Music Festival Gives Fresh Meaning to “New” Music

The Charlotte New Music Festival (CNMF), founded by Elizabeth Kowalski in 2011, is a two-week-long festival dedicated to showcasing Contemporary Classical music. Oftentimes, we place Classical music in a box that is exclusively formal and regal in nature. While CNMF employs minor elements of that, it also takes that box and ravenously pummels it to the ground with a bass clarinet in one hand and a Macbook Pro in the other.

As someone who briefly studied 20th-century Classical pieces for their overpriced Music degree, I had very basic knowledge of Contemporary Classical music. I knew that much of it was atonal, meaning there is no tonal center to make notes sound good together, and the goal of many pieces is to evoke an emotional response or text-paint a story or event with their pieces. Much of the music is not meant to sound pretty. So if you go expecting to hear melodies reminiscent of Canon in D or Moonlight Sonata, trust me, you will be pleasantly or—sometimes with intention—unpleasantly surprised.

I met Elizabeth a little less than a year ago, and when she told me about the festival, I ignorantly didn’t take it seriously because I had never heard of it before. However, you could only imagine the appalled look on my face when I arrived at the first CNMF event, a music networking party located in Elizabeth’s backyard, and someone told me that they had flown all the way from Vienna to be there! All the way from Austria to sit in someone’s backyard and ask me about my recent musical endeavors?! Whew, I was taken aback, to say the least! Over the course of two hours, it eventually dawned on me that I drove fifteen minutes to sit in my friend’s backyard to meet people from places all over the nation and the world: Louisiana, Puerto Rico, and Canada, just to name a few. I was so dumbfounded that I’m pretty sure my jaw never touched the top row of teeth for the rest of the night.

As far as the actual performances that took place over the following days, I was extremely impressed by the amount of talent that came out during the performances. One composer, in particular, had a marvelous impact on me. Armando Bayolo, a composer and conductor from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, almost took my breath away. I had the absolute pleasure of experiencing his piece titled, “Till Human Voices Wake Us,” which was showcased by the Beo String Quartet at Plaza Midwood Tattoo.

This work, layered through three movements, “I’ve Got Scars that Can’t be Seen,” “I have a Black Look I do not Like,” and “To Speak of Horrors-He Comes to Me,” specifically left an impression on me because of my ever-growing love of horror movies. My mother (ironically a pastor’s wife) and I used to sit and watch them all day long during my summers as a college student. So needless to say, when that third movement began, I had clear visions of my mother and I jumping during some of the scare scenes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre or sitting through the omnipresent suspense of The Babadook.

When asked to describe the motivation behind this piece of work, Armando said, “I had a very abstract plan for the piece, which was just a series of chords that cover the whole piece. When I translated those into melodies and ‘real’ music, what came out was truly melancholy music that helped me work through some of my feelings. As the piece progressed, I decided that it needed to be about depression and mental health. In a way, the piece was telling me what it needed to be about.”

I think that the city of Charlotte has outdone itself once again. Charlotte New Music Festival is something that everyone should expose themselves to at least once. It serves as a great beacon of exposure to music that is different, invigorating, and always evolving. Thanks to Elizabeth Kowalski and the many participants of CNMF for sharing their gifts and talents with the Queen City once again!