Siberia to Cyberia: “Art of the States” Comes to the Web



In October 2002, WGBH Boston‘s quietly launched www.artofthestates.org, a site anchored around full-length, high-quality audio streams of American concert works complemented by extensive program notes, artist biographies, and related links. While initially intended as an educational tool for students and teachers of music, Artofthestates.org has proven to be a revolutionary resource for anyone that is online to learn about pieces by both historically important and cutting edge American composers.

Artofthestates.org developed out of WGBH’s decade old international radio export service, Art of the States, which has provided serious music from the United States to broadcasters in over 50 countries since 1993. Like the radio program, the website showcases a wide range of repertoire including orchestral, chamber, and electronic music, songs, and jazz/rock influenced works. Presently it contains works by 89 American composers. And while established composers such as John Adams, Donald Martino, and Terry Riley are certainly visible on the site, cutting edge music from younger generations of composers such as Stephen Vitiello, Christopher Adler, and Hideko Kawamoto round out the content. Almost 1/3 of the pieces on Artofthestates.org are not available on commercial recording.

Despite such a huge amount of material, the site is easily navigable through an extensive search function that allows users to browse by composer, performer, instrumentation, decade, or keyword. The bit-rate for each full-length audio sample is optimized for each user’s connection and Art of the States producer Joel Gordon has taken great care to ensure the highest level audio quality possible in the stream. “As an engineer I’m kind of obsessive about how we process the audio for the web,” Gordon explains. “The biggest hang-up for a long time was simply finding a way to make musically and acoustically challenging pieces sound alive and vivid when streamed on the web.” Each audio track of the work is placed on its own page that also contains background about the piece, the composer, and the performers. Gordon said that the goal of the simple yet elegant design was to eliminate the sound-byte quality that permeates a lot of new media. According to Gordon, “The idea was to get people to the music as quickly and efficiently as possible and then to provide as few distractions as possible once they’re listening.”

Gordon was first struck with the idea to bring the project to the web during a trip to Siberia, where he introduced a local radio station to the Art of the States radio service. His traveling companion, Ted Levin, a professor at Dartmouth, was impressed with the content, but asked, “What do I have to do to have my students hear this stuff, send them to Siberia?” This got Gordon thinking about how he could bring this service to American universities. “I thought about the fact that professors of American and 20th century music courses are often working without access to the breadth and depth of the music they’re teaching. It’s a living art form so keeping up with the growing edge is critical. Likewise, many important historical pieces are no longer easy to access. Creating a website truly designed for listening seemed a cheap but powerful way to put a tremendous amount of music in the hands of any teacher or student with access to the web.” While the primary impetus for the creation of the website was to serve the educational community, Gordon has also found that many performers and new music ensembles have also found the site to be valuable in their search for new repertoire, by being able to search by instrumentation, composer, style, or time period.

The simple interface allows for quick and easy navigation of the content, but certain aspects of the stylized editorial that characterizes the radio program don’t fit into the web format. A curatorial function has been preserved, however, through the “current feature” page, which collects several works together under an umbrella category and then contains brief commentary on the topic, placing the works in context. At the moment, one can learn about the genre of parody pieces and listen to works by Ivan Tcherepnin, David Dzubay, George Rochberg, Joan Tower, Margaret Brouwer, and Dudley Buck. A major goal as the site develops, is to expand the content to include deeper cultural context, to help users orient themselves to the specific featured works and add to the educational value of the site.

All of the material that appears on Artofthestates.org is culled from the Art of the States monthly radio programs and one of Gordon’s aims for the near future, which of course depends on meeting funding goals, is to incorporate the 500+ pieces from the radio archive into the site. But despite the ambitious plans for content growth, Gordon admits, “The repertoire we offer isn’t and never will be comprehensive. The world of serious American music is simply too big for that. What we’re trying to do is to offer a different slice of the pie—focusing on new, lesser-known, and unavailable works of our country’s music.”

For American composers, the team at WGBH is always looking for new works to include in their monthly radio broadcasts and on Artofthestates.org. Submissions are accepted all year round and their guidelines can be found at http://www.artofthestates.org/about_submit.html.