NY Times Reaction / A Conversation with Kenneth Fuchs

Over the weekend, I had an impromptu discussion with composer Kenneth Fuchs, mainly focusing on this recent New York Times article by Allan Kozinn.  In the article, Kozinn examines the dichotomy happening in “classical” music (I despise that term for many reasons – which may be part of the problem) between traditional concert halls (he starts calling them “museums” due to the old repertoire that dominates the programming i.e. only performing music by old, dead guys) and newer, more hip venues in NYC such as le Poisson Rouge and other places that are showcasing young composers, newer instruments and technologies in a type of “alt-classical” scene.  As a composer of contemporary orchestral music that gets frequently performed in these “museums” and as prolific and successful composer in his own time (a recent trip to Abbey Road studios to record an entire album of his music for Naxos with the London Symphony Orchestra proves that this dude is legit), I was curious to get the opinion of Fuchs on the state of the classical music world.  Our conversation took many turns, and I thought it was really thought provoking – enough to excerpt for this blog.  I hope you enjoy the exchange below.

Me: I’m curious to get your take on this “movement” or “scene,” Ken.

Kenneth Fuchs: Although I can quibble with a few of his opinions that he states as historical fact, Kozinn’s article appears to be a correct assessment of what is currently happening in “classical” music. As for me, I grew up in what is now considered a fairly conservative musical environment, i.e. studying with Diamond, Persichetti, Del Tredici (+ one year w/Babbitt) throughout most of the 80′s, well before the explosion of awareness and opportunities for young composers. When I was studying at Juilliard almost no-one really cared whether young composers got played, and conductors in their mid 20s were certainly not being appointed music directors of major symphony orchestras!

As for me, I think about trying to compose music that has lasting value well beyond my years, inspired by the enduring models of the Western classical canon. I strive for the orchestral performances because I believe that is how a composer of the kind of music I write is measured…I am grateful that Naxos has taken on my discs. I am hopeful that through digital and electronic formats my music will survive, well after the ‘musical museums’ and all the trendy nightclubs have folded.

Me: I agree that I can’t align myself with everything Kozinn states, but the underlying point that I agree with is that the issue is not whether this is a good or a bad thing, but rather that it’s happening. I’m just curious if the “institution” of the orchestra and the new club scene will ever be reconciled. In some ways it is happening, but in some ways they are growing further apart. As someone from the “old school,” do you see a problem with the future of music if these two audiences drift too far apart? You and many of your contemporaries easily prove that solid, accessible yet challenging music for the orchestra is still being written. On the other hand, this club scene is evolving into a different tradition that doesn’t rely on strict notation, starts to favor improvisation, and doesn’t quite have a tangible identity. With “classical” audiences as small as they are already, stretching listeners even further may become a problem.

KF: I do see that the ‘museum institutions’ are struggling mightily. And that is because they – the people who run them and the artists who work for them – have failed to adapt to the new reality of the world economy, and the electronically driven age in which we live. Things will never go back to what they were. This is a painful lesson at a painful time. I do believe that several more big behemoths will fall before it’s all over. I am glad to see that younger audiences DO show up to the ‘museum’ concerts. Will there be enough of them to sustain these huge institutions with bloated budgets and insular thinking? I doubt it. So the institutions have to change radically, and some are trying to do so. Does this mean that the ‘downtown institutions’ are the savior of classical music? I doubt that too. There is too much tradition in the old repertoire to just cast aside, yet there is not enough of the new repertoire to yet make an evaluative judgment.

You are right, it is difficult to know what to make of it all because we are still so close to it, in the mix, so to speak. I personally believe that the “best” (whatever that is!) of all these musics will endure. No one yet in the history of the Western tradition has been able to articulate the definitive recipe for what makes a piece music durable. But there are recurring elements that we see and hear over and over. For me, a piece of music must clearly communicate a musical and dramatic idea, using whatever means necessary in the composer’s imagination to make it so. You may like a composer’s style, but I think personal style has very little to do with it. There is a deeper, more intangible element. This may be talent and imagination itself.

Me: I’m so glad that you brought up the idea of communication.  I have been talking about this with other musician/artists friends of mine, almost obsessively, and reflecting on what makes a great artist in any discipline.  Whether it’s music/writing/poetry/dance/visual arts/etc., I feel that it all comes down to communication. To me, a great artist completely communicates what they intend, with true transparency between themselves and their art. The fact that you feel the same way is very gratifying for me.

KF: I think a lot about the importance of being communicative at all times. I always try to put myself in the audience, imagining what it would be like to experience the piece that I am writing for the first time. How long does it take for a musical gesture played at the back of the orchestra to resonate out front? Does it happen too quickly, or is it a few seconds too long? The balance of getting the composition right, along with idiomatic orchestration, and giving the players and conductors something interesting to play is a fascinating process to me.

Me: There are far too many composers that are constantly worried about their legacy, the pressures of academia, and how they come across that it gets in the way of their music. Too many external elements that can skew the message.

KF: I think music that is too preoccupied with its own mechanics, or doesn’t seem inevitable – or make for the human experience of listening, perceiving, and responding – isn’t going to have much staying power.

Ned Rorem once said to me (when I was about 22 years old) “keep writing because you never know when the moment is going to come.” I have never forgotten that because it seems like such practical advice, and I still practice it to this day.

Me: So much of this industry is about timing. As long as one keeps doing their thing, their time may come, but you can’t count on anything happening within any particular period.

KF: To be honest, Brendan, I don’t worry about which institution is in or out, or up or down. My job is to write what I need and want to hear. But that is the most important thing, you must BELIEVE more than anything else in the world that what you are writing must be heard by others. That’s when the phone calls, e-mails, postal packages, fundraising letters, etc. begin! There is never enough time to do it all. But you have to do as much as you can.

Me: I often feel like being in music is a burden, because I can’t picture myself doing anything else.

KF: It’s good that you feel that music is a burden. It is. It is also a great joy to make music, but it’s an arduous task to make music that is authentically your own. So far, I’ve discovered it’s a life-ling journey!