The Role of Composer in Rural America

I’m currently taking part in a three-day conference about community engagement and the arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota, sponsored by Imagining America. Based on both the presenters and audiences so far, it’s interesting to see which art forms are active on this front (theatre, visual arts, poetry, and dance) and which forms are not well represented in the discussion (music, and specifically concert music). An example of this occurred yesterday during a seminar on attracting creative artists to rural communities and how that might stabilize or even enhance local economies. Throughout the discussion I kept thinking of the relationship between rural America and concert music—both from a composition and a performance viewpoint—and what aspects of that relationship the community of composers could seek to strengthen and improve (and why that might be an important thing to do).

As I’ve mentioned before, when I was mapping out the lists of composers that I wanted to interview for my ongoing project, I tried very hard to make sure that it was as rich a variety of composers as I could manage. Looking back on the list and thinking about where I’ve already been, I realize that almost everyone either lives in an urban center or in a rural area at a regional university (I count myself in that number). One of them actually does live out in the wilderness, but still comes into the city to teach. Of course where someone lives does not necessarily equate with where their musical work occurs, but on this point composers become even more urbanized—if you’re composing for a professional orchestra or string quartet or new music ensemble, your audiences are going to be dictated by the location of those performances, and to a great degree these performances are occurring in urban areas.

There are some examples of composers living and working in rural communities that I have found and I’m hoping to find more of them. One composer who has done a good job of not only living the life of a rural composer but also promoting it is Dennis Báthory-Kitsz, who has written about the topic not once, but twice. Jerod Impichchahaaha Tate has worked with American Indian teens for years as part of the Chickasaw Summer Arts Academy in Ada, Oklahoma. And John Luther Adams, who in many ways exemplifies the idea of integrating music and nature, has literally written the book on what it means to be a non-urban composer.

In the conference discussion yesterday, we explored some of the reasons why it is so hard to for rural communities to retain the creative artists that grow up there or to attract new artists to come and live. One underlying idea that presented itself was that many rural communities are losing a sense of self, which resonated with me because of where I currently live. Dunkirk, New York, used to be a thriving steel port before the economic hardships that slammed much of the Rust Belt, and with nothing to take its place, many of the residents left. With an influx of immigrants from Central America and Mexico over the past several years, the original residents who remain now find themselves in a very different community than they grew up in, and it may indeed be possible, even necessary, for the artists in the area (including myself) to find ways to help the community mold a new sense of itself and begin to thrive again.

Where this will lead for me, I do not know. But it brings into sharp relief how hard it is to conceptualize the integration of contemporary concert music into a rural setting—at least for me. If anyone has other examples of contemporary concert composers and performers working with rural communities, I’d love to hear about them.

8 thoughts on “The Role of Composer in Rural America

  1. Scott

    I’m a composer living in rural Appalachia, not near any cities, and not near any large colleges. I figured I’d chime in with how I make it work. First and foremost, I make it work by being a stay-at-home dad with my 2 young daughters, while my wife works full-time. This allows me enough time to compose, but little enough monetary pressure to not worry so much. Secondly, I have found ways to become woven into this community. A local group commissioned me for a significant anniversary… One of the only local “classical” singers around here is working with me on a project… and so on. I certainly also have higher-profile commissions and performances, but it’s important to me to find some in my community and form a bond there.

    But in short, I think there are a good number of rural composers like me. Composing part-time for local organizations, then occasionally flying out for rehearsals and premieres elsewhere. Finding other satisfying part-time work to fill out their day, but being sure to always keep composing in the fore. Securing commissions more through conversations with friends and colleagues than through more mainstream channels.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic though, Rob! I’m always glad to see composers acknowledge that urban life is not the only option for a composer. So many of my graduate school colleagues moved to NYC or LA after getting their DMA because it seemed like the only logical thing to do, but there are other viable options out there.

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  2. Paul Muller

    Alex Shapiro is another composer who lives – and works – in a rural area. But she travels a lot.

    One is hopeful that the advances in electronic distribution and self-publishing will start to make it irrelevant where one lives…

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  3. Joanne Forman

    Greetings from Taos, New Mexico! This is my 61st year writing music, and my 34th year in Taos (pop. of the town proper, about 6,000)

    Since I’m a Senior Citizen, my “base” is Social Security. Because Taos is such a desirable place to live, we have a pool of musicians who could do well elsewhere, but want to live here. However! The pool is very small, which is a constant source of frustration. I’ve written for every community music group, schools, churches, our Jewish Center, the local Suzuki orchestra, etc. etc. etc. I do do things elsewhere, but less as I grow older. I do make my own CDs.The eternal rub, of course, is that hustling takes SO much time, so I don’t do as much as I probably should.

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  4. Lawton Hall

    Online distribution and networking certainly does help, but I’m finding more and more that I describe my location in relation to the large urban centers that I’m close to (between Minneapolis and Chicago). Despite the fact that I can conduct almost all of my business and distribution through the internet, it can be a challenge to stay at the forefront of peoples’ (ensembles, etc.) minds when I’m not seeing them face-to-face on a regular basis.

    On the East Coast, my Midwestern-ness is often a selling point, and I think that composers like John Luther Adams have been influential in stressing the importance of geography on a composer’s mindset. In some ways (especially in concert music, perhaps, which is a little more hesitant to embrace new technologies than other media), the idea of a composer being tied to a particular location (and not just floating around the internet) might be refreshing to some audiences.

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  5. Cynthia Van Maanen

    Very interesting topic. Not sure how I fit into it at Interlochen. We’re certainly rural, but others come to us and I travel. Last summer I worked with the local film festival to create an opening fanfare for their title sequence. I love that kind of interaction with the community here. In a way I have two communities…my Interlochen community and my local, northern Michigan community.

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  6. Richard Freeman-Toole

    I am composer. I am a refugee from the big city. I started out in LA where I studied film music with David Raksin. In 1978 he was throwing me little low-budget film score gigs, which, if I had stayed put, would have led to a lucrative career in the commercial biz. However, I have Asperger’s Syndrome (little did I know then) and the insanity of the city was more than I could bear.

    From there I went to Santa Cruz, where I was a co-founder of the Santa Cruz New Music Works (still in operation, and one of the most recognized new music concert series in California). I had music performed by some of the top players and ensembles in the San Francisco/San Jose area. I was also recognized as one the top players and conductors of new music. Once again the city was too big for me.

    From there I went to the Pacific Northwest. I had several University performances, and one pro performance by Spokane Symphony players. but the number of prestigious performances began to dwindle.

    I am now living in Glennallen, Alaska, pop ca. 800–I think that qualifies as rural. I have attempted to remain active through the internet, but largely unsuccessfully even by normal YouTube standards. I had some music played by the Fairbanks Flutists, and the California State University Flute Choir, I won an Honorable Mention in the Areon International Flute Composition Competition, and got a piece published by the National Marimba League (C, Alan Publications). Other than that, I content myself with amateur performances of the several community groups I conduct in Glennallen, Valdez, and Anchorage.

    I have forsaken any ambition I ever had of making a name for myself and am hoping that my ideas resonate on the astral plane. I have a website, freemantlemusic.com, which houses a library of material for my students to practice with, and, coincidentally, a large sampling of my music, both pedagogical, and pro concert level.

    Dr. Richard Freeman-Toole

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  7. gregg moore

    In the interests of keeping alive what I find is an important discussion, I wanted to suggest that the true value of being a ‘rural’ composer might be found in the development of local culture. Much in the same way as we value our local farmer’s markets, local microbreweries, cheese makers, potters, jewelers and other craftsmen, we should think of supporting our local composers and other creative musicians . Theater folk speak of ‘theater of place’ to describe original or adapted theater that references local geography, history and culture. This might be a good model for musicians to emulate. The development of a ‘local sound’ can’t be too farfetched. Local amateur groups might be approached to try the local product in the form of reading sessions.
    I expect we all recognize that most of the conventional ensembles subject to our efforts can be found to be notoriously conservative, existing to endlessly repeat the tried and true, with little interest in developing new repertoire. So it may be necessary to form less conventional, generally smaller ensembles and find equally less conventional venues to present in – art openings, theater pieces, poetry readings, multi-media events.
    Much of this direction depends on abandoning the other conventions of the profession, of course – fame, fortune, publishing, etc. but the pay-off might be found in the knowledge that we are enriching our local communities and the appreciation of those few of our neighbors given to listening for new sounds. We can be content in our role as an antidote to all the local generic musics – the caterwaul of the singer/songwriters, the vacancy of the reggae bands and the bar bands whose renditions of ‘Proud Mary’ sound the same all over the world. Rural composers can serve as a model for young school musicians who have probably never met an actual creator of music and could only benefit from the example of people who make their own music. School band, orchestra and choral directors might welcome the opportunity to have something written especially for their groups, perhaps tailored to the strengths of the ensemble, possibly highlighting a particularly assiduous student as soloist.
    Composing as a full time occupation is likely dead but for a very few fortunate, generally to be found in L.A., but we have a wonderful example in Charles Ives who maintained a high degree of creativity as an amateur composer while supporting himself very well in his day gig, enriching the amateur musical life of his community and developing music with a strong sense of place.

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  8. Eugene Gienger

    Greetings from Custer, South Dakota, in the middle of the Black Hills. I am a concert pianist who travels as a Touring Artist with the South Dakota Arts Council. I am able to present concerts in numerous small communities throughout South Dakota, and sell my CD’s recorded in South Dakota. I have been most surprised by the response in the rural areas of the state–certainly there is an intense hunger for classical piano music, and the fringe of piano classics which borders on the popular, both aided by spoken program notes. To my great delight, I have never found audiences as enthusiastic anywhere else that I have ever performed! That includes many years of touring in Australia, and also performing in many other states of the USA!! I am currently expanding and developing further this activity, and also a repertoire uniquely suited to the audiences in this state, which has proven to be a special mid-life challenge which leaves me continually both exhausted and delighted!

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