New York State of Mind

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New York. The Big Apple. Gotham. It is America’s eternal city and looms largest, it seems, among composers. At one time or another most of us who pursue careers as composers desire to live and/or work there. After all, as the man says, “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.” It holds so much promise for young musicians: a cultural life that is as rich as any major city could ask for, and for those of us who are into new concert music it provides a veritable smorgasbord of musical experiences unavailable practically anywhere else. This is perhaps New York’s greatest strength and appeal as a center of musical culture. It can seem like the center of the universe, like its composers are the ones getting all of the attention, all of the grants and all of the accolades. It helps to have The New York Times, perhaps the most widely read “local” newspaper in the country—as your hometown rag with a music criticism staff that is friendly to your community (at least, that’s David Smooke’s theory). It also helps to have significant funders headquartered in New York. But it can seem so unfair to those of us in the sticks!

I am a working composer. Hardly a household name, certainly, but I’ve achieved enough success that my day job currently supplements my income as a composer. I cannot predict how long this state of affairs will remain, but, for now, I take it as a badge of honor and a source of great pride.

And yet, I have never worked or lived in New York. In fact, I could not have accomplished the things I have accomplished had I been living in New York. For example, in 2005, I placed an ad on Craigslist seeking musicians interested in performing new music. (I listed some composers—Ligeti, Adams, Andriessen, etc.—whose work I liked to give an impression of the type of music I meant. Hey, you never know on Craigslist!) Out of this, Great Noise Ensemble was born. We have had a seemingly meteoric rise to prominence in the region since our first, humble concert in January 2006 by performing a type of repertoire that few groups in town are able to program—mostly post-minimalist/totalist works for large ensemble, although my programming tastes run a wide gamut and I try to program as wide a variety of styles in a season as possible. We have also found a group dynamic built around mutual respect and love for each other as well as the repertoire we undertake. We were able to find strong support from The Catholic University of America, which in 2008 invited us to be their ensemble in residence (a position that has granted us, among many things, free rehearsal space, program printing, and concert venues). All of this has made running a large group, with a core membership of sixteen primarily volunteer musicians on an almost non-existent budget, possible.

Great Noise’s first concert (which was written about, in fact, on NewMusicBox, so you can read how humble it really was) was a very low-key, small affair in January 2006, where we performed repertoire that a few of our members already knew or had written ourselves and had a definite “student recital” vibe. But when we begin our sixth season in the fall, we will be presenting the D.C. premiere of Louis Andriessen’s De Materie, the first-ever performance of the work by a professional American ensemble, at the National Gallery of Art, with support from the Dutch Consulate, the National Gallery, and the Peabody Conservatory, and with Andriessen himself in attendance. The difference in scale between these two concerts is representative, I think, of the strides made by Great Noise Ensemble in just five years. Not only has the ensemble’s reputation increased in five years, but its rise in prominence has helped my own, individual career as a composer. When I placed that ad on Craigslist in 2005, I was maybe getting two performances a year and had just one commission (and one that ended up paying very little at that, though it proved significant in my development). This past year, I completed several commissions for ensembles around the world and I am hard at work on other commissions at the moment, to say nothing of the older pieces which are starting to find themselves in circulation among orchestras and ensembles. Granted, I’m not a household name, but I find myself successfully making a living as a composer, which is nothing to sneeze at.

This would have been practically IMPOSSIBLE to accomplish in New York. Sure, I might have still placed the Craigslist ad and gotten some response. Great Noise Ensemble might have even managed to put on a few concerts, maybe even survive for a couple of seasons; but we would never have drawn the attention that we have drawn in D.C., where groups like ours are fewer than they are in New York. It’s harder to say what my career as a composer would be like had I moved to the city after graduate school, but I am inclined to think that I would not be working on the kinds of pieces nor receiving the kinds of performances in the kinds of venues that I do.

But, as I was vividly reminded during my last visit to The City, if you accomplish these things anywhere besides New York, you might as well not have bothered.

I was in New York last April to hear one of the concerts in Louis Andriessen’s Carnegie Hall residency and to meet with Andriessen himself in preparation for Great Noise Ensemble’s upcoming performance of De Materie. Louis lived up to his reputation as a warm, generous, and welcoming figure and he and his assistant (and the musicians around him) made me feel not just welcome but respected—so much so, in fact, that Louis invited me to attend the sound check and dress rehearsal for La Commedia after lunch! After all this, on the way to Carnegie Hall that night, I ran into David Lang, who stopped to greet me and to say how many great things he’d heard about me and my ensemble. Talk about an ego boost! The guy won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 and is one of the founders of Bang on a Can, and he is talking to me about my ensemble? I felt like a big shot, all right.

After the performance that night I was invited to go backstage, where I got to mingle with prominent, established composers, as well as a number of the rising stars in New York’s new music scene. The older composers were welcoming and warm—Julia Wolfe was particularly gracious and friendly, even after I’d failed to recognize her while conversing with her in the elevator. But to the younger composers—some of whom I actually went to school with!—I barely registered. I’ve yet to have a piece performed in The City, nor have I been plucked from obscurity by the music director of a major American or European orchestra, so why should they have heard of me? Did I forget to mention that I went to school with some of these people and know them personally? Even those I did not know personally I have had plenty of contact with through Facebook and other social media. I’m not complaining because I was unknown professionally (okay, maybe a little), but personally. At best I got a few words of greeting before I was ignored in favor of someone more important and helpful to a career. At worst, I got a nod. And all with the kind of indifferent coldness that Dick Cheney reserves for his worst enemies.

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After feeling like a big shot all that day, I suddenly felt like a really small fish in that crowd. Perhaps it was the fragile composer’s ego, but I was hurt. Just hours earlier the most famous composer in The Netherlands treated me to lunch and a Pulitzer Prize winner stopped me in the street outside the hall to talk about what I was up to and how well my group was doing. And here, backstage at Carnegie Hall, I was a nobody. How come?

“Sometimes composers—especially those based in New York City—are simply ignorant,” says the composer, percussionist, and conductor, Rob Paterson. “They often have no idea what exists outside NYC and do not pay attention to outside ensembles, or even ensembles within NYC, especially if they have not heard of them. This is disappointing—and their loss, I might add—since numerous fantastic groups exist elsewhere.”

This attitude is not even exclusive to composers! Even the venerable critic, Alex Ross, succumbs to this attitude: in his brilliant 2007 book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, George Crumb receives only a couple of passing mentions in his otherwise wide-ranging survey of trends in 20th-century concert music. While there are many reasons for this to be the case, I have to wonder if the fact that Mr. Crumb never held an active, long-term residence in New York had something to do with it.

One clarinetist friend active in the Kansas City new music scene recently told me that, when it comes to working with musicians from New York, “There is sometimes an expectation that I won’t be up to snuff technically. There is also sometimes an expectation that I will be unworldly; I don’t want to go so far as to say uneducated, but there is a tinge of that.” (She does grant, however, that this “is a misconception that is easily cleared up in rehearsal.”) One violinist friend (whose quartet is based in Indiana but has played Carnegie Hall) simply refers to this phenomenon as “The New York Problem.” He defines this “problem” as the attitude in musicians that “if you do not live (or work) in New York you don’t exist.” (Both of these musicians, by the way, have world class careers.) “New York City can sometimes seem like a gated community,” continues Rob Paterson. “Everyone here knows—or at least knows about—what everyone else is up to, and the new music scene sometimes seems more like a small town rather than a large city.”

To those of us working outside the city, New York can seem more like a walled city than a gated community. The provincial attitude towards non-New York composers and institutions can actually be traumatic to those composers and institutions. One of my hopes for Great Noise Ensemble (along with Opera Alterna, the Cantate Chamber Singers, Verge, and other Washington organizations that specialize in or pay more than just token lip service to new music) is that it will play an active role in turning Washington, D.C. into a new music town. This is the nation’s capital, after all; its new music scene should rival or maybe even surpass New York’s.

This is a dream that Nigel Boon, the artistic director of the National Symphony Orchestra and a fierce and passionate advocate for new music, originally shared when he first moved to D.C. from London. But after nearly three years, he no longer believes that it’s likely to happen. According to him, “There is simply not enough going on in the Washington music scene to keep new music as actively in people’s minds as it is in New York, where new music concerts are a nightly occurrence in multiple venues around the city.” After seven years he finds that “it’s impossible; D.C. really is provincial.” He is not wrong on this point, to be certain. Washington does not have the same number or kinds of opportunities to hear new music available that New York does, but this does not mean that we should not try to create the kinds of opportunities that a “new music town” needs.

The truth is that there is provincialism everywhere. New music is a niche field within a niche field and each community can seem extremely closed off at times. This does not mean, however, that we should let New Yorkers have all the fun. There are thriving new music scenes around the country. In this scene I not only include composers and performers who devote themselves exclusively to new music but also various orchestras and ensembles that, while not dedicated solely to new music, program it with great regularity. Being a “niche within a niche” we all need to work together in solidarity, promoting each other’s work whether we work in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Baltimore, Kansas City, Portland, Ann Arbor, Cleveland, or Paducah, for that matter. New York can seem like a sort of El Dorado for musicians. It is certainly a special place. Thanks to the internet, however, musicians are able to cast a much wider net with far greater ease than ever before, and New York is becoming just one market in our global new music community. There really is no excuse any longer for provincialism.

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Armando Bayolo




Armando Bayolo is a composer and conductor working in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, MD. He is the founder and Artistic Director of Great Noise Ensemble. He lives in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington with his wife and children.