Some Parting Thoughts About Minnesota

Group photo
Here to Help: A group shot with some of those behind the scenesters.

It’s weird. I’m back home now, getting semester grades ready, and working on my set theory seminar paper on Berg Op. 4 (…insert snarky e-zine blogger/theory-nerd commentary here, and it is hilarious). It’s as if last week was last year. Although I do keep expecting bottled water to just be available, and those fancy box lunches somehow haven’t made it to my apartment like I thought they would. Sometimes after these sorts of events, I get very depressed. Just like band camp (hilarious referential joke here…) in high school, the party was over when we had to go back home and summer was over. All I had to look forward to was trig and physics, and my algebra was shaky. I missed the friends and the beach, but most of all I missed the music. I’d mope around, lethargic and moody, playing the recorded (well, bootlegged—by my mom) cassette of Crown Imperial over and over. Man!—how hungry I was for it. I craved music back then, and I do today. So these little Shangri-La experiences can feel too short for me—I remember feeling a tinge of sadness on the first day of Tanglewood because I knew how soon it would be over.

But not this time. I’m still as excited as I was before I arrived in Minneapolis 10 days ago for the Composer Institute. And now that I’ve gotten some rest, I’m a lot more excited than when I left on Friday morning. Contrary to what I might have expected, the gates to Shangri-La (in this case the modern-day professional American symphony orchestra) have been demystified (dry ice vapors be gone!), and perhaps even gently shaken, if not actually opened. It’s a big let-down otherwise: “Welcome to Heaven! Catch you later!” Not one of us involved expected any more than a reading and some talk. And as I said all week, what we got was a tremendously personal and full-fledged look at how they make sausage at one of world’s great orchestras, along with tough talk about the state of our field, and level-headed guidance about how the blue-blazes to begin to navigate our way through it. And of course I have the recording of the reading (no bootleg necessary this time, thanks to the union waiver I signed), which is a great record of my piece. It’s helping me to rethink what works (everything) and what doesn’t (nothing. Well. That was easy. Time for croquet!). So, in short, I feel closer to this world (rather than further away), and I certainly hope that was the goal of those running the Institute.

One of the constant presences (again, happy to remain in the background) the whole week was the American Composers Forum. Between David Wolff, John Nuechterlein, Glenna Dibrell, and Carrie Shaw, someone was representing the organization, one the Institute’s funding partners, at basically every event we had throughout the week, from panel discussions to airport pickups and general morale support. The AMC and the ACF got together for a fruitful meeting of the minds last week, to the entire new music community’s benefit. These are organizations full of composer-junkies. They work every single day to promote our cause, be it in the legal, the financial, or the general support-building realms, and they do it largely without our thanks. By the end of the week, they and the mostly local Institute auditors looked as tired as we were. But they no doubt moved right on to the next event sponsored by the Forum, an event that starts this week involving another Minnesota ensemble, VocalEssence. These guys are in the trenches (so to speak), along with many people at the American Music Center, advocating, educating, fund-raising—ever the social workers of our tiny, sometimes anti-social world.

Minneapolis is a strange, wonderful town. The above-ground enclosed skyways were a constant reminder that we had it lucky in terms of weather—I doubt the next crop of composers coming for the Composer Institute will have it this good in late November/early December. It’s clean, it’s young, people actually live downtown and there are brand-new art museums and theatres everywhere. And there is an essential critical mass of people interested in the arts. How else can a metro area of three million people support all this plus two major orchestras, let alone the myriad of smaller venues like the Schubert Theatre? And then there are small organizations, like the Minnesota Commisioning Club, essentially a group of passionately vocal and outspoken true new-music connoisseurs who use some of their discretionary incomes to… pay for music. Does such a thing exist anymore? Did the Esterházys move to Minnesota while we weren’t looking? These people have built a distinguished roster of pieces and composers over the last fifteen years, and they go far beyond what they call “writing the check.” They use their own connections to ensure things like venues, repeat performances, press coverage. They religiously attend the premiere, which is often in New York or Europe these days, and jokingly call themselves a travel club.

What a revelation. The Hoeschlers, the Sewells, the Hunters, the Ranheims, and the Fischers (essentially much of the core membership of this club) showed up to every Institute reading session they could. They were diehards! Linda Hoeschler (also a former president of ACF) now travels the country counselling interested groups on how they can start their own clubs, and how to go about commissioning a composer based on the now-standard Minnesota model. I think composers around the country need to chip in to have her security beefed up (I’m thinking squadron of full-time body guards), because this woman needs to be kept around so she can do her work, which is so valuable to all of us, whether we get that check or not. I find it ever harder to listen to young composers bitching (and we’ve all done it) about how bad we have it when there are people standing on the corner with their pockets turned out, waiting for that piece or that idea on which to spend—and risk—their own earnings. Having someone speak on behalf of us and our cause is a noble thing, and lends a certain credibility to what we do in a time of (and we have to face it) relatively diminished cultural resonance. What we do is stylized and ornate in today’s world (Do people still wear powdered wigs or tophats? What makes using an instrument like the piano or violin more classic than a fashion trend?—and surely it must be more than just love of tradition), and at its worst can be extravagant, pretentious, and exclusionary. Rarely do we aim for those traits (“I’m writing this awesome piece that no one‘s gonna get!”) but we lack the ability, beyond the work itself, to truly convince anyone of its merits. I think we could use a few more cheerleaders and coaches on our side of the court, and low and behold, some of them will even pay to do it.

As I said more than a week ago, participating in the Minnesota Orchestra Reading Sessions and Composer Institute would get me thinking about these issues. But I didn’t expect yet another example of how things are better than I, with my typical young creative-artist anxieties, tend to expect. There are people and organizations with a vested interest in what we do, and for that all we can do is continue doing it. Of course there can always be more, and there must always be more. But we must do our part—the tortured genius thing didn’t even work too well for Beethoven (or Schumann or Tchaikovsky or…)

All in all, it was a great week. I think all eight of us got something out of it, and I think we all have big hopes for the future, both for ourselves (no denying it) and for the field (the least one would expect). But without the committed support of what’s looking more all the time like hundreds of people, this program just wouldn’t exist. So I realize I got the good flip of this coin, and I’m thankful. And I hope that when it’s my turn, I can be as strong an advocate as those who are there for (you and) me.

One thought on “Some Parting Thoughts About Minnesota

  1. ian

    Sean, I am blown away with this series you’ve done on the Orchestra Institute. I hope you are considering a career in writing about music in addition to writing music, because, man, you got the goods. It was great to meet you ever so briefly when I was out there and to see the program in action. Best of luck,
    Ian

    Reply

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