A room full of people dance

How to Make a Scene

It’s impossible for most of us to imagine our musical lives without other people. We need collaborators, mentors, friends and audiences – a community that motivates us and gives our work meaning. In short, we need a scene.

But what if you live in a place that doesn’t really have one? A little over ten years ago, that was the case for Baltimore-based composer and educator Judah Adashi, who wanted more access to live music by living composers. Now, Baltimore is a bustling hub for grassroots composers and performers of new music. How did it happen? To find out, I spoke with Adashi and a handful of other organizers whose years in Baltimore illustrate what it takes to build a vibrant artistic community.

Imagine Your Niche

Judah Adashi plays the piano

Judah Adashi

Back in 2005, Judah Adashi noticed that it was getting easier to hear the music of people like Luciano Berio or György Ligeti around Baltimore. But it was a different story when it came to the music of his peers. “I was starting to get to know a lot of great music by composers who were anywhere from their twenties to their forties – and older than that, [like] my teachers,” says Adashi. But he came across most of this music outside of Baltimore, at summer festivals like Tanglewood or Aspen, or within his own academic circles. Around town, he recalls, “I wasn’t hearing their music when I went to a new music concert. I was hearing sort of the emerging canon from the late 20th century.”

So he founded the Evolution Contemporary Music Series, which has the straightforward mission of presenting music by living composers. Notably, the composers themselves are invited to attend these intimate, meet-and-greet style concerts. Audience members participate in discussions with the artists, who in turn listen to their work performed by local musicians. Featuring guests like Caroline Shaw, John Luther Adams and Sarah Kirkland Snider, Adashi realized his desire to hear the latest groundbreaking music in a live setting, and he made it a community affair.

Twelve years later, Evolution carries on the same mission. The only difference is that now the series has become an “anchor for the mid-Atlantic scene” – in the words of James Young, executive director of Occasional Symphony, another Baltimore organization that promotes contemporary music. And, as Young’s role would suggest, Evolution is no longer alone.

Seek Fertile Ground

Heartbreak Express is performed

Rhymes with Opera performs Heartbreak Express

Every community has its own quirks, and when trying to create a scene it can help to capitalize on what’s already there. Maybe your town, for instance, has a strong outdoor culture. What kind of event could you put on to embrace that?

In the case of Baltimore, as composer and multi-instrumentalist Ruby Fulton noticed when she moved to the city to attend the Peabody Conservatory, it “has an affinity for things that are unusual.”

Take one of the first concerts she attended, at a place called The Red Room, a self-described “laboratory for paracultural revolution.” Fulton recalls “a guy who came out [with] a microphone, a pocket watch, a roll of tin foil and a turntable. He wrapped his entire face in the tin foil and bashed it into the record player so it was reacting to the metal.” That she was in an audience with about 20 other people “was one of [her] clues that Baltimore was open to things a little off the beaten path.”

That’s good news for people who want to make contemporary music – which is, let’s admit it, sometimes a little weird – public entertainment. As it turned out, Fulton’s hunch was correct. Later, when she was putting on her own shows through Rhymes With Opera and performing in the Mobtown Modern series (both founded in 2007), she noticed the mix of people at the concerts; they weren’t always students, and they weren’t always fellow musicians.

Still, other organizers like Joshua Bornfield credit Adashi’s Evolution series with fortifying that bridge between experimental organizations and the public: “Evolution did something incredibly important for Baltimore [in that] it took the audience for contemporary music out of Peabody.” So when Bornfield, in turn, started heading the War Memorial Arts Initiative in 2015, which puts on a variety of classical, jazz and folk music – even rock operas, he knew, “I had a workable model and an audience that would come out if I gave them the right stuff.”

Start by Starting

SONAR New Music - Daniel Wohl: I Drone

SONAR New Music performs Daniel Wohl’s I Drone

Just as a performer can’t master a concerto in one sitting, organizers can’t change communities overnight. The new music scene that has coalesced in Baltimore in the early 21st century has ebbed and flowed. Rhymes With Opera relocated to New York; Mobtown Modern went on indefinite hiatus in 2012. Other organizations have arisen and marched forward, like Occasional Symphony (founded 2012), with its embrace of interactive spaces; the Baltimore chapter of Classical Revolution (founded 2011); and the new music-focused SONAR (2007) and Lunar (2010) ensembles. This is all to suggest that every creative effort, whether it lasts for one season or one hundred, begets others. The only way to start making your scene is to, well, start.

Adashi’s work with Evolution embraces the idea of art as a generative force: He wants his town to be a destination for artists at the national level. “The good stereotype of Baltimore is it’s a very warm place,” he says. With that in mind, his welcome routine for guests “has taken on more and more of a Baltimore flavor;” each artist receives a “very healthy gift bag” of local staples: Berger cookies, crab chips, and the favorite hometown beer, Natty Boh. It’s both funny and sincere. Adashi wants “artists to leave feeling like, that’s an amazing scene. That’s something I want to be a part of.”

Evolve

RiseBmore2016

RiseBmore2016. Photo by Elisabet Pujades.

The same passion that may drive you down one avenue may cause you to pivot later. Over the past several years, Adashi’s interests have moved toward issues of inclusion and activism. “I have a lot of outlets for it,” he admits. Those include teaching a workshop on the intersection between art and activism at Peabody and directing the Junior Bach outreach program; he also addresses it in his own music. A year after the death of Freddie Gray, Adashi used his cantata, “Rise” – which sets Tameka Cage Conley poems about the civil rights movement – to launch RiseBmore2016, a free event honoring Gray. Additionally, proceeds from a recording of a movement of “Rise” went to the surviving family, and RiseBMore2017 is in the works. It will feature other Baltimore artists engaging with issues that affect the city.

Should direct engagement with race, art and inclusion be a priority for local musicians? Adashi thinks so. Specifically, artists should court audiences whose diversity reflects that of the city. “It’s not going to be an overnight transformation … but you have to challenge yourself if you run an organization,” he says. Others, like Fulton, remark on the need to have a diverse community in order to have effective conversations. “Art is supposed to have the power to change. How are we going to change anything if we’re talking to the same people all the time?” To stay vital, organizers should be responsive both to their own fluctuating interests as well as the needs of their audience.

Building the scene you need can be a complicated recipe. Sometimes you have to speak up for yourself and fight for a personal vision. Other times, trying to connect with an audience is more about listening to others. But it’s worth the effort. Ultimately, everything we do in music is, in the words of Adashi, “about communion.”

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Elizabeth Nonemaker

Elizabeth Nonemaker is a composer and arts journalist. She co-launched the arts publication Ampersand, and has worked for Children’s Radio Foundation and KPCC’s “The Frame.” …more 

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