What happened to the composers, anyway?

What happened to the composers, anyway?

I just read a strange piece at Cracked.com about Orchestras, 5 Bizarre Dark Sides to Modern Orchestras, which left a bit to be desired regarding some facts (what’s a third violin, anyway?  Viola?).  But some of the links posted in the piece were, in many ways, much more interesting than the article itself.

One in particular is a the annual report (1998) by Catherine Wichterman for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Orchestra Forum: A Discussion of Symphony Orchestras in the US, that talks about many issues regarding funding by the foundation to Orchestras.  Four issues in particular were discussed regarding institutional problems with Orchestras, and these were issues brought up during a forum in which mid-budget Orchestras ($844,000 to $21.4 million) were invited to participate in–the participants included administration, management as well as musical directors and musicians.

The agendas, as described in the piece, were as follows:

Each of the Forum meetings focused on issues that had been consistently raised in preliminary discussions and in proposals submitted by the 28 orchestras. The first meeting focused on leadership, decision-making, and collaborative cultures; the second on community relationships, education, and marketing; the third on composers, conductors, and repertoire; and the last on research, risk, and change. The agendas were consciously interdisciplinary, and a number of professionals from other fields were invited to contribute outside perspectives on the issues under discussion.

In particular, the section about Repertoire and Programming had some interesting tidbits about the role of composers in today’s Orchestras.  The opening paragraph to that section states:

Unlike theater and dance companies, orchestras have been largely unsuccessful in fostering the creation of new work and in involving creators in the artistic life of the institution. Composers today find much friendlier territory in dance, theater, and chamber music. [my emphasis] Many orchestra professionals blame composers themselves for their isolation. Others blame the academy, and still others blame broadcast media, recording companies, performers, conductors, and audiences. Most agree, however, that whatever the problems in contemporary composition, orchestras (which were once contemporary music ensembles) have neglected, perhaps even abdicated, their responsibility to create an environment in which new creative work flourishes.

The bolded section, in particular, got my attention as I recently got a gig composing music for an upcoming Commedia Beauregard Theatre production in Chicago and most of the music I’ve written has been for smaller ensembles (including some of my own) as well as specific works for dancers.  Basically all three areas in the bolded statement.  And in some ways, I’m not technically a ‘trained composer’ (sure, I’ve studied composition in music school, but my primary focus was always performance).

The next paragraph states:

According to some, this failure to build the repertoire for the ensemble has led to predictable programming and has diminished the musical individuality of orchestras. A recent ASOL statistical report shows that of the ten most often performed works by orchestras, five were written by Beethoven. Beethoven is the most frequently performed composer, with Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms following. Performances of work by early 20th century composers falls off dramatically, and no living composer is represented on either list. This trend is confirmed by a review of brochures from 100 symphony orchestras as well as the programming information submitted by the 28 orchestras responding to the Forum RFP. Certainly, orchestras should be encouraged to play great music of the past, but the lack of connection between living artists and the ensemble for which they write, is, say many, inherently unhealthy.

I must admit that the one reason I decided that a career in Orchestras wasn’t for me is precisely the reasons cited above.  I just couldn’t see myself be a part of an organization that isn’t contributing much to creating and sustaining new works (I’ve since found other reasons, as many of the readers of this blog know).

The report gives several reasons for this disconnect with a living compositional ‘tradition’–but two of the important ones, “Orchestras have not developed sufficient audience trust to allow them to experiment” and “Orchestras have little or no relationship with composers” seem to be directly applicable to the relationship of Symphonic organizations and their communities.  I think these two are, in some ways, why the non-Western orchestras are on the rise in the US as I’ve blogged about copiously in the past.  Large ensemble music comes in many variety and forms and while European style Orchestras may be ill-equipped or ill-trained for doing that kind of music it’s not impossible for them to do so (listening to some of the interviews from the musicians in the LO about all the new music they had to learn in the documentary “Music Makes a City” can attest to that fact).

But most US Orchestras don’t do this (while many of the ethnic orchestras do actively commission new compositions for their ensembles) with a few exceptions both historically (Louisville Orchestra; Illinois Symphony) and currently ( Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony).

The report discusses the issue of having a relationship with composers (the quote by Paul Griffiths is prescient):

While orchestras may commission or perform works of living composers, they have not identified a meaningful role for composers to play within the organization. As a result, orchestras do nothing to raise the stature of composers or to create a positive environment in which to write music. The lack of great new works for orchestras, therefore, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to Paul Griffiths, “Anybody with a concern for classical music must wish that there might appear some giant who, like Beethoven, would introduce a radically new sound and at the same time be greeted by more or less universal appeal. But it has not happened, and it is not happening. And the lack of a new Beethoven is not the cause of music’s stagnation but a symptom. We do not have a new Beethoven because we are not expecting to.”

And Drew McManus made an incredibly intriguing comment in a SoundNotion video blog (hosted by David MacDonald, Sam Merciers, and Nate Bliton) regarding including composers, many of whom are members of the musicians union,  in collective bargaining agreements.  Which, in many ways, makes sense to me though obviously that is something in which there may be a lot of resistance.  Likely, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony relationship with the Iowa Composers Forum would be a more feasible approach.

I guess, the biggest question, is how likely are composers to work to make something like this happen (either being included in CBAs or independently approaching Orchestras with a funding plan for highlighting new works) or is there an even better way of making Orchestras a part of a living compositional tradition?

In the end, composers seem to be finding their own way with alternatives to writing Symphonic music, but that neither helps the Symphonic music tradition or Orchestras utilizing an existing resource that happens to be contemporary and relevant.  Well, I guess playing music from Lord of the Rings, video games or symphonic rock concerts is using some of those compositional resources, but somehow, I think that might not be what many of us really want?

Composers aren’t dead yet (e.g. we’re not decomposing): we just make do with whatever means are at our disposal to practice our craft!

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