Urban Renewal

Urban Renewal

I spent the majority of last week in Charleston, South Carolina, where the 2007 Spoleto Festival USA was in full swing. This was only my third trip to Charleston, and my second during Spoleto. But this time around I witnessed firsthand what the festival’s General Director Nigel Redden meant when—during a talk with the Music Critics Association of North America—he stated that the most appealing aspect of Spoleto to him was that it completely took over the entire town in a way that other, similar-type events like the Lincoln Center Festival (which Redden also oversees) could never hope to do.

Everywhere I went, I was reminded of both the Spoleto Festival USA proper and its humbler, more fringe-ish sibling, Piccolo Spoleto—a second festival, completely independent from its namesake, which happens every year at the same time and more than doubles the total number of cultural offerings available to audiences who happen to be in Charleston a few weeks prior to the beginning of summer. Virtually every storefront sported either this year’s Spoleto poster, which reproduces the famous Chuck Close rendering of Philip Glass, or the luminous Piccolo Spoleto poster which reproduces a painting by local artist Elaine Berlin, or both. I was so entranced by Ms. Berlin’s paintings that I bought one of them.

But I had an even bigger epiphany with the Philip Glass image. While I was having lunch with colleagues at the outdoor café of one of the local hotels and talking about music (what else), an elderly couple came up to us to ask a question. They had stayed overnight at the hotel to break up a long car ride back to New York from Florida and were wondering who that man was whose face seemed to be everywhere in Charleston. They figured out it was the Spoleto poster and assumed it had to be some sort of musician and since I was talking about music, they assumed I might know who it was. What remarkable publicity for a living composer! I believe that if more people were exposed to such images, more interest would be generated in this music almost instantaneously.

I’ve often commented that the reason everyone in America knows Britney Spears is because it is impossible not to: her image literally saturates the American landscape. Imagine if the landscape of America could similarly be saturated with an image of an important living American composer. This week, at least in Charleston, it is. Now, perhaps, is the time to traipse across the rest of the country and put up posters of Steven Mackey, Joan Tower, John Corigliano, Chen Yi, Ornette Coleman, and countless other folks whose music could and should be reaching more folks than it’s currently reaching.

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5 thoughts on “Urban Renewal

  1. davidcoll

    can’t agree more
    i’ve written a couple times on NMB a flippant comment, basically that it all just comes down to money- this is definitely connected to advertising. Spending time now in paris, and seeing in other cities here in europe the much bigger budget for advertising, i think it helps generate this curiousity that you mention….studies have probably shown that it really doesn’t make a difference, and that no one will go to the concert anyway…

  2. Daniel Wolf

    I don’t quite get it: a musical “urban renewal” is to take the form of exporting a group of composers associated with East Coast urban centers (your list: Steven Mackey, Joan Tower, John Corigliano, Chen Yi, Ornette Coleman)?

    It strikes me that the more urgent task is recognizing and giving adequate support to local activity than seeking validation and gentrification through an establishment seal of approval. The life of music is in its diversity, and the life of our cities is likewise found in their distinctive identities, which is a natural pairing of common interests.

  3. Colin Holter

    I agree with Frank 110% (although I too am a little skeptical of his list of composers to “push”).

  4. Frank J. Oteri

    I knew I was heading toward deep murky waters when I compiled what to me was a somewhat random list of names which I spelled out in the essay above mostly to make a larger point.

    Please remember that I ended this brief ethnically and genderally diverse group with the caviat “and countless other folks.” The five I chose are all folks whose music has been getting a lot of circulation nationally as of late which is why I thought mentioning them was not inappropriate.

    To claim the list is East Coast-centric is also a bit disingenuous. Indeed Mackey is currently based in Princeton but he was born in Germany and grew up in California. Chen Yi spent time in New York but was born in China and is now based in Kansas City. Etc. Etc.

    But, once again, I never said that these are the five folks we should be toting at the expense of everyone else. Why is it that whenever a composer in our community starts reaching a larger audience there’s a backlash? Are we that self-centered? I’ve often said anyone’s success in this racket is success for all of us and I really believe that to this day. So, let’s starting putting up those posters already!

  5. philmusic

    “Why is it that whenever a composer in our community starts reaching a larger audience there’s a backlash? Are we that self-centered?”

    Dear Frank:
    True, some of us composers are self-centered, but that is not all of it. Colleges and Universities are by their very nature competitive. So, some of this has to do with our “professional” allegiances which are not unlike the way we support sports teams. Of course we root for “our” team and want the other teams to lose and their players to mess up. When another team is successful, even if we like some of the players, our team is not happy. Even if our team always “loses” and another team always “wins” that just makes our support for our team even stronger as well as dislike for the winners. That their doesn’t seem to be any referees in the game, only gatekeepers, does not help. This may not be rational or true of course. If true, it certainly doesn’t create the best environment for new music but for many it’s just the way it is. Also on another issue many suspect that “the larger audience” has nothing to do with audience acceptance at all but rather with “gatekeeper” acceptance.

    Being a disinterested independent thinker is harder than it looks.

    Dr. Phil

    Phil’s Page


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