Sympathy from the New World

Contemporary European composers are finding new support from institutions in major American cities.

Sympathy from the New World
New York Musicians on the State of Contemporary Music in America

Imagine starting a new music ensemble that performs 20 to 30 concerts per year, instead of the more typical half dozen or less. Would it be possible? What’s the secret to such success?

Elizabeth Weisser, violist, and Steve Beck, pianist, revealed their secrets in a discussion at The American Center Nov 5. They’re part of the Talea Ensemble, a contemporary music group which performed in the recent Contempuls 2012 new music festival in Prague.

Note that Mrs Weisser is not only the group’s violist; crucially, she’s also its development director. And herein lies a key point. Mr Beck explains that in the US today, contemporary composers are also the musicians, the producers, and the agents for their own work.

They can do that effectively because more American music conservatories are offering classes not only in the usual music theory, history, and performance, but also in basic business skills, from how to create a press kit to how to promote an ensemble or orchestra.

Mrs Weisser told the small audience that Talea’s growth spurt came because the group “created compulsive branding,” made their efforts “fun,” and “created a sense of community” among the group’s musicians, composers, and the public.

For example, the Ensemble’s website has a blog co-written by the musicians, the composers, and even the audience. In Talea’s “Inside Out” concert series, the ensemble plays a short concert and then analyzes the music, inviting the musicians and also the audience to speak about what they’ve just heard.

Indeed, even the duo’s speech at the American Center addressed to contemporary music fans was dotted with short audio excerpts from several contemporary composers, to illustrate the differences among different styles of current composition.

Talea Ensemble's Weisser, Beck at the American Center

Mrs Weisser emphasizes that they’re looking for an audience who can be patient and listen carefully to the music, and who can “feel comfortable” with not understanding the music the first time they hear it. She implies that they’re also looking for critics who don’t hide their uncertainty behind a superior tone. “Some people may become angry, upset, or think the music is stupid,” she says, “but that’s OK: A lot of performers and composers don’t understand it, either.” But their ultimate goal is not to make people feel comfortable, it’s to make people think, she says.

Mr Beck also adds, “By getting an audience to listen to contemporary music harder, they can then go back to classical music and understand it more easily.”

All these steps are necessary, the musicians explain, because the US music scene is facing the same budget cuts and limited arts funding as in Europe. Big orchestras requiring big budgets are curtailing their programs or even closing entirely, they say. But in their place, smaller, leaner ensembles with lower expenses are enjoying a renaissance.

Interestingly, many European composers are finding sympathetic audiences by “fleeing” to the New World — to composer-in-residence posts at major universities in California, New York, Boston, and Chicago. There, they are influencing the next generation of students who are impressed “less than by American luminaries and more by the European influences,” according to Mrs Weisser.

The Europeans are finding a sympathetic audience in their students, who then continue in the new tradition as they graduate and spread out into the swiftly-changing performance world.

The challenge is for composers, ensembles, and even full orchestras on both sides of the water, it seems, is to find sympathetic audiences not only in the concert hall, but in the classroom and in the media as well. — oo

– Mary Matz

Photo Credits: Top: Bigfoto; bottom: Miroslav Setnička

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