Thursday, March 05, 2009

Setting up shop, new music style, looking for the perfect strip mall

On my last visit to California, it became clear that I had been missing something rather obvious. The Los Angeles strip mall is the distributed center of culinary innovation.   The strip mall is the low rent versatile retail property on the main drags of the city and countless suburbs and fronting residential neighborhoods, many of them centers of immigrant communities.  A strip mall is a place where commercial experiments can be tried out with the most efficient commitments of money and time, and the relatively small size of the shops allows for optimal distribution of the risks of business failure.  The combination of the strip mall as a commercial theatre, an large first-generation immigrant community of uncommon diversity,  geographical proximity to both Pacific Rim and North/South trade in foodstuffs, and well as the astonishing productivity of California agriculture makes for unprecedent variety, both in the number of traditional cusines represented or recreated in every degree of "authenticity"  (note the inverted commas: This I know, I know, for the new musicology tells me so)  and for hybrids and other forms of innovations.  (There are actually even lower levels of commerce: for years, smaller citrus crops like kumquats and mineolas were collected from backyard networks rather than groves for supermarket sales, or the Oaxaquenan woman around the corner who sells tamale in banana leaves with black mole, or the wagons that deliver edible exotica (Korean burritos, anyone?)  crisscrossing the Southland on secret schedules designed to evade health department inspection tours.)

The low-rent path to innovation takes place in music, too, but we don't yet have a precise equivalent to the strip mall.  (For recordings, the internet functions well, but I'm talking live, local performance here.)  Major institutions are simply so heavily invested in capital designed for the most traditional and prestigious forms of music-making, and thus cannot take on the financial risks that presenting music which breaks traditional patterns in one way or another may create. If you have one hall for music in town, and it seats 1000 to 2000 people — which is not uncommon in Southern California suburbs — then you will be looking for events that will consistently bring in 1000 to 2000 people, while innovative work needs the try-out in the hall that seats 50 to 100 people.  

The large institutions, by design, are limited to a small number of newer projects, carried out in slow motion, thus they will forever only be able to support a small number of artists, mostly figures who present the least risk to the continuity of the institution.   That's why, in the era of mainframe computing,  big, well-supported computer music centers were far less successful in actually turning out finished pieces that those working with solder-yourself circuitry and the first generation of personal computers.   But that's also why we won't hear Robert Ashley at the Met or the NYCO and West Coast composers in the experimental tradition are now shut out of opportunities at the Cabrillo Festival in favor of composers, mostly East Coast, who already show up regularly on major East Coast orchestral programs in the regular seasons.       

3 comments:

Paul H. Muller said...

I think one venue for post-modern classical music that is overlooked is the church. The scale is what you suggest - 100 to 500 in a typical service. The pop style of contemporary music used in the church now reinforces the idea that attendance is a matter of the right consumer choice.

Some churches are looking for something less commercial and yet not tied to the past.

Charles Shere said...

"West Coast composers in the experimental tradition are now shut out of opportunities at the Cabrillo Festival in favor of composers, mostly East Coast, who already show up regularly on major East Coast orchestral programs in the regular seasons."

Oh, I'm so glad you wrote that. I've been complaining about that for a quarter-century.

Klimbsac said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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