New Music New College draws back the curtain on contemporary music

New Music New College (NMNC), now in its 14th season, is a Sarasota gem. This Saturday evening, Sept. 22 at 8 p.m., the season opens with a performance by Third Coast Percussion, a Chicago-based quartet. Stephen Miles, New College of Florida Provost and Director of New Music New College, calls Third Coast Percussion “one of the top quartets performing today.” These specialists in the work of John Cage are coming to town to commemorate Cage’s centennial year. Given that NMNC was initiated in 1998 with an exploration of Cage’s work, it is fitting that the Cage celebration opens the season this year. Third Coast Percussion uses a unique variety of percussive instruments, including drums, marimbas, and vibraphones — as well as five transistor radios in one piece on Saturday’s program, which, not surprisingly, create an unusual sound for the work.

Miles said it is smooth sailing to attract top-flight performers such as Third Coast Percussion, who are making their NMNC debut, because all of the visiting performers rave about their experience performing for the Sarasota/Bradenton audiences who frequent NMNC performances. Miles said they “have a wonderful experience while they are here and find our audience to be one of the best audiences ever.” Miles attributes this to a variety of things, including the interesting make-up of the audiences themselves. A typical NMNC crowd ranges widely in age, from New College students, faculty, and staff, to the wider Sarasota/Bradenton community, with a large contingency of well-educated retirees. Many audience members come back year after year, each time deepening and broadening their understanding of contemporary music. Miles wants to ensure that NMNC audiences have an entry point for music that can be difficult to understand and interpret. By contextualizing the experience, attendees are able to have a “real conversation” about the boundaries of music. Rather than a lecture on “what is music,” Miles wants the audience to watch and listen and draw their own conclusions.

Another important aspect of the performances is that they are short in length and usually avoid intermissions, which may break up the flow of the performance, so that audiences can get a taste of experimental music without being overwhelmed. Additionally, NMNC experiments with different venues suited to the kind of music being performed. This Saturday’s show, for example, takes place at “Club Sudakoff,” where the relatively drab auditorium will be transformed into a nightclub atmosphere with low lighting, tables and cocktails flowing. The last time I attended a Club Sudakoff event (It was actually my first NMNC performance), shoes came off and audience members of all ages were dancing among and even on the tables. Who knows where this evening will take the audience? Miles said he wants those who attend to be both “relaxed and focused” so they can enjoy the show. Because, of course, unlike an evening at Joe’s Pub or Feinstein’s at the Regency, two well-known New York City venues, audiences are attending a performance on a college campus. The influence of academia can be felt even if not expressly stated.

Probably the most significant hallmark of NMNC is that it is deeply embedded in theory and a course of study on the New College campus. Music students are given a unique opportunity to perform in front of major audiences, and composers among the student body can have their work performed by renowned performers. Our own This Week In Sarasota editor, Sara Moone, will have her thesis composition, called Mandala Music, performed by the JACK Quartet later this season on Nov. 17 (which I will review). Compositions by other NCF alums will be included on the program, called “Then and Now,” allowing audience members, many of whom are already familiar with the former students’ work, to see what the alums have done and are doing currently.  

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, Miles is a Professor of Music and an expert in the study of audience development for contemporary music. The focus of his research is in creating dialogue through music and enabling audience members to have a rich and meaningful concert-going experience. He jokingly proclaimed, “Give us an hour, and we’ll give you the world!” He doesn’t expect that audiences will love every performance, but what is crucial is that they have the experience of relating to music in a different way as a community. This season, NMNC will provide even more opportunities to audience members to come to campus and learn about the music through artist conversations, classes, and workshops. He said that in the past, NMNC has shown audiences “the tip of the iceberg, and now they will see the whole iceberg.” He believes that the way in which the music is presented makes all the difference, and thinks that audience members who leave concerts frustrated and turned off to contemporary music are justified if efforts have not been made to include them in the process.

“We’ve been doing this for 14 years,” Miles said, “We know if it works.” Guest performers who have the chance to perform before our primed and ready Sarasota/Bradenton audiences leave here with a better understanding of how to appeal to and reach their respective audiences, and hungry to come back here and perform. Our community is fortunate to have the chance to hear the best of the best through NMNC.

For tickets and showtimes, go to newmusicnewcollege.org. Stay tuned for future coverage of NMNC.

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