Observations on new music blogs and the growing trend of the "composer-as-music-promoter" on the internet.
(note: This is not a researched article, but simply the observations of one composer trying to find his place in the world of new music.)
"We are all Robert Schumann." That is the thought that continues to bounce around my head as I type this blog entry. It was Schumann who first (or perhaps most famously) took on the double-life of composer and music journalist. In his journal, Die neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Schumann acclaimed those fellow composers whom he thought were worth his praise, and slaughtered those whom he believed were compositional hacks. While his actual tenure with the journal lasted for just a little over ten years, his reputation as a music promoter and critic would be known well after his death, and in some regards would even exceed his reputation as a composer.
Re-reading this short description of Schumann's journalism career, I can't help but wonder how his career might have fared differently had he lived not in his own time of musical virtuosos and private salons, but instead in our time of Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. Would we have had an emerging-composer series featuring the unknown-at-the-time, but soon-to-be superstar Johannes Brahms? Would we have had tweets and status updates from "Shoe_Man" along the lines of "Disgusted by musical hacks - why aren't we hearing more Beethoven?" Would we have seen "fail" videos featuring Liszt and Wagner, edited in the most unflattering of ways?
Of course, Schumann doesn't live in our age. He doesn't need to.
Schumann's legacy is today more present then ever, upheld in the form of contemporary music blogs created and contributed to by today's generation of composers. These blogs cover all the bases when it comes to the world of new music. New music reviews, interviews of up-and-coming young composers, articles outlining the "state-of-our-art" (this one included), podcasts featuring the opinions of new music performers, and even parodies of other new music blogs are all readily available on the internet today.
The fact that so many of my generation of composers are turning to the internet as a vehicle for critiquing, discussing, and exposing the world of contemporary music makes me wonder: at what point did becoming a composer mean also becoming a promoter of new music? For what reason do composers choose to engage in this seemingly selfless act of "community promotion?" The answers to these questions are not clear at all - in fact, to try to answer either question without first conducting interviews and researching the motives of my fellow composers would be both inauthentic and negligent on my part! However, I can answer these questions with regards to my OWN perspective - why I choose to assist other composers through my blog (and through the Fresno New Music Festival,) as well as why I believe that more and more composers will continue to join this online community of artistic promotion and self-reflection.
A cynical reply would say that I pursue all of these activities because, in fact, they are indeed self-serving. One could say that I direct the Fresno New Music Festival simply to broaden my network of connections and grow my career as a composer. Likewise, one could say that I use my blog as a "mouthpiece" to the new music world, inevitably linking my name with the pedagogical approaches that I write about. Both of these replies are not without merit - I would be lying if I wasn't aware of the benefits that my composition career gains as a result of pursuing both of these activities. However, that would only a small fraction of the story. The fact is, the amount of time and work that is required to direct a festival, contribute to a blog, and maintain a full-time professorial gig (not to mention parent a two-and-a-half year old and compose!) is astounding, to say the least. If my goals were only self-serving, there are many other avenues available to me that offer both greater benefits, and take less effort on my part. As a composer, I know all too well that the creative endeavors that I pursue, I do not do for money or fame.
A better reply would require one to closely examine the culture of the new music community. The contemporary music world is incredibly small, and in the past has been more-or-less isolated from the "mainstream" of classical music (assuming that classical music HAS a mainstream). Every now and then, a single composer or new music performer breaks through the "parchment ceiling" and manages to become relatively well known in the classical community. This is unfortunately an all-too-rare accomplishment, and is usually associated with a large award or fellowship, as well as an orchestral premiere with an A-list orchestra. These conditions do not occur often, and for those of us who work in relative isolation (for example, Fresno) it is an almost impossible scenario.
I do not mean to sound overly pessimistic, but it is important to have a realistic outlook as to how our community has existed before we can start to examine why these recent online trends have exploded in the way that they have. If "necessity breeds innovation," then it is easy to see why the contemporary music community has embraced the blogosphere. This group of music pioneers is creating both awareness and opportunity, not just for the individuals who participate in it, but for all composers and contemporary music performers. They are using this great tool as a a way to shine a bright beacon on all of our artistic endeavors and accomplishments - both large and small. They are bringing greater awareness of our community to the rest of the mainstream public. More importantly, they remind us that we are all a part of this larger community, even when we feel isolated and removed from it because of location or circumstance.
Two blogs in particular - The New Music Box and Sequenza 21 - are doing an exceptional job at "shining this beacon." Both of these sites endeavor to highlight the accomplishments of all composers, as well as provide a proverbial seminar for composers to help communicate with each other in a way most of us have not been able to do so since our graduate student days. In addition, new websites are popping up all over the internet that are likewise devoted to organizing the "online new music community," such as the United Kingdom based site Dilettante. I am personally heartened by all of their efforts, and in turn am eager to provide my own contributions as I do so today.
Returning to the example of Robert Schumann, it is interesting to know that part of his own motivation for founding "Die neue Zeitschrift für Musik" (in English "The New Journal of Music") was also to shine a beacon on his "contemporary music community." Granted, he also wanted to use his journal as a way to lambast the compositions of those whom he deemed as substandard composers. Still, in the end his journal did champion the accomplishments of many of his contemporaries - Chopin, Berlioz, and Brahms to name a few. Schumann strongly believed in using the journal as a way to celebrate the works of his fellow composers, very much in the same way that we in the online new music community do so today.
I am constantly reminded of lessons in the past, where I was told that "no composer other than yourself would help elevate your career." I am happy that this particular lesson has turned out not to be so. Many composers do in fact want to help each other out, to see our community thrive, and together become recognized for the great art that we contribute to our society. Working together, we may be able to avoid seeing more articles on the "Invisible State of New Music," or on the failing classical world as a whole 50 years from today.
The days of composing in isolation are over. We can no longer afford to ignore each other as we toil away in our studios, disconnected from the rest of the world. We can no longer treat each other as "competition." We must engage with each other in the form of support AND critique, and in turn engage with the rest of the world. The internet community provides for us a unique and awesome vehicle for doing this. With continued effort, we all might one day be able to transcend the "parchment ceiling" and bring our entire community to the forefront of classical music.
"We are all Robert Schumann" now.