De Capo Chamber Players performing at New Music New College, 2016-2017 season
photo courtesy of Nancy Nassiff
As the De Capo Chamber Players took to the stage to perform Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire during New Music New College’s 2016-2017 season, house lights centered on a miniature wicker chair positioned in the middle of the stage. Vocalist Lucy Shelton emerged from the shadows offstage, carrying what appeared to be a handmade doll resembling her likeness and placed the doll into the chair as college students, octogenarians and young professionals seated at round tables looked on with delight.
The unorthodox opening to the concert was no coincidence. Steven Miles, the director of New Music New College, consciously arranged the performance space to anticipate the audience’s reaction to the opening of the work. “[Pierrot Lunaire] is one of these classics of the twentieth century – the piece has a strong connection to early cabaret culture,” Miles said. “The atmosphere was less formal. Whenever you have circular tables, the audience can monitor each others’ responses to the music much better.”
Outlandish new music productions and an exacting attention to detail towards the audience experience have come to define the success of New Music New College concerts, which take place multiple times a year in Sarasota, Florida on the grounds of New College of Florida.
The organization grew as a brainchild of New College of Florida professor, Steven Miles, after he was tasked with assembling a group of musicians to perform John Cage’s Songbooks at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in 1998. The concert was so well-received that Miles and the group of musicians were asked to return the following year. The series steadily grew and members of the community were invited to perform. By 2003, ensembles from across America began participating, and New Music New College grew into a concert series meant to engage the audience with new and experimental music.
“New music faces some of the same challenges contemporary art faces,” Miles said. “You can write music that is very accessible, but what we present is edgier or somewhat removed from popular culture. What we’re trying to do is serve as a mediating institution between the most advanced work, which requires experts, and an audience from a completely different space. We’re providing this place where experts learn from non-experts and both need each other.”
Since New Music New College began, the series has attracted a wide variety of new music ensembles that has included Ekmeles, Wet Ink Ensemble, and Ensemble Mise-En, among many others, and has presented world premieres of notable works, including Bobby Previte’s Terminals II and the soft premiere of Kate Soper’s Ipsa Dixit.
Despite presenting avant-garde music in a region that typically saw little public interest in new music, New Music New College has seen an increase of patrons each season.
“We’ve developed a community that’s about discovery,” Miles continued. “People come to the concerts being unfamiliar. They come because they have a sense of trust but know that it will be well done. It won’t be too long and will be a variety [each time]. Music is the focus, but if we only focused on the music and didn’t think about respecting the audience’s experience and foster agreement, I think New Music New College would not have lasted.”
The organization’s approach to presenting concerts embraces classical music aficionados and pop music patrons alike. In addition to hosting performances in concert auditoriums, Miles and Silver have organized outdoor shows that encourage the audience to wander between stages, multi-day “Crossroads” festivals that intermingle New College of Florida rock bands with members of the Sarasota Orchestra, created pieces that spontaneously appear in public spaces in the style of flash mobs and have transformed meeting halls into nighttime cabarets.
“We try to lower the barriers of coming to a new music concert – there are always barriers,” Silver said. “If you’re already comfortable, you don’t perceive them. If you go to a rock club, you [get used to them], but going to a symphony is a whole other deal.”
New Music New College carved out a market for new art music in their community that previously did not exist by viewing their audience’s experience as key to their success, but their methods and approach are not solely based on their market.
“Our approach could work elsewhere,” Miles said. “It’s not rocket science, [but] musicians aren’t trained to think about these things. It makes us rethink what performance space is.”
“We’re exploring new means of performance,” Silver agreed. “We’re not jumping to re-create something – we’re trying to create.”
New Music New College's current season and streaming concerts can be found here
Erich is a musician and writer living between Montreal and New York whose work appears on Best Life, Eat This, Not That!, MSN, and more and has represented artists for years as a PR rep. He likes weird music. If you want to find his music, it's over here.