At Symphony Space’s all-day new music marathon yesterday, Kate Levin, New York City’s commissioner of cultural affairs, read a proclamation from NYC Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg declaring February 22 through February 28, 2010 as “Composers Now Week.” It was an exhilarating moment in a room full of composers, new music ensemble members, and music industry professionals. But at the same time it was abundantly clear that it was only a beginning, and a small one at that.
The event took place in the Leonard Nimoy Thalia, the smaller of Symphony Space’s two concert halls, and the room was hardly full. Also, while it was great to see so many colleagues assembled in that room, there were few people there who were not yet privy to this world. The music presented spanned a broad range of styles, and it is great that the new music community seems to have largely gotten past the barriers of the various stylistic fiefdoms that would have made an event like this nearly impossible a generation ago. But those stylistic barriers do still exist, for better or worse, for large portions of the general public who need to be brought into our audience if a Composers’ Day is to ultimately mean something significant in our society. Granted, the marathon concert took place during standard work hours on a Monday which could explain why there were few folks there who weren’t deeply connected to the field. And for those of us who were there, myself included, a sense of playing hookey from all the other looming deadlines somewhat dampened the otherwise festive nature of the day.
Actually, at one point during the day, I played hookey within that hookey by racing over to the 2010-2011 season announcement of the Metropolitan Opera House, hoping against hope to hear about an exciting array of new American operas—I’m always optimistic. While it was a delight to learn that the Met is finally presenting John Adams’s Nixon in China—that plus there now being two different available commercial recordings of it certainly qualify it for standard repertoire status—the press conference remained primarily the domain of auteur directors explaining their visions of tried and true masterpieces from Europe’s past. The week before, at the season announcement of the New York Philharmonic, I was gladdened to see upcoming premieres in 2010-2011 by Sebastian Currier, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Wynton Marsalis (whose new work will open the season, no less), but admittedly these works represent a far smaller percentage of the overall repertoire than many new music aficionados, myself included, ultimately want.
By nurture perhaps even more than by nature, composers have existed in isolation and with good reason. It is extremely difficult to create notated repertoire in a social environment. But, at the same time, we can only be noticed when we come together as a community. I have long held the view that a victory for one living American composer is a victory for every American composer. So although I was saddened to see not a single world premiere among the Met’s offerings for 2010-11, their embrace of John Adams’s ground-breaking opera is heartening. It means that a work by one of us can be placed on equal footing with La Traviata and The Ring, other 2010-11 highlights. “Too little, too late!” you might grumble (even Peter Sellars in his pre-taped video commentary reminded every one that Nixon in China is now 25 years old), but a small opening in a seemingly always shut window still allows in some fresh air.
Hopefully by next year Composers Now Week will be a much anticipated event that will grow to cities all across America. For that to happen, composers will need to be even more visible in our community as well as visible in every aspect of our society. It’s a tall order, but if we can have a Poet Laureate in the U.S.A., perhaps we can get beyond the petty jealousies and aesthetic disagreements and have an officially acknowledged annually rotating Composer Laureate that we could all be proud of and who could be the public face for the composer community at large. In the meanwhile, we’re planning to broadcast highlights of this year’s “Composers Now Week” on Counterstream Radio, so stay tuned.