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.