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Music in a New Deal?

January 24, 2009

What a week for music and politics!  I guess its appropriate for the inauguration and all…

First off, on Tuesday, the 1-2 million people in Washington DC were treated to a wonderful recording of a mediocre new quartet by John Williams.  Air and Simple Gifts?  Really?  Why not just play an actual Copland?  I understand that Williams is a master of  imitating other composers, which is more of a skill than most people give him credit for.  But on a day as important as this, why choose the store brand when you can buy the name brand version?  Is John Williams’ name so much more recognizable that he should be chosen over one of America’s (the world’s even!) greatest musicians?  Maybe its our culture’s fascination with celebrity. 

As for it being piped in – I don’t think its such a big deal.  Between the wind and the temperature even in what must have been a heated area there recording quality would have been mediocre at best.  Then again, weather like this is part of the reason that we have brass instrument (maybe I’m a little partial here since I am a trombonist).  The instruments don’t break in the colder weather, can probably hold their intonation better, and would have been easier to mic.  But what do I know, I’m just some idiot on the Internet.

For what its worth, Alex Ross mentions here at comment 3 that Obama did seem genuinely interested in the music.  Ross also mentions some news articles about people supporting a Ministry of Culture or a sort of new new deal for music.  Ross is clearly not in favor of much bureaucratic support, which I might agree with – for some reason I fear a Ministry of Culture will spend more time funneling money into already failed projects or somehow become Obama’s arbiter for a playoff system in college football. 

At the same time, I think that the way money is doled out to arts organizations today is way too fractured and not getting into the hands of people doing the most valuable work often enough, but I’m probably prejudiced in that regard and I can’t forsee any national bureaucracy fixing it.

As for a New Deal in the 21st Century that could impact music – I think its important to look at what may have been the most successful musical project that came from the government in the 1930’s: Alan Lomax’s collection of songbooks and the regional community projects supervised and staffed by people like the Seegers.  Lomax’s collection of songs was a monumental task that the free market would never have supported on its own.  The regional projects supported by Resettlement Administration and Works Progress Administration were essentially opportunities for skilled musicians to move to an area of the country, learn the specifics of that musical culture, and then support the performance of that music locally.  These were successful and popular projects in local communities, that in Washington seemed to always be in trouble.  Seeger’s autobiography by Ann Pescatello dedicates a good amount of material on these activities, and is generally a good read. 

I would strongly suggest that these ideas be recreated except for one big problem – American culture has become homogonized due to the ease of mass communication.  It doesn’t make much sense to recollect all of America’s folk songs.  For the most part, people in Appalachia  are not going to be nearly as appreciative of a musician coming to help them make their music, which most of the youth probably will not even recognize. 

So instead, I suggest should musicians have a difficult time finding work in the near future that the government take on a project of recording tons and tons of music to make available to the public for, if not free, a low fee to just cover server costs.  I also suggest the government finds a way to support classical music in non-typical locales.  New York City does not need more classical music, but suburbia and smaller cities and rural America do.  Make it easy and affordable to see classical music (and all the arts).  These are not places where the free market seems to think classical music is appropriate, but it is jus as important that they have access to it as dwellers of the Upper West Side.

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