Writer and music critic Lawrence A. Johnson recently launched the American Music Project (AMP), a nonprofit foundation that will focus 75 percent of its activity on supporting performances on existing American music and the remainder on commissioning new works from American composers. The project's goal is simple: to broaden the exposure of American classical composers to the public at large. But does the world really need another classical music nonprofit?
AMP's founder Johnson clearly thinks so, and his reasons for feeling this way are compelling. To quote Johnson, "It's been a constant source of frustration [to me] that we're not hearing more American repertoire, because I feel there is so much strong music out there." In other words, American classical composers aren't getting enough love and Johnson wants to fill the void. It's a noble intention and after we collectively nodded our heads in agreement, we then asked ourselves two questions: Do music-oriented nonprofits really ignore the American classical repertoire? And if so, why?
To the first point, we can't help but agree with Johnson. He reeled off the names of various composers — David Diamond, Walter Piston, Irving Fine, Carlisle Floyd, and Marvin David Levy — and correctly noted that these individuals are rarely heard in American concert halls and opera houses. Of course, the American public is familiar with many of its homegrown composers, but this familiarity comes with a catch. Either these composers are tremendously popular (e.g. Copland, Bernstein) or highly influential in the more experimental realm (e.g. Reich, Cage). So why are American classical composers still relatively unknown to the public at large?
Most philanthropy is contextual, so the answer to this question must be framed in the larger historical philanthropic landscape. For starters, American classical music has traditionally taken a back seat to more home-grown forms like jazz, a uniquely American art form, as opposed to classical, which is firmly rooted in a European tradition. As a result, funders err on the side of comfort, familiarity, and in many cases, audience demand.
Another reason for this relative dearth of American classical music is one of classic (pun intended) supply and demand. The last thirty years have seen foundations take a greater interest in music from other countries and cultures. These organizations have broadened their repertoires and inevitably, there simply isn't enough money to go around.
This is why Johnson's endeavor is so important. He sensed a kind of aesthetic injustice and rather than complain about it (as critics are wont to do), he's putting his money where his mouth is. What a refreshing concept — a critic who is, well, actually constructive.