Jan 12, 2016

More than 100 composers and musicians filed into a fast-shrinking auditorium at the Peabody Institute as part of the New Music Gathering conference over the weekend. In the often fragmented and specialized sphere of new music, relationships are everything. And these composers and performers are here to see if they might be able to make those connections through an exercise that might seem better suited for the singles’ bar than contemporary classical music.

“Performers on the inside. Composers on the outside!” organizers yelled over the bemused din.

As directed composers — clutching scores, laptops and headphones — fill an outer ring of chairs while musicians seat themselves in the inner ring directly across from them.

“This is going to be awkward. It’s going to be weird. It’s going to be outside your comfort zone,” Brooks Frederickson said to the group. “But if you meet someone you don’t like, wait three minutes and maybe the next one will be better.”

And with that, they’re off.

“So… what do you do?” a tuba player asks the composer sitting across from him. It’s the kind of standard question first dates are made of. Musicians talk about ensembles they’re playing with and extended, avant-garde techniques they enjoy. Composers pull out scores or give the musician earbuds to listen to a recording of a piece and then wait patiently as they study the musicians’ expressions for any hint of affirmation or displeasure.

Some conversations pick up quickly. Others sputter awkwardly. But as Frederickson promised, just three minutes later participants are told time is up thanks to a piano in the corner playing a musical cue that sounds like it might signal an oncoming train in a 1920s silent film. The musicians then move one chair to their left, and the process starts all over again.

Welcome to the strange and wonderful world of composer-performer speed dating.

This is the second such event that Frederickson has organized and he said his main takeaways from watching two sessions have been about social dynamics.

“If you put a group of people in a room who don't know each other, there's a good chance they're not going to talk. But if you make a situation where you say, ‘Everyone is on the same playing field. Nobody really knows anyone here, and your job is to talk.’ Then people are more open to these conversations,” Frederickson said. “It seems like people are eager to talk about themselves and talk about their work, but they just need that moment to do it in the right environment. They need that push.”

Historically composers have had a pretty good idea what instruments they were writing for even if they didn’t have a particular ensemble lined up to premiere their work. String quartets, symphony orchestras, choirs or wind bands have a standardized group of instruments and musicians to write for. While there are still plenty of string quartets running around, there has been an explosion of new music chamber ensembles that feature historically unusual collections of instruments. Instead of two violins, a viola and a cello, a chamber group might have a piano, trumpet, flute and a few strings.

Those groups provide new possibilities for composers, and in turn those groups are hungry for new repertoire they can play since they don’t have the luxury of a vast library to choose from. That landscape, Frederickson said, means there are amazing opportunities to establish these relationships, but the challenge is finding one another.

As a composer himself, he sympathizes with composers or performers (who are often introverts) being asked to convey who they are artistically to a stranger in only three minutes.

“The elevator pitch is hard,” he said. “A lot of times people will ask me, ‘What's your music like?’ That's a question that I've been asked since I started writing music, and it's a question that I still don't have an answer to.”

Composer Jason Charney said that was hard for him at first, but he got better as the session went.

“I think as composers we don't have the impulse to try and boil down what we do,” he said. “Here though, the artifice of only having three minutes meant I had to talk to the next person no matter who they are. That really helps.”

In his own work, Charney said relationships are incredibly important. He said that performers will come to him for a piece with a concert already in mind, and from there, they’ll work collaboratively to bring it to life.

“Personally, those relationships are inextricable from the composition. All of the projects that I do are for a specific performer,” he said.

Composer Warren Enström echoed the need for strong, collaborative relationships.

“Music is one of those things where you focus on relationships more than anything else,” he said. “You can have two people who are just not going to work together because of what they're interested in. [You have to] troubleshoot and meet as many people as possible to find those relationships that do work. It's also about learning how to be more workable yourself. How can you be open and accessible to people?”

Enström said he isn’t sure if the speed-dating session will jumpstart any of neccessary musical relationships for himself, but he said that he did learn that more people are willing to listen than he might have previously thought.

“You can have a lot of anxiety as a person who creates something about whether or not people are going to actually listen to you talk about what you're doing,” he said. “But people are at least willing to hear you talk about it... for three minutes at least.”