You’ve Got To Be In It

Frank J. Oteri, Editor
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Molly Sheridan

Years ago, when I was even more optimistic and starry-eyed than I am now, I received a notice in the mail that I had been selected for inclusion in a “Who’s Who”-type directory. Now, I no longer remember which one it was, but at the time I was convinced that it was a harbinger of an extremely successful career. I bragged about it ceaselessly to everyone until people started laughing about how naïve I was and asking how much money they soaked from me to buy my own copy of the directory.

It is basic human nature to want to be recognized and almost everyone who creates something artistic is doing it for an audience. I have heard estimates that there are over 10,000 living composers in the United States today, which is ironically a number larger than most audiences for the majority of new music concerts and recordings. So, how to stand out from the crowd and be noticed?

A good start is to be included in a book. It’s a tangible form of historic validation. And while I now know that nobody looks to most “Who’s Who”-type directories to find out who the most important composers are, there are other books that serve as major stamps of historical approval. None probably more than The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which is the de facto source for music in the English language.

But, while Grove is a fantastic resource, it does not include everything and there’s no way that it ever could. And the fact that no other publication comes anywhere close to Grove, while a credit to Grove, is actually a source of shame to our field as a whole. Imagine if there were only one all-inclusive guide to baseball or only one really decent medical encyclopedia.

Beyond that, Grove isn’t even the product of an American publisher; it’s British. That said, amazingly, Grove once published a huge four-volume Dictionary of American Music, and its American born and bred co-editor H. Wiley Hitchcock is one of the world’s leading scholars on American music. But those volumes were published almost a generation ago and there are no plans to revise it. Many composers who came to prominence in this country since then, unless they have been visible enough internationally to make it into the Revised New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (published in 2000 in book and Web form) are just out of luck.

But, on some levels we only have ourselves to blame. Would France, Russia, or China (just to name the other members of the U.N. Security Council) let another country publish their own history for them? Of course, an undertaking such as a comprehensive, up-to-date, all-inclusive encyclopedia of American composers and their music is no small task and would require a huge budget. James Reel, in his assessment of scholarly research materials on American music, which would be the basis for any such endeavor, shows that we still have a long way to go in the development of truly meaningful texts. And, even then, what would the criteria be for inclusion. Comments from a group of composers containing an equal number of Grove-ins and Grove-outs about what the standards for Grove inclusion should be, reveals a plethora of response that are not even consistent among the Grove-ins and Grove-outs!

Maintaining a starry-eyed more-is-more optimism, I like to think that every composer should be included without judgment, just as membership in the American Music Center has always been open to every composer regardless of stature or degree of recognition. But of course, members have to find us and join us, so it still doesn’t cover everybody.

Tempering that optimism, I also realize that nothing can possibly include everybody, not even the “Who’s Who” directory I was listed in many years ago. And, even more than that, I’m well aware that such an undertaking would be a Herculean task requiring thousands of contributors and that no publisher with any economic sense would ever embark on such an endeavor because it could never possibly pay for itself much less make a profit. And therein lies the problem.

Until new economic models are set up to nurture this kind of scholarship, it will never exist. NewMusicBox exists because it is supported by the American Music Center, a non-profit service organization. It could never exist in the commercial marketplace nor should it. Recently, the American Music Center launched another Web site, NewMusicJukebox, to address the symbiotic need for people to find out about composers and for those composers to have people find out about their music. Once again, though, this is not based on the standard economic model. NewMusicJukebox serves as a conduit for composers to connect to potential performers, venues, listeners, etc., and any potential economic connections will be made through connections beyond the site. Of course, money was needed to create both NewMusicBox and NewMusicJukebox, but that money was raised through development within the framework of a non-profit entity rather than through generating revenue through merchandizing product.

Of course, in NewMusicJukebox, the composers themselves (or their publishers) are responsible for the content about themselves, and NewMusicBox admittedly comes with a very strong pro-new American music bias, which perhaps is in direct opposition to the kind of objective scholarship that some quarters believe is what criticism aspires to. But these models are viable, whereas, we can see from the lack of a really reliable source that is completely without bias (as if such a thing could exist anyway), the other model is not.