Red Tape: The Difficulties Orchestra Composers Have Obtaining Recordings of their Works

Red Tape: The Difficulties Orchestra Composers Have Obtaining Recordings of their Works

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has stopped recording its performances. Period. During the spring it was topic number one in the new music community. Strictly speaking, the Chicago Symphony did not make archival tapes for some time. Rather, broadcast tapes were made of all of the orchestra’s concerts by the local classical station, WFMT, which aired them nationally. Funding for those broadcasts ran out about eighteen months ago, and since there was no provision in the musicians contract to continue recording for archival purposes, week after week of performances began to be lost.

It’s likely that the Chicago Symphony is not the only American orchestra that, for one reason or another, is unable to record its own concerts. But the Chicago Symphony has had a good track record of commissioning and premiering new works. And considering that it is one of the top ensembles in the world, composers that it honors with a premiere may never again be on such a pedestal.

Chicago’s season climaxed during the month of May with a series of three premieres conducted by Music Director Daniel Barenboim. The commissioned composers were Bernard Rands, Elliott Carter, and Melinda Wagner, whose new piano concerto was played by pianist Emanuel Ax.

In a late April phone conversation, Synneve Carlino, Director of Public Relations for the CSO stated, “We don’t have an agreement with the musicians union to record archivally without payment… The reason that there wasn’t a need for the clause previously is because all of the concerts were being recorded for radio broadcast. Now that that doesn’t exist, we’re not talking to them about how to bridge the gap before the new contract takes places.” The CSO’s contract runs until fall 2004. Carlino said that a musicians committee would soon be meeting to decide if permission would be granted to make archival recordings of the May premieres.

Caught in the middle of this situation has been Augusta Read Thomas, the CSO’s long-time composer-in-residence, and in the middle is where she has wisely stayed. “I don’t take either side, management or the union,” she said. “I take the composer’s side.”

To address the CSO’s recording situation prior to the May premieres and in preparation for the meeting of the musicians committee, Thomas wrote a letter that she provided to NewMusicBox. Thomas also attached to the letter commissioning agreements that she had signed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which provided for her to have concert recordings for her use under certain circumstances.

The Chicago musicians refused to allow recordings. Stephen Lester, a bassist and member of the orchestra since 1978 and chairman of the musicians committee, refused to comment for this article.

The CSO management came up with a partial solution. According to Carlino, a separate clause in the musicians contract would be invoked which allowed for a limited number of ‘personal’ recordings to be made. “As part of one of our media agreements… we’re able to make a partial recording—up to 20 minutes of each piece. While it’s not ideal—we would love to be able to record the whole thing—at least this provides the composers some record of the piece, and the ability to use excerpts if they’re applying for grants or appeal to other people for future performances.”

Since the contract allows for only a limited number of the so-called personal recordings per year, only the Rands and the Wagner were recorded. According to Carlino, Rands’ piece is approximately 40 minutes and Wagner’s concerto is just over 20 minutes. “We’re using our remaining two uses for the Rands and the Wagner,” she added. “We wish we had a third and we would record Carter as well.”

The Chicago episode supports the view of many industry figures who feel that these problems are not about composers and new works but about conflict between musicians and management. “For those orchestras not making archival recordings, their problems are far larger than just whether the composer gets a tape,” says Philadelphia’s Joseph H. Kluger.

Notwithstanding Thomas’s list of orchestras that do right by composers (see full text of her letter), the Windy City incident is not an isolated one, only a spotlighted one. Other institutions are in the midst of struggles on this issue.

Several composers, requesting anonymity, complained of recent difficulties in obtaining concert tapes from the National Symphony Orchestra. Although John Corigliano stated in an email that Leonard Slatkin, the NSO’s Music Director and a long time friend to new music, had set things right, this could not be confirmed. Repeated requests for comment were made to the NSO’s press offices to no avail and Artistic Administrator C. Ulrich Bader likewise did not comment.

Mark Adamo, composer-in-residence at the New York City Opera, shared how things are headed in the right direction with regard to recordings of the company’s annual reading sessions. But there have been problems.

Some years back, composers were routinely given recordings of the opera excerpts as performed in workshop format. The workshops and the recordings must have helped because one composer was getting his opera mounted by a regional opera company. However, the company used portions of the City Opera reading session on a promotional CD that was sent to its entire mailing list. The year after this violation occurred, there were no recordings whatsoever of the reading sessions.

This year the recordings are back—though with the notorious white noise added. “It’s better than nothing,” says Adamo, who indicated that issues of recordings still aren’t fully settled and called it “a very delicate conversation.”

“This is something we talk about a lot,” says Heather Hitchens who, in her capacity as president of the Meet the Composer, has negotiated dozens of composer residencies with orchestras, chamber ensembles, and other organizations across the country.

“It’s an issue every time we have a contract. They get awarded a grant and I always stick it in there,” she continues with a chuckle. “We’ve been down this road several times, but they always change the language to be ‘may’—’may provide a tape’ or ‘may not provide a tape.’ And that just leaves it wide open.”

“Everything about the orchestra is designed around the assumption that the composer is dead,” Hitchens recalls a composer saying. “And this is a good example. It’s not like Beethoven or Mozart are waiting around for recordings of their works. I have found that if the composers have the chance to speak with the musicians, and to ask the musicians, the musicians are likely to be in favor of this.”

from Red Tape: The Difficulties Orchestra Composers Have Obtaining Recordings of their Works
By Joseph Dalton
© 2003 NewMusicBox

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.