I’m back home from the MUSIC NOW fest, but I’m not sure I’ve fully grasped what I’ve seen and heard at EMU in the last few days. I have a feeling that the significance of what I’ve experienced goes far beyond any personal benefits I may have gained, as ample as those are. It certainly went far beyond what I anticipated.
First of all, it’s important to make the nature of this MUSIC NOW festival clear. There’s no other way to say it: over a period of three days, several hundred people got as far inside my compositional head as possible. In contrast to the new music festivals that try to cover all the bases — giving every composer and every approved stylistic trend an equal hearing — this one sacrificed breadth for depth. Before I arrived, six of my compositions (reflecting my work from 1983 to 2005) were rigorously rehearsed by faculty, guest artists and students. Hundreds of students were assigned to write papers on me, on my music, and on my words. They researched, they asked me tough questions, they measured my responses against their own. In addition to the concerts, there were three events in which I spoke, attended by (my guesstimate) 40, 100, and 300 people.

What is the upshot of all this activity? Following a single composer’s thought process as it progresses over the space of 22 years gives these students unique insights into one individual’s artistic mission. Seems to me that they’ve been given a real opportunity to grasp the nature of artistic activity in a way that is clearly distinguished from the superficial handholding many students expect.

After the events of the last few days, these students are in a better position to understand and appreciate the next composer they meet, and the next one, and the one after that. Compare that to the questionable benefit of playing 10 minutes or so of fifteen different composers and identifying general stylistic trends – helpful in its way, but perhaps not as beneficial in the long run.

So much of our world demands that we learn to make snap judgments, marshalling a few salient details into alignment with a bigger picture. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s good to have academic institutions that push us deeper into thought, rather than faster through received opinion.

In the next few posts, I’m going to attempt to lay out how the MUSIC NOW residency worked, in the hope that other institutions may consider using something akin to this format as well. Hopefully I’ll hear from others about similar ventures. I can’t say it is a perfect approach in every way, but it has plenty to recommend it.

It certainly helped that the faculty and students of EMU are exceptionally collegial, curious and mutually supportive human beings.

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