Millennial Music Makers: String Playing in the 21st Century
A state-of-the-arts report
Ladies and gentleman, the 21st century is upon us. It is a brand-spanking new era loaded with iTunes, podcasts, cell phones, online radio, game scores, and satellite radio. It’s a time when websites have become the new business card. Working in the music industry has never been so accessible, but it also has never been so competitive, fast-paced, and transient. Once you’ve gotten a handle on one online streaming program, a gaggle of others race to take its place.
In the wake of this technological glut, the recording industry has witnessed an abundance of new acts clamoring to be the number one. Recording contracts come and go at breakneck speed, so even when one gleams from your hot little hands with the luster of a multi-platinum album, it doesn’t mean it’s safe to sit on your laurels just yet.
Remarkably, the secret to succeeding in today’s lightning-quick world, string players say, is adherence to the same set of principles our ancestors have insisted upon since the beginning of time: be yourself, trust your instincts, be creative, and remember the only person to rely on is you.
“What is the now about? Being able to be as self-sufficient as possible,” says Joshua Gindele, cellist for the Miró Quartet. “It used to be maybe that you just played and now it’s like everything else: How do you market yourself, how do you pay for your travel, what are the best ways to get from Frankfurt to Los Angeles?”
Whether it is negotiating heavy-hitting contracts or simply scouring the Internet for low air fares, even the most talented musicians must possess a sufficient degree of business savvy to keep a successful career pleasantly afloat.
Sometimes that means knowing how to juggle several gigs simultaneously to make sure the rent gets paid and the groceries get bought.
The Tosca Strings, a quartet that scored considerable points on its resume after a year-long tour with art rock idol David Byrne, must generate income from a variety of sources to earn a competitive salary.
“You have to be in the symphony, the opera, you have to teach, you have to do weddings. Everyone just gets work where they can,” says Tosca cellist Sara Nelson.
Some schools and conservatories are beginning to revamp curriculums to teach students the life skills they will need to make it in the real world. Berklee College of Music has earned a reputation for teaching students street smarts as well as studio smarts, while Juilliard is starting to follow suit. Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota’s School of Music recently announced its plans to include coursework that will help students get work with orchestras, tap into community resources, and learn to earn additional income by creating teaching studios in their homes.
Until the schools catch up, however, musicians must learn these things on their own. “Just a minute ago I got out of a business meeting that was as long as any rehearsal,” says Nicholas Photinos, cellist with the chamber sextet Eighth Blackbird, during a phone interview. He lists marketing, publicity, daily operations, and development on his short list of daily business chores.
“Chamber groups must constantly reinvent themselves as to not have younger, hungrier competitors take their business,” he adds. “At some point a chamber group has to face all of this and still be hungry to want to make it work.”
With attendance at music schools growing every year, more groups and soloists enter the already glutted music market upon graduation. Competition is fierce and even musicians with long and distinguished careers face challenges.
The award-winning Shanghai Quartet, founded in 1983, recently hired a publicist to lure a fickle press. “The recording labels are doing less. It’s hard to get a review [in the press],” says Shanghai cellist Nicholas Tzavaras. “The market is oversaturated with a huge number of quartets that are being trained a lot better.”
It’s no longer enough to simply play well. Musicians must think of their music as a product and learn the best way to market that product. “I think groups and individuals have had to market and create niches for themselves in a much more creative way,” Gindele says. “In order to survive as a group, we really need to feel very strongly about who we are and what we are trying to do artistically.”
Tom Chiu, the modernist maven behind the avant-garde FLUX Quartet, the group he founded in 1996, says his success comes from an ability to look ahead. “FLUX has a very specific genre and niche. We are not a group that is going to play all types of music,” he says. “There’s plenty of Bartók and Shostakovich available.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, Gindele says musicians all over the country could feel the fiscal ramifications of tragedy induced, namely in the down-sizing of seasons, and have had to work harder to score concert dates. For the Miró Quartet, it meant solidifying the group’s identity and making sure it set itself apart from competing ensembles.
Eighth Blackbird has learned that being six instead of four has been advantageous for garnering press reviews of its recordings.
Going even further is San Francisco’s original Punk Rock Orchestra, a 50-plus piece ensemble that arranges punk-rock standbys for orchestra. This idiosyncratic ensemble boasts a set list that includes the music of the Dead Kennedys, Sex Pistols, and Black Flag. “It’s a really different world for classical musicians than it was 100 years ago, so I think there is a big emphasis on blending [today],” says PRO violinist Eliana Fiore. “I think that experimentation is necessary.”
But being a media darling doesn’t always equate to packed auditoriums. Maintaining a faithful and transfixed audience is an obstacle that most musicians know too well and must constantly work to overcome.
“We’ve all seen the decline in the audience,” says Tosca violist Ames Asbell, who was shocked by the low turnout of a recent first subscription concert at the Austin Symphony.
Asbell attributes the shrinking numbers to classical music’s aging demographic. Many believe not enough is being done to cultivate a new audience for classical music, one that tends to be younger and with less disposable income, though the New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and others are ramping up websites designed to lure and educate younger audiences. Most orchestras offer students discounted tickets, and have begun to hold special concerts that boast a lower ticket price in an attempt to snag the highly coveted 30-something audience.
And outside the classical mainstays, such as the big orchestras, is an alternative scene that is attracting young string players intent on exploring new opportunities, often with much success. For instance, Tosca Strings and such solo artists as cellist Matt Haimovitz are taking matters into their own hands and venturing out to nightclubs and bars to tap into the 20- to 30-something demographic.
“Kids have never heard that music,” says Asbell, noting that given the time and exposure, even club kids can take to Bartók as warmly as they take to Beck.
“Through the years I’ve just seen the audience of classical symphony decline and I think it’s a great opportunity to branch out because who knows the reality of what symphony music is going to become,” says Tosca violinist Tracy Seeger. “We, as a group, have many more opportunities than say the other classical musicians in this town.”
In addition to Byrne, the Toscas have performed and recorded with Ray Charles, the Dixie Chicks, Ray Benson, the Friends of Dean Martinez, and actor-cum-bar-band-frontman Russell Crowe.
Many string players also have learned that 21st century audiences want less pomp and more personality. “You have to have more of a connection with your audience. People are less interest in only seeing you on a pedestal,” says Pacifica Quartet violist Masumi Per Rostad.
“So many presenters say ‘can you talk to the audience?’ They want to know that it’s not just robots up there, but that it’s people.”
And there are other changes. Eighth Blackbird has begun to give house concerts in a studio that can host between 30 to 40 guests for a more intimate concert experience. Dressing the part has changed as well: formalwear is so 1982. Today’s players often sport a more casual look. And audiences want to make a connection with the players and their repertoire.
When the St. Lawrence String Quartet plays engagements, it takes particular care to detail the inspiration that led to a particular composition and to highlight how artists functioned as real people and, in many cases, partied like the greatest rock stars.
“People have this very antiquated sense of who these composers were and they look at pictures of Beethoven with this kind of scowl on his face and big grey hair,” Miró’s Gindele says. “As a result, I really feel like a lot of the edge is taken out of what these guys were doing because of our opinion of them.”
There is a concerted effort among chamber ensembles, orchestras, and soloists to paint a colorful background and show that these artists warrant more modern considerations.
For example, the Punk Rock Orchestra, while taking classical music to the extreme, is also making the popular music of Haydn’s era relevant to the popular music of today. “Mozart back in the day was a party animal,” says Fiore.
“Classical music in the time it was written wasn’t confined to stuffy concert halls, but was embraced as new, exciting music for young people as well.”
Whether it is through music, culture, or technology, this new century is tearing down barriers for everyone. Especially among players boasting primarily contemporary repertoire, destroying the preconceived notions that often surround classical music and its instrumentation has proved liberating in ways that until now seemed impossible.
“We are four people playing classical instruments, yet the music we play is so far removed from classical music,” says FLUX founder Tom Chiu, who would like to see the era continue to encourage players and audiences to experiment with both their musical tastes and expectations.
With such presenters as Saul Gropman taking the reins quite strongly on these same issues, Chiu and other contemporary string players may not have to wait too much longer. As the artistic director of the Morrison Artists Series at San Francisco State University, Gropman has overseen the debuts of some of the world’s most accomplished talents.
Recently, he organized a recital that included the St. Lawrence String Quartet and FLUX Quartet with Kirk Hammett, über guitarist from metal maestros Metallica, to entertain a mainly black-tie crowd for a benefit gala.
The concert drew as many ball gowns as it did pairs of leather pants and succeeded in illustrating the kind of crossover audience for which most contemporary musicians dream.
This type of innovation is winning fans even among string players usually associated with more mainstream settings. Violinist Hilary Hahn says the 21st century is an exciting time for musicians and presents a music scene that is constantly expanding and reinventing itself. “Anyone can access music from anywhere in the world,” she says, referring to the Internet, online radio, and various downloadable shareware programs that now exist and continue to multiply.
“Composers can draw from these influences. It can only be for the good. The more curious [audiences] are, the more they are going to listen to things.”