New Music Gathering 2021: “Money?”, Ethics, and Sustaining a Creative Life

Since 2015, New Music Gathering has taken a novel approach to conferences by instituting a gathering of music creators. I remember hearing about the first NMG, which was held in San Francisco. I wanted to go but couldn’t, and I immediately felt a profound sense of missing out. To catch up on the conference, I read a recap on NewMusicBox and saw a photo of people sitting in two concentric circles. Supposedly, both composers and performers were expected and encouraged to introduce themselves and delightfully scheme new collaborative projects. “That’s Composer Speed Dating?” I thought. “Dang, that’s clever.” Upon further reading, I realized that I also missed a performance by Claire Chase and an appearance by Terry Riley himself.


Therefore, I decided to attend every single NMG, starting with the 2016 Baltimore conference. Over the years, NMG’s mosaic of roundtables, spontaneous hangs [1], and therapy rooms peppered with inspiring musical performances has created a lovely and nurturing safe space minus the too-early presentations and stale pastries. In other words — this is not your typical conference. Instead, this performance-centric new music festival eliminates the siloed scholarly panels and encourages educational presentations and discussions. In addition, those who have attended NMG in the past are showered with warm affirmations of community and belonging. (This is atypical at academic conferences.)

Composers Talking About Their Cats: a special session at New Music Gathering 2017. Theisen, Higdon, Layton, Jolley, and Candey discuss the need for feline companionship in the creative process--Photo courtesy Alan Theisen

Composers Talking About Their Cats: a special session at New Music Gathering 2017. Theisen, Higdon, Layton, Jolley, and Candey discuss the need for feline companionship in the creative process–Photo courtesy Alan Theisen

This year, with co-presenters American Composers Forum and New Music USA, New Music Gathering’s hybrid conference/festival will occur in Downtown St. Paul, Minnesota from August 12-14 and online from August 12–18. I am thankful for this hybrid platform since it extends the reach of the community and makes it viable for those who can’t attend in-person this year (like myself). The conference is free with registration for all attendees.

Over the years, the NMG has highlighted and discussed pertinent topics in the field of music creators. They have explored communities. They have encouraged us to support each other. They have wanted to make musical opportunities more accessible. But this year, they are tackling the topic of “Money?” (Yes, the question mark is intentionally left there.)

This theme might seem a little off-brand, especially following the turmoil of the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the climate crisis. However, the team at NMG has been thinking about this topic for some time. “This past year, when the nuts and bolts of sustaining a creative life have been especially challenging for so many in our communities, we wanted to explicitly foreground those concerns and mechanics in our conversations and concerts,” says Lainie Fefferman, one of the co-organizers of NMG. “By making ‘Money?’ the theme, we’re inviting folks to be open and vulnerable and generous with their experiences, questions, fears, and advice for how to make music happen while keeping up with the rent.”

New Music Gathering co-organizers Angélica Negrón, Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Lainie Fefferman, and Jascha Narveson

New Music Gathering co-organizers Angélica Negrón, Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Lainie Fefferman, and Jascha Narveson

But in keeping with their mission statement, the organizers are thinking about the social issues that bind us. The keynote speaker for this year is Garrett McQueen, known for being a bassoonist, media producer, and tireless advocate for diversifying classical music. He further contextualizes this year’s theme: “For creators, money is often the means. For funders, money is also the means, but a means to what? I see it as the responsibility of today’s creators to flip the power dynamics that sustain the philanthropic industrial complex.”

The headliners of NMG follow the call to challenge power structures, blur musical boundaries, and put on a good show.

Queen Drea, a 2017 American Composers Forum Minnesota Emerging Composer Award recipient, is a vocalist, performance, and soundscape artist whose pieces are often conceived under the auspices of improvisational settings. She has created work about depression in the Black community, the loss of Black men’s lives in America, and an Afro-Futurist operetta From Black Wombs about two sisters who have lost their parents in the revolutionary war against white supremacy.

Queen Drea--Photo by David Glasgow, DLG Images

Queen Drea–Photo by David Glasgow, DLG Images

“I have been investigating some thoughts on Black Love and how it is strong enough to withstand being denied. Acknowledging that the way we came to this country and the way our families were separated in the name of capitalism is the reason why we are separated now. Acknowledging the pain of this reality. Acknowledging the beauty of this reality. Acknowledging Black Love in its many forms and expressing this love through my art.”

Recap is a percussion quartet from a new generation of musicians dedicated to music reflecting the diverse society we live in today. Arlene Acevedo, Alexis Carter, Tiahna Sterling, and Aline Vasquez, four musicians from Rahway, NJ, have been friends since elementary school. As recent alumni of Mantra Youth Percussion, they formed Recap through “music, friendship, and a desire to share their stories.”

Recap--Photo courtesy Mantra Percussion

Recap–Photo courtesy Mantra Percussion

For the duo Turning Jewels Into Water, Haitian-born drummer, DJ, educator, and electronic music artist Val Jeanty and Indian-born drummer, composer, and educator Ravish Momin make music that comes out of the deep reservoir of their respective cultural experiences and flies in the face of mainstream assumptions about global music.

Ravish writes, “The music I write for TJIW is a mix of pre-arranged melodic elements and live improvisation. Using Ableton to write my parts allows me to create non-linear arrangements of songs, where sections can be called up at-will. For our live participation, I’m usually connected to tempo-mappings and generate/layer percussion parts, while Val, who’s not tethered to the same grid, is free to manipulate samples and add rhythms. This tension between being ‘on the grid’ vs being able to play freely gives TJIW its special sound, an improvised live dance music that honors our ancestors.” Val adds that they are “tapping into the creative esoteric realms.”

Turning Jewels Into Water--Photo by Ed Marshall

Turning Jewels Into Water–Photo by Ed Marshall

In addition to the headliners, the NMG 2021 participant line-up coalesces around the theme “Money?” while simultaneously addressing subthemes such as race, diversity, sustainability, and ethics. Some events include a performance of grief. acceptance. resistance. money? by Morgan Schoonover, Clara (Da) Yang, and Rachel Mangold; “Live Coding as anti-capitalist music making” by James Parker; “Always Learning: What the Pandemic Can Teach Us” by Golden Hornet; “The LD Musician: How to accommodate learning disabilities in music” by Evan Tucker; “The Radical Music Therapist: Music therapy, mutual aid, and social justice” by Dorian Wallace; and “Unpacking the Art/Money Binary” by Kirin McElwain, among many others.

In the spirit of this collaborative coming together and the topic of “Money?,” the organizers of NMG would like to share their current and evolving budget spreadsheet for the festival. They are hoping to kick off the conversation and their conference by removing the taboos around money discussions and encouraging more substantial and collaborative creative communities to do so, as well.

New Music Gathering is still providing a much-needed collective space to help boost and elevate music creators to do what they do best — create contemporary art, challenge themselves, and grow as artists. Furthermore, they seek out different perspectives and new interpretations, thus celebrating diverse ideas and processes. If you are new to the gathering, enjoy! Of course, you will want to attend everything, but you will also meet new creatives who will catch you up on the details. Your purpose as an attendee is to gather with others and be inspired.

[1] At the 2017 NMG in Bowling Green, Ohio, a few composer friends and I spontaneously talked about our cats, and Jennifer Higdon suggested I get a buddy for my orange tabby Mr. Julius. I took her advice.


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