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October 21, 2009

Guest blog post: Brian Sacawa asks "New York City or Bust?"

(This is a guest post by saxophonist Brian Sacawa, co-curator of Baltimore's Mobtown Modern. I'm always happy to consider guest posts. Please contact me at if you'd like to submit one.)

Musicians in Baltimore, especially the young and talented folks around town looking to launch a career in new-music, need to rethink their definition of success and get over the idea that New York City is the center of the universe with Baltimore serving merely as a low-rent stopover on the path to bigger things.

New-music (or alt-classical, anyone?) is in the midst of a zeitgeist. There is an undeniable energy and vitality to much of the music being created.

And although there are different streams within this movement, there seems to be a common overarching goal to create a new musical culture. This new hybrid combines modern composition with sound worlds drawn from a wide range of genres — from pop to rock to hip-hop and beyond — as well as aspects of the cultures that surround those forms of expression. Some attempts to realize this new culture, such as juxtaposing a new-music ensemble and an indie-rock outfit on the same bill with no clear purpose, do absolutely nothing of musical value (except maybe make the new-music kids in the audience feel a bit cooler and the indie-rock kids in the audience feel a bit smarter), while others get much closer to the mark. The most successful experiments have been those that combine genres unselfconsciously while highlighting the similarities between musical cultures and forgoing the gimmicks that this sort of synthesis lends itself to much too easily.

The majority of the credit for this movement has been bestowed on the scene in NYC, which might lead an ambitious new-music composer or performer to think that in order to be a part of the vanguard and really "make it" they need to be in New York themselves. That's been the traditional benchmark of success. And if you can’t make it there, well, why the hell would you even want to try to make it anywhere else since you've failed already?

I think it’s time that we

turn the page on this antiquated idea that to be a successful and important artist it’s imperative that NYC plays a significant role on your CV. It’s an old idea that has in many ways been rendered moot in the age of interconnectivity and constant contact. Without taking anything away from the contributions that have come from the NYC scene, I think Baltimore is uniquely positioned and equipped to create a more definitive and lasting version of this brave new sonic world.

About two years ago there was an article in the Guardian about the booming music scene in Brooklyn, NY, which addressed, in part, the role Baltimore had played in the borough's so-called musical renaissance. It was cool for Baltimore to be recognized for its "curveball creativity," but I was honestly a little offended by the notion that Baltimore was merely serving as Brooklyn's farm team — a stepping stone to the musical big leagues — and couldn't be a place where a hip and innovative musical culture could throw down roots and thrive. But that article was published almost two years ago and paradigms have shifted. More and more musicians who call Baltimore home are defying the stereotype that you need to live in a closet in a dingy Brooklyn apartment for a chance at notoriety outside of Charm City.

I think it's time the emerging new-music voices get on board. Jason Foster, the owner of the Baltimore-based record label and management group We Are Free, was quoted in the Guardian article cited above saying, "There's nothing [in Baltimore]. Absolutely nothing. So you can do what the f*** you want." I don't really agree with the first part of that statement. However, the second part is spot on. You could argue that you could do whatever the f*** you want anywhere, but the atmosphere in Baltimore does seem much more conducive to that sort of thing. The city's DIY ethos combined with the overwhelming sense of community within and across artistic disciplines will enable the realization of the yet-to-be-defined hybrid culture that many are attempting to establish. And the relative smaller size of Baltimore — you've heard the term Smalltimore, right? — makes it possible to create an interconnected city-wide artistic front — rather than a series of artistic ghettos.

Artists have a choice these days: you can go to NYC and be one in a thousand playing against stacked odds, or you can stay in Baltimore and create your dream on your own terms.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:30 AM | | Comments (4)


we're putting on a show next week with So Percussion that attempts to bridge the show-going gap between new music and indie.

we think it's a fairly organic bill without any of the awkward juxtaposition.

Bravo, Brian! Excellently-spoken!

I would suggest further, in fact, that this idea of NYC -- incredibly-large metropolis though it be -- as a "cultural capital" is, indeed, passé. MANY cities can claim that title, all for different reasons, but no single place reigns supreme -- and no one should think, for a moment, that this is ever possible.

Yeah, NYC _is_ super-huge and super-dense, not to mention loaded with money and institutions of prestige and renown, but it's far from perfect. The place is a gigantic beehive -- goodness bless those who like living in beehives! -- and it's definitely not suitable for someone like myself, for _so_ many reasons. (The constant noise alone would make me run, screaming, into the quieter, more remote parts -- though that definitely takes some effort!)

In fact, thanks to the wonders of the internet, _any_ city has the potential to cough up the next Gesualdo, Mahler, Richter, or Coltrane. The playing field has been leveled, so you could just as easily see the next instant-classic saxophone-quartet concerto emerge from the environs of Barrow, Alaska, as from Toulouse, France. Or something to that effect... ;^)

I think of Bruckner, who came from the Austrian countryside and was, by all means, a "country boy" at heart. His NYC was Wien, and while that was the place in which he ultimately settled, it had very little to do with his formation, and his eventual successes were almost always achieved _first_ elsewhere. True, he there encountered a locus of music genius at the university (not to mention Sechter, the man whose guidance ultimately led to the wonders we hear today), but Wien was ultimately a terrible trial in the course of the man's life.

NYC is kinda like the big braggart that says, "SEE, we've got it ALL! You don't know what you'd be missing without us! We're the STAR at the center of the system!" But if you stare at the Sun long enough, then you'll definitely go blind.

Just cracked open the 10/26 issue of the New Yorker, and saw this cartoon, appropriately.

Fabulous. Thanks for sending this along. TIM

@Doug Halfen The issue of money and especially institutions is one that I wasn't able to address in this post and I was wondering if anybody would bring it up. It's definitely something worth discussing because without financial support things can't continue to grow--people will only fight for the cause pro bono or for peanuts for so long.

As for the next "instant-classic saxophone-quartet concerto", aren't we still waiting for the first?!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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