Thursday, June 28, 2012

Making the Scene With New ClassicLA Blog

Los Angeles has a new blog devoted to the local new music scene. It's called New ClassicLA.  Check it out.  Notice that the name omits the space between "Classic" and "LA".  That must be significant.

As of today New ClassicLA is a bit over 9 months old.  It is the brainchild of composer Nick Norton.  Most of his posts describe a wide variety of upcoming concerts.  Better yet, he conducts interviews with various movers and shakers from the new generation of Los Angeles new music composers and concert producers.

You can be forgiven for not knowing that there is a new generation of Los Angeles new music composers and concert producers.  That, I suppose, is why he started the blog to begin with.

Today's New ClassicLA post is entitled Ben Phelps: Making a Scene which turns out to be a guest editorial authored by composer Ben Phelps, a new generation crew member.   You might want to read his article before continuing with my own rant.   You can also read Ben's New ClassicLA interview.  You should not be surprised to learn that Ben has his own blog.

Making a Scene turns out to be Ben's call to new music action.  He exhorts us...
Talk about the concerts you see. Put on lots of concerts, and talk about them. If you are so inclined, blog or tweet about it. Or just talk to people in the old fashioned way, like in the middle ages. It’s the appearance of activity that counts, but not just your activity. The scene’s activity.
The more it seems like something is going on, the more others will want to be a part of it. It’s human nature. Nobody wants to be left out.
... to which I can only say "Hey, that's super.  I hope that works out for you."

Still, Ben's optimism seems rooted in realism.   He recognizes that making a scene requires lots of active performing groups, which, like a force of nature, will attract composers.
where there are new music bands putting on concerts, composers will follow like attorneys chasing ambulances.
It's a clever line.  But, duh.  He even describes the "classic" under-attended new music concert ...
When you only have three audience members, two are the significant others of the band members, and the third is a composer.
It's a dangerous thing to perform to a professional audience.  I found that mostly they didn't pay attention.  When they did listen, generally they filtered everything through their personal musical assumptions and prejudices.  Eventually, later in my life, it actually came as a surprise to me that there  are people out there who really listen to new music because they have interest in the music.  And, more amazing still, these people aren't composers.  Trust me, those are the ones you want in your audience, not other composers.  (If they happen to have money, ask them to join your board of directors.)

Ben's new music realism goes even deeper; possibly deeper than he realizes.  He opens with two anecdotes outlining perennial L.A. new music issues.

Firstly he talks about how there is competition between new music groups when there should ideally be cooperation.  He tells how he was shot down when asking for advice from an "older, more established" new music group (which, alas, he does not name).  Then, rightly so, he decries the "grossly self-defeating" nature of this response and suggests by analogy how this might lead to the collapse of civilization.  He concludes his anecdote with ...
It’s the tragedy of the commons – somebody should write an opera about it.
I can only say, speaking as an experienced failed composer, that writing music rooted in professional bitterness is a bad idea.  Music can have many meanings for its creator, most of them are very uplifting.  But when a composer tries to express frustration with not achieving acceptance from the music community it can only be a downer, a fresh bit of compositional hell.  Believe me, the audience won't see the point.

I agree that this is my own over-reaction to an offhand humorous comment.  Maybe this is because I don't like opera.  Do you think it might be a better idea instead to work the theme of civilization's collapse into something of a more appropriate size?   Perhaps an oboe sonata?  Silly me.

Secondly, Ben talks about the obvious lack of interest in local composers by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, our local 800-pound gorilla of new music.  Historically this is absolutely nothing new.  It stems, in my opinion, from the notion that "world class" California musical organizations consider that their mission is to track what goes on in Europe.  (From a uniquely California perspective, Europe, in this case, also includes New York City.)

Our audiences have been led to expect that they are being presented with the latest, most important bits of newness from places where prominent new music scenes already exist.  "What about local composers?" you might ask.  "Yeah.  What about 'em?" will be the reply.  What has always been needed is a good answer to the reply.

I've always felt that the quality of importance is the key to getting a local composer programmed on our own most prestigious concerts.  Successful local series, not just the Philharmonic, by and large keep their fingers on the pulses of new music scenes elsewhere.  They try to present works of "consequence" to Los Angeles audiences.  This strategy has proven itself in various ways over the years.  Audiences like to feel that they're taking time out of a busy life to listen to something significant.

So, let me offer some advice, advice I personally ignored throughout my entire career, on how a Los Angeles composer can get performed by the L.A. Philharmonic: move to New York.  More specifically for the moment, move to Brooklyn.  While you're there, get important.   By making a splash in existing new music scenes you'll have a much better chance of getting noticed back here in Los Angeles.  Once you get noticed a few times, it'll be okay to move back.

If you decide to stay in L.A. instead, you'll need to develop a sense of perspective while you enjoy the weather.   Learn to recognize which music is considered world class and which is considered provincial.  Realize that changing the latter into the former without leaving town is a futile mystical quest.  Kind of like alchemy.  And alchemy never worked.  Not even during the middle ages.

Now, for the irrelevant tangential reference, in this case prompted by the notion of "alchemy in Los Angeles".   Here are some quotes from Douglas Adams' novel "So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish", chapter nine, in which a thinner Arther Dent (the hero) drunkenly lies to his pub mates about where he's been for such a long time.  First he tells them that he went to Southern California.  Then...
"Of course, I had my own personal alchemist, too.  ... Oh yes, the Californians have rediscovered alchemy, oh yes. ... They've discovered how to turn excess body fat into gold. ... Fourteen hours in a trance, in a tank. ... And slowly, slowly, slowly, all your excess body fat turns to subcutaneous gold, which you can have surgically removed.  Getting out of the tank is hell."
If only.

Some links to other historical Mixed Meters rants about the futility of new music in Los Angeles which you won't enjoy either...

How To Feel Like An Old Composer In Three Easy Steps (I wonder what those young composers in the Times' article are up to now.)

Los Angeles, New Music Backwater

Classical Music Isn't Dead, It Just Needs A Rest

My New Music Manifesto

Want even more?  Click here and scroll down.

Making a Scene Tags: . . . . . . . . .


Nick Norton said...

Thanks for the response, and, for what it's worth, a splash of cold water on the face about the challenges we've got here. But a couple of responses:

1) Yes, it might be "easier" to make it "big" in New York, but their scene is saturated, and the lesser known composers have just as hard a time getting played, and an even harder time getting noticed. I, for one, would rather build my own audience here. The weather is much better, as is the beer.

2) Sure, our big institutions ignore us. So instead of writing them letters and complaining, we're starting our own institutions. The 100+ crowd with people sitting on the floor at What's Next? Ensemble's show last month is sign enough that something is working, as is wild Up's regular selling out. Hell, Aron Kallay's microtonal piano concert last week (which was great, but you might not expect a crowd for such a thing) was totally out of seats.

3) You ignored the non-classical-but-still-progressive scene in LA. That, to me, is just as important. We've got the best noise rock scene in the world (sorry, Japan), and some of the best experimental and post rock audiences around. Honestly, I'm more concerned with connecting with them than with white-haired boards of directors. In a way, screw the Phil. Subscribers will come and clap regardless of whether or not they were moved by the music. If I can draw a crowd at The Smell or The Echo, then we're talking.

4) The previous comment aside, just watch me. I will bet you a dinner somewhere fancy that I will have my music played by LACO or The Phil. On the off chance that it takes until one or both of us is dead, I'm fine with roping in future children to pay up.

Please don't read this as defensive or in any way unfriendly - in fact, your writing makes me think we'd actually get along pretty well. And seriously, thank you for responding. This is our first post that's inspired some heated conversation, and that's really cool to see. Drop me a line if you want to grab a bite sometime.

David Ocker said...

Hi Nick -
1) I'll have to take your word about the beer. The chinese food is definitely better here.

2) I have a theory - any sold out concert is a good concert (I guess because people feel special to be there). Having a reliable one-hundred piece audience is a good accomplishment.

3) I don't know much about the alternative scene these days (it changes fast). But it has a long history just like the classical scene does. Do you know Charles Sharp's Dissertation IMPROVISATION, IDENTITY, AND TRADITION: EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC IN LOS ANGELES (he starts in the 50s when Ornette Coleman was here and goes up to about 2000.)

4) Getting a performance by those orchestras is possible - only if you actually think it is possible. There was a time when I'd have given several major organs for that chance. I'll take your bet. Of course, I'm old enough now that it's clear I won't have kids to fulfill the terms ... if I live to be eighty that only gives you 20 years.

A bite to eat sounds really good at the moment.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

Nick Norton said...

Just wanted to say thanks for recommending the article - I wasn't aware of it and am reading it now.

And 20 years, you're on. On the off chance that goal doesn't work out, we'll at least have a good meal to look forward to.