New Music Gathering 2016: You do you (and other people will care)

It’s the end of New Music Gathering, and I’m so glad I came. This amazing conference, now in its second year, has very quickly become an important site of performance, discussion, and personal connection for people involved in contemporary music all over the country. I’m very grateful to the organizers for creating a space for this to happen. Y’all should be so proud!

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Baltimore, trying to digest everything that happened in the whirlwind of the past few days. I walked here without a coat, warmed by the sun and the excitement of feeling connected to so many brave and interesting people.

I wrote a lot of tweets, but didn’t take a lot of pictures. Even though, as per my discussion with Will Robin and Leander Star, blogging is soooooo 2008, I'm gonna blog anyway. Here are a few of the biggest lessons I’ll take away from the conference:

1. My “online audience” is made up of real, flesh-and-blood humans! When I’m just sitting at your computer, tweeting or writing or blogging or posting about my work, it can sometimes feel like no one is paying attention. Personally, I feel like I’ve sometimes despaired about whether I’m just shouting into a void. But I’m totally not! Turns out, lots of interesting people are paying attention, even if they don’t always reply, comment, or let you know that in the moment. Meeting those people in person is such a delicious feeling! This realization made me so grateful for the platform I’ve had in NewMusicBox, and the sheer number of people it introduced me to. Related action item: show your work. Keep the faith. Talk as if someone were listening.

2. I love scholarly research and the people who do it. Some of my favorite “people discoveries” at NMG were musicologists: Will Robin, whose work I knew well online but whom I’d never met; Kerry O’Brien, who brings a deep understanding of physical embodiment to her study of 1960s music; John Pippen, the incredibly funny and sharp “ethnographer of new music players” among other things. Today, I’m embracing the fact that even though I’m not an academic (…yet?), I’m really into nerdy research, ideas, and discussion. Related action item: become a musicologist? Write nerdier stuff? Stay tuned.

3. Every artist is moved to create something totally unique. In some of the concerts, head was spinning from the diversity of sounds, aesthetics, approaches, values, and vibes. Fourth Wall Ensemble was like a circus trio of the most fun, approachable friends you’ve ever had. Kathleen Supove was utterly approachable and down-to-earth onstage, wearing a transparent bodysuit with a skeleton on it as she played works for piano and electronics. Nudie Suits wailed as if they were in a smoky bar (they were in a concert hall). Whether I liked what I heard or not, I always celebrated the fact that these artists had managed to translate the workings of their hearts and minds into something that I could see, hear, and feel. Related action item: you do you.  

4. The way to find your tribe is to cast a wider net. Your home community may not always embody your aesthetic priorities. But it’s pretty guaranteed that someone, somewhere, is making music that resonates with you. What better way to find that out than to hear a sampling of what’s happening musically in cities around the country? 

5. Our field is being moved forward by its youngest members. I loved the diversity discussion, spearheaded by Joel Zigman, with great contributions from Mary Kouyoumdjian, Kristin Kuster, Lainie Fefferman, and many members of the audience. It's not easy for 100 people to have a decent discussion about race, class, gender, and appropriation in 1 hour. But it actually happened! After the session was over, I could sense that those members of our community who don't normally "have to" think about this stuff (i.e. white men with established careers) had truly been provoked to reflect and dig deeper. A major accomplishment! Kudos to all for the courage and presence to take a good step forward. 

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 A special thank-you to my friend, the actress and director and brilliant lady Deirdre Harrison, for taking a chance, coming with me, and being my "conference buddy." We've got work to do when we get back to Chicago, lady!! <3



The State of Music Criticism, vol. 1: Can performers be critics?

A small hubbub recently arose on Facebook when my friend, the composer Shawn Allison, posed a question. 

As it turns out, Chicago's most prominent music critic had taken the Spahlinger Festival to task for what he viewed as poor marketing. Ouch! A good-natured discussion among members of the Chicago new music community ensued. Meanwhile, the folks who had slaved over the Festival probably had a bit of steam coming out of their ears. Putting together a massive event like that is not easy, and to be publicly scolded for not promoting it well enough is not pleasant. Also, although von Rhein perceived the University of Chicago as spearheading the festival, the reality (as with most grassroots project) was more complex and less ... well-funded.

As the Facebook discussion unfolded, a familiar point arose: the lack of informed, sympathetic journalists covering new music in Chicago.

Of course, this was of interest to me, so I chimed in: 

Nomi brings up an important point: if a performer is writing about the work of other performers, is that a conflict of interest? It's a worry that I've had myself, in my years of writing about music. But I believe this concern is rooted in a vision of music criticism that no longer serves us. In this "old way" of seeing music criticism: 

  • the critic is objective, and is not swayed by personal relationships with anyone onstage;
  • the critic is an expert, whose knowledge means they can weigh in about what is good or bad;
  • the critic assesses value, thus affecting the prestige, popularity, and financial success of an artistic endeavor. 
  • the critic might give the project a public thrashing (i.e., a terrible review).

This is the opposite of how I have always approached writing about music. In my personal vision of engaging in criticism, 

  • I am approach the performance from within the artistic community, and I am fundamentally sympathetic to the existence of the work;
  • I understand my perspective to be subjective. Some of the most interesting writing in the world is highly subjective, and objectivity is probably an illusion anyway.
  • I work to understand the work on its own terms, and to place the work in dialogue with other works of art that feel relevant to me. My job is not to assess value, but to understand and connect. 
  • If I cannot sympathize with or connect to the work, I simply do not write about it. (Composer Dave Reminick, whose mother was a food critic for 25 years, described it this way: "She tells people where to eat. She doesn't tell them where not to eat.") 

What do you think, dear readers? Is such a vision of criticism naive?