There, in the dark brick-walled auditorium, a studious group huddled in the first four rows of velvet-backed chairs, distinguished by shirtsleeves, beards, wire rims, a few balding pates. Sticky hot air, just ruffled by a breeze, settled over the group.

But there was more than grades at stake in the Music Recital Hall of Catholic University Monday afternoon as a group of relatively young contemporary composers talked with some bitterness, some frustration about why their music is so rarely performed: They're just not dead yet.

"One gets the feeling that you have to have died 200 years ago to be a composer," Mark Carrington observed drily at a composers' caucus Monday, the first full day of the three-day American Town Meeting on the Arts being held at Catholic University. Carrington is a 26-year-old research assistant in the Oral History American Music Program at Yale University.

The topic was how the contemporary American composer could get more of his or her work performed -- and paid for -- in a country where major symphony orchestras, led primarily by foreign-born conductors, mostly play works written by 18th-, 19th- and (maybe) some early 20th-century composers.

"A music culture that is alive is one in which composers get their music played," offered Nicolas Roussakis, president of the American Composers Alliance. "You think of 18th-century Vienna as an active culture. Haydn was living there. Mozart was there."

"In 1790, Bach -- who died in 1750 -- was considered old-fashioned, obsolete," added Charles Wuorinen, the 43-year-old composer of "Time's Encomium," an electronic work that won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1970. "Now, that may have been too much in the other direction, but today we've gone entirely too much toward death worship."

The Town Meeting was an attempt to talk about arts in America and what they mean to the general public at a time when the arts are facing substantial federal funding cutbacks. For example, some of the caucuses Monday afternoon included: "The Arts in Community-Based Organizations," "The Role of the Church Musician as Artist in Residence," "The Arts of Hispanic Americans," "American Indians in the Arts."

There are 40 sponsors and participants in the Town Meeting, which was initiated by the Religious Communities for the Arts. They include arts service organizations as well as large non-arts-related national organizations like the Girl Scouts and the National Council of Churches of Christ.

According to James Buell, executive director for the Religious Communities for the Arts, the overall questions are: What should be our national arts policy and who should determine it? "There may never be an answer to the first question," Buell says in the Town Meeting brochure. "But some of us believe there is an answer to the second question: As many Americans as possible . . . professional artist and amateur appreciator, art historian and business agent, clergy and clarinetist, piano teacher and museum director . . . in other words you and I and all who wish to join us, we are the who."

Among the 12 composers who caucused Monday, the questions were more specific. Said one of them: "We have one simple objective: to write the music we want to write."

"You want to feel welcome in the community you're in," said Annette LeSeige, 34, a composer who teaches music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "You want to see the audience smile when they see you come in, not say 'Oh, my God.' "

But what if no one wants to hear it? Contemporary music -- symphonic or otherwise -- sounds different, is different, to ears raised on a casual trip to a Mozart concert each year. How do you get people to want to hear new music for symphonies? The composers had some ideas.

"We once had David Amram a successful contemporary American composer in a mid-state New York county, and he outdrew the Bee Gees," said Francis Richards, a composer involved in Meet the Composers, a program that exposes communities like Cayuga County, N.Y., to composers for a couple of days. "The presence of the composer in the community did it. He went to the public school. He rehearsed the high school band. He went to the church choir. It was a major thing to have a real live artist in their midst."

Said Wuorinen, "I'm not at all interested in background music, but, as a composer, I would be perfectly willing to compose something to be listened to at a function where people are doing something else -- much like an 18th-century serenade."