Composer/performers

I want to amend what I wrote in previous posts about the American Composers Orchestra. I mentioned (and very happily) upcoming events featuring composer/performers, September 27 at Joe’s Pub in New York, October 13 at Zankel Hall New York again), and October 15 at Irvine Auditorium in Philadelphia. See their website for details. I think this is important, and very positive, for the future of classical music. But what I didn’t say is that their entire season is devoted to composer/performers, branded under the title “Composers Out Front.”

Why does this matter? Because other arts have grown very flexible. Visual art, for instance — people don’t (as if this was news!) just paint paintings, draw drawings, and sculpt sculptures. They do all kinds of installations, create all kinds of objects, make films, you name it. And they’ve been doing it for well over a generation. The creations can be anything an artists likes (little dollhouse rooms, collections of pink objects, mazes you walk through), and can be displayed in all kinds of places.

Just think of the miniature adobe-style buildings you see on the stairway in the WhitneyMuseum in New York (which I remember as something like tiny Navajo pueblos). And this happens in music, too, but not usually in the classical concert hall. There, we still hear pieces in somewhat traditional style, for traditional classical instruments. Even electric guitars are rare. And, sure, the forms of new pieces may be modern, or modernist (we don’t hear many symphonies with movements in sonata form, though I’m happily writing one; more on that later). But those new forms themselves have developed traditions, so while many new pieces may surprise some people in the traditional classical audience, they don’t surprise anyone who knows new music.

And meanwhile, for more than a generation, composers have been creating other things. It started in the ’60s (well, there was some of it in the ’20s, too, but the current version of this started in the ’60s).

Composers do their own versions of art installations — musical performances involving all kinds of personal ways of creating sound. Often the composer is the performer, or one of the performers. I used to review performances like that when I was a critic for The Village Voice in New York in the ’80s, and some of them still are my happiest musical memories.

But while we see installations of all kinds at major art museums and galleries, and see them given featured reviews in major media, we don’t see their musical equivalents featured in major concert halls, or (with rare exceptions) given lead reviews in The New York Times. In this way, music lags behind visual art. It needs to catch up, so that a wider audience can see the full explosion of musical creativity in our time, and also so that a wider audience comes to the classical concert hall. And the ACO’s season this year is one important step.

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