Iris Sidikman 2015 Festival Retrospective

There’s something incredibly rewarding and strange about being surrounded by like-minded people: people who share your interests and passions, people willing to take on passion projects with you, people willing to talk about your interests 24/7. It’s overwhelming, certainly, but invigorating. It’s a madhouse, but a fun madhouse. The nief-norf Summer Festival was that for me.

As a cellist with a deep interest in contemporary classical music, I often feel like a fish out of water. I am often surrounded by percussionists who share my musical interests but don’t understand and cannot relate to string playing, or by string players whose interest and willingness to participate in contemporary performance stops with Shostakovich. Personally, I’m quite fond of Shostakovich. But what of the last 60-odd years of composition?

The reaction of the general public is usually even more challenging. When I describe the types of music I play, people typically respond with unbridled horror. Before I can explain to them the problems with lumping Schoneberg and Grisey and Reich and Cage and Pärt together into one “unlistenable” category, they’ve dismissed me.

Quite honestly, I don’t blame them. Composers like Haydn and Mozart are accessible and easy to listen to. Not only can contemporary music be difficult to listen to, but it’s also presented with an ultra-academic intellectualism that makes it inaccessible and unapproachable for even college-level and professional musicians. The nief-norf Summer Festival is not like that.

Although research is one of the core offerings of the nief-norf organization (along with performance and composition), the intellectual atmosphere is characterized by open discussion, asking questions, and accepting that not everyone has the same tastes. Kerry O’Brien, the research director at Nief-Norf, exemplifies the unassuming and curious nature of the research component; she, like the other academics at the festival, is easily approachable, whether it is to talk in a formal setting about Reich’s use of electronics in his early works or just chatting about life over lunch.

As a performer at nnSF, the research seminar offered me a nice mental break from the daily routine of rehearsals and, well, more rehearsals. The days at Nief-Norf are structured in large blocks: a morning block or two of rehearsals, an afternoon block of rehearsals, an evening concert or event and a final evening block of rehearsals, if necessary. This structure, while intimidating at first, really helped to allot the correct amount of time to each piece and facilitated some truly incredible feats. Upon arrival at the festival, I realized that we had only two days to put together a 2+ hour long concert of Phillip Glass’s music. To do this with a huge collection of musicians who for the most part had never played together before required focus, commitment, and sense of humor. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and at nnSF the will is there. Every single person at the festival brought their own unique sensibilities, interests, and talents to the table, and those qualities, plus the commitment that a completely immersive two-week music festival requires, created a series of incredible concerts.

In the United States, music festivals are ubiquitous. As a performer, I can think of several off the top of my head that would offer a good experience to anyone who attended. What makes nnSF such a unique (and wonderful) experience is the relationship between performance and composition that the festival has. There are performers and composers in residence, and the composers write new pieces specifically to be premiered at the end of the festival. This offered the composers a chance to workshop their pieces with an ensemble tailored to them, and to make edits along the way under the eye of several different guest composers (and the head of the composition faculty, Christopher Adler). I found that as a performer, I got a really detailed look into what makes a composer tick- what do they take inspiration from? Why do they choose the instruments they do? Why and when do they choose to incorporate electronics or fixed media into their compositions? I truly believe that the future (and, frankly, the past) of music lies in performers who also compose, who push the boundaries of what it is to write music and to be a musician. That’s the kind of innovator I hope to be with my musical career one day, and nnSF gave me the confidence and experience to start writing and performing more of my own music.

I can’t write about nnSF without saying what an impact the other fellows at the festival left on me. The norfers (as we deemed ourselves) were some of the most supportive and thoughtful musicians I have ever encountered. I had many chats, with fellows and faculty alike about my life, my background, my future, my education, the future of music, and many more things that I usually wouldn’t discuss with someone I just met. With the Great Smoky Mountains and beautiful Knoxville as our backdrop, we enjoyed late nights, good food, emotional conversations and, of course, music. I was touched by nief-norfSF and the family it creates. Even now, months later, I feel the connection to the people I met there, reaching across the country and even the world. Almost wherever I go in the US, I now have a talented musician nearby who I got to know last summer. I have the wonderful feeling of my world expanding.

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