The 2023 New Music Festival represents an escape from the mainstream

The annual New Music Festival brings together Dartmouth undergraduate and graduate musicians as well as guest performers, embodying a commitment to collaboration and improvisation.

by Rachel Roncka | 4/14/23 2:10am

by Hosaena Tilhun / The Dartmouth

From Thursday, April 6 to Saturday, April 8, members of the Dartmouth and Hanover communities gathered across campus to enjoy innovative performances from the New Music Festival. The festival originated in the 1970s as an opportunity for faculty and students — particularly those in the graduate music program — to showcase their talents to a wider audience. The 2023 festival is the first to occur while the Hopkins Center for the Arts is under renovation.

Led by a different faculty member each year, the festival is a collaboration of efforts from students and educators of the music department, The Hop staff and visiting talent. This year, the African and African American studies department, the Leslie Center for the Humanities and the women’s, gender and sexuality studies program had a prominent influence over the festival. The themes of the performances reflected the impact these departments and programs had on the festival and explored pressing social issues through the medium of experimental music. 

Production was spearheaded by artistic director Taylor Bynum and technical director Bethany Younge, as well as production assistants Raegan Padula ’24 and Eli Hecht ’23. As a professor in the music department, Bynum was already familiar with his students’ projects for the New Music Festival. Several students participated in more than one of the six separate performances that comprised the festival, and many more contributed behind the scenes. Bynum jokingly attributed his selection of guest performers to “crass nepotism,” as they were all artists whom he had crossed paths and collaborated with in the music world. 

“They’re all people who I knew would bring something important to the festival both in terms of the art and in terms of their person,” Bynum said. “Everyone in the graduate program [was] all performing in each other’s work. We’re all always supporting each other through rehearsal and production and chipping in.”

In organizing the festival itinerary, Bynum incorporated plenty of opportunities for the guest performers to provide mentorship to the rising artists in Dartmouth’s graduate program. Workshops and lunches facilitated a collaborative sharing of musical knowledge beyond the stage.

On Thursday evening, the festival opened with guest performer and local musician Toby Summerfield’s jazz composition “Never Enough Hope,” performed by the Dartmouth Coast Jazz Orchestra and conducted by Summerfield himself. Although most performances spotlighted the creations of graduate students, the Coast Orchestra is composed almost entirely of undergraduates. Despite the size of the ensemble — about 25 instrumentalists in all — a key element of the performance was a spontaneity rooted in improvisation.

“There really was this sense of the value of improvisation,” bass player and undergraduate production assistant Eli Hecht ’24 said. “Every person on stage is giving creative input to the music every second. There’s this spirit of very democratic music making, that art is coming from the collective.” 

Rather than conforming to a composer’s specific intent for their music’s interpretation, festival performers sought to incorporate this greater sense of resourceful creativity. In ElectroOrganic, guest performers Nicole Mitchell and Lisa E. Harris wove an impromptu arrangement of vocals, electronics and instrumentals into one unified audio-visual experience. Not long before the show, the two artists — who typically draw inspiration from the Afrofuturist writings of author Octavia E. Butler — pivoted from their original plan to the improvised ElectroOrganic. As a viewer of the show, Hecht reflected on the “embodied” nature of the performance, describing it as “diving into their sonic world.”

Eli Berman GR’23 achieved a similar free-flowing agency with co-performers Richel Cuyler and Charles Peoples III GR’24. In addition to performing in the projects of classmates Armond Dorsey ’20 GR’23 and Olivia Shortt GR’23, Berman presented her own work “Golematriarchy” to bookend the festival. Berman merged fixed beats with more loosely arranged vocals — ranging from rhythmic, guttural noises to melodious verses from Hebrew prayer. Berman describes her vocal technique as integral to her experimentation as a musical artist. 

“All the improvisations we were doing in between each of the dance tracks were all exploring this kind of circular breathing-singing,” Berman said. “I sing on the exhale and the inhale with all these different kinds of textural noisy distortion sounds.”

“Golematriarchy” took place in the Roth Center, a location befitting the performance’s major themes related to Berman’s ongoing discovery of her Jewish heritage. The musical performance was preceded by a traditional Havdalah ceremony, which marks the end of the Shabbat and the beginning of a new week. Each member of the audience — regardless of religious affiliation — was invited to take part in the ceremony. The space of the Roth Center also provided room for the audience to take to the floor and dance throughout the performance — something more difficult to facilitate in a conventional performance hall.

The Hop’s ongoing renovations forced the dissemination of the music scene across campus. Hecht and Bynam highlighted that the Hop closure provides an opportunity to recognize the acoustic potential of other locations on campus, allowing them to “create some site-specific performances.” Both Bynum and Hecht praised the concerts that have been occurring regularly in the East Reading Room of Baker-Berry Library, which provide yet another chance for students to share their talents. In seeking new venues for the festival, Bynum drew upon his prior experience coordinating grassroots music festivals which lacked the institutional support of a college. 

“We really kind of did a quick setup, quick breakdown — and that ends up being something that one does a lot in experimental music,” Bynum said. “It’s rarely supported on main stages. The music that survives, that is the most influential, the most groundbreaking, is often the music that pushes up through the margins. This music became a really beautiful manifestation of that.”

Seating was more limited without the Hop, and nearly all festival events were sold-out. However, the expansion of Dartmouth’s music scene with venues across campus enabled performers to reach wider audiences. This wider reach defines the New Music Festival’s ethos: a commitment to resilience and adaptiveness as expressed through music.