Polyphonic Lives: Composers Working Behind the Scenes in the Music Industry

Polyphonic Lives: Composers Working Behind the Scenes in the Music Industry

It’s probably not a presumption to claim that every American composer has been involved, to some degree, with teaching, administrating, or both. Indeed, some of America’s most important arts institutions gained prominence and prestige under the visionary leadership of composers.

During his 40-year tenure as director of the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester NY (1924-64), Howard Hanson built up the faculty, created first-rate performing ensembles, and guaranteed performances to emerging composers both on and off campus. In the early 1950s he established ties with Mercury Living Presence, a label that would make its mark on the audiophile market, creating opportunities for young musicians to record important orchestral and band works by American composers. In addition, Hanson founded and served as president of the National Music Council, as well as co-founding our beloved American Music Center. With the advent of the New Romanticism and tonality in proud fashion, orchestras and audiences alike are rediscovering Hanson’s wide-ranging, skillfully crafted oeuvre.

Hanson’s example was not lost on Peter Mennin, who heard his First Symphony premiered during his student years as Eastman. A steady stream of commissions, honors, and fellowships ensued that continued for the rest of his life. Following a four-year stint directing the Peabody Conservatory, he became president of the Juilliard School in 1962, holding the position for 21 years until his death. Under his leadership, the institution’s international profile grew by leaps and bounds, abetted by its move to Lincoln Center. In addition, his tenure saw the creation of the Juilliard Theater Center, American Opera Center, a conductor’s training program, and a contemporary music festival. Yet for all of Mennin’s accomplishments at Juilliard, he remained a composer first and foremost.

Perhaps William Schuman‘s composing, academic, and administrative life was even more multi-faceted. He began his career composing pop and theater songs with collaborators like Frank Loesser, and became interested in music education, landing his first teaching position at Sarah Lawrence. Along with his first symphonic commissions, G. Schirmer, Inc. appointed Schuman director of publications. In 1945 he became president of the Juilliard School, and convinced the planners of the future Lincoln Center that the school should become one of its constituent organizations. Months before its opening in 1962, Lincoln Center’s board of directors invited Schuman to preside as president of the complex. Following a heart attack in 1968, Schuman gave up administrative work in order to gain free composing time, although he continued serving on various boards and panels, and founded the BMI Student Composer Awards.

One might consider composers who are university professors pawns in relation to the more powerful chess pieces cited above, yet the academic ranks include a veritable who’s who of movers, shakers, and influential beacons. A university position can be rewarding, provided that the conditions are right in terms of job security, the school’s reputation, talented students, and supportive faculty and staff. There are many composers who use their teaching positions to generate positive buzz. The University of Nevada-Las Vegas thrives with flying colors via Virko Baley‘s activities as a composer, conductor, pianist, educator, presenter, and record label founder. The vanguard of music’s technological destiny continues to take shape under Tod Machover’s direction of the MIT Media Lab. Under the aegis of her presenting organization Musicians Accord, Laura Kaminsky, who served as Artistic Director of New York’s Town Hall from 1988 to 1992, has developed residencies all over the world, produced recordings and concerts, and still finds time to compose at a steady pace. From 1978 until his death in 2001 Robert Helps was a supportive and stimulating presence at the University of South Florida in Tampa as teacher, pianist, and composer. Some composers create opportunities by taking the needs of other arts programs into account. John Yanelli, for example, teaches electronic music at Sarah Lawrence College and is frequently tapped by their theater and dance departments to create sound designs and original scores for productions.

The main question for these and other composers, I suspect, is how well can you maintain your creative equanimity against the demands of administrative work and teaching schedules. The answer was largely affirmative for John Duffy, founder and former executive director of Meet the Composer. Francis Thorne devoted his summers to composing when not facing the myriad responsibilities and demands of being the American Composers Orchestra‘s CEO. And Alvin Curran limits his teaching at Mills College to a single semester per year.

I posed that question to my former composition teacher, the Juilliard School’s Pre-College director Andrew Thomas, who offered an interesting perspective. “I think of all my activities as a worker among workers, a service commitment,” he said, “so I don’t feel that my administrating work is completely divorced from my composing, piano playing, or conducting. Yet as far as my creativity goes, everything’s more on the fly now. I have to be very crafty in making time to compose, and I compose under much more pressure. I miss the feeling of seemingly non-productive time that’s actually productive, when stuff is going on in the sub-conscious.”

Similar scenarios apply to composers working in music publishing and performing rights organizations. Stephen Hartke gave up working for a publisher because it got in the way of his composing time. Ditto for Jerome Kitzke and Patrick Grant. The reverse happened for Jennifer Bilfield at Boosey and Hawkes, who actually stopped composing, as did Ralph Jackson at BMI. Morton Gould‘s composing and conducting activities, though, continued throughout his tenure as President of ASCAP.

In his book The State of Music, Virgil Thomson argues that working in the pedagogy business causes composers to lose touch with their muse. “Teachers,” he writes, “tend to form opinions about music, and these are always getting in the way of creation.” Perhaps what we learn from our students and our musical constituents entices one to stay in the teaching/administrating/composing loop. Andrew Thomas aptly summed up the situation, “I’ve been struck by the hunger for music and for meaning that I see in the students and that’s had immense impact on me as a composer. Seeing how music answers a deep, expressive need in young artists has made me very aware that my own compositions must communicate emotionally.”

From Polyphonic Lives: Composers Working Behind the Scenes in the Music Industry
by Jed Distler
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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