The relationship between composers and musicians’ unions has always been complicated. While orchestrators and copyists are covered by the union, composers are not. In many instances (unless a composer also acts as a contractor or music director), they tend not to have any direct interaction with the union, often finding themselves to be middlemen (or at least interested third parties) between the union and the organization that pays the musicians.
In the concert music world, composers are affected by union rules when they ask for recordings of orchestral works (Nico Muhly wrote an extensive post on this topic a couple of years ago) or if a new music ensemble is forced to cancel a concert because of a union dispute. Over the past year, there have been articles (here and here) pointing to the growing resentment of musicians’ unions in response to the decisions made by film and video game studios to record scores in non-union locations (London, Seattle, Prague, and Bratislava are most commonly chosen). The decision to not utilize union musicians is usually not made by the composer, however, but rather by the producers who hold the purse strings.
It is with this oblique relationship in mind between those who create the music and those who protect the performers that bring that music to life that a recent initiative by one of the largest musicians’ unions comes to light. Last week, an e-mail newsletter went out to the membership of AFM Local 802 (covering New York City) that began with the following:
If you’re having trouble making that out, it reads:
How do you really feel about 21st century repertoire?
In many ways, the future of classical music depends on the repertoire. But, as a musician, what do you really think of new work? What do you like most about performing new compositions? What drives you crazy about them? How do you think 21st century repertoire speaks (or doesn’t speak!) to audiences? What’s it like when a composer is present at a rehearsal and gives comments?
Allegro is planning a story on what our members think of 21st century repertoire—both the good and the bad. We’d love to hear your thoughts, because you represent the front line. Composers and audiences need to hear your point of view. If you’re interesting in learning more about participating in this project, click here.
[The link auto-generates an e-mail which already includes the following text: "I'm interested in learning more about your story. Please e-mail me with additional information to see if I want to participate. Thank you."]
Allow me to break this message down into its component parts in order to understand what is being asked.
1. “How do you really feel about 21st century repertoire?”
In the abstract, the idea of asking performers how they feel about 21st-century repertoire is a good one—composers should welcome a healthy discussion of this type. The title, however, is not in the abstract and with its inclusion of “really” (in italics, no less), it is improbable, at best, to imagine that a healthy discussion is what is intended. The tone of this title is obvious—“It’s okay. You’re among friends here…tell us how you really feel about this new stuff you have to play.” It’s difficult to imagine anyone reading this as anything other than an invitation to vent.
2. “In many ways, the future of classical music depends on the repertoire. But, as a musician, what do you really think of new work?”
This is an odd set of statements. The first puts the weight of the future of classical music on those of us who are creating the repertoire (a discussion topic I’ll leave for another time). The second wraps around to the same question the title asks, this time emphasizing the negative aspects of the topic even more by starting out with “But…”. The question has now been asked twice, both times with a negative inclination.
3. “What do you like most about performing new compositions? What drives you crazy about them?”
“Drives you crazy”? Again, the tone couldn’t be more apparent.
4. “How do you think 21st century repertoire speaks (or doesn’t speak!) to audiences?”
Next, audiences are brought into the picture. Again, it’s impossible to miss the wink-wink-nudge-nudge of the tone here—“(or doesn’t speak!)” can only be read as carrying more emphasis, seemingly questioning the assumption that contemporary music speaks to audiences.
5. “What’s it like when a composer is present at a rehearsal and gives comments?”
Now it gets personal. This question has nothing to do with repertoire, but with the professionalism of composers within the rehearsal process. There are many examples of “composers behaving badly” in rehearsals just as there are examples of “performers behaving badly” in rehearsals, and it’s not clear how this question pertains to the topic of repertoire. Now if the true intent of the initiative is to allow performers to vent about contemporary composers and their music, then I could see how this might fit.
6. “Composers and audiences need to hear your point of view.”
Yes they do—as long as that point of view is given in the context of a healthy, respectful, and constructive dialogue.
The relationship between composer and performer has become increasingly symbiotic over the past three decades. Given that fact, it is curious why one of the largest organizations of musicians in the country would decide to pursue this particular line of questioning with its membership. Its misguided tone comes across as a clumsy attempt to gin up resentment between performers and composers. That resentment may exist in certain quarters in New York City and elsewhere, but unless it is addressed in a constructive manner, there is little wisdom behind such an initiative.
21st CENTURY REPERTOIRE
“Two weeks ago, we ran a question in this space, asking our members what they think of 21st century repertoire. Your responses have been thoughtful and interesting. However, we heard from some musicians that the way the question was phrased may have been disrespectful towards new music. That was certainly not our intention, and if we offended anyone, we’d like to apologize. We’d still like to know your thoughts on 21st century repertoire, and we’d love to hear from composers also. How can composers and performers work together in developing the future of the repertoire? What are the various challenges and success stories of performing 21st century repertoire — or getting it programmed? How can we get audiences more interested 21st century repertoire? If you’re interested in learning more about participating in this project, click here.”
Obviously it would have been better if something like this was in the initial newsletter…but it’s nice to see that they’ve recognized their misstep and have taken steps to fix things.