Author: Joseph Dalton

On Record – An Overview of the State of Contemporary Music Recording (Part 3): The Digital Domain

[Ed. Note: This article is the third and final installment in a three-part series exploring the state of contemporary music recordings. Part one is a survey of U.S.-based labels who still regularly release CD recordings featuring new American music; part two examines the current economic realities of the business.]

Is the CD format dead? Not at all, according to the label managers contacted for this story. It’s not even on life support, they said. Still, nobody is ignoring the increasingly important realm of digital downloads.

Contrary to some perceptions, new technologies don’t frighten record companies, at least not the little ones. Certainly the internet has become a lifeline for the business of selling CDs of contemporary music. Websites allow customers to search out obscure composers and browse deep catalog in a way never before possible, even when big record stores were still around. And email has tremendously eased communication with foreign distributors.

Without exception each label manager contacted for this story has some or all of his or her catalog available for download, often at a number of different sites. The plethora of online venues out there—iTunes, eMusic, and Amazon are just the beginning—has led to a new middleman in the business. Digital distributors sign record labels and provide their recordings to websites, where they can be sold for download, in the same way that old-fashioned retail distributors are the go-between for labels to reach retailers. Probably the leading digital distributor is IODA, the Independent Online Distribution Alliance, which provides tracks to several dozen sites, including Classical.com, Rhapsody, Zune, and Verizon Wireless, to name but a few.

If the final days of the CD are not eagerly anticipated by label managers, it’s still a topic for contemplation and ongoing discussion.

Earlier this year, James Ginsberg of Cedille was asked to speak on a panel about the future of recorded media at a Chicago conference of the Music Library Association. There was nothing particularly bold or newsworthy when Ginsberg said to the group, “In the next decade, the CD will become to downloading what the LP became to the CD in the 1980s.” But he hastened to add, “Our production practices won’t change at all. We’ll continue to produce recordings of the highest quality of which we are capable.”

Such statements may be self-evident at this point, but a lot of details remain unsettled. Ginsberg’s colleagues express a wide variety of insights and concerns about the current importance of downloading and what needs to happen before it becomes the dominant or exclusive vehicle for sales and distribution of contemporary music.

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The website for Mode Records is as graphically compelling as their CD covers, but the site’s merchandise remains physical CDs.

Brian Brandt at Mode says that downloads have grown but “are not quite making up the slack in CD sales” brought about from the disappearance of stores. Al Margolis, who manages Pogus, XI, Deep Listening and Mutable Music, agrees and says, “Early on digital was extra money, but now (those funds) are needed.”

Margolis says he has artists who swear by downloads but also insist upon having a physical CD of their music. While expressing a bit of nostalgia himself, Margolis looks forward to how downloading will alleviate the difficulty of maintaining inventories of slow-selling product and also solve the regularly occurring dilemma of whether or not to repress older titles when stock gets depleted. “What do you do with titles that are 10, 11, 12, or 15 years old and finally selling out? Do you let them go out of print or make another 1,000 pieces?”

“Two things still have to happen” for digital downloads to become the norm, says Susan Bush of Albany. The first, she says, is greater acceptance of the technology. “There are people who don’t know how or don’t want to know how to use a computer. But that’s almost always a function of age and will decrease over time. The other thing is that downloads must improve in sound quality and speed. That will make the shift to digital complete. But we’ll probably still do some CDs, just one at a time.”

Becky Starobin at Bridge also notes the continued need for hard product and expresses concern about sound degradation.

“CDs are still very important, not only because of the actual physical sales which are holding steady, but also because it’s useful for composers and performers to have physical product available at concerts,” she says. “And it’s important for people to hear, especially in particularly complex music, a format that gives the full palette of sound. It works against the music to hear it in the diminished quality that you get by lower resolution and listening with ear buds.”

It’s the loss of liner notes and photos that concerns Charles Amirkhanian of Other Minds. “We need to find a way to have booklets and other printed materials downloadable and easily printed. It’s no fun to sit around and download and print these materials (the way it is now). It’s cheaper and easier to buy them as a kit. I think that’s an age thing and an intellectual thing,” he says. “Everything on my label is available on digital download and the income from that goes up each year, but it’s still not substantial. There may not be many brick-and-mortar stores, but people are still buying CDs all over the world.”

When or if CDs disappear, there will still be a need for record labels, according to Paul Tai of New World. “Anybody can set up a shop on the web and hock their stuff,” he says. “But there’s hundreds or thousands doing that already, so how do you make yourself heard? Labels provide the platform. We still have a certain authority and people will pay attention if you’re on New World or Bridge or Mode or Albany.”

*

Perhaps the largest platform for recordings of American music is the Naxos American Classics line. But it’s a relatively minor subset within the 22-year-old company founded by German-born Klaus Heymann, who lives in Hong Kong. A multi-million dollar behemoth, Naxos is nevertheless known as a “budget” label, since its sales price is $8.99 for CDs (or $5.99 for album-length downloads at iTunes).

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The Naxos Music Library makes available to subscribers more than 492,600 tracks of music culled from over 34,610 CDs, with 500 new CDs added every month.

Composer Sean Hickey is the national sales and business development manager for Naxos’s U.S. operations. Working out of his home in Brooklyn, he supervises a sophisticated online marketing apparatus for new releases and is part of an international committee that decides what’s to be released on the American Classics imprint. Begun 12 years ago, the series features about 300 titles, including big orchestral recordings of Adams, Glass, and Corigliano, as well as Harris, Ives, and Thomson. But there are also discs of chamber and solo music by Paul Moravec, Roberto Sierra, and Leon Kirchner, plus band music of Sousa, piano works of MacDowell, and on and on.

“We look for things that will sell and things that will augment the catalog in a meaningful way,” says Hickey of the American Classics line. “We also want relationships with ensembles or composers or artists who are able to help spread the message of the release. We develop a ton of marketing materials, none more so than with the American Classics.” These include the weekly Naxos podcast, which Hickey says is the most popular classical music podcast, plus “interactive e-cards,” basically emails about new titles with links to streaming videos, sound samples, and the like.

Besides having a variety of in-house series, like American Classics, Naxos is a distributor in both retail and digital realms, and it maintains the Naxos Music Library. The latter provides subscribers with access to more than 450,000 tracks of music from more than 30,000 CDs, the majority on Naxos but also from other independent labels as well. (The tracks are available for streaming, which in contrast to downloading prevents the user from saving the recording on a hard drive or burning it to a CD.)

According to Hickey, The Naxos Music Library has a subscriber base of more than 1,200 institutions, most of them colleges and universities. Students from these schools are allowed full access to the library—bringing the total individual users to around 100,000. Frequently professors provide playlists as part of the curriculum for music courses. Such penetration to young listeners has meant that Naxos’s reputation as an online provider has largely overtaken its once dominant presence in stores.

“I’ve been in this business 16 or 17 years now and came to know Naxos through record stores and those seas of white covers,” says Hickey. “But now people in their 20s don’t have that reference. At this year’s American Library Association convention, the Naxos Music Library manager had a display of compact discs and three different people come up and said, ‘I didn’t know you did CDs.'”

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DRAM, a subscription service available only to institutions, offers tracks from 2,300 albums from 15 independent labels.

A corollary to the Naxos library that began with an exclusively American music focus is DRAM. (Originally an acronym for Database of Recorded American Music, its purview of material has expanded beyond the United States since its founding in 2001, and so the name is simply DRAM.) It is administered by New World Records and subscriptions are available to institutions only, whereas the Naxos library also makes subscriptions available to individuals.

Comprised of 2,300 albums, DRAM includes the full catalogs of New World, CRI, and a dozen or so other independent labels. In April, DRAM added to its holdings for the first time a complete archive of one composer’s music—that of electronic music composer Jon Appleton, through an agreement with Dartmouth College.

As the DRAM website states, the idea of a streaming library of digital recordings allows institutions “to free up storage space, reduce collection costs and labor, ensure against damage or loss and increase accessibility to materials.” These are benefits that surely will appeal to an increasing number of consumers over time.

Net labels—record labels with no records, so to speak—actually already exist in profusion in the realm of ambient/electronic music. It’s a natural place for such a movement to start, since electronic music doesn’t require costly recording sessions with pesky live musicians. The composer is the performer, and the composition and the master are the same.

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Disquiet is an online portal for electronic music disseminated via mp3s.

Marc Weidenbaum, a San Francisco writer and editor is an avid follower of this cyber scene, which he chronicles on his blog Disquiet.com. “Net labels are an amazing expression of enthusiasm for making content and sharing what you do,” he says.

According to Weidenbaum, some net labels do charge for downloads but streaming music for free is the norm. “With mp3 files you have to put them on a device, but now I can stream things on my iPhone or on the Android Phone, so the difference has become moot,” says Weidenbaum. “A lot of record labels have essentially become radio stations because you go to their websites and they’re streaming audio of their hits. They think of it as marketing, but at some point they may realize it’s providing an experience.”

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The “cover art” for the album Drone Level Orange by improvising ensemble Glissando Bin Laden, which has been released only as mp3 downloads made available to listeners with or without a donation on Carrier Records.

Weidenbaum’s thinking goes even further, but his vision of completely free access to music may provide little solace to composers or label managers. “Truly outward bound artistic expression is usually not financially rewarding,” he says. “People learn that the music they love does not lead to fortune. Once you take money off the table, it becomes a more open opportunity.”

“I interviewed John Zorn when he left Nonesuch, about 17 years ago,” continues Weidenbaum, “and he said there’s a difference between loving music and loving records.”

That’s a distinction that all of us will soon be confronting.

***

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Joseph Dalton
Photo by Timothy Cahill

Joseph Dalton has been covering the arts scene in New York’s Capital Region since 2002, primarily writing for the Albany Times Union. Many of these essays have been collected in the book Artists & Activists: Making Culture in New York’s Capital Region, published in 2008. Dalton is the former executive director of Composers Recordings, Inc. (CRI), where he produced about 300 recordings of contemporary music. He was also director of a research project on the effects of AIDS on American music which was published in an online report by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS.

On Record – An Overview of the State of Contemporary Music Recording (Part 2): Not-Profit Even If Not By Design

[Ed. Note: This article is the second in a three-part series exploring the state of contemporary music recordings which concludes with an exploration of online distribution and dissemination. Part One focuses on labels which still issue physical CDs]

Given that thousands of new CD titles are produced every year across the span of musical genres, it’s not hard to surmise that most discs don’t earn back enough funds to recoup the costs of recording and manufacturing. In other words, it can’t be just classical and contemporary music projects that have modest sales.

It’s a given: money has to come from somewhere before discs get released. It’s just that the need for dough is more on the surface in all realms of the always-struggling little realm of contemporary American music.

At New Amsterdam Records, the ambitious young proprietors may be forging new ground by releasing discs of music that blends popular and classical styles in fresh ways. But during our interview when they addressed finances—making statements like “We don’t want to create a situation where the success of one project supports another one” and “We contribute a minimal amount of funding and are very wary of functioning like a bank” and “We’re not assuming the costs”—they gave the impression of viewing themselves as boldly operating counter to industry standards. Compared to popular music labels that may well be the case.

Yet scraping together the money to produce each new title and more often than not looking to the artists to help with that process—whether from family wealth, university research grants, or credit card debt—is standard operating procedure at almost every independent contemporary music label. On one level, at least, New Amsterdam does acknowledge this, since the company is in the process of becoming a nonprofit organization, which will allow it to receive grants and contributions.

Where the Discs Are

The following labels maintain an active release schedule which includes CD recordings of contemporary American music:

Albany Records
Arabesque Recordings
ArpaViva
Arsis Audio
Azica Records
BMOP Sound
Brassland Records
Bridge Records
Cambria Music
Cantaloupe
Cedille Records
Centaur Records
Cold Blue Music
Crystal Records
Crytogramophone
Deep Listening
Delos Music
Ears & Eyes Records
Einstein Records
EMF Media
ERM Media
Furious Artisans
GM Recordings
Image Recordings
Innova
Koch International Classics
Koss Classics
Lovely Music, Ltd.
Mode Records
MSR
Musica Omnia
Mutable Music
Navona Records
Naxos
Neuma Records
New Albion Records
New Amsterdam Records
New Focus Recordings
New World Records
Newport Classics
North South Records
OgreOgress Productions
Orange Mountain
Other Minds
Peacock Recordings
Phoenix
Pierian
Pogus Productions
Present Sounds
Quiet Design
Skirl Records
Starkland
Summit Records
3Sixteen Records
Table of the Elements
Tzadik
XI Records

“Aren’t we all non-profit?” jokes Susan Napodano DelGiorno of Koch International Classics, which is based on Long Island. Actually her operation is among the labels with a long-term commitment to new music that’s not non-profit, at least strictly speaking. A boutique within the larger media corporation of E1 Entertainment, which purchased Koch Records last year, the classical imprint is in the process of being rechristened E1 Classics.

According to DelGiorno, the label put out 31 new titles in 2007, 21 titles in 2008, and will release 23 projects this year. Roughly half the releases are contemporary music, of one sort or another. Practically speaking, DelGiorno is a sole proprietor. She decides on projects, produces the sessions, edits the masters, and supervises the packaging, even while working with the company’s larger marketing and distribution wings. Recent releases include flute music of Jennifer Higdon and orchestral music of George Tsontakis with the Albany Symphony Orchestra. In the works, among other things, is a disc with the young classical/jazz improvisation trio known as Time for Three.

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A recent Koch International Classics release featuring music from Barber to DBR

DelGiorno hesitated to give a direct answer to the question of whether or not her operation was expected to be self-supporting. She did say, “Other divisions bolster what I do, but I still have the responsibility to make wise decisions, and we approach each project with the idea of making a small profit. We’d like to think of making a million dollars, but we all know that doesn’t happen.”

Fifty miles north of New York City in the small town of Chester, Al Margolis is a one-man record conglomerate. (Yes, that’s a grand distinction, but we’re talking about avant-garde music here.)

Margolis is the label manager for four little independents: Pogus, which he established in 1988; XI Records, founded by composer Phill Niblock in 1990; Deep Listening, launched by composer Pauline Oliveros in 1995; and Mutable Music, started by baritone Thomas Buckner in 2000 (who also ran 1750 Arch during the LP era). Each label is curated by its founder, but once masters are completed Margolis supervises the production process, and also manages the websites and does the shipping. He also distributes product of at least two other labels, the defunct O.O. Discs and the inactive Nonsequitur, curated by Steve Peters.

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Pogus’s 3-CD re-issue of recordings originally published in Source magazine was years in the making.

Asked why there are so darned many labels in the field, Margolis explains, “Every label is a reflection of who’s running it. It’s not egotistical, but it’s their own little space to say, ‘This is what I do.'”

A veteran of the business, Margolis had an eight-year tenure at New World Records, where he rose from shipping clerk to production manager to director of artists and repertoire before leaving in 2001. Though today he has to juggle myriad tasks, he doesn’t miss the two-hour commute to Manhattan and now has time to devote to his own work as a sound artist.

Despite his rather rural location, Margolis is hardly isolated from the trends and economics of the industry. “It’s gotten tougher and tougher, but we’re hanging in there. This section of the business isn’t ready to give up yet,” he says.

Perhaps it’s his time out of the city, but Margolis has a laid-back approach to sales. “I’ve found I make more money the less I try to sell recordings, going crazy with advertisements and lots of promotions. Those don’t sell records anymore. You can have the best review and it doesn’t move ’em at all. It’s an organic thing that continues at its own pace. For the records that are going to sell, you don’t have to do a damn thing.”

As for the pace of new titles, it depends upon the success of in-house fundraising and initiatives from artists. “We manage to get some grants occasionally. Some money comes from the artists,” says Margolis matter-of-factly.

Another relatively recent transplant to the Hudson Valley is Foster Reed, founder of New Albion Records. Established in 1984 in San Francisco, New Albion often projected a kind of West Coast mystique with early releases of Lou Harrison, John Adams, and Somei Satoh. But also along the way were discs of East Coast denizens like Morton Feldman, Pauline Oliveros, and even Virgil Thomson. A native of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Reed says that he never intended to stay in the Bay Area for the 30 years that he did and about five years ago he finally picked up and moved his family to rural Duchess County.

Last summer New Albion made something of a splash in its new environs by producing a festival of ten concerts as part of the Summerscape series at Bard College. The line-up was a veritable retrospective of important repertoire on the label and included performances by pianists Sarah Cahill and Margaret Leng-Tan, soprano Joan LaBarbara and the Able-Steinberg-Winant Trio, as well as an installation/performance by Ellen Fullman and her “long stringed instruments” in the lobby of the Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. An early celebration of the label’s 25th anniversary, the events may have also been a kind of farewell because last summer, New Albion released what may be its final disc (piano music of Leo Ornstein played by Cahill).

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No new New Albion titles have been issued since Sarah Cahill’s premiere recordings of later Leo Ornstein works was released last year.

“Right now the label doesn’t seem to have the necessity for being that it used to,” says Reed. “Other labels are covering the same kind of territory I was involved in and doing a very credible job. When I started New Albion there was little peer activity. So I’m just not making new records. That used to be a huge activity and so involving, but we are doing occasional productions and actively licensing.” These ancillary activities include a Terry Riley weekend planned for October at Bard and some Hollywood soundtrack deals that are in the early stages of talks. Reed also says he’s “still learning the ropes of the new world,” referring to the vast online universe.

“If music is to be heard and the point of a record label is to help more people hear it, then things have never been more successful. Because of the streaming libraries, there are phenomenal amounts of people listening today. But the business dynamic is worse than ever,” continues Reed. New Albion was started with some family money and Reed emphasizes that in the best of times it barely supported itself. Still, he’s not about to close up shop. Concludes Reed, “The doors are still open and if things change, I wouldn’t be averse to making new recordings. We sell records to whomever wants to buy them still and the licensing is pretty good. And if one of the big publishers wanted to buy us for a million dollars I’d sell it.”

*

Whether or not a label has non-profit documentation is not in itself a barrier to receiving outside support for projects. Artists can channel personal funds to a label and consider it a business expense, or a label can, in effect, co-produce a project with an ensemble, which can raise grant funding and contributions.

A few foundations have come around to understanding the importance of recordings to the field of contemporary music. Starting in the late 1980s, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust ran a program specifically for recordings of New York-based ensembles, with most of the funds going toward contemporary music endeavors. Some years back, the Cary’s recording program and a concurrent commissioning program were rolled into one umbrella program for contemporary music projects. According to tax filings, in 2008 the Cary Trusts gave $1.6 million to 60 music organizations based in New York City. Sadly the Cary Trust, after some 40 years of operation, shut down on June 30, 2009. The fund has liquidated its portfolio of investment holdings and made final awards—larger than normal sums to long-term grantees—which have been posted on Cary’s website. [Ed. note: One of these grants endows a recording component of the American Music Center’s Composer Assistance Program (CAP), but it will take a year or two for the endowment to yield sufficient investment proceeds to launch; further details have yet to be announced.]

Over the past five years the Argosy Foundation of Milwaukee has become a major supporter of contemporary music activities nationwide. The fund was established in 1997 by John Abele, an entrepreneur who co-founded Boston Scientific, a manufacturer of medical devices like heart stents and catheters. In 2008 Forbes Magazine named Abele one of the 400 richest Americans. His son, Alexander Abele, is a 40-year-old composer based in Burlington, Vermont. As he is one of only five Argosy trustees (all are members of the Argosy family), it seems reasonable to conclude that Alex Abele was responsible for the launch of the foundation’s grant making for commissions and training, performances, and recordings of new American music.

Argosy’s annual reports do not break down the total giving by area of support (there are seven broad programmatic areas, including education, health, and the environment, in addition to the arts) and while lists of grantees are provided, award amounts are not. But the aggregate is still impressive. In 2006, Argosy made 263 grants totaling about $24.5 million and of these 69 grants were for contemporary music projects. In 2007, the total giving declined slightly to $20.2 million while the total number of grants rose to 346, with 158 grants to orchestras and chamber ensembles, festivals, and record labels.

The contemporary music program operates with semi-annual deadlines and the restriction that recipient organizations are limited to grants every other year. It is the only area where the foundation accepts unsolicited applications; awards can range from $1,000 to $25,000. A foundation officer said that approximately 42 percent of all grants made toward contemporary music to date have included recordings as at least an aspect of the supported project.

The past year’s decline in the stock market seems to have hit the Argosy Foundation particularly hard, and Boston Scientific has also had some struggles with lawsuits and expensive acquisitions of other companies. As a result, the spring 2009 grant cycle for contemporary music programs was canceled and, according to the foundation’s website, the status of the fall program is uncertain but will be announced by late summer. A program officer declined to elaborate further.

Given the permanent departure of the Cary Trust and the at-least temporary absence of the Argosy Foundation, there’s concern in the field regarding the status of the Aaron Copland Fund for Music—the mothership of contemporary music grant makers. Established in 1992 by the estate of the late composer, the Copland Fund supports American music through three separate granting programs: one each for performing organizations, recording projects, and service organizations. Annual giving has been in the range of $2 million. Support for recordings in recent years has been relatively steady, with $500,000 going to 51 projects in 2006; $321,750 to 40 projects in 2007; and $419,800 to 39 projects in 2008. And it is not just nonprofits that can apply to the Copland Fund’s recording program. Just last year Nonesuch Records, part of the Warner Music Group, received two of the largest grants ($20,000 each) for recordings of Steve Reich and John Adams.

According to Foundation president John Harbison, the 2009 recording awards will be be announced soon and the total of grants will continue in the range of recent years. Harbison was reticent, however, to make predictions about the future giving potential of the Fund, saying that the amount dedicated to each program is determined annually by the trustees.

But the vagaries of Wall Street probably aren’t having the same dire effect on the Copland Fund’s ability to make grants in the near future as they have at other foundations. This is because Aaron Copland’s will left the majority of his copyrights to the foundation. According to tax returns for 2006 and 2007, roughly $2 million in royalties was received each year—a sum roughly equal to the amount of grants made. Contrast this to how most foundations operate, which is by divvying up grants from the earnings on investments. Nevertheless, the Copland Fund does also have investments, which were valued at about $20 million at the end of 2007.

Thus, when label managers put on their fundraiser hats, they can take heart that the Copland Fund should be continuing apace with its support for recordings. Harbison, by the way, added, “the reason that the average amounts of grants may have gone down somewhat is because the number of applications have increased. We’re always quite administratively pressed to respond to the volume of requests.” While he was probably speaking of all the Fund’s programs, this still underscores the point that there remains in the field a strong desire to produce recordings.

The kind of endowments held by cultural behemoths like the Metropolitan Opera and some major orchestras are unheard of among record labels as well as within the entire realm of contemporary music, for that matter. But three well-established labels, each in a different region of the country, have reliable internal or closely aligned sources of support that serve as hedges against changes in the economic environment and shifting trends in the marketplace.

In 2002, the American Composers Forum received a $1 million gift from the McKnight Foundation as a permanent endowment for innova Recordings. According to innova’s Philip Blackburn, every recording project still needs outside support, but the associated costs for administration are covered by income from the endowment.

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Margaret Lancaster’s collection of maverick flute music is hot off the presses from New World Records.

Founded in 1976, New World Records had for many years as its chairman of the board Francis Goelet, a real estate heir and treasured friend to American composers. Goelet died in 1998, but the label still places Goelet’s name at the top of its list of trustees and the funding credits for nearly every New World disc include the Francis W. Goelet Lead Charitable Trust. According to New World’s Paul Tai, support from the Goelet Fund is the final cap that makes many new releases possible.

Finally, there’s Cedille Recordings, founded in Chicago 20 years ago by James Ginsberg, who at the time was a 24-year-old law student. Within a few years, the organization became a non-profit under the name Chicago Classical Recording Foundation with the mission of “promoting the finest musicians, ensembles, and composers in the Chicago area” through high-quality recordings. “It seemed like all the labels were based in New York or the West Coast, and so the artists out here were being ignored.” Last year Cedille produced seven new discs and ten are slated for 2009. Ginsberg estimates that about half of the label’s catalog of nearly 120 discs are of contemporary music.

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Cedille Records’ just released collection of David Diamond chamber music.

Cedille’s Chicago focus is broadly interpreted. For example, there are solo and ensemble performances by members of the Chicago Symphony and discs of the Grant Park Orchestra playing music of Aaron Jay Kernis and Robert Kurka. But Chicago conductor Paul Freeman also records for Cedille with European orchestras, and there’s a series of recordings of violinist Jennifer Koh, a Chicago native who lives in New York.

Besides drawing on musicians and composers of Chicago residency or origin, Cedille receives support from many local funders. But approximately one-third of the label’s annual budget of roughly $1 million comes from Ginsberg’s father, Martin D. Ginsberg. The senior Ginsberg is a tax attorney and co-author of an authoritative guide to mergers, acquisitions, and buyouts. A new and updated edition comes out annually and Ginsberg has assigned half his royalty income to Cedille. The mother of the family, by the way, is Ruth Bader Ginsberg, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s said that Cedille recordings are regularly passed along the halls of the highest court. Now there’s a word of mouth network no other label can provide.

[Continue reading here.]

***

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Joseph Dalton
Photo by Timothy Cahill

Joseph Dalton has been covering the arts scene in New York’s Capital Region since 2002, primarily writing for the Albany Times Union. Many of these essays have been collected in the book Artists & Activists: Making Culture in New York’s Capital Region, published in 2008. Dalton is the former executive director of Composers Recordings, Inc. (CRI), where he produced about 300 recordings of contemporary music. He was also director of a research project on the effects of AIDS on American music which was published in an online report by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS.

On Record – An Overview of the State of Contemporary Music Recording (Part 1): Still Spinning

[Ed. Note: This article, which is the first in a three-part series exploring the state of contemporary music recordings, surveys labels which are still issuing physical CDs. The second installment looks at the current economics for recording labels; and the third and final installment explores digital distribution and dissemination.]

“I am distressed about my CD sales, which have completely tanked. I talked to the head of my label about this, and he told me, ‘No one’s buying CDs.’ In effect, he said, ‘What makes you think you’re special?’ Everybody’s collapsing.”

—composer John Adams, Newsweek, February 5, 2009

“The recording industry is kaput.”

—violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Times Union (Albany, NY), February 8, 2007

You’ve heard the talk from lesser lights than these. It’s said over and again: recordings are over and done with… except for all those CDs that keep getting released every month. It’s similar to the even more familiar drone that nobody ever listens to contemporary music… except there’s so much of it around all the time.

Certainly record stores are almost a thing of the past, with Tower Records and Virgin Megastores shuttered. Oh sure, there’s still the music departments at Barnes & Noble and Borders, but just try to find much of a selection of contemporary music there. And the big multinational labels, which stars like Adams and Salerno-Sonnenberg once counted on, have indeed cut their artist rosters, slashed their recording budgets, and drastically curtailed their release schedules. Those operations, of course, are arms of corporations far more dependent upon mass sales of pop music to iPod-toting, file-sharing young people than on the always modest-sized audiences for symphonies, concertos, and string quartets, whether of new or old vintage.

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A recent innova disc featuring solo piano works by 13 American composers

But in the less heady realm of small independent labels that are devoted exclusively or primarily to contemporary music, there are still plenty of new titles coming out every month, and still primarily on CDs. In fact, a characteristic sense of perseverance and sometimes even some guarded optimism came through in recent interviews with a dozen managers of these plucky outfits.

The sense of the field garnered from researching this story brought to mind some recent casual conversations with small business owners in upstate New York, where I’ve lived for the past eight years.

Where the Discs Are

The following labels maintain an active release schedule which includes CD recordings of contemporary American music:

Albany Records
Arabesque Recordings
ArpaViva
Arsis Audio
Azica Records
BMOP Sound
Brassland Records
Bridge Records
Cambria Music
Cantaloupe
Cedille Records
Centaur Records
Cold Blue Music
Crystal Records
Crytogramophone
Deep Listening
Delos Music
Ears & Eyes Records
Einstein Records
EMF Media
ERM Media
Furious Artisans
GM Recordings
Image Recordings
Innova
Koch International Classics
Koss Classics
Lovely Music, Ltd.
Mode Records
MSR
Musica Omnia
Mutable Music
Navona Records
Naxos
Neuma Records
New Albion Records
New Amsterdam Records
New Focus Recordings
New World Records
Newport Classics
North South Records
OgreOgress Productions
Orange Mountain
Other Minds
Peacock Recordings
Phoenix
Pierian
Pogus Productions
Present Sounds
Quiet Design
Skirl Records
Starkland
Summit Records
3Sixteen Records
Table of the Elements
Tzadik
XI Records

Because the economic boom never really came to this rather removed territory, the bust isn’t being felt too strongly either. So it is with the recordings of new music.

“Business is booming and crackling,” says Philip Blackburn, the composer who runs Innova Recordings, the 25-year-old recording arm of the American Composers Forum, based in Minnesota. “My desk is covered in submissions and my spare time in and out of the office is spent listening to them as well as catching up on infrastructure things.”

Rather than looking to sales, Blackburn’s barometer for business is typical of many who run independent labels: the demand from artists who want to make recordings. Innova is actually one of the surprisingly few labels with nonprofit status. But whatever their legal structure, most labels dedicated to contemporary music have as their first business focus the regular production of new titles; the subsequent sales of those discs is a secondary concern. Thus, a continual flow of new projects and the obtaining of funding to make them happen are essential. At Innova, 28 new titles were released last year and 23 are in the works for 2009. And the sales? Iffy, as always.

“It’s a scramble to keep up with how things are changing,” continues Blackburn. “Getting reviews and radio play that will get people to buy something, that’s always been a long shot.”

“Business is going very well,” says Becky Starobin, who with her husband, the guitarist David Starobin, founded Bridge Records in 1981. “Orders are increasing, and our distribution network is expanding. We’re getting more inquiries from different countries, which is quite remarkable in this climate. In addition to the major markets, we are now entering into agreements with smaller countries.”

Starobin says that roughly 40 percent of Bridge titles are devoted to contemporary music, with the remainder consisting of baroque, classical, romantic, early 20th century, jazz, and world music. For 2009, there are 38 CDs slated for release. Just two years ago the annual release schedule was 30 titles.

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The most recent installment of Bridge’s ongoing George Crumb series

“There has been a steady growth of interest,” says Starobin. “I don’t think we have experienced a boom since the late ’80s and early ’90s, but Bridge has certainly not experienced a bust. There are different avenues of distribution opening up, and it’s our goal to make the music available to more and more people.”

“We’re holding our own,” says Susan Bush of Albany Records, which was founded by Peter Kermani in 1987. Bush gets a palpable sense of the need to make recordings from artists, when eight to twelve submissions arrive just about every month. The label accepts about 60 percent of what comes in, she says. But that rate is nearly double what it was a few years ago because so many artists are returning to make second, third, and fourth projects with Albany. “We are working with people that we already know, who are sort of our stable of composers and performers,” explains Bush.

Of course not every label operating today is sure and steady in its operations. Many are sole proprietorships dependent upon occasional grants and contributions as well as on the founder’s continual infusions of time and interest.

Keeping an eye on new music recordings has always included watching the labels come and go. For a trip down memory lane, check out American Music Recordings: A Discography of 20th Century U.S. Composers, a nearly 400-page tome edited by Carol Oja and released in 1982 by the Institute for Studies in American Music (recently renamed The H. Wiley Hitchcock Institute for Studies in American Music). Along with numerous citations of recordings on Victor, RCA, Columbia, and MGM—ah, the glory days when major labels cared!—there are also some long departed smaller operations like Desto, Turnabout, and Orion.

The last decade has also seen its share of failures in the field, including the venerable Composers Recordings Inc., which had an honorable run from 1954 to 2003. (Full disclosure: I ran CRI from 1990 to 2000.) The catalog of CRI, including about 400 LPs and 300 CDs, is currently administered by New World Records. New World has thus far released eleven CD reissues of CRI titles, and the remainder of the CRI CD catalog is available through burn-on-demand CDs via the New World website.

Some labels born during the CD era have already come and gone. Composer Joseph Celli founded O.O. Discs in the mid-’90s and once maintained a rather active production schedule, but it was shuttered a number of years ago. And last year composer Richard Brooks brought to a close his Capstone Records, which he founded in 1985. In a brief recent email exchange, I asked Brooks whether his action was a retirement or just giving up. “A little of both,” he replied. The Capstone imprint and its back catalog have been picked up by Parma Recordings, which also has two others labels, Navano for classics and Soundbrush for jazz and world.

In preparing the list of labels that accompanies this article, email inquiries were sent to about 60 labels in order to ascertain their level of current activity. At least half the companies never responded. Overly stringent email filters and the busy and distracted lives of composer/performer/entrepreneurs are understandable, so if the label had a relatively current website, we included them on the list. Still, some companies seem to be missing in action or dormant. The Santa Fe Music Group, which was primarily devoted to reissuing on CD the analog era recordings of the Louisville Orchestra couldn’t be found. Opus One has a shell of a web site. And the “new” releases on Newport Classic’s site appear to be two to three years old, based on cross references to Amazon. So it goes.

The steadfastness, both emotional and financial, necessary to keep a label going may be hard won, but the artistic vision and ambition to start one are easily had. Likewise, the learning curve to produce presentable discs and booklets is not steep. Thus, the menu of labels continues to expand.

There have always been record collectors who, late in life, spend some of their savings to finally take their crack at being “record men.” And plenty of composers have set up shop over the years, including Gunther Schuller with GM Recordings in 1981, Max Lifchitz with North/South in 1992, and John Zorn with Tzadik in 1995.

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Other Minds’ latest rediscovery: chamber music of Marc Blitzstein

Many of the latest entries into the field emerged from an existing music organization or emerging artistic scene. In San Francisco, Other Minds Records was launched in 1998 as an outgrowth of the then six-year-old Other Minds Festival. Composer Charles Amirkhanian uses an oft-repeated term when describing the value of recordings: “The CDs doubled as calling cards,” he says, adding that they were first used as premium gifts for donors. Beyond its use a promotional vehicle for the festival, Amikhanian’s rationale for the label is also a familiar refrain among those who decide to start their own shop: “We realized that a number of really interesting kinds of music were falling between the cracks and that no one else was going to release them.” While the Other Minds Festival presents living composers, often performing their own works, Other Minds Records, now with 17 titles, has hewed toward rare and out of print repertoire, such as recordings of the late George Antheil performing his own music, the player piano rolls of Conlon Nancarrow (reissued from 1750 Arch), and the most recent release featuring early works of Marc Blitzstein.

Last year conductor Gil Rose and his 12-year-old Boston Modern Orchestra Project decided it was time to strike out on their own after making some 20 recordings for other labels. “We were conceiving the CDs and raising the money, doing the rehearsing and performing, as well as the recording and post production, and then handing off the masters for nothing or very little compared to what the costs were in cash and blood, sweat, and tears,” says Rose. “The final straw came when we started doing the cover designs, which we asked to do because we were getting some unattractive covers.”

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BMOP’s larger than usual CD packs offer more room for graphics and booklet notes

BMOP/sound already has 12 titles, each attractively presented in cardboard packaging, and each presenting the work of a single composer. They include music of Charles Fussell, Derek Bermel, Lee Hyla, and David Rakowski. And the label is committed to an on-going release schedule of one new disc per month. While Rose likes the comparison to the Louisville Orchestra’s trenchant recording work during the LP era, he concedes that not every project features big orchestral pieces, though the growing catalog already includes operas by John Harbison and Eric Sawyer. “[The label] mirrors the BMOP mission. I stuck this word ‘project’ in the name and I still get flack for it, but I wanted to convey that we’re fluid and flexible. At BMOP performances, sometimes there are 90 people on stage and sometimes 15, and sometimes that’s in the same concert. It’s a very chameleon-like ensemble,” explains Rose. “You can send CDs all over the world, but you can’t get everyone into Jordan Hall. The label has expanded our network and visibility in almost every way.”

From the latest generation of composer/performers in New York comes New Amsterdam Records, founded by William Brittelle, Judd Greenstein, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, all composers in their early 30s with advanced degrees in music. They’ve been busy, releasing 16 discs in less than two years. Some of the latest titles include Darcy James Argue’s Infernal Machines, featuring his 18-piece “steampunk big band” Secret Society, and Brittelle’s own Mohair Time Warp, with the composer singing above a hyperactive mix of amplified chamber ensemble and wailing electric guitars.

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One of New Amsterdam’s “alt-classical” releases

“The idea to start a cool record label mainly grew out of this developing genre of music that was coming from people with great educations in composition but who were also influenced by pop music and jazz and didn’t fit into any strict marketplace,” explains Greenstein. “The music industry is a place where you’re either popular or classical. Everything forces you to one side or the other. We want to stay in the middle.”

Greenstein recalls telling composer Michael Gordon, co-founder of Bang on a Can, which has its own label, Cantaloupe Music, of the plan to start New Amsterdam. “He tried to convince me it was a terrible idea, that it would take a lot of time from composing,” says Greenstein. “He was coming from a positive place and he was right. Our careers have suffered because of much less time to write music. But the (industry) system we’re operating in is broken from our perspective. It doesn’t meet our needs.”

“I thought there was more risk not [to start the label],” says Brittelle. “When I got out of school, I wanted to spend all day writing music and anything else was a distraction. But coming into the office every day, even on my flexible schedule, has been great for me as a composer. It keeps me in touch and bombarded by great ideas. And there’s a healthy sense of competition because you’ll hear a great record by a friend and it helps you stay in reality, and to know what it takes to really get something out there in the market place. You’ve got to pack up a van [for a gig] but also pack up recordings and mail them.”

[Continue reading here.]

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Joseph Dalton
Photo by Timothy Cahill

Joseph Dalton has been covering the arts scene in New York’s Capital Region since 2002, primarily writing for the Albany Times Union. Many of these essays have been collected in the book Artists & Activists: Making Culture in New York’s Capital Region, published in 2008. Dalton is the former executive director of Composers Recordings, Inc. (CRI), where he produced about 300 recordings of contemporary music. He was also director of a research project on the effects of AIDS on American music which was published in an online report by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS.

Composers Back In Cowtown: An Update from the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition

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Mason Bates

Twelve days before the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition actually drew to a close in Fort Worth, a winner was declared: composer Mason Bates.

Yes, yes, the real winners of the 17 days of concerts were pianists. Two gold medals were awarded this year in a ceremony on June 7: one to Nobuyuki Tsujii, 20, of Japan and one to Haochen Zhang, 19, of China. But once again the Cliburn also held a composition competition, the American Composers Invitational, and the results for that unique race were decided when the 12 semi-finalists were named on May 27. (For a full description of how the ACI was established and the past history of new works at the Cliburn see “Composers in Cowtown.”)

Back in February in New York, composer John Corigliano chaired a jury comprised of composers Samuel Adler and Melinda Wagner and pianist Ursula Oppens, that reviewed submissions of newish piano works, between 8 and 12 minutes in length, received from 28 composers. Four finalists were selected:

Mason Bates: White Lies for Lomax
Derek Bermel: Turning
Daron Hagen: Suite for Piano
John Musto: Improvisation & Fugue

All four pieces were sent to the 30 Cliburn competitors in early March. Every competitor had to decide on one for inclusion in a recital during the semi-final rounds, should he or she make it that far. The composer whose work is performed by the most semi-finalists receives $5,000, while the others get $2,500 each.

A couple of month prior to arriving in Fort Worth each pianist submitted the complete repertoire he or she would bring to compete, and it was all printed in the mammoth program book. Your diligent reporter tallied the non-binding votes of all 30 competitors, which was as follows:

Bates: 13
Hagen: 9
Musto: 6
Bermel: 1

But it’s the choices of the semi-finalists, who actually performed the works in competition, that determines the winner of the ACI. And here’s that tally:

Bates: 7
Hagen: 4
Musto: 1
Bermel: 0

Beyond the competition’s admirable and rather clever efforts to foster new works, the majority of music performed came from Europe and the classic and romantic eras, along with a healthy dose of early 20th-century material as well (Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Prokofiev). Here’s a run-down of the contemporary or modern works from the submitted repertoire (again, not everything got played because some pianists were cut from the field before they got a chance to perform all their prepared music).

Samuel Barber: Piano Sonata Op. 26 (from three pianists)
Alban Berg: Sonata Op. 1
Pierre Boulez: Douze Notations
York Bowen: Toccata Op. 155
Aaron Copland: Piano Variations
John Corigliano: Etude Fantasy
Elliott Carter: Catenaires
Aaron Jay Kernis: Superstar Etude No. 2
Arnold Schoenberg: Klavierstücke, Op. 11
Toru Takemitsu: Rain Tree Sketches (from two pianists)
Carl Vine: Piano Sonata (1990) (from two pianists)

Of these works, two were actually performed during the final round: The Takemitsu by Evgeni Bozhanov of Bulgaria and the Schoenberg by Di Wu of China.

If there were prizes for the Cliburn competitors with the best demonstration of a commitment to contemporary repertoire (modest as it might be), they would go to Andrea Lam of Australia, who selected the Kernis and the Corigliano, and Spencer Myer of the U.S., who selected the Copland and Vine.

The award for best performance of a new work went to Tsujii, one of the gold medalists, who was the only competitor to perform the Musto piece. An audience favorite from the beginning and rare human interest story, Tsujii has been blind since birth and he learns all of his repertoire by ear. He’s said to be a talented improviser as well as an aspiring composer. During the final press conference when I asked if he had a taste for American music, he replied, through the aid of an interpreter, that he has always enjoyed jazz and meeting Stevie Wonder was the highpoint of his life, at least until winning the Cliburn gold.

At the Intersection of Art and Science

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Troy’s New Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center
Photo courtesy of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Just where is the intersection of art and science? To most of us, it’s as small and instant a thing as snapping a shot with a digital camera or pressing down middle C on an electronic keyboard. Yet “At the Intersection of Art and Science” is the official descriptive slogan for something much much bigger—a mammoth new landmark in upstate New York and perhaps even in the future of the arts.

The place is EMPAC, the new Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, officially opening on Friday, October 3, 2008. More than six years in the making, it is a building measuring some 220,000 square feet and costing nearly $200 million. And those are dollars from earlier in the decade. According to Curtis Priem, an entrepreneur and RPI trustee who contributed $40 million to EMPAC, it would cost about $1 billion to launch a similar undertaking today, due to the surging costs in construction, concrete, cooper and the like.

EMPAC includes four performance spaces—a 1,200 seat concert hall, a 400 seat theatre with a seven-story fly space, and two flexible “black box” spaces measuring 3,500 and 2,500 square feet respectively—plus audio and video production suites, studios for resident artists, large glass enclosed atriums, a cafe and more. Not just an arts venue, EMPAC is wired into RPI’s super computer—one of the newest and largest at any American university—and each of its large halls has been conceived and engineered to support advanced research in visualization, animation, simulation, acoustics, optics, and haptics (the study of touch). Designed by Grimshaw Architects of New York with acoustical consultation by Kirkegaard Associates of Chicago, EMPAC has advanced technologies and myriad applications said to be unparallel by any other single facility in the world.

 

Location, Location, Location

As EMPAC’s sleek glass building has risen out of a grassy bluff above downtown Troy, a major question has also arisen: Why is an engineering school opening an arts center? The answer lies at the heart of the tenure of RPI president Shirley Jackson, a physicist who chaired the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for four years under President Clinton. She took the reins of the 84-year-old institution in 1999 with the intent of positioning it as a leader for 21st century technologies.

In March 2001, Jackson secured a $360 million anonymous gift to the university, which at the time was the largest single contribution ever made to a school. About half of that money went to a center for research in biotechnology, which opened on campus a few years ago. The balance has gone toward EMPAC, which has been envisioned as a place for the development of new technologies in the arts and communication and also for fostering a new kind of thinking by RPI students.

“EMPAC is both a place and a program. It is a performing arts center, a research location and agenda, a hub of campus interaction, a channel for academic programs and more—a powerful combination for art, science and engineering,” stated Jackson, to the RPI community earlier this year. “EMPAC will prepare our students for global leadership roles by exposing them to experiences which will foster innovative problems-solving, multicultural sophistication, intellectual agility, and the ability to see connections between and among disciplines across a broad intellectual front. With EMPAC our aim is create an intellectual community that did not before exist, and a cultural change at Rensselaer that will reverberate globally.”

RPI is certainly not the first university dedicated to engineering and science to expand its culture and reach. In 1969, the Carnegie Institute of Technology merged with a neighboring humanities school to become Carnegie Mellon University.

“We could have followed the Carnegie Mellon model and taken the price of EMPAC and built a school of humanities and social sciences,” says Samuel Heffner, chairman of the RPI board of trustees. “But this building is more than a concert hall. It’s a true laboratory and a significant move forward not only for Rensselaer but for the concept of arts and technology. EMPAC will have a long-term effect on the future of Rensselaer and will change lives.”

Grand rhetoric has certainly been flowing as EMPAC nears its opening; sometimes the language is even rather poetic.

“It’s this bridge, or it’s this river where arts and science and technology can come together and have a confluence and the highest levels of quality will meet under one roof,” says Johannes Goebel, EMPAC’s director. Goebel is a composer and was the founding director of the Institute for Music and Acoustics at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany, having supervised the opening of its building in 1996. For a period during the 1990s, while still at ZKM, he co-directed Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, where he was also a visiting composer.

Goebel’s arrival at RPI in 2002 was certainly not the first time an artist was part of the university community. A small arts department was established in 1975, primarily as an opportunity for students to pick up some electives or participate in a performing group. In 1987, under the chairmanship of composer Neil Rolnick, the department expanded into an academic center offering the nation’s first Master of Fine Arts program in “integrated electronic arts,” wherein students developed technical skills that are applicable to multiple fields, such as music, video and gaming. A popular undergraduate degree program followed in 1996, and more recently RPI became one of the first institutions in the nation to establish a Ph.D. in electronic arts.

Under the banner iEAR (Integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer), RPI has been making public presentations of up to a dozen concerts, films, demonstrations and lectures annually and has also hosted artists in residence to work at its facilities for extended periods. Among the more notable musicians presented over the years are Philip Glass, John Zorn, Frederic Rzewski, and Laurie Anderson.

Most iEAR events have taken place in the modest auditorium of RPI’s arts school, which seats a few hundred and seldom draws a full house. EMPAC, it’s worth noting, is an independent entity within RPI. The arts department remains on the other side of campus in the grand old West Hall, which was built as a hospital during the Civil War era (and is said to be haunted).

So the arts do have some established roots at the university, but given the modest draw of iEAR presentations, another question arises: Can RPI pack in audiences at EMPAC’s many halls? And what impact will EMPAC have on the larger arts scene of New York’s Capital Region, which also encompasses the cities of Albany, Schenectady, and Saratoga Springs and is a short drive from the cultural Mecca of the Massachusetts’s Berkshire County.

Regarding the latter question, Goebel has stated that EMPAC will not duplicate or compete with any programming already happening in the region. But local audiences by definition have a limited amount of time and funds, if not a finite capacity for experimentation, as well.

During the mid-19th century Troy, population c. 50,000, was one of the richest cities in America due in part to its location at the meeting point of the Hudson River and the Erie Canal. Today RPI is probably the city’s largest employer. The Albany Symphony Orchestra, which often performs at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall (an acoustically acclaimed 19th century hall, also with 1,200 seats, located just a few blocks from EMPAC), already has a long history of working with living American composers. Under the ebullient leadership of music director David Alan Miller, its audiences have become accustomed, if not always fully game, to the experience of hearing new works on nearly every program. And in recent years the local gallery scene has had an upsurge in shows by local artists. But otherwise, the region is no Manhattan or Berlin with crowds eager to hang out on the cutting edge.

Yet looked at from another perspective, EMPAC is the latest link in a chain of major new contemporary arts venues that dot the Hudson Valley and extend into New England. A tour of these facilities would start 60 miles north of Manhattan in Beacon where the Dia Foundation houses its massive modern art collection in a 1929 Nabisco factory. Dia: Beacon opened in 2003. Up the Hudson River another 50 miles in the tiny town of Annandale-on-Hudson is the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, a sparkling and curvaceous theatre complex designed by Frank Gehry that also opened in 2003 on the campus of Bard College.

The City of Troy and EMPAC are another 58 miles further north, and then 40 miles northeast and over a mountain pass is North Adams, Massachusetts and MassMoCA, the center for new art, sculpture, and performance housed in 13 acres of former factory buildings, which opened in 1999. With the exception of Annandale-on-Hudson’s Fisher Center, each of these facilities represents a major new infusion of culture into a former industrial center. (The Fisher Center has further enhanced an already vibrant artistic scene at Bard.)

 

From Pre-Opening Events to There is Still Time

EMPAC has not waited for the completion of its building to start presenting events. Seeking to build its brand and engage local audiences, EMPAC has produced 50 different happenings since April 2004. Along with some lectures and film screenings, there have also been concerts with Anthony Braxton, So Percussion, and the Flux Quartet, as well as performances by Troika Ranch, Lone Twin, and Tere O’Connor Dance.

“EMPAC 360” was an outdoor performance and spectacle on the building’s construction site—highlighted by dancers repelling on its walls—in September 2005 attended by more than 2,000 people and named by the Albany Times Union as the arts event of the year. And last winter, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton bathed the construction site in color for about a month (one of the only non-theatrical projects in her long career).

While Goebel has been supervising the building’s construction and the installation of its technologies, the events have been selected and produced by a three-member artistic team: Kathleen Forde, visual arts curator, Helene Lesterlin, dance curator, and Micah Silver, music curator. The EMPAC web site lists 27 other personnel, but Goebel has estimated that a staff of at least 40 or more will be needed to run the facility. If the current web site—one week before opening night—is any indication, they are scrambling to fill more than a dozen other positions, including box office manager, production technicians, web developer, master carpenter, video engineer and director of research, among others.

Up until now, most EMPAC events have taken place in out of the way auditoriums and campus venues, but approximately 10,000 people have already attended an EMPAC presentation. That figure should easily be surpassed with the string of opening celebrations, which are spread over the first three weekends of October.

The inaugural event is a concert featuring performances by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, the Vox Vocal Ensemble, the International Contemporary Ensemble, and pianist Per Tengstand. Other musical artists slated to appear during the opening festival are accordionist and composer Pauline Oliveros (an RPI faculty member), pianist/composer Cecil Taylor, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Gamalan Galak Tika with Ensemble Robot, and pianist Ramsey Lewis. Theatrical performances will be offered by Dumb Type, Workspace Unlimited, Verdensteatret, and Richard Siegal/The Bakery. For a complete schedule of events, visit EMPAC’s website.

The kind of parallel advancement in both art and technology that EMPAC seems to be all about may be best displayed in There Is Still Time… Brother, a new 20-minute feature film scheduled to play continuously in one of the large studio spaces during the first weekend of events. Commissioned by EMPAC and produced in association with the University of New South Wales and ZKM in Germany, where it premiered last December, it is a model of how the realization of an artistic concept can lead to technological breakthroughs.

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A still from There Is Still Time… Brother
Image courtesy of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The film was conceived, developed and performed by the Wooster Group, the influential SoHo-based theatre collective and is shown on an extraordinary 360-degree screen. Unlike an IMAX film, which encompasses the viewer’s peripheral vision, the screen of the Interactive Panoramic Cinema literally surrounds the viewer, measuring 40 feet in diameter and 15 feet high.

To get a feel for the film’s warp-around environment, imagine a busy cafe or office with multiple conversations taking place between people sitting and standing, entering and exiting. The collage-like script, partly improvised, explores themes of war and media, with allusions to the 1959 nuclear holocaust film On the Beach and excerpts from Rosie O’Donnell’s online blog, among many other widely varied references.

Rather than being a giant sensory overload, each screening of There Is Still Time… Brother is controlled—edited, one could even say—by a single viewer in a swivel chair. Wherever he or she points the chair at any given moment, the film is clear and the audio is full, while the rest of the screen is blurred and the sound muffled. Thus, it’s impossible to grasp in one viewing every aspect of the piece and no experience of it is ever quite the same.

Though the IPA technology already existed, Goebel wanted to boost the quality of the sound for the new piece, in keeping with EMPAC’s high standards for both audio and visual production. Typical cinema sound comes from either left or right, above or below the screen. Yet this can be inexact and confusing when the screen is a wrap-around. Enter Jonas Braasch, assistant professor in the architectural acoustics program at RPI.

“With the screen that size, it becomes very important that the sound comes exactly from the same direction as the visual,” says Braasch. “In theatre production you record everything with microphones close to actors but your recording doesn’t have any information about their location. We designed a system that would record the sound and take the data of where it’s located.”

Played back through an array of 32 speakers distributed on three levels behind a new permeable screen, the dialogue in There Is Still Time… Brother will seem almost as if the actors’ voices are coming directly out of their mouths.

Braasch has written an article on his new microphone tracking system for the Computer Music Journal and is at work on a patent application. He foresees a number of other uses for the technology including for the synchronization of musical performances via the internet. Braasch came to Rensselaer in 2006 from McGill University in Montreal. EMPAC, he says, “is one of the few (electronic arts) centers that has the right balance of people involved in the arts and involved in engineering. That’s very difficult to have, without one side dominating the other.”

The creation of There Is Still Time… Brother also had an effect on its artistic team. According to Wooster Group producer Cynthia Hedstrom, EMPAC’s commission reversed the troupe’s normal approach to technology. “We tend to start with content and then find ways that technology can enhance it. Here we were starting with technology and finding content for it. That was unusual.”

The Wooster Group’s development process lasted several years but the film itself was shot in about a week. “Then, as soon as it was done, (artistic director) Elizabeth (LeCompte) says, ‘Oh, I’ve got another idea (for a 360-degree film).'” Concludes Hedstrom, “It’s fertile ground.” And that might be said not just for the technology of There Is Still Time… Brother, but perhaps for EMPAC itself.

***

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Joseph Dalton
Photo by Timothy Cahill

Joseph Dalton has been covering the arts scene in New York’s Capital Region for six years, primarily writing for the Albany Times Union. He is the former executive director of Composers Recordings, Inc. (CRI), where he produced about 300 recordings of contemporary music. He was also director of a research project on the effects of AIDS on American music which was published in an on-line report by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS.

Composers in Cowtown: New Music at the 12th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

Piano competitions are inherently heated events—something like an olympics for musicians.

As perhaps the most famous and prestigious event in the piano world, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, is an especially intense affair. Thanks to the Southwest sun and temperatures in the low 90s, the 12th annual Cliburn had a genuine pressure-cooker atmosphere. The event ran May 20 through June 5 at the five-year-old Bass Hall in the downtown district of what Texans lovingly call Cowtown.

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Ambassadors for new music: Composers Jan Krzywicki, Sebastian Currier, and Daniel Kellogg (l to r) represent at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
Photo by Susan Nowicki

The 35 young keyboard competitors are the ones who really felt the fever. Ranging in age from 19 to 30 years old and coming from 13 countries, they had to prepare enough repertoire for a 50-minute recital in the preliminary round, another 60-minute recital plus a piano quintet for the semifinals, and yet another 50-minute recital and two concertos for the finals. No repertoire could be repeated from one round to the next.

New American music was very much a part of the mix, and for many competitors that probably just raised their temperature further since contemporary music isn’t usually part of an aspiring soloist’s training. While mainstream virtuoso works were the rule, with lots of Liszt, Chopin, Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Brahms, and Beethoven, every program in the semifinal round also included a piece by one of these five Americans: Sebastian Currier, Jennifer Higdon, Daniel Kellogg, Jan Krzywicki, and Ruth Schonthal.

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Composer Ruth Schonthal was also on hand to hear how the semifinalists tackled her piece.
Photo by Daniel Kellogg

Actually, the composers were competitors as well, but in a different contest: the Cliburn’s second American Composers Invitational. The composers’ works were sent to all the competitors who had to select one for performance in the semifinal round—should they be lucky and skilled enough to get that far. The composer performed by the most semifinalists would be the winner. Sebastian Currier took home the top prize of $5,000, while each of the other composers who had a work played in the semifinals received $2,500 (which this time included everyone but Krzywicki).

For the record: The big winner of the 2005 Cliburn was, of course, a pianist, not a composer. Alexander Kobrin, 25, of Russia took the gold medal, while Joyce Yang, 19, of South Korea won the silver. Each receives $20,000 and an array of concert bookings, management support, and a recording deal with the Harmonia Mundi label.

Though the American Composer Invitational brought even more competition to the Competition, its purpose is not really to pit one composer against another. Rather, its aim is to allow more new music to be heard and to allow young pianists the opportunity to match their own instincts and sensibilities to a contemporary work, instead of having a single new piece imposed upon them.

“I’ve been at other competitions [where there’s a commissioned piece] and the competitors all hated it,” says Richard Rodzinski, president of the Van Cliburn Foundation. “I’ve seen them come off stage and stomp on it.”

For most of its history, the Cliburn did commission a single new piece for each competition. The success rate of those pieces is a lot like the success rate of its gold medalists—mixed at best.

“There are no superstar composers alive now and a big name doesn’t mean a great work,” continues Rodzinski. The new system, he says, tells pianists to “pick something you like and sell it—and it signals composers to write music [that] performers want to play.”

 

COMPOSERS AT THE CLIBURN: HISTORY

One shouldn’t look to the career of 70-year-old Van Cliburn for any inspiration when it comes to contemporary music—Prokofiev is about as far as he’s gotten into the modern era. But the competition named for him and launched in 1962 has always featured new American music. Their first time out, the ambitious folks in Fort Worth commissioned Lee Hoiby’s Capriccio on Five Notes, and they made every competitor learn it.

Commissioning a new work for each competition continued as the pattern for the first ten Van Cliburn International Piano Competitions. Here’s the list of those pieces:

1962 Lee Hoiby: Capriccio on Five Notes
1966 Willard Straight: Structure for Piano
1969 Norman Della Joio: Capriccio on the Interval of a Second
1973 Aaron Copland: Night Thoughts (Homage to Ives)
1977 Samuel Barber: Ballade
1981 Leonard Bernstein: Touches
1985 John Corigliano: Fantasia on an Ostinato
1989 William Schuman: Chester – Variations for Piano
1993 Morton Gould: Ghost Waltzes
1997 William Bolcom: Nine Bagatelles

It’s not a bad group of names at all. The pieces usually clocked in around ten to twelve minutes; it would be neat to have a CD collection featuring all of them. Certainly there was a good run from 1973 to 1981—Copland, Barber, Bernstein—what Rodzinski probably considers “superstar composers.” And those composer’s pieces are probably the ones that have had the most life, both in concert and on disc. Two Cliburn commissions, the Barber Ballade and Bolcom’s Bagatelles, showed up again this year in Fort Worth on the programs of two different pianists.

 

OTHER CONTEMPORARY WORKS IN 2001 AND 2004

For each Cliburn Competition there’s a thick, handsome program book that lists the complete repertoire that each competitor brings to the competition. Much of the music doesn’t actually get heard due to the process of elimination—35 competitors started this year, 12 made it to the semifinals, and only 6 to the finals. But it’s fascinating to flip through the 2001 and 2005 books and spot the relatively sparse amount of newish music that was in the minds and fingers of the young pianists as they headed to Texas.

First, it’s worth acknowledging the early and mid-20th century composers that are getting played. Prokofiev and Bartók are regularly represented, and Schoenberg and Stravinsky appear now and then. Rachmaninoff and Ravel are as popular as Beethoven and Chopin.

Here’s a list of the more off beat modern and contemporary works that competitors brought to the 2001 Cliburn:

Aaron Copland: Piano Variations
Copland/Bernstein: El Salon Mexico
Samuel Barber: Sonata for Piano, Op. 26
Leonard Bernstein: Touches (1981 Van Cliburn Competition commission)
Yuri Blinov: Impromtu & Fugue (from competitor Yuri Blinov)
George Crumb: A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979
Henri Dutilleux: Sonata
Rodion Konstantinovich Schedrin: Prelude & Fugue
Olivier Messiaen: selections from Vignt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus
Frederic Rzewski: Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues
Toru Takemtisu: Litany II

The American pianist Andrew Russo was responsible for the Copland, Crumb, and Dutilleux, as well as some Schoenberg and Scriabin. According to Russo’s website, his performance of Crumb’s A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 marked the first time that a pianist played on the inside of the piano at the Cliburn. Though Russo didn’t make it past the preliminary round, he went on to collaborate with Crumb the following year on a retrospective concert series of Crumb’s music at the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts in New York. He’s also recorded Crumb’s music on the Black Box label.

For the 2005 Cliburn, the list of newish repertoire looks like this:

Arno Babadjanian: Poem
Barber: Ballade, Op. 46 (1977 Van Cliburn Competition commission)
Samuel Barber: Sonata for piano, Op. 26
Bolcom: Nine Bagatelles (1997 Van Cliburn Competition commission)
York Bowen: Toccata, Op. 155
John Corigliano: Etude Fantasy (from four different competitors!)
David Del Tredici: Virtuoso Alice
Kenneth Leighton: Six Studies, Op. 56
Lowell Lieberman: Gargoyles, Op. 29
Gyorgy Ligeti: Etude Book 1 Nos. 1, 2, 5

The Cliburn was probably gratified that two of its past commissions were represented. It’s even more remarkable that John Corigliano’s Etude Fantasy was prepared by four different competitors. One wonders if the pianists were trying to ingratiate themselves with the competition organizers, since Corigliano serves on its advisory council (as do composers William Bolcom, Henri Dutilleux, Lukas Foss, and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski). But there was nothing cold and calculating about Joyce Yang’s performance of the piece in the final rounds. She attacked it with a ferocious zeal and went on to win the Silver Medal.

The new music specialist among the 2005 competitors was the Italian Davide Cabassi, and it’s gratifying to report that he made it all the way to the final round, though he did not take home a medal.

A burly bearded fellow, the 28-year-old Italian was easy to spot on the streets of downtown Fort Worth. “I love contemporary music,” Cabassi told me one evening outside Bass Hall. “My favorite American composer is Frank Zappa.” He went on to say that he’s premiered many works by Italian composers and that he’s also partial to Varèse, Corigliano, and Ives.

That being said, Cabassi’s programming played it rather safe. In fact, Joyce Yang played more truly contemporary music with just one Corigliano piece. Cabassi’s acknowledgements of the 20th century were Stravinsky’s Trois mouvements de Petrouchka in the prelims, and Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19 and Bartók’s Out of Doors in the finals.

 

SELECTIONS FROM THE FIELD

The Van Cliburn Competition’s departure from its 40-year tradition of commissioning a single composer for each competition came at the suggestion of John Corigliano prior to the 2001 competition. The Cliburn program book explains:

“Corigliano suggested a new initiative for acquiring original works from a broader range of talented composers, while involving the young performers themselves in the selection process… Believing that outstanding artists will choose outstanding repertoire, this innovative format encourages both the composition of new works and their inclusion in future performances.”

The process begins with a nominating committee of composers, artists, administrators, and other music industry figures who recommend a slate of American composers to be invited to submit works for solo piano of between eight and twelve minutes in length. Nominees can send either a new work or a piece that has not been commercially recorded or received any major awards. This year, twenty-nine composers submitted works.

The next step is the review of the works by a professional jury, which can select up to five works for performance at the competition. This year’s jury consisted of: composer Lowell Liebermann, composer Robert Maggio, and pianist Michael Boriskin. (Liebermann was the winner of the 2001 American Composer Invitational. The other composers selected that year were Judith Lang Zaimont, James Mobberley, and C. Curtis-Smith.)

The jury was sent blind scores (no names of composers) a few weeks prior to their meeting at the ASCAP offices on January 6, 2005. Corigliano was present at the meeting and pianist Stephen Gosling was also on hand to play selected pieces as needed.

Boriskin said the process was fun and encouraging. “I thought the initial selections were very well chosen and were pretty wide ranging, which was good to see. Everything from straightforward minimalist pieces to much more complex, sort of rigorous cerebral kinds of writing, and everything in between,” he says.

“I think the first priority was coming to some kind of a consensus on quality… That was paramount concern for all of us… All other issues take a back seat to whether a piece can stand on its own,” says Boriskin.

The jury’s final selections were:

Sebastian Currier: Scarlatti Cadences + Brainstorm
Jennifer Higdon: Secret & Glass Gardens
Daniel Kellogg: scarlet thread
Jan Krzywicki: Nocturnals for solo piano
Ruth Schonthal: Sonata quasi un’improvvisazione

In late February, the five scores were sent to the 35 pianists who were selected for the 2005 Cliburn in order for them to make a selection and start practicing.

Note the subtleties of the rules. It’s possible that a piece can make the jury’s cut but not the pianists’ cut. It’s also possible that a piece can be selected by a majority of the 35 competitors but not win the final award because the 12 semifinalists had a different preference. And that’s exactly what happened at the 2005 Cliburn.

Here’s the selection of pieces by the entire slate of competitors:

Ruth Schonthal: Sonata quasi un’improvvisazione 1 3
Sebastian Currier: Scarlatti Cadences + Brainstorm 1 0
Jennifer Higdon: Secret & Glass Gardens 7
Daniel Kellogg: scarlet thread 4
Jan Krzywicki: Nocturnals for solo piano 1

But here’s how the semifinalists decided it:

Sebastian Currier: Scarlatti Cadences + Brainstorm 5
Ruth Schonthal: Sonata quasi un’improvvisazione 3
Jennifer Higdon: Secret & Glass Gardens 2
Daniel Kellogg: scarlet thread 2
Jan Krzywicki: Nocturnals for solo piano 0

And Sebastian Currier is the winner.

“The interesting thing is the interdependency of the composers and the performers. It’s symbolic and quiet nice,” says Currier, of the process. “I notice Joyce (Yang) is playing the piece in Aspen. Hopefully the process of doing this will help it along.”

Currier’s winning effort combines two previously existing works that had not gotten much attention prior. Scarlatti Cadences had been written for his former wife, the pianist Emma Takhmizian, who was the fourth place finisher in the 1985 Van Cliburn. Brainstorm was written for pianist John Kamitsuka.

On composing his piece, Currier says “I didn’t so much focus on virtuosity… The [Cliburn competitors] play so much stuff that’s virtuosic anyway.” Instead, Currier explained that his piece requires a more contemporary technique, especially in terms of rhythm and articulation.

 

PIANISTS AUDITION THE NEW WORKS

“I sight read through them and thought I’d have a lot of time, but [knew] Scarlatti Cadences is the piece for me,” recalled Joyce Yang, shortly after the final awards ceremony. “Then I took a couple of months off from it. [But] it was a lot harder than I thought!”

Yang, who at age 19 was the youngest competitor, was the only semifinalist to have memorized Currier’s piece. In addition to her second place medal, she also received the award for best performance of a contemporary work. She said the Currier was an obvious choice. “I read through the others and said, ‘I don’t remember anything I just read.'”

When the package of five new American works arrived, Ning An, 28 of Tennessee, got some help.

“It was a little intimidating because [there were] so many notes to read. I’d played ten concerts that month,” he said. “I asked my wife [the pianist Gloria Chen] to read them for me. She’s a fast reader. I read through them too, but she said, ‘Chose this one [the Currier] even though it’s harder to learn.'”

Jie Chen, a semifinalist from China, also chose the Currier and claims to like the idea of the Composer Invitational. But so far she’s no contemporary music advocate.

“People now use different sounds and rhythms that don’t have to be pleasing to the ear,” she said. “Modern art challenges our traditional view of beauty—what is beautiful and what is ugly.” Chen admitted that she’s only got a limited amount of experience with contemporary works but that she did premiere a new piece once. She just couldn’t remember the name of it or the composer.

It took only about 20 minutes for semifinalist Maria Mazo to pick Jennifer Higdon’s Secret & Glass Gardens.

“I find it a brilliant idea that we could find one that fit our own tastes,” say Mazo, 22, who hails from Germany and Russia. “My main concern was which fit in my program. My [semifinal recital] is very heavy, rather thick and loud. The Higdon was in a Scriabin style… a tonal piece, kind of a big, blurred sound, more chords and atmosphere which I found interesting.”

Davide Cabassi also made his selection based, at least in part, on his recital. He chose the Currier’s Scarlatti Cadences + Brainstorm because it compliments the three sonatas of Antonio Soler, which Cabassi had already prepared. Scarlatti was a teacher of Soler.

 

MIXING IT UP IN TEXAS

Hospitality has always been a big part of the Van Cliburn’s Texas ambience, so it’s no surprise that the competition invited all the composers down to hear the semifinals. Only Higdon, ensconced at an artist colony in Italy, was unable to attend.

“It was interesting for all of us, because we had not been in contact with the players,” says Daniel Kellogg. “So these people playing our pieces had to learn just from the score and in the midst of preparing other repertoire. The players were young and had not done a lot of other [contemporary] stuff.”

Though young himself, Kellogg, 29, listened to the contemporary performances with the ear of a seasoned composer.

“The variety of performances [of the new works] was wide. There were people that did excellent jobs and people that had clearly put this off and weren’t up to performing the piece. They hadn’t learned it and hadn’t understood the musical language,” says Kellogg. “It was in the second round and putting work into the second round is worthless if you hadn’t gotten past the first round.”

The public got a chance to meet the composers and hear them speak at a panel one morning in the midst of the semifinals. The forum included a performance of Jan Krzywicki’s piece, since it wasn’t represented in any semifinal recital.

The composers were also represented at the Cliburn gift shop in the sparkling marble lobby of Bass Hall. Alongside CDs of Van Cliburn and of past winners, and lots of jewelry, t-shirts, and baseball caps bearing the competition’s logo, there was an attractive display of the scores in the American Composer Invitational, plus the Bolcom and Gould scores from past years. These were the only pieces of sheet music available and about 90 copies were sold by the end of the competition. “Several people brought scores and asked us to autograph them,” recalls Kellogg.

As living composers, Currier, Kellogg, Krzywicki, and Schonthal might have been oddities in the Cliburn atmosphere where pianists are the stars and composers are mostly dead men. But ultimately they too got caught up in the excitment of watching and listening.

“There’s a lot of serious listening going on, and fabulous repertoire in a great hall,” says Kellogg.

“It’s very intense,” says Currier. “There’s like three or four concerts a day, and the amount of work these young, extremely talented pianists have to do is awesome and totally amazing.”

 

CODA: NEW MUSIC AT OTHER PIANO COMPETITIONS

Consider the pressure to succeed with new music at the Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels. There are compulsory new works for both the semifinal and final rounds—which includes a concerto that’s given to the players only after their arrival at the competition.

“A commissioned concerto you have to learn in a week!,” recalls Ning An, the Van Cliburn semifinalist who placed third at the 1999 Queen Elizabeth. “That’s the test, to see how well you learn. They separate you into a big house, no newspaper, no TV—the loneliness!—no teachers, parents, wives…”

And for complete and total immersion in new music, there’s the Orleans Concours International in France, which is devoted exclusively to 20th century piano music.

Among the crowds that turned out for the dozens of concerts that make up the 2005 Van Cliburn Competition was a tall, quiet Dutch man, Gustav Alink. He’s the world’s expert on piano competitions. Alink heads the Alink-Argerich Foundation, a sort of professional association of piano competitions, which publishes a directory of the events and is building a database of pianists.

“If you look at all the piano competitions worldwide, most have quite average repertory requirements,” says Alink. He admits to having been skeptical four years ago of the Cliburn’s American Composer Invitational. “But it convinced me,” he says now. “New music and fine performances—it doesn’t happen too much.”

Perhaps the Cliburn has struck about the right balance of new music—certainly it’s not enough to please new music advocates, but it’s not beating the pianists over the head with it either.

I Am Curious—Yellow: Navigating Composers through the National Performing Arts Convention

Joseph Dalton
Joseph Dalton
Photo by Lori Van Buren

The composers were yellow. Or rather, they wore yellow. On their nametags. It made them easy to spot, once you figured it out.

Everybody had nametags at the National Performing Arts Convention in Pittsburgh last month. But with the exception of the composers, you had to get up close to read what world they came from—symphony, opera, chorus, or dance. It would have helped to have more color-coding or other handy ways of identifying who did what.

On the other hand, it might have been a problem if the conductors had red nametags since they already got plenty of attention from eager composers.

“As soon as they hear you’re a conductor, they’ll unload scores and CDs on you,” said a smiling Michael Slon, a conductor from the University of Virginia.

Actually, convention attendees were pretty easy to categorize, even without nametags. Wardrobe, attitude, and body language often spoke volumes.

Easiest to spot were the trim and stylish dance folks. The women especially. They had messy hair and slacks that stopped above the ankles or they were earth mother types with long graying hair and loose cotton outfits. As for the men, they were fit and aloof.

The chorus people were always in groups, smiling and talking a lot.

Also chatty and groupy were the opera folks. But a bit more serious. After all, they have much bigger budgets than choruses do.

The symphony managers were the most business-like. You could usually tell the size and financial health of a fellow’s orchestra by the quality of his suit. Whether men or women, they carried lots of papers in their hands and numbers in their heads.

The groups pretty much kept to themselves for the convention’s first three days until finally, on the fourth day, the walls were broken down for joint sessions. But many were exhausted and departing by that point.

Throughout it all composers were like bees. They floated around, dropped in to the various greenhouses of artistic growth, and cross-pollinated between the disciplines.

Networking is another word for it.

“I’m here to get connections with conductors and prospective organizations that will commission my works,” said Jaroslaw Golembiowski, a Polish American composer from Chicago. “I met a lot of open minded people that said ‘Send your score’ and gave me their business card.”

Golembiowski knows first hand that such brief encounters can pay off. At an industry convention a few years ago, he met a pianist who ended up recording his complete keyboard works. But as a self-employed composer, he found it hard to take the time off to be there and suggests that some funding be provided to help composers attend in the future.

New to the industry is Cody J. Wright, a 27-year-old composer from Pittsburgh. By speaking up during the question and answer period of some sessions, he got noticed and had people approaching him. And rather than giving out CDs of his music, he invited people to listen on his iPod.

“I got a sense of the state of affairs,” he said of the over-all convention. Also a wealth of new contacts. He estimated that he would be taking home some 150 business cards.

Daniel Brewbaker of New York distributed at least 40 CDs of his music. “It’s been a lot of fun,” he says. “There’s been a lot of reconnection with old friends for all four worlds.”

After wearing himself out attending sessions and working the hallways, Brewbaker did express some concern that panels remember their primary purpose, saying, “It’s important to keep art at the center.”

With an estimated 70 composers in attendance, that represents less than two percent of total conference turnout. But that made for a strong presence, according to veteran convention goer and long-time Pittsburgh composer David Stock.

“I’ve never seen so many of us at such a conference before. We infiltrated,” Stock said with pride.

Minnesota composer Mary Ellen Childs was on hand to convene with other participants in Meet The Composer’s Composers’ New Residency Program. The group, which included composers Jon Jang, Francis Wong, and Beth Custer, all of San Francisco, met on two mornings. Childs checked out other sessions in her remaining time.

“I would say that the overall mood is stimulating,” she said. “You’re with fellow artists and people who make art happen. Ideas get sparked either in conversation or back at your hotel room when you start thinking…”

It wasn’t just composers who found the event heartening. On the last afternoon of the last day, two conductors, Slon and Frank S. Albinder, who is Music Director of the Washington Men’s Camerata, got excited when asked to name some composers that they had met while in Pittsburgh. They rattled off a list that included David Conti, Alice Parker, and Conrad Susa.

“I met more composers here today than at any other conference,” said Albinder.

Like many others Slon remarked at the irony of having to go out of town to meet people from his own area. His example was getting a chance to meet Adolphus Hailstork, a fellow Virginian. But Slon was also happy to be meeting less well-known composers. Without divulging how many scores and CDs he’d be taking home, he did say: “We have a responsibility to go through some of (these composers’) music.”

Lest it sound like the convention was one big cocktail party, it was also an opportunity for composers to gather information—both facts and impressions—on the four host organizations: the American Symphony Orchestra League, Chorus America, Dance/USA, and OPERA America.

Suffice it to say that each of these service organizations provides advocacy for its art form and training on artistic and business matters, through workshops and publications, for administrators, artists, board members, and volunteers.

On the following pages are some salient facts on each group, along with some insights garnered from convention participants and a couple of rather opinioned scores for services for and attitudes toward composers.

Red Tape: The Difficulties Orchestra Composers Have Obtaining Recordings of their Works



Joseph Dalton

“We should just start paying orchestras twice for playing a new piece—once for the first performance and again for the last performance.”

It’s a good line and one that Frances Richard, Director of Concert Music at ASCAP, has used many times. But beneath the flippant humor is a truth. As American orchestras perform an increasing number of premieres each season, it is all the more difficult to obtain that elusive second performance. A major roadblock toward that goal is the frequent inability of composers—and their publishers and agents—to secure recordings of concert performances for use in promoting new works.

Recent conversations with composers, orchestra managers, union representatives, and music publishers reveal a sea of high emotions that often go unspoken out of fears of retribution or the worsening of an already bad situation, and an intricate and confusing web of legalities that vary from region to region and ensemble to ensemble. As a result there are numerous look-the-other-way and hope-for-the-best uses of recordings that are obtained from a variety of back-channel sources.

What ultimately determines whether a recording is provided to the composer—or if a concert is even recorded at all—are industry forces far beyond the influence of composers: namely, the often-tumultuous relationships between orchestra players (as represented by unions and membership committees) and orchestra managements. And add to the mix two powerful forces outside the music industry yet which have a deep influence upon it: a poor economic environment and a plethora of inexpensive options in digital audio technology.

In such an environment it may seem remarkable that any music gets performed at all. But it is precisely because so much fine contemporary music is being performed and at such high standards that the lack of live recordings is so critical. Granted, it’s fair to say that with the majority of performances of new works today, the composer is given a recording of the concert. But evidence shows that the more prominent the performers, the less likely it is that a recording is available.

“It’s like a custody battle in a dysfunctional family,” says Tom Broido, President of Theodore Presser, the oldest continuing music publisher in the United States. “Mom and pop are the musicians and the management. Caught in the middle of the battle are the kids—the composers.”

“It is often an appalling situation which we have no control over, even though the piece played is written with our blood,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Kernis.

“It’s everybody’s favorite topic,” deadpans Michael Geller, Executive Director of the American Composers Orchestra.

As with any legal matters, language is crucial. In the research of this article, several important terms were often tossed about with their precise meanings unclear.

Archival tape: The term implies that it sits on a shelf. Can others hear it only when they visit your archive? Or does archival simply mean the opposite of …

Commercial: which would mean on a professionally released CD—though to label professionally released recordings of contemporary music commercial is a misnomer by any standard.

Marketing vs. Promotion: The former connotes the pursuit of earnings and income while the latter suggests the development of a reputation, but the distinction is particularly vague in a field like music. Sometimes when an agreement says that a tape “cannot be used for marketing purposes,” that sometimes means that it cannot be used in commercials, an unlikely possibility.

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