining artists were Amy Cimini (talking about her work on Maryanne Amacher), composer Mary Jane Leach, and Ellen Fullman, inventor and virtuoso of the Long String Instrument.
Pauline was everywhere at this festival, because she’s awesome, and also because of the expertise and advocacy of Kerry O’Brien. In fact, Kerry and I led mindfulness meditation and sonic meditation each morning of the festival. At 8 a.m. And people came.
I still grieve the years I spent thinking that musicianship had to look a certain way. It doesn’t. If the scene you’re in doesn’t feel friendly to women, I recommend spending as much time as possible in a scene that does. And if I learned anything at this festival, it’s that there are so many ways to be an artist, to be a scholar. You gotta do your thing.
Stay on it.
PS: I send out an email letter every couple of weeks. It's about life. Sometimes it's even about music. You can sign up for it here.