Charles Wuorinen and "entrepreneurship"

I'm back from Portugal, which means getting to work on this blogging thing...maybe. Still so much to do before heading to Stockholm. Being a globe-trotter is awesome, but tiring.

Anyway, to the topic on hand. Charles Wuorinen is a fiery fellow. He has his opinions and convictions, and he will stick to them whole-heartedly. I respect that. His speeches are blunt, forceful, and thought-provoking.

There was a phrase I latched onto during his talk--"Cultural Barbarism." One area that I think Wuorinen moved dangerously into with his talk was a pushing a stratified class system. Wuorinen discussed how the "elite" of the country no longer cared about the arts, especially music. He said that there hadn't been a president since Richard Nixon that enjoyed classical music, and even Nixon used to have to sneak off into the closet to listen to symphonies. As for the non-"elites" of the country, well...

Wuorinen basically told us not to worry about them. The problem was the learned people didn't understand music: politicians, business-people, professors, other artist. Wuorninen seemed to feel that "normal" people wouldn't understand the music, and didn't need to understand it. And that groups like Bang on a Can played up to the audience, lowering the quality of music, and leading further into this cultural barbarism.

Wuorinen also said that the government (any and all) had no place in the arts anyway. That the only real way to move ahead in music is through personal relationships, mainly with the "elite." He made reference to all sorts of classic examples: Bach, Mozart, and how Beethoven tried to ruin the system.

I asked Wuorinen "What can we do then, as composers, to be 'cultural ambassadors,' and help fix this problem." Wuorinen gave a succinct answer: (paraphrased) All you can do is change the mind of one or two people, preferably with money.

Like I said, he can be provocative. At the very least, coming out of his talk, the young composers had some of the most interesting arguments. I won't dwell on everything, but I'll hit a few points.

First, I agree somewhat with Wuorinen about the lack of appreciation for art music. and I think there is a sort of "cultural barbarism" happening, but i don't think it's in the way he's discussing. Wuorinen seems to think that art music has always been relegated to cultural elite, and that's pretty much where it should stay. Then he bemoans how the rich and powerful don't give us money anymore. I don't see that as the problem.

A bigger problem is people saying "It's [art/classical/instrumental] music and I don't/can't understand it," and never giving it a fair chance. It's closing your ears and mind, not even letting the music in. Where does this come from? Well, there are lots of places, but I tend to think the attack on academics in America, particularly in the arts, is a nice portion. I've found the best way to change people's minds is to follow Wuorinen's idea: One person at a time. But I think you can change a lot of people's minds, one person at a time.

And the first play we need to start was also suggested by Wuorinen, and I agree: other artists. I don't know how many art openings in the US I've been to where the music was a friend of the artist...with a guitar singing some folk rock type tunes with crappy lyrics. Here's an artist, taking themselves seriously, perhaps working in a very abstract form. It's high art, not pop art, not pop in general. And yet the choice of accompanying music has nothing to do with the art, or even within a similar area of art. Why?

Because artists take the same perspective as most of the rest of the public. Not all, of course, but I see the problem most with the younger generation.

Now, let me say this now, I'm not blaming them in some way, saying young artists doing this are horrible people. That's definitely not it. But, they're a group that, as composers, we HAVE to work with, get on our side, and do more than just ignore. Composers ignore artists as much (or maybe more) than artists ignore composers. Eventually, we have to reach across the aisle.

Also, Wuorinen really ripped into the music and entrepreneurship bit. There's been so much written about it, from older articles in businessweek, to David Cutler writing all sorts of stuff on "new ideas" to help create entrepreneurs. This post isn't to run through the merits (or lack thereof) of the ideas, but to point out one thing Wuorinen said that I agree with: a great musician, created through rigorous training and performance experience will always have a better chance of success than someone that learns some tricks for making a quick buck.

Wuorinen attacked the movement away from creating extremely strong, well trained, almost over-practiced musicians to instead making "artists" that seemed more intent on making money than great music (or art). This is one point I completely agree with. Now, does that mean we shouldn't be learning how to live with our skills? Well...Wuorinen would be against pretty much everything Cutler suggests, but I'm not. But Wuorinen does have a point about being a great musicians first.

Traditional models of making money in the arts are gone. Symphony jobs have always been sparse and difficult, and are now even more so. Apocalyptica and Zoe Keating are much more well known that JACK quartet (though that really does need to change. HOLY SHIT is JACK quartet amazing). And more and more classically trained musicians are turning from "art" music performance to popular music performance...the music "they grew up with." Is this cultural barbarism? Is what I do "elitist" even though I make no bones about writing music that I honestly believe anyone can enjoy? And do we need to go back to a more direct patronage system to make it all "work?"

Somewhere in the middle is usually the answer to me. I'm still chewing over bits of this and figuring out what exactly the best path is. I'm not a "conservative" guy by any stretch: I've collaborated with artists (and done pretty well with it, I think), I've had pieces played by a group that's more "jazz" than "classical" and had large audiences, I've written two operas that played to sold out crowds, I've gone to academic festivals, played in wine bars and museums, given academic papers, and even had a comedic play (the kind without music) produced to nearly sold out crowds. Perhaps I am, in some sense, an entrepreneur. But I've done all these things WITHOUT the lure of money.

Does this make me an entrepreneur? Maybe...But how much of it have I done AFTER I became at least a proficient musician? and how long did it take me to develop as a musician because I did more areas of study, spread myself out? and how many areas am I REALLY proficient at?

The times I split, i learned much less--as an undergrad, I was not a fantastic trombonist NOR a fantastic educator/conductor (was doing secondary instrumental, after all). I was ok at both. Same during my MM as a composer and audio engineer. It wasn't till my doctorate when I said "Alright, now I get serious about writing music" that I REALLY developed in one area heavily. Compare my MM and DMA compositions and you'd agree that there's been a pretty hefty push forward. Age helps, but intense study helps way more.

Anyway, again, there is no answer here...But Wuorinen gave me something to think about, if for no other reason that he incited me during the talk. I couldn't avoid what he was saying, I had to face it. I didn't like it all, but I was forced to figure out exactly why.

So, thank you Charles Wuorinen, for challenging me. It's something that doesn't happen every day, and I appreciate it. This is a lot of words just to say:

Challenge Accepted

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