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June 25, 2007

Flying in to Flyoverville

Joe Nickell

Last week, I posted up a link to a piece I wrote for Montana Journalism Review, in which I took issue with New Yorker theater critic John Lahr's assertion that, "If it's not in The New Yorker, it doesn't exist in the culture." My main point was that America is not a homogenous culture; and as such, the culture that The New Yorker documents is only some small portion of what the rest of us experience and value.

The same day that my Montana Journalism Review piece went public, I was alerted by a friend to an essay by Alex Ross in The New Yorker, documenting Ross' whirlwind sampling of a trio of orchestras that don't perform in New York: the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra; the Nashville Symphony Orchestra; and the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.

On the surface, Ross' piece demonstrates what we've been trying to say here at FlyOver: that important art happens outside of the celebrated arts scenes of major cities on the coasts. Ross himself says as much: "I learned what touring musicians have been saying for years: that lesser-known orchestras can deliver sure-footed, commanding performances, and that the notion of a stratospheric orchestral élite is something of an illusion."

Unfortunately, as one reads along, it becomes evident that Ross still suffers from the same biases his road-trip supposedly cured. He mentions in a scoffing tone that, "Orchestras at the level of the Nashville used to be described as 'regional.'" The horror! The injustice!...And yet, a mere two paragraphs later, he declares the Alabama Symphony, "one of the country's most adventurous regional orchestras." (emphasis added)


Given the short list of intriguing factoids and subjective assessments that Ross provides about the Alabama Symphony -- anticipated performances of works by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and a host of other young, international composers, all within a concert season that's considerably shorter than that of the New York Philharmonic; and a performance of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony that Ross declares to be "as potent a performance of Beethoven's revolutionary symphony as I've heard in several seasons" -- why isn't it simply one of the country's most adventurous orchestras, period?

The answer, it seems, is that it's still not the New York Philharmonic.

Well, no kidding.

This is the implicit bias that we outside of New York marvel at: It's not in New York, so it's not really worth the serious consideration of the New Yorker - unless, of course, some writer feels like it's time for a little junket out into the wilds of America.

Alex Ross is an open-minded music critic; I've met him and been impressed by both his studied standards and his willingness to listen. But it seems that he is still stuck in an antiquated way of thinking about culture, one that posits that a single standard should be applied to all art everywhere.

Instead of racing through town and trying to judge, on the basis of one performance, whether the Indianapolis Symphony sounds good enough to play in New York, perhaps he should have take a few extra days to get to know the local lay of the land, and to figure out: What does the orchestra do for the people of Indianapolis?

Posted by Joe Nickell at June 25, 2007 12:11 AM


The New Yorker Magazine is definitely irrelevant. I work with a group of young people -- ages 16-20 -- and as I write this they're laughing. A small list only begins with music. "We don't read it," I am told. Somebody just said: fuddy duddy stuffy duddy. Remnick is marketing to arrogance. 1.) They have all the money. 2.) It's not a geographical demography. 3.) It's an attitude. 4.) Among the younger age-set their readership is declining like most mass paper media. 5.) They abhor the parochial but fail to recognize that their own cultural reach and their cultural vision does not itself extend so much as to let's say Brooklyn. 6.) Even the name of the magazine is disingenuous. In truth, it should be called "The Hamptons." It's somewhere on Long Island.

Posted by: Tim Barrus at June 25, 2007 4:02 AM

OK, Tim, what do they read?

This entire conversation is ridiculous -- it's called the New Yorker -- it's about New York.

If it is so irrelevant, why does every orchestra, band and dance company that can afford it pay dearly to come here? The weather?

Posted by: Larry Larson at June 25, 2007 4:23 PM

I'm sorry you think what we're talking about is ridiculous, Larry; but with all due respect, what this discussion is about is that this particular New Yorker story is NOT about New York -- and yet it seems to exhibit that same old tired bias.

While I can see the point that Ross is, nominally, speaking to a New York audience when he writes, the fact is that the New Yorker is a national magazine, read across the country. So he is not only talking to a New York audience. (Somebody want to help me out here with readership statistics regarding what percentage of the New Yorker's audience is actually in New York?)

Posted by: Joe Nickell at June 25, 2007 4:50 PM

The kids I work with bounce around the Internet on surfboards. They fall into the ocean a lot and seem to be having great fun. Sometimes they read Rolling Stone but I don't think consistently. I think what really makes them different from people my age (I don't even know anyone my age anymore) is that they seem to have no real "readership loyalty" or they don't read a single publication repeatedly. As far as books are concerned, they go for edgy stuff; they think if the Laura Albert jury had been younger the decision would have gone the other way. They bemoan the loss of JT LeRoy and feel the outrage directed at Albert is more contrived than JT was. They miss him. "There are kids who do live kinda like that, you know," I am told although I am too religious and moral to know. What surprises all of us in the whole Manhattan argument isn't the quality of art anywhere. It has to do with liveability. Five thousand dollars a month for an apartment is a complete abstraction. How artists can live there is beyond my own comprehension. How I did it I will never know because I literally try not to look back. Living in the "flyover" states is not impossible as the cost of living is something people can usually afford if they work at it. Obviously, many artists are willing to pay the price of living in Manhattan. But the notion that Manhattan has the "best" of everything is patently absurd. To my warped mind, it's not about the "best" of anything. For me, a community either supports art and artists or it doesn't. My point is that it's damn hard for artists PERIOD. I don't care where you live. Having lived for several years in Manhattan, I would take the argument that what it really is is the commercial, financial center of the "middle-men." The vast army of agents, editors, gallery owners, arts administrators, lawyers, accountants, and the specialists in "rights" who inhabit the arts like vampires. They never make art. They simply make money off of art. You can't participate (mainstream book publishers will not deal with writers -- a ridiculous notion -- only agents and this keeps it a closed shop) without the vampires because they construct the financial strings and power structures and they're all quite corporate. Manhattan is a CORPORATE town far, far more inherently than it's an artistic place. They might exhibit work in one venue or another, but what Manhattan actually creates on any given day is paperwork and contractual relationships. It's where deals get made which is why so many people find Cannes and Sundance so refreshing but when you add up the billions construed in Manhattan, these other places are drops in the bucket. This is not really an artistic conflict although it can be perceived that way; actually it's a financial one and the fact that New York is so breath-takingly expensive is merely symbolic of that. The art agents are there, the publishers are there, the museum curatorial experts are there, and so is the legal talent that serves as glue and not always well. By putting this conflict into an "artistic milieu" we fall into the trap of not seeing the corporate culture and the corporate animal for what it really is: a carnivore who demands extraordinary conformity to the rules and rituals of the temple by the temple slaves. Here, at Cinematheque, when we have conversations about who controls and owns what (what is a media conglomerate) or that stuff or intellectual property featured in Rolling Stone the young people I work with are so fascinated by, the eyes widen significantly because when it's pointed out to them that corporations are in reality pulling their strings like puppets (Russell Simmons does nor reallly produce Hip Hop anymore) they become quite indignant that it isn't so. It is so. Manhattan is not the artistic capital of the universe because so much young talent is kept out. It is though the financial center of capitalism and it's the grease monkey that keeps those wheels turning. I could go on and on for days. I will shut up. But I do think back on the many dangers of living there and I don't mean being mugged. I mean poets who live in cars and the degree to which such in-your-face issues as addiction confronts anyone struggling for one sweet moment to ease the ever-present stress. I think of writers like Miguel Pinero who did not have the internal structures to cope. I do wonder if he could have survived if he were living in Wisconson. I don't know. I think of the many artists I know who do sex work. Let us call them whores, ok. So they might live in NYC and be "discovered." I think of the visceral effect the AIDS epidemic has had on the creative community in New York. Not that it doesn't touch other communities but fully half the people I used to know are dead. I would venture to say that half the artists in Charleston are not dead. This continues to have a tragic and dramatic impact on New York's art world. One I grieve over. It's so TOUGH to survive there because we make it TOUGH for people to survive there. THAT is the real issue. I keep screaming in Art Journal that it's NOT about art consumers' issues. What does it MEAN to be an artist in America. I LEFT America. I'm in Russian writing this but my base is Paris. Where who I am and what I do is seen as art and it is no big deal. People look at me and go: so what. I thank them. It is astounding any work gets done there (NYC) at all. What would HELP artists in this argument is a proocess where we begin a dialogue around recognizing what New York is and what it's really about so that when the next Puerto Rican poet gets on that plane for Manhattan he might think twice about it. This only becomes relevant if there's an artistic communitty in San Juan that can faciliate his work and help support him. That is what interests me. Knocking New York is easy. Supporting art elsewhere is not so easy. For the aratist, it has to be about options. I have gone to great lengths to point out that the artistic "system" in New York is rotten and it's not Denmark. NYC has a singular focus and it's financial. This is to the detriment of other communities. When a writer can get (because he has to) hundreds of thousands of dollars in New York for a book he can't sell for fifty cents elsewhere there is something fundamentally WRONG. When publishers who are not based in New York have to beg and scrape and starve and cut corners to just get by (and pray their writers don't leave them which they will) something is WRONG with that paradigm. Does the fact that a publisher is based in Minnesota mean he isn't really a player. Usually, yes. He can't PAY at auction what a Simon and Schuster can pay. This applies across the board in Art. But it's the personal element that gets to me. When I see so many artists of one kind or another in NYC go down in flames -- the illumination may, indeed, trip that light fantastic -- but the candle burns to its core but once.

Posted by: Tim Barrus at June 26, 2007 5:07 AM

As a point of clarification, I believe Alex Ross' use of the term "Regional" with regard to the Nashville Symphony has more to do with the fact that until the 2000-2001 season they were members of the Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA), a conference of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM).

After that point, they joined the other AFM conference, the International Conference of Symphonic and Opera Musicians (ICSOM). The difference between the two conferences is the number of full time musicians employed, budget size, season length, and base musician salary.

Belonging to these conferences is entirely optional and up to the musicians in each respective orchestra. As such, until the 2000-2001 season, Nashville was, in fact, a "Regional" ensemble, at that time they met the minimum requirements to become an ICSOM ensemble and submitted an application which was universally accepted by the ICSOM members at that time.

I read Alex's piece in the magazine and followed his blog entries about the trip and I didn't come away with any sense that he was referring to any of the ensembles in a condescending fashion. Regardless, I thought it would be interesting for your readers to have the reference point used by those inside the orchestra business to the term "Regional" as defined by the musicians who populate American professional orchestras.

Nashville symphony violinist, Laura Ross, wrote a detailed article about the organization's transition from a ROPA to ICSOM ensemble here.

Posted by: Drew McManus at June 27, 2007 8:26 AM

Thanks for the good background, Drew. I don't doubt you know what you're talking about in terms of the convoluted history of the orchestra's professional affiliations, and how those affiliations have affected terminology amongst musicians themselves.

However, reading back over Alex Ross's piece, I don't really see any indication that he's using "regional" in a technical sense; it still seems to me he is trying to make a point that there is a certain pejorative undertone to the adjective. And then he uses the same word to describe one of the orchestras in his roundup.

Maybe I'm just reading in; but in the broadest sense, I agree with John Stoehr that Alex's piece exhibits a certain "gee whiz" attitude that feels patronizing from out here in the hinterlands.

Posted by: Joe Nickell at June 27, 2007 9:23 AM

Language, as Derrida argues, is indeterminate, but one thing is clear in Ross's New Yorker piece: He was not talking about the categorization of the Nashville Symphony as a former member of Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA).

He refers to "orchestras at the level of the Nashville," not just Nashville. And he uses "regional" in a qualitative sense of the word: That at one time the fact that an orchestra was regional was a fair indication of its quality, but now, given the glut of conservatory-trained musicians competing for fewer and fewer jobs, these orchestras, as Ross writes, "increasingly display the virtuoso panache of front-rank ensembles."

I met Ross in New York two years ago and was struck by how sensible, thoughtful and considerate he was. He led a session on 20th-century music for a group of fellows at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia. So I don't doubt Ross is willing and able to see beyond conventional (albeit Big Apple-oriented) wisdom. I wouldn't use the word "pejorative," as Joe does, but I agree with Joe in that Ross's writing suggests a kind of fundamental misunderstanding of what's happening in the American Outback.

"Nearly as often you stumble on happy surprises. Who would have guessed that the Redwood Symphony, a volunteer orchestra in the Silicon Valley area, has played all of Mahler's symphonies? That the South Dakota Symphony has featured eight Pulitzer Prize-winning works this season? Or that the Rochester Philharmonic just recorded ... one of the snappiest Gershwin disks in years?"

The "who" here is clearly not someone who lives in Redwood, Calif., South Dakota or Rochester -- or someone who knows something about how the arts, particularly classical music, function in cities and towns outside New York and LA. I don't know anything about South Dakota, but what's so surprising about a small orchestra performing all of Mahler's symphonies? Even the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, a small ensemble on one of the barriers islands south of Charleston, S.C., plays Mahler. It's not played well, but it's played. And the Rochester Phil? It's has been recording quality CD for years.

What's really interesting about Ross's piece, though he doesn't draw attention to it, is how "second-tier" orchestras are performing new works. Lots of them. Perhaps they have an advantage over other arts organizations, like the New York Phil, in which so much is at stake it's hard to take risks.

Posted by: John Stoehr at June 27, 2007 11:49 AM

I think these are all good discussions and I've taken a few cracks at the NYCentric point of view as well over the years. For example, I think most arts organizations outside of NYC tend to place too much importance on the value of playing at Carnegie. As a result, and with a few notable exceptions - Nashville's 2000 NYC trip included, they end up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars getting there when the money could likely be put to better uses at home.

At the same time, the "who" point in John's post above got me thinking. Would the average person in Redwood know about their local orchestra? I doubt it. According to the Knight Study from a few years back, on average, most American cities only have 4% of their greater metropolitan population patronize live concert events.

As such, the "who" that artists (and arts manages) need to think about should be in a larger aggregate sense. In order to get anyone in any particular town to think about what goes on in the arts outside of their town is a big challenge but one the cultural world will need to address.

As for the "Regional" terminology discussion, I can say that I'm certainly guilty of allowing nomenclature to slip into my public writing. In fact, readers are never shy to remind me when I fail to write out an acronym or provide a reference link.

John's comment "Even the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, a small ensemble on one of the barriers islands south of Charleston, S.C., plays Mahler. It's not played well, but it's played." reminded me of a conversation I had with a composer friend, a well known composer to boot. She was talking about the early part of her career when the only ensembles willing to play and/or record her music were community or small college groups. "That's great" I said and her response caught me completely off guard: "Not when they don't play it very well - it took me years to get professional groups to take my music seriously because the recordings they made sounded so bad. If I could do it all over again, I would have found the money to have a pick-up orchestra of professionals record my works."

If nothing else, it's food for thought.

Posted by: Drew McManus at June 27, 2007 9:09 PM