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Writers' Block

With few opportunities and much competition, young composers show creativity in just getting heard.

July 22, 2007|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

STACKS of scores and CDs pile up on the desk of Chad Smith, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's vice president of artistic planning. Each represents an aspiring composer's dream of a Philharmonic performance or commission.

"I'd say we probably get 30 to 50 submissions a month," Smith says, before adding discouragingly, "To be fair, 98% of blind submissions are things that we can't program."

Multiply that scene by almost every orchestra office in the country and you have an idea of the difficulties faced by fledgling composers. When Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen announced in April that he would be leaving his post at the end of the 2008-09 season to concentrate on his own music, few observers questioned the wisdom of his decision. After all, the conductor, now 49, had built an international reputation during his years on the podium. But for hopefuls without his name recognition, the outlook is bleak at best.

There have never been enough opportunities, but now more composers are graduating from schools and conservatories than ever. San Francisco's Kronos Quartet, which is famous for promoting new music, has received more than 1,000 submissions over the last five years for its Under 30 Project, dedicated to commissioning young composers, but it chooses to focus on only one composer a year. The New York new music group Bang on a Can listens to hundreds of CDs for its People's Commissioning Fund, but it has commissioned only about 30 composers since the fund's inception in 1997.

So what's an ambitious composer to do? In fact, conversations with several dozen suggest a variety of strategies. Some are forming ensembles. Others are starting festivals, webcasting or setting up streaming audio sites. And just about everyone has found an alternative way to pay the bills. The only thing that's certain is that waiting for a cloudburst of opportunities is not an option.

Starting something

CONSIDER Matt McBane, who graduated from USC in 2002 and then spent a year trying to get his music performed and obtain commissions from young ensembles.

"Things didn't happen as quickly as I hoped," the 28-year-old says. "I came to the realization that I'd have to make opportunities for myself."

So in 2004, McBane and his friend Benjamin Jacobson, first violinist of the Calder Quartet, launched the Carlsbad Music Festival in the Southern California coastal city. The idea was to create an annual alternative music festival to showcase themselves and the composers and performers they believed in.

"I was inspired by Bang on a Can," says McBane. "They started about the same age as I did, and that's been going on for 10 years now. I thought I'd take a crack at it. For the most part, it's all next-generation composers and performers doing something new and fresh, with classical music being a part of it but mostly exploring new music."

The festival has been modest -- usually running over a single weekend. But it's become stable enough so that McBane can run it from New York, where he moved recently and formed an ensemble, Build -- a violin, cello, piano, bass and drums quintet, dedicated to his indie-classical music. This year, it has even added a Sept. 24 concert at Zipper Hall in Los Angeles prior to the Sept. 28-30 weekend in Carlsbad.

Still, like all his peers, McBane has had to find other ways to keep body and soul together. He's taught and conducted, and as a violinist, he can get paying gigs. The problem with that is that he's got to make time to practice.

"It's tricky," he says. "It's not like I have several assistants. I just have to block off time -- my writing month; another month to work on administrative stuff. Then I'm trying to get in practicing every day. It's a pretty risky profession. I'm not living off commissions."

At 37, Robert Voisey may seem to fall outside the "young composer" category, but in fact he came to composing late, after first majoring in math and computer science at Stony Brook University in New York. There he met Israeli composer Oded Zehavi and, inspired to try his hand at music-making himself, followed Zehavi to Israel, where he studied with him for two years.

When he came back to New York in 1994, however, Voisey found few opportunities. "It was hard to get a piece played, hard to get musicians to look at it," he says. "There were no venues. There were and are very limited opportunities, no matter how you slice it."

Finally, frustrated by years of knocking on doors with no success, in 2000 Voisey set up a website, Vox Novus, to promote his and his friends' music.

"The idea was to create a community of composers, artists and musicians to work together to promote each other," he says. He started with five composers. "Now there are 120 and a few loose musicians I promote here and there."

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