Who Gets to Compose?
From a New Series by New Music USA and dublab
New Music USA‘s web magazine NewMusicBox has launched its new ongoing Guest Editor series, which aims to celebrate a plurality of voices from across the nation and will feature exclusive content written, produced, or commissioned by a rotating artist or organization. The series kicks off with Los Angeles-based nonprofit radio station dublab, which strives to cultivate and support cultural ecosystems through community-generated radio, curiosity, experimentation, inclusivity, and connection. NewMusicBox, edited by Frank J. Oteri, amplifies creators and organizations who are building a vibrant future for new music in all its forms, and has provided a vital platform for creators to speak about issues relevant to them in their own words since 1999.
When New Music USA approached dublab to be the first guest editors of NewMusicBox, both organizations wanted to frame this four-month collaboration under an overarching theme. After discussing various approaches, there was one question staring us right in our faces – when looking at the long history of NewMusicBox and New Music USA’s founding organizations, and the contrasting programming of an organization like dublab, it became obvious that this collaboration represented a clash of the times or juxtapositions of musical philosophies. Traditions, perceptions and the very questions at the center of it all: Who is a composer? What is a composer? And what is the role of a composer in this day and age?
As the Executive Director of a media arts organization like dublab, we have experienced first-hand the importance of perception. Since its beginnings in 1999, dublab’s approach when it came to categorizing music was always under the self-made label of, “Future Roots Radio”. With that label we wanted to emphasize that all music belongs to the same tree, where the music of the past is the roots of today’s music and the music of today will be the roots of tomorrow’s music, regardless of genre or place of origin. Our intention was to break down perceptions of highbrow versus lowbrow music, hierarchies, and categorizations that can all be practical at times, but also limiting in understanding how music creation flows, how interconnected all music is, and how it is conceived throughout history.
I think it is necessary at times to make distinctions and label music and music creators for their place in time, in society and in history, however, with new technologies, and the sweeping changes in social dynamics of the past years, it is more evident than ever that what it used to be no longer is, and what it is, is not exactly what it is. Confusing? Yes, absolutely, but so are the times we live in. When your phone can be a flashlight, your car can be a taxi and your home can be a hotel, so is the composer of today. Technology has put in question who is a composer, and what the role of a composer is. We can no longer refer to the archetypical image of the “ivory tower” composer when we think about an individual composing music. By that I am referring to that image you are thinking of right now of the Beethoven-looking man sitting at a table pouring what comes from the genius of his mind onto paper. That image has been outdated for many years, yet we continue to embrace this perception with consequences that affect musicians and the music industry in profound ways.
In speaking of the past few years alone, composers have learned to borrow production techniques, instrumentation and elements from idioms where their creators are not necessarily seen as “composers”, but more as “producers,” “beatmakers,” “sound designers,” or simply “musicians.” Despite this, composers continue to enjoy the benefits (as they should) of such distinguished title that includes public acknowledgement in arts institutions, commissioning of jobs, and grant opportunities, to name a few. When looking into the ecosystems of musicians where their main work is related to genres considered to be part of popular music, underground culture, or nightlife entertainment, their careers rarely cross paths with the world of art institutions, grants, and commissions. This stark division between the two doesn’t go both ways: The composer’s work can use electronic arrangements from a synthesizer that resembles techno music and yet be considered a composition that ends up in a movie soundtrack, yet if a hip hop producer adds strings or samples of classical music, their music most likely won’t be funded by a grant from an arts organization. The point here is not to blame anyone or point fingers, but look at our general attitudes and the expectations we have from each other and ourselves that end up defining how we seek and provide funding, and how we judge, place value and determine what belongs where in the wide musical spectrum.
A 30-year long road is a long road to travel, but fortunately that road is getting shorter.
With all being said about the divisions described above, more than ever we are seeing conversations, collaborations and cross-pollination taking place between “art institutions” and “night clubs”. What used to take 30 years for art to travel from the streets to the museums, now seems to be acknowledged by the institutions within the lifetime of the artists, and sometimes even as immediate as it is created.
With the emergence of social media, music streaming platforms, the democratization of music publishing and the affordability of equipment to produce quality recordings, the tools to empower those separating the “composer” from the “producer” have been getting narrower and so are the definitions that separated the two. More than in the past years we are borrowing from each other and we learn to use the tools that work at every stage of our careers – from instrumentation, sound palettes, and studio techniques, to how we fund and promote our work.
Here at dublab, we welcome the opportunity from New Music USA as a way to move the conversation forward. As we look towards the end of 2022 and what is to come in 2023, we hope this four-month collaboration will serve as a place to highlight the above-mentioned differences and similarities between the traditional and the contemporary, where one ends and the other begins; or simply how it all belongs to one. Just like New Music USA reached out to dublab for its unique take on music, we look to them for guidance and perspective. It is only through diversity in every sense of the word that music composition can evolve and to support the inclusion of those that may have never considered applying for a grant to fund their work. This diversity can also uplift genres that once belonged to older generations and patrons of the arts, and in turn bring new and younger audiences to an opera house or to a classical music concert and spark a renewed interest and wave of energy that is so needed in art institutions.
A new era is upon us, whether we recognize the signs or not, and it is up to everyone that is part of this ecosystem to open up the doors to the “ivory tower” and share directions to the underground warehouse party. The corridors that lead to creative paths and careers are as diverse as those that forge them; therefore, we should make sure that everyone enjoys the rewards, the respect, and the opportunities that these generate. With these thoughts I welcome you to our collaboration with New Music USA, and I hope you find infinite inspiration in the articles, DJ sets, conversations and live performances that we will feature in the coming months on NewMusicBox.
—Alejandro Cohen, executive director of dublab
This program is part of New Music USA’s web magazine NewMusicBox “Guest Editor series”, which aims to celebrate a plurality of voices from across the nation and will feature exclusive content written, produced, or commissioned by a rotating artist or organization. The series kicks off with dublab. NewMusicBox, edited by Frank J. Oteri, amplifies creators and organizations who are building a vibrant future for new music in all its forms, and has provided a vital platform for creators to speak about issues relevant to them in their own words since 1999. The dublab partnership will feature new weekly content from at least 15 different voices through January 2023, presented in conversations, DJ mixes, articles, and live performances all exploring the current landscape of music composition. The Guest Editor is the first such series in the magazine’s 23-year history and reflects New Music USA’s aim to deepen its impact across the many diverse music communities across the United States. This aim is also demonstrated by NewMusicBox’s ongoing “Different Cities, Different Voices” feature that spotlights music creation hubs across the nation.