I am probably shooting my career in the foot by writing this, not to mention my standing in the D.C. arts community (such as it is), but it has to be said:

Michael Kaiser is just plain wrong about the state of the art.

Mr. Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center, writes in a recent article for the Huffington Post that “the arts are in trouble because there is simply not enough excellent art being created.” He bemoans the lack of innovative artists in a fit of nostalgia, saying that “when I was a young man we had Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey and George Balanchine and Jerome Robins.” “We also had Bernstein and Rodgers and Stravinsky and Rubinstein and Horowitz and Tennessee Williams and…”

You’ll get no argument from me as to the greatness of those artists he mentioned. Mr. Kaiser, in succumbing to nostalgia for an idealized past, ignores the greats we have among us today. Today we have (I’ve never been interested in dance, so I’m afraid I can’t match him category for category with great contemporary choreographers, so I’ll throw in some filmmakers instead to keep to a dramatic art form) Paul Thomas Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Julie Taymor (as long as she stays away from stage adaptations of comic books, evidently) and Christopher Nolan. We also have David Lang, Steve Reich, TWO John Adams (Johns Adams? John Adamses?), Michael Daugherty, Michael Gordon, Stephen Hartke and Frederic Rzweski. We also have Valeri Gergiev, Brad Lubman, Marin Alsop, the Takacs Quartet, eighth blackbird and David Simon, Ronald D. Moore, David Mitchell, Jonathan Franzen, Mario Vargas Llosa, and these are just the “old timers,” the established artists whose work has been around now for some time and whose impact, while varied, is unquestionable.

Perhaps, however, it’s not a matter of names. A lack of innovation is also problematic. “Today,” he writes, “far more inventiveness can be found in popular entertainment than can be found in the classic arts. The embracing of new technologies and the willingness to try new things seems to have become more the province of rock music and movies than of opera, ballet and theater.”

I have to wonder what movies Mr. Kaiser has been watching or what rock music (other than, perhaps, Radiohead or The Fiery Furnaces) he’s been listening to. He does, I’ll grant him, have a point when it comes to opera, ballet and theater, though he, as the president of one of the nation’s pre-eminent arts venues, should know that this is likely to be the result of budgetary pressures than a lack of adventurousness on the part of opera, ballet and theater companies. Innovation in these fields, it seems, is inversely proportional to an organization’s annual budget. Simply put: theater companies have to sell tickets and experimental works by unfamiliar artists do not usually sell well. Audiences fear the unfamiliar, which stifles innovation. A lot of the most innovative work, in my experience, is being done by smaller, leaner operations like Opera Alterna in Washington, D.C., The Figaro Project in Baltimore (which does it—and struggles to do it—on a shoestring budget stemming from their work towards making all of their productions free to the public), Guerrilla Opera in Boston and Divergence Vocal Theater in Austin (hey, the arts in this country do not solely center on the east coast!). These companies are often able to innovate simply because of the limitations placed upon them by their budget. High-tech gadgets do not necessarily equate innovative productions.

Musically, Mr. Kaiser may be limited by the same vision imposed upon him by the Kennedy Center and the National Symphony Orchestra, who tend to engage soloists and recitalists performing works by composers who will not ruffle too many feathers, thus theoretically guaranteeing higher ticket sales. One wonders if Mr. Kaiser is familiar with the work of composers as diverse and interesting as Arlene Sierra, Ryan Brown, David T. Little, Alexandra Gardner, D.J. Sparr, Marc Mellits, David Dramm, Donacha Dennehy, Michel van der Aa, Carl Friderich Haas, Fabian Panisello (hey, not all great art is produced in this country. We live in a global community, even in concert music), Ana Clyne, Oscar Bettison, Rob Paterson or Ken Ueno; or if he’s familiar with the works of performers like Winston Choi, the Euclid Quartet, Alarm Will Sound, Claron McFadden or which works from the contemporary rock “canon” he finds more innovative in their blend of technology, theater and live concert performance than Michel van der Aa’s Here Trilogy, or Anna Clyne’s Rewind, or as moving and arresting as Oscar Bettinon’s O Death, or as infectiously moving as Marc Mellits’ Five Machines. “California Girls?” “Baby?” “Alejandro?”

The list could be endless, frankly, if one knows where to look. The problem the arts have, frankly, is a fundamental lack of vision. We have brought the “graying” of the audience in our efforts to keep hold of “traditional” audiences through war horses and unchallenging programming. Compounding this irony is the ivory tower mentality evident in Mr. Kaiser’s essay, a mentality that I doubt Mr. Kaiser espouses purposefully but which is simply the result of his position and the type of institution for which he works. Mr. Kaiser has proven time and again to be an innovative and important contributor of new initiatives and ideas to reinvigorate and revitalize American concert life. It is an irony of O’Henry-esque proportions that he should prove so myopic in identifying an apparent lack of innovation in contemporary art, culture and, especially, music.

31 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With the Arts? Well, it’s NOT the Artists.”
  1. Ultimately Chris we agree as to what must happen. I must ask you to allow me to keep my own understanding of why and how it happens. My experience may be untypical and perhaps my understanding wrong-but its mine. Besides…

    Living composers trajectory is still in flux. Anything can happen.

  2. “Michael Kaiser is taking the gatekeepers to task for not taking risks.”

    That is not how I read or what I took away from Kaiser’s article.

    And these “gatekeepers” are in your head. Cage knew this. Did he die a “successful” composer? People still hate that man and his music. You have to figure out what you want to do, why you do it, and then do it. Referring to “trends” and “gatekeepers” is a waste of time. You can’t focus on that. It’s hard, and both Cage and Feldman acknowledged the problems they had getting their music produced. But after all of that, they went ahead and did it and we are all the better for it.

  3. Gatekeepers will always be gatekeepers. What we can work on is to break the tendency for people to stand, while surrounded with all kinds of interesting and amazing things going on right next to them, and just keep staring obliviously at the gate.

  4. “…This is the future. No whining aloud…”

    Chris: I’m no shrinking violet and I do have my own opera company.OperaBob. Yet as a serial composer and a free jazz improviser the success of the composers mentioned above, except for perhaps one, have no particular resonance for me. Period. So the trends are not with me. I fight by working.

    You misunderstand why I mentioned my “unproduced” work.
    Not to close a door rather to open one. I thought that someone might want to try it. Why not? Stranger things have happened.

    Why change the subject and make this about me? Whine or not. I stand by my above observations.

    Actually Chris the answer to my question of who can change the attitude of the gatekeepers –its the gatekeepers themselves.

  5. Phil – Who can change it? You can. Come on, man. Who here wants to hear another composer moan about the great work they’ve written that no one has performed. How many operas did William Grant Still write that haven’t been produced? My point is the composers Armondo names in his response are composers who didn’t sit around waiting for someone to produce their work. They often perform it themselves and/or produce it through a variety of creative means.

    This is the future. No whining aloud.

  6. “..And these groups are misbehaving. They are overly-conservative, subject to “group think” and so worried about budgets that they forget that bad art hurts budgets far more than risk-taking does…”

    Armondo–I think you misread this article. Michael Kaiser is taking the gatekeepers to task for not taking risks. I have to agree. Especially as an opera composer who has completed 4 opera and not 1 performance. Ok parts of my 5th are on youtube, and did quite well. On the other hand its not very easy to get to these folks attention. Even though it seems that Mr. Kaiser is only aware of artists as or more important than himself he questions it. The problem is that the local attention gained by the “artists of the moment” can simply drowned out other more artistic voices.

    Who can change that?

  7. Armando: I realize that your previous point about pop music was only a small part of your larger point, and I didn’t mean to come off quite as strong. I just felt I should share some bands and artists.

    What is left out of the original argument against Kaiser’s article is that Cunningham, Bernstein, and Stravinsky never had to compete with Jersey Shore/MTV, Call of Duty, RockBand/ Guitar Hero, Netflix, and youtube. The sheer volume of media streams that are available today make the middle third of the 20th century look like the stone age (no offense to anyone old enough to remember that third). All forms of entertainment are on equal footing now. If you want sports, then head on over to one of ESPN’s 75 satellite channels. Composers are actually having to compete against Iron Chef and LOLCATS these days.

    Alex Ross makes a strong argument in Listen to This, stating that classical music is in no more of less a funk than it has always been.

  8. George,

    Actually, I didn’t mean to belittle the interesting pop music out there in my post. I actually find myself the most curious, these days, about pop. My students recently introduced me to Sigur Ross, who I found incredible, and Bjork really blurs the line, I think, between “classical” and pop. In my own music, I’m actually trying to find a way to let my own interest in pop (albeit rather conservative, still) influence and teach me how to mold my concert works. In the work of the best artists, categories, ultimately, are meaningless.

    So, thank you for your list. There is a great deal that I need to go and listen to now!

  9. I want to add some rather intelligent rock/pop music to the list that may or may not be up anyone’s ally:
    Animals as Leaders, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Periphery, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Dream Theater (particularly the album Scenes from a Memory), Meshuggah, Bjork, Nerve, Tool, Sigur Ros, The Mars Volta.

    All of these bands leave the 3-5 minute song form behind and intelligently explore rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre, form, orchestration, text, interdisciplinary collaboration, and technology. They are not all American, but since we are embracing the global community I figured, “Why not?”

    I find that the biggest “pissing contest” here has to be that rock music couldn’t possibly hold a real candle to our precious classical music. Why does it really matter? Armando, you mention some very vital composers in American music, many of whom have been very adamant about supporting, programming, and learning from pop music. Bang on a Can programs music by Brian Eno, Meshuggah, The National, The Books, Matmos, and Frank Zappa. John Adams has written extensively on pop music’s tremendous influence on his own music, even going so far as to say that he learned more about harmony from studying pop music than he did by studying Bach. Michael Gordon’s Lightning at Our Feet is practically an hour long indie rock opera. David T. Little’s group is practically a rock outfit, as is Missy Mazzoli’s ensemble. Oscar Bettison’s “B and E (with Aggravated Assault) is no less math rock than an instrumental piece by The Dillinger Escape Plan. David Lang even wrote a quick blurb on NPR’s music page a few weeks ago calling for an end to the term “classical” in reference to art music as a whole, saying that all styles music are potentially great and that there isn’t much of a need to parse it up. I’m just not certain that all of the composers you mentioned would agree with your assessment.

    If your knowledge of current rock music peaks at Radiohead or The Fiery Furnaces, then I wonder what rock music YOU have listened to, because there is a lot more out there that is carrying the torch towards the advancement of music than you think.

  10. Thank you for the partial correction.

    The title of the opera is “Democracy: An American Comedy” based upon Henry Adams’s “Democracy: An American Novel.”

  11. Just a pedantic point, but Scott Wheeler’s opera is simply called “Democracy” — not “Democracy in America” as more than one person here keeps calling it.

  12. Wow, Zeno. Congratulations to you on all of your success. Perhaps we shall continue this pissing contest over a beer sometime? (I’m only pretending to be glib. Seriously, we should chat.)

    Alas, I did miss the Haas. I actually had not heard of him last month as I was only introduced to his music after Great Noise’s percussionist gave me a copy of Alex Ross’ profile of Haas from December’s (?) New Yorker on my way to Europe, where I spent most of the month of January (hence another reason why I missed “In Vain”). I made sure to, at the very least, pick up some recordings of his music while I was abroad.

    I can’t, sadly, be everywhere. I have small children and a wife and a job on top of my musical activities. But I do wish I could be.

    Still, the point of my write up was NOT about the D.C. scene in particular (which you always seem to make it about when I write here) but about Kaiser’s dim view of the state of the art in general. The state of new music inside the beltway is another subject altogether, and one which, seriously, I would love to discuss more fully over a beer rather than to have some stupid flame war over the comments section(s) of my blog posts. We need allies in this town, not people at each other’s throats over bruised egos. The DC scene is pretty fragmented as it is. This kind of bickering is, ultimately, pointless.

  13. Armando,

    No thin skin or hurt feelings at all on my part. Rather, it appears that you are the one with thin skin and hurt feelings when I noted your reading problem.

    I have heard your Great Noise Ensemble and also the Verge ensemble, and I don’t believe that I saw you at the Austrian Embassy for the performance by the Argento Ensemble of Georg Friedrich Haas’s “in vain” or at the French Embassy, last month, for the Diotima String Quartet performance of contemporary string quartets including one by Roger Reynolds, who was present. (He is in residence this winter-spring at the University of California Center in D.C.)

    Within the past fortnight, I also caught up finally with new piano champion Kathleen Supove, and heard new computer music by, and spoke with, New York’s Neil Rolnick, who was in an Earle Brown graduate composition seminar with me at Berkeley years back.

    I currently advise a prominent Washington new music ensemble which just won a major advancement grant, and was past new music curator for the Washington Project for the Arts, where I hosted a dozen cutting new music composers from around the country, including Bob Telson, Georghi Costinescu, Julius Hemphill, Michael Peppe, Kenneth Atchley, and Anne LeBaron.

    Check out the current show at American University’s Katzen Center for the Arts to see some of the documentation associated with my experimental music work for the Washington Project for the Arts back in the 1980s.


  14. “I think that it was you who missed the point.


    Oh Zeno, what’s with the thin skin all of a sudden? Did I hurt your feelings by suggesting that the Kennedy Center may not be where the most cutting edge art is being created in the District? Venture out and come see what’s out there. Come to a Great Noise concert sometime. Or check out Verge. Hell, there was a great show at St. Mary’s last Tuesday, evidently. The Kennedy Center does not have a monopoly on great music in Washington and it’s certainly far from the cutting edge.

  15. Joseph,


    Listen to the music of any of the composers I name in my article, and you’ll find that you’re simply wrong.

    Even Radiohead (whose work I’ve only recently discovered but have quickly joined the throngs of admirers from the “classical” side of things) still works within a 3-5 minute SONG format. The expressive use of technology is not the only avenue where innovation can have an impact. What about the expansion of form and the challenge to the “remote control” (or, more appropriately today, the “YouTube”) attention span? Where are the great expansive works of pop music that don’t (solely) rely on text or vague instrumental noodling to get their message across?

  16. “Today,” he writes, “far more inventiveness can be found in popular entertainment than can be found in the classic arts. The embracing of new technologies and the willingness to try new things seems to have become more the province of rock music and movies than of opera, ballet and theater.”

    I have to agree with that one. It’s just a matter of numbers. Our maturation away from Eurocentrism, the development of genuinely new forms, and dwindling resources have combined to make the classic arts unattractive to most of our brilliant artists.

    We shouldn’t expect the most talented athletes in America to play water polo.

  17. ” I fail to see, however, how commissioning “Democracy in America” is a credential worthy of an enfant terrible of the avant garde.” (Armando Bayolo)

    I think that it was you who missed the point.


  18. Zeno, I don’t really care how Kaiser (or anyone else) goes down in history. I’m an artist and an advocate, both writing, performing and presenting a number of national and world premieres not to mention second and third performances of works by young, neglected and significant composers alike. I’m in it for the art. THAT’S the only thing that’s important to me. How I go down in history is not up to me, nor really of much concern. Why should Mr. Kaiser be any different because he has more of a budget?

    (And before you rant at me, yes, I’m aware that there is more to programming an effective season than just booking the people and/or works you believe in.)

    Methinks you miss the point.

  19. Armando, while I respect Mr. Kaiser in his efforts to renew and refresh the way arts organizations run their affairs administratively, I believe that the jury is still out as to whether he will go down in history as the American ballet and opera (non-artistic) visionary that I believe he now aspires to be (and as Peter Gelb also aspires to be in the field of opera alone). I believe that Mr. Kaiser has about a decade to make his mark and to now nurture and commission the great works of contemporary classical art he claims are presently lacking in 21st century America.

    Some background for those outside of the beltway … As of next July 1, the Washington National Opera will become a formal component of the Kennedy Center (as is the NSO, which regularly commissions new works), and the operas to be presented (and commissioned) will be chosen by Mr. Kaiser himself, in consultation with some of the remaining members of the administrative staff of the Washington National Opera – especially the German administrator Christina Scheppelmann.

    Ten years ago, in petitioning Congress to be renamed the Washington National Opera, the company promised Congress that it would strongly attempt to stage an American classical opera every season. This it has clearly failed to do, and the company, as a national company, has been upstaged by David Gockley’s San Francisco Opera, which will present two American operas next season – including a world premiere.

    At the same time, the Kennedy Center’s WNO’s record for commissioning new work is quite poor. Over the past 40 years, only Bomarzo, Goya (with Placido Domingo), Dream of Valentino, and Democracy in America – or about one a decade.

    On February 1, 2011, when the official merger of the WNO and the Kennedy Center was announced, Mr. Kaiser noted that he would have no say on the five WNO of the Kennedy Center operas chosen for 2011-12 (no American operas), but that he hoped in his first season in de facto charge, 2012-13, to stage a “good avant-garde opera from abroad.”

    This indicates to me that, at present, he is less interested in the American contemporary arts than he is interested in the international avant-garde, to which he has been introduced through his presidency of the Kennedy Center, the Center’s superb work in international programming, and his wide travels.

    My expectation is that Washington will see Mr. Kaiser invite William Kentridge to stage an opera at the Kennedy Center (perhaps in a smaller theater) and that he might stage Saariaho’s Love from Afar, or the new South African opera on Winnie Mandela.

    My expectation is also that unless Mr. Kaiser changes, as I expect he might, the new Washington National Opera of the Kennedy Center will mount only one America opera world premiere over the period 2014-2024. My expectation is that the Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera will each stage four American opera world premieres over the period 2014-2024.

    I hope that I am wrong about Mr. Kaiser, but my optimism is held in check. I also think that only strongly personal competition between Mr. Kaiser and Mr. Gelb over the commissioning of new American works might change this.

  20. thanks for an excellent response to an infuriating article! i think michael kaiser’s article was divisive and flimsy, but more importantly, it was dead wrong.

    i think for anyone actually interested in innovation, the current state of music is exhilarating, particularly as exemplified by young composers and ensembles creating a new hybridization of high/low influences that reflect the digital upheaval in our globalizing society. i mean, really– what more could you ask for? innovative artists responding to contemporary culture in fresh ways that make us reexamine tropes of the past and the current state of society– this is what art is supposed to be about!

    the art is happening, and it is GOOD.

    so, if kaiser is really serious, he should redirect his anger towards the entrenched institutions that are STIFLING the performing arts in this country. there’s probably a reason that Mr. Kaiser seems unaware of many of the artists that you mention– it’s because they’ve all been locked out of the establishment by self-contented administrators who feel more obligated to cater to big money donors than they do to educate themselves about what’s ACTUALLY happening in the arts!

    i read his article on huffington post and was absolutely FUMING throughout. If Michael Kaiser wants to know how to fix the artistic situation in this country, I’d love to invite him to talk with some of my music/dance/theater friends for a while… we are NOT the problem & i’m amazed that anyone who pretends to have any involvement in the arts today could even pretend otherwise.

  21. No, music is not his area of expertise, but the composers he named, like the choreographers, were very much the mainstream. Nixon in China is my favorite recent opera, but I wouldn’t call it a cutting edge work (not even in 1985!). I think Adams himself would agree with me.

    When I was a student I had a colloquium with Adams and a number of other student composers at the Aspen festival. At the time he reminded us that it is the smaller groups/institutions/independent artists who are doing the important work. THEY are the giants on which we stand. Adams himself stands on the shoulders of Steve Reich and Phil Glass, who stand on the shoulders or Terry Riley, Lamont Young and Cage, who stands on the shoulders of…well, you get the idea.

    Zeno, as you can tell from my little rant, I respect Mr. Kaiser, particularly in his efforts to renew and refresh the way arts organizations run their affairs. I fail to see, however, how commissioning “Democracy in America” is a credential worthy of an enfant terrible of the avant garde.

    Which is not to say that all good art is avant garde art. I like a lot of mainstream, middle of the road work–even create some of it myself–, but Kaiser places the crux of his argument on the question of artistic innovation, which is 99% of the time the purview of the avant garde.

  22. Armando,

    Thank you for you courage/boldness/ascension to status as S21 provocateur, etc. etc.etc.

    I’m particularly fascinated by the composers Kaiser lists (at least in the quotes you provided) and those he omits, many of which you mention yourself. As great as Bernstein and Stravinsky were, he totally overlooks Cage and Feldman, and a slew of more obscure experimentalists from the 1960s and beyond (Ashley, Mumma, Brown…).

    To me, these composers’ innovations are just as important to the last 50 years of American music as anyone else’s, and have played particular inspiration to the figureheads of the leading generation (essentially enumerated by Armando) who have picked up pieces of that history and run with them in their own way.

    I suppose I was simply surprised at the very limited scope of composers Mr. Kaiser referred to, but, as zeno has alluded, this is not his area of expertise. With that in mind, I don’t know why Mr. Kaiser felt compelled to comment on an area of the arts with which he is not familiar.

  23. opps … I meant to say mainstage commission. The old WNO also commissioned Scott Wheeler’s Democracy in America. I apologize for the error.

  24. Thank you for your analysis, Armando, although I disagree with you in large part and respect Mr. Kaiser for at least being provocative and stating a debating position.

    Remember, Mr. Kaiser’s background is in dance (ballet) and opera, and not especially in classical music or contemporary classical music.

    I believe that Mr. Kaiser would like to be General Manager of the new Washington National Opera of the Kennedy Center as a capstone to his distinguished career in (interntional) arts management. I expect that he hopes to be with the Washington National Opera of the Kennedy Center longer than he was with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden (London).

    Also remember, the Kennedy Center (and Brooklyn and Houston) commissioned Nixon in China, which has been called the greatest American opera of the past quarter century. Over the same period, the former Washington National Opera only commissioned Argento’s Dream of Valentino.

    I applaud Mr. Kaiser as he refines his vision of the arts in America in preparation for his presumed upcoming commissioning and presenting role with the new Washington National Opera of the Kennedy Center.

    Thank you again, Armando, for your analysis.

  25. I think more than a few musicians with inclinations towards ‘Art Music’ have chosen to operate in the ‘Rock’ world because of lack of opportunity and perceived stagnation in the classical music establishments. I’m thinking specifically of bands like Zs from New York, Dan Deacon from Baltimore, or Hume from DC. They sort of move between the two worlds, but live more in the underground scene (more ‘Rock,’ if such a thing still exists) because people are more open to hear challenging new things there. Like you said, many classical music establishments have cultivated their graying audience and wouldn’t dare offend them. Mr. Kaiser may not be able to see over the towering walls of the Kennedy Center.

    I believe you meant Georg Friedrich Haas, the Austrian composer, and not Carl Friedrich Haas, the Olympian.

    My 2¢,


  26. Armando, you have this exactly right. The arts institutions have heavy filters both in and out, and what doesn’t fit through the filter doesn’t exist.

    Thanks for writing this.

    (And the captcha seems broken)


  27. Armando, I expect we’ll see quite a few responses along these lines, i.e., “What the hell is he talking about?!”

    I’m not sure which is more disappointing, the recognition that a respected leader of our field has fallen so far out of teach with the creative wellspring, or the possibility that his article was solely intended to provoke these discussions.

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