Thursday, December 11, 2008

Creating a Composition Environment with a Community

An article in the Missourian by Ricky O'Bannon talks about how David Ackerman and Jeanne Sinquefield hope to make Missouri a cultural hub for music composition. While they understand they may not become a Paris, Vienna or New York City overnight, they want to encourage composers to start thinking of Columbia Missouri as place where composition in encouraged and flourishes. I sincerely hope they succeed.

Of the numerous ideas and plans in progress, so far they are encouraging MU students to write new works and promoting performances of these works by the MU students and faculty. The idea is to eventually create ensembles dedicated to just performing new works. All of these are very worthwhile projects and should be encouraged at all universities across the US (correction, world).

However, becoming a hub for new compositions requires a collection of like minded composers, new composers, looking to create something new, different, looking at music in a different way. And then having a group (ensemble) who can perform those works, explore these "new" sounds and really get the essence of these new compositions to the public. In many regards it sounds like Ackerman and Sinquefield are doing just this. The question is whether they have the one elements that is hard to qualify, difficult to create and impossible to generate something new without it - radical thinking.

In Paris after world war I Les Six was created to perform new music in a world void of music due to the war. Part of the success of Les Six was due to marketing. Part of it was due to a void in the music world. But some part was due to Paris already being a cultural hub, so the concept of new music coming out of Paris was nothing new. Berlioz and Debussy were practically household names by the time Les Six started and Stravinsky moved to Paris specifically to explore new music prior to World War I - so there was already a culture of new music by the time the group formed.

Prior to the 20th century the model for new compositions was primarily patrons. Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky are all composers listed in the article and all composers whose music survived to a large extent due to patrons, people who paid large sums of money for the music to be written. That model has changed. While there are still individuals (like Sinquefield) who donate money toward new compositions, much of the money is now coming from corporations. Like sports teams that sell their uniforms or stadiums to major corporations in exchange for the corporations pasting their name on the said uniform or stadium. This is where much of the new money is coming from. Unfortunately, unless there is a lot of money to generate a lot of activity, there isn't likely to be any significant change in where new music is generated.

New York City is still the classical music center for the US because of the large numbers of musical instititutions centered in or around New York, because of the large number of venues and organizations performing music and because of the large amount of money behind these elements due to the large amount of money in New York City. Chicago and LA have done reasonable jobs at denting this music base, by creating new concepts and styles of music. Other cities, like San Francisco, are generating new works for specific organizations (San Francisco Opera has sponsored a number of new operas in the last 10 years), while others strive to promote the success of individual groups (New Orleans continues to be the hub for new jazz artists).

It's difficult at best to foresee what the future art is going to be, and harder still to "create" it. New music won't happen without people promoting it, so in that regard my hat is off to David Ackerman and Jeanne Sinquefield and their quest to become a new music hub. However, new music is more than just getting one university involved.

If I can offer my 2 cents - create a series of call for scores, that accept music from around the world. Then have major orchestras and ensembles come to perform these pieces. Create a festival that is filled with new music, lots of new music, much like the Cabrillo New Music Festival or MATA Festival. These are examples where new music is flourishing and are models to emulate. The more of these festivals there are, the more likelihood one is going to emerge as the place for new music.

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