Staying relevant

Staying RelevantSometimes I think about the role of the composer in today’s society. Are we really needed? I guess we are as needed as any other creative artist, and although there might be some truth in Oscar Wilde’s assertion that “all art is completely useless”, we find other voices, such as Robert Schumann’s, who did see a purpose for it: “To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts – such is the duty of the artist.” It is true, however, that we have lost some ground. We don’t enjoy the same degree of popularity that some composers of the past like Richard Wagner or Giuseppe Verdi had in life. But can we still be a leading voice in today’s world?

Opera used to be the biggest show on earth. Gesamtkuntswerk is the word Wagner used in association with his operas; the work of art where all other forms of art converged. But as Maria Callas put it, “opera is dead” and we must do something to keep it relevant to modern audiences. Film and television have now replaced opera as the most ambitious and comprehensive form of entertainment, thus the biggest stars are now actors and the most respected people in the industry are film directors. There is nothing to lament here because film is a wonderful artform and a relatively new one as well. It’s only a little over a hundred years old, whereas opera was born more than three centuries ago. It’s only logical that new technologies would lead to new forms of entertainment so it’s entirely conceivable than in a century or so film will be surpassed by yet another form of art, technologically more advanced and even more interesting and realistic than our current 3D films.

So, where are we, composers, going to fall when all of this happens? Some composers have embraced new technologies as a way to advance the research and development of art music into the future. I have only written one piece with live electronics (Incubus III), so I am primarily an acoustic composer and I love, above all, the symphony orchestra and the human voice. So, are we, acoustic composers, going to survive yet another tidal wave of technology? Or are we going to become less and less relevant with each passing decade? I do not have an answer to these questions but I think it’s good to ask them because they force us to confront our current reality. I want to be optimistic and think that human creativity is inexhaustible and that even an old medium like the symphony orchestra will continue to be appealing. It is also fair to acknowledge that the instruments of the orchestra have continued to be perfected well into the 20th century and that more instruments have made their way to the orchestra as well. The percussion section, for example, is continually being expanded by contemporary composers and even the most traditional instruments are being exploited in different ways through the use of extended techniques. But in the end this is not always enough. Some composers have been looking into enriching our harmonies with the use of microtones (intervals smaller than a minor second) multiphonics (the act of producing more than one sound simultaneously in a monophonic instrument) and noise. We keep expanding our vocabulary in the search of new sounds, but we don’t always manage to grasp the audience’s interest.

I have attended several contemporary music festivals and, to my disappointment, I have noticed that the audiences consist mainly of people associated with the world of contemporary music such as composers, musicologists, historians, performers and directors of arts organizations. I think it is wonderful to be able to have a space where us, experts, can mingle and debate, but I think it would be even better if we could persuade regular concertgoers to attend such events. Of course this is being done already, albeit not in the context of festivals. Several orchestra conductors and heads of arts organizations commission new works and couple them with the standard repertoire. In America it is not rare nowadays to listen to an opening number by a contemporary composer followed by a traditional concerto and a symphony from the standard repertoire. In Europe, where orchestras do not depend heavily on private donations but instead get the bulk of their money from the government (taxpayer’s money, effectively) they dare to program contemporary works more often. But one thing that seems to be constant is the lack of young people among the audience. Not enough kids, teens and young adults around the world are drawn to classical music, and prefer instead pop music. The pop music industry keeps thriving and expanding, but the classical music world is struggling to continue being relevant.

Some people in the industry, like Universal Music’s CEO, Max Hole, have made a few interesting suggestions on how to engage new audiences, but much of it remains at a superficial level, like proposing a change of dress code or letting people applaud whenever they want in order to relax the formality that characterizes classical music concerts. He has a point however, and that is that classical music (or at least its image) is in need of a makeover.  But here is what I think: composers are key to make this approach with the audience.

Let’s face it: classical music has always been a form of entertainment for the elite. In times of Palestrina it was mainly the Church who hired composers. By the time Mozart was born, the nobility had started to play an increasingly important role in support for the arts. Haydn, for example, lived practically all his live as an employee of Prince Esterhazy, while Mozart worked for the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg and later in Vienna for Emperor Joseph II (who was also the brother of Marie Antoinette). Beethoven rebelled against this, but also depended on the patronage of his noble friends, just like Wagner and Tchaikovsky did a few decades after him. It is toward the end of the 19th century that some composers reach a cult-figure status. Verdi’s music was so well known that people in the streets of Italy would hum his melodies. That degree of popularity is unthinkable for a composer nowadays, but not so for a pop star, a film director or even a writer. With the 20th century the cult of the composer started to decline, Stravinsky probably being the last to be universally acclaimed and be treated like a celebrity. But why should we worry about this? Do we really need that degree of fame and recognition? There is no point in seeking fame for its own sake, but yes, composers need to be prominent again in order to keep this artform alive and healthy.

We need to be relevant but for that we need to get new generations interested in what we do. I don’t want to go into marketing issues because that’s not my field (although I’m sure we need some help in that department) but what we can do as composers is make sure that our music is heard. I am not advocating a particular style or school of composition. I think all composers need to write the way they want to write and they need to be convinced of what they do. What I am advocating is the need to perform more contemporary music. We need to reverse the proportions. We can and must continue performing the standard repertoire, but we must move the center of gravity toward the 20th century. Right now the core of our programs consists of Mozart, Beethoven and the Romantic composers of the 19th century. We need to move a century ahead and have as a core the composers of the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century such as Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartok so that we can create an appetite in the audience for new sonorities. But this is not enough; we also need to get rid of the current Eurocentric criteria when designing our programs. Admittedly, most of the great composers have come from Europe, but the 20th century has opened the door to new people from all over the world. Local composers must be promoted and consumed, because even if their music is not as familiar as Mozart’s, people in the audience might be able to relate more easily with a given piece if it incorporates themes or subjects known to the people of a certain place.

John Adams, for example, is a successful living composer who has dealt with contemporary subjects in his operas. “Nixon in China” is a good example of how an episode of recent history can create interest in those who attend a performance, in this case American audiences, because it speaks directly to them. Composer  Osvaldo Golijov draws influences from his mixed Jewish and Argentinean heritage to create music that speaks directly to the people in Latin America. I myself have written a couple of works that make allusion to a specific episode of Peruvian history or Peruvian folklore, and when the audiences in Peru recognize this, they are immediately drawn to it. Chinese composer Tan Dun makes very clear allusions to his own heritage and, in this way, his fellow compatriots don’t feel as if they are facing an altogether foreign form of entertainment when listening to his music. Now, I also think that every composer ought to have the liberty to chose whether he wants to draw upon his/her heritage or not, and this is entirely optional because no one should be forced to sound “ethnic” if he/she has no interest in doing so. All that’s important for each composer is to develop a distinct personal voice, because if the music does not speak to its creator it won’t resonate with anyone else. I am convinced that the place where we grow up shapes us in one way or the other and that this gets reflected in the music we produce. We are not talking about reviving another nationalistic wave in the spirit of Sibelius, Smetana or Manuel de Falla, but simply letting all of our experiences inform the music we write. Those influences can be extremely varied, like our mother tongue, as György Ligeti mentioned in a radio interview with the BBC.

In conclusion, composers need to be heard. The voices that are alive now must be given a chance to break through. Audiences are way more receptive than many people think. Concert programmers must start local; playing the music of a local composer will already generate expectation among the audience. Promote: make sure people don’t only listen to the music; audiences need context. We were all told in high school who Mozart and Beethoven were, but not everyone knows who is Toru Takemitzu or Silvestre Revueltas. Make promotional material in anticipation of a premiere. Announce the concerts in advance and yes, do embrace new technologies. Make all this information available on YouTube, iTunes, Spotify, Facebook, Twitter and all other important platforms. Information is key to success. A recent example of how important these can be for someone’s career is pianist Valentina Lisitsa.

We can’t be content with writing music only, and if we don’t want to compromise on the music itself, we should at least make an effort to reach out. Long gone are the times when composers sat on a pedestal waiting to be asked for a commission. Now it is us who have to go out there and show what we do, proudly and confidently. If we are met with rejection, fine, but at least we have done our part. We can’t do this alone; of course, we need the support of our fellow musicians and patrons of the arts. But if we all work toward the same goal -the renovation of our “classical/contemporary music” repertoire and audience- I am sure we will achieve it.

In my beginnings, when no professional orchestra would perform my music, I was faced with two options, keep my orchestral music unperformed, or gather my own orchestra and have it played. I took the second route and this was the beginning of kohoBeat, a non-profit organization based in Finland. We gathered over 70 musicians, three conductors, two soloists and almost 10,000 euros to fund our first concert. The resulting recording and subsequent press reviews opened many doors for us and eventually my compositions started to gather the interest of professional orchestras. Music is written to be listened to, so one must always make an effort, especially when young, to have one’s music played. It is a lot of work, but it is definitely worth the trouble. If you are a composer, get out there and do it. You will be doing yourself and the world of contemporary music a great service.

In a time when many orchestras are closing, opera companies are going bankrupt and politicians have started to systematically cut funds for the arts due to the financial crisis, we have to make an extra effort to remain relevant. Music and art in general are essential. They might not be seen as such, but they are all that is left once a civilization is gone. Think of the great ancient civilizations; they are still relevant to us because of the enormous cultural impact they have had on the world and there’s no price tag that can reflect the real value of the artworks they have left behind. As Schumann said, art illuminates our hearts, it is therefore a flame we cannot afford to let whither away.

About Jimmy López Bellido

My name is Jimmy López Bellido and I am a composer. I was born in Lima, Peru 40 years ago and I have lived in several places including Miami, Helsinki, Paris, and now Berkeley, California. The decision to open a blog stems out of a personal need to voice my views on the situation of the contemporary composer in our world today. Through my words, I hope to spark constructive discussion on issues relevant to the aforementioned topic. I invite you to participate by expressing your thoughts and opinions and to visit my website, at Welcome!
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2 Responses to Staying relevant

  1. lkestrel says:

    Dear Jimmy,

    Quote: “In Europe, where orchestras do not depend heavily on private donations but instead get the bulk of their money from the government (taxpayer’s money, effectively) they dare to program contemporary works more often. But one thing that seems to be constant is the lack of young people among the audience. Not enough kids, teens and young adults around the world are drawn to classical music, and prefer instead pop music. The pop music industry keeps thriving and expanding, but the classical music world is struggling to continue being relevant.”

    Interesting statement. Didn’t know that (symphonic) contemporary music was less often programmed in the US. The difference private vs gov’t funding may be a reason, although the latter is in sharp decline here in the Netherlands, but there must be more to it. I immediately have to think of a famous and successful series in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the weekly “Saturday Matinee”. It very often draws a full house (1800 ppl in a 800,000 inh. town in a 17M country) – and a very diverse audience at that, qua age, dress code, background, tourists and locals alike.
    For a glimpse in this season’s programme:
    Noteworthy: initially (in the 1950’s) this series started out to bring classical music to the working class – people who (supposedly) weren’t normally attending those concerts. It is simultaneously broadcasted on public radio.

    It would be interesting to know whether audiences really have a different attitude vis-a-vis contemporary music or whether it’s just a lack of risk taking at the programmers’ side. Also interesting to know: why at all do people attend a concert? To have a great evening, knowing what to expect, or to be intellectually stimulated? To see that soloist they have seen before? To be confronted with life’s questions?

    It may take years to “bend the trend” and would be worth while to know how the programmers here worked things.

    The earlier, the better?
    I donot know about other countries, but here, amateur orchestra’s donot shun contemporary works.
    And decades ago, as pupils in a small local music school, we’d perform a (very avant garde, incl. electronics) work by the school’s director in the annual pupils’ concert. We initially thought it strange (say, very different from out Dotzauer etudes!), but had no choice anyway and when we sang and played it, it was fun, new and exciting. So early on, we got a hands on experience of today’s music. Also, in the many Dutch chambre music workshops I attended, the mandatory work always was a (usually post 1940) 20th century composition.

    About pianist Valentina Lisitsa – haven’t yet checked the reactions to her YT-video’s, but it may well be that nowadays, concertgoers like to read/know more about performers and modern media are very suitable, so yes, I think she’s on the right track. Quite a few musicians (and conductors and composers) blog and/or post clips, allowing insight into their lives and creative processes to more people than has ever been possible and even enabling their virtual audience to mutually interact across geographical boundaries that would have been impossible to overcome before the age of the web. In other words, also in the world of classical music, the distance to the audience becomes smaller, interaction becomes more frequent and may even develop in some sort of relationship (YT- or blog followers turning concertgoers, CD-buyers or even agents).

    Hope more people will tune in!
    Best wishes,
    Ellen Dieleman (amateur cellist)

  2. Thanks very much for your thoughts, Ellen. I think that concert programmers mostly underestimate or overestimate the audience. A balance is needed, and if one is going to program a hardcore avant-garde piece, one needs to bring context through pre-concert talks, program notes and online material. The San Francisco Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera have very comprehensive websites with plenty of material to chose from. This gives audiences more than just a glimpse of what they are going to watch or listen to. Some conductors like loosening up the situation by addressing the audience directly from the podium with a microphone. This is particularly useful for those who didn’t have the time to research or attend the pre-concert-talk. Understanding is key. I still remember when I went to an American football game for the first time. Everybody else was cheering and I didn’t know what was going on! That’s because I didn’t know the rules of the game. Something similar happens to people who have had little or no exposure to contemporary music; they need a bit of guidance. That’s not being condescending at all, is just making a serious effort to communicate with them and to involve them so that they can have a better experience. It is hard to tell what people are after when going to a concert, but I think most of them want to be stimulated intellectually, emotionally and spiritually and many of the great masterpieces have the capacity to do that. Of course just like there were hundreds of other composers working at Mozart’s or Beethoven’s time, only a handful of our contemporary composers will be remembered. But we shouldn’t be too concerned with this; time will tell. I am very happy to see that amateur orchestras in the Netherlands are interested in contemporary works. I know this for myself, since my Koto Concerto was commissioned and premiered by the UMA Kamerorkest from Utrecht. Here in the US it also happens to a certain extent, and I think the experience is practically always positive. Keep up the good work and keep playing!

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