Sound Investments: The Commissioning Portfolio of Kathryn Gould

In 2002, venture capitalist Kathryn Gould did something that probably seemed quite normal to her but that was rather unusual for the new music field. Through a program designed and carried out by Meet the Composer—an organization that encourages individuals of all sorts to involve themselves in the commissioning of new music—Gould launched Magnum Opus through which she personally funded the commission of not one, but nine new pieces for orchestra because she believed in the voices of the composers she herself had selected.

She took some heat for her gesture—fears that donors would start shaping art and redirecting the course of the field. But Gould has never been shy about confronting this attitude head on, and her confidence in her project remains so strong that she’s recently announced a second round that will fund up to ten addition orchestral works. So far five composers [Miguel de Aguila, Kenji Bunch, Avner Dorman, Lowell Liebermann, John Tavener] and five music directors and their orchestras [JoAnn Falletta (Virginia Symphony Orchestra; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra); Giancarlo Guerrero (Nashville Symphony); Jeffrey Kahane (Colorado Symphony Orchestra); Alexander Mickelthwate (Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra); Alasdair Neale (Marin Symphony)] are on board.

We had questions, Gould had answers, and while you may not agree with her choices, it’s clear that along with her cash contributions she’s investing a great deal of personal passion into the project.

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Kathryn Gould

Molly Sheridan: You’ve been remarkably successful in the for-profit sector while working as one of the few female venture capitalists in the country, so I suspect you know better than most how to pick a winner, buck a trend, and face down a challenge. What has most surprised you about the way the new music field and the non-profit arts world gets things done?

Kathryn Gould: First, I was surprised by how little money there was out there for composers, particularly of orchestral music. Second, I was surprised by how few private patrons are doing anything in commissioning of orchestral music. Most of the commissions seem to come from foundations or groups of some sort. My sense is that this kind of groupthink leads to music with less style or edge. I think groups feel obligated to give everybody a chance and probably feel strange about commissioning the same person too often—even though the music might be far superior—and for that matter, probably feel strange voicing an opinion about what is, in fact, superior or not. Individuals should have none of these hang-ups—which might just lead to the commissioning of better music! I certainly felt at first that there was a fair amount of skepticism, and downright fear, about having a private person be involved in an artistic decision like whom to commission. There was much talk of the “potential lack of taste” a non-professional musician might have, fear that I would commission “movie music” (the ultimate insult for a piece, as you know).

I think the tacit assumption that the listening public doesn’t have much taste is the most concerning thing I encountered. It may even be at the root of why orchestras have continued to push some pretty weak new music on a resistant audience—trying to educate the boorish listeners who really don’t know any better. Most serious listeners are actually fairly well educated in music—know a lot, think a lot, many play music of some sort—and I think they are often underestimated. I think it should matter a lot whether the audience likes a piece of music or not. It is love for great new pieces that drives repeat performances and therefore drives the whole creative process.

I’d like to see the premiere of a new piece go back to being something important in people’s lives. And for that to happen, people have to feel like their opinion matters—and to be able to express it. Our audiences have become too polite! Perhaps I go too far—but these are thoughts I’ve had during the process of the last seven years.

MS: So in concrete terms, what do you think it would be wise to do differently?

KG: I’d like to see the professionals be more encouraging of major commissions in collaboration with patrons.

Another observation I had when suggesting composers to consider was that professionals tend a bit toward the “safe choice.” Probably not surprising given the state of finances. There was some reluctance to go outside the normal circle in selecting composers. A little bit like it was more important who you knew than what you knew. I actually felt great about this process because it got some work on the table that just wouldn’t have been there without some wacky outside influence like me.

So how do promising new composers get discovered? Difficult question. Particularly given that some of the greatest composers are not all that gregarious or self-promotional. And yet those qualities are the ones that help you get noticed in a busy world. Here again, it is private patrons that might be more likely to take the time and the risk to get off the beaten path. Would Beethoven or Tchaikovsky be noticed by today’s professionals? These guys were pretty strange, yes? Not too friendly…

MS: The new music community responds very protectively when someone calls its artistic product boring, but you haven’t been shy about the fact that you started this commissioning program specifically to combat your own frustrations with current new music trends. Has your own aesthetic opinion of the state of the field shifted at all since you’ve been researching composers for this project?

KG: I agree with much of that article! (Except about the audience being a little dumb—I don’t think so. I think they are just too polite. We have to care enough about our art to get excited about it and boo or cheer). My opinions about the field haven’t really changed. There is still only a short list of “safe choice” composers, most of whom grew up in the shadow of WWII, which has left a dark spot in music for the last 50 years. No question a lot of this music will never speak to audiences of any kind. I basically started Magnum Opus to find out why, and if there was anything to be done about it! And what I have found out is that there is something to be done, but it takes money and effort and the ability to introduce new ideas into the system. My positive revelation from the last few years is that there is actually a little bit of great new music being written. Most of that music is being written outside the academic circles, it seems, and much of it by younger composers—not because they are young, but because they did not grow up with teachers who grew up in the dark musical shadow of the World Wars. For a lot of reasons the spiritual and physical dislocations of those wars destroyed art music for a long time. I think we’re over it—that’s the good news for me!—but we need to rebuild our ability to discover and perform new music of merit. I’m optimistic, but we have a lot of recent history to overcome. And yes, at concerts of the major orchestras, I do still hold my nose while the obligatory “safe choice” new music is being performed while waiting for the Brahms!

MS: Magnum Opus has focused on music for orchestras. The presentation of new music is generally not a particularly large part of an orchestra’s mission. Why concentrate this project there?

KG: A few reasons: First, I think we need to have some orchestral music of today that will stand the test of time. In order to make this happen, we actually need to create the stuff.

There are many reasons why orchestras don’t get to play much new music, but I at least wanted to remove the monetary reason for the orchestras I work with. I really do believe our century has something to say musically, but we have to nurture the process. Goodness knows I love Brahms and Berlioz with a passion, but we can’t forever just play these gems from the 19th century without hearing our own best voice. As I looked over the field, I felt that orchestral new music is where we needed the most help. New chamber music is actually in pretty fine shape. It is fairly inexpensive to get these pieces written and performed well. But orchestras—the commission is only a small part of the expense. Getting the pieces rehearsed and into the performance schedule and getting the attention of very busy music directors—this is really hard. That’s why relatively little orchestral commissioning is done, and that’s why I wanted to help.

MS: Meet the Composer is traditionally focused on composers in the United States, but previous Magnum Opus commissions have included work by non-Americans and in this round John Tavener is one of the recipients, so clearly you haven’t seen the need to restrict yourself in that way. Was that a conscious decision on your part?

KG: Absolutely. My quest was to find out if there was potentially great music being written anywhere. When we started I was a little concerned that the U.S. academic tradition might be too limiting here, so I especially wanted to explore what was going on elsewhere. It was really interesting to hear Vasks (Latvia) talk about how music was blossoming for the first time there in many years because “we have just gotten our freedom.” These positive cultural upheavals have historically enabled some fine music to come from people’s hearts and minds. I didn’t want to miss that just because it is happening elsewhere.

MS: From the outset you said you were open to the idea of extending the project beyond the pilot program if you “get good results.” Considering your professional expertise, I’m assuming you determined that your returns matched your investment. How did you make that call?

KG: Well, I actually liked some of the music! And I think the audience had a genuine response to some of it as well (again, I wish audiences would be less polite!). And I think another true test is that many of the pieces have had repeat performances—more than I can keep track of at this point. These repeat performances were initiated by the music directors taking the pieces from the orchestra that premiered them to other orchestras they conduct. I think this is a pretty solid vote of confidence. And I have the impression that many of these composers were not even known to the conductors when we started the project. So I feel like we have moved the state of the art forward. I loved overhearing audience members say, “Hey, that wasn’t the usual thing—that was really good music! I wish I could get a recording.”

My next hope is to be able to find a way that the musicians unions can enable us to get recordings or downloads of live performances to the audiences. So many people like this music and want to hear it again—but they can’t right now. Perhaps something like Instant Encore is the key. I’d like to be able to take home a CD with me! Or a URL at least!

MS: Speaking of recordings, commissions are not something you get to take home with you and hang on the wall. What do you feel you’ve gained personally from the experience so far?

KG: The interaction with the composers and the music directors has been a great gift. And there is nothing like sitting in a first performance when I like the music. I’ll never forget the first performance of Kenji Bunch’s piece Leichtenstein Tryptich: I felt like I was sitting in that fast car with the wind in my face and my hair flying—taking in every note at 100 mph! Remember when the audience used to demand a repeat performance, right then and there, of a new piece of music? (I don’t either; it was 150 years ago!) I would have liked that for some of these pieces. That’s the true test!

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