Longest running music festival at Sac State continued virtually this year

Over 90 musicians from across the U.S. participated

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Chanelle Muerong

The closing performance of the 43rd Annual Festival of New American Music took place on Nov. 8 and featured jazz vocalist Gaw Vang Williams with Sacramento State’s Downbeat Award-winning vocal jazz ensembles.

Chanelle Muerong

Not even COVID-19 stopped the Sacramento State Festival of New American Music from running this year. The event ran virtually from Nov. 1 to Nov. 8 and showcased over 90 musicians and composers from around the Sacramento area and across the U.S.

FeNAM has been running annually since 1978 and is in its 43rd year. 

“We considered canceling for about 30 minutes,” said Timothy Stanley, Sac State music professor and a co-director of the festival along with Sac State music professor Scott Perkins. “Most of the people were already used to moving online. We were already used to scheduling things over Zoom, so we just had to make sure there was no overlap with the events.”

The festival is usually planned a year in advance, according to Perkins. Because the festival is always free, the directors work with fundraising and donations to make it happen and discuss potential themes for the festival.

“This year, 90% of the festival are female composers and voices,” Perkins said. “It’s been long overdue. We wanted to kick off a change by highlighting accomplishments of female artists and composers to balance it out. I feel like they are really underrepresented.”

The festival consisted of different masterclasses, artist forums and performances from professional musicians and students alike. All concerts and some events have been streamed on the Sacramento State School of Music’s Facebook page.

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Owen Polkinghorn, a Sac State School of Music student who participated in the festival, said the best part of the festival for him the most was the composer forum with Paula Matthusen, a Rome Prize-winning composer of acoustic and electro-acoustic music.

“The moment that stuck out the most was when she was talking about a music installation,” Polkinghorn said. “She was able to hook up speakers into a gazebo, which made a super interesting rattling sound.” 

Matthusen also put a pool speaker into a large urn with water in it to produce quiet tones.

Polkinghorn was just one of the students competing in the Student Performers Competition, in which students compete for potential prizes in front of a panel of judges. 

For this particular competition, students had to perform music from an American composer, or one who primarily resides in the U.S., written in 1980 or later. The top three performances received cash prizes of varying amounts.

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“I was in awe when I was listening to the other performers because they were all so good,” Polkinghorn said. “Everyone was excited for the other performers and it took pressure off my shoulders that I could record my performance rather than playing it live.”

The main difference in the festival this year was that the participants recorded themselves rather than performing in-person, and there was no preliminary elimination round to narrow down participants. 

Grant Johnson, the winner of this year’s Student Performers Competition, said he was grateful that his Sac State music professor, Chris Froh, recommended he send something in. 

Johnson submitted a recording of “Stop Speaking,” written in 2011 by Andy Akiho for solo snare drum with digital playback accompaniment. 

The accompaniment itself is unique in that it’s all just text-to-speech generated by a Microsoft Word document, and the piece is really a conversation between the snare drum and that text-to-speech playback, according to Johnson.

“Playing along to an audio track made for a really unique experience as I was learning the piece, and it was overall a super fun process getting comfortable with it and exploring as much nuance as I could,” Johnson said.

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Sac State music major Joey Murray won the Student Composer Competition, in which students wrote for the New York City-based chamber ensemble Loadbang, a featured group throughout the festival that has premiered over 300 works including those by Pulitzer Prize winners, with his composition “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

“Of course, it is nice to be recognized and it is a great addition to my composer resume,” Murray said. “But the real win for all the composers who submitted works is the opportunity to write for such a renowned ensemble and have those works be performed and recorded.”