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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Violins and Shovels

There is a general consensus amongst the majority of leading economists that the Obama Administration’s 2009 economic stimulus package must “go big.” Although the current economic crisis is to some degree brand-new territory, and the dynamics are not fully understood, there are some important lessons that were learned from the Great Depression of the 1930’s - and also from the more recent Japanese recession beginning in 2001. The current economic disaster has caught just about everyone by surprise. It’s world-wide, deeper than a barrel of molasses, and it appears that there is no quick or easy fix. An influx of jobs into the economy is needed immediately to get things rolling and to sidestep hardship, avoid massive dislocation, and avert dire poverty that American’s haven’t seen or experienced for a generation.

But are all public works programs created equal? Obama is still formulating his plan, and he mentioned roads, bridges, sewer systems, schools, mass transit, electrical grids, dams, windmills, and solar panels in a recent radio address. There is already a buzz in the art community that any massive economic stimulus package of that magnitude should also include funding for the arts. On Sunday December 14th, the Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell proposed that Obama should support a wave of new public buildings similar to the WPA building boom of the 1930’s.

I see Shovels on the horizon, but where are the Violins?

During FDR’s New Deal, nearly a half million works of art were created. In addition to the painting, murals and sculpture, there was generous support for music. Countless public performances involving folk music (e.g. Woody Guthrie), classical music, performances of dance, drama, and opera were supported by government funds during this period. Aside from investing in the infrastructure of new roads, bridges, and buildings, the New Deal employed a lot of artists. It gave many of them a food on the table and a career in addition to providing the joy of music to the masses.

To support music, Roosevelt's Depression-era New Deal created the Federal Music Project. It was directed by a former conductor of the Cleveland Symphony - Nikolai Sokoloff – and the program employed approximately 16,000 musicians at its peak. It was divided into sub-divisions which focused on: orchestral and chamber music; choral and opera; concert, military and dance bands; and theater orchestras. There were about 5000 weekly performances country-wide serving millions of people. Admission charges were kept to a minimum.

Roosevelt's New Deal had a component specifically directed to composers. In 1935 the New York City Composers' Forum-Laboratory was created as part of the Music Education Division of the Federal Music Project (FMP), working under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Each Composer Forum event featured one or two composers – such as Arthur Berger, Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford, Roger Sessions, Elie Siegmeister, Roy Harris, Virgil Thompson, Johanna Beyer, Norman Cazden, Robert McBride, Paul Bowles, or Paul Creston (just to name a few). Over the years I've met a number of these well-known American composers.

Admission to the NYC Composers' Forum-Laboratory concerts was free, and the events would include a question-and-answer session between composers and the audience on a wide-range of topics A stenographer would record the discussions – and these documents survive today and provide a rich source of information about a vital period in American music for researchers, scholars and historians.

The New York City Composers' Forum-Laboratory (located at a Midtown Community Center) was the leader and model for other cities across the nation. For example, in 1935 Henry Cowell’s "Mosaic Quartet" (String Quartet No. 3) was performed by the Modern Art Quartet at the 7th of the WPA Composers' Forum-Laboratory events. The success of the New York City Composers' Forum inspired cities across the country to institute similar programs, including Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and San Francisco.

Under the auspices of the NY Forum, composer Roy Harris presented a lecture series entitled Let's Make Music that was broadcast over WNYC – a radio program that attracted thousands of active listeners. WQXR also aired many of the concerts presented by the Forum. Nationally, 1,500 composers penned 5,500 works under the FMP, and all of these were performed by WPA-sponsored ensembles.

There was a research and educational wing of the FMP too, and they provided classes in rural areas as well as urban neighborhoods. It’s estimated that over 132,000 children and adults in 27 states received musical instruction every week. Federal Music Project workers also pioneered research into music therapy, served as music copyists, arrangers, librarians, and catalogers.

Why not reinstate the WPA Federal Music Project? We have the talent. We need the jobs. It will improve the cultural infrastructure of the nation, rapidly inject much needed stimulus into the economy, and feed the souls of a public hungry for new music.