Music pervades our world, yet the men and women who create the sounds we hear are often unsung. Composers Now is a weeklong festival presented collaboratively by a number of organizations citywide offering concerts, lectures, conversations, and other activities that highlight the contribution composers make to the cultural fabric of our lives. Composers Now puts a public face on the vitality, diversity, and innovations that composers bring to our communities.
Composers Now: The origins
Composers Now was born shortly after the 2008 collapse on Wall Street when composers Tania León and I were having dinner, and the conversation veered from the recession to Cuba after Castro to the show at the Met to Michelle Obama’s hairstyle to the challenges that each composer faces when he or she is alone, facing the empty manuscript page, and wondering, “What am I going to say in this piece??” We talked about how invisible composers are in the societal and cultural fabric as compared to writers and visual artists.
Composers are the invisible members of the musical ecosystem. We see the performers who play the music, but we almost never see, talk to, and get to know the people who created the music being performed, the people whose stories are being told. Most of us never meet the composer who lives next door to us, sits next to us on the subway, stands ahead of us on the line at the deli, or works out with us at the gym.
Tania said that composers need what the poets have: a whole month and a Poet Laureate. People know that poets write words that touch us. Nobody thinks about composers; they just think the music is there without thinking about where it came from. We need to do something about this.
Birth of a New Arts Consortium
Around the same time as the dinner, I hosted another dinner at Symphony Space where a diverse group of New York’s mid-size presenters gathered to talk openly about the impact of the economic downturn on audiences and fundraising and all the usual concerns of non-profit arts institutions. I hoped to engender a sense of community and mutual support among presenters during stressful times, rather than competitiveness and mistrust. After a few meetings in Symphony Space’s wine bar, the group found its stride and began to share issues and ideas as trust developed. The concept was to have a non-hierarchical, freely structured consortium of mid-sized participants/presenters/organizations that could help each other negotiate what we all perceived was going to be a few rough years. The group grew with each successive meeting.
A New Music Festival Takes Shape
Back to Tania and the question of composer invisibility.
I said to Tania, “I think we make composers more visible if the consortium gets behind the idea that we can collaborate and make a festival about living composers making all kinds of music in all kinds of styles in all kinds of venues. Shall I ask them? Will you join me??”
Of course Tania agreed immediately, and at the next meeting, we presented the idea of joining forces to celebrate the composer and the group said yes. From these humble beginnings, rooted only in good will and armed only with positive energy, Composers Now began to find a form and other mid-sized presenters joined in.
Additionally, as soon as it was clear that a festival was beginning to take shape, I met with The New York Times Public Affairs group to plan a Speaking of the Arts evening at Symphony Space. The Times signed on and culture writer Daniel J. Wakin and a panel of composers—including Joan Tower, Arturo O’Farrill, Eisa Davis, Jeanine Tesori, and Henry Threadgill—will close the February 22nd marathon.