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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

105. Festival Preview – Mel Mobley Discusses New Music on the Bayou

Black Bayou Lake Refuge

Our Fourth Annual Sugarmill Music Festival is quickly approaching. Tomorrow through Sunday join us at the Rosalie Sugarmill just south of Alexandria to hear exquisite chamber music throughout the weekend! One of the special features of this year’s festival is a preview concert Saturday at 11:30 presented by the organizers of another great, local festival—New Music on the Bayou—which will be held June 6-8 in Ruston and Monroe. I had the chance to speak with festival co-director Mel Mobley recently who introduces us to the festival and tells us what to expect from this year’s edition. In past years, I have had the opportunity to attend the concerts and participate as a composer in New Music on the Bayou. It’s a great experience, totally different from our own, so make sure not to miss this exciting festival or our preview concert at the Sugarmill this Saturday!

Give us an overview of New Music on the Bayou. How did the festival come into existence, whose idea was it, and who have been its driving forces? Greg Lyons and I were discussing the lack of contemporary music performance in the north Louisiana area. We realized that given our expertise in that area, we were best positioned to affect a change in that. We began with the idea of a small regional contemporary chamber festival, but once we advertised for composers and asked for performers, it quickly ballooned into a much bigger enterprise. The first festival had 40+ composers, 30+ performers, and 7 concerts over four days. We have refined the process a little over the years but it has remained essentially the same. We advertise for composers to submit compositions online. A team headed by Greg and myself evaluate their suitability and invite a number of the composers to come and have their piece played in our area. They must attend the festival in person to have their music performed. We contract musicians primarily from our area, but we have expanded that to include faculty members from other Louisiana universities on instruments of need including NSU, LSU, and Southern University. We schedule concerts in venues unique to our area such as the Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the Biedenharn Museum and Gardens, and the Ruston Artisans Gallery. The excitement the festival has created with performers, composers, and even a segment of the public has pushed us to continue and try to improve the festival each year. The true driving force is the music and the performers and composers of that music.

What is the purpose of NMB? Why is it so special that an event like this happens annually in northeast Louisiana? NMB’s mission is producing professional performances of works by contemporary composers; giving modern music a voice; inspiring communities with fresh ideas about the performing arts. But more than that, it is about connecting our communities with what is happening in the world—making our stories relevant to the composers from the outside, just as the festival performances make their stories relevant to us. The interaction between participants—composers, performers, community—is the focal point of the festival. It is our belief that through this type of interaction, people can become more understanding of different peoples and different viewpoints. The festival is special not just because it is unique to our area but unique to this part of the country. The high quality of the music and the unusual presentation draw both composers and audience members back each year.

How does NMB differ from the Sugarmill Music Festival? Our audience knows how music festivals work, but what makes a NEW MUSIC festival different from what we do here? The music is unknown to the audience. Often the musical language is completely new to them. They might be challenged to think about music and sound in a new way. It is extremely exciting to be around people who are engaging artistically with the current state of humanity and challenging our perspectives of how we see the world. Our hope is that our festival doesn’t stop at the concert. The composers are at the festival to discuss their pieces and their ideas with the community. There is a real give-and-take between creator and audience.

Black Bayou Lake is one of the featured venues of NMB and also its namesake.

How many submissions do you receive annually? Where do they come from, and how many do you typically accept for performance? Is there a lot of musical/creative diversity among the compositions accepted? Generally we receive between 150 and 200 submissions each year from 75-100 composers. We invite around 40 composers to come based on quality, suitability for our performers, and diversity of style. Words can’t really do justice in trying to describe the diversity of the music. Some pieces use traditional melodic/harmonic formats. Some pieces have no melodies but rely on textures and ambient soundscapes to connect with the audience. Some pieces literally defy description. That is one reason we wanted to showcase some pieces at the Sugarmill Music Festival this year. It gives us a chance to demonstrate a small part of what we do.

Composers are encouraged to stay throughout the festival, in fact, they are obligated to attend the performance of their own work or else it’s not performed. How does having a group of composers here for three days build community? From the very first festival, we learned that the idea of community was a major factor in the composer’s experience. Because they are together in a new city and transported around to various venues throughout, their learning experience is communal. While experiencing a new place, they are learning from each other’s music and from the interaction with the performers. We have made connections that don’t stop at the festival. There are composers who are in regular contact with faculty performers during the year. Some of the composers form bonds that look like they will continue throughout their careers.

Often new music festivals will bring-in one big-name guest composer to mentor the others. This is not the case at NMB. How does this make this festival special, and how does this aspect also contribute to the sense of community? I think it makes a clear statement that all voices are equal at the festival. It is not about being taught or guided, it is about experiential learning. A sense of community evolves throughout the festival and not just between the composers. The performers, myself included, become very close with these visitors and are greatly affected by their music and their persona even after they are gone. Visiting composers have also expressed to me their surprise and delight at the engagement of the community and are changed as a result. This seems to justify our organizational concept.

What kind of participation do you see from residents of northeast Louisiana? I know many of the performers are from the area, but what about audience and also corporate sponsors? How do you build this local engagement? We work hard to engage with an audience. Entertainment options are so plentiful and easy to find on the internet, it is difficult to motivate individuals to come to any concert. The whole point of our festival, however, is this connectivity. We partner with a lot of great organizations including the Northeast Louisiana Arts Council, the Monroe Symphony League, Ecoutez Press, Friends of Black Bayou, and both the University of Louisiana at Monroe and Louisiana Tech University. These partnerships create a word-of-mouth advertising campaign as does partnering with landmark venues in the area. Our goal is to continue to slowly build this base of individual supporters. Evidence of this is growing as we have increased our individual sponsorships substantially through the years.

Can you give a brief overview of the compositions accepted for this year’s NMB? The 2019 NMB repertoire includes pieces for winds, percussion, piano, soprano, and cello. There are many more small pieces this year focusing on duos and trios. As always there is a huge variety of styles. We have a gorgeous piano/vocal work by returning composer Douglas Hedwig as well as a lyrical work for solo clarinet by newcomer, Daniel Eickenberg. Returning composer Daniel Fawcett will awe audiences as always with a solo cello piece that requires the cellist to create non-traditional sounds, use choreographed movements, and work with live electronic manipulation of sound. We are excited as always that there will be choreography at the final concert and that there are multiple pieces that use technology. One of the most exciting elements of this year’s festival is the premiere of a commissioned piece at the Black Bayou refuge.

Musicians play in the outdoors environs of Black Bayou Lake Refuge.

What can we expect from this morning’s preview concert? The preview concert will be a lecture concert that features a few things from past festivals and shows excerpts from pieces at this year’s festival. The solo vibraphone work, blessed B by Erik Lund, was performed at last year’s NMB and was greeted with enthusiasm from both musicians and non-musicians. It is a virtuosic tour-de-force that uses the idea of dichotomy from the beatitudes in the Bible as a departure point for a musical technique. We also hope to demonstrate some of Kyle Lewis’s Strangling all that I Love which uses aleatoric techniques. We will preview a movement from Unordered Suite for solo percussion by Steven Landis, who is the 2018 winner of the Black Bayou Composition Award and Commission. We will preview part of a piece for trumpet and vibraphone called Glint by Nathan Froebe of Florida, and we will play part of Louisiana composer Kari Besharse’s The Inhibitors. This piece utilizes the plucking of the piano strings and the up-and-down of the pedal as a sound source. We will also have copies of some of our more interesting scores for the audience to look at before and after the concert. We also hope to feature cellist extraordinaire Paul Christopher, a Sugarmill and NMB regular.

What is your vision for NMB moving forward? How can this become an even bigger and better festival in the future? Our goal is and will always be reaching more of the community, making more connections. We also hope to increase our reach and attract audiences from farther away. The festival is not just unique for the area. There are very few like it in the country, and we think it can be a destination festival with continued efforts to increase the quality and the opportunities for engagement.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about NMB? One of the more exciting elements of our festival is the composition award. Outside adjudicators select the piece that they feel best reflects the connection between music and the natural world. Last year we added the idea of a commission to the monetary prize. This year we will hear that first commission. Cypress Knee Fulcrum by Steven Landis will be presented at the Black Bayou Wildlife Refuge at 10 AM on Saturday, June 8. Mr. Landis used a map of the area to designate where the performers will be positioned including some in canoes. The audience will walk through the trails of the refuge to experience his music in a very intimate way. It will fade into the sounds of nature as the piece ends. It is a fitting piece for our first commission and we are excited to bring it to the community.

Learn more about New Music on the Bayou at:

JSH 19.05.16

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer graduated with his Master of Music in Music History and Literature from the University of Louisville in May 2019 upon the completion of his thesis, “Liminal Aesthetics: Perspectives on Harmony and Timbre in the Music of Olivier Messiaen, Tristan Murail, and Kaija Saariaho.” He has shared this pioneering research through presentations given at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meetings in Asheville, NC and Sewanee, TN and at the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN. During his studies in Louisville, he was the recipient of the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship and was employed at the Dwight Anderson Memorial Music Library where he did archival work for the unique Grawemeyer Collection which houses scores, recordings, and documentation for over five thousand entries by the world’s leading contemporary composers. Previously, Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, LA. Then, from 2014 to 2016, Jackson served as director of the successful chamber music series, Abendmusik Alexandria. He has remained a concert annotator and organizer, co-directing the annual Sugarmill Music Festival. The scholarly writings he has produced for this festival have even attracted the attention of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Aside from his studies, he is a composer, choral singer, and award-winning nature photographer. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at


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