Our Work Is Never Done

As weeks go, this has been a pretty good one. In addition to some timely good news, I’ve been a bit overwhelmed with the response I’ve received about an essay of mine that was published this week in the “The Score” series of The New York Times’ Op/Ed section. While I was relieved that the sentiments I was trying to get across seem to have resonated with quite a lot of folks already, a relatively small incident yesterday reminded me that our work as individuals and as a community is never done.

As I was discussing several different issues with a colleague who is affiliated with a regional NPR radio station, the topic of my radio show that had focused on living composers came up. I’ve been seriously looking into starting it back up in Western NY and was curious if the folks in their area might be interested. After informing me of who to speak to, my colleague thought about it for a second and incredulously asked “Really? An entire hour of new music?” Now keep in mind that this was not just anyone off the street; this was someone who worked at a classical radio station. And they were extremely suspicious of the idea of one hour of radio time that was dedicated to music of the past 10-15 years. In my essay I mention the importance of reaching the greater public through major media outlets, and it is still a challenge to convince many (not just my colleague) in the niche market of classical music radio that contemporary concert music is a viable and important ingredient in any programming construct.

I won’t dwell on the specifics of how most classical radio stations incorporate new music into their programming, or even blow the issue out into a larger context and include large ensemble programming as well. The fact that orchestras and radio stations—two of the most public music organizations in many areas of our society—are reticent to add a healthy dose of current music to their menus is a long-standing problem that has and will be discussed by others in many venues (including this one). I will point out, however, that the onus is on we composers, performers, professionals, and audiences to be ready to fight the stereotypes and misnomers that exist in our communities about new music when they present themselves. If we allow new music to be further subsumed through cultural erosion, it might only take a couple of generations to completely lose touch with not just one or two styles of music, but an entire art form. By doing the little things—nudging conductors to program more new works, requesting contemporary music at your local station, discovering and supporting your local composers and performers—then over time the holes that have formed in our art form may slowly begin to heal.

6 thoughts on “Our Work Is Never Done

  1. Daniel G

    Radio is an easy target for “why don’t you just play more new music.” We have a lot of air time to fill, right? And I get the request. As a composer, I would love nothing more than to program tons of new music on my station (I’m a program director). But ultimately my work in radio serves a larger audience than just new music fans, and I have to be aware of their needs. As a non-profit station (not affiliated with a university), I answer to our members – the people who give us their hard-earned money in support of their radio station. What do they want? Maybe it’s new music, but maybe it’s not. So my job is to balance what they want, with what I feel they should hear (curation). That means not being afraid to program “new music,” and at the same time realizing that the average listener just wanting to wind down after a long day, probably won’t appreciate Morton Feldman. They would really rather hear a Haydn symphony.
    You could create a new music show. I’ve done it. I like the concept. But is ghettoizing new music to a Sunday, 10pm timeslot the right strategy? I feel the same way about new music concerts and ensembles. We need them, no doubt. But being complacent that we have our new music clique isn’t going to grow an audience, however meager that growth may be. Careful, tasteful, deliberate curation of new music on concerts, within radio playlists and online is ultimately more productive.
    One more dose of reality: the largest classical radio market in the country, give or take, reaches around 650,000 listeners a week. If we use New York as an example, that’s .0325% of the NYC population. New music will always be a niche of a niche. Let’s be ok with this, and move on – for the last time. There’s this thing called the internet that reaches a few more million people, and we’ve been smart to captialize on its democracy and reach so far. Don’t get caught up in the reach of a terrestrial signal.

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  2. Rob Deemer

    Hey Daniel,

    Great response – and I totally see where you’re coming from. You, however, are not one of the folks out there that new music folks have to worry about when it comes to pushing for more new music on the radio. Between your show in Louisville and mine in Oklahoma City, we comprised a large portion of new music radio shows that were active a few years ago (along with Marvin Rosen, Dan Welcher & John Clare, among others). What caught me about the reaction was the idea that contemporary music could only be given in small doses to the community and not in a dedicated slot.
    I’m very glad you brought up the wider issue of whether or not it’s better to have specific shows/ensembles/concerts focusing on new music or to spread it throughout the concert season/programming/etc. Why can’t there be both? There are plenty of shows & ensembles that focus on Baroque music, for example, but that doesn’t keep traditional ensembles and mixed programming from liberally including music from that time period. Would you use the term “ghettoizing” for shows focusing on early music, classical guitar, organ, choral music, or film scores? I wholeheartedly believe that creating specialized programs/concerts/ensembles is a positive thing and only becomes a negative when programmers and music directors see the existence of such concepts as an excuse to not include new music on their schedules. I’ve known you for long enough that I’m confident you would not do such a thing, but I can’t be so sure of others. If anything, my post was hopeful that a push for balanced amounts of new music throughout the spectrum (live, radio, internet, etc.) would, in fact, be the most effective strategy.

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  3. smooke

    And here I was hoping that when he said “Really? An entire hour of new music?” that he was thinking that was far far far too low. ;)
    – David

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  4. Daniel G

    Completely agree, Rob. Specialty shows (ensembles, concert series, etc) are vital and important, but you’re right, it should be a balance.

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  5. David Wolfson

    You know what you never hear about? You never hear about a program or a concert that’s almost all new music, with a token piece of older music thrown in for variety. I recognize it’s hard to want to cede a precious chunk of programming time to Brahms, who’s had plenty… but isn’t this just as much a contribution to the ghettoization of new music as the radio programmer whose remark sparked this thread?

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  6. Phil Fried

    Of course we American composers need more exposure. A fine thing that. Thank you for taking that on.
    It is unfortunate Robb that you continue to hint that the problem is those composers (unnamed) who allegedly scare the audience away. You do not make clear if this is a problem of perception or of the music itself. As for cultural erosion that happens when folks “do what they have to” to succeed rather than doing what you need to for expression.

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