Taking LA’s new music scene into a bright future

Composer group’s new pilot project feeds on existing and rekindled enthusiasm.

An invited steering committee of about forty artists met in Pasadena on Saturday 10/29, in the first of what will hopefully be a string of open, visionary discussions hosted by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Composers Forum (ACF-LA).  This event is the kickoff to a new collaborative endeavor, designed to build and support the already vibrant local community of classical presenters and creators.

After a brief welcome from current president Jack Van Zandt, the relatively freeform discussion was led by ACF-LA founder and former chapter president Heidi Lesemann, and yielded valuable insights throughout the group, as well as many strong, well-considered opinions about what our local arts landscape needs in order to grow even further.  Overall, there was an overriding vibe of excitement and hopefulness that bodes very well for this group’s potential to turn words into action.

The gathering was made up primarily of composers, of course: some experienced, a few newbies, and plenty involved in presenting new works with one or more of LA’s wildly energetic new music series and ensembles.  The SoCal community has recently gained attention at the national level, with more than one post on ACF’s NewMusicBox blog and an ongoing stream of recognition for some of our more visible players in the field, namely The Industry, wildUp and Jacaranda, to name just a few.  But what about the many endeavors thriving further behind the national spotlight?  This group had representatives from several highly respected groups and series, including People Inside Electronics (PIE), the HearNow Music Festival, Tuesdays @ Monk Space, and Synchromy, to name just a few… and of course unSUNg — that’s me.  We talked not only about the amount of activity new classical is enjoying in Southern California now, but also the level of quality that is starting to attract attention from outsiders previously more likely to dismiss Los Angeles as what Woody Allen famously (and quite wrongly) dubbed a “cultural wasteland”.  (Ironically, wasteLAnd is now the name of one of those active presenters in the area.  ha HA!)

Composer/guitarist/web guy/beer expert Nick Norton, creator of NewClassicLA and board member for Synchromy, is clearly thrilled to be a creator in LA, naming the city the best in the world for new music.  He backs up that claim, saying,

“If Ferneyhough can sell out a warehouse, our audience is doing fine.”

The crowd was pleased to have a representative from the City of LA’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) with us, as Ben Johnson joined in the discussion around building local infrastructure, and stressed the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration as a tool for broadening scope and building audiences.  Johnson is new to his title as Performing Arts Director, a position created just five months ago and filling a performance void in the DCA that had been echoing for about twenty years.  This new investment in the performing arts is another hopeful sign that local government is with us, and getting input from someone knowledgable about policy, public funding and artistic cross-sections will be important now and as the project moves forward.

What seems to be agreed is that classical musicians and presenters must cease to think of their work as a niche product.  This radically upbeat thought is borne out by the enthusiastic attendance of thousands at the LA Phil’s recent “Noon to Midnight” season kickoff for their contemporary Green Umbrella series, featuring a marathon twelve hours’ offerings of new repertoire, five high-profile premieres, exceptional performers, a come-one-come-all atmosphere, and mixed well with food trucks and other attractions.  That event proved that all kinds of people are willing to try new things, and that small orgs’ tendency to reach out, over and over, to their existing audiences is sorely wrong-headed. It also points to packaging:  “It needs to be better than sex,” quips Norton.  He’s making a joke, but with a sharp point:  “If your concert is not more fun than staying at home, then why should people care?”

Now that's a lotta summit! L to R: Samara Rice, Alicia Byer, Pamela Madsen, Giovanna Imbesi, Jack Van Zandt, Isaac Schankler, Nick Norton, Tom Flaherty, Dale Trumbore, Richard Derby, Juhi Balsal, John Steinmetz, Lauri D. Goldenhersh, Jason Heath, Bill Alves, Jason Barabba, Heidi Lesemann, Marlene Majdu, Colin Horrocks, Steven Homestead. Not pictured: John Nuechterlein, Eric Dries, Ben Johnson, Vicki Ray, Linda L. Rife, Elliott Goldkind... (Did we miss anyone?)
Now that’s a lotta summit! L to R: Samara Rice, Alicia Byer, Pamela Madsen, Giovanna Imbesi, Jack Van Zandt, Isaac Schankler, Nick Norton, Tom Flaherty, Dale Trumbore, Richard Derby, Juhi Bansal, John Steinmetz, Lauri D. Goldenhersh, Jason Heath, Bill Alves, Jason Barabba, Heidi Lesemann, Marlene Hajdu, Colin Horrocks, Steven Homestead. Not pictured: John Nuechterlein, Eric Dries, Ben Johnson, Vicki Ray, Linda L. Rife, Elliott Goldkind… (Did we miss anyone?)

It is this sort of drive to create relevant experiences that became the unifying factor in the two-hour discussion, opening up issues like workshopping of new works, diversity, partnering with a variety of other entities, creating festivals and destination events, and finding the right venue in the process.  It was noted that with so many individual projects in the area, there is plenty of overlapping mission, but not yet a lot of shared energy and resources, and that is what can certainly change.  While some topics (e.g. fundraising and public policy) were touched on, but rightly deemed too mammoth for a deep dive at this first summit, there was no sense that all this talk would die in the room.  By the end of the meeting, some key roles and committee projects had been identified, follow-ups set, and many new connections made.  In addition to some larger projects that will unfold over a longer timeframe, plans are in the works for a new ACF website as a centralized resource, including new, much-needed resources that will help artists connect and get things done. It was revealed that there is also a new music venue directory that is already in the works at NewClassicLA, directly answering some of the need addressed at the meeting.  The forum’s board is also working on a member survey, designed to identify needs, trends and priorities within the community.

National ACF president John Nuechterlein, who flew in from Minnesota just for this event, wrapped things up by confirming that our discussion here echoes the issues being felt by classical artists all over the country.  Quoting arts mover-and-shaker Ben Cameron, formerly of the powerhouse Doris Duke Foundation and now fronting the St. Paul, MN-based Jerome Foundation,

“The future of the arts is at the local level.”  

While guidance and services might be made available by national orgs and other, larger entities, the real burden of innovation and survival rests on the backs of locally-focused presenters such as those represented in the room that day.  As we gear up for our fifth season of unSUNg (with proposals accepted right after Thanksgiving!), this writer is clearly biased on that score, but happily far from alone.  The new music community clearly couldn’t agree more, and we’re up to the challenge.

We’ll keep an eye on ACF-LA’s groundbreaking pilot project, and report as developments merit.

Want to get involved?

  • Join ACF-LA here.  (Yes, there’s a performer option, and tell them Lauri sent you!)
  • Come to the first Composer Schmooze we’re co-hosting with ACF-LA on Saturday, December 10 in Pasadena. (Details coming soon!)
  • Contact chapter administrator Steven Homestead to volunteer for a future ACF event.  (Be sure to let him know what you can do to help!)
  • Make a one-time donation.
  • Like ACF-LA’s Facebook page.

Featured image:  Obe Arif / FreeImages
Group photo by Steven Homestead, courtesy of ACF-LA

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