3 Contemporary Summer-Music Programs That Bring Innovation & New Life to the Fore

By Anna Pulley

When it comes to classical music, summer programs and workshops abound for musicians seeking to perform, compose, and play music by those who lived hundreds of years ago. It’s rarer to find instruction, performance, and playing opportunities for those interested in a more contemporary focus, but the following camps are just a few of the ones ensuring that the spirit of modern music, as well as the composers themselves, remain, like the music itself, a living, breathing art.

SCIPP1 Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP)
Boston, Massachusetts

Originally started in the late 1990s as an intensive performance seminar for pianists, since 2009 the New England Conservatory’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP) expanded to include all instrumentalists (plus conductors, electronic musicians, and vocalists, too). An eight-day, 13-concert experience, SICPP (humorously pronounced “sick pup” by participants, who call themselves “sick puppies”) focuses on 20th- and 21st-century works, with master classes, lessons, colloquia, rehearsals, and nightly concerts given by SICPP faculty, guest artists, and ensemble-in-residence, the Callithumpian Consort. The program is held in conjuction with the SICPP New Works Program, which gives advanced composers the chance to work with each other, the composer-in-residence, and SICPP musicians, who perform their work.

“The experience of working on living music, especially with the composer present, is unlike any other experience in classical music,” says artistic director Stephen Drury, who founded the summer institute. “It turns music into a living art form and changes all your thinking.”

Helping to usher in that change in 2018 is the composer-in-residence Julian Anderson, who’ll come from London, and whose past tenures have included head of composition at the Royal College of Music and Fanny Mason Professor of Music at Harvard University. SICPP also has two guest performers this year, Drury explains, “violinist Mark Menzies, who is a spectacular virtuoso and performs worldwide, and the groundbreaking percussionist Allen Otte, who has created a rich legacy in the percussion world.” Both special guest performers will teach and coach ensembles as well as perform solo. SICPP’s crowning event is known as the Iditarod, a marathon concert performed by residents that this year will feature works by Anderson, the New Works Program composers, and others.

Though intense and demanding, the sense of community and passion make the experience one-of-a-kind. “Being able to meet so many people who share an equal if not more exuberant love for contemporary music was invaluable,” a past SICPP fellow put it. “The intensity of the week helped me rise to a new level.”


19400647_10100312556621350_1901677881634294088_oNew Music on the Point
Lake Dunmore, Vermont

New Music on the Point (NMOP) is a two-week contemporary music festival held on the idyllic shores of Vermont started in 2011. Cofounder Jenny Beck, inspired by the contemporary music concerts at the Yale School of Music in New Haven, became convinced that new music should be heard and celebrated. Beck then recruited composer Kathryn Alexander, professor at Yale University, to cofound a two-week summer festival devoted to contemporary music written by young composers. Beck says she wanted to make sure that all chamber music, new and old, had a place in her camp.

In the words of artistic director Amy Williams, NMOP is about “experiencing the newest music—music that is being created as we speak.” The festival was created for “nurturing young musicians who are passionate about this and want to devote their careers to writing music and performing works by living composers,” says Williams.

Participants who work within “all contemporary musical aesthetics” are encouraged to apply, and range from string players, chamber ensembles with two to six players, and string quartets to saxophonists, pianists, wind players, classical guitarists, and others.

In keeping with the contemporary spirit, topics this year at NMOP include innovative themes such as graphic music, sonic meditation, and performance art, as well as vocal chamber music and piano four-hands. NMOP also boasts two Pulitzer Prize winners in residence as its Master Artist composers—Du Yun and Caroline Shaw—and MacArthur Award winner George Lewis as a faculty composer.

Participants can expect a full schedule of instruction, rehearsals, seminars, workshops, and nightly concerts, with built-in time for composing, practicing, rehearsing, and spontaneous musical and recreational experiences. This year marks the first time NMOP will have two ensembles-in-residence: the JACK Quartet and Roomful of Teeth.


“Every year we expand our concerts in the communities of rural Central Vermont with the goal of building new audiences for contemporary music,” says Williams. “This year, we will have three community concerts and a choral workshop with Roomful of Teeth, in addition to nightly concerts on our lakeside campus and the final concerts of 30 world premieres by the most talented and exciting young composers around.”

BOAC-Alexandra_Matloff_in_Sol_LewittBang on a Can Summer Music Festival at MASS MoCA
North Adams, Massachusetts

In the early days of Bang on a Can, which started as a single marathon concert in 1987, the founders/artistic directors (composers Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe) wanted to “create a summer program to support and inspire the next generation of musicians,” festival manager Philippa Thompson explains. They envisioned a place where composers and performers could work on projects and where “entrepreneurship played a role equal to that of the artistry,” says Thompson. That vision was realized in 2002 when the BOAC Music Festival was born, with the help of a partnership with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Now in its 16th season, the program continues to make good on its mission of “making music new” and “building a world in which powerful new musical ideas flow freely across all genres and borders.”

A three-week experience devoted to “adventurous” contemporary music, the residency invites 40 performers and composers to create and showcase works, along with daily performances in the museum galleries, a six-hour marathon concert, African and Latin music workshops, electronics and music-business seminars, and more. This year’s special guest is renowned American composer Steve Reich, who helped usher in a new era of minimal music, along with Philip Glass and Terry Riley.


“I have never had an experience like this before,” a past participant says. “The idea of building the kind of musical world one wants to live in seems to be something that is really possible here—it’s a place of community and possibility that is utterly transformative.”

Thompson remembers a story from a few summers ago that highlights this transformational mindset. Festival composer Chris Marianetti met a local visual artist and dancer, and together they created a piece involving an empty lot by the train tracks and a circle of eight cars at night. The festival composers then wrote short pieces for the performers to play and record, amplified on the car stereos, and rendered visual by local dancers moving to the music in the light of the car headlights. “This all came together in the space of a week,” Thompson says. “It was really astonishing, and shows the kind of inspiration that can blossom when you gather really creative people together with no distractions from their daily lives.”

DSCN4391-(2)Intersection, by Left Coast Chamber Ensemble
Berkeley, California

Though not in the summer, (rehearsals start January 5 and the weekend intensive is February 10–11 this year), we’d be remiss not to mention Intersection, an innovative chamber-music workshop from the folks at Left Coast Chamber Ensemble. Intersection is for adult amateur musicians who want to be “part of the creation of new works while gaining new insights into the traditional classical repertoire.”

The monthlong program aims to make new works more accessible, as well as introduce living composers to musicians and familiarize participants with contemporary masterpieces. Preformed groups are encouraged to apply, but if you’re flying solo, individuals are assigned a chamber ensemble to rehearse and perform with. Groups are assigned both a traditional classical work and a new work by Bay Area composers John Bilotta, Durwynne Hsieh, John Ivers, and winners of the 2018 Intersection Composition contest. Left Coast players and composers coach and rehearse with each group in January, and the program culminates in a final, intensive weekend workshop with all participants, composers, and LCCE coaches, and a Sunday concert.