This year’s New Music Gathering took place in Portland late last month, Thursday the 22nd until Saturday the 24th, with a few peripheral events on Wednesday and Sunday. NMG is a massive festival that moves from city to city across the country each year. The 2020 festival technically took place here too, but moved fully remote due to unforeseen circumstances I don’t need to go into–you can look it up.
Previous New Music Gatherings spread out through multiple venues, much like Austin’s SXSW. But this year all the events were in just one building–Lincoln Hall on the Portland State University campus–making it super easy to get from one show to another without cutting things too close. The weekend was still packed, with each of the three days containing events from nine in the morning until nine or ten at night. This much music in one day can be exhausting, though thankfully there was little pressure to attend everything.
This is not a review of the various concerts and events that happened over the course of the weekend (read Lorin Wilkerson’s more traditional review here). Rather, it is a perspective from someone who was there both as a participant (in both live performance and a panel discussion) and as an attendee of many–but not all–of the concerts, talks, social hours, etc. My view as someone who lives here and had other obligations during the festival will be different from someone who had to travel to get to the festival, for instance.
The festival is entirely free to attend, an oddity among contemporary music festivals. Lodging is not covered, but the organizers sent out a useful sign-up sheet of people who were willing to host people, letting performers, speakers and attendees crash on couches and in spare rooms for the weekend. They also use money from their IndieGogo fund to reimburse participants for their travel costs, which makes this an impressively inexpensive festival to be a part of (donate to NMG here to keep that brilliant work going).
The thing with a festival like this is that no one’s experience is the same. Outside of the staff I doubt everyone attends as much as one theoretically could. Some drop in for their thing and then dip out for the weekend; some go to the few things they really want to; some try to go to as much as they can; and some have to decide which side of a scheduling conflict they really stand on. Like many festivals, there was never this feeling of obligation–you have the experience you choose to have.
This extends to the festival itself for the most part. Outside of the main organizational committee, there doesn’t seem to be much of a central “core” of people who attend every year. This may mean the sense of community is more diffuse than for other festivals, but it also means there were no cliques or insiders–I felt just as in touch with what was happening as everyone else. Even the headliners and big names like Bora Yoon, Mantra Percussion and Caroline Shaw were among us as equals, not royalty.
Some may call the experience a bit “scrappy,” but really it is incredible how they are able to pull together something so complicated with a modest budget and a lot of hard work. Due to the changing locations, each festival must feel entirely different, requiring new modalities for the organizers who have to remain flexible. Furthermore, they are able to make this whole thing work while keeping everything free and open to the public. For that, the atmosphere of inclusion was noteworthy. Participants came from across the country, from various subfields of music: performers, composers, writers, PR people, and organizers.
There were some fantastic showcases of local talent: Verdant Vibes (composer Kirsten Volness and her partner Jacob); Sense of Self, an opera by Lisa Neher and Kendra Preston Leonard; and a reprise of the Fabulous, Fierce and Fully Coiffed show by Jennifer Wright, Nicholas Yandell, Timothy O’Brien and Saint Syndrome.
Outside at lunch time on Thursday, the new mobile venue SoundsTruckNW hosted a show by Andy Akiho and friends, with a wide collection of pieces you may have heard before if you’ve been to various Akiho shows in town over the years. One surprising piece on the roster was his Bagatelle, based on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; Akiho composed it in one day at the Café in the Portland Art Museum. Normally, a piece based on an established classic–and Beethoven’s-freaking-Fifth no less–would elicit groans from me, but I enjoyed this one very much. The influence is more subtle than just banging the DUH DUH DUH DUUUUUH over and over again like a sledgehammer into the eardrum: the harmonies were there but with new refracted melodies and a washy texture, played wonderfully and delicately by pianist and SoundsTruck co-founder Yoko Greeney.
The first thing I did at the festival was attend the morning jam sessions Thursday morning. The first one was a performance of open-score pieces by Jordan Nobles (many of his open score pieces are available for free on his website). I played the piano for this one, which was a lot of fun. We segued between four different pieces quite seamlessly as local percussionist Dr. Nicholas Papador led the session to great effect, offering enough guidance and direction that we could just do it without any rehearsal time.
The next jam session consisted of free improvisations, hosted by Racer Sessions, a weekly jam session in Seattle. These were also fun, with a good variety of pieces in terms of length and style. Some were more relaxed and “tonal,” some were super noisy and upwards of twenty minutes. I bounced between piano and drum set, and one of my favorite jams had me playing cymbal rolls and soft jazz-like grooves beneath noisy drones and a recitation from Dante’s Divine Comedy in the original Italian.
Free improv is a lot of fun to play. It’s not merely random notes; it involves carefully listening to each other, to know when to play, when to lay out, and what you should play with and against. I personally like taking the role of a Troublemaker a la Thelonious Monk, poking and prodding others into playing something weirder when I feel things getting stale. Out of chaos the music can momentarily form together into a stable groove or tonal center before freely moving on to something else.
The next day was a big day for me: my first performance of my own music with me on guitar. My soundcheck was at 10:30 for my show at 11. Soundcheck was nice and smooth. My piece was, frankly, a bit off-the-cuff. It was based on an idea I had over a year ago–a long electro-acoustic piece based around a series of field recordings taken along the Willamette River. I composed the guitar part to subtly complement the field recordings. Going into the show I was a bit self-conscious, but it seemed like a low-stress environment. The crowds were small, and with other musicians who were at a similar point in their careers to myself–up-and-comers or those who recently made their name. That helped me feel more comfortable performing publicly for thirty or so like-minded musicians.
As expected things got behind schedule each day fairly quickly due to technical constraints and people staying too late at previous shows, but the audience was more than happy to oblige. I also got a chance to chat with my concert buddy Audrey Harrer, a harpist, vocalist and composer working with live looping, improvisation and intricate songwriting in Los Angeles.
Then on Saturday morning with the PSU Saturday Market happening outside, I spoke on a panel with Liz Bacon Brownson, Brett Campbell and Amelia Lukas. We talked generally about the relationship between public relations and artists and journalism, gave advice for how artists can get their work out there and get recognized, and also about journalistic integrity and our responsibilities to our communities. It was well-attended with some great questions from our audience, including a tough one about making PR services more accessible to people who are younger and from marginalized backgrounds who may have difficulty paying the steep fees.
I hope my response did the question justice. I said that as a journalist, part of our job is to not simply re-word press releases, but to keep our ears to the ground about cool things happening that may be outside the purview of mainstream PR firms and advertising. Thus it is on us to discuss things like Friends of Noise, or promote underground shows by new artists, go to scrappy shows and talk to people to get a sense of the broader landscape surrounding the proverbial mountains.
Does this festival give a broader sense of what is happening in the “new music” world? Absolutely. The term “new music” is frustrating and vague, but here we have all sorts of things, similar to what is happening in Oregon with Extradition, FearNoMusic, Third Angle, 45th Parallel Universe, Makrokosmos and PICA’s TBA festival. All sorts of contemporary musical practices were on display at the New Music Gathering: chamber opera, free improvisation, art installations, multi-media works, homemade instruments, live looping, the whole gamut.
If there was an overall “vibe,” it was very relaxed and low-stakes. NMG had one of the most sympathetic audiences for technical delays, which were met with light laughter and sympathy rather than annoyance. Same goes for people walking in-and-out of shows to catch everything they wanted–because we participants had to do that too. Ironically, that made it a great place to network and meet fellow musicians while avoiding cynical clout-chasing and elevator-pitching.
The final concert on Saturday night was the highlight of the weekend for me. There were too many great moments to name, but a couple stuck out. The staff gave out cards, and treats like Pocky, date bars and cardamom tea to the sound engineers–which was very sweet. The Toronto-based percussionists of the KöNG Duo played a piece of theirs based on two very different kinds of games: a childhood clapping game, and drinking game “Sevens” (with two Corona tallboys as “props”). A quasi-12-tone marimba and violin piece by Tania Leon was quite fun as well.
The whole concert was quite funny, showing the sillier side of the new music world. Caroline Shaw’s partner and collaborator Danni Lee Parpan was hilarious, riffing and strutting like a lounge singer. Shaw was great of course. It was a fun show and there was a lot of great stuff happening, unashamedly tonal and pretty, cool for the audience participation and engagement. And for those who didn’t want the party to end, there was an experimental dance show next door by Methods Body.
For me as a composer, I came out of New Music Gathering invigorated, which is maybe the highest honor I can give a music festival.