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Fixing American Arts Philanthropy: 1. Accept Fewer Applicants

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There is never enough money in the arts. Equally problematic, the money we do have is not always used very efficiently. In the United States, most arts funding outside of ticket sales comes through philanthropy, whether by individual donors, private foundations, or nonprofit advocacy groups. While individual donors don’t usually have the clout to sway an entire sector, the larger arts funders can and do. As such, they shoulder greater responsibility for the financial inefficiencies that affect the arts—not out of malice, but simply because many a well-meaning initiative has relied on accepted wisdom that isn’t actually all that wise. Now, there are indisputably organizations conducting innovative work. But doing philanthropy well is really damn hard, and the bar could certainly stand to be raised.

Philanthropy is about 90% how and 10% what—it’s not enough to have an endowment and good intentions. Read more ›

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The score has got you by the short hairs

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

When you think about it, the concept of music notation is pretty weird. Imagine if Andy Warhol had received commissions not for paintings, but rather for paint-by-number templates, to be realized by each art interpreter on their own canvases. Of course, we all know why music developed a notation system, but a recent email exchange with French composer Sasha Zamler-Carhart reminded me of the importance of not taking our practices for granted. Assumptions are baked into every aspect of music notation, often layered one on top of the other, and they color the kinds of music we can make.

Any notation system is about trade-offs: certain elements are emphasized over others for the sake of not overwhelming our human minds with their finite capacity for detail. After all, you could theoretically employ waveform print-outs as music notation, but that’s way too much detail to be useful in most performance contexts. Read more ›

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Sarah Kirsch sings Sensational Revolution in the Eckhardt-Gramatté Finals

Congratulations to soprano Sarah Kirsch, who has advanced to the finals won the first prize in Canada’s prestigious Eckhardt-Gramatté Competition, where she’s singing two movements from my piece Sensational Revolution in Medicine.

Check out the video of Sarah’s semifinal performance; Sensational Revolution closes the set, starting at 37:20. She’s prepared a fantastic interpretation, complete with faux Russian accent.

You can also tune in tomorrow, Sunday May 4, to watch the finals live. The performance starts at 1:30pm Central.

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No seriously, there’s no such thing as arts entrepreneurship

factory spewing music notes

Not everyone buys my claim that entrepreneurship is impossible in art, so I want to spill a few more pixels on this question. Whether or not you agree with me, you’ve got to admit that entrepreneurship hasn’t been a winning formula for artists as a whole—unsurprisingly so when you examine the fundamental characteristics of both disciplines. Art is infinitely scalable, communal, inherently subjective, and useless by design. Entrepreneurship is scarcity-based, individualistic, inherently objective, and pragmatic by design. Both are creative activities, but of opposite types.

When you look more closely you’ll notice that “art entrepreneurship” is and has always been about art technology, not art itself. Read more ›

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Why Musicians Aren’t Paid More Fairly

music vs. latte meme

Periodically I see these memes on Facebook: “If surgeons were paid like musicians…,” or “Hire a plumber for the same service and we’ll play for half that.” I sympathize, but this is the wrong approach. Moral finger-wagging has never won any argument, ever, and if it were to work in music it would have decades ago. So how do we actually solve this problem of musicians’ lack of economic clout?

First, we need to understand what’s actually going on. The moralists cling to the delusion that it’s just a matter of education, but even musicians can’t decide what fair compensation is: I’ve had the exact same budget called “extravagant” by one jury panel and “overly ambitious” by another. And to throw salt on the wound, moralizing also hurts our collective bargaining power. Take the common story of the lowballing nightclub owner who gets chewed out by an indignant jobbing musician. The lecture doesn’t make the owner any less likely to lowball the next musician. In fact, it’s the opposite: you’ve just shown him that he has all the power in the relationship. Read more ›

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Most Artists Don’t Really Get Creativity

Too many artists embrace a mystical, new-agey approach to creativity that is completely counterproductive. There’s nothing magical about being creative; it’s just something you train your brain to do through practice. It’s part biology and part routine, and Chuck Close perhaps sums it up most eloquently when he says, “Just show up and get to work.” The way I write music is not mathematical by any stretch of the imagination, and I rely heavily on intuition, but fairytales are not required.

I wonder sometimes if new-agey, feel-good attitudes in the arts are simply the unfortunate byproduct of an artistic temperament: a sort of mental ground hum that comes from plugging the creative mind into the same neurons that power other human emotions. Maybe so, but when I read something like Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, it becomes very clear that the world’s great artists are overwhelmingly immune to any such interference. They have strongly engrained routines, yes, and they may guard those to the point of superstition. They may also lead highly religious or mystical lives outside of art. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the creative act itself, great artists are extremely down to earth. Read more ›

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Classical isn’t dead and stop comparing it to pop already

Slate’s Mark Vanhoenacker published a statistics-laden (and admittedly sympathetic) “requiem” on the death of classical music last week. True, if you look at classical music through the lens of pop music, you might be forgiven for seeing a ER patient gasping for breath on a Beyonce-embossed hospital bed. But it’s been a long time since classical and pop music have competed for the same prizes, and that’s the problem with his argument: Vanhoenacker fundamentally misunderstands what classical music is about in the 21st century. Classical isn’t the same cultural beast as pop—not anymore anyway. It might not ever be again, and that doesn’t matter in the least for its survival. Read more ›

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Why do the Rich Support the Arts?

Why exactly do rich people give money to the arts? If you think about it, the two are strange bedfellows: wealth usually begets conservatism while the arts tilt overwhelmingly liberal. Granted, there are certainly rich liberals, but I think there’s more to it than that—after all, some of the biggest arts donors in the USA are also some of the biggest backers of the Tea Party, and red states are significantly more philanthropic than blue ones. Why would conservatives give money to liberal causes like art?

You could simply say that rich conservatives support art because some of them enjoy art. Or, that since the rich have the most money, donors will by definition come from that group. But that’s an incomplete answer, and it doesn’t match what we see in philanthropy statistics. Among high net worth donors, the arts is the #3 most widespread category in terms of charitable giving, just after education and basic needs—but ahead of health and religion. For non-wealthy donors, religion is the #1 most common recipient and art doesn’t make it into the rankings. Read more ›

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Form in Music: Composer Interviews

Music on Main composer-in-residence Jocelyn Morlock recently interviewed me and a series of other composers, ranging from Louis Andriessen to David Lang, Gary Kulesha, and Kaija Saariaho. The result is her fascinating Compendium of Ideas About Form in Music, which I would encourage you to read in full.

In Morlock’s words:

I asked some of the leading composers of our time to tell us their thoughts on form in music: what form means to them, how they structure their music, if/how they make formal plans, thoughts on repetition, audible structure from the listener’s viewpoint, and how their ideas on form have changed over the course of their careers.

Her narrative weaves together bits and pieces of the composers’ responses. She also includes the full responses at the end, though they’re a little hard to navigate, so I’ve reprinted my answers here as well: Read more ›

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Entrepreneurship Can’t Save Art

Business presentation with powerpoint and pie graph

We live at a time that prizes entre­pre­neur­ship above all else, and this is bad for art. Not that entre­pre­neurs are out to destroy the arts, it’s just that artistic and business innovation are fundamentally antagonistic. Yes, entrepreneurs have unquestionably created value for the arts, but the actual business is always one step removed from the actual art. At best, entrepreneurship provides stuff for artists to sell and then gets the hell out of the way. At worst, entrepreneurship turns art and artists into disposable commodities.

Unfortunately, our societal love affair with entrepreneurship has confused this relationship. Suddenly all artists are expected to be business innovators, as if coming up with a marketing plan were the self-evident first step in the artistic process. Read more ›

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