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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



OMG, it worked: putting an extra step between me and Facebook

Like most of you, I am addicted to my smart phone. And I am addicted to Facebook.

There's no point in denying it. The other day I caught myself compulsively reaching for the little blue icon while waiting in line at the grocery store ... behind one other person. One! Can I really not wait forty-five seconds in line without having something to look at? And while I've occasionally gone through noble periods when I refused to look at social media when I wake up in the morning, that ship has kinda sailed lately. Typically it's like this.

SCENE: Morning in bed.

ELLEN: [inner monologue] I'm awake ... it's a new day. I'm going to drink some water and take a look at my phone.

FACEBOOK: You should make this delicious cupcake recipe! Eric Garner's death was a travesty! These 10 things will guarantee relationship happiness! Your friend Joe is bitter about his career stagnation! Your friend Jane broke her toe, or maybe just bruised it; she's not sure! Baby Tommy is the cutest infant in the world! The US government tortures its prisoners of war! Look at this kitten wearing a viking hat!

And then all day I wonder why I can't write, compose, or focus on a non-shiny object for longer than 1 minute.

When I was on meditation retreat last year, I turned in my phone (voluntarily) for seven days. I also undertook "noble silence" and did not speak except when absolutely necessary. I realized for the first time how healing, centering, and creatively/spiritually helpful it is not to talk to anyone, or listen to anyone else talk. I absolutely loved the silence and solitude that retreat afforded. Don't get me wrong; talking with my fellow human beings is one of my favorite things in the world. But these outward interactions demand a great deal of energy.

During one of her talks, our retreat teacher mentioned smart phones and social media. And I suddenly realized that clicking on Facebook is basically like trying to listen to 999 people (my current "friend" count) talk. At once. And because I'm a fairly empathetic, responsive person, I actually try to listen! I actually think about each post and what it means! Talk about losing energy. Maybe this is why spending an hour on Facebook leaves me dizzy, slightly numb, and unsure what I'm doing today.

At the same time, I believe social media can be useful and fun. It can occupy a healthy, balanced place in our lives. But it's like ... Nutella. You have to be really, really careful or you'll wake up from a coma with Nutella all over you. Am I right?

So I made a tiny, tiny change the other day: I put the Facebook app on the second page of my iPhone. You might not think that this would help, but it has. I can no longer perform the exact same compulsive task that I always do. There's a teeny-tiny extra step between me and Facebook, and that teeny-tiny extra step helps me remember that perhaps I don't need to check it again just now.

I wrote this blog post while I was resisting my Facebook compulsion. What will you do instead of pressing the blue button?

PS: If you're finding this blog post via my Facebook link ... Welcome!