Phoenix – Photo by Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer

Arizona: The Twilight Zone for New Music?

Have you ever watched the “Midnight Sun” episode of the Twilight Zone? It’s set in New York City, the not so distant future. Rod Serling tells you “…this is the eve of the end. Because even at midnight, it’s high noon; the hottest day in history, and you’re about to spend it in the Twilight Zone.” It’s hard to be an artist anywhere, but for me, it’s especially difficult to be an artist in Phoenix… Phoenix seems impossibly vast during our summer months, and then some. Summer is just the icing on the hot, molten, concrete island that is Phoenix, Arizona.

Phoenix - Photo by Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer

Phoenix – Photo by Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer

Quick backstory: I came to the “Greater Phoenix Area” to attend ASU for my masters in composition. I had two wonderful officemates, one who is now my editor, and the other who I really need to call more often. My SO [significant other, Ed.] also came to Arizona to obtain a masters at ASU. School came and went, 2 more years came and went far too slowly as I taught middle school and now I’m a Barista for a start-up and have the best bosses in the world. I’ve had a consistent stream of commissions from performers and composers I’ve met over the last several summers at music festivals. A poet friend just finished the libretto to a chamber opera I’m working on. I’ve recently worked with two local DJs to create some awesome pieces. I co-won a local composer competition and we’re going to have a big concert in the spring. I’m writing some music for my favorite local experimental theatre company. I have a premiere in Holland in October. A podcast I started now has a production manager and we just put on a very successful ‘live’ event in October. Things sound pretty damn peachy.

Here’s the catch: Google “string quartets in arizona”. There is one—one—string quartet that pops up that is not a wedding quartet. The competition I won? Even though tickets are pay what you can, when the suggestion came up that we have the concert in a bar the response of the presenters we are working with was (to paraphrase), “we are concerned that people will be turned off by not receiving a traditional concert experience.” Really?! You can now watch AZ Opera with a beer in your hand and the Phoenix Symphony tells listeners that if they feel like clapping between movements, “the Maestro and orchestra appreciate your enthusiasm!”. The small (and medium!) venues around Phoenix are actually very receptive to any and every type of music. And there are several chamber groups in the state, but in searching their websites, they are either “big donor” type ensembles commissioning pieces from the likes of Steven Stucky or they are committed to playing Mozart’s greatest hits. I’m not alone in feeling this way. One of my good friends is the director of a truly great experimental theater company (mentioned earlier). We both have a passion for creating new, provocative works, but we both have a very difficult time finding people to actually perform these works. His company has been together for several years now, their performances are some of the best theater I have seen and they have some of the most innovative live video work that you can find. Want to know how many people came to their open audition a few weeks ago? Four. Four people. It is harder to pull together a group of like-minded, dedicated artists than it is to put butts in seats. The kindred spirits have migrated north for the rest of their lives.

Phoenix - Photo by Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer

Phoenix – Photo by Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer

I compose because I love creating. I love trying new things. I love solving problems. I hate sitting in my room, or at a coffee shop, only getting confirmation from performers via email.1 I love the internet almost more than anything, but to not sit and talk with performers or another composer or even just someone interested in new music face to face on a regular basis? Welcome to The Twilight Zone. Maybe I need to seek council from a novelist and see how they do it.

When I was at my last music festival in 2011, after briefly expressing some of the above sentiments, one of the resident composers said to me, “You honestly have to fake it ’till you make it. If you have an event, you call every newspaper, or whatever and you keep calling.” And I really believe in the “fake it ’till you make it” mantra. But when you live in a city that is void of available or even semi-available chamber groups, I think the musical desert of Phoenix has me beat. From the outside, places like New York look like they always have these young, amazing, active ensembles and bands that work with dozens of various composers as they play at magical places like LPR (I’ve been there and it was awesome). I’m very aware of the grass-is-greener effect, but honestly, it’s the middle of Arizona, and there just isn’t any grass.

Phoenix - Photo by Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer

Phoenix – Photo by Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer

So, what are my options? Many of the wonderful movers and shakers I have met through my podcast tell me I need to move to Seattle or Chicago and come back to Phoenix some other time, to not waste my 20s here (I turned 28 in October, ouch). And so many times I have wanted to pack up my backpack and laptop, kiss the dog and the SO goodbye, and Greyhound it out of here. But I still remember my editor and I talking about how this crusty, blank slate that is the Southwest is a very rare deal. It’s unclaimed territory. So on most days, I want to stay, slowly find gigs and even more slowly make gigs for myself. I also think that Phoenix is a good place to fail. (And to busk: no permit needed!) If I write a piece that bombs, the next morning there won’t be any online verbal frowns and I won’t be smeared in a well-read newspaper. On the days when I want to leave, I have to remind myself that through past internships, festivals, collaborations, and failures, I do have the skills that allow me to fulfill some unique musical duties. I have to remind myself that I’ve written some badass music that makes performers happy and that those inside and outside the world of ‘new music’ truly enjoy it. Very, very slow and slightly unsteady can still win the race.

Despite my shaking of fists, I must firmly state that Phoenix is not void of culture. Art galleries all over the valley are touting some very compelling work. The Mayor of Mesa, AZ, Scott Smith, spoke at the RNC about keeping arts funding alive in order to drive economic growth and build healthy communities. When I went to Arizona Opera last year, they announced that they were in the black and AZ Opera is opening a large new facility in downtown very soon. Micheal Christie, who is in his last season as Music Director of the Phoenix Symphony, commissioned works from several prominent composers and did the best he could pushing new-ish works. Our tiny downtown arts district is covered in some of the most vibrant murals I’ve seen. I love riding my bike to local bars (Arizona beer gets better every year) and local coffee shops (also a thriving scene). Most of the dive bars have “bands in residence” to help promote local acts. There’s a new website where Phoenicians can submit their ideas for improving the city, and some will have the opportunity of sitting down with a city council member about their ideas. There are public spaces that are actually being used on a regular basis for anything from yoga to concerts (this is a pretty big deal for us). There are great things happening in Phoenix, but I still don’t know if I’m willing to stay. Even in 100ºF weather, I’m loosing steam.

1 I fully realize that many times this is the only option. I just wish it weren’t.

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  • Eric Reda

    As a native Arizonan who also studied composition at ASU, Just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate this article. I always felt like an artistic out-lyer in the Valley of the Sun and made the Chicago transition over a decade ago. Have been steadily making music ever since. This essay brought up a lot of old feelings that give a very good context to my choice. Thank you for that.

  • Elizabeth

    Eline- I’ve seen that website before (before even writing this article) and I’ve combed through the repertoire for the various quartets. None of them seemed to be inclined to perform new music, I’m not saying they wouldn’t like to (as you stated), but from what I gathered, these ensembles are selling them selves for gigs that would not include new music. If you are looking for weddings and corporate party gigs, you aren’t going to play Ligeti or Wolfe (if that were the case, I would crash so many weddings).

  • Elizabeth

    Gina- I’ve seen Crossing 32nd Street at a concert at ASU and they are amazing. I didn’t mention this group and one other because mainly because I didn’t want their names in what is essentially a negative article. Both organizations don’t actively update concert schedules on their websites and I seem to always find out about their few concerts retroactively- so that sucks. Xing 32nd has excellent programming and I hope I can work with them in a few years when my composer chops are much stronger.

  • Gina Genova

    What about “Crossing 32nd” – I’ve heard good things about this ensemble.

  • Elaine

    I used your fancy google link, and did notice that gig masters sites come up first. That’s because that organization gluts the internet-waves with its listings. There are more string quartets in Phoenix, but like many “serious” ensembles in this musical “economy,” everyone plays weddings (if they can get the work). Phoenix even has a String Quartet Association. I imagine that any of the groups listed there would love to play new music.

    I imagine that any of the string quartets in that association would be thrilled to be asked to play a real concert for a real audience that is interested in hearing the music simply for the sake of hearing the music, if you can find a place for them to play it.

    It is VERY difficult to find places to play music that is not functional music or music that is not background music (and I know that it is far easier in Phoenix than it is where I live in rural downstate Illinois). Period. Anywhere.