Stories By the Numbers: Living Composers

By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

A data analysis of the largest 22 American symphony orchestras showed that 11.8 percent of the pieces performed during the 2014-2015 season are by living composers.

At first glance, that number may seem discouraging for living composers looking to get their music in front of audiences. However, composer Mason Bates, 37, is bullish on the future of new music’s place in the orchestra.

“To be sure, while I believe the [11.8 percent number] should be much higher, it is not dismal in a field that is built around 19th-century warhorses,” he said.

Bates is best known for writing symphonic works that make use both orchestra and electronics.

Mason Bates
Mason Bates

He has been commissioned to write for the National, San Francisco and Winston-Salem symphonies, and he is the current composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. According to the data gathered from major American orchestras, he is the second-most performed living composer this season behind only John Adams.

The 11.4 percent statistic is based on total performances of any given piece during the concert season. Bates said a better unit of measurement to provide context might be the concert program, which usually includes three or four pieces.

“A lot of times pieces are programmed specifically around what else is on the program,” he said.

“If you stop and think about how concerts are put together and you think this might mean there is a new piece [every few concerts], that's actually not bad. It could be better, but it's definitely not embarrassing.”

According to the data set, the 2014-2015 season will include 616 different concert programs by the 22 largest American symphony orchestras. Of those programs, 170 will include at least one piece by a living composer. That means that 27.6 percent of concert programs include a piece by a living composer. 

Living Composer Graphic 750Ish

Bates also suggested those numbers might change when looking at smaller regional orchestras as well as the big-budget American symphonies.

“Once you get beyond the top two dozen orchestras, you have this network of orchestras like the Oakland East Bay Symphony that I think are a lot more dynamic than people realize,” he said. “I do think the numbers would be pretty similar, but I think you might even see a little more new music.”

Perhaps just as important as new works getting their premiere is that those works by living composers find a life and a continued audience with additional performances. The hope for any newly commissioned work is that it might eventually find a place in the regular orchestra repertoire.

The current concert season includes several pieces written in the past few decades, which are seeing repeat performances since their premiere. In the classical music forum of the website Reddit, a user named kcostell looked through the data set to find pieces written between 1975 and 2013 (avoiding new commissions from this season) that are being performed by more than one orchestra.

Composer Work Composition Year Orchestras Performing
Arvo Pärt Cantus in Memoriam
For Benjamin Britten
1977 Cleveland, Detroit
John Adams Harmonium 1981 Los Angeles, Minnesota
John Adams Harmonielehre 1985 Cincinnati, Cleveland
Christopher Rouse Iscariot 1989 Dallas, New York
Jennifer Higdon blue cathedral 2000 Baltimore, Houston, 
Philadelphia
Krzysztof Penderecki Concerto Grosso for Three Cellos and Orchestra 2000 Los Angeles, National
Avner Dorman Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! 2006 Atlanta, Cincinnati
Osvaldo Golijov Rose of the Winds 2007 Baltimore, New York
Esa-Pekka Salonen Nyx 2010 New York, San Francisco
James MacMillan Piano Concerto No. 3, The Mysteries of Light 2011 New York, St. Louis
Mason Bates Alternative Energy 2011 Pittsburgh, San Francisco
Mason Bates The Rise of Exotic Computing 2013 Chicago, Pittsburgh

 

“New music” in much of the 20th century carried a stigma for large parts of the orchestra audience as composers explored atonality, experimentalism, serialism and in some schools were more interested in the process than the product. A 1958 article by Milton Babbitt hoping to explain the position of the composer, which was given the title “Who Cares if You Listen” by its publisher, still defines a worry many audiences have that new music is unapproachable and unlistenable.

“When I first was writing for orchestras in the mid-90s, I think there was this real residual fear of new music that would be completely impenetrable,” Bates said. “I think orchestras should continue to realize that new music has changed significantly over the past 30 years.”

The audience, Bates said, is more open to new music than they’re often given credit for.

“Well programmed pieces — pieces that are provocative and interesting and fresh but inevitable in a certain way that have logic that can be followed — that's absolutely something audiences are willing to explore,” he said.

Marketing new music — as any orchestra marketing director will tell you — is not always an easy sell. But Bates said that what’s more important than the marketing is the education and outreach to the audience about a piece they are about to hear.

Putting information in the traditional program book, which Bates said is a bit of a relic from the 19th century, is not enough. Projections, stagecraft or a video interview with a composer that plays while crews are resetting the stage are techniques some orchestras are experimenting with to make that information more ambient. And if the audience finds the way new music is presented to them is approachable, marketing new works to them becomes easier.

While Bates wants to see orchestras program more works by living composers, he is encouraged by the foothold new music has found at the major and regional orchestra level as well as a growing scene of alternative venues. Efforts like Classical Revolution, GroupMuse or (Le) Poison Rouge in New York aim to bring chamber and symphonic music to club or bar settings, and those alternative venues are often places Bates said new music can thrive.

“I do think some leading orchestras have changed the conversation,” he said. “What's going on with [(Le) Poison Rouge] has also changed the conversation, and those are on opposite ends of the spectrum.”

Fifteen years ago when Bates started writing music that combined electronics with the orchestra, he said that not many knew what to make of it. Bates said it is incredible for him personally to see ensembles take up his music, but it also shows that the orchestra is not in stasis.

“It's really meaningful to see that you can change the sound of the orchestra,” Bates said. “It's always been an organism that has evolved. The fact that some of the orchestras have embraced the electronic sound indicates that there is an adventurousness there that people might not expect.”

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