Shelf Life: How Musical Reference Materials Treat American Composers

I haven’t explored any pay sites, being of the old-fashioned and hopelessly wrong-headed opinion that Web content should be free, just like going to the library. So I encourage non-skinflint readers who have poked around, for example, Andante‘s reference section to hold forth in the space at the bottom of this page.

Alas, most of the material on the Internet that’s free is worth every penny. It’s pretty rudimentary. Two sites, though, bear investigation.

The All Classical Guide, to which I contribute, is a database of short composer bios and program notes, all geared to music that has been released on CD. So, right off the bat, it’s useless for info on unrecorded composers. But the number of American composers who have been recorded is tremendous, so the All Classical Guide is always worth a try. Now, because it is a Web-based system, entries are short, generally no more than 500 or 600 words. (Three years ago, the site commissioned and paid for longer essays on a variety of important individuals and topics, but as far as I can tell that material has never gone public.) This is not a scholarly site. Generally, the writing style corresponds to what you’d find in good CD liner notes. There are some clunky entries, but the site gradually upgrades its weaker content and continually fills its gaps. You will find short bios of Dan Asia (I wrote it) and Bob Muczynski (by the composer’s ardent supporter Walter Simmons), but just because Annie Gosfield and Dan Coleman draw blanks now doesn’t mean they will forever. This is a constantly expanding resource, which includes not only bios but program notes on individual compositions.

Another source of information on living American composers is the American Music Center‘s list of member Web sites. This shoots you to sites devised and maintained by individual composers or their proxies, so the information at the destinations will vary greatly. Also, the directory is limited to 1) American Music Center members who 2) have Web sites, so it is by no means comprehensive. Even so, it’s a logical URL to click for any contemporary-music research project or aimless music-oriented surf.

In early October 2002, the American Music Center launched an important project called NewMusicJukebox, an easily searchable Web site offering AMC member composers a place to plant their bios and reviews and even upload audio clips and full scores for free public perusal. This is a step toward my ideal reference source, except that, again, its quality depends on the information and materials provided by individual participating composers or their publishers. NewMusicJukebox is a potentially wonderful resource, but despite the $600,000 and full year of development that have already gone into it, unless some aggressive new Nicolas Slonimsky actively recruits participants and carefully shapes the site’s content, it will fall short of perfection.

From Shelf Life: How Musical Reference Materials Treat American Composers
By James Reel
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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