future of classical music

Outside the Echo Chamber, Pt. III: Frequencies

    In my previous post, I spoke of the need for young musicians who are interested in a career in classical music to venture beyond what is accepted tradition and create unique musical experiences of their own while they are still within the safety net of their music school, their parents, or both. This process can be really frustrating at times, as it involves lots of trial and error. However, the lessons learned through that effort are an exceptional complement to formal classroom work; and spending time each day working with your friends to create something of your own can be a huge relief from the everyday stresses of music school.  

    As I was writing that post, I tried to find websites or articles for various student-led ensembles across the country that I could hold up as examples. Unfortunately, finding those examples proved to be too much even for the mighty Google. So this week, I decided to take some initiative and throw a spotlight onto two groups from my own alma mater that are doing some very cool work outside the lines of their assigned curriculum. One of these stories is below, and the other will be posted later this week.


    Today I’m going to highlight a group founded by clarinetist Wesley Rhodes, who is in his final semester of study at East Carolina before he heads to Colorado State to pursue a Master’s degree in performance. Wesley founded Frequencies two years ago as part of ECU’s New Music Festival, which occurs each spring. The idea was to put on a concert where students could select modern chamber music that appealed to their own musical tastes and perform that music for their peers and faculty. As Wesley puts it, “For me, the goal was getting the students to be aware that these pieces are out there, get them aware that they can actually do them, and then getting the faculty aware that we, the students, can do them in front of people.” If you’re currently a music student who is reading this and wondering why I’m making a fuss about this, think of all that goes into planning a recital for yourself, then imagine adding four or five other groups to that recital and not having your professor help you pick out the music from start to finish. Hopefully that puts in perspective how cool this undertaking was, particularly at a school where this sort of thing was not really happening.

    The first step to turn this idea into a reality actually did involve a faculty member. Specifically, Wesley had to get the blessing of Ed Jacobs, who is the director of the New Music Festival, as well as a dear friend and collaborator of ours here at Open G. What was Eddie’s response when a student came forward and said he wanted to organize a concert by students and for students? As Wesley tells the story, Eddie’s first words were “I’ve been waiting thirteen years for someone to do this.” Teachers: that is the perfect response to a student telling you that they want to try and create something of their own. Students: if you have an idea, don’t automatically assume your teachers will shoot it down and tell you to stop distracting yourself from that Bach partita.

Wesley Rhodes, Founder of the  Frequencies  concert series at East Carolina University

Wesley Rhodes, Founder of the Frequencies concert series at East Carolina University

        From that initial conversation onward, Eddie let the kids play but was there to offer advice if they ever needed it. “Dr. Jacobs was kind of like a facilitator making sure I wasn’t taking on too much or too little,” Wesley says. “I was really lucky to have that.” The two traded a long series of emails to find the perfect name for the concert while Wesley began the tedious work of filling out the bill with other performers. When I ask about his mindset in deciding performers and repertoire, Wesley tells me that he tried to find willing performers before worrying about rep because “It’s easier to get the people together than it is to say ‘I want to do this piece’ and get very close to the end and not have what you need.” The first concert featured performances of Ian Clarke’s Orange Dawn (flute and piano), Krzysztof Penderecki’s Capriccio (solo tuba), Leon Kirchner’s Five Pieces for Piano (solo piano), V.J. Manzo’s Discourse for Clarinet and Interactive Software (Eb clarinet and electronics), Antal Dorati’s Cinq Pieces pour Oboe (solo oboe), and Gregory Wanamaker’s Duo Sonata (clarinet and alto saxophone).

    The hardest part of the whole process as he relates it was scheduling proper rehearsal time for each of the groups to play together amidst the chaos that can be music school in the spring. For the concert this past year, Wesley estimates that no more than seven rehearsals occurred, so it was absolutely important that each rehearsal run in a smooth and focused way.

    They found pieces to play predominately over the internet and on occasion had to contact a composer directly in order to acquire the actual sheet music. “Some of the pieces written after 2002 are more of a case where you’d have to actually email the composer and say ‘I have this event going and I’d like to put your piece on it.’ And so you’d have to sort of wait a little bit and hope that they’d get back to you. More often than not, they would, which is really awesome.” Google’s ability to find music and the proper contact for acquiring that music truly knows few limitations.

    Frequencies has now been a part of ECU’s New Music Festival (now the North Carolina New Music Initiative) for two years and is gearing up for its third. Their performance this spring will be on March 20 at 7:00 pm, in the event that any of my readers are in the eastern North Carolina area.    Wesley is set to graduate and move to Colorado this winter, at which point the leadership of Frequencies will be passed on to junior flutist Benjamin Sledge (remember that name for my next post). When I ask Wesley if he feels the group has met their goals, he emphatically replies, “I think we met them splendidly. There’s always a little bit of fear with any recital you give that someone or something is just going to crash and burn, and we didn’t have that either time. It was amazing. It was well received, and the faculty wanted to see it again; and people from the community who came out were very excited to see that it was a younger crowd making these things happen. I think, in the long run, it’s going to help draw in a bigger crowd.”

 

    If I haven’t made my point painstakingly obvious by this point, it is simply that we young folk are highly capable of creating things at any point in our schooling or not-quite-yet-professional careers. The sooner we start, the better for each of us in the long run. I am very excited to see how this group develops beyond Wesley’s tenure and am confident that it will continue to be a staple in the already exceptional new music scene at ECU. 

    I’ll close with a quote from Wesley when I asked him if he had any specific advice for students who had an idea but weren’t sure they knew how to begin realizing that idea and making it a reality. “Just don’t be afraid to jump in the water. It could crash and burn, but there’s a good chance that it won’t. Before I approached Dr. Jacobs, I was a little skeptical of it, because I was thinking ‘What if he says no, or what if he says yes but I can’t get anyone [to play] and we have to withdraw the whole thing?’ So it’s just something where you have to be ready to jump in the water; and if there’s a shark in the water, you deal with it.”

 

William Carrigan is a bass player and songwriter based in New York City, as well as the current Chief Operations Officer at Open G Records. He graduated from East Carolina University with degrees in classical and jazz performance and currently attends New York University in pursuit of a Masters degree in music business. He can be reached at will@opengrecords.com.

Outside the Echo Chamber, Part II: Killing our idols

            I recently read a Playboy article (SFW) where the author laments a stranglehold that he perceives nostalgia has on the output of Hollywoods biggest movie studios. Im going to spare you any jokes about Michael Bays obsession with ruining 90s-era television shows and simply point out that there is a real trend here that is equally prevalent in our world of classical music. It is a difficult argument to make that the upcoming release schedules for classical musics largest record labels - Decca and Deutsche Grammophone - will generate any buzz whatsoever outside of conservatory music libraries just dying to catalog another edition of Dvoraks cello concerto. If you look at the recent programming of premier orchestras, you will see a similar pattern: long-dead composers dominate, and movie karaoke performances of black-and-white Hitchcock films are seen as edgy attempts to woo the general public. It seems that we, too, in the classical music community have a serious nostalgia problem.

            Now, there is rarely a less productive discussion than the one that seeks to assign blame for a complex issue. Truthfully, the woes of the classical music industry largely reflect those facing the music industry as a whole; and if we really want to understand what ails the broader music industry, we have to acknowledge a world where the average disposable income is shrinking and global industry has become obscenely consolidated. If we set aside these larger questions for now, we are left with the task of finding ways for creators of classical music to combat the aging of our audience and inspire new generations to become loyal listeners. This problem is fairly specific to our niche within the industry and is one that I optimistically believe is manageable.

            This brings me back to that original Playboy article. Its obviously true that programming classical classics is a proven way for orchestras to attract more conservative donors; and I certainly dont mean to insinuate that Mozart and Brahms should be forever abandoned to obscurity. Students in conservatories certainly need a foundation in this standard repertoire; but it seems also imperative that young musicians and writers be empowered to shape the future of music in their own unique way that moves beyond what is standard. After all, a foundation is only as enticing and worthwhile as whatever you build on top of it.

            If were going to shape a future of concert music that is exciting to others, as well as ourselves, we have to insist on an environment of creation and collaboration that doesnt necessarily stop at the boundaries of the classical community. I dont think Im being unreasonable when I say that the burden for this falls predominately on the shoulders of my own generation (well say 18-26 year olds) and those who serve as our teachers and mentors. If we want people our age to take an interest in the music that we play, we have to stop relying so disproportionately on what has already been done a thousand times. The reality is that all young musicians can benefit from working with their peers to create and market a musical experience that is all their own. Teachers who encourage this sort of experimentation and provide opportunities for their students to collaborate with each other will be providing their students with invaluable experience and perspective for the rest of their careers. When the youth within the classical community begin to universally adopt a forward-thinking mentality and the release schedules of Decca and DG start to resemble those of smaller labels - such as New Amersterdam and Nonesuch Records - the future for classical music will be bright, indeed.

 

William Carrigan is a bass player and songwriter based in New York City, as well as the current Chief Operations Officer at Open G Records. He graduated from East Carolina University with degrees in classical and jazz performance and currently attends New York University in pursuit of a Masters degree in music business. He can be reached at will@opengrecords.com.

Outside the Echo Chamber, part I: Introduction

            For those who dont know me, my name is William Carrigan, and I am in charge of operations and business strategy here at Open G Records. You are currently reading the first of a series of blog entries that I am writing to advance a concept that plays an important role in our strategy at Open G, and is also important for anyone seeking to make a meaningful and successful statement in their artistic career. This concept is a phenomenon called the ideological echo chamber; and although it is most often associated with political and religious groups, it can just as easily be used to describe groups within the art world, particularly those possessing a rich tradition. (Side bar: If I ever start to seriously use phrases like that, shoot to kill.)  Put simply, an echo chamber is a group of people who think alike, primarily share ideas amongst themselves, and rarely venture outside of their group to seek the counsel of others. Though my comments will generally be directed at those who would identify themselves as classical musicians (after all, this is a classical record labels blog), artists from all art forms and genres will hopefully find ideas in these entries that they can use to avoid artistic echo chambers and further their own unique vision in new and exciting ways.

            We live in a time when most major universities in the United States have a freestanding music school that offers degrees in classical music and jazz music. I dont think its absurd to predict that as soon as the traditions of rock and hip hop have been quantified and shaped into a curriculum that can be shoveled into the mouths of eager students, degree programs for these genres will come to exist in many of the same schools. In all of these programs, students will spend hours learning everything they could ever forget about the rich tradition of their chosen style of music. They will stay up late cramming for exams and having deep conversations wondering what they will do after they have graduated into a world where people dont seem to care about their art. Many will graduate without an answer to this question and will postpone the real world by going on to get their graduate degrees. Those who are truly enamored with academia will spend even more time in school getting their doctorates. When graduation can no longer be avoided, a select few may go out into the world and pursue a career creating and performing, though the majority will fall back on non-musical jobs or become professors. These professors will go on to teach the next generation of students, and the cycle will begin again.

            Now, I dont mean to imply that school is horrible and that music with historical traditions should just keel over and be dead already. Personally, I am grateful for the time I was able to spend studying music during my undergraduate years, and the general knowledge that I now have of the Western musical tradition has proven to be helpful in my practice and in my playing. What concerns me, however, is that those of us who care about historical music face a cultural dead end if we continue to close ourselves off within self-feeding collectives stubbornly adhering only to our selective enlightened traditions. After all, if  real music died in 1897 (Brahms) or 1955 (Charlie Parker) or 1970 (Jimi Hendrix) or even 2006 (J Dilla), then what the hell is the point of being a musician anymore? Nobody really gets THAT excited about a cover band.

            No, Ill be writing these blogs in hopes that they will be a starting point for those who are looking for ways to break through the crushing mold of tradition to create something that inspires both their own artistic spirit and, I believe more importantly, the imagination of the community around them. Along the way, I will point out people and groups that I believe are doing exciting work in this regard; and I welcome any and all suggestions of artists who have inspired you through my email which is listed below. I hope that these blogs will prove as challenging to your own artistic beliefs and priorities as the process of writing them will be for my own.

 

Until next time,

William

 

William Carrigan is a bass player and songwriter based in New York City, as well as the current Chief Operations Officer at Open G Records. He graduated from East Carolina University with degrees in classical and jazz performance and currently attends New York University in pursuit of a Masters degree in music business. He can be reached at will@opengrecords.com.