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Survival: Continuing as Artists in this Climate

By William Bolcom

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you. I’ll be talking to you today about something very much on my mind, the continuation of artistic health in a hostile environment. I should qualify that remark: it is often said that America is a philistine country toward the arts, and there is some truth to that. But I would contend that perhaps in some ways the U.S. relative lack of support might have been healthier for these arts in some ways than the European state support has proven to be, which I’ll come to later. The comparisons of the two scenes, at the admittedly anecdotal level I can cite in my own history as composer for concert hall, cabaret, stage, opera, ballet, film – in other words what a busy composer does these days in the 20th and 21st centuries – will be the basis for my text.


William Bolcom

Award-winning composer William Bolcom delivers the keynote speech at the University of Michigan Phi Kappa Phi Chapter Initiation Ceremony

(Photo courtesy: Mary Beth Donovan, University of Michigan Chapter
Public Relations Officer)

When I was a young student in Paris in the late fifties and early sixties, the word on the street from other American artists abroad was one short word – envy – at how lucky our European colleagues were. The Second World War had left so much of their world in ruins and depression, and one of the objectives, I’m told, of the Marshall Plan was the rebuilding of each country’s culture; this is of course an oversimplification and not completely true, I’m also told, but the perception was then certainly that General Marshall held the arts in high regard as a means of restarting a traumatized Europe. A huge upsurge of state support of the arts ensued in many countries – France, West Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, the UK, and others more and more as time went on.

Suddenly Dutch painters or composers or writers had only to apply for state funds to subvention their art, and that state helped them in multiple ways, showcasing warehousing paintings, publishing books, and performing commissioned new music. (Their music support program was called DONEMUS, as I remember, and Dutch composers toured around Europe and the U.S. with freshly-minted scores to donate to libraries.) The European avant-garde composers Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Luciano Berio would emerge in the fifties as the enfants terribles of France, West Germany and Italy. The agreed-upon feeling everywhere in Europe was that the past was dead – les grandes nuits europeennes proved that everyone would have to start all over again as in Edith Piaf’s hit song – and the state would now become the repository and principal Maecenas of the most cutting-edge and advanced art available.

A wave of state-supported iconoclasts in Europe in the 1950s was the result. (There was even money to be made by those early pioneers: a Stockhausen collage piece, Hymnen, fashioned from national anthems and running several hours, reportedly garnered a quarter of a million dollars in a year from state-radio royalties.) The Germans, who after all had caused European wars two times in a row in the first place, were seemingly awarded the most money of any European country to support the arts, which made a number of my French friends furious. But I have to say that many of us worked in West Germany because the pay was good, and even if the Germans weren’t terribly friendly no one there seemed to mind, at least in the theaters in the Ruhr Valley where I wrote a number of stage-music scores, that some of us weren’t ethnically German, as they would have had we wanted to emigrate there to join them. These recently-repaired towns, whose medieval center cities had been bombed flat, had such identical new downtown sections it was often hard to remember which town one was in. These places weren’t necessarily fun to work in; the war memories and traumas were very close to the surface of German psyches, and my strongest memory of that time is of people yelling at each other, my landlady chewing me out for some minor infraction, tension in rehearsals – but we sang our mantra “the pay is good” and took our money home.

What has happened in France, Germany, or Italy as a result of all this state money is not totally a success story in the long run, I feel. It was a truly wonderful thing in the fifties at first to be avant-garde, and approved for being so, by the state, and those first years’ products have an undeniable vitality. It seems to me however that, at least in France and also definitely elsewhere in Western Europe, the avant-garde of the 1960s has hardened into a musical atherosclerosis (with exceptions of course). The reason for this is not hard to find; a style-leader becomes powerful in the ministry, and other artists follow esthetic suit because that way they’ll get grants. The erstwhile iconoclast has provided a new icon, and a new “tradition” results – what I call old-fashioned avant-garde – that resembles distressingly what we felt impelled to do around 1960 (I felt the same about the music I saw and heard in Berkeley in 2005!). Perhaps some people have possibly composed a lifetime’s oeuvre that is fatally skewed from the course they might have followed without such peer pressure, and that thought saddens me.

I can compare the European avant-garde of the 1950s and later to that of America because I was in both places then. When I had to leave my studies at the Paris Conservatoire and return to the US in 1961 I found a musical embargo against the Boulez/Stockhausen/Berio triumvirate in New York concert halls, partially because of an expectable critical kibosh but also because of resistance from embattled American avant-gardists, presumably jealous of all the gravy their European counterparts were happily soaking in; I would have to leave New York later that year to go to the San Francisco Bay Area before I could find many musicians interested in exploring the newest from Europe. (I believe I premiered Stockhausen’s Kontrapunkte in the United States around 1962 in San Francisco, playing the piano part). On both sides of the Atlantic serialism (you might know the term “twelve-tone” but that is only one form of serialism) was the wave of the future, though the modus operandi were different; no-one’s music seemed to cross the ocean in those contentious times despite, or perhaps because of, certain similarities.

In the general upsurge of logical positivism of the era, emphasis on methods prevailed: tone rows, logarithms, stochastic and aleatoric procedures and the like were the works of faith here and abroad. Consciously or unconsciously, one of the shared objectives for each continent’s composers was to efface the past with new work by violently changing the way one wrote music. In painting such periods of dramatic change are styled Mannerist, where how one paints trumps what one paints, and I have elsewhere written how this fits a period of 20th-century composition. Usually expansion of musical vocabulary is followed by a reconnaissance mission of discovering what of this new language is of use to us musically over time, and in a healthy culture the eventual dividend is greater and more articulated expressivity for music.

But we are still digesting so many shocks the last century laid on us that we often can’t see clearly where we are in matters of style; never mind – it will work out, I think, over time – but perhaps the continued resistance to music by audiences in the last half-century is partly due to a sometime divorcement from concerns of whether any audience needs to understand it. (It is also true that music once thought too difficult becomes the central music for a later generation; however, a music’s difficulty doesn’t guarantee its later being adopted, understood, loved, or – most important – needed.) State support can only help make art insular, and it may be that European music suffers worse from this cut-off-ness than our own. One thing is certain: in America we give so little from the government for the arts that private monies must be raised to put on anything much at all, and maybe this has caused a timorous conservatism – after all, donors need to be pleased or they won’t give money in some cases – in our new work.

Our American arts institutions are in constant financial crisis particularly right now, but they do limp along often as not in some fashion. But in Europe, where private support is rare, donor money rarely is called upon to shore up or save an institution in trouble. In the spring of 2005 my wife and I, with our friends the composer-soprano Susan Botti and the Austrian composer-conductor HK Gruber, performed a concert together with the Radio Symphony of Utrecht. This excellent orchestra played to about a half a house (new music isn’t necessarily a big draw these days in Europe either), but the really sad part is that this would be the final concert of that orchestra with the Netherlands cutting off all its funds; trying to find private money to save it as we might do in the U.S. was evidently not even considered, and the Radio Symphony of Utrecht is no more.

I mention European music because in the field of art music – that is, non-popular music – America still tends to think like a bunch of colonists. Any foreign orchestral conductor is ipso facto better than our own guys in the eyes of symphony boards – just look at the roster of American orchestras – and if we see an increase of native-born music directors recently, we still see a preponderance of old European classics in their programming. So that the native product has been somewhat at a disadvantage, but I feel that, once we really understand the particular needs and tendencies Americans share nationwide, we can reverse this. (Again, back briefly to the subject of orchestras, those from our country are routinely considered the best anywhere. This would be a great national milieu for the orchestra to evolve from the late-19th-century model except in that it would be prohibitive financially to do so; also, many sponsors and subscribers -- and I suppose musicians as well – want the big-city orchestras to continue to concentrate on the standard repertoire of over 100 years ago because they love that music the most. And it would be a shame to be deprived of such a rich and glorious tradition in the interest of homespun nativism – we are from many nations, and their artistic background makes up a large part of what we are.)

Americans, and much of the rest of the world, are suffering a great economic crisis, which usually means that arts money is cut first – it usually has been in our history. But it has not always been so, even here. Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Projects Administration – the WPA – was founded to give artists all over the U.S. work in the lean Depression economy, and we are still reaping benefits from that time; countless examples all over the U.S., like the Raoul Pene du Bois murals in the Saratoga Springs post office, enrich their communities still. I am hoping that the current Administration will show wisdom in reviving some of the best aspects of that troubled but fruitful period to help us out of this deep national slump. One of the best aspects in my view of the WPA was its recognition that, unlike European countries where London and Paris are the undisputed cultural centers of the UK and France, we have actually many centers here – more like the German model today, where one can easily travel by train or Autobahn to Wuppertal to see Pina Bausch’s dance company, or to Hamburg for new opera, or to Stuttgart or Frankfort for new visual art. This is not to discount New York’s importance. But, as I remind you later, at the moment New York has become more a showcase for imported art than a self-generator of it.

For an exciting example of native American energy, Chicago has around 118 registered theaters whose original work has often alimented the Broadway stage – many, perhaps most, New York productions have been developed out of town in places like Baltimore (“Hairspray”) – and now we see Kansas City becoming a place for painters and other artists to congregate. My wife and I can attest to the surprising increasing excellence of community orchestras where we’ve performed in unlikely places like Idaho Falls, Idaho; Evansville, Indiana; and Lancaster, Ohio, which recently produced a stunning CD of my music featuring the virtuoso clarinetist Richard Stoltzman that I would put up against any recording of my work. These cities are increasingly proud of their own arts organizations and feel proprietary about them, as well they should. I’ll never forget a stellar performance of my piano concerto a few years ago by Alan Chow (from Northwestern) and the very elegant Omaha Symphony; the pre-concert talk was attended by at last a third of the full-house audience. I’ve seen similar grass-roots support from Santa Cruz to Kalamazoo; the orchestra players are from the towns, many having majored in music knowing they wanted to make the greater part of their livings otherwise in livable environments but continue to play, and the result is constantly-improving ensembles all over as a national phenomenon.

Compare this with the precarious job-to-job existence so many New York free-lance musicians live under, with maxed-out credit cards, no savings, wall-to-wall pickup jobs. A community orchestra in a midsize American town might only do four concerts in a year; these are often done for the joy of it and no pay, although concertmasters and first-chair players are often compensated. Other cities with bigger orchestral seasons often have a paid core constituency of around 30 permanent musicians, with free-lance, add-on players as needed; life isn’t necessarily easy for either of these kinds of players, but somehow one sees them mostly muddling through and continuing. By contrast the excellent Brooklyn Philharmonic, made up of many of the best free-lance New Yorkers, only does four concerts a year and now has to cancel its last scheduled one this year as well all of next year’s season; these players make their whole livings in music and don’t have another main source of income to sustain them, as players might in other cities when music doesn’t put food on the table. Brooklyn’s and Queens’s orchestras pay very little anyway; a piece of mine scheduled by the Brooklyn in 1986 was postponed by a strike – the players wanted more than the $30 per rehearsal they were getting (which would just pay cab fare for a cellist from Manhattan who couldn’t negotiate the subway stairs) and $89 per concert, as I remember – and the players finally settled for what I think was $35 per rehearsal and $109 per concert. You can’t live on that.

Life for artists in Manhattan is increasingly unaffordable – though I hear that the recent general drop in rents is making things a little easier – so that many of us have opted over the years to go elsewhere; I myself after a number of free-lance years came from New York to Ann Arbor for a university job from which I’ve just retired after 35 years’ teaching, and our performing and composing careers have been just as healthy as they might have been had we stayed in the city, and with considerably less strain on us financially and physically. But I don’t want to see continue what seems so largely to be the case in my beloved New York; most everything now seems to be an import from some other part of the U.S. or from abroad, and little seems to come from local sources – a far cry from the indigenous excitement in painting, theater, poetry, and the other arts of a half-century ago – and one fears a growing cultural moribundity in some large cities both here and in Europe because artists can’t make a sufficient living there and will leave. Just as we need to address local arts concerns in smaller towns, we need to find art’s grass roots under the concrete of Manhattan and other big centers again. If too many of us have to leave New York for economic reasons, the city suffers, its theaters and concert halls reduced to booking houses for everything brought in, and there are times I actually feel guilty about leaving it.

Why are these arts important, and why are they so beleaguered in our culture? There has always been a contingent of American lawmakers who pooh-pooh the arts – these are often the same people who happily cut school funding for the arts, dismissing them as frills – but former New York governor Mario Cuomo reminds us that one dollar spent by a city on the arts results in four dollars of revenue for that city, and I have seen communities grow in size and importance because of the introduction of a festival. Look for example at Moab, Utah, near the great rock formations of The Arches and Bryce Canyon, but until recently less a tourist destination for these natural beauties than a truck stop between Denver and Albuquerque. Around eighteen years ago a friend, the conductor Michael Barrett, was visiting Moab when he was asked to found a music festival there. No one then envisioned that, partly because of out-of-town interest in the Moab Festival, the town would grow in population to twice its original size since, with sophisticated restaurants, a thriving arts scene, and far greater prosperity. Another success story: retirees from Chicago and other large cities living in Hilton Head, missing a town orchestra, got money together to form one. Its conductor, not one of those many conducting journeymen who kiss in and depart after concerts, had to be willing to live there full-time to give the ensemble a sense of groundedness in the community. Up until recently the orchestra had to give concerts in a church, like in many towns; Hilton Head has recently completed its own concert hall.

With the coming disappearance of second homes from many Americans’ lives, music and the other arts in some towns like Moab – which have become retirement communities for those who scorn the expensive prisonlike walled enclaves in warm states – may not necessarily thrive in the austerity years to come. Maybe it is more important for us, right now, to make people’s first homes and their cultural lives there more bearable. If the various stimulus packages are properly spent in our problem cities, arts could become the principal agent of each community’s turnaround.

I opined earlier that perhaps we were healthier in our state-unsupported arts scene – the National Endowment for the Arts gives such a pittance compared with parallel institutions abroad – than what seems to me the arts-on-life-support feeling I get from so much I come across nowadays in and from Europe. I don’t however want our national philistinism to go unchallenged; those clowns in Congress who have shot down so much of our culture – and we’ve always, always had people like them – need to be fought constantly without cease. But right now, this moment, we have a way to shout the clowns down maybe for a bit longer, because their way of doing things has so roundly and patently failed. Perhaps our administration should study the WPA as a model, and go even further in helping communities large and small find creative health. The New York State Council for the Arts has a program – which I hope won’t be cut in these parlous times – of establishing artists-in-residence in towns as small as 600 people; each town pays the artist’s health insurance and a small stipend with the hope that artist’s work will put their hometown on the map, bringing in visitors to eat in restaurants, stay in homes or hotels, perhaps move there to live. It is now possible to buy a whole house in blighted Detroit for hundreds of dollars, and there have been feelers enticing artists to move there to enliven the community. With municipal effort to nurture a high enough level of artistic excellence, Detroit may well again become a place to attract, and not repel, a young and vibrant population.

All this will need the help of young and enlightened people such as yourselves in this room who can see long-term benefits in engendering artistic ferment in troubled and untroubled areas of our country, and I urge you all to help creative people make America not just a country with a centralized artistic scene – which we mustn’t entirely give up – but one full of multifarious artistic joy and fulfillment, all across our enormous nation.