AE TALKS WITH Robert Sirota,
President, Manhattan School Of Music

MARCH 2, 2006

The following comment by Robert Sirota, composer and newly-arrived President of the Manhattan School of Music, is based on a conversation with Joel Chadabe in the fall of 2005. The conversation dealt with the role of a conservatory in today's world, the place of technology in a music curriculum, and a broad range of related issues.

Sirota said:

The question is the relevance and function of music schools. But I'd like to start by talking about what is going on in the profession as a whole, then go back to the relationship between new work and the traditional conservatory environment and how that's changing.

We're in one of those fascinating periods in the history of art and culture where everything is being exploded and realigned. Back in the 50s and 60s, there just wasn't as much going on in classical music as there is today, and a small percentage of the population dealt in its own microeconomy and was willing to support it. Now we're out there competing with pop music and world musics of various kinds. For example, my latest release as a composer was a string quartet that the Chiara String Quartet released independently. It's selling on Amazon.com and CD Baby. In fact, it was a classical pick for CD Baby, and you can download it on iTunes. So we're looking at the overlap of distribution channels and at a new relationship between classical music and our core repertoire and other musics.

What does that mean for the Manhattan School of Music? We're thinking very hard about the programs that we want to put into place to train students for leadership positions in the music world. By leadership, I mean artist-leaders who know something about today's professional dynamics, who know how to develop institutions and lead them in responsiblle artistic directions. There's always the genius artist who everyone wants to protect, but even that person now needs someone who knows how to work with the practicalities. Yo-Yo Ma's marketing empire is enormous, for example. As another example, the Manhattan School's graduate orchestra program has a tremendously good track record, which means that students go on to major positions throughout the world. It's been normal for us to ask how we can best prepare our students to get a job with an orchestra. But now I'd like to expand that discussion by asking this question: How do we we partner with major orchestras to play a role in the way that orchestras may evolve?

Part of our relevance is that people need to be trained to be in leadership positions, to understand the dynamics of orchestras, for example, and training that doesn't do that on the practical side as well as on the artistic side loses its relevance. That's a big big challenge in a profession that's changing. We need not only to track its evolution, we need to affect its evolution. That's what I mean by relevance, not to be just an ivory tower, but also a partner in the profession.

The other relevance is the encouragement of new art and new work, in the context of technology, what I'd call new instrumentation. The difference in composition technology between now and when I was a student is enormous. It used to be that you had to be technologically brilliant to do it, you had to write code, but now most of it is pretty easy and anyone can do it. So we need to ask, what is the influence of computers on the compositional process?

I still compose with pencils and paper, but when I start a piece, I hear a sonorous image, I hear how the performers and instruments sound together. And to the extent that the performance of a composition is an act of communication with other people, putting on your earphones and hearing your music without others changes the whole dynamic of the experience in a very profound way. For composers of electronic music, that's one thing that needs to be talked about, the need to get people together to make music.

And to hear music. I see people walking around with iPods, for example, tuning out external stimuli. This is a very different sociological phenomenon from anything that ever happened before. There's an interesting dialectic that's going on, between isolation and social interaction.

So to get back to the original question, we can decry all of this and start a reactionary movement to drag everybody back to the concert hall. Or we can observe that there's always a question of what constitutes a complete musical experience for people, and that our basic mechanisms for distribution, and even for hearing and response, are changing, and we can try to figure out what it means.

It's very important to preserve the great canon of classical music. My fundamental approach is fairly conservative in that respect. But having said that, you can't do true professional training without true leadership training. And by leaders, I mean people who grasp the actual state of the art and the trends that are affecting the art, and are then able to effect appropriate positive leadership in the way in which the art is produced, presented, and disseminated.

© 2006