The University Record, March 18, 1997

Composing doesn't get the most
money in U.S., Bolcom says

By Jared Blank

Music Prof. William Bolcom outlined the recent history and current state of the oft-struggling American orchestras and composers in his Henry Russel Lecture, presented last week. The lectureship is the highest honor the University gives to a senior faculty member.

Bolcom, who also is a composer of myriad works for orchestras, films and plays, said that American composers have never easily made a living solely by composing. Aaron Copland, for example, lived on an income he earned conducting, not composing. "Our music doesn't get the most money in America and that's the bottom line," Bolcom said.

Because a musical composition isn't a tangible object, like a novel, "it doesn't really have a place in our market economy," he noted, and "with more and more composers using computer equipment, a musical score will have even less intrinsic value."

Though Bolcom said that there is a place for computers in music composition, composers must be careful that "bean counters" don't eliminate the need for real people to perform. With computer equipment, "You don't need 30 violinists to sound like 30 violinists," he said.

These cutbacks have already begun to take place, he added. Stage plays, for example, were once performed with orchestral accompaniment. This practice has been pushed aside in favor of pre-recorded music, Bolcom said.

Computers are not the only force threatening the livelihood of composers and performers. Large city orchestras are closing at an alarming rate and, because of this, orchestras are growing more and more conservative in their musical selections, bypassing newer compositions in favor of those tried and true selections. In addition, these orchestras have yet to adapt to the changing financial landscape. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bolcom noted, has more staff members than musicians.

Bolcom also criticized the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for a "stylistic cronyism," supporting only certain styles of music. He added that even though the NEA's existence is constantly threatened, he believes composers could probably survive without its funds.

There is some hope for today's performers and composers, Bolcom said. Many smaller city orchestras sound as good as many larger orchestras, and their performers have a more manageable schedule, he noted. Composers have begun to view performing as just a part of their profession. Bolcom said that they play in chamber groups and as soloists, or work in other industries, with music as a part of their occupation.

However, he said, changes must be made for composers to thrive, and schools of music can be at the forefront of this change. He suggested that schools can help "join history and the future together," by including modern composers in the curriculum and fostering a "true community" where composers and performers can thrive.