Composing Reimagined: Funders Get Behind a More Community-Oriented Residency Experience

Classical composition tends to be a solitary endeavor. When we think of history's greatest composers, from Mozart down to Gershwin, we imagine them sitting alone at a piano, pencil in hand, immersed in deep thought.

But times have changed, and according to League of American Orchestras President and CEO Jesse Rosen, they've changed for the better. "We live in an era of unsurpassed compositional invention, as composers break musical barriers and redefine the rules," Rosen said. The league's response to this new era is Music Alive, national three-year composer-orchestra residency program in partnership with New Music USA.

The league recently announced its five participating composer and orchestra pairs. This year's program prioritizes collaborative work and immersive experiences for composers, orchestra musicians, artistic leadership, and community members. Music Alive hopes to "demonstrate — through active partnership with the participating residency pairings — the power and value of living composers working at the center of American orchestras."

"This new iteration of Music Alive takes engagement several steps further," Rosen said, by "building opportunities for cohorts of composers to learn from each other, and for entire orchestra staffs and musicians, as well as their communities, to interact closely with these talented composers-in-residence.”

The precarious state of American orchestras has been well-documented at Inside Philanthropy, as has the league's efforts to address it. Their approach is a holistic one, tackling the various components of the orchestrational ecosystem (for lack of a better term). The league, in short, views orchestras less of a performance body and more of a community resource.

Take Rosen's quote where he alludes to "communities." This is no accident. The league recently launched the Ford (as in the automaker) Musician Awards for Excellence in Community Service, a program supporting orchestra musicians and the work they do in their communities. The league has also supported efforts to boost gender equity among the composer ranks.

Which brings us back to Music Alive. Lead funding for the program is provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation with additional support from the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, the Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts, the Amphion Foundation, and the ASCAP Foundation Bart Howard Fund.

Again, no major surprises here. The league has a loyal supporter in the Mellon Foundation, which helped fund a similar residency program, called New Partnerships, which places young composers with orchestras. The other participating organization? You guessed it: New Music USA.

Now don't get me wrong. Music Alive's commitment to fostering musical collaboration is a big deal. Orchestras need to deliver a compelling product to increasingly distracted audiences. But increased collaboration inevitably affects the composer-orchestra relationship. Sometimes it's for the better; sometimes it's for the worst.

And so the newly configured Music Alive program was reimagined as a result of an extensive survey of leading professionals deeply experienced in relationships between composers and orchestras. Composers in residence will be centrally embedded within their orchestras, and their roles will be incorporated directly into the orchestras’ operations, programming and curatorial decisions.

Much like their artist brethren starved of critical business skills, composers will get down into the less glamorous operational weeds of running an orchestra.

And with that, I'll have New Music USA President and CEO Ed Harsh have the last word. "These new residencies will demonstrate even more powerfully than ever before the role that collaboration with living artists can play in vitalizing orchestras’ connections to their communities."