Category: Articles

What makes you attend a music event?

What makes you attend a music event?
George Steel George Steel
“Free drinks: A concert is a celebration. It should feel like one…”
Eugene V. Carr Eugene V. Carr
“Whenever I go to a modern dance performance I’m usually thrilled by the air of expectation…”
Dean Stein Dean Stein
“…The history buff in me wants to hear what writers and composers have to say about my own time.”
Jessica Lustig Jessica Lustig
“The adventure comes when I’m not sure what the music will sound like…”

Taking Charge of American Music

Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

In 1939, six American composers joined forces to create the American Music Center, the first-ever information center devoted to the promulgation of new music. For many years, the American Music Center served as the only repository of scores and recordings of a diverse array of repertoire. This effort proved to be a lightning rod and served as a model for music information centers in more than 40 countries around the world. Now, sixty years later, the American Music Center is embarking on a new journey with the launch of NewMusicBox, the first-ever web magazine devoted to new American music.

Each month, NewMusicBox will feature an interview with one or more prominent figures in American Music in which a variety of topics will be discussed and debated at In The First Person. You will be able to join in the debate as well at In The Second Person. Detailed background on a theme topical to whomever has been interviewed will appear at In The Third Person in what I like to call “hyper-history” form. Instead of a linear narrative, there will be a single quickread page filled with a hopscotch network of links allowing you to determine for yourself how much detail you want. And opinions from a variety of movers and shakers within the music industry will be gathered at Hymn & Fuguing Tune to which you can add as well if there’s something you want to say.

For this first issue, we decided to have a roundtable discussion with the three directors of Bang On A Can, one of the most innovative and successful new music ventures of our time. We were joined by the American Music Center’s Executive Director Richard Kessler, and we were also joined by Fran Richard, Vice President of the Symphonic and Concert Music Department at ASCAP. She even provided us with a comfortable room at ASCAP where everybody was able to talk leisurely about everything from the future of the orchestra to the New Jersey Nets. Now, we invite you to debate with us about attracting audiences for new music.

For our first “hyper-history,” Ken Smith has plunged into the complex network of composer-led new music ensembles throughout the United States, tracing the roots back to the pioneering days of the Copland-Sessions concerts of the 1920s. He has spoken with the directors of 22 of today’s leading ensembles. Sprinkled throughout his journey are some exclusive RealAudio sound snippets of recent concerts from several of these groups including a musical setting of the senate testimony of Monica Lewinsky!

We asked George Steel, Artistic Director of Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, Dean Stein, Executive Director of Chamber Music America, Eugene V. Carr, President of the website CultureFinder, and Jessica Lustig, President of 21st Century Music Management to tell us what makes them attend a new music event. We’d love to know your opinion as well.

There has been a great deal of new American music in the news recently. Melinda Wagner has been awarded the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and NewMusicBox has obtained an exclusive RealAudio sound sample. A special citation was given to 81-year-old composer icon Lou Harrison at the Gay and Lesbian American Music Awards. Nine American composers were awarded Guggenheim Fellowships and 76 American composers were featured at the 1999 SCI Conference. May is also the month of the American Music Center’s Annual Meeting and Award Ceremony which this year honors Elliott Carter, Philip Glass, Harvey Lichtenstein, Ellis Freedman, Mel Powell (in memoriam), and the California EAR Unit.

We have also assembled a national calendar of performances of American music and a list of 1999 recordings featuring music by American composers. There are over 250 performances listed for May and June and almost 60 new CDs, and I’m sure we missed something! If so, please let us know.

Putting together this debut issue of NewMusicBox has confirmed for me what an exciting time this is for American music. I hope you will share in this excitement and visit us frequently.

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Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

Ken Smith
photo by Melissa Richard

For a composer, the urge to assume creative control in your own musical matters is as American as…well, Aaron Copland. But whether your frame of reference is literally the Copland-Sessions Concerts of Contemporary Music, a four-season project from 1929-1932 where American composers first took charge of bringing their music to the public, or the broader history of that tradition stretching back to Bach and Beethoven, the very breadth of composer-led or -affiliated ensembles is American to the core.

Since colleges and conservatories are the easiest places for composers and performers to interact, it’s no surprise that ensembles that met there (like Musicians Accord, eighth blackbird and the California EAR Unit) often continue the association after graduation. The members of other more experimentally-oriented groups, like Essential Music, Newband, or the American Festival of Microtonal Music, have found each other far from the halls of academe.

Once embarking on this mission, ensembles have a choice in what they perform. They can largely support a certain compositional school (The Group for Contemporary Music) or geographic location (Chicago Composers Consortium, Dinosaur Annex), or even a specific composer (Fred Ho’s Afro-Asian Music Ensemble), while other groups purposely break such categories (North/South Consonance and Composers Concordance). Some groups that originally formed around a single composer (like the Paul Dresher Ensemble) are now actively commissioning a variety of composers.

While the instrumentational resources of many of these groups is frequently what determines the kinds of pieces composers can write for them, some groups have been formed specifically to suit the whims of the composers (Music for Homemade Instruments, Bang On A Can All-Stars) But there are still composers who have found such standard ensembles like the string quartet to be their perfect medium for self-expression although their own conception of the genre has made them form their own groups (Soldier String Quartet, Turtle Island String Quartet).

The sound of much American concert music is largely shaped by the fact that composers are writing for specific ensembles. It is certainly easier for a composer to get a work performed by a small ensemble of his or her own creation than by an orchestra where the odds are generally stacked against both living composers and Americans. In fact, the American Composers Orchestra was created to try to remedy this and show that you can still have enormous musical diversity even if you focus exclusively on 20th century American music.

There is always the danger of being pigeon-holed in a new music ghetto. Groups like Sequitur and the Common Sense Composers Collective add to their own tradition trappings and inspirations from theater and dance. The Da Capo Chamber Players used to perform new works more than once in an evening to give audiences a greater familiarity with the music. They now frequently combine new pieces with works from the standard repertoire on their programs.

Usually, at some point, even the newest music falls comfortably on the continuum, as conductors such as Parnassus‘s Anthony Korf and Present Music‘s Kevin Stalheim have found. Music never exists in a vacuum, and at some point, even our most radical views and expressions of the present come to terms with the past. After all, what Copland began is now 70 years old.

The Ensembles

What makes you attend a music event? George Steel

George Steel
Photo courtesy of George Steel

Conductor and Artistic Director, Miller Theater (Columbia University)

The Elements of Style: What attracts me to a new music concert

  • Free drinks: A concert is a celebration. It should feel like one. Any gesture of hospitality is always a lure.
  • Unapologetic programming: Nothing makes a program more drab more quickly than the sense that works are being played out of duty or for the sake of appearances. Play music you are crazy about.
  • An ensemble of flexible size and instrumentation: There is too much music for the Pierrot + percussion band. If a group has more than ten players, it is manifest that they have the will and desire to explore more interesting repertoire. It follows that if a large number of players have been persuaded to play a piece, it is more likely to be persuasive music.
  • Not too many solo works: Unless the concert is Berio’s Sequenzas, a string of solo works is seldom inviting. Variety is a prime attractant.
  • Truth in packaging: Marketing materials should make plain the composer’s dates, the date a piece was written, and, if possible, the size of the ensemble. Composerly mumbo-jumbo about pieces should be avoided. Also, any brochure that uses the word “kaleidoscope” is a veiled cry for help. Nothing invites an audience better than a good photograph of composer and ensemble.
  • No Beethoven: I don’t know why Beethoven crops up on so many new music concerts. No composer, no matter what influences they claim, will withstand comparison with Beethoven. The practice of putting a common-practice-era work on the second half to make the audience stay to listen is an admission of defeat. I hate it.
  • Music I don’t know: I go to new music concerts to hear new works.
  • I care if I listen: It is a tautology that needs repeatings — a composer whose work ignores the audience will seldom attract an audience. A concert is a public event, not a private devotion; every advancement in the science of music is not cause for a concert. Precompositional design that is concerned more with structure than affect tends to yield works better seen and not heard.
  • A sense of fun: What more need be said?

What makes you attend a music event? Eugene V. Carr

Eugene V. Carr
Photo courtesy of CultureFinder

Former Executive Director, American Symphony Orchestra & President, CultureFinder (The Online Address for the Arts)

Whenever I go to a modern dance performance I’m usually thrilled by the air of expectation in the house. People are eagerly waiting to see what their favorite dancers and choreographers are up to. I go to new music concerts with the same mindset. I try to be open to new things and look forward to being surprised and challenged.

What makes you attend a music event? Jessica Lustig, President, 21st Century Music Management, Inc

Jessica Lustig
Photo courtesy of Jessica Lustig

When I attend new music events I feel a sense of adventure and hope. The adventure comes when I’m not sure what the music will sound like. The hope is that I may be lucky enough to be among the first to hear a work that will make a lasting impact on many people. If I am familiar with a composer’s music, when listening to a new piece I’ll look for what has changed, as well as what has been integrated into the composition from older works.

When I hear music of a composer who is unfamiliar to me, I’ll listen for a distinctive voice that grabs and demands my attention. Although nothing matches the thrill of being a witness to a new musical creation at a premiere, and it is also very satisfying to hear a work a few years after the premiere, knowing that with each subsequent performance, its chances of entering the repertory increase.