Saturday, February 23, 2013

Birds Of A Feather: Five Reasons We Should Still Flock Together

Although it seems a long time ago, it has only been a week since I traveled to Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio for the National Conference of the Society of Composers, Inc. (SCI). Because I find air travel inherently tedious, I began jotting down a few thoughts about this recent experience on the return flight while my impressions were still fresh (and to kill some time aboard the plane). Now that I've let a whole week slip by, I suppose it’s time to finish my thoughts.

L-R: Yours truly, newly elected President of SCI,
James Paul Sain & newly elected Chairman of the
SCI Executive Committee, Mike McFerron
Attendance at a conference, such as the recently concluded SCI event, is certainly not a new experience for me. I've been to many such gatherings over the years. As a composer working in academia, it comes with the territory. The acronyms of the sponsoring organizations may change (SCI, CMS, SEAMUS, etc.) but the format for a conference generally remains constant: a group of composers have pieces selected by peer-review to be performed for one another. 

At first glance, these events seem to be rather odd affairs for composers to attend. It’s true that many concerts of contemporary music are given at a conference. However, aside from outward appearances, there are significant differences between a “traditional” concert and one presented at an academic conference.

Wonderful performance of my piece,
"Citizens of Nowhere" at the SCI Conference
by Casey Grev, sax & Cody Grabbe, b. clar.
One important, and immediately apparent difference is the make-up of the audience. While it is unlikely that anyone might turn away an interested person outside the organization from wandering into a conference concert, the audience often consists predominantly of other composers. This can be a bit unnerving to the composer whose work is being performed. Unlike general concert goers, an audience made up of composers is a knowledgeable group of people. They tend to listen more carefully and analytically. They have a knowledge of contemporary repertoire that allows for instantaneous and automatic comparisons of the piece being performed with the vast cannon of literature. Worst of all, they usually know when a performance goes poorly and if it is the fault of the performers or the composer.

Another difference is the sheer number of concerts presented in succession. It’s true that at music festivals, such as Spoleto USA held each spring in Charleston, SC, a great many concerts are presented usually beginning in the late morning or noon hour and continuing throughout the day. Yet patrons of these kinds of festivals freely choose a selected sampling of the total concert offerings. At a conference, on the other hand, it is not uncommon for a participant to attend nearly all the concerts presented. This can make for a sometimes grueling marathon of music; listening intently for hours upon end until everything begins to sound the same.

Sometimes I ask myself, why travel to such an event? Conferences seem very insular; composers having their music performed for one another with no apparent care for the outside world. What’s the benefit of taking part in such an endeavor? It sometimes seems like there must be a better way to accumulate Frequent Flyer Points.

There are five reasons, actually, I still think conferences are useful to composers. Maybe even important.
  1. For younger composers, acceptance through peer-review at a conference is very similar to winning a composition prize. It carries a certain gravitas and signals to others in the field that the composer is of a certain stature and is to be taken a little bit more seriously. For student composers especially, selection at a conference is a signifiant item to place in a curricular vitae.
  2. Conferences are great places for composers to encounter new works and composers beyond the same “big names” that win the major awards or whose names appear regularly in New York Times reviews. Despite the fatigue of sitting through many concerts, a piece can still grab one’s attention and inspire the attentive composer in the audience.
  3. Conferences are also wonderful places to meet very talented performers who, by their very presence at the event, demonstrate a dedication to performing new music. This is no small opportunity. The composer who pays attention, identifies and makes contact with such performers. A valuable professional connection is made and the possibility of collaboration is a simple email away after the conference ends. This opportunity for collaboration, by the way, exists also with fellow composers. 
  4. For the young composer in academia, perhaps the most compelling reason to attend such conferences is to satisfy the demands of an academic career. Upper administrators in a university are usually non-musicians that hold creative artists to the same standards as other academic disciplines. To “present” one’s “research” through peer-review demonstrates good standing in the field and is enormously helpful in the promotion and tenure process. This is a very serious concern for the composer in academia and one that is thankfully addressed by the existence of such events.
  5. For older composers, such as myself, the critical need for presentation in order to earn promotion and tenure is no longer relevant. It’s not even the performance of a work that is of critical artistic importance. Often, the pieces I send in for a conference already have a rich performance history. However, I was reminded again this past week up in Columbus how nice and truly beneficial it is to simply have the opportunity to chat, face-to-face over coffee or at dinner, with colleagues around the country and compare notes. 
I don’t attend academic conferences as often as I once did. However, my experiences last weekend in Columbus have reaffirmed that I will probably never abandon them completely. This SCI Conference has made me a better pedagogue for my students and a more inspired composer as well.  All that and the Frequent Flyer Points, too!

What do you think? Do academic conferences still matter to you?