Yesterday morning, Ellen McSweeney wrote an excellent piece detailing payment trouble she and others are having with Chicago’s Beethoven Festival from 2013. (I would strongly suggest reading the article and glancing through the ever-growing comments before reading further.) There is no need to rehash those points here, but I do think it is important to address further some of the issues surrounding classical musicians and money.
Immediately after reading McSweeney’s post, I was reminded of a talk I saw a while back titled “F*ck you. Pay me.“¹ In the video, designer Mike Monteiro and his lawyer discuss how to get paid for one’s work to what I presume is a roomful of mostly web designers. There are parts that don’t directly apply to musicians (payments in the tens of thousands of dollars not the least of which), but there are many points that every individual or small ensemble should take to heart. If you have 30 minutes (and don’t object to profanity), it’s well worth a watch, and I’ll try to pull some salient points that might help us all get paid in full and on time.
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Posted by Xenia Pestova »
This opinion post by Xenia Pestova was originally published in Issue 2 of our magazine and is offered here in its entirety.
In a recent video interview, pianist Mitsuko Uchida raises an important point, albeit in passing: while being a musician is a vocation and privilege, we still need to make a living. Although Ms. Uchida is not likely to starve for lack of concert opportunities in the near future, many other professional performers are obliged to have a “day job” of some description, and would indeed find it a privilege to focus their energies entirely on making music. Echoing this concern in stronger terms, Norman LeBrecht expresses outrage when young orchestra musicians are paid less than the UK national minimal wage for an engagement. In an eloquent if somewhat baffling response, a young freelancer claims that experience is more important than the pay.
This complex debate has been raging for a long time, with many possible points of view. Take the example of a major contemporary music festival that has established a successful platform of performance opportunities for up-and-coming artists. The application page asks for proposal details with the usual biography and program. It is only after downloading the application form that applicants realize that the festival is not able to provide any financial support— not even travel or accommodation assistance—which would mean a major investment for a young ensemble consisting of several musicians and not resident in the city where the festival takes place. While it can be standard practice for smaller operations programming “niche” music to have performers play for only a proportion of the door costs (and many exciting underground events would not be possible without mutual support and understanding between the organizers and the performers), it does raise questions when a festival offers professional fees to some artists, but not to others.
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Kids, Graphic Scores, & How Music Education is a Two-Way Street
I suppose I should open with a disclaimer: I am a composer, by no means an expert on music education, and am not particularly well read in the area of pedagogy. I am writing this little article because, in the words of J.S. Bach (as paraphrased by Kyle Gann), “I had a gig.” And yet I would have never imagined that in the pursuit of writing an engaging tune for string quartet I could have stumbled across as much food for thought as I did. In short, my search for a good 3-minute piece culminated not in the discovery of a snazzy riff or a harmonic progression that I found particularly cool but it came, instead, from a few notes by Beethoven and a room full of third graders.
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Here’s a story I hope is true. Years ago, Laurie Anderson contacted Thomas Pynchon via snail mail to ask if she could turn his comic epic Gravity’s Rainbow into an opera. According to Anderson, his response was brief: “You can do it, but you can only use a banjo.”
The performance artist took this as a polite way of saying, “No.” But perhaps she wasn’t surprised. Pynchon is typically hesitant to allow adaptations of his works, and with good reason. Even among the few visionaries left, you’d be hard-pressed to find a film director or opera composer who aligns well with his mystical, slapstick, intellectual point of view. Finding a serious artist with a sense of humor, and the ability to work it into her work, is hard enough.
But, even if you could find a living composer to drink the Pynchon juice, there is no way you could pull off a full production of Gravity’s Rainbow opera without the contribution of the late Cathy Berberian, whose vocal technique was second only to her musical wanderlust. I first discovered her recordings on the avant-garde site Ubuweb, a treasure trove of strange and wonderful art pieces. You can listen to and download tracks from her album Nel Labrinto Dela Voce, a collection of recordings from all throughout her career, from the 60s through the 80s, including a fantastic Villa-Lobos’s street scene “Desejo” and, my personal favorite, a take on Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny” that’s as sexy and dramatic as anything Lotte Lenya could’ve done. You might just obey her when you hear her demand to “Take that pipe out of your mouth!”
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It’s that time of year again. Electric companies are excited about the diminishing daylight and the extremely wasteful lights on houses (if my dad is to be believed), peppermint has replaced pumpkin as the flavor du jour, and best of lists abound. This being a site that tends to review things, such ranking posts would seem an inevitability. Rather than engage in such practices, our fearless editor has asked us to take a slightly different approach. As such, I will not be giving you my Top 10 [fill in the blank] of 2012. Instead, I’ll be looking at the one thing that seems to summarize my year: listening.
Record grooves via electron microscope, courtesy Rochester University
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