Attention Must Be Paid

Attention Must Be Paid

At Symphony Space’s all-day new music marathon yesterday, Kate Levin, New York City’s commissioner of cultural affairs, read a proclamation from NYC Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg declaring February 22 through February 28, 2010 as “Composers Now Week.” It was an exhilarating moment in a room full of composers, new music ensemble members, and music industry professionals. But at the same time it was abundantly clear that it was only a beginning, and a small one at that.

The event took place in the Leonard Nimoy Thalia, the smaller of Symphony Space’s two concert halls, and the room was hardly full. Also, while it was great to see so many colleagues assembled in that room, there were few people there who were not yet privy to this world. The music presented spanned a broad range of styles, and it is great that the new music community seems to have largely gotten past the barriers of the various stylistic fiefdoms that would have made an event like this nearly impossible a generation ago. But those stylistic barriers do still exist, for better or worse, for large portions of the general public who need to be brought into our audience if a Composers’ Day is to ultimately mean something significant in our society. Granted, the marathon concert took place during standard work hours on a Monday which could explain why there were few folks there who weren’t deeply connected to the field. And for those of us who were there, myself included, a sense of playing hookey from all the other looming deadlines somewhat dampened the otherwise festive nature of the day.

Actually, at one point during the day, I played hookey within that hookey by racing over to the 2010-2011 season announcement of the Metropolitan Opera House, hoping against hope to hear about an exciting array of new American operas—I’m always optimistic. While it was a delight to learn that the Met is finally presenting John Adams’s Nixon in China—that plus there now being two different available commercial recordings of it certainly qualify it for standard repertoire status—the press conference remained primarily the domain of auteur directors explaining their visions of tried and true masterpieces from Europe’s past. The week before, at the season announcement of the New York Philharmonic, I was gladdened to see upcoming premieres in 2010-2011 by Sebastian Currier, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Wynton Marsalis (whose new work will open the season, no less), but admittedly these works represent a far smaller percentage of the overall repertoire than many new music aficionados, myself included, ultimately want.

By nurture perhaps even more than by nature, composers have existed in isolation and with good reason. It is extremely difficult to create notated repertoire in a social environment. But, at the same time, we can only be noticed when we come together as a community. I have long held the view that a victory for one living American composer is a victory for every American composer. So although I was saddened to see not a single world premiere among the Met’s offerings for 2010-11, their embrace of John Adams’s ground-breaking opera is heartening. It means that a work by one of us can be placed on equal footing with La Traviata and The Ring, other 2010-11 highlights. “Too little, too late!” you might grumble (even Peter Sellars in his pre-taped video commentary reminded every one that Nixon in China is now 25 years old), but a small opening in a seemingly always shut window still allows in some fresh air.

Hopefully by next year Composers Now Week will be a much anticipated event that will grow to cities all across America. For that to happen, composers will need to be even more visible in our community as well as visible in every aspect of our society. It’s a tall order, but if we can have a Poet Laureate in the U.S.A., perhaps we can get beyond the petty jealousies and aesthetic disagreements and have an officially acknowledged annually rotating Composer Laureate that we could all be proud of and who could be the public face for the composer community at large. In the meanwhile, we’re planning to broadcast highlights of this year’s “Composers Now Week” on Counterstream Radio, so stay tuned.

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10 thoughts on “Attention Must Be Paid

  1. philmusic

    Interesting Frank.

    Its been said, and not just by me, that opera has become the directors art. Even here John Adams can’t be mentioned without also including Peter Sellers. If only the Met instead of creating all those new productions of “warhorses” commissioned original music to go with them instead.

    Of the several Manons for example I am unaware of any that actually follow whats in the book.

    Though the Mayor’s proclamation is heartening I’m afraid that Europe does the composer better service.

    Phil’s main Page

  2. scottleee

    I’m very excited to hear that the Met is putting on a production of Nixon. I was always afraid that it would just sort of slip off the radar into oblivion. I think it’s safe to say now though that that won’t happen. I’m also glad to hear about Composers Now Week. Hopefully more places will take it the idea as well.

    Scott Lee

  3. Chris Becker

    “The event took place in the Leonard Nimoy Thalia, the smaller of Symphony Space’s two concert halls, and the room was hardly full.”

    I…didn’t know about this event. Which is weird since I’m coming up on my 12th year as a New Yorker and I compose music. You’d think I would have gotten an email or postcard.

    Over the past dozen years, I’ve tried to nurture a network of fellow artists (not just composers) who share a mutual respect for my work and the work of friends and friends of friends. I’m very happy with what I’ve been able to produce and the attention my work has received as a result of that nurturing. That said, I feel completely disengaged from New York City’s “new music” community as it is defined by Time Out NY, the NY Times, or Mayor Bloomberg. I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem either way – with me or with the small crowd assembled Monday.

    I can’t define the “scene” I am a part of because it’s not really possible. Years from now, history will be rewritten to acknowledge the work of a lot of my contemporaries who are perhaps “outside” whatever it is we define as being “deep” in the scene. What does that even mean, really? That you don’t have a day-job?

    No real point here, just wanted to ramble a bit…

  4. Frank J. Oteri


    As I mentioned above, NMBx is planning to broadcast performances from Symphony Space’s Composers Now marathon on Counterstream Radio. As a rule, given our national focus and international readership, we do not run advance stories. Given the enormity of new music events all over the country and the resultant difficulty in having a comprehensive database of such activity, we do however urge American Music Center members to spread the word via AMC’s Calendar of Events.

    But Composers Now will hopefully be the beginning of something that will grow bigger and more influential in years to come. I’m sorry you did not learn about it until you read my post—I just noticed that Sequenza21 actually ran a post the previous day—but the important thing is that you know about it now. This is not a one-off event. And with the interest and involvement of more people from here as well as from all parts of the country, it could possibly be a great new way to shine light on the process of composing music which is why I made note of it in the post above. If February 21 became some kind of National Composer Day, I believe (ever the optimist) that it could do wonders for the cause of composer advocacy.

  5. Chris Becker

    @Phil – Yeah, you right.

    But things are REALLY on the conservative tip these days in NYC – composers are NOT rocking the boat when they should be screaming their heads off. Careerism, PR, and pleasant tweets are the norm. I get the feeling here in NYC people want to pretend we’re in the midst of some revolutionary “grass roots” movement in “alt classical” music, but that what we actually have are a lot of poor folks (mad) scrambling for crumbs and wondering in the back of their minds if things were more diverse, inclusive, and…well…”fun” back in the early 80’s?

    Hey, there’s room for dissent here right? I just want to be clear that I love music and the people who make it. As if that’s necessary…

  6. ChristianBCarey

    Hi Chris, Frank, and Phil. I think it’s unfortunate that Composers Now had to brave such lousy weather in its inaugural season, but I have high hopes for its future. The organizers seem motivated to make it something special.

    We’ve got a few posts up on Sequenza 21 about the festival, including an interview with one of the coordinator, Laura Kaminky.

    You can find it


    Christian Carey

  7. cbustard

    I voted with the plurality, thinking more 25% than 50%. Thing is, the American art-music tradition is less than 200 years old (if you don’t count New England hymnodists, Moravians and Latin American colonials), while the European tradition goes back more than 1,000 years. So the American corpus is comparatively thin and largely mediocre (or weird — e.g., Heinrich and Gottschalk) until you get to the 1890s.

    The real answer is “it depends” — on how extensive a community’s art-music season is (a 25% American share of Peoria’s classical season crowds out Mozart and Tchaikovsky more than 25% of New York’s would); on whether modern/contemporary specialty ensembles exist alongside symphony orchestras, opera companies and mainstream-classical chamber groups; and, most importantly, on how you define American art-music.

    Is jazz part of the canon? Sousa and other band music? Broadway musicals? Popular songwriters (and how recent — Lieber & Stoller? Joni Mitchell? Tom Waits?)? Early American folk and vernacular musics sung by choirs and played by early music groups?

    If you include all those genres, I think you’ll find that American music already commands at least a 30% share of most cities’ musical seasons, probably more in small towns.

    If you limit the definition of art-music to traditionally composed concert music and opera and set an American performance quota, I’d bet the principal beneficiaries would be the you-know-who estates.


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