3 Tips to a More Meaningful New Music Experience

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On September 12th - 14th, 2019, new music performers and composers will gather in Detroit to share their music as part of New Music Detroit’s 12th annual Strange Beautiful Music (SBM12) contemporary music marathon. The three-day event features music by 20th Century and present-day composers, including several guest composers and world premieres — from contemporary classical and world music to experimental “out” jazz, free improvisation, electronica, and beyond. Attending a festival like this can be exhilarating, but also a bit overwhelming.

This article provides 3 tips on what to listen/watch for when attending a new music festival. The first tip explores the primary building block of music (sound); the second focuses on the construction of those sounds (composition); and the third on the personal interaction with the performance (connection). All of the works mentioned below will be performed at SBM12.

1. Listen for New Sounds and Extended Techniques

New music performers and composers often explore new sounds by using traditional instruments in non-traditional ways and by creating (or re-creating) new sounds using technology. The term “extended technique” can be defined as an unconventional approach to playing an instrument or singing. Preparing a piano and playing the inside of a piano are two of the most familiar and widely used extended techniques.

In “The man who was eaten by the tigers,” Luis Fernando Amaya experiments with playing approximate pitches on the piano’s harp, scratching the strings, and pedaling non-traditionally to produce unusual diffused resonance. The piece also requires extended techniques for the vocalist (whisper singing, recitation, imitation, approximate pitch, timbral register changes, exaggerated and irregular vibrato, and vocal fry) and the saxophonist (flutter tongue, slap tongue, and multiphonics). The non-traditional sounds enhance the telling of the story and broaden the imagination of the audience.

When sounds cannot be produced by an acoustic instrument, composers and performers use technology to achieve the desired effect. New Music Detroit (NMD) utilizes samplers, pre-recorded tracks, distorters, processors, and synthesizers to expand their sonic capacity. For example, NMD commissioned Annie Gosfield to compose a new piece of music based on the iconic Diego Rivera “Detroit Industry” murals painted in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Gosfield captured field recordings from a metal factory in Germany in 1999 and wanted to use those exact sounds in the commission. She incorporated them by creating a MIDI sampler triggered by a 61-note keyboard where each key is linked to a sampled sound. The result is a rhythmically driven force interweaving acoustic instruments with the eerie wail of an old blast furnace and noisy, driving metal stamping machines.

2. Look for the “Why”

Look for the composers’ “Why.” Why was the piece composed? What are the composers communicating through their music? Are they exploring new sounds or a new instrumentation? Are they shedding light on aspects of humanity, community, advocacy, or self? Is there a particular inspiration, muse, or story?

When I came across David Biedenbender’s, “Shell and Wing” for the first time, I was completely enraptured. I ugly cried with tears streaming down my face as I listened to it on repeat at least 3 times. In this heart-achingly beautiful work, Biedenbender depicts inconsolable sorrow and profound longing for loved ones lost after the violent act at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. His text setting skillfully highlights Robert Fanning’s poetry and tugs on every heartstring.

Jorge Sosa was also compelled to write a response to a recent mass shooting. Although the subject matter is similar to Biedenbender’s, the composer’s musical expression of the tragedy could not be more different. Sosa’s alluring work, “Maori Lament,” is full of hope and uplifting light for the victims of the terrorist attack at Christchurch, New Zealand. It is a lush text-less musical representation of remembrance and fastidiously honors the deceased. Both of these works commemorate the lives of individual’s who were lost and the strength of those who grieve them, but they explore divergent interpretations of grief. It is easier to discover the composers’ “why” when works are inspired by emotional stories, but what about those inspired by found objects or new sounds?

Alexandra Gardner often associates visual images with particular sounds. It was the patterns and colors of stones that inspired her to write “Spotted Jasper.” While the piece was inspired by spotted jasper, it isn’t about the stones. It is about contrast and unique intricate patterns. In this work, an electronic component serves as an environment for the performers to play in and around, adding contrast to the directed “caffeinated and edgy” acoustic material in the first section. The second section is slow and atmospheric juxtaposing the first. Gardner’s personality shines through in this witty and charming work requiring unequivocal virtuosity from all players.

3. Explore Curiosities, Visceral Responses & Embodied Reactions

New music can be very demanding on performers and audience members alike because it often requires vulnerability, curiosity, presence, and open-mindedness. As tastes in music are vastly subjective, there is no “right” or “wrong” reaction to a new music experience. Whatever the reaction, don’t be afraid to explore it!

If I have a visceral reaction to a performance, I know that I have witnessed something special. A visceral reaction can become a holistic response, which in turn affects physical (goose bumps, chills down spines, tears, laughter, gut-wrenching tension, grooving), emotional (heartache, excitement, fear, anger, surprise), and mental (curiosity, inspiration, wonderment, clarity, new ways of thinking) states. Exploring these reactions by asking, “What made the performance so impactful?” and “How am I changed by the experience?” can provide opportunities to learn something new about self. Common answers to these questions include a well-executed performance and a sense of connection. When performances are executed well, there is often an observable synergy between performers, a palpable energy in the performance space, and apparent connections between the performers, music, and audience.

Of course, reactions to performances are not always positive. When reactions of boredom or distaste occur, explore these as well by asking, “Why am I uncomfortable and disengaged?” Answers to all of these questions will very person by person, but the subjectivity can also generate excellent conversations among artists and audience members in the foyer afterward!

The 3 tips above are an invitation to open audience’s ears, hearts, and minds to new music encounters. I hope these ideas spark new ways of engaging with music, inspire curiosity, and encourage connectedness. I also invite you to attend Strange Beautiful Music 12, apply these tips, and find your favorite way to experience new music. To purchase tickets and view a full artist line-up, please visit www.newmusicdetroit.com.