The Next Phase: Steve Reich talks to Richard Kessler About Redefinition and Renewal

Redefining the American Music Center

Richard Kessler: When I left Artsvision in 1997, my focus was with the American Music Center, so I really lost track of things having to do with arts education. My focus was on composers and their music.

Steve Reich: What year did you come to the AMC and when you got there what did you find?

Richard Kessler: My first day was July 8, 1997.

Steve Reich: What time? [laughs]

Richard Kessler: It was probably 9:35 [laughs], but of course the joke was—and the younger staff at the AMC probably never got this—they would say, “When did you start?” I would say “July 8, 1997, and that was my December 7th.” They would say, “What do you mean by December 7th?” [laughs]

I found it was an organization with a great history and heritage, but as happens to many organizations, it lost its focus for one reason or another and began to really struggle a bit. It was at that point a 59-year-old organization.

Steve Reich: Did Copland start it?

Richard Kessler: Copland, Hanson, Luening, Marion Bauer, Harrison Kerr, and Quincy Porter.

Steve Reich: It always occurs to me—I’m on the board of Meet The Composer and this was once discussed—music organizations come up out of a certain need, at a certain time and because of certain people. And, as those people leave, it slowly either metamorphosizes or dies.

Richard Kessler: I think that’s right. I also think that organizations need to refresh themselves. They need to regularly ask: “What is the need today? How is the need changing? How is our response to that need changing or going to change?” And it is easier than one might imagine to proceed for too long a stretch without asking those questions and to hold on to things of the past. The AMC was wrestling with its Collection of Scores and Recordings. Now, the Collection might have made incredible sense in 1939 when it was created—it was one of the two major programs at the Center in 1939. The other was as an information clearing house, providing information on composers and their work in an age when it was very difficult to obtain such information. This, by the way, was the core concept for the Music Information Center. There are almost 50 of them in different countries around the world. In the early days, the Collection was perfect because conductors would come by the AMC when they were in New York to learn about new works. It was very difficult back then for performers to access this information—there were few publishers and the publishers didn’t have the means to update people regularly about new works, so a central information source was vital.

Fast forward a few decades when there are more and more publishers, and they’re sending out bulletins, announcements to performers—information technology was making it possible for performers to quickly learn about new works. The field was growing and the prime rationale for the Collection as a promotional vehicle didn’t completely work anymore, but the Collection still defined the organization. In addition, the Collection grew in ways the founders many never have anticipated—in 1962 there were 8,000 scores; in 2001 there were over 40,000 scores and 20,000 recordings, including many materials that needed restoration and great care. The Collection had sort of morphed from being a promotional vehicle into something archival, which only made things more complicated for the AMC. They felt a responsibility to these composers and to the heritage of the founders who created this collection. So what do you do? The AMC struggled with this change for quite a time. It was Talmudic to the Nth degree. What are we going to do with this Collection? There were the ones on the board who said: “We’ve got to get rid of this thing. It’s choking us to death. It’s an albatross.” And then the others said: “This Collection is the most important thing in the world to the self-published composer. You’ve got to figure that without that collection, where are you going to find their music?” This debate was mirrored in the field.

Steve Reich: Right.

Richard Kessler: All this time, the AMC circulated copies of the scores. So if someone from Australia called and said, “I want to see that score”—and we still do this to this day, even with the Collection at the New York Public Library—we make a copy of that score and we mail it out free of charge to anyone who asks, provided that those rights have been secured through a Deed of Gift. But the AMC had been struggling with this Collection as a core program, and when you’re struggling with that, you might not be able to see what else is going on in the field. Now, I took that job because I knew that there was incredible need and I knew there was an incredible opportunity to serve the field of new music. I loved new music from my days with the quintet. I knew the AMC. I’d used even used the collection!

Steve Reich: Without your tuba player [laughs]…

Richard Kessler: [laughs] And we also had gotten a grant from one of the two Copland Fund programs that the AMC administers: we got a grant from the Performing Ensembles Program. It was for general operating and we could use it however we wanted, so we put it into a commission for Aaron Kernis. So I knew some of the grant programs, and I knew the Collection, and some of the people: Eero Richmond, Wes York, and Fran Richard who was on the board… I knew there were a lot of things in the field that composers needed that were not being addressed by any other organization. I felt that there were these giant openings that made sense for the AMC, for its mission, and that’s why I took the job.

Steve Reich: Let’s jump to now that you’re leaving. What do you see as the major achievements that solved a lot of these problems?

Richard Kessler: Well, I’m not sure how much has been solved, regarding deep seated issues in the field. If there’s one thing I can say about my time at the AMC, it was about retooling the organization—preparing it to become the kind of organization that has the capacity to do really profound things. And I think it’s getting there. I’ll give you some examples. There were three fulltime people when I started working there; now there are fourteen. The budget was a little under a million. It’s been as high as five million when we administered 9/11 grants for the Mellon Foundation and the Department of Cultural Affairs. We’ve created all kinds of things like NewMusicBox. We’ve created an online library—NewMusicJukeBox—that when it reaches its full fruition, when this thing is really operational, when it has all the publishers catalogs, when it has a tremendous amount of the self-published composers’ works, when you’re able to buy scores and parts for sale or rental directly from that site, when you can search the AMC collection, when it has 24-hour, 7-day a week web radio that combines commercially-recorded music with non-commercially recorded music…

Steve Reich: You’ve got a lot of rights clearances to worry about here…

Richard Kessler: Jim Kendrick, our attorney, has helped us out with this considerably. We’ve put a lot of work into the clearing of rights and creating licenses for NewMusicJukeBox. In addition to Jukebox, there are all kinds of grant programs that the AMC has launched in the past seven years, perhaps the most profound is which was the $3 million to artists and organizations that suffered losses as a result of the events of 9/11. These are all partnerships that we’ve been involved with, including a wide range of organizations throughout the world. We’ve endowed the CAP program and expanded it to include things like support for composers to obtain rights to literary works. We rescued the Live Music for Dance Program when the Cary Trust decided it would no longer be the sole funder of the program. I’ll give you an example of a new program we’re just preparing to launch. People laugh when I tell them about this program, but there’s something to it. We’re creating a very small pilot program to commission “music on hold.”

Steve Reich: Music on hold?

Richard Kessler: You know, when you call up a company…

Steve Reich: Yeah, right…

Richard Kessler: Original music on hold.

Steve Reich: [laughs]

Richard Kessler: [laughs] I told you people laugh…

Steve Reich: Let me mention my friend, Jon Appleton, who is in charge of the electronic music graduate program at Dartmouth and a lot of his students go on to successful careers writing music for Gameboy and Nintendo. I’ve heard there’s more money to be made in writing for a videogame than in making a rock record…

Richard Kessler: I don’t know if you knew the composer – Eric Siday…Remember the Maxwell House theme, dadadada da da… dadada da-da…?

Steve Reich: Oh yeah…I remember that. He did okay!

Richard Kessler: Well, we are in discussions with Eric’s estate and anticipate their support for this project—we’re going to commission four works, four short works presumably, for music on hold. What will happen is we’re going to rewire the AMC music on hold system so that if you want to listen to the music instead of talking to someone you can actually press an extension. If you want to find out about the music on hold, you could go to a website that would tell you about the composer and play the complete piece. It’s also a bit of a mathematical puzzle because music on hold is not finite; it’s not regular. If you’re actually put on hold, it’s for an indeterminate length. If I say, “Steve, hold on for a second,” and I hit the hold button, you listen to a piece…

Steve Reich: Part of a piece…

Richard Kessler: Part of a piece… These are all big questions. What do you do? How, as a composer, do you approach this puzzle? Is it a loop? Some people think, well, this will be for electronic composers but that’s not necessarily true, not exclusively so either. What we’re going to do is work this out and we hope to get some press. We’re going to market this idea first to contemporary art museums.

Steve Reich: That’s great. Call me up [laughs].

Richard Kessler: [laughs]. You see what the issue is, the opportunity? They’re supporting contemporary artists. They should be commissioning composers and this is a perfect opening for greater commissioning activity.

Steve Reich: The Whitney should have music on hold.

Richard Kessler: That’s right! Take it a step further. It can also be music in the elevator. It’s been done for the Biennial, but not regularly. And take it another step further: Could we, through the press and through marketing it of this, get corporations in on this?

Steve Reich: Right. You bought a Frank Stella for the office and you’ve got Steve Reich playing in the elevator! [laughs]

Richard Kessler: Or your own music on hold. We at the AMC are always putting music on hold. We’ve had plenty of Steve Reich playing! James Tenney has actually been our number one composer for music on hold. He has a piece…

Steve Reich:For Ann (Rising)

Richard Kessler: Yes!

Steve Reich: I used to call it “Busy Day at JFK” [laughs]

Richard Kessler: [laughs] Someone who should have known better once called me up and said, “There’s something wrong with your phone system.”

Steve Reich: I’ve heard that one…

Richard Kessler: I said to him, “Hey, that’s a piece by James Tenney.” But seriously, this is about opening up markets and this is about opportunity and we’re trying to do that. We created workshops all across the country for composers to learn how to self-publish, how to market, how to promote, how to negotiate contracts. You know the nature of the business for composers now. It’s fairly rare that you ever see a young American composer taken on by one of the major publishing houses. Composers will continue to be publishing their own works more than ever before, creating their own recordings, producing their own concerts, forming their own ensembles…

Steve Reich: This is becoming true all over the music world, even the pop side…

Richard Kessler: But these skills aren’t developed when you go to Juilliard, or Peabody, or NEC. We’ve been running programs like this [at the AMC] and creating publications. But basically, my greatest pride about the AMC over the last seven years is I think there’s a tremendous amount of energy. When I first got here I looked around at the field and I used to make the joke that if two composers got together, the next thing that would happen is a new organization would be created. [laughs]

Steve Reich: [laughs]

Richard Kessler: In 1997, I wondered why composers weren’t coming to us for help or asking us to partner with them. We’re here and we want to help them. Why don’t they approach us, why aren’t they thinking: “Maybe I should talk to Richard; maybe I should talk to someone on the board; maybe I could join the organization?” And, I would say at this point now seven years into it, people are coming, calling us for help, calling us for advice, calling us for all kinds of things: Can they use the conference room for a meeting? Can we help them think through funding? Can we help them think through structure? Can we be a conduit for them? Composers and performers too, are coming to us, seeing us as a place that cares and wants to help. If you look at the list of organizations that we’ve partnered with, whether it’s the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Music At The Anthology, the Minnesota Orchestra, or any number of organizations—we’ve partnered with dozens—this is about trying to create a more fluid world that better appreciates and better understands the living artist. In part we’re trying to make inroads with some of the monolithic organizations—particularly the traditional classical organizations that have trouble understanding living composers.

Steve Reich: Are you talking about orchestras? Are you talking about publishers? Or are you talking about the whole lot?

Richard Kessler: I think it would be fair to say that the vast majority of composers are disappointed with the orchestras, more than the opera companies perhaps, certainly more than the chamber ensembles and presenting organizations. I think it’s certainly better than in Copland’s day when he wrote Copland On Music. He actually gives figures on how much orchestras performed music by American composers—this was the rationale for the Copland-Sessions Concerts.

Steve Reich: They wanted to get concerts of their music, so they arranged them themselves.

Richard Kessler: That’s exactly right. And you look at the numbers—and there were fewer orchestras back then. It’s a lot better than it was then, but still I think the issues of living composers: understanding them, appreciating them, working with them… I think the issue of composers not being able to get tapes from orchestras and opera companies—a third of the orchestras, roughly speaking, won’t even give a composer a tape, not even to study, of their own performance. They can’t even hear that tape, a tape of their own work. And add to that that these orchestras use those tapes anyway they want without asking the composer—to support grant applications, whatever they please.

Steve Reich: That’s no good!

Richard Kessler: So, I think there’s an energy at the AMC, among the board and the staff and in the membership, that it’s a community at this point.

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