Musical Locavorism

By now, most of us are aware of the trend towards locavorism in food culture. Rather than simply buying “natural” or “organic” products, consumers ask how far the food traveled and seek to develop a relationship with farmers and producers through consumer supported agriculture and local harvest organizations. Restaurants tout the exact origin of their ingredients.



In this era of internet file distribution, concern about how far new music travels almost seems quaint. It takes no more energy to transmit a PDF score across the globe than across town, and excellent streaming services allow unsupported artists access to far-flung audiences. We no longer need to wait decades for European musical trends to reach our shores nor are we bound to listen only to artists from the developed world.



And yet, I keep returning to my faith that locavorism might help to promote the health of new music. I found myself contemplating this issue while teaching a rock music history class for general studies students this past semester. As the class progressed, I realized that many of the students had never encountered music beyond Top 40 radio. I found myself advocating for the students to seek new musical experiences, and it seemed that an effective way for them to discover new sounds would be to support local musicians by hearing live music in small local clubs.



Certainly many classical music organizations are already working hard to promote local artists. Ralph Kendrick and the Iowa Composers Forum have been especially active, even hiring an orchestra to premiere works by member composers. Many performers seek personal contact with composers and look to commission people they know and respect. Even major orchestras that rarely program Americans on their subscription concerts often commission composers residing within their city when they want works to play as part of outreach concerts.



With today’s proliferation of composition training programs, chances are excellent that every community large enough to support classical performance also boasts several skilled composers. Commissioning locals often guarantees an audience for the performance and builds good will within the community. Organizations that promote native composers can create productive long-term relationships with those artists. Local composers often show a great commitment to the success of these projects—whether through reducing their commissioning fee, helping to engage performers and book halls, or promoting the event within the area. When these pieces continue to live beyond the premiere through additional performances or via broadcasts—and when these composers gain prominence—the performers who created these early opportunities reap continued benefits.



My basic assumption has always been that support of local artists is virtuous and should be applauded. But I also disdain parochialism and find myself very excited by rare performances of major works by distant composers. At the moment, I’m considering repertoire for two concerts and so find myself weighing the appeal of musical locavorism. What is the best way for ensembles to balance the quest for original ideas and the desire to cultivate a strong local artistic community?

9 thoughts on “Musical Locavorism

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Yes, this is an issue. I’m up here in Vermont, which has an active composers group that campaigns to be heard. That might be the very definition of parochialism because we don’t campaign for composers elsewhere.

    Parochialism affects how you listen and compose. But the problems with parochialism can exist in any geography. Ever lived in New York?

    Parochialism can be carried along; it doesn’t necessarily come glued to the native territory. For the past few years our largest orchestra is centered on a kind of private network from a distance city with the orchestra’s commissions, major performances, conductor, composer-in-residence, etc. Yet that distant city’s ensembles do not perform major Vermont works. It’s a one-way route.

    So you may bring outside composers’ works to Dubuque or Montpelier or Cheyenne or Wasilla, but the chances of reciprocation are infinitesimal. And that’s led me to the viewpoint that the larger places are going to have enough influence and cash to present music that will then take the one-way route outward anyway, so the only point to breaking the locavore model is if it actually contributes something that can’t be had locally. (Frankly, I’ll put Vermont’s composers next to any in the U.S. or the world with no hesitation.)

    So what’s the solution? Get reciprocal arrangements made ahead of time. Then you’ll know how serious your distant-city partner is.

    Dennis

    Please support my opera; funding ends June 15.

    Reply
  2. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    I was reacting mostly to your statement, “balance the quest for original ideas and the desire to cultivate a strong local artistic community” — as if orginal ideas were not available from that local community. Your defense of the locavore arts concept seems to be tempered by a belief that it’s good for the community but not necessarily valuable or original by itself … much as the locavore idea in food is often dismissed more as ’boutiquey’ rather than having the fundamental value and sustainability of Big Food.

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  3. smooke

    Dennis:

    Thank you for your response, which shows your thoughtful engagement with this issue. Parochialism definitely takes a different light when applied to larger communities, and your point that reciprocal arrangements are often not completed is a good one.

    In terms of my final sentence, I would say that I’m using “original” in the sense of being new to the community, not in the sense of having more value, with the idea being that any artist within the community would be a known quantity even if they are as original as Shodekeh or Harry Partch.

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  4. pgblu

    I must confess that I love Dennis Bathory-Kitsz. I’m not afraid to make that admission here in this public forum.

    If people want to hear what’s going on outside their local area, they can usually find it on youTube — I know that’s not fair, but I just mean to underscore how much more urgent the support of local talent is than the support of nationally renowned talent. From my own experience, local composers (not to mention local performers!) are where it’s at. If only because they’re more likely to have written for the local performers, have worked with them directly, and are quite likely to show up to the concert to interact with audiences. What’s not to like?

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  5. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    David,

    Thanks for the clarification. I sensed that you meant something positive by the local community and weren’t being disdainful.

    My comments come from the experience of feeling an unwitting disdain. Some years ago I had the premiere of a pretty good piece, and later read in the blog of an urban composer that he was surprised at such good composition up here, some ideas worth incorporating in his own music. He clearly meant the compliment, but what was he expecting? And how would it have been received had I written similar words from my flora-covered hut in Vermont after hearing a piece in his city?

    In other words, reciprocity is a tough thing among all us parochials!

    pg: [thump, thump]

    Dennis

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  6. rskendrick

    David, thanks for this wonderfully written and thought provoking post. I think that we serve ‘the cause’ of new music equally well by promoting living composers – whether they be regional, national, or local. What’s nice about a local performance, is that the connections between the performers and the composer seem easier to maintain and nurture over time, because of the likelihood of running into each other at concerts or around town. And you are exactly right, that most commissions/performance opportunities originate from these relationships.

    Another interesting angle is that sometimes the local composer has an intimate connection with their community based on some shared event or experience. This past year, Orchestra Iowa performed the works of seven members of the Iowa Composers Forum and one such work was based on the experience of farming. In fact, many of the sounds were derived from sounds associated with the equipment used to milk cows. It was really gratifying to hear person after person go up to the composer, Jon Chenette, and say, these hands used to milk cows, your piece was very meaningful to me.

    Thanks again for the post. Keep up the great work.

    Ralph Kendrick

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  7. jaquick

    Local can be a useful filter. Let’s face it, there are too many composers to know, and the ones in your back yard are a good start. We’ve got a very healthy composer culture in NE Ohio; the Cleveland Composers Guild has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, WCLV has a radio show, etc. And my Guild radio spots have played up the locavore connection for two years now, with the tag line “Hear local, hear fresh.”

    Yet that doesn’t do a whole lot for overall career. The way our funding sources are structured, we can’t do other areas’ music, so we don’t get the benefit of mutual backscratch (except for our academic members who have access to their own performing groups.) And we suffer to some degree from bicoastal parochialism. The Flyover doesn’t count. (At least Vermont is where the elites go to play bergére.)

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  8. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Elites, you say? Oh, you mean the ones that leave after the first winter. They sure don’t stay to compose.

    Dennis
    Still here after 32 winters

    Reply

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