Composing A New Orchestra Audience (CANOA): Notes While on Pause

For various reasons – a pandemic, management changes in key organizations – I set aside my CANOA materials for two years.  The following are thoughts that arose after reviewing what I wrote before.

The loss of live performances made CANOA temporarily irrelevant.  But it also shattered the lives of thousands of musicians.  Recovering from this hiatus will be difficult.  The recovery process will either accelerate positive changes in the orchestra business, or quash innovation as orchestras retreat from innovation in the struggle to survive.

An explosion of free or extremely low cost online performances has inadvertently devalued the work of composers and musicians.  Without significant investment – public and private – it will be very hard for many orchestras to recover from this disaster.  It is possible that the old patterns of concertizing may be broken forever.  Which could make CANOA best practices irrelevant.

Conversely, there may be more openness to innovation and change after such a monumental upheaval.  It may also be that the reappearance of live performances will highlight just how important gathering together for music is.

Orchestras need to see funding for new works and living music as a long-term investment, with the payoff coming years, perhaps even decades in the future.

I originally fantasized finding a billionaire philanthropist who could understand the value of orchestras to American life and who would endow this effort long enough for significant changes to take hold in enough orchestras to create widespread awareness of how effective these best practices could be in growing audiences and loyalty.  I abandoned the billionaire angel notion early on, but now realize that, if a person or organization had the fortitude to pursue it, it might still be the best way.  A back of the napkin calculation suggests that 50 full time COPs (see below) plus 50 fully funded orchestral commissions could come in under $10 million annually.  That is less than Bill Gates spends to fly his fleet of Gulfstream G650 jets.

Active adoption of  CANOA goals and processes could help accelerate the inclusion of larger numbers of underrepresented individuals in the creation of orchestral works, by increasing the demand for new works.

Orchestras that are small and agile, or who can act with agility, are more likely to thrive in a post-pandemic world.

I realized after reading and thinking about composer residencies with orchestras that the roots of that idea are very deep with me.  Two decades deep.  For the entire time that Esa-Pekka Salonen – a composer himself – was music director of the LA Phil, there was also a composer-in-residence (first Steve Stuckey, then James Matheson).  

Composer residencies are essential to advancing CANOA.  A resident composer can be:

an advocate for new music within the orchestra

the daily public face of living music to the larger community

a concert-hall surrogate for composers who cannot appear when their piece is performed

Residencies can take a variety of forms, but the best arrangements will maximize benefits for both the orchestra and the composer.

My current ideal residency program (which I call COP: Composer on Payroll):

more than one composer-in-residence

dissimilar background and experience 

one local, one from another culture

one young (emerging), one experienced (mentor)

one from a traditional classical background, one from another genre

one Bach and one Beethoven

residency in reality: one or both composers spend extended periods in residence (at least 3 weeks at a stretch)
composers should participate as true partners in artistic planning

composers should work regularly with orchestra musicians: bidirectional benefits accrue

composers should be ready to compose works for chamber groupings from the orchestra (enriching the players)

if their experience warrants, composers should be leaders in the organization

composers should receive salary and benefits (particularly health insurance)

the program should have clear, measurable goals: both intermediate and long-term

the funding commitment should extend for at least five years

the program should regularly review progress towards goals

When considering residencies, two opposing models are Bach and Beethoven.  The Bach model consists of a cantata a week.  Then, after six months, you glue together all those cantatas to make a grand Mass.  The Beethoven model is perhaps less suited to being a COP: you retreat and isolate, work madly, and come forth with a world shattering reinvention of the form.  Rinse and repeat.  Dare I say, the Beethoven model has limited application in CANOA, but the Bach model fits very nicely.