"Here's what all of you have done: you made a sad situation joyous and inspirational."
Jon Sass is amazing. You've never heard anything like this.

American Eclectic, or why I conduct mostly bands

Peter sent this link with a suggestion to post and, as usual, he's right--this is a great piece from the Savvy Musician called "The Most Viable Instrumentation."  Cutler's point is simple, that many concert music ensembles make the mistake of identifying and marketing themselves almost solely based on instrumentation:

Unless the demand for your traditional ensemble far outpaces supply (highly unlikely), or your wild configuration is fascinating and newsworthy in itself...don’t build a marketing plan around your instrument(s) alone. Much of the time, you may even want to de-emphasize this element.  Focus instead on the unique talents of players, unusual programming, and other creative aspects of the show.  Sell your story.  Sell your message. Sell your theme.  Sell your charm. 

What's shocking about this advice is how revolutionary it sounds in our current state of concert music ossification.  Regular readers of the LF Project know how heartily we endorse this perspective, and not just concerning marketing or presentation--for too long, musicians have allowed a priori sorts of ideas like standard instrumentation guide the artistic process in some very fundamental ways, causing many to make unexamined assumptions that place real, major constraints on their music-making.

For instance, we often start with assumptions and questions like:

 

We have an orchestra, what music for orchestra is available to play?

We present concerts that happen on stage in a concert hall, with the audience all silently listening.  What music will fit these events? 

We perform serious art music, not popular music.  How can we get people to listen to our kind of music more?

Our identity resides in our ensemble and the institution it represents.

How different would our musical endeavors--and how we present them--be if we started with questions like:

What kind of experience would really engage listeners?  What kind of experience do we want them to have?
 
What music do we love and want to play and share?
  What music would resonate with listeners? What group of instruments/voices/etc. is best for that?

What is our group passionate about, and what do we do really well?

Where are the most interesting spaces around here to gather and listen to music (even if they aren't intended for that)?

And so forth.  Too often, I think, we allow the institutional state of our medium (symphony orchestras, schools and conservatories of music, opera companies, grants, competitions and prizes, corporations, even concepts like genre, etc.) to frame our decisions for us, eliminating some basic and very intriguing possibilities and pushing artists to abdicate responsibility for some of the most fundamental decisions we make.  How different would our presentations and marketing be if the second set of questions above were considered more mindfully?

This is one of the reasons I love being a band conductor: it's a very malleable medium.  It's a medium (to paraphrase Rich Crawford) nearly entirely dependent upon the benevolence of institutions like schools and universities, which is its biggest problem; it is also its biggest asset: there is freedom to experiment, to explore answers to the second set of questions.  I articulated this in a concert program essay back in 2006:

  A curious ensemble of (mostly) wind and percussion instruments, the American wind band has undergone a tremendous metamorphosis since its advent over a century ago, from community entertainment as park bands, to sources of civic support as marching bands in parades and at football games, and of course into colleges and universities as the wind ensemble.  

Often, this fluid identity, encompassing both ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, creates tension about what our creative work in this medium should emphasize.   On one hand, those who view the wind band as a medium of artistic depth fear that it is somehow tainted by its ‘low’ or popular cultural role and appeal.  On the other, those with a more populist orientation resent perceived elitism in work toward the ‘high art’ goals, and relish the band’s role out in our culture at large.  These two points of view are seemingly irreconcilable and have been the subject of lively debate and disagreement for several decades now.  

The music on this program asserts a third view: that, in fact, there is no conflict between these two perspectives.  The two goals, of populism and of artistic depth, need not be mutually exclusive.  Much substantial music draws inspiration from popular sources, literal as well as conceptual....Such connections foster an intuitive recognition in listeners, who might then be more likely to listen with an open, attentive mind.   And one need not look far to find popular music of terrific substance and craft.

...It is because of its diverse heritage that the American wind band is an ideal medium for such creative expression.  The instruments in a band are comfortable in an astonishing array of musical idioms, and combine easily with other kinds of instruments, old or new, acoustic or electronic.  These pluralistic roots have generated a repertoire of astonishing diversity that can be freely presented without the cultural pigeonholing suffered by other musical institutions or genres.

But really, any musical ensemble can have this freedom, as long as the musicians in it start by asking the most fundamental questions first, and proceeding from there.

Comments

yes yes yes.....

Yes! As a high school band director, I began asking myself similar questions last summer along with a couple of important paraphrases-

What kind of experience would really engage my students? What kind of experience do I want them to have?

My experiment with this redefinition is still too young to draw much from the results, but has, so far, been well received and, as a side effect, rejuvenated my passion for my teaching.

Thanks for this clear delineation of these fundamental issues.

Yes!

I think Steven Bodner's programming up at Williams College in MA is a fine example of this in action. The "band" concert up there last December contained: David Lang's How to Pray, Michael van der Aa's Attach, John Adams' Perilous Shore, Andriessen's Passagietta, Debussy's Sunken Cathedral, and my own Ecstatic Waters. Crazy, innovative program, presented in an art museum instead of a concert hall. And it worked wonderfully.

Roger, thanks for your comment, and it's wonderful to hear that your experiment is going well so far! As you say, focusing on what's at the heart of music-making will rejuvenate all involved. Congrats to you for making the bold first steps to do things differently.

Steve, yes, that concert was beautifully programmed, and the addition of your 'connective tissue' made it quite the experience for the listeners, I bet--wish I could have been there for it. Looking forward to seeing what else Steven comes up with up there in MA.

Nail. Head. Hit On.

Again.

Thanks, Stu.

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