(Launched by the Experience Music Project in Seattle in 2002, the EMP Pop Conference is designed to convene academics, critics, artists, and fans in a collective discussion. This year's EMP Pop Conference took place April 17-21 in Seattle, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New York.)
By Tammy La Gorce
Judging by the heartiness of their applause during presentations, the caliber of their end-of-discussion questions and their eagerness to connect at a pair of after-parties, New Yorkers were moved by Seattle's EMP Pop Conference in the Big Apple, which was held April 18–19 at New York University. And given the depth of inquiry and the amount of musical ground covered, they had reason to be.
Though you're bound to see movement any time you pack a room with people who have dedicated their lives in one way or another to music — authors, academics and a songwriter were among the N.Y. attendees — the kind of transport most of us experienced at EMP New York was of the intellectual variety.
Several panels offered lively local history lessons. During Thursday afternoon's "When Scenes Collide: Conflict And Crossover In New York City Music," speakers Will Hermes, a senior writer for Rolling Stone, and author/professor Bernard Gendron dissected New York's '70s music scene. Hermes focused on downtown New York between 1973 and 1977, evoking images of Afrika Bambaataa, Johnny Rotten, Blondie, and Fab Five Freddy. He finished with the early '80s, "when scenes started getting more porous but didn't bleed together so much."
Gendron trained his eye on experimental jazz at the legendary downtown haunt the Kitchen, which was incubating a kind of jazz he called "pure." That pureness eventually gave way to a collision with New York's loft jazz scene and the punk that was storming out of the equally legendary CBGB's.
Late Thursday was also steeped in history. Producer/writer Joe Boyd delivered a keynote speech titled "The Enduring Music Of Nick Drake," in which he addressed the timeless singer/songwriter whose career he helped shape. Boyd used documentary clips and music samples to illustrate the classic appeal of Drake's music.
During Friday's mid-morning panel titled "Off The Grid: Sustainable Sonic Life In The Shadow Of Catastrophe," Gayle Ward, a professor at George Washington University, discussed "music as an effective mode of transport to other places." Ward was specifically speaking about American multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk's ability to move people with his early '70s jazz on a little-known, long-gone TV show titled "Soul!" The panel also featured an eye-opening dose of contemporary music movements. After playing a sample by Cuban singer La Lupe, professor Alex Vazquez discussed musical migration, optimistically noting that styles such as baccata and cumbia will all have their day. The goal of the panel was to examine the repertoire that emerges from, responds to, and revitalizes and/or re-imagines the landscape of cities ravaged by natural as well as manmade disasters. With Hurricane Sandy still in recent memory, New York fit the bill.
A swerve in the form of a reading by iconic journalist Robert Christgau took us back to the '50s, '60s and '70s, the years that shaped the dean of American rock critics. Christgau read from his forthcoming memoir Going Into The City, which he described as "about me and my sensibility and how I developed."
Closing the conference was Amanda Palmer, who in 2012 broke a record in raising more than $1 million via Kickstarter for a music project. Palmer guided attendees through an electrifying look at the evolving role technology and politics are playing in the arts. "I'm a musician who doesn't really make music anymore," she said. "I just do stuff on the Internet."
I think I speak for all New York conference attendees when I say I'm glad not everything happens exclusively on the Internet anymore. We need more reasons to come together in real time and in person. EMP at NYU was spirited and thought-provoking enough to provide plenty.
(Tammy La Gorce is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in The New York Times.)