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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The next great thing

People who listen to and support new music are often confused and baffled by the selection of divergent musical styles and offerings presented in concert. For them , it's not an easy task to differentiate between various works and sort out the good from the bad. It necessitates that one sit through a dozen or more horrendous pieces to hopefully encounter a rare musical work that has potential and some merit.

There is an unfortunate tendency to entrust the musical establishment with the bulk of this important task. The public is inclined to delegate the responsibility of musical selection to professionals and musical curators who create the initial playlist. With so much new and unexplored music out there and so little opportunity to hear it, it is easy to see why the "tell me what to like" approach has become an all too easy and convenient solution.

In Massachusetts, summer new music festivals from Tanglewood to BangleWood (at MoCA) have adapted a tendency to program works by known composers who have an established a track record. If composer X or Y has attained many awards and distinctions, then the public's inclination is to assume that their music "must be good." Conversely, in the culture of new music, if a composer is obscure, rarely performed, and an unknown quantity, then there is uncertainty, suspicion and hesitation. "Why should I waste my time with that?"

While a few of the composers who break through the glass ceiling of the new music establishment may be labeled as "emerging" or fresh voices, by in large musical organizations have a deeply ingrained self-interest to program middle-of-the-road works. By default, they play it safe. The business-side of their financially strapped not-for-profit organizations are risk-adverse and opt to ride on the bandwagon of this or that composer's success.

The bandwagon phenomenon actually works both ways. Not only do the music festival directors have a motivation to gravitate toward the mainstream, but the more successful a composer gets, the more accessible their music is likely to become. Both composers and music festivals trend toward serving the least common denominator in the interest of attaining a larger audience. Consciously or unconsciously, they increasingly provide what the majority of people want to hear rather than take a chance on unexplored, unheard, or unimagined minority points of view.

I think the current selection system creates a false and artificial relationship between the composer and the public. It is driven not by a quest for new and innovative music, but arises haphazardly as a compromise of self-interests between a hodgepodge of groups involved in the selection process. The result is that "established" composers monopolize the stage, take-on less risk, and simply rewrite pieces that worked for them in the past. They fall into the trap of appeasing their audience with what they want to hear rather than what they as artists would like to explore, discover, and create for themselves musically. They loose their cutting edge.

I can name so many composers who were hot commodities early on in their career 30 years ago. Some of them won countless prestigious awards, such as the Rome Prize and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation. These composers had a plethora of performances by leading musical organizations, and released commercial CDs of their music - all to good reviews. Today those composers have completely disappeared into a dark void. For whatever reason they lost interest and simply gave up writing music despite the impressive initial volley of their formative years. Today, by all accounts, these composers no longer compose music.

What happened? Why did these composers not live up to high expectations? After all, they had made it past the all-important filter of success maintained by the new music establishment. It's a difficult problem to analyse, since a few of these composers in my view were indeed extraordinarily talented (although most of them were competent, but ordinary).

I can't speak for them, but my read is that these individuals lost sight of what composing is about. They got so wrapped up in playing the game of winning awards and getting ahead in their careers that they forgot what attracted them to music in the first place. Perhaps after attaining recognition from the musical establishment these composers realized that in the large scheme of life awards are a hollow. Attaining badges of superficial distinction may be good for bios in concert program booklets, but little else.

The musical establishment perpetuates itself by selecting (more or less randomly) young composers from a pool of fresh talent. Musical artists and composers alike participate in the open marketplace by presenting their wares to professional organizations and concert promoters. But clearly it's a buyer's market. A lot of good fruit gets left on the shelf unsold and wasted. It's an ugly system.

Sometimes good musicians and composers are damaged by the outcome. Not only are too many talented people overlooked, but a percentage of those who have initial success spiral down, crash, and burnout after they realize that the system that created their success is arbitrary, indiscriminate, and superficial.

It is clear to me that the music that is selected for us to hear at music festivals and concerts is unevenly distributed. The selection-process comes from the inside rather than from the outside. It's about relationships, personal alliances, notoriety and fat bios. It's about political correctness and political influence.

Given the amount of new music being produced today, there probably does need to be some method of filtration. The current belief is that filtering is a matter of practical necessity: too many composers, and too few resources result in not enough opportunity to hear everyone's work. But, if that is truly the rationale behind the established system of elimination, then why is it that a minority of composers rise to the top of the heap? Look around, and it is clear that certain composers are performed all the time. Conversely, some composers are rarely, if ever, performed at all.

I believe that the current system of music selection at new music venues is imperfect and mildly corrupt. "Pay for play" is more common that the public is led to believe. Deal making of all sorts occurs as well. The selection system doesn't work as it should and as a consequence the public is left short changed. Listeners are not exposed to a fair and representative offering of musical ideas that truly stem from the broad and rich landscape of current musical expression. As a result, the public may be missing out on the "next great thing."

The fact that the current offering of performances of musical works is unevenly distributed frustrates me as a consumer and as a composer. I don't necessarily believe that we are hearing everything that is out there. I don't have faith that what is being marketed, packaged, sold, and delivered by the musical establishment is the best of the best. The system seems to be anything but fair, efficient, and equitable, but it's the only mechanism we have. At least for now.