In 1914 Igor Stravinsky's world premiere of The Rite of Spring earned him near universal disdain. The audiences in Paris rioted, and critics penned reviews calling for corporal punishment. No composer in the 90 years since then has been so vilified -- and that's the problem. Mainstream classical music audiences haven't grown more accustomed to pushing the edge of the envelope -- they've simply stopped listening to new music altogether. One hundred-twenty years ago, when Brahms attempted to re-introduce audiences to Bach, they thought he was crazy -- why listen to old music when new composers were writing cutting edge stuff? But in today's world the classical music scene is filled with super-star celebrity musicians performing the same five symphonies and the same four opera arias over and over again. Blind tenors, sopranos in d�colletage, and composers hankering for "crossover appeal" push their "brand" so as to compete over the spoils of an increasingly restricted repertoire and an ever more geriatric audience.
What's a young composer to do? Recently Cleveland Institute of Music graduate Jim Bonney teamed up with Juilliard alums Eric Whitacre, Jonathan Newman and Steve Bryant to form "BCM International" (no one knows what it stands for) and decided to work outside the box altogether. These guys are not your typical composers. Steve's works include a six-minute electronic remix of a Stooges song, Jim once supplemented his income by writing music for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Jonathan's piece, "Uncle Sid," sounds like what you might get if you gave Shostakovich peyote, waited three hours, and then asked him to write a setting of "Hava Negilah" for a high school band. Eric Whitacre, the best-known of the four, is both physically and musically a combination of Kurt Cobain, Francis Poulenc, and Legolas all rolled into one. When not writing ethereally beautiful choral music he composes pieces with titles like "Godzilla Eats Las Vegas;" his latest project, an opera based on Paradise Lost, combines classical music with dance, trance, and ambient music.
They're technology junkies. Whitacre lives in LA, Newman and Bryant in New York, and Bonney right here in Chicago, but they use a combination of IM, video conferencing, and email to create a virtual collaborative environment. And they're not just communicating amongst themselves over the Internet -- they're communicating with their fans as well. Their website features a blog, mp3s of their work, and an active message board with over 1,000 users. Those fans are mostly teenagers -- BCM works largely in the world of "symphonic winds," a fancy term for "band." Just as the Lutheran Church kept Bach's kid in clothes by providing him a steady demand for cantatas every Sunday, the members of BCM work largely off of commissions from college and high school bands. What's it like to write challenging new music for an ensemble used to a fare of show tune medleys and John Philip Sousa marches? How does the digital age change composing, collaborating, and turning on fans to new music? What is the plight of the composer in today's world? I had a chance to ask BCM these questions and more last month during their recent visit to Chicago.
Fig1. BCM International. From left: Jonathan Newman, James Bonney, Eric Whitacre and Steve Bryant.
Alex Golub: I'm glad to have a chance to talk to you guys -- I think it's great to have composers working today who, like, set Stooges songs. I think that's really very cool.
Jim Bonney: There's only one of us here who does that.
Alex: Cool. About a month ago Ned Rorem came into town for his 80th birthday. And he said that this was the only time in his entire career that people went to go see music for the performers rather than the composer -- that the composer was no longer in the center of what was new and interesting about music and that people were more interested in super-star celebrity musicians. Do you think that's true? What is it like to be a young composer today?
Jonathan Newman: Ned's wrong about a lot of things.
Jonathan: But I think he's got a point. Yes, of course in the past there were Stokowskis, there were Karajans, there were Bernsteins -- there were people who were bigger than the music itself: personalities. But those were exceptions, and I think that's why we remember them. Now I think it's all about the performer and not about the music. Think about the New York Philaharmonic -- do we care what they're playing, or do we care that Maazel is conducting it?
Eric Whitacre: I think that's because contemporary classical music has basically lost all relevance with regular audiences, and the only thing that's left is how to best dress up the millionth performance of Beethoven's Fifth. So you add star power.
Jonathan: I think that's a little different in the wind world. What Ned is talking about is a slightly different community. This is actually one of the attractive things about the wind world -- it's very composer-centric in a way.
Jim: It's like picking up a newspaper and looking at who wrote the articles and who took the photographs instead of reading the news. They're playing repertoire that has become so solidified that there's no interesting news. The only thing that's left to make it interesting is to develop a cult of personality so people at least pay attention to who is writing the articles and who's taking the pictures. Whereas with wind music there's such an interest in new music -- there's this sense of "what's Eric done that's new? What's Steve done that's new?"
Alex: Is wind music attractive to you guys because it's still a space where that kind of stuff is happening?
Jonathan: I think it's one of the few places where that stuff is still happening.
Alex: Do you think you would be interested in experimenting with other forms, but it's just that you don't have the chance?
Eric: Most certainly. If it were the perfect world...
Jim: ...we'd have strings! [laughs]
Jonathan: Right. To take whatever band is doing and make it for orchestras -- yeah I think we'd all like that.
Steve Bryant: An orchestra is kind of like a Cadillac and a band is like a Buick. At least you've got a motor in your Buick instead of a Cadillac that doesn't go anywhere.
Jonathan: The problem is that with bands you're basically dealing with educational music. In educational music it's harder to teach strings -- they're expensive instruments to give to kids and it takes awhile for them to sound good. Whereas if you stick a clarinet in front of a kid he or she can sound pretty decent at it in a fairly short period of time. And they can play outside and they can play at the football games and things like that.
Alex: I guess on the one hand it must open up a space where you can make new music, but it also limits what you can do -- not just in terms of the size of the ensembles and all the colors available, but because of the difficulty.
Jonathan: Bingo. Wow. That's very perceptive. Yes, you're absolutely right.
Alex: Does that ever drive you nuts?
Alex: Is it a challenge to write playable music?
Jim: Yes, definitely. I like that you said "challenge" -- if you think of it that way it's not nearly as frustrating or disappointing.
Eric: I don't think Jim and I struggle with it as much as these two struggle with it, because our natural inclination is to write music that is simple anyway. So if I had my New York Philharmonic commission I'd write pretty simple music.
Jonathan: Whereas my natural inclination is to write pretty darn complicated music. When I don't do that I'm killing a small part of myself. I've learned how to put the complication into the piece while keeping it playable. I do it in orchestration, I do it with form and structure, and I try to find other ways to write what I want to write. But yes, it's very frustrating. I feel like I'm getting better at it.
Alex: The band scene is a little bit different from the classical scene...
Alex: I mean people who are in band, that's their whole lives, you know?
Eric: When you talk about classical music you're talking about professionals, and when you're talking about band you're generally talking about nonprofessionals -- amateurs. So half the reason that they do what they do is for the community as opposed to for the gig.
Alex: I suppose it must be rewarding to a certain extent, then, to have people who love to do the music.
Eric: You said it brother. We talk about this all the time -- even when we get the big New York Phil gig sometimes it's not as fulfilling, because it's just a thing they play. It sounds great and it's clean but it doesn't always have that vibrancy. There's an energy coming from a wind group and a willingness to dig deep that you don't always get with pros.
Jim: And you know you could be sparking an experience for someone that's got tremendous value for the rest of their life -- that's pretty cool.
Jonathan: A couple of years ago I had this commission from the New York Youth Symphony to write a string quartet. So these were high school kids that were actually playing the piece. It was very similar to the excitement that you get working with students in the band world. It becomes really attractive. It really makes you feel like a composer -- it makes you feel like you're contributing something. Anyway, it was a great performance and it had so much energy and they really cared about it, and they just put their hearts into it. And yeah, maybe it wasn't technically the best performance and some of the rhythms were off or whatever. But then a couple of months later a professional group did it and in many ways the kids were better. Sure, some of the rhythms were cleaner and there were things in there were I was like "oh, I guess that is the right way to play that" when the pros were playing it -- but I actually like the recording from the kids better.
Alex: I guess it's one of those things -- how do you make a living doing art? And where do you find a niche? I guess for composers it's kind of hard to find a niche these days.
Eric: No. I totally disagree. Everyone always says this and I think it's the easiest place to find a niche.
Alex: Really? How so?
Eric: Because when you're a trombonist� well, basically trombones the world over all sound like trombones. With a composer you start from scratch. You can reinvent the entire thing. You have a completely unique voice. You're not competing with anyone but yourself. If you write music you can revolutionize everything. How can you revolutionize trombone playing? You'd have to be extraordinary to even make a dent in the world of trombone. But as a composer you can come up with a new kind of a language and shock the whole world.
Jonathan: You know you kinda have to be an extraordinary composer to make a dent.
Eric: You have to be a good composer. But your voice can be so unique.
Alex: Speaking of unique voice, I wanted to ask you guys about electronica since I know some of you are into that. In the choral world it seems like the big things these days is cross-over. "We're going to do some Josquin, and then we're going to do some Inuit chant."
Alex: It's sort of like, why listen to a classically trained choir do Marvin Gaye covers when I could listen to Marvin Gaye? So my question to you is, how do you blend electronica with the more traditional classical music?
Steve: Well I think in some ways I'd say I haven't. They're two different worlds. Sometimes it's a great way to separate myself from wind writing. It's just a different process from making classical music, and I love it just as much. As far as integrating them, I do have some ideas about doing a large scale piece for winds and electronics, but it's actually a very big challenge to figure out how to do that. I find the way I go about writing or creating for musicians and electronic music are very different processes, and the kind of music I write for both of them is in some ways incompatible, and so finding a middle ground there -- to find the strengths of both of them so that it doesn't sound like a hybrid piece of crap is the key. I don't have it done yet.
Alex: Eric, isn't this is what you're trying to do with your opera Paradise Lost?
Eric: I started off trying to, and I sell it as "combining classical music with dance and trance and opera." What I found is that it doesn't really work -- what you end up making is a hybrid piece of crap. It took me a long time to discover this, but I think now I'm finally on the track. The electronics are just another instrument, and you play them in a different way.
Jonathan: That's the way it should be.
Eric: You can do things with live instruments that you can't do with electronics, and you can do otherworldly things with electronics that you could never do with live instruments. But you need to play the instrument. It took me a long time to figure that out. So now I play digital performer or pro tools like I would any other instrument. With the opera there will be prerecorded tracks that I'm conducting off my laptop, there will be a live string orchestra, two live percussionists, and then 35 live singers. The voices will be processed in real time through the computer so that the singer will sing and things will get chopped up in the computer and sent back out -- kind of like The Fifth Element. So I'm trying to integrate the two. It's a process though. I certainly can't say I've mastered it yet. I'm hoping to master it by the June premier!
Alex: And Jonathan, when you said "that's how it should be" -- you said that like there was some way that it shouldn't be that some people do sometimes.
Jonathan: I think Eric hit it right on the head -- the default approach to something like this is that the electronics are like gravy and you just add them. But there's an inherent conflict there, and there's no way around it, you know? You have a band on stage and there's electronics coming out of two speakers -- there's a conflict happening. And instead of them fighting each other, the way around it is to use the electronics like it was an instrument in the ensemble and to make a whole piece instead of two things fighting each other.
Alex: One of the things that I always sort of worry about when I think about people mixing two different traditions is that on the one hand the electronics might sound really really interesting to people who do classical music, but people who come from the electronica community are like, "Dude what is this guy doing?" Like, "He saw Better Living Through Circuitry and now he's trying to do all this stuff!"
Jim: A lot of times it's very easy for someone to take a caricature of two different styles and combine them together and typically what you get is a half-assed version of one and a half-assed version of the other and it comes out sounding really cheap and cheesy, and we've heard this all a million times, you know? And people have tremendously great careers doing this -- tremendously successful careers, but we don't consider them honest artists, because I don't think it rings true.
Eric: We experienced this a lot with the opera at first, where we trying to write for the electronica people and all the hardcore electronica people thought "it's bad electronica" and all the hardcore opera people thought "this is an abomination." And now we're in a place where it is what it is. I don't think of it anymore as combining two styles. "Opera electronica" is just a cool way to get people to come see it.
Jonathan: And that, my friend, is why it's coming together. Because as you were creating you came to that realization and started writing like that instead of writing like you were combining two different styles. And that's why it's working now.
Eric: You see, the four of us form this crazy support group -- we're on email all the time talking to each other, and I have to say that it's because of these three that my opera has made this sea change to what it is now. I'd put up a performance and then these three...
Jonathan: And then we'd yell at him.
Eric: No, they'd honestly -- and so constructively, and with real love -- help me tear it apart and find the core of the thing and then build it back up. It's essential to have this kind of group.
Alex: See that's really interesting to me because there were two things there. One was "crazy support group" and the other was "email." So I guess my next question is -- how do you guy's communicate, because y'all don't live in the same place.
Jonathan: iChat baby.
Alex: iChat? You're Mac people?
Eric: Absolutely -- and video chat. There'll be days when I've spent time with them. Like yesterday, when I hung out with Newman for an hour -- and he lives in New York and I live in LA! I mean he's right there on the screen. And we're working while we're talking.
Steve: Sending files.
Steve: It's been great.
Alex: So you guys have a full-on collaborative atmosphere completely online?
Eric: Yeah, I guess we do.
Steve: It really has coalesced in the last six months or so in that way. We've really taken on the video thing.
Eric: But it is really hardcore. We share scores with each other, we talk about orchestration, we copy each other on everything.
Jonathan: These guys get first draft -- first first drafts of everything that gets written. We all do it. Whenever anyone finishes a piece, they send it out and get comments.
Jim: While it's still raw inside of you.
Jonathan: Even before it's finished.
Eric: It's hard to trust other people with that stuff. To show it to an editor -- God, it's so raw. So it's these guys and my wife.
Jonathan: You do need another pair of eyes, and you need eyes that you trust. And when you're not in school anymore it's hard to find that. I mean, even when you're in school half the time you don't trust them.
Eric: That's why we all hung out in school.
Alex: Do you guys ever wonder -- so I do fieldwork in Papua New Guinea and I used a computer to take field notes. And then I think of these people who worked there in the Thirties who sat there with these manual typewriters with carbon paper in the middle of the jungle and once a month gave their papers to the colonial guy who ran the mail service -- so you guys...
Jonathan: What's the difference between that and opening up your ti book in the middle of the jungle? They're just as weird.
Alex: Well, try searching through paper field notes! The point I'm trying to make is that you guys are using all this technology in pretty new ways, not just to write music but to collaborate. Do you ever wonder, "How could Bach have done it without iChat?"
Eric: I don't do that -- I think it starts freaking me out.
Jonathan: That's why Bach lived his entire life in one 15-mile radius.
Steve: It's not that he did it without iChat, it's that he did it at all.
Eric: I mean these guys are anomalies.
Jim: Well it's not that we don't use a lot of technology, but at the same time every single one of us ends up back with a pencil and a piece of paper writing this up.
Alex: Is that true? That's how it starts?
Eric: Always. Unless it's electronic music.
Jonathan: It just makes it easier. How did they do it? They sent them in the mail -- but now it's just faster. I send them a PDF of the score and they all get it.
Alex: So you don't feel like the technology has totally changed how you composed it's just made everything easier?
Jonathan: It's changed how many people compose, and I have a lot to say about that but I won't do it here. I don't think it's changed the way we compose.
Alex: Well, you could say a little bit about it here.
Eric: I think it's a good thing.
Jonathan: Oh MAN!
Eric: It gives people a chance who should be able to try it.
Jonathan: Finalemusic is a good thing?
Eric: Yes, every music is a good thing. People are trying. Some people are better at it then others. But how can it be a bad thing that they're trying to make music?
Alex: Can you tell me what "finalemusic" is?
Jonathan: Finalemusic is my not-so-creative term for the music that's created and written into a notation program that is inherently limited musically because it's a notation program, and so therefore the music is limited both creatively, structurally, and musically.
Eric: We're about to start a massive argument, so if there's any other questions...
Alex: I'd love to hear it, actually, unless you don't want to have at it again. I guess the idea of it being easier for people to make music who didn't make it before is something that people think of as the result of the Internet -- all of a sudden there's all this new music available, there all these amateur bands online. Is it a good thing that there's now a million people whose semi-good cover band is on the Internet?
Jonathan: Well I'm sorry -- writing music is really hard. It's really hard -- it shouldn't be easy.
Eric: But so what? You should still have the tools. It's just a tool. Look, in 1650 there were a lot of really bad composers using quills and paper. Tons of them. We seem to think that 1650 was a good time because we remember five composers. But there were probably 10,000 composers all throughout Europe writing crap and there was probably some guy who looked a lot like Jonathan yelling, "They shouldn't be given quills!"
Eric: "They shouldn't have the paper! Keep it from them!" It's just a tool -- it's crazy.
Jim: And the bottom line is what you do with it and whether you stick with it.
Eric: But in terms of recording technology, it's great. It's so great. You can buy your ti book, and you've got a recording studio -- a world class recording studio. It liberates you.
Jim: It levels the playing field.
Jonathan: And that's a good thing. I understand that. That is absolutely a good thing -- it's a good tool when used as a tool.
Eric: So how can Finale be a bad thing?
Jonathan: Finale itself is not a bad thing. I don't think it's a good notation program...
Jim: And finalemusic doesn't really go anywhere.
Jonathan: But it's not a composition program. there is no such thing as a composition program.
Alex: Maybe we can just say it's like the Force -- it can be used for good or evil.
Eric: Exactly. We need a martini to get past this point.
Alex: But to return to the Internet. Composers distributing their music is sort of a classical problem -- how do you get it recorded, there are people xeroxing sheet music, and so forth. And now you have the Internet and file trading. Some people think it's great because it lets music get out there, be public, circulate. Some people are afraid because it makes them lose their stranglehold.
Jonathan: That's one way of putting it, I guess. How about "lose their intellectual copyrights?"
Jim: Well, Alex is right, from the record companies standpoint it's true. That's absolutely what the record companies think.
Alex: I didn't mean to say -- I mean you can be very cynical about big content, but then there are also a lot of people who are trying to make a living as poets and their stuff gets on the Internet and their ability to make a living as a poet goes down the tubes. You guys have a website -- why did you do that, and what was the thinking behind it?
Eric: We're in a unique position because the majority of our income does not come from recorded music. I don't have a pop album that has the potential of selling 10 million copies. So the majority of my income comes from the sale of sheet music. Any recorded music that gets traded all over the world is actually a good thing for me. It lets people hear it and encourages them to buy the sheet music or to perform or to invite me to conduct. For me that a very good thing. I used to love it when Napster was around -- it was very good for my career.
Jim: Even the commercial CDs are really still just a tool for promotion -- they're still not a big money making thing.
Eric: That's how it goes in classical composition. But these days I'm constantly thinking about the opera, because we have big plans for the album and we hope it has some crossover appeal and plan on doing remixes of it with DJs and now I'm not sure how I feel about file sharing. Because ultimately I do believe people are stealing -- that you can argue all different sides of this stranglehold. Maybe record companies are charging too much for it or they're withholding the product, that's possible. But ultimately you made something and you're selling it. And some people believe that because it's out there it's public domain. But if you stopped making it it wouldn't be there. It's very tricky, don't you think?
Alex: And it sounds like once again you and Eric are going to have to arm wrestle about this?
Jonathan: I'm just going to sound like a tool in this interview. I'm going to sound like a stick up the... but yes, Eric's right. I understand both of his arguments, but I think the second one is the more important one. Yes it can help you, but ultimately down the line if you're part of a situation that helps perpetuate the stealing of music over the Internet, then when it's your turn to distribute something that you don't want stolen over the Internet, you're screwed. So why not attempt to educate people on the rights of artists and intellectual copyright and ownership of material that isn't necessarily tangible?
Alex: You guys have mp3s on your sites. Are you hoping that they get circulated?
Jonathan: I'm not.
Jim: It's inevitable that that's going to happen.
Eric: We do hope those get circulated because it's very good for our careers. On my site I have a little mp3 player -- but it's Flash so it's very difficult to actually download the clip. You can go to the site and visit it and listen to it, but you can't actually take the music. So far it's working, but it's only a matter of time.
Jonathan: When it comes to the site I'm a little bit of a hypocrite. Yes there are downloads. But I feel like I'm making the personal choice to let that happen at this point in my career. But it's my choice to make. It's not your choice to take it. It's my choice to give it to you.
Jim: My solution is to put low-res versions of the stuff up there. Not so much 'cause I'm concerned about joe teenager downloading my stuff. I'm fine with that. It's that a TV composer or a commercial composer could download it and if it's good enough quality they could use it -- if it's not they probably won't because it doesn't sound good enough.
Eric: Is your stuff low-res? It sounds great, man. What is it, 92kbps?
Jim: It's 56.
Eric: It sounds great.
Jim: Thanks dude.
Eric: I will say this: I get an enormous amount of emails from teenagers. And in the past two years especially there's been this sort of philosophical approach that you just don't buy music. I'm approached almost daily with "Will you send me the file" or "Where can I download it" or "Mr. Whitacre I found this on Kazaa and you're so great." And they don't think that's wrong -- so somewhere there's been a real shift.
Jonathan: I left some sort of tirade on the forum on our website. Somebody was like "I need a MIDI file of [Whitacre's piece] 'October' fast," and we replied: Um... sorry buddy, even if we had it we wouldn't give it to you -- it's not yours to do whatever you want with it.
Eric: If I had it though I'd probably give it to him.
Eric: What is he going to do with it? That's the thing -- we're acting like it's gold or like it's Cher or Sting. It's October, you know?
Jonathan: But you just said that people now have a whole attitude about this. So let's change the attitude.
Alex: This is really interesting. I guess this brings up the question of the fans, and the Internet as a place to breed a fandom.
Jonathan: We're working on it.
Eric: In the biggest way. It's amazing. Amazing. The website has been the best thing that ever happened to my career. Ever. At first we just set it up for people to come and kind of hang out at. We didn't know what we were doing.
Jonathan: It was Steve's idea, and at first I was like, "Why would you ever want to do that?"
Eric: And now we have almost 1,200 users, almost 2,000 articles posted, and not only do people come there, but we're having actual seminars -- it's a virtual school online. It's unreal. And daily. And it's kind of revolutionized what we've done. And for me and with Paradise Lost especially, people will visit my site or visit the Paradise Lost Site and I'm collecting -- we must have close to 4,000 email addresses now. And so I send out these mass emails and announce a performance somewhere and boom -- it sells out. It's unbelievable. It's unbelievable.
Alex: So guys really consciously set out to sort of cultivate an audience?
Jim: Well you have to, because of what we were talking about earlier -- when everyone can do it, you really do have to make a point of cultivating the audience. It's the other part of your creative career.
Alex: And now there's a blog up on your site -- what's up with that?
Jonathan: It was actually Eric's idea. We decided we wanted to redesign the site and we all decided that regular news pages were getting boring and staid and dull. So it was Eric's idea to have us all be capable of having the front page/news page whatever it is be a newsworthy blog type thing where we can all post in.
Eric: I'm big on cult of personality. Seriously. I mean about cultivating cult of personality. I visit a lot of sites daily -- like Linkin Park or Bjork -- I follow them daily. And I'm like "Oh my god Bjork has wheat toast for breakfast and so did I -- that is so COOL."
Eric: So I know how that feels. It's so personal. And it's a little narcissistic, but it's so... I don't know what it is. It's the cocaine of the Internet.
Jonathan: It's totally narcissistic. But... I thought it would be fun!
Eric: People would be interested and I actually think of it as educational. Mostly because in our profession people somehow put composers in an ivory tower -- they either think you're dead or you're old. So just to see you had toast in the morning is pretty cool.
Jonathan: I don't know if we're going to go that far with it.
Eric: No but we'll post pictures -- "Hey this is us! What's up guys?!"
Fig2. "Hey, this is us! What's up guys?!"
Steve: [imitating teenager] "I can't believe you guys actually just hang out!"
Eric: Yeah yeah, so then some 16-year-old kid is like, "Hey they just hang out. They're older than me -- but I could do that." And then they bring out Finale, they start making finalemusic...
Jonathan: And they do!
Eric: And it's good and it's unbelievable!
Jim: And even if it's not...
Eric: Before you know it they've got Newman's job.
Jonathan: And what job would that be?
Alex: I think that's about all the questions I had. Is there anything that you wished I asked you, but didn't?
Jonathan: The revolution.
Alex: Tell me about the revolution.
Jonathan: We've had discussions over the last couple of days on what exactly is the revolution we'd like.
Eric: I've been thinking a lot about this. And it's my entire credo of art: just do not be boring. That's it. It's that simple. And it's all about relevancy. It goes much deeper than that. We find this kind of world, the wind world, very boring. It's extremely boring and not relevant. And so we're just trying to do this thing and have a good time. I think we're all just trying to right music that we'd like to sit in the audience and listen to.
Jonathan: Absolutely. That's the bottom line. And actually I think that's the revolution.
Below are links to MP3 files by each of the composers. More information about BCM International and the composers individually can be found at BCMInternational.com.
• the second movement of his violin concerto, "Trilogy"