By Joshua Baerwald, Special to the Sybaritic Singer
As we enter adulthood many of us are encouraged to surround ourselves with people better than us, pushing us to be better versions of ourselves. This suggestion becomes a problem when it begins functioning as a paradox. Surrounding yourself by peers pushes you to perpetually improve, always working harder and learning more. On the flip side, however, the comparison Olympics which are inevitable in this environment can become crippling to self-esteem and healthy relationships. There are only so many seats at the table, and none of us want to lose our spot.
Fortunately, there are ways to combat this. If the anxiety from comparing oneself to others is the diagnosis, then festivals like Mostly Modern Festival can be the cure. This year (June 4 – June 18, 2018) was their inaugural season, taking place at Skidmore College. Bearing in mind the limited seating at the “Talent Table” combined with crippling comparisons of yourself to others, these problems give way to fierce, and typically unhealthy competition. A large amount of major orchestras in the U.S. further bring anxiety as they continue to program a select 100 or so works from the past four centuries. Living composers not only have to compete with one another, but with people who died before we discovered the existence of germs.
Mostly Modern Festival, founded by Robert and Victoria Paterson, strives to combat this attitude for all participants. Most of the music programmed throughout the two weeks are written by living composers, mainly participants. In some of the concert talks given by Rob Paterson, he would proudly tell the audience about how most of the pieces performed were written by people who were alive – throwing in an occasional joke after acknowledging a piece by a deceased Stravinsky or Bartok on the program.
These orchestras consist of an amalgam of faculty and participant performers dedicated to the promotion of this music. A large amount of faculty have proven their dedication outside of the festival, playing large roles in the new music scene year-round. Whether it’s people who frequent the pit of Broadway, such as executive director Victoria Paterson, or people who play in everything from Morton Feldman quartets to Coldplay hits, such as Dave Eggar, or the woman who encouraged me to write this post in the first place, a champion of new music for the voice, Megan Ihnen, it’s clear that the faculty across the field value this genre in every part of their lives.
In addition to the extensive promotion of new music, Victoria and Rob Paterson have worked to combat the cut-throat attitude that frequents the artist world. When surrounded by peers who frequently win the competitions to which you applied or who went to the school who rejected you, it’s hard not to become envious as a young student. You want to be supportive of your peers, and you can surround yourself with people like them – living the life you want to live. Problems arise when the “how’d-they-get-that” voice in your head keeps pestering, telling you they stole your chair, and you have nowhere to sit. Fortunately, at places such as MMF, the environment is cultivated such that many composers and performers can experience pride and excitement in their peers’ success, without feeling the envious baggage that sometimes comes with.
One of these instances was particularly personal to my experience – there was a concerto competition for participants, in which a select few of the performers would be selected to perform their concerti in full the following year. More than a dozen participated and only two were selected. Additionally, there were only two performers who were performing concerti they wrote – I was one of them, and Joe Rebman, a wonderful harpist, was the other. Joe was one of the two who were selected. That old voice in my head, who rarely carries any weight any more, suggested envy towards Joe. But all I could feel was pride and relief – a fellow composer would have the chance to premier his concerto next year. I didn’t get a seat, but I was happy I lost it to another composer-performer. Throughout the two weeks I would hear him and the other winner, Bradley Bascon, in a variety of environments and the honor of competing against such talented players far outweighed any sense of envy.
I’d be remiss without including some of the opportunities provided to participants. Whether it’s the seminars on how to navigate the freelance musician field, copyright laws for composers (with special guests Cia Toscanini and Deirdre Chadwick), masterclasses for soloists and chamber groups (with Atlantic Brass Quintet and Imani Winds), or the opportunity for more than a dozen participants to get an orchestral rehearsal reading of a piece they’ve written (in addition to the live premier of a chamber piece they wrote for the festival), there are more than enough opportunities for everyone involved. It is almost constant action throughout the day stopping just short of being overwhelming.
The festival is not without its flaws – nothing is. Most important is the Paterson’s desires for feedback and their dedicated openness to constructive criticism. Checking in with composers, having meals with performers, sharing their experiences and knowledge with everyone – the Patersons, as well as many of the faculty, were consistently trying to make daily improvements for the current participants, while keeping in mind changes to make for future years. Although in its very early years, the festival gives a glimpse into what the new music scene should, and is slowly starting to look like: instead of fighting for a seat at the table, we should figure out how to make the table bigger.
Joshua Baerwald is a composer/cellist from Milwaukee, WI with a passion for integrating art and social action. He received his B.M. in Music Composition at Florida State University, where his first opera, The Process, was premiered. Continuing his passion for dramatic voice, Joshua is currently pursuing his M.M. in Music Composition at the University of Louisville as a Bomhard Fellow.