Photo courtesy of Gayle Morgan
“Is There Too Much New Music?”
Last year the Cary Trust offered its biennial program of grants to assist New York City music institutions in commissioning new music. We received 117 applications to the program and after an extensive review of the projects by independent consultants, we made 32 grants totaling more than $450,000.
Each time we run this program I am amazed at the enormous number of new music projects and composers competing for the grants. In the nine years that we have offered the program, we have funded projects involving commissions for more than 100 composers. Nonetheless, there were many more composers included in proposals that were not funded, and I imagine that there are others who have stopped submitting projects based on disappointing responses in previous programs.
This situation would be more acceptable if there were several other sources of support for commissioning, but in fact the Trust’s program is nearly one of a kind, and at present it is considerably larger than other commissioning programs that are national in scope, such as those of Meet The Composer and Chamber Music America.
Recently, I scanned a New Music Calendar, noting those contemporary music ensembles and presenters that are supported by operating grants from the Cary Trust. I was surprised to observe that we were funding only 13 out of approximately 52 concerts that appeared in the April Calendar. This was shocking to me because, unlike many other funding agencies, we have an acknowledged and relatively substantial commitment to the development and performance of new music. Even with an average annual grant list of 25 new music ensembles and presenters, it seems that we are barely scratching the surface when it comes to supporting contemporary music activity in New York City.
Is there too much new music? Are too many people pursuing careers as composers? Are 52 contemporary music concerts in one month too many?
One might obviously reply that the problem is not with composers and musicians performing contemporary music; the problem is with the appalling lack of financial resources available to support their work. I would agree, but in light of the competing calls on philanthropic resources for the arts, it is probably unrealistic to expect a dramatic change for the better.
One measure that patrons and grant makers inevitably use in assessing the value of a new music ensemble or presenter is the size of the audience for the music being presented. At the Trust we try not to fall into that trap because we are committed to supporting the art form itself. We do not believe that a value can be placed on music merely by counting the number of individuals currently interested in hearing it.
Taken to an extreme, however, I would have to ask if the Trust would support an ensemble that has no audience at all, and the answer would be “no, we would not,” although I have attended a few concerts for which the audience was sparse to the point of nonexistence. In terms of our own grant program, we justify support for these new music events as “r&d“, but we would certainly have cause for concern if a substantial portion of the grants we make ended up assisting concert events that hardly anyone attends.
If there is too much new music chasing too few financial resources and too little audience interest, what is the cause and what is the solution? Since composers are self-appointed, who is to say who should pursue a career and who should turn to other interests? Perhaps in some cases teachers or performers discourage less promising composers by failing to promote them or their music. More questionable is the power of patrons and grant makers, even those who subject funding proposals to careful scrutiny by artistic peers, to determine the day-to-day success of creative artists if not their long-term standing and reputation in the community at large.
In the end, the challenge for musicians, concert presenters, arts funders, and individual music lovers is to provide as strong a support system as possible for a large, diverse body of composers and their music. Perhaps the burgeoning interest in music and arts education will eventually produce a larger, more diverse body of listeners. Still, it is entirely possible that the proliferation of music and art will always outstrip the financial resources available to subsidize them.
Thus, it is all the more important that both human as well as financial resources be used wisely. Concert producers at all levels of venues must be thoughtful and clear about the programming they choose to present; musicians must commit the time and energy needed to rehearse and give a new work the best possible airing; and arts funders must first trust the field and then take the risks involved in supporting new work.
Audiences also have a responsibility to get into the concert hall as often as possible and then relax, open their ears and minds, and enjoy the experience when a new work or a particular performance or an enjoyable program clicks. These challenges are being met in many instances. Attempting to keep up with the fast-paced new music performance field, especially in New York City, is a daunting but exhilarating experience. Composers, performers and producers of new music have not chosen an easy path, but it can be richly rewarding – artistically if not materially – for them as well as for their patrons and fans.