A little symphonic science fiction

By Peter A. Klein

Everyone in Seattle who loves classical music must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Seattle Symphony musicians and management announced they had come to a tentative contract agreement. I know I did.

During the troubled negotiations, I was reminded of an old science fiction story called “The Tunesmith,” by the late Lloyd Biggle, Jr. Science fiction is often a good predictor of what is to come, and this particular story serves as a cautionary tale for classical music.

Biggle was no ordinary science fiction writer. He played the clarinet and had a PhD. in musicology. Many of his stories relate to the arts in some way. “The Tunesmith,” written in 1957, is set in a future where the world has forgotten the glories of live music, and the only surviving performing art is the singing television commercial.

Think about that for a moment.

Biggle doesn’t chronicle how such a culturally barren society came to be.  But the implications are clear. Take the prevailing attitude he saw in the 1950s that “all is business, and business is all,” send it into mortal combat with rigid labor unions protecting every square inch of their turf at all costs, and eventually, the arts die.

The title character of “The Tunesmith” is the world’s best composer, in a world where hardly anyone remembers or cares about Bach or Beethoven. He barely ekes out a living composing commercial jingles, because he won’t crank out bad work quickly. He can’t supplement his income by performing, because the Tunesmiths’ and Performers’ unions forbid their memberships from intruding on the other’s territory, and the penalty is to be blackballed for life. Eventually he has to quit composing and take a job in a seedy night club, improvising his jingles on a “Multichord” synthesizer.

The Tunesmith’s performances move his audiences more deeply than anything in memory, and he attracts wider attention. A subsequent television appearance causes a major cultural stir, putting him in direct conflict with the cigar-chomping tycoon who runs the world’s television network monopoly.

Skullduggery most foul ensues, and the Tunesmith himself pays an awful price. But eventually the power of live music transforms the story’s society, A vast, publicly-funded arts complex is built in the Midwest for the people of the entire solar system, complete with a Beethoven Hall that’s always filled to capacity, and—Seattle Opera take note—a Wagnerian Theater where the complete Ring is performed daily.

If only.

Back in recession-plagued 2010, I often find myself wondering if we are heading for the artistic nightmare world that opens Biggle’s story. The American patchwork system of arts funding combines relatively small public grants with corporate and individual donations. When times are bad, everything goes bad at once, and an orchestra without a deep endowment fund can be in deep trouble. That’s what happened here.

The Seattle Symphony musicians’ home-grown union deserves immense credit for their flexibility and determination to negotiate with the long-term good of the orchestra in mind. They behaved completely unlike the intractable labor unions of “The Tunesmith,” which satirized the American Federation of Musicians of the 1950s.

The Symphony’s management went down a draconian path for months, apparently on the advice of outside consultants. Had that strategy prevailed, the message to symphony musicians all over the country would have been, “Don’t be flexible, you’ll just be crushed.” And it would have encouraged symphony management teams to talk artistic excellence while implementing “slash and burn.”  All this would have been very bad for classical music, and it could have taken years to recover.

It appears that eventually someone saw what was at stake, and the train wreck towards which they were headed. And they found a compromise that everyone could live with. Whoever that person or persons were, every music lover in Seattle thanks you.

Now is not the time to rest on our laurels. Classical music is not free enterprise that can turn a profit, and on the whole it never has been. It has always depended on the kindness of strangers—and friends. Haydn had Prince Esterhazy, Tchaikovsky had Madame von Meck.

We don’t have such aristocratic patrons in America today. Nor does Seattle have the amount of “old money” the east coast cities do.  But we do have the movers and shakers of the community, people who made fortunes in software, telecommunications, and the like. We also have a highly literate and educated population, and a history of creativity and innovation disproportionate to our size and geographic location.

The symphony needs donations big and small, to help build a respectable endowment and a rainy-day fund. It needs innovative ideas that will help it survive and thrive. It needs to do even more public outreach. Never again should The Stranger ask its readers, “Does Seattle even need a symphony?”

The choice is ours. Somewhere between the publicly-financed orchestras of Germany and the artistic wasteland of “The Tunesmith,” there’s got to be an American solution. And a Seattle solution. Let’s find it, and make it work.

—- end —


2 thoughts on “A little symphonic science fiction

  1. Of course all music lovers are thrilled to see the symphony contract renewed, and I agree the symphony needs to have an endowment to hedge against future monetary down turns. But one very important thing, not mentioned, is the administration. The symphony’s, artistic matters should be handled by the music director, but a great orchestra needs a strong executive director and board. Is anyone concerned at the turnover of staff at the Seattle Symphony. There have been at least 5 different executive directors in the last 25 years. It would be hard to count the numerous other departments that have been a revolving door. Does this not send up a red flag. Has someone questioned those who have left on their decisions to leave. And, if not, shouldn’t they have.
    It is interesting to note that Debra Card, who left after Benaroya Hall, was built went on to manage the Chicago Symphony, who’s conductor is now, Ricardo Muti. Why were we not able to keep her, clearly she has the ability to manage an orchestra. I would like to hear more concern from peolpe about what is going on administratively before we start asking for the bid bucks.

  2. Melvyn, you make some excellent points, and I share your concerns. Your questions could probably be answered by a good investigative reporter. But there is also a danger that this could lead to too much recrimination about the past, which could be counterproductive. I’d say that whether your questions are answered in full public view or “in the family,” those in charge at the Symphony need to give your concerns a good hard look, and move forward with the lessons learned firmly in mind.

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