Crowdfunding (fundraising through a network of individual donors, often using the Internet) is a model with increasing potential for artists looking to realize creative projects. Some projects – usually those with a DIY ethos – are natural fits with the self-driven crowdfunding model. Recent success stories like The Big Hammock project in Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway and Dresden Dolls chantreuse Amanda Palmer producing/recording a young musician (whom she literally discovered on the sidewalk outside Berklee College of Music) share an ambitious, more-with-less flair. Both were done through Kickstarter, a NY-based organization that encourages industrious folks to offer creative rewards to donors who support their projects.
Recently, perusing the Boston-area projects currently active on Kickstarter, I came across the Boston Composers’ Coalition. Their project is innovative in its simplicity: a diverse group of individual composers works directly with music ensembles to produce evening-length concerts of new work. The BCC Kickstarter campaign seeks funds to support a season of three concerts, each featuring a different ensemble, and each comprised of new music by the Coalition’s members written specifically for that ensemble.
Justin Casinghino is director and one of the founders of Boston Composers’ Coalition, and here, he discusses the origins of the group, the Kickstarter campaign, and a composition/performance model that’s both inventive and steeped in the history of music composition.
ArtSake: How did your unique, collaborative performance model come to be the mission of the Boston Composers’ Coalition?
Justin Casinghino: The idea behind the BCC first started with wanting to ensure that my colleagues and I would have ample performance opportunities after having completed our doctoral studies. So I knew I wanted to form a composers’ group, but also knew I wanted it to have some special characteristics in order to set it apart from similar organizations in the area. The collaborative element came into play through my discussions with both composers and performers. The one common thread that I found was that composers tended to be unsatisfied with how performers interpreted their work, while performers seemed to expect a piece to have complete perfection from the start, holding the composers incompetent if it didn’t. Each party was faulting the other, while doing their part of the project wholly in a box, separate from one another.
In truth, composers and performers do not exist without each other. We have so much evidence of the great masters of the craft, Brahms being an excellent example, working closely with musicians to create the strongest pieces of music possible. The two parties functioned together in a creative yet collaborative manner. The goal of the BCC is to continually have our composers and performers working on a collegial, positive level. I came to realize that the best way to go about this was to have all the composers work with a single ensemble; writing specifically for a group that we knew was interested in our ideals. Our first step for each concert is a meeting with the ensemble and all of our composers, where we discuss the specifics of that particular group, rather than just writing for a general make-up of the given instruments. Through this, we hope to ensure that each party has an equal interest in offering the best presentation possible.
ArtSake: So far, two ensembles are listed as collaborators for your first season. The Fourth Wall Ensemble blends music with dance and acting, and The Arcadian Winds is a wind quintet founded at Boston University. What drew you to these ensembles? And can you talk about the process of composing for a specific group of performers?
Justin: Our connection to the Fourth Wall is actually through BCC co-founder Brett Abigaña. Brett’s sister Hilary is the flutist for the ensemble. When she heard about our plan, she wanted to be a part of it. We felt that the Fourth Wall would be an excellent group for our inaugural concert for several reasons. First, they are in similar professional states as our BCC composers, being early in their professional careers, yet trying to connect with wider audiences by being willing to do something different. The musicians in this ensemble are amazing performers who want to diversify what they do, keeping creativity an active part of their artistic presentation. With all this in mind, they just seemed to fit the bill perfectly to get the BCC out of the starting gates.
As for The Arcadian Winds, all the composers in our group also have a BU affiliation. We put out some feelers to several area ensembles and Arcadian was very interested. We as a composers’ group are certainly excited to work with an ensemble of Arcadian’s caliber, and all felt that our shared collegiate affiliations were one that was an exciting backdrop to the collaboration. We do have a planned third concert with a flute and harp duet and are already receiving a good deal of interest from a host of area ensembles for future seasons. In general, performers have been particularly receptive to the fact that our group wants to work with an ensemble, not just have them play pieces that were composed prior. We have also had a wealth of positive feedback when ensembles hear that we will be presenting some performances in non-traditional venues, including live web-streams.
As I mentioned earlier, out first step in each concert is a meeting with the given ensemble. This meeting allows us to hear about the strengths of each group as an ensemble, and as individual members. There is something special about writing for someone in particular. To know that you are not writing for a trombonist, but for this trombonist is exciting. At least for me, it adds a whole level of inspiration to the work that I am doing. As for the ensembles, this meeting gives them a chance to discuss their particular needs with us as composers. For instance, a percussionist can speak to us directly about his set-up and notation likes. Further, a group like a brass quintet can be actively involved in the development of a program, which helps them ensure that the full concert is one that won’t be too physically demanding. In other words, they can make sure not everything is a high, fast ripping piece. When an ensemble chooses their programs, they keep these things in mind. With our composers’ group, the ensembles can have this luxury with a fully new program, which was specifically composed for them.
ArtSake: I’m intrigued by the creative rewards you’re offering in your Kickstarter campaign: those who pledge $250 or more will have a one-minute piece of music individually composed for them; pledge $500 or more and you can add on a 30-minute composition lesson. Why did crowdfunding appeal to you as a way to support your first season?
Justin: We needed to come up with our initial funding in a relatively quick manner. Kickstarter is an innovative funding model that is making a lot of waves right now, and seemed like a great way for us to simultaneously generate funds and get the word out about the group. The Kickstarter campaign, if successful, will fund a portion of our first season, and then we will continue with more traditional funding methods. As far as our donor awards are concerned, after speaking with the Kickstarter team (who were great to work with), we wanted to come up with some initiatives that were specific to us. Unlike many of the projects on Kickstarter, we are not creating a physical product like a CD. So, we decided that these upper level prizes would be an exciting way to get back to what art funding once was; if you can help us in a significant manner, we will sincerely dedicate a portion of our artistic output to you. To add to the prizes that you listed in your question, another donor level that we think is particularly exciting is the $100 reward, where we take a recording of the donor’s voice, which can be done over the phone, and create a fixed-media electro-acoustic composition from it. In any event, writing and teaching music is what we do, we are happy to share it. I think this type of funding makes sense in today’s market, and also gives those who can only contribute a small amount the opportunity to be part of the endeavor. I really feel that this model is a way to open the arts up to the wider populace, allowing a group like the BCC to be out in the community from its inception.
ArtSake: The composers in your coalition introduce a wide range of elements into their music, from chamber music to jazz and pop, gamelans to robotic glockenspiels, video games to electro-acoustic. Is there any one common attribute that links you all as composers?
Justin: The one attribute that we all share is a love and inner need for the creation of music. The beauty of the BCC is that we all approach composition form very different styles. I can assure you that our concerts will not feature piece after piece that all basically sound the same. We didn’t want members with one aesthetic, that’s not what this is about for us. We all want to learn from each other and hear everything that is out there. Many of us in the group have been friends for a number of years and have wonderful arguments about aesthetics and style. There is such a wide range of legitimate musical voices today, and we are happy to welcome to all of them. Through this, we hope to connect to wider audiences than new music concerts tend to have these days. We of course invite everyone to listen, and further hope to generate an audience/composer discourse through our website. We would like to be connected to our times in conversation about music. All too often, a piece is played, the audience claps, the audience leaves, and the event is over. We would like to keep discussion of the pieces open. This why we are also offering several performances of each program, including one concert from each weekend that is streamed on the web. This way, if an audience member chooses, they can experience the piece more than once, and begin to form a true opinion of a new work. In essence, what we all share as composers is a desire to embrace a wide breadth of musical styles, and to share these with our audiences via our compositional efforts.
ArtSake: You note on your website that all concerts will feature a composition by a pre-college aged artist. What do you try to instill in the emerging composers you work with as a teacher and now in your role at Boston Composers’ Coalition?
Justin: As a teacher, I have two primary concerns. I want my students to stay open minded about everything they hear and everything they create, keeping them unafraid to go out on a limb and try something they are unfamiliar with. At the same time, I am particularly concerned with teaching composition as a craft. In other words, it is important to me that my students be aware of and study what and how the past masters of the craft have done. I think that allowing students to explore their own path, while also keeping them in touch with the lineage of composition, is the most beneficial method of study for the young composer. As far as the BCC is concerned, I want to use it as a vehicle for young, talented composers to try out the two areas I discussed. A composer does not truly know their work until they have heard it. Hearing it is the greatest way to learn if your artistic vision came through, and if you used the craft in a way that allowed it to do so. Offering this experience to young composers is one of the aspects of the BCC that I am most excited about. I would have loved to have had the experience of hearing professional level ensembles play my works at that age, and am incredibly excited to offer that opportunity to some young students. I personally do not consider pedagogy as a means to fund what I do as a composer, but truly view it as an art onto itself. Thus, having an educational component as part of the Boston Composers’ Coalition was as important to me as having the group itself.
The Boston Composers’ Coalition will have its first concert on Saturday, October 23rd at 7:00 PM, at the Boston University College of Fine Arts Concert Hall.