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Unionized musicians, computerized composers and PittsburghBY: Dan Rottenberg 07.24.2012
The case for free-lance musicians and computer composers. And what Pittsburgh could learn from Philadelphia. (My rejoinders to Tom Purdom, Richard Carreño and Kile Smith.)
Make way for tomorrowDAN ROTTENBERG
Tom Purdom’s review of Music As Alchemy raises an intriguing point: Many European orchestras and conductors eschew unionized musicians in favor of free-lancers— not necessarily to save money, but because “the lack of competition reduces the drive that produces inspired performances.”
Some of the best orchestras, author Tom Service suggests, are pickup bands like the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which consists almost entirely of first-chair musicians from other orchestras who assemble once a year in Lucerne because they want to play with Claudio Abbado and the musicians he has personally selected.
I can’t help thinking: Most American orchestras are unionized and predicated on the basic assumption that job security is essential to musical excellence. The Philadelphia Orchestra has long prided itself on its ability to provide year-round employment for its musicians. (In the ‘30s, the Orchestra’s summer concerts at Robin Hood Dell in Fairmount Park were a co-op operation, organized by the musicians themselves to pick up a few extra bucks in the off-season.)
The Orchestra’s recent bankruptcy was perceived as a way of breaking its onerous obligations to its landlord (the Kimmel Center) and its pension plan, but the union setup for its musicians remained sacrosanct. Is it possible that, by going the free-lance route, the Orchestra could perform better music for a lower cost?
Another Philadelphia story (in Pittsburgh)
Richard Carreño’s commentary about Pittsburgh concludes that the former Steel City has assembled a first-rate collection of cultural institutions, but they’re all in the wrong neighborhood, and consequently downtown Pittsburgh becomes a “zombie city” after 5 p.m.
Curious. Philadelphia suffered from a very similar problem back in the ‘50s. Its dirty and deserted downtown was a national embarrassment where few middle-class people lived (aside from a few blocks near Rittenhouse Square). Its historic district was engulfed in slums.
At the time, most cities were renewing their downtowns by leveling whole neighborhoods and starting again from scratch. But in 1956 Philadelphia’s City Planning Commission, led by its executive director Ed Bacon and its chairman Albert M. Greenfield, came up with a unique approach for attracting residents and business: a surgical process involving the entire 1,000-acre Society Hill district, which would, as Nathaniel Burt has put it, “salvage what is good of the old, add what is needed of the new, and in general transform that part of the city into a sort of urban residential paradise without making a museum-fossil out of it.”
Today, of course, Society Hill and Center City are the envy of other American cities. For a combination of population, income level, education level and number of people who live and work in the same neighborhood, there’s nothing like Center City anywhere, even in New York.
And whom do you suppose Albert Greenfield recruited to implement that brilliant plan? That’s right: It was John P. Robin, who had previously overseen Pittsburgh’s pioneering Gateway Center development downtown— the very development that’s now so bereft of human presence in the evening. (Robin was initially reluctant to leave a fast-moving, free-spending city like Pittsburgh for a cautious, parsimonious place like Philadelphia.)
The moral of the story? The late bird learns from the early bird’s mistakes. Also, we haven’t reached the end of history yet.
Cities have their ups and downs. And sometimes the best reinvention comes when a city has hit rock bottom.
Can computers replace composers?
Composer Kile Smith, playing BSR house curmudgeon, scoffs at the notion that computers could ever replace composers. (See “With Darwin and a computer, who needs Mozart?”)
I’m not so sure. After all, not long ago warfare was inconceivable without thousands of men and horses; now, all you need is a drone. A single computer, properly programmed, can produce more subtly shaded paintings than Caravaggio. The same computer can spit out a full-length animated feature film (one that would have taken the Disney artists years to assemble by hand), while simultaneously finding you a job, reconnecting you to your high school sweetheart and providing instant access to thousands of pornographic images that otherwise would have taken you months to find.
As recently as the ‘50s, most Broadway musicals were written by people like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim; now all that stuff is outsourced to India. I’m old enough to remember when most people thought sex with a robot was disgusting; now everybody’s doing it.
Truth to tell, this column— and, indeed, all of Broad Street Review for the past six and half years— has been written and edited not by Dan Rottenberg but by Hal, the computer in Kubrick’s 2001. Dan himself is a doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay as a busboy at Bennigan’s.
To Kile Smith I say: Your work is done. We’ve found a machine that will do the job cheaper and faster. Your music will live forever, or certainly until next Tuesday. Now, will you please stop obstructing progress?♦
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