|Posted by The Fourth Wall on June 11, 2014 at 6:20 PM|
Posted by Neil
The Fourth Wall was recently named winners of the 2014 Savvy Musician in Action Chamber Ensemble Competition. This event is an experiential workshop on the emerging field of arts entrepreneurship, hosted by the University of South Carolina School of Music and directed by David Cutler. Over the course of four days, participants collaborate to develop arts-based business ideas while learning entrepreneurial concepts from experts in the field. The competition itself recognizes chamber groups for their artistic excellence and innovative event design.
So…what does it mean to compete in an arts entrepreneurship competition? Do the words “arts” and “entrepreneurship” even belong in the same sentence? Are business concepts and artistic ideals mutually exclusive, or is there way to integrate them without losing integrity? What does it take to be a “savvy musician,” and what does it mean to win such a competition? We weren’t entirely sure ourselves when we submitted our application, but here are some reflections after participating in the event.
Learn From Your Competitors
Who made up this year’s field of competitors? Aside from TFW, there were two Runners-Up and two Honorable Mentions:
Ensemble39: an expert New Music quintet of winds and strings modeled on Prokofiev’s Op. 39.
Warp Trio: this elastic piano trio expands to include drums and a dancer, combining classical, popular, and improvised music.
invoke: a bowed and fretted string quartet that embraces classical & folk traditions, generating original repertoire.
Duo Anova: an uncommon pairing of cello and guitar which delivers uncommon sonic adventures.
Unlike most musical competitions which focus on a prescribed instrumentation or genre, this event celebrates uniqueness. But while this may seem like an apples vs. oranges proposition, there are plenty of commonalities here: unusual instrumentation, interdisciplinary collaboration, genre-bending musical offerings, active creation of new repertoire through commissioning & arranging, and performances in non-traditional venues. At the heart of these innovations is a desire to be true to ourselves. As ensembles and as individuals, this group seeks a level of creative control not usually afforded to classically-trained musicians. Others may call it innovation; we call it authenticity.
Uniqueness and innovation, however, can breed skepticism. Aside from ongoing arguments that entrepreneurship is impossible in art, there are myriad negative perceptions to be confronted. For many, entrepreneurship connotes hucksterism. Marketing makes one wary that we’re being sold something we don’t want or that someone is profiting off the gullibility of others. The use of buzzwords and phrases such as “thinking outside the box” and “paradigm shift” can elicit responses such as, “Gag me with a PowerPoint slide!” Even the word “buzzword” can raise one’s hackles. Innovation in business may be the road to success ("fake it till you make it"), but in the arts, it’s all about quality.
Highly-skilled musicians have impeccable standards. (And believe me, this talent pool is very deep with very high standards.) This can be a tremendous burden, however, when we choose to exert our own interpretive and creative freedom. Always mindful of the potential for being gimmicky, we constantly strive to transcend the gimmick and explore deeper expressive possibilities for ourselves and for our audiences. None of us wants to be innovative if that innovation will negate artistic quality. But we do have to entertain our outlandish ideas long enough to test their worth.
Research & Development
One of the essential rules of brainstorming is to reserve judgment. There is no such thing as a bad idea. In theatre improvisation, this concept is called, “Yes…And.” It is imperative to accept even the stupidest ideas and run with them. Classical musicians tend to resist this notion, lending a sense of isolation to the process of turning crazy ideas into meaningful works of high quality. This, in addition to an inborn emphasis on private study and preparation, can lead one to feel like the weird kid playing alone in the corner.
How validating it is, then, to make the rare discovery of other weirdos who have been toiling away, building their own fantasy worlds. Rarer still is public acknowledgement that being the exception to the rules can have exceptional value. Marketing an unknown product can be a hard sell, but in this setting, we didn’t need to convince them. They were already convinced.
Have faith, weird kid! Your wild ideas may yet prove valuable to someone else.
Uniqueness cannot be qualified. It is incorrect to say that something is more or less unique than something else. Something is either unique or it isn’t. The received wisdom is that uniqueness does not play well with others. So how does that impact a competition that celebrates uniqueness?
It is widely acknowledged that music is a competitive profession, but I’m pleased to say that in this particular competition, there was no trace of professional rivalry. When we are all applying for the job of being ourselves, competition ceases to have meaning.
So congratulations to the fine ensembles we met through this competition. We’re your new biggest fans, and we can’t wait to share the stage with you again!