Avenues of Discussion

When I was asked to take part in a “Social Networking for the Arts” seminar series out here in western New York last week, I needed to explain how I got involved in social networking in the first place. Before I became active on Facebook, Twitter, and [shudder] Myspace, I realized that it was through reading articles and getting involved in the comment discussion threads on the then relatively young online new music sites—Sequenza21 and NewMusicBox—that I slowly became aware of the community of composers, performers, and enthusiasts that were out there. At this point I was still a relative newcomer to the contemporary concert music scene and didn’t have a clue as to who was doing what, much less know anyone on a personal basis, and it didn’t take long to begin to recognize names that kept popping up in articles and in the comments sections. Over time, these online venues for shop-talk had allowed a former jazz arranger-film composer-conductor from the Midwest to get a fairly accurate picture of the issues and people that were spinning around in the world of contemporary composition here in the United States—and ultimately guided me to take on the current project of interviewing composers on which these columns I’m writing have been focused.

Having these ideas rattling around in my head already, I was pleasantly surprised to see Daniel Felsenfeld’s name as the curator of the re-emergent series of essays in the New York Times titled “The Score” this week. In his opening column, Daniel is seriously worried about the silence from composers in the national dialogue and, in his words, “It is not only that we composers lack a place at the cultural and political conversational table, but that most of those at said table hardly know we’re there.” That someone is talking in these terms is a great positive in any regard, but that they are able to make such statements and subsequently do something about the issues in one of the most widely read newspapers in the country is a healthy step in the right direction.

On the same day that I read Daniel’s column, I gave a masterclass to some composition students at Oklahoma City University where I had once taught. What surprised me was how savvy many of the students were to what was going on outside of their own region because of their access to NewMusicBox and Sequenza21—a change from the situation I remembered just five years previous. That these young composers were keeping tabs on current trends, artists, and issues in a place that is not widely considered a hotbed of contemporary classical music was extremely promising for the future of our artistic community, one which many times has had the tendency of leaving out a good portion of the country that resided outside of the few centers of activity.

All these events and ideas can be connected in this way: in order for us as an artistic community to take up Daniel’s call for a greater presence at the musical and cultural table in our country, we need to be aware of who and what our community is—not just in Brooklyn or on the North Side of Chicago or in New Haven, but throughout the country—and include as many as possible into this greatly needed cultural conversation. “The Score” is a welcome addition to that conversation that has up till now been held up primarily by NewMusicBox and Sequenza21. There is, of course, more room for discussion—the new video podcast series put out by graduate students at Michigan State called SoundNotion is a perfect example—and I can only hope that as more take part in these conversations, either in the existing venues or ones they make up themselves, we may yet find a place at the table.

4 thoughts on “Avenues of Discussion

  1. mclaren

    You mention that “Over time, these online venues for shop-talk had allowed a former jazz arranger-film composer-conductor from the Midwest to get a fairly accurate picture of the issues and people that were spinning around in the world of contemporary composition here in the United States…”

    My own experience suggests that the world of contemporary music consists of island universes almost totally isolated from one another. So isolated, in fact, that composers and musicologists and theorists and performers worshiped and legendary in one part of the contemporary music community get the baffled response “Who?” in another part.

    As just one example, how many people on Sequenza 21 can identify the following legendary musical personalities?

    Augusto Novaro
    Ervin Wilson
    Leigh Gerdine
    William Schottstaedt
    X. J. Scott
    Jacob Barton

    These musicians cast very long shadows within one particular part of the contemporary music community while remaining essentially invisible outside it. The same proves true of other musical communities, for example the musicians involved in the Processing community. (Processing is a visual language for generating computer-created movies, often by means of sound input.)
    The live laptop coding community has never had any visibility on Sequenza 21 and probably never will. As far as I can tell, video game composers are completely invisible here and are probably not even regarded as “real composers.” Computer musicians, particularly people who use non-real-time acoustic compilers, are unpersons. Ditto people who create their own homebrew musical instruments. And so on.

    Is it even possible for any one person to get a full overview of the true depth and breadth of contemporary music in America? There seem too many good composers working today, and too much superb music being produced, for one person to hear it all, or even a significant fraction of it.

    Reply
  2. slayton

    McLaren, for a little perspective it seems worth pointing out your words in a response to something at Kyle Gann’s ‘Postclassic’ blog back in 2009: “Jacob Barton is completely unfamiliar to the commenters here, since like all important composers and performers today, he’s been systematically snubbed and ignored by Sequenza21, NewMusicBox, the Nytimes music review section, Perspectives On New Music, Musical Quarterly, all the major prize committees, etc.

    The whole “systematically snubbed” bit is laughable and really more worthy of a Fox News Tea-Party commenter. I’ve known of Jacob, exchanged emails — heck, we’re even Facebook “friends!” — and mentioned him on Sequenza21 as far back as 2006-7, when our paths just barely missed crossing in Houston. I do know some other of the names you mention (all alternate-intonation explorers), but as you also mentioned, these are a subset likely unknown outside the alternate-tuning community, and probably for the simple reason that most composers don’t have a very strong interest in it.

    Rob’s point about the vastly greater potential for interconnectedness of today’s composers seems much more true than your own description of it all being “island universes almost totally isolated from one another”. It’s barely been a decade and change since the time that most of us were limited to the few like minds we might be lucky enough to encounter in our little town or county, with a few more by mail, or if a professor with whoever showed up at various academic get-togethers. Now *that* was a landscape of island universes for sure! From the mid-90s on, suddenly everyone you’d never thought to meet or even heard of is precisely the same one single away down the virtual street. This is truly one of the most fundamentally life-and-art-changing events to occur, ever. Sure, we’re all islands; but where before the myriad archipelagos were separated by a lot of signless sea, now each island is practically touching each other.

    At S21 almost *nothing* is systematic, believe me! But we *do* have a system, which is we’re happy to have anyone who can write half a lick contribute news and views on whatever aspect of contemporary art-music interests them. Microtonal, Complexity, Wandelweiser, digital, mechanical, electroacoustic, improvisation, melodists, marching band, rock-pop-classical fusions, conceptual, doesn’t matter to me, bring it on! …But with only a couple caveats: 1) no blanket dissing of anybody else’s corner of the musical universe; 2) the living should get more mention than the dead; 3) extra points for people working and things happening outside the confines of NYC — we get bombarded enough with that not to ever need go looking for news from there.

    For *years* now, you’ve paraded across sites such as S21, NewMusicBox and others, spewing a rather off-putting blend of brilliance, bile, obsessions, and smug superiority. The brilliance I and the rest of the online music community can use, and you’re always more than welcome at Sequenza21 to write a whole series of posts on each of the composers you mention. The invitation stands for all you others reading this as well, who might feel your particular area is being ‘snubbed’. The only thing making it so is your own inactivity! Feel free to write to sequenza21@gmail.com.

    – Steve Layton, Editor, Sequenza21

    Reply
  3. Joyfulgirl

    Thanks for mentioning Felsenfeld’s article. Great stuff. I particularly enjoyed the anecdote about Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts:

    “When Leonard Bernstein famously took to the airwaves to bring “art music” to the masses in his Young People’s Concerts, he was accused, in snobbier quarters, of something akin to giving away magicians’ secrets: when he, for example, explained the rudiments of conducting a symphony orchestra, music stores (then common) were besieged by people buying batons. They knew, at least a little bit, about how it was done, and some argued that this removed an important shroud of ineffable mystery. With that, I cannot disagree more. By disabusing the public of the idea that those supremely talented people who wrote symphonies, operas, chamber music (or performed them, for that matter) were akin to gods atop Parnassus indulging great draughts from some eternal spring, Bernstein acknowledged the truth — that those so-called gods were actually people, people with a trade even, a craft. It was not mystery or the divine touch that got them where they were, but labor, discussion, thinking, study, trying, failing, trying again.”

    Reply

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