By now, most of us are aware of the trend towards locavorism in food culture. Rather than simply buying “natural” or “organic” products, consumers ask how far the food traveled and seek to develop a relationship with farmers and producers through consumer supported agriculture and local harvest organizations. Restaurants tout the exact origin of their ingredients.
In this era of internet file distribution, concern about how far new music travels almost seems quaint. It takes no more energy to transmit a PDF score across the globe than across town, and excellent streaming services allow unsupported artists access to far-flung audiences. We no longer need to wait decades for European musical trends to reach our shores nor are we bound to listen only to artists from the developed world.
And yet, I keep returning to my faith that locavorism might help to promote the health of new music. I found myself contemplating this issue while teaching a rock music history class for general studies students this past semester. As the class progressed, I realized that many of the students had never encountered music beyond Top 40 radio. I found myself advocating for the students to seek new musical experiences, and it seemed that an effective way for them to discover new sounds would be to support local musicians by hearing live music in small local clubs.
Certainly many classical music organizations are already working hard to promote local artists. Ralph Kendrick and the Iowa Composers Forum have been especially active, even hiring an orchestra to premiere works by member composers. Many performers seek personal contact with composers and look to commission people they know and respect. Even major orchestras that rarely program Americans on their subscription concerts often commission composers residing within their city when they want works to play as part of outreach concerts.
With today’s proliferation of composition training programs, chances are excellent that every community large enough to support classical performance also boasts several skilled composers. Commissioning locals often guarantees an audience for the performance and builds good will within the community. Organizations that promote native composers can create productive long-term relationships with those artists. Local composers often show a great commitment to the success of these projects—whether through reducing their commissioning fee, helping to engage performers and book halls, or promoting the event within the area. When these pieces continue to live beyond the premiere through additional performances or via broadcasts—and when these composers gain prominence—the performers who created these early opportunities reap continued benefits.
My basic assumption has always been that support of local artists is virtuous and should be applauded. But I also disdain parochialism and find myself very excited by rare performances of major works by distant composers. At the moment, I’m considering repertoire for two concerts and so find myself weighing the appeal of musical locavorism. What is the best way for ensembles to balance the quest for original ideas and the desire to cultivate a strong local artistic community?