We don’t know what new American music is, but we know where to find it
Twenty-nine years and counting. The Festival of New American Music at CSUS is, by all accounts, the longest-running annual event of its kind. A 10-day program of concerts, lectures, workshops and panel discussions with leading new-music composers and performers begins this afternoon and runs through Sunday, November 12. What’s better, every event is absolutely free.
Founded in 1978, FeNAM was conceived by then-CSUS music professor Gene Savage, who went on to run the festival for its first 15 years. Since then, festival direction has passed from Savage to percussion professor Daniel Kennedy, now the festival’s outreach director, and then to composition professor Stephen Blumberg. All the while, FeNAM continued to draw innovative and respected composers and musicians like George Crumb, Eighth Blackbird, Rachel Clarke and Steve Reich, with its twofold purpose: exposing local audiences to the broader world of contemporary American music while allowing students in the music program to work alongside cutting-edge new-music professionals.
Of course, all of this begs one very obvious question: What is new American music? The term itself is so broad as to be nearly all inclusive, but that just may be the point. This year’s program features a string quartet, classically trained chamber musicians, world- and indigenous-music performers, a percussion ensemble, jazz artists, electronica innovators and an impressive group of composers. Not that FeNAM is unfocused or indiscriminate; rather, its program and its principles show a refreshing lack of pretense.
“[It’s] the music of our time,” said Blumberg of the festival’s diverse lineup. Artists today work in an array of interdependent musical styles, but together they create an American music.
“We want to show that America has composers,” festival co-director Keith Bohm explained. “The common impression is that other nations have some form of a nationalistic style while we don’t.”
Austria has Mozart, Italy has Verdi, and even Finland has Sibelius, but Americans, for better or worse, never have identified with composers or a certain style in a nationalistic way—until the emergence of jazz, swing and, later, rock ’n’ roll. The overlap of styles is the essence of American culture.
“We’re definitely making an effort to showcase different ensembles or groupings of instruments and vocals,” Blumberg said, “to get away from the idea of genre. In fact, we’ve gotten some of the participating composers to write for hybrid ensembles.” For example, the San Francisco-based Melody of China will pair up with the Del Sol String Quartet to showcase the work of two Chinese-born composers, Kui Dong and Duo Huang, who now reside here in the United States.
Partly because of festivals like FeNAM, new music—what some call modern classical—has become less academic, both in approach and in dissemination. Though no longer an art form whose creative circle is confined to music schools, where scientific detachment is the rule, new music remains poorly understood. The likely culprit is the fact that new music, even when tonal, is rarely easy, and its complexity continues to make many people bristle.
There always has been a deep divide between popular music and the so-called avant-garde, one that often scares off potential new-music audiences. As Ed Harsh, a working composer and vice president of the New York-based Meet The Composer, recently pointed out, “There is a profitable music and a non-profitable music.”
Harsh’s organization, which has worked with a number of FeNAM composers, borrows a page from a venerable musical tradition by pairing composers with private music patrons interested in commissioning new works—a reminder that the classical era was as commercial as our own. Harsh noted that, while the notion of a monolithic avant-garde has dissipated, “There is still an expectation that people will hate new music.”
Since the late ’60s, new music slowly has divested itself of cliquish restrictions. Leading the way toward a more populist, though still innovative, new music were artists like Frederic Rzewski, this year’s FeNAM keynote composer. Rzewski, who is also a skilled pianist, has composed for a number of different media, though he may be best known as a pioneer in the field of electronic music. Rzewski, studying in Rome in 1966, was a founding member of the Musica Elettronica Viva ensemble, a group that revolutionized the use of synthesizers and contact microphones in live performance.
Beyond the field of electronic music, Rzewski is most famous for his Marxist views, which have infused his music with an overtly populist message, though he wholeheartedly rejects the “political composer” label. If pressed, he said he prefers “traditional musician” but he very clearly disdains genre categories.
In a recent interview with SN&R, Rzewski was asked to define new music. “There is no consensus,” he said. “Even if you and I agreed on one interpretation, it wouldn’t mean anything to the next person.”
“There is confusion on what music is in general,” he added. “People think that music is a plastic disc that you buy.” Rzewski prefers to counter this growing objectification of music with the intimacy of live performance—so much the better for audiences, regardless of their politics.
Rzewski will open this year’s festival with a keynote address, entitled “Nonsequiturs,” at noon on Thursday at the CSUS Music Recital Hall. He also will be the featured performer—along with pianist Eliane Lust, Melody of China and percussionist Michael Lipsey—in the Gala Performance at 8 p.m. that evening, which will be broadcast live on Capital Public Radio. The program includes Rzewski’s “Dust” and “Stop the War!,” both from 2003, and “Four Pieces” from 1977. Also on the bill is a Rzewski work for two pianos and two percussion players entitled “Bring Them Home.”
The events that follow these opening-night festivities move FeNAM beyond the typical music festival. “It’s not just a performance festival,” Blumberg said. “It’s important that people see the ‘how’ and ‘why’ behind the works.”
Aside from concerts, FeNAM gives its audience access to the performers and composers through workshops and forums. These events provide a deeper look into the motivations and techniques and, better yet, the human aspect of the music—the humor, the passion. It’s an important part of trying to humanize an art form that most people see as distant and abstract.
“Sacramento is a center for contemporary art,” Blumberg said, “and while our contemporary-art scene may be dominated by the traditional media of drawing and painting, contemporary music has a place here.”
FeNAM highlights Sacramento’s relevance to contemporary music, and vice versa, in a very public way. “Support from the participants, who often perform for less than their standard fee, is very important,” Blumberg continued, “as is the support we receive from sponsoring organizations.”
The fact that some of the performers and composers have chosen this forum as a place to premiere new works cements Sacramento’s position as a fertile venue for new music. Pianist and Sacramento native Sunny Knable will perform the music of David Lincoln Burnam, a relatively unknown Sacramento composer of the early 20th century whose works recently were uncovered by his family after 50 years in a basement file. Knable is also a composer; some of his work will be performed by the Sacramento State Symphonic Wind Ensemble, along with pieces by Michael Kitchens and Frank Ticheli.
For the Ensemble Chiaroscuro—a mixed ensemble comprised of flute, bassoon, vibraphone and double bass—FeNAM is also a place to play some new works. Its performance on Wednesday, November 8 at 8 p.m., will be one of the ensemble’s very first as a group.
The New York-based Talujon Percussion Quartet returns to the festival this year, as does UC Davis contemporary-music specialists the Empyrean Ensemble. On Sunday, November 5 at 8 p.m., the Empyrean Ensemble will perform the works of four California composers. The following evening, the Talujon Quartet will join the Sacramento State Percussion Group to perform works by John Cage and Joan Tower, among others.
Besides providing CSUS students invaluable experience playing music they would otherwise rarely get to play, the festival will hold more than 20 off-campus outreach programs. Festival artists, including the Chamber Music Alive! composer and violinist Todd Reynolds and renowned Native American flutist Mary Youngblood (a Sacramento-area resident), will give free concerts in local elementary and high schools. Other off-site venues include the Crocker Art Museum, American River College, Cosumnes River College and the Center for Contemporary Art.
In the face of an increasingly monopolizing music industry, and the proliferation of arbitrarily defined pop genres—“like breakfast cereal,” noted Rzewski—FeNAM provides a forum for artists outside the popular consensus. There may not be agreement on what new music is, but here’s to great listening.