Fit To Print: A “Hyperhistory” of the Current State of American Music Publishing

Universal Edition (UE) was founded in Vienna in the year 1901 by a banker named Josef Simon, who was the brother in law of the composer whose name is almost synonymous with Vienna: Johann Strauss. Given its Viennese roots, UE’s catalogue has been primarily Eurocentric with a strong focus on the works of composers from the Second Viennese School such as Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. UE’s willingness to embrace those composers who had made a clean break with tonality established the firm’s reputation as a risk taker and a champion of adventurous new music.

American composers Earle Brown and Morton Feldman came to UE through Darmstadt, a leading German center for new music where Boulez, Stockhausen and Berio conducted much of their musical research. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Steve Reich asked UE to publish several of his works. Prior to 1995, American composers had to pursue a relationship UE. UE made no active effort to recruit American composers until recently. Under the artistic leadership of Robert Thompson, an American who speaks fluent German and has a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music, UE has recently launched a campaign to develop its presence and influence in North America.

Thompson explained the decision to move into the U.S. market as almost inevitable. “During my tenure at our Vienna office in the 1990’s, it became ever more apparent to us on the Artistic Board that we needed to think globally, to embrace the creativity of divergent cultures and musical styles, and to move beyond conventional wisdom.” That thinking led in 1998 to the opening of a New York office and the establishment of the Spectrum Series of composers. Under the Spectrum umbrella, UE publishes and represents artist-composers in classical, jazz, film, and world music, with a strong affinity for works by Latin American composers. Thompson sees an interesting parallel between the past of UE in Austria, and the future growth in the US. “New York is the current cross-roads of world culture, just like Vienna was in the 1920’s.”

For now, the New York City office of UE is a one-man show, but the plan is to add staff and to move into a larger space as the mission expands to include more composers and a wider array of projects. Through the Spectrum Series, UE publishes the music of American-based composers Osvaldo Golijov, Maria Schneider, Daniel Schnyder, Gabriela Ortiz, Miguel Kertsman, Rabih Abou-Khalil, and Michael Gandolfi. Thompson and his UE colleagues listen to hundreds of scores and recordings each year, and the decision to bring someone to the roster is based on heart and gut instinct.

UE provides publishing services, promotes the catalogue, forges relationships with other artists, ensembles, venues, festivals and record companies. A good example of this creative synergy at work is the case of the Cambridge-based Argentinean composer, Osvaldo Golijov. He is currently writing the music for a new Sally Potter film to be released by Universal Pictures starring Cate Blanchet, Cristina Ricci, John Turturro and Johnny Depp. Potter first became enamoured of Golijov’s at a Kronos Quartet concert at London’s Wigmore Hall. Her feature film will almost certainly lead to increased notoriety for Golijov. Choreographers can also be powerful partners in bringing contemporary music to new audiences. New York-based composer Maria Schneider composed a piece for the Pilobolus Dance Theater, who will take it on tour thereby exposing dance enthusiasts across the U.S. to her music.

Robert Thompson is a thoughtful man who believes that a certain amount of chaos in a business plan can be very healthy. There is a compelling contradiction in his philosophy and his dreams for New York-based activities of UE. On the one hand, he says, “When we sign a new composer, it takes a very long time to recoup our initial investment in them. What I’m doing now is for the long-term success of the catalogue. I’m thinking about the future.” Yet there is also a palpable sense of impatience. “The face of the publishing industry has changed dramatically. We have to think more in terms of short term – maximizing the potential of each composer through special projects. But we’re ultimately interested in longevity; we want our artists to be the Rolling Stones of classical music.”

From Fit To Print: A “Hyperhistory” of the Current State of American Music Publishing
by John Robinson
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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