Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Children of the Revolution

September 16, 2011

Composer Dale Trumbore

A couple of weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times published a misguided rant from Mark Swed about how “technological fascism” is the latest destroyer of worlds for all things classical music in the form of such online services as iTunes, Twitter and Spotify. I wrote about the problems with this flimsy argument then, but there’s a whole other part to the story. Which is that the social media/online revolution is breaking open new avenues for younger artists to get their works heard in ways that never could have happened before. It turns out that the Internet, much like a deity, never fails to open a window after closing a door. And if you aren’t hanging around reminiscing about your college days listening to ever-increasingly copyright protected Beatles albums, you might just catch a whiff of the future.

Let me start with a story. A friend of mine, a former USC Thornton School of Music graduate student, relates the following: In the spring of 2011, the school hosted a visit from the young, high-profile composer Eric Whitacre. As the story goes, during the Q and A session that followed his appearance, a soon-to-be graduate posed the question to him of whether or not it was a good idea for a young composer to be willing to give up some control of her work when signing a first contract with a publisher in order to get her foot in the door. Whitacre’s answer was clear. Never give up anything. Why would you want to? Those days are gone. Do it yourself. He estimated that the cost in time and effort to photocopy parts for a customer should not hinder anyone from going it alone in distributing their music, considering that publishers may not be able to do much in terms of promoting a young unknown composer not to mention the large cut in overhead they take. It's a topic that Whitacre has written about on his elaborate web site's blog. What Whitacre may be one of the best examples of, is a composer who has managed to get his work heard in numerous venues and recorded in part due to his active engagement in social media outlets from Facebook and Twitter to You Tube. His 2010 Virtual Choir project using thousands of vocalists individually recorded on line, which were then mixed together for a single performance of one of his scores, generated lots of media attention. And while this in and of itself may not have made him a fortune, it has made his name even more memorable and helped drive increased interest in his work overall.

But the story isn’t just about YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Composers who are in and just out of music programs are doing for themselves in terms of financing performances and recording as well. Take Isaac Schankler, a 2010 graduate of the Thornton School who has found the benefit of Kickstarter for getting his music played by real people. Schankler’s chamber opera about the rivalry between Tesla and Edison, Light and Power, was produced in Boston earlier this year when the sponsoring organization, the Juventas New Music Ensemble, raised money for the performance through the site. For the uninitiated, Kickstarter provides microfunding for a wide variety of unrealized ideas from consumer goods to music and art. Visitors can pledge small amounts of funding towards projects creators have listed on the site and in aggregate get work funded that might never have seen the light of day. A goal is set by the proposer and if enough contributions are pledged, funds are collected and awarded to the creator with funders receiving goods or services from the collective project. Shankler and colleague Aron Kallay host a concert series of electroacoustic music under the moniker People Inside Electronics and recently received funding through Kickstarter for a concert this coming Saturday September 17 at MiMoDa of electroacoustic music featuring new compositions performed by California's Eclipse Quartet. This, like the chamber opera, is a show funded by dozens of people chipping in various small amounts on Kickstarter who are interested in seeing it come to life. (The video above gives more details.)

And if that isn't enough technological fascism for you, take Dale Trumbore, a composer and USC student who has already had works premiered by the Kronos Quartet during her time at the University of Maryland. Trumbore has also funded projects through Kickstarter, including her upcoming CD release Snow White Turns Sixty, a song cycle for soprano Gillian Hollis based on twelve texts from contemporary female poets. Trumbore will be rolling out the recording this month and has several dates set up around the country for concert performances of the new piece. Trumbore is an artist who, like many other young classical composers and musicians, is finding use for one of the many music e-commerce sites like Bandcamp. Bandcamp allows artists to sell their music directly to customers without having to set up their own individual sites to handle download and payment technical issues. It also allows them to avoid some of the pitfalls of selling music on iTunes although it does not prevent artists like Sufjan Stevens, Gabriel Kahane, Trumbore or anyone else from doing so simultaneously. Artists can set up their own subsidiary Bandcamp sites and set their own prices for their music outside of the iTunes 99 cent track dictum. Is anyone getting rich there? Probably not. Is it a way to financially support music and artists you care about without having to go through Big Apple? Definitely.

Ensembles have gotten into the act as well like Los Angeles' own wildUp who have an active on line presence and have used services like Bandcamp as well. This recently formed contemporary music collective under the artistic direction of Christopher Rountree has been making a splash over the last year participating in such performances as the Sofia Gubaidulina festival at REDCAT last spring. Their future plans contain some of the most promising programming around with a Clarence Barlow show in November and another slated for the spring examining young composers on both coasts including Timo Andres, Andrew Norman, and Missy Mazzoli among others. wildUp's roster is crammed with a who's who of young musicians, composers, and sound artists who are actively engaged in social media like Andrew Tholl and Chris Kallmyer.

But these examples are only the tip of the iceberg. There is a whole generation of musicians and composers who are collaborating, interacting and creating spurred on by their online connections. Careers are building built in new and different ways with the use technologies that can just as easily demonized. This does not mean that anyone named above or elsewhere hasn't relied heavily on other more traditional methods to fund and support their work. This does not mean that all music that comes out of online collaboration is great music. But it does suggest that music, like life, will go on even with the changing interface we have with technology.

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Thanks Brian for a very timely piece on the new paradigm emerging in classical (and all other forms of) music. The one aspect that unites all of the artists you mention in this post is the marriage of compelling artistry with technological sophistication. It clearly behooves the larger and more established artists/organizations to expand their horizons in both "product" and "placement"!
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