It was in the kitchen of composer Elinor Armer’s house in the Berkeley hills that I first met my colleague and COMPOSERS, INC, co-founder, Marty Rokeach in July 1984. He and I had a common friend – a student, in fact – Mark Miller, who had a crazy idea. Mark had proposed we put together a one-time public concert in a prominent San Francisco venue (we chose the Veteran’s War Memorial Green Room), featuring the music of the five composers gathered around that table – Elly Armer, Marty, Mark, Ron McFarland and this writer.
Now, it must be recalled that in 1984, outside of a few university ensembles, there was precisely one professional outlet for new music in the Bay Area: the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, and therefore for young Bay Area composers of new chamber music, the possibilities for local performance were not especially promising. But the idea of a group of composers promoting their own work was – again, in 1984 – highly unorthodox.
Fortunately, Marty and I had, as yet, no reputations to protect as composers, and together with our tablemates we decided to put our money on the line and produce our own concert on October 30, 1984. About 100 people showed up and much to our delight, we got a very positive review from Heuwell Tircuit in the SF Chronicle.
Our initial bet having paid off big, we decided to double down and put on two more concerts that season. But the question then arose as to what kind of music we would feature. We did not want this nascent series to be focused just on our own work, but what criteria (besides intrinsic quality) would we use to choose music by other composers? Again, we took an unorthodox step for the times, and decided to focus exclusively on the music of American composers.
That anyone reading this should wonder what was so unorthodox about that decision is to acknowledge one measure of the success of COMPOSERS, INC. In 2010, the idea of American new music being every bit as vital and viable as that coming from Europe or other places is so unremarkable as to not provoke any further thought. But in 1984, our mission statement raised some eyebrows. Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams were still considered fringe composers and American music as a whole was still regarded as somewhat dubious compared to European fare.
Not anymore, and let’s just be grateful for that. Perhaps we at CI can be forgiven for being a little proud that we were on the forefront of that changing scene – indeed, one of the leaders of the movement for American music. We are also proud that within just our first six years we had introduced music by then young upstarts Jennifer Higdon, David Lang, and Aaron Jay Kernis to Bay Area audiences. If these names ring a bell, it is because they all went on to receive Pulitzer Prizes in Music.
As COMPOSERS, INC’s first Executive Director, it was my privilege to help build the infrastructure that made possible a thriving series, curated by a group of composers that went on to include Robert Greenberg, Allen Shearer and Jeffrey Miller – a series that allowed our audiences to hear the music of the best young voices in America alongside established names like Olly Wilson, Benjamin Lees, Wayne Peterson, Elliott Carter and many others.
This continues to be our mission and we hope you will support us as we look for that next young American voice, and maybe help launch yet another Pulitzer Prize career.—F.L.