Day 7: Rooting for the Underdog

The Red Sox just won the World Series, and I don’t care. Gone are the days of the Bambino’s Curse, when the Sox were America’s favorite underdog and the antithesis to the evils of the Yankees. These days they’re just another winning team with a high payroll.

New music has been experiencing a surge of popularity over the past couple decades, but, at least in the orchestral world, it still plays the role of underdog; and as the Minnesota Orchestra concert of seven new works Friday night showed, it is fun to be a fan. From the frantic opening notes of Trevor’s piece to the last blasts of mine, the musicians played with such energy and enthusiasm that they took our works to heights we couldn’t have imagined, to a place far beyond the ink we had written on the page.

A large crowd was there to enjoy the music, one that greatly exceeded the box office’s expectations and surpassed last year’s Future Classics attendance. Perhaps more importantly, the crowd was again diverse in age and style. (A family of three generations, running the gamut from a braces-laden teenager to a cane-wielding grandfather, congratulated me afterwards.) The audience was no doubt enthusiastic, standing to applaud as all seven composers gathered on stage at the concert’s close. One got the sense that the ovation was as much of a stamp of approval for the orchestra’s interest in new music as it was recognition for the compositions and the performance.

“We cannot act as if all the music that’s worth playing has already been written,” Osmo Vänskä said at the Q & A session that followed the concert. “We have to support the works that are being created today.” It seems like his fans in the Twin Cities have been listening.

Composers are usually fortunate enough to have vibrant relationships with each other and with contemporary music performers, but this past week reminded me that the vast majority of our potential audience is outside of this secure bubble. If we strive to reach beyond our community of musicians into this unknown territory, however daunting that may be, perhaps the enthusiasm that demonstrated itself on Friday will gradually spread, and there will come a time when contemporary music is no longer the underdog—that may seem impossible at this point, but art, after all, is interesting because its course is unpredictable. Even if new music does become standard in orchestral concerts across the nation, the music will always be of its time and by definition will always be new. And so it will, at least in my mind, always be fun to root for.

P.S.: Some thanks are due: Aaron Kernis and Beth Cowart for their endless work and for making the Institute what it is, Osmo Vänskä for his faith in our music, the Minnesota Orchestra for its energy, Frank Oteri and NewMusicBox for giving this blog a home, Melissa Ousley and MPR for their coverage, Cia Toscanini of ASCAP and Ralph Jackson of BMI for their generosity, the American Composers Forum for its time and interest, Brian Robertshaw for making us feel like movie stars, and Claudia De Palma for her sharp editing skills.

9 thoughts on “Day 7: Rooting for the Underdog

  1. rtanaka

    The general vibe I’ve been getting from some of the more seasoned musicians I’ve talked to is that things are becoming extremely decentralized compared to how it used to be in the past. Record labels are starting to lose their grip on the monopolies they used to have in the past, and with the majority of the orchestras losing its money and all, I think music done in smaller, more intimate environments will become more popular.

    I mean, in the long run, having your face on this site probably isn’t really going to change a whole lot. I’ve gotten to know people who performed in Carnegie hall, gotten CD releases, performed on TV, gotten reviews from the LA Times, but as far as their day-to-day existence they’re doing the same ol’ thing as everybody else usually — gigging and teaching. Hmm, even I had the chance to play at Disney Hall and RedCat a few times…the experience of it was pretty cool I guess but it didn’t really didn’t do anything for my career. There’s really just too many musicians all over the place for things like that to have a significant impact. (Likewise, you could say the same thing about competitions.)

    I think this is why it’s more important than ever that musicians be able to find themselves of what they might want to do. Academic, popular, world, jazz or whatever, you sort of have to find your niche. Any sort of ceremonial event is only going to be useful as a way to make contacts, and that usually only happens if you hit it off with another person in some way.

    Once I got a grip on what kind of music I wanted to write and perform, a lot of the logistical things began falling into place. Where to play, who to talk to, what to do, etc. I’m probably not going to make a whole lotta money, but at least now I’m not particularly worried of not having any venues to get my music performed. (Being a performer myself also helps tremendously.) In the American climate, it seems like self-initiation is the only way to do it.

    On the other hand, I’d like to see more funding to be put on music education — some of my friends are involved with the Harmony Project, teaching music to children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s really a thankless job in a lot of ways but at least they’re making an actual difference in very real ways. Can the same be said about a lot of the activities done in New Music?

    Reply
  2. Colin Holter

    It’s really a thankless job in a lot of ways but at least they’re making an actual difference in very real ways. Can the same be said about a lot of the activities done in New Music?

    That they’re thankless, or that they’re making an actual difference? Yes and yes, I’d say.

    Reply
  3. philmusic

    “On the other hand, I’d like to see more funding to be put on music education — some of my friends are involved with the Harmony Project,…”

    The problem with the Harmony Project, and others like it, is that they tend to replace the State required music programs that school districts are supposed to provide during the school day. Public School Districts now have yet another reason not to hire full time K-12 music staff. Its a feel good band aid on a self inflicted wound. Besides “outsourcing” the problem, its also a much cheaper solution than hiring full time licensed and union music staff. Districts must fund their State required arts programs!

    I apologize for bringing this up under this heading –but this kind of talk gets my dander up! lets talk about this more under some other heading!

    The concert was wonderful—Kudos to all!!!

    Phil’s Page

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  4. rtanaka

    That they’re thankless, or that they’re making an actual difference? Yes and yes, I’d say.

    Thankless? How so? Lots of the prominent composers have all been showered with generous endowments and cushy positions in academia which give great benefits and long vacation times. Meanwhile, my friend is living without health insurance, working almost 7 days a week while simultaneously trying to keep up with her artistic outputs.

    Yeah, life isn’t fair etc., but cmon now, if you have the luxury of being able to write New Music, you have plenty to be thankful for. It’s typical to want to paint one’s self as the victim, but in relative terms, New Music composers are much well-off compared to 99.99% of the world’s population. This is a fact. They should see themselves as being in a position of priviledge and attempt to give something back.

    I was lucky enough to get my pieces played in some pretty good venues by very good performers, but I mean really, after the performance is done, it’s done, few compliments and criticisms aside, life goes on and people move onto other more interesting things. Personally, I found the best way to make a difference in a person’s life is teaching, which I’m trying to do more of now. I don’t remember a lot of things I learned in school but I do remember the people that made a significant impact on my life. Academia should be about teaching too, otherwise it’s just sucking up government money without actually giving anything back to the public.

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  5. rtanaka

    Districts must fund their State required arts programs!

    Yeah I agree, but it’s better than nothing at this point, and it’s a way for musicians to make a living by applying their skills in a social conscious manner.

    Either way, I do think that the era of government funding individual artists is largely over. Neither politicians on the right or the left seem too enthusiastic of supporting non-representational artforms, but if it’s for “educational purposes”, then there might actually be a chance in hell that they might allocate more funding.

    Reply
  6. EvanJohnson

    Lots of the prominent composers have all been showered with generous endowments and cushy positions in academia which give great benefits and long vacation times. Meanwhile, my friend is living without health insurance, working almost 7 days a week while simultaneously trying to keep up with her artistic outputs.

    Ryan, how do you suppose those composers came to be prominent?

    By working their )@#(*$&es off, that’s how, in part, often while holding down day jobs working almost 7 days a week with no health insurance while simultaneously trying to keep up with their artistic outputs.

    Reply
  7. rtanaka

    Ryan, how do you suppose those composers came to be prominent?

    I’m sure a lot of them have, but if you look hard enough, you’ll find some composers and performers who casually floated through the ladder though a matter of connections and nepotism. To say that the system is completely meritocratic isn’t quite accurate either. Classical music is a system of patronage, it shouldn’t really be a surprise, really.

    Reply
  8. Colin Holter

    I’m sure a lot of them have, but if you look hard enough, you’ll find some composers and performers who casually floated through the ladder though a matter of connections and nepotism.

    Yes, in that respect it’s very much like the humanities, the sciences, business, politics, medicine, and every other field of human endeavor.

    All we can do is our best, right? Isn’t this what it fundamentally comes down to? Instead of saying “some musicians float up the ladder on connections and nepotism,” we should be saying “I am not going to float through up the system on connections and nepotism. Whatever success I encounter I will earn.” Short of embarking on some sort of post-tenure review pogrom (and I wish you the best of luck), that’s about the most ambitious we can be.

    Reply
  9. rtanaka

    “I am not going to float through up the system on connections and nepotism. Whatever success I encounter I will earn.”

    Yeah, you are right about this. I’m actually living that world right now, because I do have some well connected people in Japan whom I could probably mooch off from, but I’m being stubborn in thinking I can do without them, even though arts funding in the United States is pretty terrible. Maybe I’ll get disillusioned and eventually go back there, who knows. I’m avoiding it like the plague at this point because there’s a lot of things that I don’t like about Japanese culture that I’m trying to get away from.

    Main thing is that I think we should be thankful for the opportunies to do music! Too many people take it for granted, in my opinion. I think Steve was the one who said that he said the idea of it was like giving a gift to the performers — if you make a genuine effort to give something to them, people often reciprocate.

    Reply

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