Emerging Ideas: Classical Music’s New Entrepreneurs (Part 1)

Posted by Ian David Moss, Oct 25, 2011 0 comments

Ian David Moss

(This three-part post is the first of a series on emerging trends and notable lessons from the field, as reported by members of the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Council.)

In the past half century, there are some things that haven’t much changed in classical music. Big, well-established orchestras (several high-profile recession-induced bankruptcies and closures notwithstanding) continue to attract the lion’s share of dollars from funders, individual donors, and ticket-buying patrons alike. Prestigious conservatories such as Juilliard and Curtis continue to pump out soloists who are snapped up by artist management companies and shopped to those same orchestras, increasingly hungry for top talent. In the background, however, the rest of the classical music field is rapidly evolving in new directions.

Despite a long-term general stagnation in ticket-buying classical music audiences, more and more young people are taking a shine to the 400-year-old art form and wanting, nay, expecting to make a career out of it. Americans for the Arts’s National Arts Index reports a 61% increase in the number of visual and performing arts degrees awarded between 1998 and 2009, far outpacing population growth during that period.

Empowered and ambitious, this new crop of conservatory graduates has emerged professionally during a time of extraordinary operational and technological change in the field. In just one generation, the young classical musicians of today have seen public funding for the arts drop precipitously in real terms; the democratization of music production and distribution through technologies such as notation software, ProTools, digital file-sharing, and Kickstarter; and the decimation of arts education programs across the country.

Perhaps most importantly, the current generation of classical musicians in their 20s and 30s is the first to have grown up with genre-bending as a given – that trail having been blazed, in part, by the Minimalists and Bang on a Can crowd in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

It’s not hard to see why this combination of factors may have contributed to an increased sense of entrepreneurship in the field.

Classical musicians throw themselves into creation and performance with a ferocity many of us may find hard to imagine – a deep, sustained, and personal engagement with an art form predating just about everything else they encounter in their lives besides the earth itself. And yet the language they speak is not shared by more than a tiny fraction of the people around them. Unless they have virtually no contact with the outside world, they are likely to have friends, family members, and colleagues who listen to no classical music at all and have no desire to do so. Faced with this dichotomy, one can only imagine how frustrating it must be to know that the sincere joy and fulfillment they get from their art is not being communicated to people they care about.

Not only that, but today’s conservatory graduates are less likely than ever to have illusions about the world that awaits them upon graduation. They know that the dream of a soloist career is out of reach for most. They know that steady orchestra gigs are getting harder and harder to come by, and that the ones that do exist are getting less comfortable. And they know that if they are the ones calling the shots, they can pursue their highest artistic vision without interference from directors, boards, or teachers.

Not surprisingly, then, the phenomenon of classical musicians starting their own enterprises or organizations has become commonplace. Much of the time, these projects are mere extensions of the individual artist’s identity, and may travel only as far as the founder’s fame can carry them. But others reflect long-term, strategic thinking in their design and execution, and a few offer real innovations in the way that classical music is conceived, presented, and supported.

What happens when you blow up the idea of an orchestra and start all over?

Alarm Will Sound (AWS), a large ensemble performing repertoire from Nancarrow to Frank Zappa to the music of its own members, may provide the answer. In the mid-1990s, composer Gavin Chuck and conductor Alan Pierson were among the co-founders of a student new music group at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester called Ossia that solicits ideas from audience members for musical programs. Upon graduation in 2001, the two formed Alarm Will Sound in order to continue making music with the same group of musicians.

Eschewing many of classical’s linguistic trappings, Alarm Will Sound calls itself a “20-member band” performing “today’s music” on its website. Often bringing in multimedia and theatrical elements to its performances, AWS revels in conceiving unexpected and ambitious presentations, executed with amazing technical precision.

“In Ossia, we had seen how responsive audiences were not only to good music, but to good musical ideas presented in interesting ways beyond the conventional concert,” explains Chuck.

Among some of AWS’s more adventurous ideas have been acoustic transcriptions of electronic music (an entire album of Aphex Twin covers, plus the Beatles’ avant-garde classic “Revolution #9”) and stage directions that involve dispersal across the concert hall.

*Editor's Note: You can read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

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