by Rebecca Winzenried
NewMusicJukebox compiles an online library for 21st century music.
Easy access to new music via the Internet may have widened its potential audience to the nth degree, but the technology has presented other dilemmas for the music industry. Exactly how does a composer of new music familiarize orchestras and audiences with his work? Where does an orchestra programmer go to learn what new music is available? How does a music librarian archive materials to reflect the changing ways in which information is communicated? How does an organization known for its 20th-century collection of musical scores deal with 21st-century music technology?
Hold on, because answers to some of those questions may be just around the corner with the launch of NewMusicJukebox, a web site of the American Music Center. This "central clearinghouse for scores and recordings," as it's described on the site, is the AMC's wide-ranging solution for how to deal with the collection and dissemination of new music for a new century.
AMC officials have wrestled over the last couple of years with how most effectively to move one of the organization's core services-circulation of perusal scores-from the physical to the virtual world. AMC members have long been able to "check out" copies from the organization's library of more than 60,000 scores and recordings by American composers dating back to 1906. As Executive Director Richard Kessler notes, the process worked fine for most of the 20th century. When the organization first started offering the service in 1939, it wasn't easy to view scores or get copies. (The Xerox process had been invented only a year earlier.) "People knew that when they were in New York, they could stop by and take a look at scores," he says. "It was never meant to be an archive, but it became a default archive."
With the advent of Web technology, more and more composers, programmers, and audience members are now turning to the Internet as their primary source of information. NewMusicJukebox is an attempt to create an archive adapted to their needs. It has made scores, audio samples, and information about composers available on a single web site.
NewMusicJukebox is set up as a fairly straightforward music-library database-except, in this case, composers and users are in control of the information and how it is accessed. Composers who are members of the American Music Center can post their works on the site, including information about length, ensemble type, and how to obtain a score. They can also post a score for perusal and include recorded clips or MIDI files.
The site works with different composing software programs, such as Sibelius and Finale, in an effort to be "as ecumenical as possible," says Larry Larson, an AMC board member who has been directly involved in the site's development. "We don't want them to be forced into learning a new program." A "Technology Guide" and an "FAQs" section give information about the different programs, and the site allows users to download applications needed to view the scores--a Scorch plug-in is needed to read Sibelius web files, for example-or listen to audio files.
Composers can post audio clips as MP3 files or MIDI samples. Larson and Kessler admit that the synthesized quality of MIDI files is not a perfect option for hearing an orchestral score, but such files do provide a fairly accurate representation of what the works sound like and, at least on NewMusicJukebox, the welcome chance to follow along in the score. The MIDI option may also be a way around rights issues if composers aren't able to obtain permission from everyone involved in actual performance recordings. (MIDI files are basically instructions for a computer or synthesizer for how to play the music.) An "About Rights" section will keep composers and users up to date on the latest information concerning copyright and intellectual property issues for distribution of music-related materials on the Web.
Visitors to www.newmusicjukebox.com can search the site by type of composition, scores only, audio only, or all of the above. A composer search offers a roster of works with information on the length, ensemble, instrumentation, and how to obtain a score or contact the composers or publishers. NewMusicJukebox was conceived as a strictly business-to-business model for artistic administrators and programmers. Thus, an advanced search can be narrowed down to specifics such as five-minute length or works for marimba.
However, the site has since been opened to general access. Composers must be AMC members to post, but anyone can sign on to do searches, including casual users who might have heard something on the radio and want to learn more about it. A keyword option allows them to do broad searches for works by a composer's last name, or by any fragment of the title they might have managed to catch.
Sounds and Scores
In fact, NewMusicJukebox developed from plans to launch a web radio station devoted to new music. That idea is still in the works, as the "New Music Radio" button floating at an upper corner of the pages attests. The radio station would draw its playlist from the NewMusicJukebox database. Early discussions about the web station evolved with the realization that there was no central place for users to find information about new composers and their music. Kessler points out that even established contemporary composers can be hard to track down on the Internet. It's not a given that composers or their publishers have taken time to set up web sites or to log composition details.
Many up-and-coming composers without publishers have taken matters into their own hands by establishing web sites that function as promotional tools and distribution centers. Still, if no one knows about the music, the odds of any given site on the World Wide Web being found are dicey. "There's actually a confusion of information. People don't know what composers are out there," Kessler notes. "When they do want to program something new, they don't know where to find it. The reality is that the field is deeper, stronger than it's ever been."
A core group consisting of Kessler, Larson, and composer/web consultant Caleb Kerchaval has been working on NewMusicJukebox for more than a year, aided by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Nuts-and-bolts work on the project has revolved around development of a database and navigational tools to make NewMusicJukebox as user-friendly as possible.
A second element has involved familiarizing publishers with the concept, demonstrating how NewMusicJukebox can work in tandem with them, not in competition. AMC sees NewMusicJukebox as a bridge between publishers and end-users, since it can include links to publisher web sites, composer pages, or information about how to obtain scores. Kessler reminds critics that NewMusicJukebox scores are offered for promotional perusal, just as AMC has always done with hard copies. "We're not selling this stuff," he says. The site does allow self-published composers to offer users a score-download option. Keeping in mind that this is a 21st-century project, NewMusicJukebox will focus on new compositions only-at least for now. A test phase that began in February started with a base of about 100 works; the list had grown to substantially prior to the site's official launch on May 6. AMC encouraged participation from a balance of known and unknown composers to get it started on a solid footing.
NewMusicJukebox will be essentially user-controlled and maintained as composers continue to post new works or offer updates on older pieces. The design sets up NewMusicJukebox as an instant archive of new music from this point forward. Its acceptance among composers remains to be seen, but its potential can be weighed by a look at AMC's membership: Of about 2,500 members, 1,800 are composers.
The organization will eventually add its 20th-century library to NewMusicJukebox, either by adding scores directly to the database or perhaps by offering connection to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. AMC's actual collection of scores was moved last summer from the organization's headquarters in Manhattan's Flatiron district to the Performing Arts library at Lincoln Center, some 40 blocks north.
AMC has also entered into an agreement with the Charles Ives Society to include that composer's scores on the site. Kessler believes it is important to widen the scope of NewMusicJukebox by adding such "legacy" materials. It's a rather ironic twist for a forward-looking project-one that, he notes, "opens the door not only to the 21st century but the 20th century as well."
Rebecca Winzenried is managing editor of SYMPHONY.