Aaron Copland Made Me Eat This

Aaron Copland Made Me Eat This

Last week’s column and also the jointly sponsored survey from the American Composers Forum and the American Music Center seems to have re-triggered the perennial discussion about how to be a composer in the USA—and survive. The situation in Japan doesn’t seem to be all that different from the one in the States. Many composers resort to teaching in order to keep their economic balls in the air. Very few composers live just from their concert music, and even Toru Takemitsu wrote film music long after he became internationally recognized. OK, bad example, as he did so more for his love of the medium than out of necessity. Still, many composers high up in the second tier, such as Toshi Ichiyanagi, Joji Yuasa, the late Maki Ishii, and others have written regularly for film and television, both NHK (the PBS of Japan), as well as commercial. When composers reach a certain level of recognition and authority, other jobs open up as well, such as curatorial posts for festivals and concert series, book deals, etc. and so on.

What’s interestingly different here in Japan is the role that business plays in arts sponsorship. The cachet that the arts provide corporations is appreciated by at least some of them, and reflected in the numerous concert halls, museums, galleries, and events that companies fund and host in their corporate spaces. Some companies have de facto staff composers, who are called on to make music for their public spaces, commercials, etc. A composer with a distinctive style becomes part of the “brand.” It would be nice if more of that could go on Stateside.

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11 thoughts on “Aaron Copland Made Me Eat This

  1. dalgas

    A fine example: Not long after going online a decade ago, I made friends online with musicians Yoshio Ojima and Satsuki Shibano, who’d been involved with Spiral; later I got to know Hideaki Takahashi, also active there. Spiral’s an amazing space underwritten for over twenty years by Wacoal (makers of women’s undergarments). Anyone wants to know just how elaborate this support can be should tour the site linked above.

    Steve Layton

  2. philmusic

    Actually RJ Reynolds –the American tobacco company supported a lot of music. I don’t know if they still do.

    Phil Fried

  3. carlstone

    Wacoal is a textbook example of what I was talking about in using a composer to help make the brad in Japan. Thanks Steve.

  4. William Osborne

    Americans already rely on corporations to fund the arts. The system works poorly in comparison to European public funding models. Attempts to enhance a brand’s name with bunch of wild-haired American artists will hardly help the problem. Or shall composers become a bunch of corporate-styled honkies? After all, some suggest things are indeed headed in that direction.

    GM just bought out the contracts of its entire unionized workforce – 74,000 employees. They will be replaced with lower-paid new hires. But never mind, we’ll ask the corporate patricians to add some composers to the staff.

    Over the last 25 years there has been an enormous shift in wealth to wealthy, but we have not seen a corresponding increase in philanthropy for the arts. There has been some increase, but it does not compare to the shift in wealth.

    So maybe we could turn to the oil companies whose profits are so extreme congress recently held hearings to examine the problem. One congressman questioned an executive about his $400 million severence package, which came to $110,000 for each day he worked for the company.

    Yup, looks like exactly the right kind of highly ethical people to fund the arts. Call up Exxon right now. Maybe they’ll even stamp their company logo on your forehead.

    William Osborne

  5. rtanaka

    Japanese corporate structures are usually different from American one’s in the way they treat their employees. The Japanese workplace usually has a “family” type of atmosphere, and they generally treat their employees very well through things like subsidized housing, free meals, large benefit packages, etc.

    But like living in a family, you have to follow house rules, which are usually absolute rules. This can be good or bad thing depending on where you work, but I think this does generally describe the social atmosphere of the country which tends to very traditionalist. Having an in-house composer is a very old thing, if you think about it.

  6. William Osborne

    Having an in-house composer is a very old thing, if you think about it.

    Indeed. The system is referred to as feudalism. Classical music was at the service and pleasure of the nobility. Not much has changed. To this day, classical musicians wear tails for concert clothing, because it was the dress of the butlers with whom they were once categorized. It is good to see 21st century American composers finally accepting their true position in society — in-house servants of corporate patricians. This will take the reigning American conservatism to new heights of glory. We’ll need to brush up on that charming Japanese tradition of doing a lot of bowing.

    William Osborne

  7. AmericanInUK

    The situation in the UK (and Europe) don’t seem to be much different than in the US. Most of the composers I know over here are surviving as lecturers at University – and the few that are more successful depend heavily on grants and commissions – spending as much of their time doing engagments to keep their name in the press as they do composing.

    However, that said, Philip Glass continued to drive a Taxi even after the success of his Einstein on the Beach – just to make ends meet.

    We all have to start somewhere. I am premiering my first symphony in June (http://interchangingidioms.blogspot.com) with no real thoughts that my life will immediately change and I’ll start composing music full time… still, there are those few imaginary hopes….

  8. William Osborne

    Chip, I agree that composers in Europe also have difficulties, but the public funding system allows for many more established classical music institutions. Public funding also allows for ticket pricing that reaches a far wider demographic . This broad public support for classical music helps composers immensely because their art form is more widely appreciated.

    Here are some numbers to illustrate the point:

    In 2004, the British government arts budget was 800 million dollars, and thus about 30 times higher than the per capita funding of the NEA (121 million dollars.) And this even though Britain has one of the lowest per capita public funding systems in Europe. France for example, spends 2.4 billion per year.

    Almost every European city with a population of 500,000 has a fulltime, year-round opera house, while the USA does not have any fulltime, year-round opera houses. (Even the Met only has a 7 month season.)

    For example, the Detroit Opera will perform 5 operas 5 times each this season for a total of 25 performances for the entire year. The Frankfurt Opera will have 25 five opera performances in May alone – along with two concerts by the pit orchestra. To see the Frankfurt Opera’s May calendar go here:


    And Frankfurt’s population is only about two thirds of Detroit’s (667,598 vs. 918,849) These two cities define the norms in Germany and the USA.

    There is so much ink in the press now about a Philip Glass opera being done at the Met, but if most American cities over 500,000 had an opera house like in Europe, that sort of thing would happen fairly regularly all over the country.

    And of course, this is only the tip of the problem. Detroit suffers from mind-boggling urban decay, astoundingly widespread poverty, and has lost 50% of its population since 1950. It is also known as “The Murder Capitol of the World” – though the homicide rate has dropped somewhat in recent years. Americans are conditioned to look straight at these issues, including arts funding, and turn a blind eye.

    William Osborne

  9. csahar

    I find the comparisons of public funding levels of the arts fascinating but, at least, in the short term, not very constructive.

    So I ask you – is it so terrible to have a non-composer or other music job to make ends meet? Teaching is a great
    profession and CAN be a wonderful way to remind and transmit the music
    fundamentals (and more)! I find even non-music jobs — with the
    proviso that it is sympathetic to your passion (not always
    easy) – offers a period for ideas to gestate and let the subconscious
    work things out.. Now, I am not saying it is easy but even full-time
    composers end up spending significant time with administrative work
    for funding and publicity — something that is not for everybody.

    For example, if you are a church music director who loves to compose, you are in a great position to have an employer to provide space and publicity for the performance of your works, offering a little extra time to focus more on your composition and work with the performers.

    I do think that the best position for a composer who is not full- time
    is to have a composition related job. But this requires many steps. You may as well enjoy what you have while you are on your journey … otherwise one risks letting self-doubt and/or bitterness
    paralyze oneself.

  10. William Osborne

    Thank you for your thoughts, Chris. Even the more generous public funding system in Europe, is not something from which composers can live. The advantage, as I mentioned earlier, is that it allows classical music to be much more common in society. This helps composers because their profession is more recognized, and it is easier for them to get performances, especially for larger works.

    I agree that having a different job for the sake of income can in some cases be rewarding – especially teaching. In the States, however, new music is so completely ghettoized within the academy that it has led to a phenomenon that might be referred to as “university music.” I think people might sense what the term could mean, even if I don’t define it. There is a meaningful difference when music is created and performed outside of universities and placed in more communal forums like opera houses, municipal concert halls, and non-university festivals.

    William Osborne


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