The Past, The Present, and The Future
As a composer in the 21st century, I know that I “stand on the shoulders” of creators of both genders from all over the world.
It’s relatively quiet here at my desk in New York City today, but the past seven days have been anything but. If you recall, last week at this time I was on my way to St. Louis for the 2013 conference of the League of American Orchestras. Bad weather conditions at both Newark and St. Louis slowed down my arrival a bit, but I still managed to cram quite a bit of activity into the 41 hours I got to spend in The Lou. Aside from being a city with a fabulous orchestra and an acoustically marvelous (as well as extremely opulent) concert hall, it also boasts the highest Zagat rated BBQ in the entire USA (tasty and worth the sweltering mile-long walk past the national headquarters for both Tums—symbolic?—and Purina), a baseball team with the 2nd best track record for winning the World Series (though that’s a term that has always irked me since only American and Canadian teams compete), and being only an hour away from the nation’s very first designated American Viticultural Area. (I had no time to trek there, but I did scope out a bottle of Augusta wine at a grocer five blocks away from the conference hotel.) And let’s not forget that Arch, which turns 50 next year and which I could see directly outside the window of my hotel room at the Hyatt Regency where the majority of the League’s conference sessions, as well as the exhibition room, were located.
Sadly due to my subsequent journey to Dublin (on that more shortly), I had to miss most of the conference, which lasted from June 18 until June 20, but I did manage to glean quite a bit of information from what I did experience of it. The opening session at Powell Hall, “Imagining 2023,” featured a riveting performance by the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra (conducted by David Robertson) of Ingram Marshall’s mesmerizing Kingdom Come, followed by a series of speeches and the presentation of the Gold Baton Awards. (There was apparently no time to officially announce the winners of the 2013 Adventurous Programming awards, which in past years had been co-presented with ASCAP during the conference. This year they were instead announced online on June 18, and we published the full report.)
It was great to hear Gold Baton honoree Don Randel, president emeritus of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, address why we must do more to encourage music and resist the overwhelming saturation from sports in our society. I’ve long believed that while both activities show the importance of group activity, there is something pernicious about the sports paradigm where there must be losers in order to have winners whereas in a musical performance everybody wins.
I was also very glad I was able to hear the keynote address by Elizabeth Merritt, the founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums. I was particularly fascinated by how she delineated two “possible futures” for orchestras from what she described as a “cone of plausibility.” In the first possible future scenario, which she called “fragmentation,” orchestras basically continue along the exact same path they’ve been on and their audience continues to shrink. The second scenario, which she labeled “ubiquity,” has orchestras involved in a variety of functions which they have traditionally not been associated with including a great deal of interactive educational initiatives, many of which will be online. To further her arguments that everything is moving online and to ignore that reality is tantamount to organizational suicide even right now, Merritt cited a statistic that claimed there are 2.4 billion current internet users worldwide. Although if Geohive’s data is to be believed, there are more than 7.1 billion people on the planet as of yesterday, which means that less than 34% of the world is currently online. So much as I share her zeal for online communication (otherwise why would I be writing these words here), I remain suspicious of the notion that the web could ever somehow magically reach everyone nor do I think that anything could or even should reach everyone. I also took exception to her implication that non-participatory activities are somehow authoritarian, since I believe that if we are incapable of attentively listening to one another, a skill that listening to music instills, we will ultimately fall prey to authoritarianism.
A couple of hours later, Robertson was back on the stage at Powell Hall leading the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a program he proudly proclaimed spanned four centuries, stating in an on-stage comment in between pieces that “we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.” But while the orchestra sounded equally convincing in performances of overtures and arias (for which the orchestra was joined by bass/baritone Eric Owens) by Mozart (18th) and Wagner (19th) as well as symphonies by Sibelius (20th!) and John Adams (21st), there was something that felt very un-21st century about this collection of repertoire—it was exclusively composed by white men, three of whom were dead Europeans. As a composer in the 21st century, I know that I “stand on the shoulders” of creators of both genders from all over the world. Despite my heretofore stated belief in the sanctity of the non-participatory listening experience, I guess that puts me in the “ubiquity” camp.
The following morning I put my philosophy about inclusive repertoire into action during the session I moderated called “New Music: Opportunities to Broaden Audiences.” It was easy to do with the group of panelists who sat with me. Robert Franz, music director of the Boise Philharmonic, spoke of the great success the orchestra had back in November 2012 with a concert pairing The Rite of Spring (which had never been previously performed in Boise) and Sacred Land, a brand new work (though his fourth commission from the orchestra) by local composer Jim Cockey that was inspired by the Shoshone and Bannock tribes. Chicago Sinfonietta Executive Director Jim Hirsch spoke about the orchestra’s recent Chi-scape project which, under the stewardship of Jennifer Higdon, presented music inspired by Chicago architecture written by an extremely diverse group of composers—Armando Bayolo, Vivian Fung, Jonathan Bailey Holland, and Chris Rogerson. Finally, Jazz St. Louis Executive Director Gene Dobbs Bradford and Tim O’Leary, general director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, talked about how these two local organizations worked together on Terence Blanchard’s first opera, Champion, which was being staged in St. Louis the week of the conference. The opera is inspired by the life story of Emile Griffith, an African-American boxer who accidently killed his opponent during the welterweight world championship in 1962 and who—thirty years later—was viciously beaten and almost killed in a homophobic attack. While new music does not represent the majority of the programming of any of these organizations (during the Q&A period one of them exclaimed that I must really not like dead people when I pointed this out), it was abundantly clear that it was the programs which included new works that garnered the most excitement from the communities in which they were based and that it is new music that is most likely to attract new audiences to the concert hall.
There were many additional sessions during the conference that focused specifically on new music, including a conversation between David Robertson and Jesse Rosen, the League’s president and CEO, called “New Music from Here to 2023,” and a talk moderated by Norman Ryan, vice president of Schott Music Corporation, called “Learning from New Ensembles.” But I had to rush to the airport in order to participate in another panel discussion the following morning in Dublin which was part of a day-long conference called “The Future of Music in the Digital World 2” organized by the Contemporary Music Centre of Ireland. Although my session in St. Louis ended at 10:15 a.m. on Wednesday and the session in Dublin didn’t begin until 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, thanks to time zone differences I actually had only 17 hours and 45 minutes to get from door to door. I almost missed my connection due to the wide separation between the domestic and international terminals at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and a glacially slow security line. But then I got lucky, because although I just barely arrived at the gate in time for my departure, the plane arrived in Dublin half an hour early, which actually allowed me to check in to my hotel and even take a shower!
I must point out that I was pleasantly surprised to notice quite a bit of American repertoire on the Aer Lingus flight I was on. There were a total of 8 CDs in the classical section that were devoted to music by American composers, including two discs of music by Eric Whitacre as well as Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, Hilary Hahn performing the Ives violin sonatas, and Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 4 (a twelve-tone piece he wrote in Hollywood). Admittedly 8 out of a total of 101 CDs to choose from amounts to pretty slim pickings, but it’s better than nothing. There were no discs featuring Irish composers, which I found outrageous from an Irish airline flying to Ireland. The jazz choices were also solid—not just classics like Mingus Ah Um and Sonny Rollins’s Saxophone Colossus, but also discs by Philadelphia-based pianist Orrin Evans, superstar Esperanza Spaulding, and Pat Metheny’s wild Orchestrion project (which I finally got a chance to hear as a result). The alternative rock selections ranged from some fascinating albums like Dirty Projectors’ Bitter Orca and Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest to some odd choices—how are Ozzy Osbourne and John Cougar Mellencamp alternative? (On the United Airlines flight back home Sunday there were only 24 CDs in the classical section, none featuring American or Irish composers, and no Alternative Rock section at all. Home sweet home, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
The conference in Dublin offered a fascinating range of perspectives including Steve Lawson, from New Music Strategies, who claimed that no musician “should feel entitled to earn a living” to singer/songwriter Julie Feeney, who talked about the precarious tight rope she has walked balancing creating truly innovative music (songs that are very densely orchestrated, sometimes featuring her playing all of the various instruments) and eking out an income in the precarious economic environment that most musicians are in these days. Nick Sherrard, from Sound and Music (which is sort of the U.K.’s version of New Music USA), captivated just about everyone in the audience at The Carolan Room of Dublin’s National Concert Hall (jetlagged me included), with his description of the Minute of Listening project which provides a minute-long sound file for primary school children to listen to each day of the year. Representatives from various digital archives such as Breandán Knowlton of Europeana, Sandra Collins from the Digital Repository of Ireland, and Malachy Moran of the RTÉ , offered information about their services which will probably take me years to surf through. In the afternoon, Lawson co-led a two-hour participatory workshop about digital connectivity with his New Music Strategies colleague Andrew Dubber, the author of many provocative and often brilliant essays (including this one). Once again, he didn’t disappoint, at one point describing futurists as “astrologers” and social media experts as “snake oil salesmen.”
On Friday, I was shepherded around the city to listen to various performances during National Music Day. I caught the tail end of an ethereal performance by the National Chamber Choir of Ireland in Dublin’s General Post Office, a pop-up action that was not announced to the general public in advance. Then I wandered around town trying to find a tiny venue on an elusive street (although Dublin is relatively small, the similarity in some street names can be confusing) eventually catching part of a short concert devoted to electronic music by Gráinne Mulvey, some of which featured a live performance by soprano Elizabeth Hilliard accompanied by pre-recorded sound. Later in the day, Uilleann piper Mark Redmond was joined on the organ by composer/arranger David Bremner in a series of duets for this unlikely yet totally convincing combination at Christ Church Cathedral. But my personal favorite was probably another pop-up event, “Sun Ra Lives,” featuring the idiomatically otherworldly interpretations of OuterSpaceways Inc. and the people of Dublin who joined in on bongos and other sound producing devices as costumed musicians marched around alternately swinging and wigging out.
Saturday I was on my own during the morning so I wandered into several museums, seeing everything from an exhibition of artifacts belonging to the poet William Butler Yeats (at the National Library) to a group of millenia-old corpses that were discovered in bogs (which apparently are even more effective at preservation than mummification). It was majestic yet somehow horrific. Quite a way to end a week of discussion focused on how to shape the future while still holding on to things we cherish from the past and present.