Perceptions of Opportunity

There has been a bounty of quality writing over the past few weeks by my colleagues touching on a wide range of topics and viewpoints—global views on fair business practices aligned with the dissemination of music, repeat performances, academism, ageism, student debt, commissions and stuff, perceptions of persecution, and how not to network—so much so that it’s been hard to keep up. (I haven’t even begun to delve into Robert Carl’s thoughts on the next century.)

What interests me about these posts is that their focuses converge on the idea of opportunity, a through line that is not unique to these recent articles but has become quite prevalent over time. In decades past, you might have read rhetorical calls for or against a certain artistic concept or creative technique; such full-throated arguments are relatively rare any more (with the exception of the occasional Huffington Post diatribe). Today, however, we have moved beyond simply debating content and concept and turned our sights toward something more elemental—opportunity—and the access (or lack thereof) to it.

For many years, music composition projected the perception of a gatekeeping system. If one wanted to participate, one had to relocate, both physically and artistically, to one of several spheres of influence (usually associated with the faculty and alumni of a handful of academic institutions). If one was not a “member of the club” and/or lived outside of those locational and aesthetic spheres, not only was there a dearth of opportunities for creation and performance, but the very choice of composition as a career path was limited to vocational income-based options (writing for band or choir, for young performers, or for film). This perception was so strong that it could easily transcend other more foundational reasons why a composer could gain “club membership”—namely aptitude, perseverance, and quality of work.

Only the most naive and optimistic among us would suggest that this perception does not remain; I would color myself as neither naive nor optimistic in this regard. I would, however, posit that the landscape has really changed over the past 25 years or so. One could list several factors to this point—the sheer increase in the number of composers, the growing interest in new music in cities outside of the traditional centers, the acceptance of new music within academic curricula in many institutions, the expansive growth of composer- and performer-formed organizations, and the emergence of the chamber ensemble as the primary vehicle for composition are just a few. All of these changes have occurred during the evolution of the Internet, which has allowed those aforementioned perceptions to weaken over time as information has become more readily available and as communication lines between composers and performers have improved.

It is because of all of these changes that, I believe, the issue of opportunity and the perceptions surrounding that idea of opportunity have become so important for those in the creative arts in general and in the contemporary concert music scene in particular. As more of us understand the new reality and forgo the perceptions of the past, the more we will all be attuned to the various aspects of opportunity, including when it doesn’t exist, how to make sure it does exist, and how best to proceed once that opportunity is available.

Whether it is the opportunity to study with the right teacher, to compose for a specific type of ensemble, to work within a particular genre, to collaborate with and have one’s music performed by well-known performers, to allow audiences and critics to hear and react to one’s music, or just to have a career doing what one loves, composers—and indeed all creative artists—want to be given the chance to make their voices heard and participate in the scrum that is our culture and society. It should be a high priority to do whatever can be done to keep those pathways of opportunity open and clearly marked for everyone.

One thought on “Perceptions of Opportunity

  1. Brighton

    Our problem is not that contests and calls are unfair or
    inadequtely broadcast, it’s that they are meaningless. There are no
    professional critics in the US, and therefore no artistic
    standards. There are no market forces to guide us. The small but
    important audience that enjoys our output is deluged with too much
    new music to process. Elliott Carter raised this same complaint
    30-40 years ago, and it has only gotten worse. Certain logistical
    matters have changed, yes, but the music hasn’t gotten any better.
    There’s still only 5-10% of it worth listening to, and no reliable
    source to lead us to it.

    Reply

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