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

Returning to Arts Education

Steve Reich: Well, why are you leaving?

Richard Kessler: I’m leaving because another organization has called that is very important to me, and that’s the Center for Arts Education

Steve Reich: Where you were involved before…

Richard Kessler: Which we were hired to create. There were three of us: Rob Horowitz, Mitchell Korn, and I created this organization. We wrote the plan and we launched it. Now they’ve asked me to come and join them and I think a couple of things. I think that it’s good to have this kind of change. When I think of going to the Center for Arts Education, I sometimes think that I’m going to be able to do things that my predecessor Hollis Headrick [who is now at Carnegie Hall running the Weill Music Institute] couldn’t do simply because after you’re there for a while, there are some things that become like concrete around you. This will be the case with me, someone will come in and see what I couldn’t’ see, move things along in ways that I couldn’t any longer. There are systems. You can become institutionalized, even as an executive director, and there are things that you can’t see after awhile. And sometimes you can see them, but habits and patterns and systems emerge around you and you can’t change them. And I think its great for the AMC to have someone now come in at a place where it’s ready to move to the next level; it’s ready to move to a place that will truly fulfill Copland and Hanson and Luening’s dream of an activist organization that’s really out there fighting and really making a difference in deeply profound ways.

Steve Reich: So maybe they’ll be looking for someone very young…

Richard Kessler: Well, possibly [laughs]. I don’t know. I think they’re going to be looking for someone with a lot of energy, one way or the other. My mother’s taken… [laughs] She’s 84 and has lots of energy, but she’s taken by my stepdad.

Steve Reich: [laughs] I guess what I meant was somebody who was very much tuned into new music at this particular time. The musical world has changed drastically in my lifetime. The role of record companies has either drastically changed or disappeared. You know, the Philadelphia Orchestra is selling its own CDs. Then, on the other hand, there’s the net. The ground is shifting under our feet as we speak. It would seem the AMC needs someone who is keenly sensitive to these incredible changes—and opportunities.

Richard Kessler: I think you’re right. The AMC is ready to embrace the change on substantial levels, change to the field and change within the organization. There’s lots of discussion about the divide or barrier between or the outdated definitions of musical genres. Categories are blurring, you know, there are so many more sub-categories than ever before. There’s crossover in all sorts of ways. I think the sense for a long time was that the AMC was quintessentially about the traditional concert composer, to a much lesser degree about electronic composers, and even less about the improvised composer. I think at this point in time what you’re looking at is that the AMC is willing to take a look at creating ways to join all these composers, whether they’re improvisers or electronic composers or traditional composers, and try to capitalize on the blending genres. Can we in fact be supporting a wide range of composers, well beyond the traditional definition of concert composer?

Steve Reich: Why doesn’t the AMC open up a kind of online music store that sells all these self-produced or small label CDs floating around? An on-line store where you knew you could find anything new, where you could see covers, hear samples…

Richard Kessler: I think Jukebox without question will be that, both for scores and recordings and if there is no recording, the score will play a built-in midi version if it’s in Sibelius or Finale, although sometimes the sound of it isn’t so great, you’re laughing at that…

Steve Reich: No, I’m not laughing at all. It depends on the quality of your samples.

Richard Kessler: But again, if that composer could get the rights to upload that sound file, it could eventually be not only a place where the score and parts could be directly for sale, but the recordings would be as well. I think that Jukebox will encompass all those things and more. I think when Jukebox hits critical mass it’s going to take the AMC and push it in the most remarkable way.

Steve Reich: That’s great. I look forward to it. Meanwhile, when do you actually leave and go to the Center for Arts Education?

Richard Kessler: July 16th is my last day at the AMC. I should have made it July 8th [which is the day I started]. And then on August 16th I’ll start at the Center for Arts Education.

Steve Reich: When you go there, it’s not a cold turkey situation for you—you know these people, you’ve been involved with this organization before—what are the things you really want to set your sights on first?

Richard Kessler: The organization is going to undertake a strategic planning process. The Center for Arts Education is now about seven and a half years old and in that period of time the New York City public schools have changed in the most dramatic ways. When we at Artsvision were doing the plan for the Center for Arts Education, you have to understand that it was a huge undertaking. We had a staff of something like six or seven people. They were going out to schools all across the city. They were studying the schools. They were running focus groups. They were researching every cultural organization that works with schools. We met with funders. We met with principals. We went to the Board of Education. We studied the school system.

The school system in the ’70s was broken up into 32 different community school districts for a number of reasons. Now, no one ever said to us back in 1995 when we were working on this plan that maybe one day they’ll recentralize. No one ever believed that would be possible, but Mayor Bloomberg has made that possible, and it’s recentralized.

So, the school system has changed in profound ways in those seven and a half years. What that means is that the landscape is different for the Center for Arts Education, so it has to refocus. We talked about the AMC losing focus and how organizations can lose focus. Well, the time now is for the Center for Arts Education to refocus and to rethink. Again, just as I thought that for the AMC in 1997 there were lots of opportunities, lots of need, I think there are unique opportunities for the Center for Arts Education. It’s unlike any other arts and education organization in New York and perhaps in the nation. It’s an incredible opportunity. It’s about imagination and creativity for children and families. I would hope that more kids could be turned on to Steve Reich. [laughs]

Steve Reich: [laughs] Glad to hear it.

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