Author: ArmandoBayolo

Great Expectations: The Composer’s Progress

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Photo courtesy of Calsidyrose on Flickr.

I turned 40 last year.  This transition made me think a lot about career trajectories for composers.  It doesn’t feel like a particularly old age, especially in a career that often involves schooling well into adulthood.  So I began to think of what, exactly, the career expectations for composers are at various stages in our lives.

Composers are always being reminded of their age.  Early on, it’s all about opportunities.  Many (too many, perhaps) opportunities for composers focus on that golden developmental period of ages 18-ca. 35 known as “emerging career” (with the occasional variant for “young composers,” which can mean the same as the “emerging” demographic, or may refer to a younger age group, typically high school aged or earlier).  This is so common a distinction that its unfairness is something of a cause célèbre in our field.  Beyond age restrictions on opportunities, the emerging demographic—when narrowed to the group of composers finishing graduate school—is also primed for entry into the academic job market.  As we age, we transition into what is known as “mid career,” although it feels strange to suggest that we enter this at the tender age of 35.

When I began my schooling, I fully expected to spend around ten years in the academy, through the completion of a DMA or Ph.D. program.  Upon finishing my training, my plan was to find a relatively comfortable teaching position and settle down into the life of an academic composer.  This is a fine, noble career choice, and an attractive one given the relative security and the perquisites of research assistance by way of grants, fellowships, and sabbaticals.  Yet this has become an increasingly tough path to follow, and the door to academic job security remains closed to many.  I myself, regardless of my original expectations, never found my way onto the tenure-track academic path (at least, not yet).  Because of this, however, I’ve had to be resourceful and instead found a path that has often been fulfilling, sometimes rocky, and always surprising.

Beyond mid-career, there is the fabled world of the “elder states(wo)man” further down the road.  This may mean emeritus status at a university or having the kind of career that allows one to charge large fees simply for attending a rehearsal.  This stage also brings with it a level of recognition that comes with a responsibility to mentor younger and less famous composers but also the perks of portrait concerts, retrospective boxed sets, and the occasional festival celebrating your work during an important birthday.
For each of these stages, however, there are a number of composers who don’t conform to the model, and the truth is that there really is no typical career trajectory for a composer.  My expectations for my own career were typical of a certain, mid-to-late 20th-century attitude towards music composition and don’t seem to jibe as well with the expectations of young composers coming of age today (although I’m often surprised by how many still expect to re-enter the academy, as professors, upon exiting it as students).  With the myriad ways to network and disseminate our music available today, many young composers are developing important careers even while still working on their degrees, at times going as far as winning significant prizes once held for only a long-established elite.

The only way to navigate a career as a composer, I have found, is to be prepared for anything.  Developing strong contacts, nurturing the “mutual benefit balance,” and being a good musical citizen are all ways to guarantee, if not a long career as a composer—I’m not sure I can speak to that at the moment, frankly.  Ask me again in another 40 years…—at least the ability to weather the storms that any life transition may throw your way.  Flexibility, savvy, and a strong network are the only ways to truly guarantee a fulfilling life in the arts.

And, if you watch out for others in the process, they’ll watch out for you when you need it.

Art in the Age: Going for (more than) a Song

While it’s relatively easy to debunk the tired jeremiad about the death of classical music, we’ve admittedly had a rough go of it lately.  Yes, several orchestras have teetered at the edge of bankruptcy after years of bad labor/management relations and prolonged strikes and lockouts.  Yes, record sales are down.  Turnout for live classical performances is down as well.  Audiences, simply put, are not willing to pay as much, if anything, for music anymore.  This has rendered recordings as largely obsolete commodities and transformed them into little more than a necessary (and expensive) calling card for professional musicians and a souvenir for audiences of favorite live concerts.

We, therefore, have to view concert presentations as much more than just about music.  We need to make them into unique events in order to attract audiences to the concert hall and generate sales for recordings that will remind them of this unique experience.  The definition of an event will vary based on many factors, largely related to the resources available to performing organizations, presenters, and individuals.  Whether it is through the use of lighting or video projections, choreography, or unusual staging, presenters and performers no longer have the option of trusting the music—however innovative or unusual—to be the sole draw for their audience.  Ignoring factors as simple as the pacing of a concert or the way one addresses the audience on stage can destroy a performance.  I’ve attended concerts by some extraordinary virtuosos who, nevertheless, approached the audience with deer-in-headlights trepidation and appeared amateurish in the process, making for a less than enjoyable concert experience.

Claire Chase performing Philip Glass's Piece in the Shape of a Square

Claire Chase performing Philip Glass’s Piece in the Shape of a Square
Photo by Marc Perlish

By contrast, a recital by the MacArthur fellowship-winning flutist and founding artistic director of ICE, Claire Chase, which I (full disclosure) hosted on my series at the Atlas Performing Arts Center last fall, was a veritable master class in how to keep an audience riveted.  Once upon a time, a recital by a flute virtuoso would entail a program of works for flute accompanied by piano (perhaps one or two short pieces for solo flute thrown in there, for variety), performed by players wearing tuxedos or ball gowns on a fully lit stage.  There would be a great deal of formality and ceremony, with the performers entering from the wings to rapturous applause, bowing, tuning their instruments, and—finally—performing.  As one piece would end, another set of bows, perhaps an exit and a new entrance, the process repeated several times until intermission, after which it would be repeated again until the end of the evening.

Claire’s performance, instead, was a veritable recreation of her 2013 album Density. It began with a darkened stage and electronic music which served as an introduction to Claire, who, after the two minutes of sound sculpture finished, burst onto the stage performing Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint.  She moved seamlessly to and from different points, picking up various flutes strategically placed on the stage and only once—for Philip Glass’s Piece in the Shape of a Square—used printed music (which was, appropriately, arranged in the form of a square, thus becoming a conceptual part of the performance).  It was a simple and relatively inexpensive affair, requiring only a single performer on stage and an engineer working the combined sound and light board at the back of the house, but the results were exhilarating, a marked contrast to more traditional approaches in which talking to the audience is considered “edgy.”

It is a contradiction of these times that, while record sales and attendance at concerts appears to be down, the number of people pursuing careers as professional musicians seems to be rising.  What does this say about the apparent death of classical music? I’d wager that it means the rumors of our art form’s death are greatly exaggerated.  The truth remains, however, that it is increasingly difficult to forge a life in music in this day and age.  This is where a wider view of Adam Sliwinski’s “mutual benefit balance” which I proposed in my last article could come in handy.  A view of the network that extends beyond the 1:1 ratio of the composer-performer relationship, extending, through social and traditional media platforms as well as good, old-fashioned interpersonal relationships, to presenters, venues, social institutions, and fellow composers.  This, in my experience, is not only helpful in forging career longevity, it will extend our music’s societal impact as well.

At her commencement speech to the graduating class of Northwestern University last summer, Claire said, “(w)hether we like it or not, the calling of our generation is not to occupy positions created for us.  Our calling is to create positions for ourselves and others, to improvise and blow the ceiling off of anything resembling a limitation.  In a word, our calling is to be entrepreneurs.  Classical music isn’t dying–it’s just now being born.”[1]  She is right: we can no longer count on others to give us jobs in the arts.  We must create these opportunities for ourselves!  This spirit has certainly driven me and my work in Washington over the last ten years, and it drives a number of other younger musicians in a way that suggests not an art form that is moribund or sickly—and not necessarily one just being born, either—but a thriving, energized field where possibilities are limited only by a musician’s imagination.

1. Quoted in Jesse Rosen’s “Provocative Choices for Orchestras,” The Huffington Post, June 27, 2013, accessed January 24, 2014.

Citizenship

Human Pyramid

Photo courtesy of din bcn on Flickr

Collaboration is a buzz word that’s thrown around a lot these days, quite often referring to the relationship between composers and the performers for whom they write.  Adam Sliwinski began his series of posts for NewMusicBox in January by dealing with this very issue and exploring the mutually beneficial ways in which performers and composers can work together.  Most astutely, however, Sliwinski pointed out that, rather than discovering this on his own, he and his ensemble, So Percussion, are simply part of a trend that “has been sweeping across the new music world for quite a while.”  This trend is, to me, both as a composer and as an advocate, perhaps the most exciting development in contemporary music in the last fifteen years.
When I was in school long ago, the vision I inherited of a composer, while already changing, was still a somewhat romantic one in which we were expected to work in relative isolation, presenting our finished masterpieces to grateful performers who would then work very hard to present definitive performances of our work.

Well, okay, that’s not exactly true.  There was a lingering sense of this, and I still occasionally encounter this attitude among composers (and some performers) of a certain generation, but many of my teachers, particularly the younger ones, encouraged my peers and me to get out there and get to know instrumentalists, singers, and conductors.  Do you find that you’re having trouble writing a particular violin lick?  Go knock on a violinist’s practice room door and ask them to take a look and make suggestions!  Need to write a big piece for your dissertation and can’t decide whether you want to tackle the idealistic grand opera you’ve always wanted to write, or a violin concerto for your buddy who’s been hounding you for years to do it, has an orchestra lined up, and can program it as soon as it’s finished?  The opera can wait!  You decide to write the violin concerto—including some passages that are nearly impossible. Do you say, like Beethoven is said to have, “Do you think I care about your stinking fiddle?” or do you sit down with your friend and look for ways to make a passage more idiomatic?  I shouldn’t have to ask the question, yet there is a long-held and awfully pervasive attitude in some circles that the score is king, and I’ve been surprised at the number of performers who are nervous about asking for changes or offering solutions to awkward problems because they think I won’t welcome their feedback.  (Although I did have one performer recently who took this too far when, after I suggested that, of course, if some passages need to be reworked, I’d be happy to take a look at suggestions, s/he then went on to essentially rewrite the entire piece to the point that the premiere wasn’t so much a premiere performance as a premiere impression of what I’d written.  It was…odd.)

In any case, yes, this is the most obvious and immediate sense in which collaboration comes up in contemporary music, but I suggest that it’s not the only one.  Along with the attitudes I expressed in my initial, muckraking post—that a musical life is a political life—we must always remember that, as artists, we are all in this together.  In times of economic hardship, art is often first on the chopping block as a luxury item without which we can live and, conversely, is often the last such item to be added to growing budgets in times of plenty.  If we do not advocate not just for our own work but for the work of colleagues, partners, and peers, we continue to be the last line item to be added to budgets and the first to be cut.

Ultimately, what we do makes the world a better place.  While a performance does not literally put food in anyone’s mouth, the infrastructure that grows around performance venues often has an incredible impact upon a community.  I’ve never been much of a numbers person and, therefore, cannot speak to actual statistics, but in my own experience I’ve seen the transformation an arts scene can have on a community.

Three years ago, I was hired by the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington to develop and curate a new music series for them.   The Atlas is an old movie house which had burned down—though the facade remained—during the riots that swept the city in 1968.  A group of enterprising community members, led by the lawyer and philanthropist Jane Lang, bought the Atlas in the early 2000s with a plan to renovate it as a performing arts venue and anchor the renewal of the depressed H Street North East corridor in D.C. around it.  The transformation that has occurred in that neighborhood in the years since Atlas opened has been dramatic and tangible, financially and physically.  The city’s musical culture has dramatically changed as well, now that contemporary music has a wider presence in the area thanks to our efforts at Atlas.

To take the helm of a concert series—on top of an ensemble—is a great temptation for a composer.  It would be very easy to make the programming of my own work a prerequisite for a performance on my series, for instance, but this would be an obvious betrayal of my duty to my musical community. Managing a concert series and an ensemble is a rare privilege and an opportunity to make a lasting contribution to both my immediate community in Washington and the wider musical community of the United States.  Not only are we a part of a vibrant, growing scene in the District, but we are also able to provide work and exposure to some important established and emerging artists and composers.

I believe it’s an important challenge we all must undertake to advocate for one another.  The “mutual benefit balance” of which Adam Sliwinski wrote extends well beyond the immediate benefits of multiple performances and the nitty-gritty work of the composer-performer relationship.  We must see ourselves as collaborators within a much wider network of musicians and citizens, helping each other as best we can—be it through something as complex as presenting performances or something as simple as sharing each other’s work on social media—regardless of personal payoff.  The benefits will ultimately manifest themselves and reach far beyond the immediate gratification of a paycheck (although let’s not forget the importance of that paycheck, lest we get too idealistic and starve ourselves in the process) and into the realm of real, tangible cultural change.

Soul of the Nation

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The artist Boris Schatz once famously said that “art is the soul of a nation.” Working as a composer and presenter of new music in Washington, D.C., where our business is the nation, I tend to think of this phrase a lot.
It may be redundant to say so at this point, but it bears repeating that new “classical” [1] music isn’t exactly a highly visible part of American culture at large (not to mention a tough way to make a living). Given the air of crisis around American classical music in general (a crisis that I, personally, find exaggerated, but that is a topic for another discussion), it seems idealistic at best, foolish at worst, to insist as I do that new music can not only play a vital role in the life of the nation, but that its role is key to the survival of classical music in the American (and, indeed, in the world’s) consciousness.

A musical life is a political life. Undertaking a life in the arts in the USA—and particularly a life in contemporary classical music—is, I would venture, an inherently political act. Ours is not to be solely purveyors of entertainment (though that is, indeed, one of our roles) but to challenge, threaten, uplift, inspire, and provide an aural experience beyond the disposably commonplace. I am not suggesting that new music [2] will or should be able to achieve the same levels of cultural hegemony (nor that it is somehow better, simply because of what it is) that more commercial forms of music are able to achieve (should we even want it to?), but it can certainly reach newer levels of cultural saturation (as it seems to be doing in a number of areas). Thankfully, there no longer seems to be much need to “apologize” for what we do, justifying it as either necessary castor oil or as no longer the uninviting quasi-noise of generations past, at least in our major metropolitan areas. (I can’t speak for the situation in smaller cities and towns away from the major new music scenes in the country.) But there is still a need for those of us who love and make this music to be increasingly proactive apologists (not apologizers, mind you) for our art and to develop radical new ways of reaching an audience that too often still feels unreachable, even while the avenues for reaching them have multiplied.

I am writing this in January 2014, having just gone through the obligatory period of begging (I’m sorry: fundraising) that occurs at the end of every calendar year. This never fails to drum up criticism and concern from various corners of our culture, criticisms that have become increasingly pervasive, especially since 2008 (just ask Bill Maher!): that the arts are not charity. We are expected to survive in the marketplace of ideas and make our money the same way that Justin Bieber, Jay-Z, Taylor Swift, and Adele make their money. To a degree, these critics are right: charity should concern itself with feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and other, more immediately humanitarian endeavors. The fine arts should compete at the same level as popular music, Hollywood films, and mass-market teen fiction. The reality is, however, that in a society where education is valued only to the degree that it can provide quantifiable vocational skills that lead to some form of gainful employment, where citizens are unable to learn the value of knowledge for its own sake, where skills not immediately useful to industry are scorned, then not only the arts, but science and the humanities become disposable commodities to be ignored in the name of cold, hard profits. What, then, does such disposability say about the state of our nation’s soul?

Music and the other arts may not be able to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, irrigate deserts, or end oppression. They may not be particularly valuable other than as a background noise to revelry or as a source of advertising revenue. They may not even be able to keep their practitioners particularly well fed or housed, but they are as important to us–as a people, as a nation, as human beings–as the box office from the latest blockbuster film, the sale of natural gas, or the very air we breathe. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, art may not have particular survival value, but it gives particular value to survival.

I may be becoming something of a walking cliché, a kind of “radical chic” musician who, despite appearances of open mindedness, will come off as oddly dogmatic by saying this, but I find that I have less and less use lately for people who do not value the arts as a necessary, political, socially engaged activity. If we, as composers, as musicians, as artists, want to stay clothed, fed, and housed, we must engage–radically, vociferously, loudly, uncomfortably–with the culture at large by actively playing a role in the management of our arts organizations. In this way, we might be able to free them from the constraints imposed upon them by corporate powers through strings attached to philanthropic programs, or boards of directors eager to exert disproportionate managerial power based on monetary contributions. Rather, by actively participating in governance and developing close relationships with our boards and supporters, we will be able to impose democratic values on institutions that have–like our government increasingly seems to have done–forgotten what these are. A number of ensembles in contemporary music have notably led the charge for some time, becoming their own managers and administrators, merging the concert stage with the front office.

The musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble, eighth blackbird, Alarm Will Sound, and many others (including my own, Great Noise Ensemble) have, for some time, taken the reins of their organizations and controlled their own destiny with only a modicum of outside help. Following this model poses many challenges, chief among them striking the right balance between administrative and creative work, which itself can be complicated when you also have a day job. It is a very tricky, seemingly untenable situation that can be almost impossible to navigate until your organization is well funded enough to adequately support you and your work. If, as musicians, we see ourselves as members not only of a performing organization but as socially engaged members of a political organization, we can hopefully effect changes that will grant our art greater visibility among a wider public. We musicians cannot afford to expect our work to consist entirely of musical work. Being socially engaged begins, as it were, at home. This means taking over responsibilities that would have been the purview of an independent administrative staff in the past. When musicians take control of their business, the issues that can too often lead to fights between labor and management begin to disappear simply because labor is management.

It is telling that most of the organizations embracing this business model are in contemporary music. Much like avant-garde composers, these institutions are in the vanguard of arts management and more traditional organizations will have (and may be starting) to take notice. Until they do, they will continue to face the all-too-common lockouts, work stoppages, and endless, season-hobbling strikes. Meanwhile, those of us in the vanguard must remain strong. We must learn, like the musicians of eighth blackbird, to be our own administrators while honing our skills as performers. We must, like the soprano Megan Ihnen or Great Noise Ensemble’s own clarinetist, Katherine Kellert, develop formidable social media and publicity skills to enhance our musical work’s impact. And, like the amazing and inspiring Claire Chase and the International Contemporary Ensemble, engage in work that is greater than ourselves and our immediate social circles, developing projects to help other musicians achieve greatness. And we must see, as the founders of the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington saw, the potential for arts organizations to serve as anchors in the economic and social transformation of our neighborhoods, our cities, and our country. Granted, the organizations I’m citing as examples began as grass roots efforts and their members were able to institute these changes from the ground up. Things become far more challenging and difficult to implement within institutions that have been around for decades with their own, highly developed corporate cultures. Indeed, many of the crises we’ve witnessed in American orchestras of late may very well be growing pains in the transition to the new administrative model, in which musicians and management share more democratically in their organizations’ governance. Time will tell if this is the case, but I remain optimistic that we will weather this storm and come out stronger for it.

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1. Part of the problem is the very label “classical music,” a label with which we’ve been saddled for about a century and which just conjures musty, dusty age to me.

2. Labeling is a persistent problem. “New Music” isn’t very useful as a genre when it can refer to any music not previously heard, regardless of genre.

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Armando Bayolo

Armando Bayolo is artistic director of Great Noise Ensemble and curator of the New Music at the Atlas series, both in Washington, D.C., as well as a composer with an international reputation whose works have been performed in Europe, the Caribbean, and across the United States.

New York State of Mind

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New York. The Big Apple. Gotham. It is America’s eternal city and looms largest, it seems, among composers. At one time or another most of us who pursue careers as composers desire to live and/or work there. After all, as the man says, “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.” It holds so much promise for young musicians: a cultural life that is as rich as any major city could ask for, and for those of us who are into new concert music it provides a veritable smorgasbord of musical experiences unavailable practically anywhere else. This is perhaps New York’s greatest strength and appeal as a center of musical culture. It can seem like the center of the universe, like its composers are the ones getting all of the attention, all of the grants and all of the accolades. It helps to have The New York Times, perhaps the most widely read “local” newspaper in the country—as your hometown rag with a music criticism staff that is friendly to your community (at least, that’s David Smooke’s theory). It also helps to have significant funders headquartered in New York. But it can seem so unfair to those of us in the sticks!

I am a working composer. Hardly a household name, certainly, but I’ve achieved enough success that my day job currently supplements my income as a composer. I cannot predict how long this state of affairs will remain, but, for now, I take it as a badge of honor and a source of great pride.

And yet, I have never worked or lived in New York. In fact, I could not have accomplished the things I have accomplished had I been living in New York. For example, in 2005, I placed an ad on Craigslist seeking musicians interested in performing new music. (I listed some composers—Ligeti, Adams, Andriessen, etc.—whose work I liked to give an impression of the type of music I meant. Hey, you never know on Craigslist!) Out of this, Great Noise Ensemble was born. We have had a seemingly meteoric rise to prominence in the region since our first, humble concert in January 2006 by performing a type of repertoire that few groups in town are able to program—mostly post-minimalist/totalist works for large ensemble, although my programming tastes run a wide gamut and I try to program as wide a variety of styles in a season as possible. We have also found a group dynamic built around mutual respect and love for each other as well as the repertoire we undertake. We were able to find strong support from The Catholic University of America, which in 2008 invited us to be their ensemble in residence (a position that has granted us, among many things, free rehearsal space, program printing, and concert venues). All of this has made running a large group, with a core membership of sixteen primarily volunteer musicians on an almost non-existent budget, possible.

Great Noise’s first concert (which was written about, in fact, on NewMusicBox, so you can read how humble it really was) was a very low-key, small affair in January 2006, where we performed repertoire that a few of our members already knew or had written ourselves and had a definite “student recital” vibe. But when we begin our sixth season in the fall, we will be presenting the D.C. premiere of Louis Andriessen’s De Materie, the first-ever performance of the work by a professional American ensemble, at the National Gallery of Art, with support from the Dutch Consulate, the National Gallery, and the Peabody Conservatory, and with Andriessen himself in attendance. The difference in scale between these two concerts is representative, I think, of the strides made by Great Noise Ensemble in just five years. Not only has the ensemble’s reputation increased in five years, but its rise in prominence has helped my own, individual career as a composer. When I placed that ad on Craigslist in 2005, I was maybe getting two performances a year and had just one commission (and one that ended up paying very little at that, though it proved significant in my development). This past year, I completed several commissions for ensembles around the world and I am hard at work on other commissions at the moment, to say nothing of the older pieces which are starting to find themselves in circulation among orchestras and ensembles. Granted, I’m not a household name, but I find myself successfully making a living as a composer, which is nothing to sneeze at.

This would have been practically IMPOSSIBLE to accomplish in New York. Sure, I might have still placed the Craigslist ad and gotten some response. Great Noise Ensemble might have even managed to put on a few concerts, maybe even survive for a couple of seasons; but we would never have drawn the attention that we have drawn in D.C., where groups like ours are fewer than they are in New York. It’s harder to say what my career as a composer would be like had I moved to the city after graduate school, but I am inclined to think that I would not be working on the kinds of pieces nor receiving the kinds of performances in the kinds of venues that I do.

But, as I was vividly reminded during my last visit to The City, if you accomplish these things anywhere besides New York, you might as well not have bothered.

I was in New York last April to hear one of the concerts in Louis Andriessen’s Carnegie Hall residency and to meet with Andriessen himself in preparation for Great Noise Ensemble’s upcoming performance of De Materie. Louis lived up to his reputation as a warm, generous, and welcoming figure and he and his assistant (and the musicians around him) made me feel not just welcome but respected—so much so, in fact, that Louis invited me to attend the sound check and dress rehearsal for La Commedia after lunch! After all this, on the way to Carnegie Hall that night, I ran into David Lang, who stopped to greet me and to say how many great things he’d heard about me and my ensemble. Talk about an ego boost! The guy won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 and is one of the founders of Bang on a Can, and he is talking to me about my ensemble? I felt like a big shot, all right.

After the performance that night I was invited to go backstage, where I got to mingle with prominent, established composers, as well as a number of the rising stars in New York’s new music scene. The older composers were welcoming and warm—Julia Wolfe was particularly gracious and friendly, even after I’d failed to recognize her while conversing with her in the elevator. But to the younger composers—some of whom I actually went to school with!—I barely registered. I’ve yet to have a piece performed in The City, nor have I been plucked from obscurity by the music director of a major American or European orchestra, so why should they have heard of me? Did I forget to mention that I went to school with some of these people and know them personally? Even those I did not know personally I have had plenty of contact with through Facebook and other social media. I’m not complaining because I was unknown professionally (okay, maybe a little), but personally. At best I got a few words of greeting before I was ignored in favor of someone more important and helpful to a career. At worst, I got a nod. And all with the kind of indifferent coldness that Dick Cheney reserves for his worst enemies.

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After feeling like a big shot all that day, I suddenly felt like a really small fish in that crowd. Perhaps it was the fragile composer’s ego, but I was hurt. Just hours earlier the most famous composer in The Netherlands treated me to lunch and a Pulitzer Prize winner stopped me in the street outside the hall to talk about what I was up to and how well my group was doing. And here, backstage at Carnegie Hall, I was a nobody. How come?

“Sometimes composers—especially those based in New York City—are simply ignorant,” says the composer, percussionist, and conductor, Rob Paterson. “They often have no idea what exists outside NYC and do not pay attention to outside ensembles, or even ensembles within NYC, especially if they have not heard of them. This is disappointing—and their loss, I might add—since numerous fantastic groups exist elsewhere.”

This attitude is not even exclusive to composers! Even the venerable critic, Alex Ross, succumbs to this attitude: in his brilliant 2007 book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, George Crumb receives only a couple of passing mentions in his otherwise wide-ranging survey of trends in 20th-century concert music. While there are many reasons for this to be the case, I have to wonder if the fact that Mr. Crumb never held an active, long-term residence in New York had something to do with it.

One clarinetist friend active in the Kansas City new music scene recently told me that, when it comes to working with musicians from New York, “There is sometimes an expectation that I won’t be up to snuff technically. There is also sometimes an expectation that I will be unworldly; I don’t want to go so far as to say uneducated, but there is a tinge of that.” (She does grant, however, that this “is a misconception that is easily cleared up in rehearsal.”) One violinist friend (whose quartet is based in Indiana but has played Carnegie Hall) simply refers to this phenomenon as “The New York Problem.” He defines this “problem” as the attitude in musicians that “if you do not live (or work) in New York you don’t exist.” (Both of these musicians, by the way, have world class careers.) “New York City can sometimes seem like a gated community,” continues Rob Paterson. “Everyone here knows—or at least knows about—what everyone else is up to, and the new music scene sometimes seems more like a small town rather than a large city.”

To those of us working outside the city, New York can seem more like a walled city than a gated community. The provincial attitude towards non-New York composers and institutions can actually be traumatic to those composers and institutions. One of my hopes for Great Noise Ensemble (along with Opera Alterna, the Cantate Chamber Singers, Verge, and other Washington organizations that specialize in or pay more than just token lip service to new music) is that it will play an active role in turning Washington, D.C. into a new music town. This is the nation’s capital, after all; its new music scene should rival or maybe even surpass New York’s.

This is a dream that Nigel Boon, the artistic director of the National Symphony Orchestra and a fierce and passionate advocate for new music, originally shared when he first moved to D.C. from London. But after nearly three years, he no longer believes that it’s likely to happen. According to him, “There is simply not enough going on in the Washington music scene to keep new music as actively in people’s minds as it is in New York, where new music concerts are a nightly occurrence in multiple venues around the city.” After seven years he finds that “it’s impossible; D.C. really is provincial.” He is not wrong on this point, to be certain. Washington does not have the same number or kinds of opportunities to hear new music available that New York does, but this does not mean that we should not try to create the kinds of opportunities that a “new music town” needs.

The truth is that there is provincialism everywhere. New music is a niche field within a niche field and each community can seem extremely closed off at times. This does not mean, however, that we should let New Yorkers have all the fun. There are thriving new music scenes around the country. In this scene I not only include composers and performers who devote themselves exclusively to new music but also various orchestras and ensembles that, while not dedicated solely to new music, program it with great regularity. Being a “niche within a niche” we all need to work together in solidarity, promoting each other’s work whether we work in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Baltimore, Kansas City, Portland, Ann Arbor, Cleveland, or Paducah, for that matter. New York can seem like a sort of El Dorado for musicians. It is certainly a special place. Thanks to the internet, however, musicians are able to cast a much wider net with far greater ease than ever before, and New York is becoming just one market in our global new music community. There really is no excuse any longer for provincialism.

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Armando Bayolo

 

Armando Bayolo is a composer and conductor working in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, MD. He is the founder and Artistic Director of Great Noise Ensemble. He lives in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington with his wife and children.