Musicians at Work: Ensemble Residencies as Social Relationships
Entrepreneurialism is celebrated by many in the arts scene, but the reality is less sunny than the image often projected by consultants and administrators. Because it valorizes flexibility, opportunism, and social relationships, entrepreneurialism demands constant work. When every moment has potential meaning, it can be hard to relax.
Over the last few decades, many American schools of music have embraced the repertoire and missions of new music ensembles. DePauw, Oberlin, Eastman, Mills College, and even Indiana’s Jacob’s School of Music have opened their doors to the new generation of composers and performers creating new music today. While this is hardly news to the readership of NewMusicBox, it marks a significant change in attitude among American higher education institutions. Take, for example, musicologist Susan McClary’s assessment from 1989 that “both popular and postmodern musics are marked as the enemy, and there is still considerable effort exerted to keep them out of the regular curriculum.” Nine years later, Robert Fink summarized his take on the influence of classical music’s institutions thusly: “For the first time, the production and consumption of contemporary art music has broken quite free of institutionalized classical music.” Fink was writing about groups like the Bang on a Can All-Stars and their proclivity for performing outside the hallowed spaces of leading institutions.
In contrast to these dour proclamations, today’s schools of music increasingly view new music as a vital and attractive addition to their education mission. A manifestation of this shift is the ensemble residency. Academies across the country routinely hire musicians to teach students both the art and business of professional new music-making. Last year, I had the opportunity to explore the interaction between ensembles and institutions. I spent time with three groups at different schools: Third Coast Percussion at the University of Chicago, the Playground Ensemble at Metropolitan State University Denver, and Eighth Blackbird at the Curtis Institute of Music.
I begin with a scene from my fieldwork in Chicago with Third Coast Percussion:
It’s 5:25 p.m. and Third Coast Percussion is running through their music. The quartet has spent most of the day here, in their studio space on Rockwell Avenue in Chicago, collaborating with composer Jonathan Pfeffer. The composer prefers to write music for people he knows well, and he spent the last two days experimenting with the group and discussing how the piece might work. Pfeffer left a few hours ago, and the quartet has since moved on to music for an upcoming concert. A brief pause occurs after they finish the piece, the members gathering their thoughts.
“We kind of settled into a tempo, and I think we should just roll with that” says Peter Martin. David Skidmore observes that the crescendo at measure thirty could grow louder. They discuss the dynamics and phrasing for a few minutes, but at some point, without my realizing it, the conversation drifts to the old Nickelodeon show, You Can’t Do That on Television. This type of break is not uncommon for these good-humored performers, but it lasts only a few minutes.
“We should, like, take a day off,” David says.
“Like in 2017?” replies Robert Dillon, a sarcastic grin spreading across his face.
The joke is funny, but rings true. The past week had been especially busy, with residency activities at the University of Chicago, a rehearsal with the Chicago Youth Symphony, and collaborative project with Pfeffer. Besides late night meals and occasional rehearsal jokes, the four percussionists have gone without a break for about nine days, often working long hours and hauling equipment from one locale to another. Phones are always close at hand as members check the progress on upcoming projects, contracts, and gig schedules. After laughing off Rob’s joke, they run the piece again, this time with the lights out as they’ll perform it.
I describe this scene in detail because it is typical to a work routine found among Third Coast Percussion, Eighth Blackbird, and the Playground Ensemble. Long days of work followed by rehearsals for quickly approaching gigs was common to all three ensembles. Performers often strove for a high level of musicianship that requires focused attention and lengthy rehearsals of difficult music. Humor was used frequently to lighten the mood, but nothing could stop the relentless approach of deadlines.
These musicians are, to invoke the buzzword of our time, “entrepreneurs.” They “create success” for themselves, an approach touted by arts consultant Astrid Baumgartner. They innovate, collaborate, and embrace what psychologist Carol Dweck dubs the “growth mindset.” Obstacles are transformed into creative guidelines, and programs created to attract audiences with enticing themes. Entrepreneurialism is celebrated by many in the arts scene, but the reality is less sunny than the image often projected by consultants and administrators. Because it valorizes flexibility, opportunism, and social relationships, entrepreneurialism demands constant work. When every moment has potential meaning, it can be hard to relax.
And work is constant in a small flexible ensemble. During my fieldwork with these three groups, I saw people working at all hours of the day, often leaving one site to report to another. Even breaks could be filled with work: phone calls to arrange the details of an upcoming gig, meetings with collaborators or students, or attending the premier of a friend’s piece. In one case, I sat down with two musicians for a casual lunch and they started discussing an approaching show, prompting one musician to quip, “Sorry to make this a work lunch!” The flexible nature of these ensembles, a seeming hallmark of the new music scene today, requires constant attention to the dozen or so obligations that, like plates spinning on poles, are poised to fall without warning. A grant application is due. Did you send me that budget? Can you help set up chairs for a second? I need to practice that one part. We have a concert and need some spoken notes. Could you prepare something?
Within the residency, tailoring is the working method of the flexible ensemble. Like consultants in the business world, these musical entrepreneurs maintain an influential if somewhat ambiguous relationship with host institutions (Sennett, 2006). At each residency, musicians designed projects (concerts, presentations, and teaching activities) that were somehow tailored to the needs of the institution and the abilities of the ensemble. Work included a variety of teaching and performing activities, as dictated by the nature of the institution and the contract for the residency. This tailoring required regular communication between ensembles and institutions, a somewhat challenging prospect depending on the number of people involved on each side of the consultant relationship. Furthermore, an ensemble’s impact upon an institution was confined by the temporary nature of the residency itself. None of these musicians were actually full-time faculty members, and their ability to shape institutional policy and goals remained limited by their transience. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that ensembles have a strong and infectiously positive impact upon an institution’s students.
For all three groups, residencies are a major part of professional life and economic livelihood. The two touring ensembles—Third Coast Percussion and Eighth Blackbird—rely heavily on residencies for their income. Residency activities such as teaching and master classes are often important offerings used to secure gigs within the network of music institutions. Such work varies greatly in length, ranging from a few hours of teaching, lecturing, or coaching all the way to weeks of activities spread out throughout the year (or years, as in the case of Eighth Blackbird’s Curtis residency). For the Playground Ensemble, a single residency provides limited financial support, but gives the group access to percussion equipment, rehearsal space, and performance venues.
In addition to economic and logistical support, residencies provide crucial symbolic capital. The currency of artists for some time, symbolic capital takes the form of prestige and reputation. It is, in essence, the value of your name. Ensembles leverage relationships, prizes, grants, and endorsements from critics and other influential taste-makers to secure future work. The prestige ascribed to a given institution serves as a sort of sociomusical business card in conversations with insiders and outsiders, as Third Coast Percussion member Robert Dillon told me of their Notre Dame residency:
There’s nothing better than being able to go somewhere and say that you’re tied to this larger reputable institution. For people who know nothing [about new music], if we walk in someplace and say we have ensemble residency at the University of Notre Dame, it’s like, “Wow, you guys must be great!” And if you’re talking to presenters or managers, then they know the person who runs the [DeBartolo] Performing Arts Center [at Notre Dame], and so that’s even better.
Members of all three ensembles described a similar view of residencies. The prestige and respect perceived to be held by the institution was, in effect, transferred to the ensemble and provided evidence of the ensembles’ legitimacy and respectability (see further Kingsbury, 1988 and Cottrell, 2004).
Like other aspects of flexible artistic labor life, residencies are developed through and contribute to social relationships. They allow ensembles to foster new contacts and project ideas. During fieldwork, I witnessed plans for future projects flourish in institutional spaces. Students told me about the important lessons they had learned from musicians, and teachers and administrators hailed residencies as part of a broader shift in institutional culture. This was especially true at Curtis, where composition faculty and director of the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble David Ludwig had spearheaded a broader shift in curriculum. In an interview with me, Ludwig described a new emphasis on teaching Curtis students:
how to be self-motivated, how to have artistic intellectual curiosity and apply that to being in the community and to engaging people. It shows a very different way of thinking […] because the school wouldn’t have even thought of that pre-internet, pre ideas of engagement.
Within this context, Eighth Blackbird figured in many ways as a model for the socio-musical entrepreneurs Curtis now seeks to create. Along similar lines, Prof. Peter Schimpf, Chair of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Music, described his vision: “I want Metro to be sort of a hub [of musical activity].” Playground, for Schimpf, offered a new music spoke, as it were, on this hub of musical offerings.
At all three institutions, ensemble members became, to varying extents, part of the educational life and community of the institution, carving out nooks and crannies, as it were, for themselves and for interaction between themselves and students. These types of social relationships were viewed by all as highly valuable when considering the overall value of the residency. The residencies thus reified these relationships into contracted work.
For over thirty years now, musicians, arts workers, and presenters have been building a vibrant scene of musical activity that provides much needed reform to classical music and an alternative to the stodgy programming common within classical music. Creating this scene requires constant energy, constant work, and constant maintenance of social relationships. Projects and programs must be tailored to unique needs, tweaked after they start, and thrown out when they falter. Though rarely examined in the popular press, residencies are an important site in the production of the new music culture so many of us love.
John Pippen teaches courses in ethnomusicology, jazz, and music and culture at the College of Wooster. His primary research has been an extended ethnographic study of the new music scene in Chicago. Pippen has presented his research at meetings of the American Musicological Society, the Society for Ethnomusicology, the Society for American Music, and College Music Society, among others.
1. For this publication, I have omitted specific details because of the sensitive nature of musicians’ networks. An important issue that remains to be fully explored in the academic literature, musicians often prefer to keep the details of gigs (fees, contracts, struggles) out of public view.
2. Many in new music are wary of this term, as am I. I have spoken to musicians of varying stature who express sincere doubts about the accuracy of the way Baumgartner and others use “entrepreneur.” Others are hesitant to invoke a term they view as connected with neoliberalism (a view I share).