[Ed. -- An early joiner at s21, composer Armando Bayolo has been off on his own personal career adventure for a while now. Firmly planted in Washington D.C., teaching and running his own ensemble, we asked if he'd like to share some of his recent experiences, and maybe give us an occasional D.C. update. Armando has kindly penned this introduction:]
That doesn’t mean what it used to mean, however. Webster’s Online defines “composer” as “one that composes; especially: a person who writes music.” This is certainly true; a composer writes music. But a composer, at least if s/he expects to have anything like a career as a composer, is often, if not always, forced to be many things.
What are we as composers? Besides writing music — which is the central and most important activity to my own work as a musician — I teach music theory at one of the east coast’s oldest conservatories, I am (or was, as this activity has unfortunately taken a back seat recently) a pianist, a conductor, a writer and impresario. I have also had to take on a role as a manager and publisher for my own work (If I am not for myself, as Rabbi Hillel said, who will be for me?). This is nothing new, of course, as composers going back at least as far as Beethoven complained about all of the activities essential to being allowed to make music for a living that inherently get in the way of the process of making music (and this is certainly not exclusive to composers!). One role that is perhaps less common which I’ve undertaken in the last five years is that of advocate for other composers through my work as conductor and Artistic Director of Great Noise Ensemble.
In 2005 I found myself at a bit of a crossroads. Throughout my student years I expected my career to follow the more typical route of settling into an academic position after finishing my graduate studies. After a brief stint as a visiting professor in Portland, Oregon, and thanks to various factors finding myself without a regular teaching job, my family and I resettled in suburban Washington, D.C. where my wife grew up. The early years before the move weren’t unproductive, but they were a critical and difficult time — a time, I now know, which every creative artist faces at one point or another. In my case I realized that, rather than waiting to see “where I would land”, I’d try founding a new music ensemble (something I’d been wanting to do since graduate school) within the context of an academic program. Why not look for like-minded people in the area, see if we could put together some concerts and see where that would take us?
In the summer of 2005 I placed a classified ad on Craigslist.com with a sort of loose vision, a list of composers I would like to perform (Andriessen, Adams, Ligeti, etc.) and the idea that we should treat it a bit as a garage band and see where it would take us. About seven people answered that ad, of which about four or five came to the informational meeting a month later… Except that those four people had spread the word and brought friends, so we had more like nine people at the first meeting. The same thing happened at the next meeting and, in the end, we ended up with a full sinfonietta of about 16 instrumentalists plus two singers.
Great Noise Ensemble is about to wrap up its fifth season on April 30. Our sixth season begins in October with the most ambitious project we have ever undertaken, a rare performance of Louis Andriessen’s 1984-88 “opera,” De Materie. Great Noise will be the first ensemble of American professional musicians to perform this piece. It was a dream and a hope of mine to do this piece, and, frankly, I never thought we would be in a position to perform it so early in our history. The rest of the season will see performances of large and small works by established AND emerging composers, as well as readings of works in progress by students at the Catholic University of America (where we’ve been in residence since 2008).
Great Noise Ensemble has become as central to my work as a musician as my own composition and I see it, along with my teaching activities, as an important responsibility of being a successful American composer. (This notion of being a successful composer is itself odd and one with which I have yet to come to terms, since success as a composer is not necessarily linked, in our world, with financial/material success. But that is a topic for another essay.) It is not just my music that matters. All contemporary concert music (or art music; I don’t like the label “classical” and, while I’ve been lumped within the “alt-classical” movement by certain critics, I’m not 100% comfortable with that term either) is important. It reflects the soul of our nation, even while remaining largely hidden behind much more commercially viable musics. Composers (and performers) are all in this together.
I see my role in American music, such as it is, as being similar to a guerrilla fighter. I operate under the radar, merging between concerts with the (academic) mainstream only to emerge, every six weeks or so, to strike another salvo on behalf of contemporary art music. In this small way I hope to be part of the change I see happening (that must happen if our musical institutions are to survive) in American concert music every day. And so I co-opt a phrase from one of recent history’s most polemically polarizing figures when I say, “hasta la victoria, siempre!”