There’s No Free Ranch

This week I’m in residence at the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California—a sort of “arts ranch” in a beautiful park-like location in the hills that define Silicon Valley. I’m here working on the second stage of a collaboration with experimental filmmaker Pat O’Neill, which will culminate in a live performance—film and digital sound—this Sunday night in San Francisco. My hope is that we can find enough people willing to forego Hollywood entertainment as epitomized by the Academy Award ceremony to come see truly innovative filmmaking with some decidedly non-”soundtrack aesthetic” music.

With its natural quiet and beautiful scenery, Montalvo is a wonderful place to put aside the stresses and obligations of daily life and to focus in on composing (or writing, painting, sculpting, or any of the other disciplines supported here). I was tempted to take a week off from chattering with you, but it’s too much fun to share a glimpse of the locale, and also some thoughts that the last couple of weeks have provoked.

According to its website, Montalvo Arts Center was previously known as Villa Montalvo, a historic landmark built in 1912 by James Duval Phelan. Phelan, “a passionate Californian who had been a three-term progressive mayor of San Francisco, went on to become California’s first popularly-elected U.S. Senator….At his death, Senator Phelan was explicit in his bequest of Villa Montalvo. ‘I would like the property at Saratoga, California, known as Villa Montalvo, to be maintained as a public park open under reasonable restrictions, the buildings and grounds immediately surrounding the same to be used as far as possible for the development of art, literature, music, and architecture by promising students.’ ”

Just another example of an offering with strings. Good strings! Senator Phelan presumably got a tax write-off, the City of San Francisco got a wonderful park (which they eventually transferred to the local community 50 miles to the south, but that’s another story), and the arts got a wonderful location for nurture and growth. All everyone had to do was to follow the rules.

What kind of rules do we usually have to follow as composers? Let’s see, off the top of my head I can think of a few:

With commissions we have:

  • deadlines
  • instrumental restrictions
  • limits of duration
  • performance practicality

With film scoring there’s all of the above, plus technical practicality and conformance with technical standard. Plus, everything is subject to the director’s and producer’s capricious wills, unless you are in the unique position of being artistic co-equal with the filmmaker (almost never seen in Hollywood, happily more common in the “art” world).

And there are perhaps more subtle “rules” that come into play with things like commissions, particularly when they come from private individuals. If you made your living through commissions, whether from an 18th-century emperor or a 21st-century patron of the arts, might you not possibly, however subtly, guide your work toward the expectations of your sponsor? Sometimes we just need the money. I really don’t get the sense that Beethoven had his heart in it when he wrote those mandolin sonatas, do you?

Composers looking for support from the grants world have even more rules to follow, not counting the mechanics of grants like reporting, accounting, etc. Every grant-giving organization I know has some sort of agenda when providing money. You want the money? Take heed of the agenda.

In the early ’80s when the NEA was expanding rather than contracting, I remember Mary MacArthur, former executive director of The Kitchen in New York City, telling me excitedly that the Opera/Music Theater program was soon to be starting a commissioning program worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars. She urged me to look into it. “But, I don’t write opera or music theater!” I protested. “Get started,” she replied.

I worked for many years for KPFK and KPFA, two radio stations that are part of the Pacifica Network. The hallmark of Pacifica is that it never allows commercial sponsorship, or even corporate underwriting, of any of its programs. The theory is that direct support from the listeners is the purest way to provide programming with integrity, and give the radio producers and on-air personnel freedom that having a corporate overseer would not allow. It was in many ways a liberating experience, but no one could say we were completely free. We had the principles of Pacifica itself to keep in mind, and of course the expectations of the listeners. Not to mention small governmental entities like the FCC and the IRS.

Here’s my stipulation to this group, in the manner of one rule. I welcome the comments of everyone, even from those who might disagree and even dislike me or what I write. Feel free to fire away at me or other comments you might disagree with here. Please note that I wrote comments, not commenters. Please keep it civil, no ad hominem arguments or personal attacks. And that’s the rule.

There is always some kind of contract, be it tacit or explicit, in everything we do. Like my deadline to send this column to my editors. I’d love to muse on, but rules are rules. To the Send button! Your thoughts please! See you next week.

2 thoughts on “There’s No Free Ranch

  1. bluecee

    er, wot?
    So, the POINT is ? (Harry Nillson, many apologies) Dudes and dudettes, just have fun, make a noise you enjoy, get your heads out of your behinds and write music that makes YOU smile. That would be music, not “art” or “craft”.

    Reply
  2. philmusic

    I have always had a difficult relationship with commissions and awards. There have been times when, looking back, I drew (what some might call arbitrary) lines in the sand and refused to cross them. This was because I was ambitious for my music but not for myself. I paid a price for this, but I made a choice and stuck to it. Now I can say now that everything that has happened for me is because of my music.

    Phil Fried

    Reply

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