The Henry Russel Lecture at the University of Michigan
11 March 1997
Few writers on music have been as colorful, as astute, or as infuriating as the composer-critic Virgil Thomson. Chief music critic for the late, lamented New York Herald-Tribune from 1940 through 1954, he used his bully-pulpit to increase public awareness of the newest American music and our best young native composers and performers. He also shamelessly used his critic's power to obtain performances of his own music and to settle scores in the music world in the most highhanded way possible. He certainly indulged in some of the "old-American" set of prejudices that can also be found in the writings of a close counterpart, H. L. Mencken. As with Mencken, however, the rereading of Thomson is usually worth the occasional wince.
It will be fun to cite some squirm-producing passages to give the flavor of his 1939 screed, The State of Music, the brilliance of which book was to get Virgil his powerful job at the Trib. (Note: his subject and mine will be art music only.) I claim some justice in calling Virgil by his first name, as we were friendly over a fair number of years; a brilliant new biography by the New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini,Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle, documents very faithfully the special nature of that pettish but often charming person. Rereading The State of Music, including Thomson's 1961 updates, gave me the idea of using his short book as a foil against which one can contrast our current musical situation. (The word foil, in another sense, admirably calls up Virgil's combative fencer's mentality.) Much of what I say might seem as anecdotal and opinionated as Virgil's original; his and my separate perceptions of the state of music around us in two (actually three) epochs are bound to be subjective in great part. If our varying views seem sometimes unfair, if we pass over certain areas without comment or overemphasize others, please bear in mind that this is an area where complete objectivity is perhaps irrelevant. One cannot quantify the music world in hard terms, as with real estate sales or hog futures.
Perception in art often becomes reality, or so it seems. Thomson's little book and his Trib criticism give an exciting insight into the musical life of his time, wherein the values of the past were on the one hand challenged and on the other hand stubbornly retained by the same forces -- i.e., trained musicians. Clearly convinced that composers are the professionals and statesmen of the arts, Thomson generalizes about poets and painters from an elevated point of view in a scattershot, amusingly unfair manner throughout the book:
"The painter's whole morality consists in keeping his brushes clean and getting up in the morning.... As soon as the light goes bad his painting day is over. He thereupon refreshes his mind by making love to his model or quarreling with his wife, and goes out."
"They are strange little men, photographers, always a bit goofy and incommunicable.... Practicing the most objective technique known to art, they live a violent life of the imagination. They are sad, pensive, introverted, lead their lives in raincoats."
"Journalists are plentiful everywhere and entertaining too, full of jokes and stories. Only their jokes are not very funny and their stories not quite true . . . because nobody tells them the truth about anything."
About poets he is nothing short of scathing:
"What subjects . . . are available to the poet today? Practically none. Money, political events, heroism, science, mathematical logic, crime, the libido, the sexual variations, the limits of venality, the theory of revolution: the incidents of all these are more graphically recited by journalists, the principles better explained by specialists. There really isn't much left for the heirs of Homer and Shakespeare to do but to add their case histories to the documentation of introspective psychology by the practice of automatic writing."
And, in a passage that applies equally well nowadays to serious composers as to poets:
"They haven't even any audience to speak of. For some time now they have been depending mainly on one another for applause. Hence the pretentiousness and the high intellectual tone of all they write."
I won't even mention what he says about sculptors and architects.
Thomson was speaking in 1939 of a confraternity of artists who were scraping by on occasional commissions or the low but adequate salaries President Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA) accorded artists for work that was demonstrably in the national interest (this program died in the midst of the Second World War). It would be at least the late 1950s before painting would become big business in New York, which to a certain extent it still is (for example, Larry Rivers's recent big show netted over $2 million in sales, and this has not been unusual for him or several other lucky painters); before journalists could command big book contracts on the strength of their public recognizability; before poets began again to be performers after the New Criticism peer-pressure intellectual strictures of 1939 gave way to the Beat poets, Robert Thy's male-identity-crisis seminars, grass-roots groups like the Nuyoricans, and the various fruitful and lucrative interpenetrations between poetry and rock of recent years.
A 1974-based organization, Meet the Composer, established residencies for composers in fourteen major orchestras in the seventies and eighties, during which time there was an 85% increase in performances of new American symphonic works, and, through that snowballing effect, we composers finally began to receive commissions a little more commensurate with the labor involved in writing music. Too, after the Second World War, throughout Western Europe and Canada, the arts began to draw increasing state aid, and finally in 1970 the National Endowment for the Arts, grudgingly small though its stipends have been in comparison, at least began to give some American artists and arts organizations a little financial support.
Now I must talk particularly about composers, as composing is my field, and the bulk of The State of Music is about composers and composing. Some people will no doubt expect a discourse on musical style and esthetics; in this they will be severely disappointed. Artists rarely talk about art among themselves, unless preparing some sort of statement for the public; we talk about what matters -- that is, money, and Thomson's book speaks centrally to the way musicians survive.
In 1939 Virgil could exclaim that the theater was the most lucrative possible venue for composers; he felt that the use of music in films was still uncertain in its effects -- how would it interact with picture and word? -- but that serious theater (note: he seemingly did not account musical comedy as "real" composition) would be a surer meal ticket. My, have things changed! Today the theater composer has practically disappeared. In the early sixties it still seemed possible to make a good part of my living in stage music in New York; in fact I did do several scores for Lincoln Center, off- Broadway, the Yale University Theater, and several major regional companies like Minneapolis's Guthrie and Memphis's now-defunct Front Street Theater. Somewhere in the seventies most of this opportunity dried up, for me and pretty much everyone else. Three years ago I did contribute incidental music to an Arthur Miller play on Broadway, but the meager circumstances -- we could only afford a taped solo violoncello, played over loudspeakers about as sophisticated as your average college kid's dorm hi-fi -- were a far cry from the more sizable live ensembles we once could budget in the theater of only a quarter-century before. Film and TV composition has turned out to be a better living all around because of higher pay (if you're lucky, and you have a good tough agent), but in the U.S.A. film composers have been denied European-style performance royalties to this day, thanks to a 1900s sweetheart deal worked out, I am told, by the legendary Adolph Zukor in cinema's infancy that has never been overturned.
Where initial fees for film composers in Europe can be generally lower than what is paid here by the major companies for name composers, the state-run performing-rights organizations like England's PRS, Germany's GEMA, France's SACEM, and the others can guarantee good royalties for film composers over time in this area of composition. And European film composers' music evidently can be reused for their own concert music by the composer without undue hassles. Not true here -- it's the rare American composer who owns his or her own film score, as I can attest from bitter experience. What I really don't like about the profession is the following: As a film composer you are constantly on emergency call from the filmmakers -- they always think of you last. If you are successful at all in this field your life is not your own. You have to drop everything you're doing to hurry out the film score in a couple of weeks, and if you once or twice refuse a gig because of prior commitments, as I did, you're never called again. It is no wonder that practically no film composer I know of in the U. S. has much of a musical life outside of movie scores.
I do feel that, unlike 1939, when Virgil felt that the proper artistic balance in film between dialogue, picture, and score had not been reached, there seems to be an established role for film music today, perhaps for the better but more likely for the worse. What makes new film-music seem even more ancillary than it might once have been in the days of Copland, Arnold Bax, Ernst Toch, or Thomson himself -- all composers known for their concert music foremost -- is the fact that many filmmakers nowadays cut their films to various pieces of music already, using them mostly as a means of controlling shot-rhythm. These music collages are then supplanted by the film composer, often in similar rhythm and style to the dummy score the filmmaker cobbled together; more than once the work-print score I've heard in a film showing is every bit as appropriate as the one used for release. For many film composers it must be a little like having to write a dance score to a pre-existent choreography -- a no-fun endeavor, as you feel more like a cut-rate tailor than a composer. (I was one of several composers considered for writing music for The Exorcist; in the end William Friedkin used his own very astute editing score, which happened to include parts of George Crumb's terrifying string quartet, Black Angels. The Crumb became a huge record-sales hit by classical-serious-music standards.)
I have already mentioned that in the last twenty years commissions for art composers have significantly improved across the board -- at least until recent cutbacks. Much of this is, I feel, directly ascribable to a combination of events: the founding of several composers' organizations (heeding Virgil's 1939 call for such things), the National Endowment for the Arts' seed money and other financial help toward the creation of new works, and (as a sort of coup de grace) the Meet the Composer booklet Commissioning Music issued in the late seventies. In it was advice to a prospective commissioner as to how to go about getting a new work written, lots of other useful stuff for both composer and commissioner, and, most importantly, a price list with a sliding scale for various types of musical works -- chamber, symphonic, operatic, and so on. Finally both commissioner and composer had a hard set of figures to work with and argue around, a phenomenon that had not existed before, and those few pages have made almost by themselves an enormous difference in our income. In 1939 and still in 1961 there were only about five composers who could eke out a living by composing what is weirdly called "serious music" but might more appropriately be called "art music." There aren't that many more composers making their entire living from their art today, but the situation is considerably better.
It has never been for us a question of getting rich as some painters and authors and performers have. More than any stylistic reason, that is, whether you write difficult or minimalist or "accessible" (awful term !) or neoromantic music, this is why, in this mercantile society, art composers have the least visibility of the arts. Art music does not generate much money as a rule, and that is the bottom line in America. This is also the major reason why Virgil's influence on the field of composition as a critic (he never had much of one as a composer, by the way) did not equal, for example, Clement Greenberg's in painting. Virgil's review might praise or excoriate a composition, though he was usually kinder to new music than to new performers, where he could often be merciless, but such a rave or pan could have less effect on a composer's livelihood than critical consensus for or against a painter might. A painter has an actual painting to sell, something of value a buyer can take home and hang up and show friends; no such phenomenon exists with a composition. By contrast the composer in 1939 or 1961 wasn't making a whole lot to start with anyway from the composition; one was lucky to break even after copying costs (one still is in the majority of cases). We still don't make the kind of money successful painters or novelists do, and I doubt art composers in America ever will.
I mention this particularly as a warning to the generation of composers which follows mine; these are trying, sometimes successfully for awhile, to carve out more space for their careers than my peers did, but I fear there is a built-in limit to art music's importance in our society until someone figures out a way to turn a composition into "hard goods" like painting or sculpture. After all, where is this piece; where is the irreducible thing that is the composition? It's not really to be found in the musical score; that corresponds to an architectural drawing, which might have considerable value if by Brunelleschi or Beethoven, but probably not if by somebody around right now. With more and more composers using computer engraving, a new musical score will have even less intrinsic value. The composition is not really the performance. Nor is the composition the recording; that is a commercial unit purchasable by anyone, like a book or newspaper, and only in the case that the irreducible is the recording itself as a work -- say for example, the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band -- does any piece of music begin to parallel the status of a new book on the market. An investor in a new piece has only the pleasure of seeing his or her name in the dedication; there is nothing in a new piece to sell. A new piece does not really have a clear place in our market economy.
If things are better for composers compared to only a dozen or so years ago, there is no guarantee this will continue in the light of the current private funding situation and the beleaguered status of the NEA. In the news is a just-created presidential panel dedicated to finding reasons why arts funding is dropping so precipitously on so many fronts; this might help matters, especially for the arts organizations, but it might be some time before individual-artist grants are reinstated by some body like the NEA. As private funding often followed the NEA's lead before that body was discredited during the Reagan and Bush administrations, there isn't any strong mentoring hand now in our culture to guide prospective private commissioners in the arts.
So I don't see a reason to expect that the current better money for new pieces will continue very long, even if things improve for the more salable arts. As a class, composers haven't really done all that well financially over the centuries anyway. Most of us have had to do something else for a living since the beginning, from Guillaume de Machaut's position as pogrom director for Louis XII, to Palestrina's mink farm, to civil-servant jobs like Rimsky-Korsakov's and Mussorgsky's; a superstar insurance man like Charles Ives is revered in that field by many people who have no idea of his status as a composer. Most of us have had to perform and/or teach to make a living; Brahms and Verdi a hundred years ago are among the few exceptions in the whole history, and even Copland and Stravinsky a few decades ago made whatever money they had mostly from conducting.
The point of all this monetary chatter is that nothing influences the shape of art more than the presence or absence of venues, and these are dictated in the U.S. primarily by finance. What we will be creating as composers in the future will largely be determined by the options available to us, and the traditional ones are clearly shrinking. A despairing young New York composer has sent me a list of recent cuts in services for people his age. A few years ago the National Orchestral Association, a sort of halfway house mostly for Juilliard and Curtis students who wanted to stay in an orchestra until a job came up, was a wonderful way for new music to be performed; I played my piano concerto with that orchestra around twenty years ago. The NOA is now gone, partly because the jobs at the outgoing end weren't coming up frequently enough, I suppose, and a wonderful venue for performing, reading, and recording new music (with performers about the same age as the composers) has disappeared. The Louisville Orchestra, which since 1945 recorded many American orchestral masterpieces unobtainable anywhere else, has recently reorganized in order to concentrate on the same thirty pieces of standard repertoire all major orchestras seem to be limiting themselves to these days. (It has to be admitted that the new-music concert audiences were often pitiably small; when my Fourth Symphony was done there a few years ago there were more people on the stage than in the hall, and I was told this was common.) The Louisville has now dropped its new-music performance and recording program entirely, and I sincerely hope that their recorded archive will all be preserved; this is not a certainty. Many American major orchestras like The Saint Louis used to have programs for young composers to hear a new score read in bits, then edited together in a tape for the composer's study; these are fast disappearing, as they do not make money and cost quite a bit besides.
Composers were the first individual artists to be cut from NEA funding. Meet the Composer has had to reduce its nationwide commissioning program from $500,000 to $200,000; its major composerships in residency were phased out five years ago, and the original agreement -- that when the MTC funds stopped, the orchestras would take up the salary slack -- has obviously not been honored. If one is an orchestral composer, it isn't encouraging to note that the San Diego, Sacramento, Florida, and New Orleans orchestras have gone under (the last two have since reorganized into a players' cooperative named the Louisiana Symphony). None of these orchestras performed much new music, which may be partly why they went under; orchestras that eschewed twentieth-century repertoire have had a worse survival rate.
"It's so much better for composers in Europe than here," I hear some young composers complaining, and I certainly felt that way during my Paris studies almost forty years ago. And, on the face of it, it does seem that composers and the new are more respected (and less interfered with) in the Western European democracies than they might be by the Jesse Helms types lurking throughout our own demented culture. But things have not always been so great over there for the composer as far as making a living goes; Thomson points out that Debussy, even after the huge success of his opera Pelleas et Mellisande, was still very broke until he remarried, this time to a richer woman -- and the money only lasted till her father disowned her!
State help in Europe for composers and other artists is mostly a post-World War II phenomenon; in contrast to the bleak financial outlook for European composers Virgil decried in 1939-according to him the American situation was at least marginally better then for us-certain senior European figures like Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen are among those who have, since that war, subsisted quite well on royalties mostly from state radio performances and the like. I hope that the next generations of young European composers will have some of the same luck, but I have doubts, for although the situation there for new music is generally still far healthier than ours in the U.S., European budget-cutters clearly have their knives out too. I recently helped judge the CBC Radio Young Composers Awards for what I am told will almost surely be the last contest; I am told also that CBC radio and television is cutting a third of its staff in April, and many draconian program cuts across the board are anticipated. Canada's arts programs are on a model much more similar to Europe's than ours, and I would not be surprised at happenings of this nature throughout Western Europe in the years ahead. There are plenty of indications. The recent French protest against Jacques Chirac's slashes in welfare and other state sinecures (including arts support), though temporarily successful, clearly only postponed even deeper cuts as bottom-liners spring up everywhere like mushrooms. This tendency will only accelerate if our own NEA's demise sets an example. And the big danger for European art is that, should state funding disappear, there is nothing like our already existing network of corporate funding and private sources over there to protect and feed the artist.
Are the arts executioners right? Can we not afford the arts anymore? We may, and rightfully, protest that arts investment by private and governmental funds pays off far better monetarily than almost anything else in the long run; former New York governor Mario Cuomo could easily back up estimates that for every dollar spent on the arts in New York, four dollars came back into the economy. This doesn't seem to stop the bean-counters' zeal to cut us out, and one is inevitably led to suspect a hostility against art and artists from government, at least in the U.S.
Perhaps this anti-arts climate-for such it is, and I'm not paranoid to say it, only realistic-has certain unlooked-for advantages. One of the drawbacks in state funding in Europe has been the fact that in many cases certain artists, and with them certain esthetics, become the favored ones in a particular country. What you do in Europe, if you are an ambitious composer, is get yourself on the ministerial staff and get your friends all the other influential positions; other ways than yours of making music can be then simply ignored or thrust aside. One chief glory of the best days of our own National Endowment for the Arts had been its relative imperviousness to the kind of art-politics and stylistic cronyism that has in so many cases, I feel, sapped the vitality of much state-sanctioned art throughout Europe. Our NEA never gave you enough money to feel it had the right to run your whole show for you. Nor did it arbitrate an approved stylistic course (compare the field of composition in France). All that some money from the NEA meant was that fellow artists who happened to be on the board that year-as I was several times in the 1980s before things got ugly-thought well enough of your work to give you some help, whether they agreed stylistically with you or not. The NEA, currently more and more truncated and possibly moving toward the guillotine, has only been effective for about a quarter-century of its thirty-odd years, and I guess we can survive somehow without it if we have to. We did before.
There is cold comfort too. The Puritan-based blanket disapproval of the arts, still so much a part of our national attitude, can have a freeing effect on artists: you don't owe the bastards anything! (It's wryly amusing here to quote Joseph Heller: "Government-particularly one as corrupt and philistine as ours- should not involve itself in the arts in any way.") Another frigid consolation: A few years ago it could be said that any American artist could present something shocking and get away with it because nobody in power cared-one was almost envious of dissident artists in the U.S.S.R. who were at least being paid attention to, albeit in a brutal way-and at least now people in power are noticing artistic protest (whatever good it does us or the cultural climate)! But let us hope that if the NEA survives it will be transformed. To prefer preserving institutions over helping individual artists as it currently does is absolutely the reverse of what should be happening. It's like spending lots of money on new farming equipment and eating up all your seed corn at the same time. My problem with destroying the NEA is that it will be a victory for those hostile to any art they can't understand-art that some lawmakers hypocritically lump together under pornography (which, if it were pornography, wouldn't have so much trouble staying financially afloat!)-and I don't want to live in a country where such pigheaded bluenoses continue to run things. We must change this climate, and soon.
Let me return to the phenomenon of the late-twentieth-century orchestra, for this is a perfect case of how the NEA's current policy of funding organizations rather than individuals does potential harm. The subject is important, as our schools of music and college-level conservatories are mostly peopled with students who are destined to play in orchestras. (This is not an area Virgil explored exhaustively in 1939; it was evidently still felt by most that the orchestra was here to stay as it was.) I have already mentioned that the orchestra residencies Meet the Composer started have practically all died since 1992; this is symptomatic of the suicide course many major orchestras seem to be on anyway these days. Instead of growing, the symphonic repertoire shrinks as big-time conductors spend less time residing and working with their main orchestras and guest around most of the year, or have too many major commitments at once. The non-standard repertoire won't grow as long as worn out players, in 52-week, 250-concert seasons, are required to show up eight times a week for concert or rehearsal. If they sue for sanity and ask for only six "services," this inevitably reduces rehearsal time and thus any serious musical exploration.
Note also that, except in percussion, the so-called modern orchestra hasn't really transformed its disposition since the First World War (eighty years!) and thus is no longer a microcosm of the music around it as in the past. Young people, for a while beginning to explore concertgoing-often to hear young, living composers-are now staying away again from the major symphony concerts, as ultraconservative symphony boards return to the bad old practice of vetting the repertoire to purge music they aren't familiar with, and hiring conductors who will go along with their tried-and-true "tastes." (Is this the end result of all those music-appreciation courses college kids have had to take, where you are told to believe without question that the works chosen for study are the greatest, as if you were locked in the auditorium during some insane fundamentalist harangue? If so, Virgil's attack on the "music-appreciation racket" was right on target.) The orchestra has also long ago fallen into the same topheavy administrative bind as has academe and almost every other large institution today. (For an extreme example I am told that one celebrated orchestra, made up of around 104 players, has a staff of around 120.) Having to aliment all that administration seems, as with college tuition, the principal reason for the major symphony orchestras' enormous increase in costs (the proof is that when this staff was reduced, as at The Saint Louis, most of the crippling deficit went too).
A grant to the major orchestra as it is presently run is all too likely to sustain its inertia rather than encourage needed reforms. Not only do we need to pare down the administrative staff in the orchestra, we need to rethink the orchestra itself. I am only echoing Ernest Fleischmann, the outgoing executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, when I say that we need to find a way to transform the orchestral concept to embrace the enormous explosion of instrumental culture and excellence in the rest of the music world. Fleischmann wanted, a decade ago, to open up the L. A. Philharmonic's description to include the best musicians of any stripe-jazz, rock, electric instrumentalists-in the Los Angeles area. Many classical musicians disagreed violently and still do, of course; now conductors like Leonard Slatkin have come to agree with him.
I know that many people get incensed when I advocate inviting saxophonists, electronic instrument players and the like-in fact any excellent, musically literate instrumentalists with evolved techniques-to the ensemble (and I know why they object; I share their love for the rich legacy of music for the present orchestra, so little of which that orchestra plays nowadays). And it has to be agreed that an arbitrary, unthought-out mixture of non-classic and classic instrumentation (as found for example in pops-concerts charts) usually just sounds cheesy. But I fear that not allowing our premier culture-defining instrumental ensemble to reinvent itself as it always had until 1914 will simply kill the orchestra in the long run. Here is Leon Botstein, in the recent Musical Quarterly orchestral issue: "As the economist William Baumiol demonstrated, the orchestra is increasingly vulnerable and obsolete-looking when it is considered, directly or indirectly, as an economic entity. We are influenced not only in perception but also through use of language by the reigning ethos of marketplace success and economic efficiency. Relative to practically every other item in our consumer world, there are no downward expense patterns. The computer, the long-distance telephone call, the CD-not to speak of food and clothes-are part of an economic pattern that tends to drive costs down." My own theater experience has shown how "downward expense patterns" have reduced the numbers in Broadway pits from 40 players to 22 to 11 and finally, for straight plays, to a prerecorded tape. This is not necessarily an insuperable limitation (though soul-destroying), but cutting this far down on expenses on all fronts, sets, music, lighting-as regular theater is forced to do to survive-cannot help but modify the nature of what you do. How much of modern theater sounds and looks increasingly tacky and impoverished, unless it's an imported British megamusical; and look: Sunset Boulevard has just closed, losing 40% of its investment. The only thing that has not allowed such reductions in personnel in a symphony or opera orchestra up to now is the same rigidity that sends them back to a tiny portion of a hundred- year-old core repertoire; here at least that intransigence is a blessing. But as everyone in the world knows, you don't need thirty-two violins to make a big sound anymore. You can make an almost totally satisfactory big-string texture with a couple of live fiddlers in front of a sampler (thus putting thirty other musicians out of work), and the fact you can do that fairly convincingly may become as irresistible for the moneymen in the classical business as it has for their cohorts on Broadway or in jingles (now, I am told, less than a third of studio musicians are working than just ten years ago). Already various striking opera orchestras have been threatened with replacement by four guys on samplers, and someday the administrative bean-counters will get away with it. Then watch out: if this happens to opera, I fear there will be little to protect the symphony.
To try to preserve anything we cherish in our culture, we must take into account that thing's need to change and develop. If composers and musicians were to get there first, rethink the orchestra before the moneymen force such reductions, we could transform the ensemble into what we want (rather than what they want, which is just to make money, pay people as little as possible, and to hell with whether the result is any less good). When I orchestrated my Songs of Innocence and of Experience, I did a rough demographic analysis of the instrumental students at our University of Michigan School of Music. In 1981 we had a shortage of strings (things are much better now); we had plenty of brass and percussion; we had and have world-class saxophonists (which allowed me to fulfill the recommendation in Cecil Forsyth's 1914 book Orchestration, that is, to add saxophones to the orchestra for a better melding of woodwind and brass sound); and there were and are plenty of excellent students who have a rock background in electric guitar, bass, violin, and keyboards. The orchestral additions I called for in Songs of Innocence and of Experience have sometimes made life a hell for standard-orchestra personnel managers ("whom do you call? this isn't my area!" they scream at me), but despite this difficulty the work has had a dozen performances since the 1982 premiere (there are others in the offing), and for something involving close to three hundred performers this is nothing short of amazing.
Audiences are ready for this kind of development in our musical life; they are ready for a transformation of the pop music sound and structure too, as the pop world is just as hidebound and has become just as stale as the classical world (a whole other subject I have discussed elsewhere). Perhaps, with the precipitous drop in concert tickets and CD sales in the classical world, and a similarly flat and declining situation pretty much across the board in the popular-music industry, now is the time to reinvent the world of music, starting with how that world is organized economically. I believe I can say with some pride that our own School seems a bit more poised to cope with these developments than most. But I think that a music school such as ours must do more: we must begin to study what changes in the music world are necessary and how to implement them. We must encourage the best individual artists in every field to push for these changes in the great musical institutions, rather than opt for funding the status quo exclusively as is now the case in government and private sourcing. And we must take it upon ourselves to study a possible financial restructuring of our country's musical life from top to bottom.
I have been mourning the lack of health, financial and artistic, in the symphonic world as regards the major orchestras. By contrast, there is a far happier picture in the burgeoning small-city and community orchestra scene. One of the surprising insights every National Endowment for the Arts panel on orchestras has come to is how difficult it is to tell performance tapes by orchestras like the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and similar groups, from those sent by the five major organizations. The excellent schools-of music graduates who couldn't get into the Big Five or didn't bother to try didn't all give up their instruments. What they have done is look at orchestra playing as only part of their existence: they play in chamber groups, pursue careers as soloists, and often become proficient in high technology industries, where their lifelong disciplined approach to their art can be translated to another job with great success. Instead of 250 concerts a year with a single orchestra, they may do twenty or thirty, a far more humane number. (The downside is that a player who geographically can be part of several regional orchestras at once, as is common in the North Central states, is still very hard put to make a decent living thereby; I hear of total yearly incomes of around $20,000, barely above the poverty level.) Community orchestras sound better and better nowadays; the players have more enthusiasm than their jaded major-orchestra counterparts as a rule, and Meet the Composer is still, at this writing, funding community-orchestra residencies for young composers right out of school where, as with the much-missed National Orchestral Association, players and composers are closer in age. Where the good community orchestras excel, and where the major orchestras have largely fallen down, is in their strong ties to their own communities. Just as the computer industry found it could exist independent of the megacities, our musical life can, if we strengthen the bonds between musicians and their immediate environments, be exciting and creative wherever we choose to live.
Our major objective now as musicians is to rebuild the idea of the audience, and this will not be easy in an age when the television set and the computer have become the chief window to the world for too many people. Add this situation to the market's ghettoization of audiences into slices of age groups and economic levels, and you have a recipe for fragmentation of society, personal loneliness, and alienation, and-simply put-our growing lack of ability to get along among ourselves. Recently The New York Times quoted soul singer Jerry Butler's explanation to the music industry for the slump in record sales: "We have gotten so sophisticated in our marketing that we have not brought the parents and the children to the table together. You have not joined history and the future together." Music is perhaps the clearest and deepest articulation of the fabric of human society, and that fabric needs repair. We all know how dangerous the situation is, but I believe schools of music can help us 'Join history and the future together," and the ideal of a true community that they foster must be our guide in the years ahead.