Red Tape: The Difficulties Orchestra Composers Have Obtaining Recordings of their Works

If there is any silver lining to this clouded situation, it is that there are so many new works being played by so many American orchestras. The most recent annual survey of orchestra premieres, as compiled and published by the American Symphony Orchestra League, lists performances of 220 new scores scheduled by 102 orchestras for the 2001-2002 season. From the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra to the California Youth Symphony, new music is getting commissioned and performed. Clearly, the twenty-plus years of efforts by organizations like Meet The Composer have paid off. Audiences can hear new sounds—at least if they’re at the symphony on the right night. Hearing a new piece again is another story entirely.

The chores and trials of being a composer are numerous and are almost as widely documented and debated as the difficulties currently facing the recording industry (a topic that will be left aside from this discussion). High on a composer’s agenda is keeping works alive after their initial performances. But whether it’s introducing a recent work to a conductor, approaching a record label, or applying for new commissions and awards, recordings are essential. Scores can be elegant and impressive but sound is what this business is all about.

Two premiere awards for composers, the Pulitzer Prize for Music and the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, both require recordings to be submitted. Since each of these awards is given for an individual work (as opposed to career achievement), the conductors and orchestras who premiered the winning compositions have a share in the limelight. Other prestigious and lucrative awards, such as the variety of prizes from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, also require recordings to be submitted.

Apart from the push for status and success, composition is an art form that takes decades to master. Writing for orchestra is often considered a pinnacle of success but it is an opportunity that seldom comes early or often. After a performance, a composer wants not just a playbill to show for the effort, but also a recording, which allows him or her to savor and analyze the actual sound of the work.

“During a performance I’m usually too excited to really be a good judge,” says composer Melinda Wagner. “When I go home, I listen very carefully and learn my own piece and learn from my mistakes. Bach wasn’t able to do that, but he heard his music every week.”

from Red Tape: The Difficulties Orchestra Composers Have Obtaining Recordings of their Works
By Joseph Dalton
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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