The Importance of Leaving...

...the goddamn bubble. I remember in undergrad, professors always spoke of the "DePauw bubble." I didn't get out a whole lot during undergrad, but I luckily had enough sense to realize that what I was doing probably wasn't new, exciting, or different, and that people had great ideas all over.

   During my Masters, I didn't have to go out much. Something about Brooklyn, NYC, and being around a wide variety of composers. I definitely didn't go out nearly enough, and that's my own fault. But I did listen to a lot of new music. No festivals or anything like that though--my mentors at BC weren't too keen on the competition circuit, and neither was I.

   A piece of me agrees with my teachers during my masters--the competition and festival circuit can be a bit of a racket. Lots of submissions ask for money, and there's only so much I'm willing to shell out for competitions. You've got to pick and choose.

   But it's important to go, especially if it's an opportunity with guest ensembles, lots of composers, and possibly guest lectures and masterclasses. Even the smaller festivals can provide experiences that your institution probably can't.


    This is a continuation of my series based on my experience at JiB. Past entries include posts about Charles Wuorinen and entrepreneurship, Brian Ferneyhough and treating music properly, and Augusta Read Thomas, Yehudi Wyner, and criticism.

    Going into JiB, I knew what it was: it's more than a festival, more like a week long hardcore workshop. You work with an ensemble, go to tons of concerts, a few masterclasses, and lectures. You attacked by music. From 9am-9pm, I was busy with some requirement, with brief moments to grab food between them--that's the one big issues with JiB...it can be difficult to find dinner!

   In one week, I met 20+ composers, far more than my department turns over in year. 20 new people, with new ideas, and new music. There were four special guest composers giving masterclasses (Raphael Cendo, Ferneyhough, Thomas, and Wyner), another guest lecture (Wuorinen), and of course David Felder. There's also rehearsals with an ensemble, in my case Ensemble Signal. That's more new faces than I meet in a standard semester at any of the schools I've attended, and all the people came prepared with their own music and presentations.

   But it's ever so important. First off, you gain a much wider view of music. What ARE people doing around the country? What approaches are being taken? It's a difficult thing to understand when you're stuck in your department. You gain new techniques and new appreciation.

    You gain friends, contacts, and associates. Your name gets known to a wider group of a people, people that you can call when you need a drink in a foreign city, or who may run ensembles themselves one day. The ensemble that plays your piece may like the piece and keep it around. A music critic may hear your concert, enjoy your piece, and want to do a write-up.

    Let's be honest, those things don't happen too much on most campuses. Of course, there are exceptions (Manhattan based schools, I'm looking at you!) but even the more "professional" concerts I've done in KC go unreviewed, and the contacts remain somewhat minimal...granted I suck at hobnobbing afterwards, which probably limits the contacts heavily.

     In the masterclasses, you have a chance to make an impression with a well known composers--this could ingratiate you, and they therefore remember your work when it comes time for judging a competition. Yeah, that is a horribly grim outlook on it, but it's entirely true. Nepotism in music is a very real thing, and until the next generation decides to forgo it and become a "meritocracy," we're stuck with it.

    The biggest thing is the music and the ideas. JiB is unique in that you're somewhat forced into groups thanks to the masterclasses. After a day or two, you've found at least a small clique worth hanging out with. Or, if you're like me, you'll flit around a bit at the periphery--it's not that I disliked anyone, it's that I dislike large groups, and those had a tendency to form!

   Still, the thoughts flowed freely. Composers discussed each others music, their institutions, gave and received advice, socialized, told stories, got drunk. And listened to music. So much music. Minds were expanded, exploded, and changed.

   That's really what festivals are about. A good festival/conference/workshop will invigorate you. New ideas will come rushing in, old ideas will be made more clear, and new friends will challenge or affirm your positions. Someone like Charles Wuorinen will incite a group into heated discussions, while the direct criticism of Ferneyhough will make an entire room really delve into what they could improve.

    And it's this influx of ideas, the meeting of minds that is so important. It's easy to get stuck--four years in undergrad, two or three for a masters, two to four for a doctorate. Same three or four teachers revolving around, you form your clique and maybe hear some different music. You might have one new complexity guy, a hardcore French-style acousmatic composer, maybe a spectralist, a neo-Romantic, a sound artist, and a couple post-minimalists. And you'll get along, but in the end, you'll face the same questions and affirmations.

    It's great to see how people across the country (or world) deal with music. And it's as important for development as standard schooling.

    So yes, it can be a racket. It can be a pain in the ass. But festivals are worthwhile and important experiences for musicians of all ages. Just be sure to research what you're getting into first before sending in your app and fee. And find yourself some funding through grants.

   And then head off for an experience that will fill in tons of gaps left by a "traditional" educational model.


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