Reach Out and Touch Them

When you hear a piece of music, are you ever struck with the sensation that someone—maybe the composer, maybe the performer—is “reaching

out” to you, construed broadly? Does it seem that someone separated from you by a cultural, geographical, or historical gulf is transmitting something to you, whether that something is a statement, a question, an exclamation, or some other kind of utterance entirely? I ask because even though this sensation is almost inescapable (particularly in the area of contemporary music), it’s not enough to qualify the commissioning and production of new work as “outreach.” Can you tell I’ve been looking into some grant applications?

On one level, this disjunction is absurd; to write a piece of music and put it in front of people is to reach outwards, period. But in a different way, it forces us to consider a dimension of the reaching-out that we might ordinarily overlook: Who is the audience, and what benefit does this specific content offer them? Maybe that first question impinges on our creative process to a greater or lesser extent, although the only person whose standards you can be sure your music will satisfy is, of course, yourself. But the second—why this material for that crowd—is one that I’m not as likely to take into account (on the optimistic assumption that whatever I produce might someday be played to multiple audiences with differing expectations). Nevertheless, it’s at the heart of a musical outreach effort: To whom, and with what, do we want to reach out?

As an undergrad, I took part in several teaching-performances in the Baltimore area which were super enriching for me (and hopefully somewhat so for the elementary schoolers too!). Barring a few live electronics demos, though, I haven’t done any outreach since then. Maybe it’s time to get back into that world. Most of the outreach projects I’m familiar with took place in inner-city or rural schools, which is an absolutely noble place to start, but maybe there’s just as much to be done in suburban schools—even though

their budgets might be higher, opportunities to be personally involved with the performing arts might actually be scarcer than they are in heavily urban areas. I’m really curious to hear your experiences with outreach: What works?

23 thoughts on “Reach Out and Touch Them

  1. rtanaka

    Some of my friends are involved with LA’s Harmony Project, where the kids are mostly inner-city youth who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. My band did accompanimental work for them while the students improvised over a phrase that they had been working on for some months. We also took phrases from what they were working on and improvised over them, so that they could see how these techniques could be spun into real music.

    I could go into more specifics, but if you’re serious about reaching out to an audience larger than what you’re normally accustomed to, from an intellectual point of view this requires a genuine interest in the idea of universality. (i.e. finding commonalities among differences) This seems to only make sense.

    Generally speaking, though, the New Music community’s ideologies during the last few decades have focused more on particularities rather than universals, which is largely the reason why it hasn’t been too successful in attracting a wider audience base. Assuming you’re doing it for the deed and not the title, there’s a lot of things you have to unlearn before any “outreach” program can be successful in any meaningful way.

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  2. pgblu

    Ryan, outreach is not the same as audience development. I think exposing kids to things that are unfamiliar and perhaps even strange is actually an excellent use of “outreach” resources, especially if this means they witness someone being passionate about something unfamiliar (to the kids). The criteria for ‘universals’ are pretty spurious to begin with, and they usually smack (to me at least) of a certain degree of cynicism that I frankly find unfair to foist on young children and have little time for — it seems to me that the ‘search for universals’ is a euphemism for simply getting butts into the seats, quite the opposite of ‘outreach’ in fact.

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  3. rtanaka

    Yeah it’s true that getting an audience isn’t the same as “reaching out”. The Harmony Project concerts I’ve went to didn’t fill up entire stadiums, but I would say that it was successful in its outreach mostly because its practices were tied in with ideas of education. Within these contexts, there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that what is being done is beneficial, because it is giving the kids social and intellectual skills necessary for them to increase their chances at a successful life.

    The problem with New Music is that other than generic notions of “newness” and “individualism” it has largely been unable to articulate how or why listening to it would be beneficial to people outside of its own circles. (It’s built into the name itself, but “new” doesn’t necessarily imply “good”, unfortunately.) So what has happened is that it has become a practice produced and appreciated solely by the elite. Anybody who has tried would know that the style has no market value whatsoever, so its existence relies on other means to sustain itself.

    This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re attempting to get public money out of this, then there should be sufficient justification as to how it would benefit society in some way. (Since educational programs are one of the few things that both Democrats and Republicans can seem to agree on, it will also increase your chances of its approval.) This requires an interest in universals, i.e. how does this music benefit everyone, as opposed to just a select few, or yourself.

    As it stands now I don’t think most composers are capable or willing to think of their music in that way, though that would explain New Music’s lackluster enthusiasm both in the public and private sectors at this point in time. Personally I found that I had to dismiss most of what I’ve learned in school in order to make things work for me, but maybe there’s a way to make it work from the inside somehow. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of money going around these days so the level of scrutiny will be much higher than usual.

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  4. pgblu

    I think there is both an ever-growing enthusiasm for New Music — of all stripes — out there, and potential for it to grow in new and interesting ways. Once again, though, your response is just more platitudes (it has become a practice produced and appreciated solely by the elite) and cynicism (educational programs are one of the few things that both Democrats and Republicans can seem to agree on). The only viable, progressive modus operandi is to have a vision of how things ought to be, and only then think about how it can be implemented politically. Why should the aforementioned growth stop at the doors of the schoolhouse?

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  5. rtanaka

    You’re going to have to back your claim of “growing interest” among the general populace, because both common sense observations and factual assessments will generally back my point of view. The internet has allowed for New Music to gain more exposure, but this has not lead to the public taking a greater interest in it all of a sudden, as some people have claimed. Outside of its own circles, you’d be lucky to run into someone who has even heard of “New Music” and understands what that means, much less of individual composers working within that style. Commercial viability has not increased, as reflected in its market-share as well.

    As for the elite thing, classical music has always been patronized by the aristocratic and upper classes of society, and this includes New Music as well. This is pretty much irrefutable, unless you’re willing to turn a blind eye to thousands of years of history and historical records. (Many composers seem to be willing, unfortunately.)

    The problem is not so much that it’s geared toward the elite, but that its practices have become so insular that it’s also losing its support among academics and politicians also. When was the last time there was a prominent intellectual like Adorno who would passionately advocate for the support of an individual composer’s work? How many composers do you see in the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities? There’s Howard Gottleib and Yo-Yo-Ma, but I don’t quite see him fitting into the scheme of things around here.

    But really, the biggest problem is the point which you didn’t address: the ability for composers to articulate what they are doing and why it is worthy of public support. Maybe if this was during the bubble you can get away with using meaningless emotional language, but in times like these specificity is essential if you want your work to have any sort of real justification. This type of training I did not receive in my schooling — when I tried to compensate for it by learning on my own, I found that the things that I’ve learned were essentially unjustifiable so I decided to leave it behind.

    These are problems that can be fixed if they wanted to, but only if the will to do so it there. Unfortunately my experience has been that most people prefer to turn a blind eye and pretend that everything is OK, even if the ship is obviously sinking. Personally I’m glad I got out of all that hoo-haa and am now in places where my efforts are actually appreciated.

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  6. pgblu

    You’re going to have to back your claim of “growing interest” among the general populace, because both common sense observations and factual assessments will generally back my point of view.
    I guess I mean the number of performing ensembles that specialize in or include Contemporary Music is constantly growing, especially among younger practitioners. They are finding new and creative ways of getting funded, and doing tailor-made outreach for specific projects. And they (with or without internet support) thereby reach more people. Even more encouragingly, such groups no longer promote a single view of how music ought to be, but combine all sorts of stylistic, structural, and disciplinary approaches.

    The internet has allowed for New Music to gain more exposure, but this has not lead to the public taking a greater interest in it all of a sudden, as some people have claimed.
    Nobody said “all of a sudden”, and like you I am merely relying on my own anecdotal experience.

    Outside of its own circles, you’d be lucky to run into someone who has even heard of “New Music” and understands what that means, much less of individual composers working within that style.
    This is true throughout the world. Is it a reason not to even try to make new music? Also, new music is not a style, any more than oil painting is a style.

    Commercial viability has not increased, as reflected in its market-share as well.
    There are other kinds of viability than commercial viability. If commercial viability of music was its final arbiter of ‘worthiness’, life would be BORING.

    As for the elite thing, classical music has always been patronized by the aristocratic and upper classes of society, and this includes New Music as well.
    I have never seen an aristocrat at my concerts. I do see a lot of students.

    This is pretty much irrefutable, unless you’re willing to turn a blind eye to thousands of years of history and historical records. (Many composers seem to be willing, unfortunately.)
    I’m not talking historically. I’m talking about now.

    The problem is not so much that it’s geared toward the elite, but that its practices have become so insular that it’s also losing its support among academics and politicians also. When was the last time there was a prominent intellectual like Adorno who would passionately advocate for the support of an individual composer’s work? How many composers do you see in the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities? There’s Howard Gottleib and Yo-Yo-Ma, but I don’t quite see him fitting into the scheme of things around here.
    Where is ‘here’? This is more broad-brush talk. New music is not an ‘it’, it’s a ‘they’. No, it’s many theys.

    But really, the biggest problem is the point which you didn’t address: the ability for composers to articulate what they are doing and why it is worthy of public support.
    It is not my job to address that. It is the job of each individual composer. We are not a monolith.

    Maybe if this was during the bubble you can get away with using meaningless emotional language, but in times like these specificity is essential if you want your work to have any sort of real justification.
    What is an example of ‘real justification’ for music? People can dance to it? What is a real justification for 99% of our defense spending? It creates jobs in defense? Well, music funding also creates jobs. Except you don’t blow up the cello after you’re done with it.

    This type of training I did not receive in my schooling — when I tried to compensate for it by learning on my own, I found that the things that I’ve learned were essentially unjustifiable so I decided to leave it behind.
    I also pledge to leave it behind when I can no longer do it. I have a family to support, after all.

    Personally I’m glad I got out of all that hoo-haa and am now in places where my efforts are actually appreciated.
    New Music is a hoo-haa? Have you visited the Urban Dictionary lately?

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  7. rtanaka

    Maybe do some research on the socioeconomic backgrounds of willing audiences of New Music concerts, even in cases of students, because it’ll pretty much verify what I said. I say “willing” because I’ve seen some cases where people used money or politics (including using grades as leverage) to force otherwise disinterested people into going, but these tactics have no sticking power because there really was no reason for them to be interested in the first place. If there was, then this would have been articulated coherently by now and the medium would be in a much better situation than it is today.

    As said earlier, there’s nothing wrong with writing music for an affluent audience — they have different tasks and different responsibilities, which allows the composer to say different things. But if we can’t even be honest about basic facts and realities then there’s pretty much no hope. I left mostly because the level of self-deception was too much, and that people within the system who did good work tended to get marginalized in favor of ideologues who basically didn’t know what they were doing. Don’t miss it a bit.

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  8. pgblu

    I still don’t understand why you keep telling me what I should “do some research on.” I know what New Music’s market share is. Again, you’re not replying to ME, Ryan, but to some composite of your former professors. When I talk about enthusiasm for New Music, I am talking primarily about practitioners, funding opportunities, and raw creative energy being brought to bear on the matter. You, however, continue to talk about how few “ordinary” people came to listen to your concerts before you “left the whole thing behind.”

    I will stick with my optimism, which you call delusion, and you can stick with your supposed realism, which I call cynical.

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  9. pgblu

    And for the record, I have never given out grades to people for attending or not attending concerts, nor do I support this as a strategy for raising the attendance numbers… though it’s a good strategy for supporting an educational mission (which you will refer to as indoctrination, of course).

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  10. rtanaka

    Weird that you thought I was accusing you of using grades as leverage for your style. All I know is that these things do happen regularly so I’m just speaking in general terms. Forcing students to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do is a professors job so I don’t really have a problem with it in itself — I’m largely questioning how effective these methods are, since in my experience after they satisfy the requirement students don’t seem to go back willingly.

    Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a hopeless optimist, and I generally try to look for ways to make things better in most situations. I know about the talent and enthusiasm about individual people working within the community, so there is still a lot of potential for the style to gain public relevance. But composers need to gain a solid grounding in music’s history if they want to be taken seriously outside of their own circles.

    These problems can be fixed fairly quickly by creating joint composition/ musicology programs at the university level, imo. As it stands now, though, musicology/music history and composition departments tend to be more antagonistic than cooperative. I was promised by some people that changes were on the way, but it was taking too long so I’m taking a different route now.

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  11. Frank J. Oteri

    Ryan,

    Sorry, but I have to jump in here. You just wrote: “Weird that you thought I was accusing you of using grades as leverage for your style.”

    Didn’t seem weird to me, because earlier up in this chain, you wrote the following:

    Maybe do some research on the socioeconomic backgrounds of willing audiences of New Music concerts, even in cases of students, because it’ll pretty much verify what I said. I say “willing” because I’ve seen some cases where people used money or politics (including using grades as leverage) to force otherwise disinterested people into going, but these tactics have no sticking power because there really was no reason for them to be interested in the first place.

    For what it’s worth, when I was at Columbia (the early 1980s), I often felt that the music I was composing was not in line with what the music department was promulgating as “contemporary music.” But no one ever forced me to attend concerts for higher grades or anything else. And years later, looking back on my experience there, I think my own perceptions were just as much shaped by my own feelings and misapprehensions as a very willful and sometimes perhaps a tad over-confident-about-myself-as-a-composer teenager. All the music I was writing that I thought was in complete opposition to what I thought they were about turns out to be in some way indebted to them.

    Indeed the educational milieu is a complex environment and in the United States it is forced to carry the burden of sustaining a portion of our creative work more than in many other societies. It has been very instructive for me to spend time at two of Europe’s most important contemporary music festivals this year—Gaudeamus Week and the Donaueschinger Musiktage. A broad range of styles was represented on both of these festivals but by no means was every style embraced and the reactions to some of the music performed at Donaueschingen, as I have reported earlier on these pages, was sometimes less than laudatory.

    Style and taste are gambits that are extremely difficult to parse from subjectivity which is inevitably a limiter by design. I can only respond to your concern that “new” sends a different message than “good” by thinking that “good” is in the ear of the behearer (as Dewey Redman once titled an album) and that “new” eventually becomes old, frequently sooner than many people would imagine.

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  12. pgblu

    Sorry to jump in here

    In these extremely unfruitful dialogues I often despair about the fact that no one else is ‘jumping in’, so please don’t hesitate.

    Ryan, I urge you to contemplate the meaning of the phrase “For the record”, which I included as part of my response to your insinuation. At this point I have nothing else to add. You know where to find me.

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  13. bgn

    “But composers need to gain a solid grounding in music’s history if they want to be taken seriously outside of their own circles.”

    What makes you think that would help? How many novelists, filmmakers, or non-classical musicians are taken seriously in the way you wish composers would be taken seriously? And how do those who are (if any) display that sort of solid historical grounding you look for in a composer, as presumably in any other artist?

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  14. rtanaka

    Thanks for your comments Frank, but as a composer (and a columnist for this site) you have to admit that your perspective is coming from the inside. Any serious “outreach” effort would have to include the perspectives and experiences of the audience, which are things generally lacking in many of the dialogs here. If you actually ask people what they are honestly thinking I think you’ll find that the vast majority of them aren’t thinking “good” — people’s feelings about music and art are more often than not very specific, even if it’s feelings of indifference or disgust. Hiding behind feel-good notions of subjectivity unfortunately ends up becoming a projection of a composer’s wishes, well-intentioned or not — yes, parsing taste is difficult, but not impossible, and there are thousands of articles and books out there that will explain these things in specific terms if one should choose to read them.

    Bgn, take a look at the link above about the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Yes, these people are taken seriously and as a result they are given positions where they can influence the broader discourse of the nation’s cultural climate. Modernist aesthetics, for example, can be seen all over the place in architecture and in the visual arts, but modernist music you won’t find anywhere resembling a public space. This seems to be a problem that is unique to the medium of music, and I’d say that the main reason why we tend to lag behind the others is because of our compartmentalizations (composition/performance/history/education). Students in other artforms are expected to do and learn everything about their craft, and I do believe that this makes their mediums more successful as a whole.

    So to me it’s very clear that the future of music lies in its interdisciplinary studies, and those who can bridge these divides are the ones most likely to gain public relevance. Just a number of examples: George Lewis, Stephen Nachmanovich, (a large number of people within the improvisation community), Kyle Gann, Jason Stanyek, etc. They all have different styles and ideas about music but they do share the ability to coherently articulate what they are doing and why. Some of them have been featured here so there are signs that things are already moving in this direction, but unless this line of thinking becomes more mainstream, it may not be fast enough to keep up with what’s happening with the rest of the world.

    Just my 2 cents. There are lots of reasons to be optimistic, but we’ll see returns only if certain changes become enacted. Unless you honestly think that things are going really really great right now and that composition is still a well-respected, well-redeemed profession in the public’s eyes.

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  15. pgblu

    There are lots of reasons to be optimistic, but we’ll see returns only if certain changes become enacted.

    This is politician-speak, pure and simple. What changes do you think should be enacted? And don’t just say “Composers should be a lot more honest,” because that’s both vague and unfounded — i.e., you never point out specific examples of composers actually being dishonest. Civil discourse kind of requires that you don’t (1) put words in people’s mouths and (2) paint entire swaths of people with a single broad brush.

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  16. pgblu

    Thanks for your comments Frank, but as a composer (and a columnist for this site) you have to admit that your perspective is coming from the inside

    Yes, Frank, your informed perspective is clearly biased because it is informed, apparently.

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  17. holbrooke

    Unless you honestly think that things are going really really great right now and that composition is still a well-respected, well-redeemed profession in the public’s eyes.

    I do! But I also probably have a much wider view of composition than you do.

    -Joseph

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  18. rtanaka

    Yes, Frank, your informed perspective is clearly biased because it is informed, apparently.

    He posted about how he “felt” like his music was not “in-line” with what was going on around him. Meanwhile, he is on this site as a columnist, representing what the New Music community is supposed to be about. You can’t claim to be an outsider while being on the inside — this is way too obvious of a contradiction and I think it’s kind of crazy that people would encourage this line of thinking.

    Frank’s post is mostly personal observations and how he feels about certain things. I’m fine with anecdotes, but again, what’s missing in his post are perspectives that exist outside of the profession itself. Lots of “I”s, “me”s, and “us”s that is representative of solipsistic thinking, which is, unfortunately, antithetical to garnering public support. This is not specifically an attack on Frank, but the problem is a broad one that tends to permeate academic discourse in general.

    This has become a problem in the humanities as well, where many of the programs are being cut out entirely due to its inability to justify its own existence. This is not just some abstract thing — it’s happening right now, and many people are losing their jobs over it. If you can’t justify what you’re doing, you might find yourself suddenly out of work.

    I think I have been extremely specific in what the problems are and how these problems can be addressed. It is pretty much guaranteed that New Music’s standing in universities and politics will improve dramatically if they made a move to shift its discourse away from solipsism and toward something more universal — this is what administrators and grant committees look for, especially during times of economic hardship.

    Whether this change will happen I don’t know, but either way I decided that I’m not gonna wait around for it to happen.

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  19. bgn

    Unless you honestly think that things are going really really great right now and that composition is still a well-respected, well-redeemed profession in the public’s eyes.

    Well, no more so than poetry, or playwriting, or even fiction-writing; it seems pretty bad all around for any art which doesn’t have immediate commercial appeal to recommend it.

    And frankly, I don’t see how the sort of hyperconscious discourse about historical forces that you champion for composers makes these matters any better for the other arts. Do you really think that the members of the President’s Council on the Arts and the Humanities were chosen for their ability at cultural critique?

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  20. holbrooke

    If you can’t justify what you’re doing, you might find yourself suddenly out of work.

    I do hope so. Do you prefer the word justify to be truly meaningless.

    Also:

    Holbrooke

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  21. pgblu

    New Music’s standing in universities and politics will improve dramatically if they made a move to shift its discourse away from solipsism and toward something more universal…

    That’s still extremely vague, sorry. What is “something more universal”? 4/4 time? C major? How about “everybody poops”?

    And before you dismiss Frank’s claims about his biography, maybe you should verify what you’re claiming. The fact that he works for the AMC is either a sign of his insider status (as you claim, implying that he’s some partisan hack — great way to guarantee a productive discussion there, Ryan) or a sign of people regarding his skills and experience as a greater asset than his toeing some stylistic line. I barely know Frank’s music, but what I have heard resembles, well, nothing else; more importantly, I defy you to point out any ethically objectionable bias in the way he chooses what to ‘cover’ here at New Music Box.

    You want outsiders to comment on this discussion? By all means encourage them to post. But don’t act like you speak for them anymore. I reject this wholly simplistic outsider/insider dualism.

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  22. pgblu

    Sorry, I overlooked something rather egregious

    This has become a problem in the humanities as well, where many of the programs are being cut out entirely due to its inability to justify its own existence. This is not just some abstract thing — it’s happening right now, and many people are losing their jobs over it. If you can’t justify what you’re doing, you might find yourself suddenly out of work.

    A lot of humanities programs have been cut because it’s convenient and expedient to cut them, since they are small, lack leverage, and don’t generate a lot of money. Money is not the same as value. Try telling an academic who is now suddenly out of work that his or her unemployment is the result of his or her department being unable to “justify its own existence.”

    Reply

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