The Who and Why of Bang On A Can

The Who and Why of Bang On A Can

9. How to Promote American Composers

FRANK J. OTERI: To connect all the dots: the discussion of orchestras, the discussion of radio. . . To take it back to what we were saying at the very beginning of this discussion about Stockhausen and Ligeti being heroes in Europe. . . Do we have any composers we can look to here that same way? We mentioned Copland, whom I would argue is largely out there because he was such an advocate for music and the field in general. He was an excellent politician. He founded the American Music Center. He saw the need for this outreach. We don’t, as a country, unlike other countries in the world who have public radio, who have non-profit orchestras, give percentages of funding based on bolstering national artists. We don’t say a percentage of the music you’re playing in America has to be by American composers in the orchestra, a percentage of what you broadcast on an American public radio station if you want NEA dollars should be American music. Now that sounds terribly xenophobic. . .

DAVID LANG: It does.

FRANK J. OTERI: …but in Canada they do that, in Finland they do that.

DAVID LANG: How many great composers does Canada really have? I’m against this 100%, I have to say. I feel like good music is good music. It could very well be that one year, every American composer is terrible, and to play their music on the radio you’re not doing anybody any favors. You know, I think it’s really good if you can create the environment where people want what is new, they’ll want what you have. And I absolutely, 100%, with every fiber in my body, reject something that says that an American should get paid for work because he is an American. Music which is good should be supported by whoever, by the most despicable human being in the worst country in the world. If it’s good enough, I want to know about it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Who determines what’s good?

RealPlayer  [91 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Excerpt from Lang: The Anvil Chorus
(from CRI CD 646: BoaC Live Volume 2)

DAVID LANG: I have no idea. But I know that a committee going and measuring my blood is not going to be able to make that determination.

MICHAEL GORDON: When we lived in Amsterdam, it was interesting because just about every year, European countries, they have a huge amount of money, you know, I think that it’s, I mean, right now, it’s about 5 or 6 times the amount of the NEA budget in this country. And I think it’s fine. They can do whatever they want. So we were there, and it’s great. You register, and after a year and a half you are considered Dutch, and then you can get funding. So what happens is a wonderful retirement place for every bad young composer in the world. If you can’t have a career anywhere else, you can move to Amsterdam and after 2 years you get an orchestra commission and an opera commission and so forth and you live the rest of your life. There’s never a question of quality; there’s never a question of, well, what are you doing? Is it good or bad? Because they have this feeling in Holland that everyone should get supported and no one is better than anyone else.

RICHARD KESSLER: As executive director of the American Music Center, I might be expected to say certain things about the issue of mandating American. But for me the more important issue is the lack of federal and state funding for individual artists. The NEA, for a number of well-known reasons, ended its funding of individual artists. Rather than spend my time on the quota issue, I think it’s more important to figure out how to increase the funding that goes directly to artists. This is particularly important when you compare the US to countries overseas. When you recognize the level of support available for European artists.

{I’m afraid I have to say goodnight, because I have tickets tonight to hear Lizzie Borden! Again, I would like to thank you all for taking part in something that is extremely important to us at the AMC. It is incredibly important to me personally as well, so thank you! I also want to say, if there’s anything we can do to help at the Center, please call. As I ask everyone to remember, it’s your American Music Center. We’re there for you, so call if we can do anything.}

FRAN RICHARD: The state arts council by law is politically unable to support individual artists. We don’t consider that artist in the same way because in order to get around those things they have created more arms-length projects which are not government controlled. There was funding for individual artists through the Endowment, but it was taken away because of terrible political pressure from one particular part of the spectrum that holds us all as perverts and whatever. I’m concerned that the American music dominates the world. The pop music has engulfed the world, all over. In some cases, in film as well. And in France if you own a cinema house you have to play three French films before you play one American film because of that domination. We are usually fighting in our field alone. Some work hard in our music field where Americans are not valued, here, as much as they may be valued elsewhere, which is an interesting twist in the state of affairs.

FRANK J. OTERI: To counter what David was saying, I don’t think there’d be a year when there wasn’t any good American music. I’m hearing tons of great American music all of the time. And the fact that we have funding for non-profit orchestras and radio stations to play classical music, and we define classical music in such a way that we define America away from it. Classical music does not include American music, it does not include music of our time. We’re doing our own musical culture a great disservice.

DAVID LANG: You said two different things. One thing is that it’s terrible these people get public funding and they don’t play American music or deal with the music of our time. Well, you know, those are two separate issues. I feel like, if there were a climate to support a listenership for music of our time, American composers would profit greatly. I don’t think that one could create a climate for that by mandating they play music of our time. And I don’t think that they would profit by mandating that they play American music. I feel like the general question is not how to make people do those things but how to change the culture so that those things become viable. And I believe that it is possible – I don’t exactly know how, but I believe that it is possible.

FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s take it one step further. I’m going to really, totally play devil’s advocate here, because, you know, we’re funding orchestras. Why even fund classical music? Why are we funding classical music in this country?

DAVID LANG: That’s a really good question. I don’t know.

FRANK J. OTERI: Maybe we shouldn’t be.

DAVID LANG: I don’t want to say anything that takes money away from anyone, that takes a dollar away from anyone. I don’t want to do anything that impinges on anyone’s abilities. I know that in years when fund-raising was very bad for Bang On A Can, we still had a festival. When the NEA pulled money away from us, we still had a festival. We did a smaller festival, but we still did it.

FRAN RICHARD: So part of it is you have a commitment and a mission and necessary values. But it’s more important to put the show on, not so much where and not so much all these things. We sit here near Carnegie Hall and we see when the Finnish orchestra comes to play, they play Sibelius. We respect when the Czech orchestra comes and plays Dvorak or Janacek. What is so hurtful for so many Americans who devote their lives to this field is that we don’t have any equivalent pride and self-confidence in the culture that is created indigenously here, and that’s what Frank is talking about. And there isn’t an argument, it’s just an issue of what we do to encourage it and he is saying force the issue. It doesn’t necessarily mean a quota, but if something doesn’t become indigenous in the pride, it cannot take hold.

JULIA WOLFE: I also think that it’s not so black and white, necessarily. You can do interesting and strange things and find a way to get them to people. I guess that’s what we’re trying to do. I guess I agree with David that you don’t want to force someone to do things, but you can find those pockets where people are out there pioneering through, when you find a radio station that does that, when you find that record company that does that…

FRANK J. OTERI: And there certainly are plenty of new music ensembles that do that. Other groups around the country like the California EAR Unit in L.A., Common Sense in San Francisco, Present Music in Milwaukee, or Relâche in Philadelphia. . . And there are a lot of people doing a lot of really worthwhile things out there. I’m disturbed about the “museum pieces” part of our culture where people are playing music that they don’t want to play, and people are not wanting to hear it and there’s this divide. Maybe the orchestra is a museum piece, maybe there’s no future for the repertoire for the orchestra, but there certainly is new repertoire for the orchestra in other parts of the world. And there are plenty of good orchestral pieces by Americans. Why haven’t these entered the repertory?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, I’m not saying there aren’t any good pieces.

FRAN RICHARD: Well, when we started with the residencies and the orchestras, the composers didn’t want to write because it was so difficult to get the work played. These are very practical people, you know, they don’t see a purpose. I’m thinking about all the record companies, see, without recording and multiple performances nothing can come into the repertory. So we come now to a place where all these recording companies go to this radio conference with their product, and ask them: “How come you’re not playing this?” And those guys are saying: “We can’t pronounce the name — there’s not one vowel in this conductor’s name. We’ll be embarrassed if we say it.” What if we couldn’t say Beethoven?

DAVID LANG: An embarrassing thing happened today, it’s an unrelated topic.

FRAN RICHARD: Okay, good.

DAVID LANG: This conductor from a tiny, tiny orchestra, in a tiny, tiny town calls me up about a piece of mine, and he found it kind of by mistake.


DAVID LANG: In America. And he’s asking me all these questions, as if he’s discovered me. And this is a piece that’s been played by the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic and the St. Louis Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony. And, this guy’s asking me these questions like, you know, like I dropped from the moon. And I think that that was really interesting to me. There’s not really a way that information gets passed from here without recordings.

FRAN RICHARD: The orchestra league is working on a millennium project. Without going into all the details about this fiasco so far, they finally agreed that they want to do something to promote American music as the purpose of this project. And they’re saying that all these people nominated pieces by American composers and blah, blah, blah. There’s lists for however long it is or whatever goes on it or not on it. We’re saying what we’ll do is promote it. Every record store will have bins with this music. And I said these pieces have not been recorded, don’t you understand? Out of this whole list you realize how few? And the marketing director of the league is stunned! And there comes the forces that you can control with the All-Stars or whatever, that you write, you can record, you can tour with them.

MICHAEL GORDON: Basically, we are a mom and pop store. We have found that we carry the products we like and we don’t carry the products we don’t like. We don’t owe anybody. We are not being controlled by a corporate entity, and we have figured out how to survive. You can survive, and you can do better than survive. I think it’s very hard within the classical music world to create that energy, very hard for orchestras and record companies and radio stations. You’ve got an established way. You have a way of doing things. You know, 6 years at Lincoln Center, as successful as our concerts were, in terms of our relationship with the structure, which means the marketing director, the P.R. person, we were always on the fringe. The last time we talked to the Marketing Director he looked at me and said, “I’ve got 3 concerts of Elgar in Avery Fisher Hall to sell. I can’t worry about you.”

JULIA WOLFE: And he’s talking to us because we feel we made a contribution there, you know, to move into that space and sell out those concerts…

FRAN RICHARD: You brought them something they didn’t have.


DAVID LANG: But how can you argue with him? I mean, he’s got 3 concerts of Elgar to sell – I feel sorry for him! [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: A loaded statement… but maybe it’s a mistake for him to be promoting these 3 concerts of Elgar if they’re not selling.

DAVID LANG: Well, I believe an orchestra playing classical music can survive. And I really believe that a radio station playing classical music, can survive, too. I think there are lots of reasons, which have to do with, you know, lack of courage, about why these things don’t happen. But I don’t believe that they’re fundamentally impossible.

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