Solidarity Revisited

Solidarity Revisited

The relationship between composers and musicians’ unions has always been complicated. While orchestrators and copyists are covered by the union, composers are not. In many instances (unless a composer also acts as a contractor or music director), they tend not to have any direct interaction with the union, often finding themselves to be middlemen (or at least interested third parties) between the union and the organization that pays the musicians.

In the concert music world, composers are affected by union rules when they ask for recordings of orchestral works (Nico Muhly wrote an extensive post on this topic a couple of years ago) or if a new music ensemble is forced to cancel a concert because of a union dispute. Over the past year, there have been articles (here and here) pointing to the growing resentment of musicians’ unions in response to the decisions made by film and video game studios to record scores in non-union locations (London, Seattle, Prague, and Bratislava are most commonly chosen). The decision to not utilize union musicians is usually not made by the composer, however, but rather by the producers who hold the purse strings.

It is with this oblique relationship in mind between those who create the music and those who protect the performers that bring that music to life that a recent initiative by one of the largest musicians’ unions comes to light. Last week, an e-mail newsletter went out to the membership of AFM Local 802 (covering New York City) that began with the following:

How do you really feel?

If you’re having trouble making that out, it reads:

How do you really feel about 21st century repertoire?

In many ways, the future of classical music depends on the repertoire. But, as a musician, what do you really think of new work? What do you like most about performing new compositions? What drives you crazy about them? How do you think 21st century repertoire speaks (or doesn’t speak!) to audiences? What’s it like when a composer is present at a rehearsal and gives comments?

Allegro is planning a story on what our members think of 21st century repertoire—both the good and the bad. We’d love to hear your thoughts, because you represent the front line. Composers and audiences need to hear your point of view. If you’re interesting in learning more about participating in this project, click here.

[The link auto-generates an e-mail which already includes the following text: “I’m interested in learning more about your story. Please e-mail me with additional information to see if I want to participate. Thank you.”]

Allow me to break this message down into its component parts in order to understand what is being asked.

1. “How do you really feel about 21st century repertoire?”

In the abstract, the idea of asking performers how they feel about 21st-century repertoire is a good one—composers should welcome a healthy discussion of this type. The title, however, is not in the abstract and with its inclusion of “really” (in italics, no less), it is improbable, at best, to imagine that a healthy discussion is what is intended. The tone of this title is obvious—“It’s okay. You’re among friends here…tell us how you really feel about this new stuff you have to play.” It’s difficult to imagine anyone reading this as anything other than an invitation to vent.

2. “In many ways, the future of classical music depends on the repertoire. But, as a musician, what do you really think of new work?”

This is an odd set of statements. The first puts the weight of the future of classical music on those of us who are creating the repertoire (a discussion topic I’ll leave for another time). The second wraps around to the same question the title asks, this time emphasizing the negative aspects of the topic even more by starting out with “But…”. The question has now been asked twice, both times with a negative inclination.

3. “What do you like most about performing new compositions? What drives you crazy about them?”

“Drives you crazy”? Again, the tone couldn’t be more apparent.

4. “How do you think 21st century repertoire speaks (or doesn’t speak!) to audiences?”

Next, audiences are brought into the picture. Again, it’s impossible to miss the wink-wink-nudge-nudge of the tone here—“(or doesn’t speak!)” can only be read as carrying more emphasis, seemingly questioning the assumption that contemporary music speaks to audiences.

5. “What’s it like when a composer is present at a rehearsal and gives comments?”

Now it gets personal. This question has nothing to do with repertoire, but with the professionalism of composers within the rehearsal process. There are many examples of “composers behaving badly” in rehearsals just as there are examples of “performers behaving badly” in rehearsals, and it’s not clear how this question pertains to the topic of repertoire. Now if the true intent of the initiative is to allow performers to vent about contemporary composers and their music, then I could see how this might fit.

6. “Composers and audiences need to hear your point of view.”

Yes they do—as long as that point of view is given in the context of a healthy, respectful, and constructive dialogue.

The relationship between composer and performer has become increasingly symbiotic over the past three decades. Given that fact, it is curious why one of the largest organizations of musicians in the country would decide to pursue this particular line of questioning with its membership. Its misguided tone comes across as a clumsy attempt to gin up resentment between performers and composers. That resentment may exist in certain quarters in New York City and elsewhere, but unless it is addressed in a constructive manner, there is little wisdom behind such an initiative.

UPDATE: This was published today in local 802′s newsletter:


“Two weeks ago, we ran a question in this space, asking our members what they think of 21st century repertoire. Your responses have been thoughtful and interesting. However, we heard from some musicians that the way the question was phrased may have been disrespectful towards new music. That was certainly not our intention, and if we offended anyone, we’d like to apologize. We’d still like to know your thoughts on 21st century repertoire, and we’d love to hear from composers also. How can composers and performers work together in developing the future of the repertoire? What are the various challenges and success stories of performing 21st century repertoire — or getting it programmed? How can we get audiences more interested 21st century repertoire? If you’re interested in learning more about participating in this project, click here.”

Obviously it would have been better if something like this was in the initial newsletter…but it’s nice to see that they’ve recognized their misstep and have taken steps to fix things.

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.

15 thoughts on “Solidarity Revisited

  1. Nickitas Demos

    This is a very good response to what I consider and unprovoked shot across the bow. I probably would not have been as diplomatic in my initial response as you! :)

    I am puzzled at the timing of this questionnaire and the motivations behind it. In my experience, composers and performers seem to be getting along very well – or at least they are down here in the outer provinces of the South. I work with some really fine professional musicians all the time here in Atlanta; including many members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I haven’t detected any large-scale friction between composers and performers. If anything, it is quite the opposite. Many of our colleagues down here are extremely generous with their time and offer sensitive and constructive criticisms when they feel it will be of good use. I’ve always felt like a valued collaborator. This sense of collaboration is even stronger among the younger players coming up. In the last three years alone, Atlanta has seen the establishment of three new professional contemporary music ensembles.

    I would be very interested to learn of other composers’ interactions with performers around the country. Is this, as you suggest, a localized phenomenon in NYC? Is it just a “symphony player” mentality? Or am I oblivious to some big problem outside my zip code?

    Thanks for another great post!

  2. Richard Kessler

    Great article. Terrific analysis of the rather troubling methodological problems.

    I am all for research, but ultimately this is the sort work that Rob states in the title of his article: divisive. What if a majority of the respondents say they don’t like working with composers? So what? What if they say they like 20th century but not 21st century music? So what? What if they say they like something written in the year 2000 but are not sure whether its 20th or 21st? What is it’s all statistically insignificant? What if it is all obviated by leading questions?

    Leaving the question of methodology aside, what is the point here? For a union that has been losing work and members for a long time and provides very little bread and roses, what is the value of a poorly designed survey that reinforces artificial categories of composer and performer, new and old, important and not, etc?

    One would think there are plenty of things to survey this membership about, such as questions about wages, health insurance, job protection, the demise of the recording industry, intellectual property rights, access to K-12 arts education, just to name a few…

    As for what I really think about this: shame on you, Local 802.

  3. Zae Munn

    Except for the slightly provocative title (typical of almost all ads and even newspaper articles nowadays), I found the blurb to be fairly balanced, i.e.:

    What do you like about performing it…what drives you crazy?
    How does it speak….how doesn’t it speak?
    What’s it like to have the composer at rehearsal (this doesn’t seem positive or negative).

    So perhaps the tone of the title is framing the whole experience for you, much like a composition’s title can do. For myself, I found myself mostly being interested in what the performers’ answers might be.

  4. Stanley Friedman

    This highlights one of the great absurdities in Music. Until mid-20th-Century composers WERE musicians! This distinction and the adversarial relationship implied here did not exist. This largely was engineered by record companies, managers and conductors to reduce the influence and authority of the great composers (living ones, that is).

  5. Phil Fried

    “Its misguided tone comes across as a clumsy attempt to gin up resentment between performers and composers…”

    I’m not sure that I’m seeing this at all. That said much misunderstanding can take place when folks think they are having a private conversation, that is shop talk, when they are not. In music there is always a public and a private opinion, not to mention a professional opinion as well. It would seem that the performers here want to discuss composers without them in the room. So? Oddly I would think that it is also true that several members of 802 are composers that might affect outcomes.

    Anyway, we have never heard composers complain or just talk about performers, their training, or performances without a performer in the room.
    Actually we do it all the time just discretely.

    Still with all the specialized new music groups around one does have occasion to get performances from generalist mainstream bread and butter performers. Personally I prefer these.

    Yet the main point here that unions are a problem for composers seems wrong. Has Mr. Muhly’s career been halted? Nope. Are we not also members of the ASCAP and BMI associations? Not to mention many other associations.

    Perhaps the bigger question for composers is where we align ourselves:
    Are we workers, like the performing musicians or are we part of the administration who generally bestows the commissions and awards.

    I know where I am.

  6. John Borstlap

    Here, a problem is touched upon – also in the comments – but hardly noticed. In serious music, in the USA as well as in Europe, serious music (as far as it can be formulated as such) has two different performance cultures serving two types of repertoire: a) the canonic repertoire which forms the core of chamber music and orchestral/operatic music, and b) ‘contemporary repertoire’ which may include anything from 20C or 21C music. Education and tradition rests mainly upon a), while b) often deviates from it in fundamental ways, often even leaving the ‘serious’ aspect altogether. This is where sometimes friction emerges between performers and (real life) composers attending rehearsels. Impossible to statistically analyse what happens in this vague territory. But it seems justified to take in consideration that, since contemporary music has spread into a wide delta of many different sub movements and directions, any distinction between ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ new music (conservative in relation to some other, seemingly progressive music) is pointless. The fact we live with in our times is that many, very many, different traditions and performance cultures exist next to each other, which is a good thing, but it can create confusion and unfair friction.

    If composers are writing for a specific type of performers, they have to take their performance culture into account. Where composers and performers come from different traditions, it may create irritation, but that has nothing to do with ‘contemporary music’ in general but with specific backgrounds.

    It often happens that performers in the classical repertoire have to play new music which does not fit into their preformance culture, and then rash debunking may result, based upon quality judgement (which may be right or wrong).

  7. Elaine Fine

    What I find most amusing is the audacity of making a statement about a century after just 13 years. It’s like asking a 90-year-old to judge his or her life based on the experiences of a child. We are not even in the position to judge 20th-Century music, because “we,” even if you put us all together, only know a fraction of what was written during the hundred years that began with “19.” I keep finding excellent new music from the 20th century by composers I never heard of before who never embraced the “textbook” styles and techniques of what we formally call “new music.” Much of this music never finds its way to season offerings given by professional orchestras.

    There are exceptions, however. My brother, who plays viola in IRIS, has had his 21st-Century music played by that ensemble. They commission him to write music because they like playing what he writes. I imagine that there are other ensembles that do that sort of thing, but I also imagine that they are scattered in parts of the country that are not on the new music radar (Memphis is not the first place that comes up when it comes to new music).

    There are people for whom twelve-tone music is a passing early-20th-Century blip, an interesting technique, perhaps; and there are some who still blame its dominance in musical life the downfall of all that listeners of “Classical Music” hold dear. There are a lot of people for whom 100-year-old music is still inaccessible for its “modernness.” I imagine a large portion of the NPR-listening standard concert-going “audience” might be in this camp. The small amount of “new” music that is performed on orchestral concert series is generally written by “celebrity” new-music composers, and it doesn’t reflect much on the goings of the 21st century, so far. The AF of M members who respond to this survey might have actually interesting things to say.

    I have heard a tiny sample of what these 13 years of the 21st century have to offer (and have made a minute fraction of that tiny sample in the way of contributions to the din that a large number of “new music” people wouldn’t even consider “new music”), and I couldn’t make any kind of generalization worth squat. I couldn’t apply the regionalisms at used to work in the 20th Century to place music in a time or space, because the new globalization that we have due to the new ways of communication blurs cultural lines.

    As a performing musician I approach all music the same way: I try to understand the way a piece is organized, and then I look for the ways to use what I have in the way of musicianship to make it sound as good as it can sound. The composer’s job is finished once the music is in the hands of the people performing it. If that isn’t the case, the composer hasn’t done her or his job properly. A composer’s presence at rehearsal can be inspiring for students (people tell stories and provide fodder for interpretation), but the composer’s input at rehearsal shouldn’t be a necessary part of a successful performance.

  8. FCM

    This is our field. A huge, unwieldy dinosaur of power and labor relations. AFM’s email is a symptom, but I don’t even see a way to fix it by addressing the “issues” therein.

    Classical music seems to dig its own grave a couple feet deeper with every attempt to fix things; which is to say, incremental change isn’t going to be the answer.

    Innovation, the breath of life, needs “speed” to succeed. It happens in smaller groups (rock n roll, DJ’s, composers, producers, singer-songwriters). It happens in new, small organizations (apple, microsoft 20 years ago, google 10 years ago, startups today).

    While we argue about new music or old music, elektronische musik vs musique concrète, Gluck vs Lully, uptown vs downtown, ars nova v ars antiqua, most people are just turned off because there is so much SNOBBERY in our field! I can’t argue with them, anymore… can’t be a frontman for Adorno’s ideology anymore. We are distracted by stupid arguments about clapping or… NOT CLAPPING between movements (somebody kill me), between neo romantic harmony and the use of rhythms in modern classical music…. meanwhile the Munich Opera House is burning down.

    We use classical music to ward off hoodlums from train stations. That’s just the state of things.

    I’m an orchestral musician, as my primary training and identification.

  9. Matt

    I think your read is quite alarmist, considering the article hasn’t even even been written yet.

    What’s wrong with asking for firsthand musician feedback? They publish similar requests all the time about a wide range of issues.

    The 802 newsletter is pretty decent and I haven’t noticed an anti-new music agenda in the past. Maybe wait and see what the article is like first before drawing so many conclusions?!

    -A Local 802 member

  10. Joe Nichols

    What is 21st Century Music? The question seems to presuppose that all 21st Century Music is amenable to one category. So, Arvo Part, John Adams, Thomas Ades, Luciano Berio, Peter Maxwell Davies, Joel Francois Durand, etc. are all the same? It is an uninformed question that is obviously designed to allow musicians to bitch and moan.

    All music is suffering now. Any classical musician who has a job in his or her field should be thankful. Very few orchestras are self-sustaining. Very few musicians are self sustaining. The lucky few are hard-working very skilled musicians who will have, like most musicians, job insecurity for the rest of their lives.

    Unions for musicians can be a great force for good, and can cause harm that takes years to undo. An example: Many years ago, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra was an extremely well-regarded orchestra under the baton of one of the most skilled conductors, and one of the most beloved conductors, in Charles Dutoit. At one point, I think Dutoit was having a problem with a member of the orchestra and one of the leaders of the musician’s union — it was not a musician with the orchestra — likened Dutoit to a wife abuser in the fashion he treated the orchestra.

    Understandably, and justifiably, Dutoit had had enough and left. It took years and years for the Orchestra to find another conductor. The loss of Dutoit, who had one of the best ears for recording music, and was one of the best ambassadors of the orchestra, set that Orchestra back many years just because one boob in the union with authority to speak could not contain himself.

    This sounds like the same dumb play that instead of bringing people together, tears musicians apart. The most amazing thing is that the questionaire, if that is what it is, does nothing to help the position of the union. It is totally stupid.

  11. Joe Shelby

    The survey was biased. Horribly biased. To the chap who suggested otherwise, try taking a couple of classes on polling in a political science curriculum and you’ll learn very quickly that just about every trick in the book was used in those questions to get a biased, intentionally negative (against the music/composer) reaction. The presumption was there, and clearly there, that the authors of the questions do not believe that musicians (nevermind audience) ‘like’ modern music.

    There is a clear, VERY CLEAR, difference between the repertoire (up to Debussy, Copland, Shotakovich – each is kinda the tail end of the general Romantic, “NPR” lines).

    The repertoire has been recorded. This means something very important: the music can be listened to again. And again. And again.

    It can be studied in a form that listeners can understand: the sound exists in a permanent form.

    This is a stark contrast to modern music, where the attitude of the composer (as mentioned above) is that the job is done once the paper full of notes is in front of the musicians. A premiere, and that’s it. One shot. One chance to get it heard. That’s it.

    So why in the Muse’s names should any and I mean *any* orchestra invest their time or their care into a piece of work that may, and probably will, only be heard ONCE?

    The success of Rock is not the performance: it is the recording. Modern music IS POPULAR, as the thousands of sales of contemporary movie soundtracks shows. No, it isn’t the most avante guard (Goldsmith’s and Rosenman’s Planet of the Apes notwithstanding), but it is modern in sound, in some construction techniques, in many of the chords and techniques used. And people can listen to it and appreciate it, BECAUSE IT WAS RECORDED. They can make the same investment in the music with their time and their attention as they can a Beethoven, or a Stravinsky, BECAUSE IT WAS RECORDED.

    Until the classical music “industry” (for lack of a better term) catches up to the rest of the music world in pushing the idea that the audience NEEDS TO HEAR SOMETHING MORE THAN ONCE, then neither audient nor musician will ever really care to invest the emotion that this music demands.

    For as long as the audience and the musician each go into this with the idea, already confirmed by decades of experience, that they will never hear nor play this again, what is the point?

    Yes, I’m yelling. Probably to the choir, but there we are.

    1. Joe Shelby

      and curse is – as also noted above with the collapse of the revenue streams for recorded music – that maybe it really is too late…

    2. Matt

      Again–this is soliciting musician feedback for a local union newsletter article, which has yet to be published. I don’t believe that musicians’ responses will be published in “survey” form and don’t believe it will be characterized as “research”. [If so, I agree, it would be an extremely inaccurate and poorly worded survey.]

      I hope that the author and NewMusicBox do their due diligence and follow up when this article is published. I will unhappily eat my words if I’m wrong. But I’m not wrong.

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