Choral Music Never Had It So GoodThe Official Blog of Octarium

Yesterday, Kansas Governor Brownback signed an executive order to abolish the state-supported Kansas Arts Commission.  On the heels of the news of that decision, a plea from Americans for the Arts informed me that proposed federal budget cuts have put the NEA on the chopping block

What is befuddling to most artists is why, in a bloated and inflated budget, something as financially insignificant as the arts is one of the first budget line-items marked through with the red pen.  Less than 1% of an American individual’s yearly tax bill is spent on the arts.  Way less than 1%, in fact.  If the itemized tax receipt example that has been floating around on the interwebs is accurate, of the some $5,400 taxes that a person who earns $34,000 a year pays, only a quarter of those taxes goes to the arts.  And when I say “a quarter” I mean “25 cents.”  And, in fact, one penny less than that.  This taxpayer pays $287 per year on the interest to our national debt but only 24 cents per year on the arts.

Then there’s the well-supported idea that federal funding for the arts pays for itself 18 times over; an 1,800% return on investment.  You give the arts one buck, and at the end of the year, the arts will give you $18.75 back.

So this seems like a no-brainer, right?  Wrong.

But why?

Well, let’s look at the history of arts patronage.  And I’ll try to make it short.

Patronage of the arts is all over history, from the medieval era through Renaissance Europe to feudal Japan.   Arts patronage went hand-in-hand with an imperial system and a large aristocracy.  The history of patronage follows the history of culture;  where there were monarchs, there was patronage.  Where there was The Church, there was patronage.

There’s even patronage of the arts in the Bible; in Exodus, God commissions the Israelites to create a tabernacle.  Then there’s Saul, without whom we would not have some of the Psalms.

Artists such as Chrétien de Troyes, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson all sought and enjoyed the support of noble or ecclesiastical patrons. Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin both received extensive funding from the French government to support their artistic efforts.  Mozart and Beethoven also benefited from patrons.

With the rise of capitalism, culture moved away from the established patronage system to the publicly-supported system of museums, theatres, symphonies and opera companies that is familiar today.

But in America, we’ve never had a solid imperial patronage system;  our system suffers from a lack of royal and ecclesiastical precedent and, therefore, a lack of habitual patronage.  Pair this with rampant commercialism, which suggests the idea that if art doesn’t sell, it’s not worth making, and the struggle of the arts in America becomes more clear.

But mass commercial consumption can’t create art.  It can create American Idol, sure.  But it doesn’t give us art.  It gives us entertainment.

And many Americans don’t draw a distinction between the two.

On top of that is the inaccurate idea of the inaccessible genius artist.  A real artist, though, is not some strange interloper in our society.  An artist’s calling in culture is no different from any other calling; we still need to eat, to pay our mortgages, to support our families.

Yet I still haven’t successfully explained why many Americans bristle at state-supported art.  And it’s a question that I cannot answer with any assurance of accuracy or deep truth.  But I have a theory.

And here it is;  art is rebellious and reflects a certain world view.  Art cannot be neutral.  American taxpayers shudder at the idea that their yearly quarter might be one of the quarters supporting blasphemous, pornographic, trashy or unprincipled art.   That fear has become the tenor of the conversation with the side-effect that all of the other art that same taxpayer may find worthwhile gets tossed aside.

But for every Robert Mapplethorpe there’s a Big Read. Or a Coming Up Taller, a program that supports community arts and humanities after-school programs for at-risk and underserved youth. We cannot dictate what the NEA funds, but getting rid of the NEA won’t get rid of Mapplethorpe. It will get rid of Great American Voices, which brought opera to military bases. And Operation Homecoming, a program that helped soldiers write about their war experiences; to share their important stories. And MICD25, a program that supports creative placemaking projects that contribute to the livability of communities and help transform sites into lively, beautiful, and sustainable places with the arts at their core.

That’s what we’re at risk of losing. And that is worth saving.

In 21st century America, everyone is a king.  We have access to more resources, more time, more capital, and more art than anyone in the history of the world.  And I fear we’re beginning to take it all for granted.  We’re assuming that art will always be there, no matter what.

We also forget that arts and culture feed the economy in very tangible ways.   Cutting funding to the arts will be detrimental to the stability of our money.  The stability of  our spirit.  The stability of our culture.  The stability of the American dream.

Today’s patronage is tomorrow’s history.  Can we count on you?

Our fundraising tack this season has was inspired by the March of Dimes campaign during the depression;  small amounts, many people, exponential growth in funds. But all of our fans need to give in order for that to work and, so far, though many have given (and thank you) the final amounts are still too small to make the kind of difference we envision in our long term budgetary plan. Unless donor giving patterns change drastically, we cannot survive without government funds.

We realize our future is in that rubric, small amounts, many people, exponential growth in funds, but we need your help to make that rubric a reality.   If you would like to help us take a step toward that future, you may donate at the link below.

Donate to Octarium

If you cannot donate, advocate.  This month Great Nonprofits and Guidestar are sponsoring a contest;  the nonprofit org with the most reviews posted in February wins $5,000, an amount that would help Octarium do more local educational outreach and provide funding needed to record our next album. Can you help? Only takes five minutes.  Write a review at the link below.

Advocate for Octarium

And if you support government funding for the arts, write a letter to your representatives in support of continuing funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director

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0 A Shared Experience

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I sat in my cozy house yesterday and watched snow blow sideways and pile up in drifts. I recalled snowstorms of years past, stuck in the house with a fire, a book, several bottles of wine. A pleasant confinement but a confinement nonetheless. An isolating experience.

But yesterday was different. It was a shared experience. I didn’t speak to anyone directly but social networking allowed people from Michigan to Texas to participate in the type of weather event that used to forcefully cloister people. The storm that covered most of the middle of the United States yesterday is going by many clever names and Twitter hashtags but social networks are allowing people to talk about it. To share it. I saw pictures of snowmen in Texas, snowdrifts in Chicago and sledding in Arkansas. I knew a friend in Cleveland couldn’t get out of his driveway because of the odd impediment of a wall of frozen bamboo. I sat in my house most of the day but still felt personally connected to the larger impact of the storm.

It’s different than watching the news or reading about it online. These are people I know. People I love. And though they are far away, I am connected to their experiences and they are connected to mine.

A shared experience.

We as a society seek out shared experiences. We can watch a sporting event on television but it’s better when we watch with friends. Even better is being in the stadium. All of those people gathered together, having the same basic experience but with thousands of variations on a theme.

Performance art is no different. I am able to watch a veritable glut of programming on television but it is somehow more fulfilling, more human, to attend a play. I can listen to music on my iPod but I get more out of the music by attending a live performance; a live performance is a shared experience. There is nothing like sitting in a building with living, breathing human beings watching and listening to other living, breathing human beings create art. It can be breathtaking and electrifying to be in the audience of a particularly dazzling performance. There is nothing else like it in the world.

And Octarium just happens to have a wonderful live performance in a few weeks. A concert of music chosen by our fans with program notes written by our fans; a live performance of the music you asked us to sing.  A true shared experience.

We just hope you are there to hear it. Live and In Person.

Listener’s Choice
February 19, 2011
St. Elizabeth Catholic Church
2 East 75th St. Kansas City, MO 64114-1498
7:30 p.m.

Tickets Available for Purchase Online

posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director

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We are in our third year of sponsoring a composition competition.  Our first winner, Steve Danyew, is a composer with all of the regular accolades on his resume;  a B.M. from Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, an M.M. and Certificate in Arts Leadership from Eastman and time as a composer fellow at Yale.   This year’s winner, Brad Kemp, has gone a slightly different route, studying at Columbia College Chicago and serving as assistant musical director at PH Productions, an improv troupe in Chicago.

Both have written music worthy of notice.  Danyew’s winning piece, “On Green Mountains,” is featured on our 2009 release Modern Masters and was hailed by arts critic Paul Horsley as “fully worthy to appear on a program of the best living American choral composers.”  Kemp’s piece, an arrangement of Debussy’s “La fille aux cheveux de lin,” will receive its world premiere at our February 19th “Listener’s Choice” concert and will be featured on our Should Have Been Choral recording, scheduled for release in 2012.

While I am sure that winning our small competition does not single-handedly pave the way into the successful future for these composers, it does give them a good performance of their piece, possibly a good recording and, perhaps, more exposure than they would have gotten otherwise.  They get a small $500 prize.   Octarium pays for them to come hear the premiere and spend a weekend enjoying Kansas City.  They might go home with some good press in their back pocket to use as they market themselves in the future.

This is why Octarium sponsors the competition; to help composers find an audience. To help worthy music find an audience.  To further the choral art.

So imagine my shock when I got taken to the mat in a conversation with a colleague about not charging an entry fee for composition submissions.  In this colleague’s opinion I was lessening the vocal art by not putting a price on the luxury being allowed to enter.   Another colleague shared with me her pleasant surprise at the discovery that a composition competition could become a hefty source of cash flow; a cash cow.

So, yet again, I am doing things “wrong.”  I am again causing a controversy because I do things that seem logical whether or not they have solid precedent in the music business.

I have been sternly lectured to change my structure and charge a fee for entry but this quid pro quo seems backwards to me.  You give us money and we’ll sing your music?  Maybe?  Well, actually, it’s kind of a long shot that we’ll ever sing your piece.  But give us your money anyway.

Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  Shouldn’t choirs support composers with commissions and competitions that don’t require a financial investment from a group of artists whose struggle is as epic as our struggle?

We are all struggling artists, true.   I guess I understand charging a small fee to pay someone to administer the competition fairly.  However, Octarium chooses to build the competition costs into our regular budget and fundraise through our regular channels to cover those costs.  We all know that raising funds for arts nonprofits is a mine field in this current economy and, certainly, twenty-five bucks a pop for the 250 or so entries we’ve received in the two years we’ve sponsored the competition would be extremely helpful to our budgetary bottom line.

But that’s not why we do this. It’s a composition competition, not a cash cow to help us pay our bills.

This is yet another way Octarium is turning the business of choral music on its head.  Composers like Eric Whitacre and Paul Carey have written in their blogs about competitions and entry fees and, being composers, they fall in line with my opinion on how things should be done.

We will not charge an entry fee for our competition.  Ever.  It’s part of our mission and vision to support choral music, choral artists and composers.  Our competition is one small way we do that.

Interested in entering?  You can find information here.

posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director

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2 Why Give? Part Two

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“When nations grow old, the arts grow cold and commerce settles on every tree.”  William Blake

One of the most jarring and disturbing comments on the video is the following;

I work for a non-profit arts group, and, the bottom line is: if you’re gonna stay afloat, you’ve got to start thinking like business people. It’s called REALITY. There are only so many donations available, and “lay people” will normally choose to donate to charities that support the physical demands of the population.

If you have an arts group that doesn’t sell a lot of CDs or tickets, maybe the demand for choral groups is low, and you should do your arts “job” to supplement your day-job.

Many snarky come-backs fly through my head, none of them helpful in making a case for the arts.

It’s an affront to assume that the arts are not worthwhile if they are not commercially successful.  But non-commercial art is befuddling to a society that has always measured success by how many dollars are involved.  On the flip side is the idea that art should rise above money;  that true artists don’t give a fig about whether they are financially supported.  If an artist is truly dedicated to the art, he or she should be willing to make sacrifices.

I am dedicated to my art.  I am also a wife and mother and need to support my family.  Should I be forced to choose between my art and my family?  And if I choose my family, what happens to my art?

Difficult questions.   No easy answers.

But if Octarium measured its success by its ability to pay expenses, we would have folded before we released our first CD and all the great music we’ve ever made would never have existed.

And that would be a crying shame because our music does help people;  it may not feed hungry children but I get emails once in a while thanking me for the music.  The harried mother of the severely autistic child who writes that our music is the only thing that brings her son calm.  The former newspaper journalist who, in one year, lost his wife and dog to cancer and fought the disease himself and, once in remission, wrote a blog thanking people who had helped him get through the rough time.  Octarium was on the list.  I’ve never met this man.  And our music helped save him.

There must be countless other stories like that.  I hope there are, at least.  And those stories wouldn’t be possible without arts patronage.

Another YouTube commenter;

Beware measuring things’ worth by what the public will/can pay for them. Mass-markets reduce demand [for] the finest things, which can’t compete w/the relentless promulgation of cheap crap. Tastes are educable and do elevate, provided that artists w/expertise are supported in reaching a public. Only full-time practice and dedication forms artists capable of sustaining an art form. Force us all into independently lucrative day jobs and you’ll soon live in a grim world.

Octarium presents a quality product.  It is not a commercial product but money spent making art is money well-spent.

If you’ve purchased a CD, thank you.  If you’ve bought singles on iTunes, thank you.  If you’ve purchased tickets to our concerts, thank you.  But the grim reality is that the money that enters our budget from these line items doesn’t balance our expenses.  We cannot survive on sales alone.  And if we cannot survive on sales alone, does that mean we should quit?

I hope not.  If you agree, donate.  We have many needs in the new year and your donation, big or small, helps us stay afloat and keep making our music.

If you cannot donate, advocate.  Make a case for the arts. Help us explain and justify our existence.   Help people understand that most great art was never a commercial endeavor;  we wouldn’t have Shakespeare without patrons.  Or Handel.  Or even Bernstein.   Great art has always been made possible by generous patrons who are not only willing to buy product but also donate to keep that art alive.

So if you can spare ten bucks, donate it to Octarium.  If you can spare more, donate more.  With your donation, we can keep making music.   Without it, we can’t.

Click below to help us keep singing.  And thank you for your support.


posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director

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1 Why Give? Part One

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It is December.  The bleak midwinter.  The holiday season.

It is also the end-of-year push for most non-profits; that time of year when the marketing scheme designed to get you to give revolves not around what non-profits do but how you benefit from the tax write-off.

I was thinking of this a couple of weeks ago, as I had just gone through my mail and email, filtering through the many, many messages designed to encourage me to make a year-end donation.  Food Banks, Homeless Shelters and Dog and Cat Rescue Organizations alongside Public Television, Public Radio, the Zoo and the Art Museum.

As I filtered through these messages, I began to wonder how a small arts non-profit like Octarium can possibly survive with all of these other worthy non-profits as competition.

My pondering led to the following video, which I created off-the-cuff and on a lark in about an hour on a Thursday afternoon;

Since December 2, when I posted the video, over 45,000 people have watched it. Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, featured it on his blog The Rest is Noise. It has been shared through Facebook by arts organizations such as Chanticleer, Cantus, Delaware Arts Alliance, Des Moines Metro Opera, Seraphic Fire, Los Angeles Master Chorale,  Playwrights Horizons, The American Federation of Musicians, The Library of Congress, Theater Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, and the Seattle Shakespeare Company.  It has been all over Twitter.

It has obviously struck a chord.  The overwhelming response from viewers is “YES!  THIS IS SO TRUE!”  One guy posted, “That brown hamster is a pain in the ass.”

But very few notice the gentle lampooning of the arts;  that no matter how many questions that pain-in-the-ass brown hamster asks, the non-profit arts advocate cannot come up with the right answers.

Chloe Veltman, in her blog Lies Like Truth, hits the nail on the head.

One character, the leader of a small, professional vocal ensemble, politely hits all of the vacuous “mission statement”-type ideas that art makers put into their funding proposals in order to get funding or use to talk to other constituents in order to solicit private donations. The other character, an audience member who loves the ensemble’s music but doesn’t understand why he can’t get free concert tickets, responds to all of the choral directors assertions about “tax-deductible donations” and “CD sales don’t make as much money as the cost of producing the CDs” with completely reasonable yet somehow outrageous statements like “that sounds like bad business practice.”

In short, the two characters, though they try to see eye to eye and are stiffly polite to each other throughout the conversation, are at a complete impasse.

An Impasse.  That’s where we are.  How do we make a case for the arts?  A non-vacuous case?

When I first started Octarium and began to solicit donations, the main question I got from potential donors was, “But what GOOD do you do?  Why should I give money to art for art’s sake?”

I confess that this response baffled me.  It still does.  I’ll explore these types of questions and ideas in next week’s blog entry.  The idea that because the arts are non-profit, they are a charity. The idea that non-commercial art has no right to exist simply because it isn’t commercial;  if the economy doesn’t demand it and support it, it should not keep trying to exist.

But in the meantime, if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably one who does support art.  For art’s sake.  And if you are one of those wonderful people who help make our world a more beautiful place to live, work and love, will you consider making a year-end gift to Octarium?

Before you say “No, I can’t afford it,” read on.

Before I worked in the non-profit sector, I didn’t give unless I could give a substantial amount.  An amount that I knew would make a difference all by itself.  But, in the end, what good was that?  I gave nothing because I couldn’t give enough.  What I know now is that many people and small amounts is the key.  If everyone who watched that YouTube video gave just one dollar, Octarium’s fundraising for this season would be done.

So now that I know what non-profits are up against,  I give in small amounts to many organizations;  I am not embarrassed to send only ten dollars because I know that if everyone who has a fleeting thought of sending just ten dollars actually did it, most non-profits would be in fine shape.  Take this lovely blogger as inspiration and consider a small gift of ten or twenty dollars. If enough of you give in small amounts, Octarium will stay afloat in 2011 and beyond.   Small amounts, many people, exponential growth.

So donate today.  Big or small.  We need it all.

And look to next week’s blog for more musings on the state of arts non-profit fundraising.

posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director

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There’s something to be said for “needing a little Christmas, right this very instant.” In the Jerry Herman show Mame, the title character and her family has had some hard knocks and, though it is still several weeks from Christmas, Mame decides to decorate for the holiday and give the family their presents early.    Christmas makes everything better.

And maybe that’s the reason why patrons flock to holiday classical music and arts offerings;  the ballet The Nutcracker, the play A Christmas Carol, a symphony pops concert that would not be complete without Sleigh Ride.  All this screams “holidays!” and there are many people who don’t feel like the season is complete without attending an annual arts offering.

This is wonderful.  Amazing.  Octarium’s holiday concerts are usually the most heavily attended of the season (even though there are invariably many competing offerings happening at the same time).

At first glance, it strikes one as rather incongruous;  people leave their snug homes to venture out into the cold winter night to places and venues they won’t go near at any other time of the year.  But it’s because we need a little Christmas.  The music starts to play in the Target long before Thanksgiving and people find themselves drawn into the holiday in a way that encompasses them more fully than any passing engagement to other forms of the arts.  They’ve been going to The Nutcracker for twenty-seven years.  It is an old friend.  And who doesn’t want to visit an old friend for the holidays?

I have old friends in classical music; the opera Turandot.  Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata.  Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor.  The Bach B Minor Mass.  Mozart’s Grand Mass in c minor. Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.  Small choral masterpieces too numerous to name.  They are old friends because I’ve performed them, so I know them.  Or listened to them enough to feel that I know them well enough that I could perform them, if I had to (though I could never pull off Waldstein … not in my wildest dreams).  But these are pieces I seek out.  If they are being performed somewhere, I leave my snug home, make my way to a venue and slap down some money for a ticket.

Just like people who aren’t usually arts patrons seek out holiday traditions that happen to lie in the classical arts realm.

And that is maybe where one answer in saving the classical arts lies;  one must make patrons fall in love.  One must make a piece or a performance stick.  So that it becomes part of a person’s soul.  So that they come back.  One must find a way to help patrons own the music like we own it as performers.

But how do we create classical old-friends for people who are not regular patrons of the arts?  It certainly is not easy, particularly in an era where repeating repertoire is frowned upon.  It’s ok to do The Nutcracker every year but if a ballet company did Swan Lake every year, too, that company would not be well-viewed by critics.  Audiences would probably love it but critics would poo-poo and scold.  Lack of vision.  Lack of adventuresome programming.  Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Now lest the hackles raise, I’m not dissing adventuresome programming.  At all.  All classics were once new.  But often the new classics don’t resonate with audiences for years.  It takes repetition.  Leonard Bernstein, a lion of the American musical scene, had one flop; the opera A Quiet Place.  But it is now being reconsidered and revived.  And perhaps enlivened.  But opera companies may stay away from it simply because New York City Opera did it;  repetition is unoriginal.  Or is it?

Maybe A Quiet Place will take flight and become a new classic.  I sang the role of Jo March in the midwestern premiere of Mark Adamo’s opera Little Women in the year 2000.  A new opera.  With twelve-tone elements.  But a story that resonates with the American public.   And it took off.  After its Kansas City engagement, Central City, Minnesota Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Chatauqua Opera, New York City Opera and many, many others programmed it into their seasons.   Perhaps they did so because the story already resonated with audiences and they knew it would sell tickets.  Perhaps they did so because Adamo masterfully set drama and humor and joy into a memorable score and libretto.  Perhaps for both reasons.  And now it is a new classic.  An opera that can always find an audience perhaps because the audience feels a sense of ownership in the story of the March girls.

So perhaps the goal is to invest our audiences with ownership.  To give them music that they want to return to year after year.  To infuse that holiday philosophy of incorporating the arts into our celebration of life throughout the year.

How to do this, of course, is not something I can easily answer.   But it starts with the holiday concert.  Draw people in for the music they know they will love.  Then get them to come back for the music they don’t know they love.  Yet.

And then one must not be fearful of repetition.  Sometimes there’s a point to it; repetition means a chance for deeper learning and understanding.  There’s a reason why pop music stars sell out stadiums to repeat music that everyone knows.  There is always a palpable groan when a group insists on playing music from their newest album.  We don’t KNOW it yet;  play the oldies!  Freebird!

Judicious repetition may be the key;  Octarium has tried to balance repetition with new adventures for eight seasons now.  We repeat every year on our holiday concerts and, this season, we’ll repeat again in our Listener’s Choice concert in February;  and we’re going to let YOU program our concert.  We’re going to give YOU ownership.  What do YOU want to hear us sing?

And then maybe you’ll come out on a cold February night to hear YOUR choral classic; the song you heard when you were dragged against your will to an Octarium concert in 2004 and ended up loving;  the Octarium piece that always makes you smile when it pops up on your iPod.

So, first, come to one of our Holiday concerts (information below).  Then, when it is over, pop by the CD sales table and sign up on a special mailing list to be involved in programming our Listener’s Choice concert.  And we’ll go from there.

December 11, 2010
Marjorie Powell Allen Chapel at Powell Gardens
1609 NW US Highway 50 Kingsville, MO 64061
3:00 p.m.
tickets available through Powell Gardens

816-697-2600 x209

program and notes

December 11 , 2010
Parkville Presbyterian
819 Main St.
Parkville, MO  64152
7:30 p.m.
$15, $10 for students and seniors available at the door or online at Brown Paper Tickets

seating is limited

program and notes

December 12, 2010
Lessons and Carols
St. Mark Lutheran
3800 Troost Avenue
Kansas City, MO  64109

Benefit sponsored by Tulips on Troost.  All proceeds go to Friends of St. Mark

Octarium will be joined by UMKC Chancellor Morton, Fr. Thomas Curran, Alvin Brooks, Gayle Krigel,
Arzelia Gates, Donna Simon, Beth Gottstein & Nelson Hopkins Sr.

3:00 p.m.

$20, $15 for students and seniors available at the door or online at Brown Paper Tickets

program and texts

posted by Dr. Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director

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William J. Bratton got a lot of press in the mid-90s for his unconventional ideas about how to revive blighted areas.  One of the main theories he implemented was Broken Windows;  if one window is broken, more will be.  Blight begets blight.  Minor blight escalates to major blight.   But if the minor blight is fixed, the major blight never happens.  If the broken window is fixed, and kept clean, more broken windows will be fixed and kept clean.

This theory has, of course, been revered and reviled both.  But it makes sense to me;  the messier your house is, the messier it gets.  It’s easier to consider not cleaning when there’s too much to clean.  The more dirty and disorganized a home becomes, the easier it is to begin to live with it and not notice it.  Until relatives are arriving for the holidays;  then, suddenly, you see your house through their eyes.  Then you roll up your sleeves, get to work, and promise never to let things go that far again.

Figurative Broken Windows.  We have a lot of them in Kansas City.    And the most glaring of them reside on the street that palpably divides our city; Troost Avenue.

The history of Troost Avenue is a long and interesting one.  Named for a Dutch slave owner, the area was an Osage Indian trail, then a 365-acre slave plantation, then an upscale residential area, then a thriving business district flanked by lavish neighborhoods inhabited by the city’s most wealthy and influential residents.  Then in the late 1890s, a real-estate boom and bust allowed African-Americans to obtain property more easily and white flight slowly began.   I have a map in my home of the 1917 plans for development of “The Country Club District,” the area between Belinder on the west, Brookside Boulevard on the east, Meyer Boulevard on the south and Brush Creek on the north.  This area cuddles right up to Troost.  And it is described on this map, designed to lure buyers, as “1,500 Acres Restricted.”    The advertising blurb at the bottom of the map boasts of the “…comprehensive restrictions safeguarding the permanence and desirability of your surroundings …”     Just one example of the exodus.   By the 1950s, the Troost area was mostly inhabited by wealthy blacks.  Then MLK’s assassination and the subsequent race riots caused many of them to leave and thus cemented Troost Avenue as a racial dividing line.

There is much on Troost Avenue to be celebrated and restored.  The neighborhoods are still beautiful.  Or have the potential to be.  The churches, if repopulated by congregations, could evoke powerful good change.  Once hubs of neighborhood community, many of Troost’s churches now lie in disrepair, as does much of the infrastructure along the avenue.

Enter Durwin Rice, who, in 2006, founded Tulips on Troost.  Rice’s organization works to change the face of Troost Avenue by engaging in a Broken Windows activity;   planting one million tulips along the street.  Rice hopes that simple flowers, in honor of the Dutch doctor who gave the avenue his name, will inspire and motivate the citizens of Kansas City to recognize the value of neighborhood revitalization and beautification of Troost and other areas.   For Rice, tulips are just the beginning—the deep-rooted goal is to use a beautiful, accessible thing like a tulip to represent positive change on Troost and to let the city know that Troost is worth time, efforts, and resources.

To this end, Rice has spearheaded a committee to present a concert;  a Lessons and Carols service nestled comfortably into one of the once beautiful neighborhood churches that now struggle to make repairs and stay open for the community; St. Mark Lutheran Church at 3800 Troost.   Octarium will bring its beautiful choral music to this service.  All proceeds will benefit St. Mark.

And in this sense, Choral Music is like the Tulips.   A beautiful, accessible thing that can represent positive change.

This is a service not to be missed.  December 12, 2010.  3800 Troost Avenue.  3pm.    Buy your tickets online today.

posted by Dr. Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director

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See Octarium at :45 and hear them in the background during the interview that starts at :51.

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0 Virtual Choir?

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What is choral music?

Voices together.  Vocal democracy.  Choirs started in ancient Greece, the ancient seat of democracy, as parts of drama productions.  The choirs were part of a destination program; people tied on their sandals, donned their togas and went to the show.   Then there was music in the church.  Also a community.  Opera also used to be a community event, where the singing was almost secondary to the eating, drinking and socializing.  In early America, the singing school was the chief source of social intercourse.  Choral music, voices together, has always been a tool to create community.

Technology has changed how we consume all music, including classical music.  Just as Facebook and other online social networking sites have allowed us to create a virtual community of people we never really see, or really touch, so has the advent of technology allowed us to experience music in ways that were impossible only 15 years ago.   We don’t have to get up off our couch, drive to a store and talk to a clerk to buy music now.   The Beatles are on iTunes.  I never have to leave my house again.

We foster a “false” sense of community through not only the social networking sites but also shows such as American Idol. We sit alone in our living rooms in front of a TV and vote with millions of other people, also sitting alone in their living rooms in front of their TVs.  Then we post how we feel about it on Facebook.   We consume reality television with abandon partially, I think, because we are craving connection.  But our world is built to discourage connection; we drive to and from work.  We pull into our attached garages and go straight into our houses.  We don’t go to the theater to see movies, preferring to order them directly to our televisions at home.  And, and, and.  And, as I type, I’m sure technology has found seventeen more ways to discourage real connection even more.

And it is in this world that choral music, voices together, has to find a way to survive and thrive.

So what do you do if you can’t get people out of their houses to sing in a choir?
Consider the video below:

This is Eric Whitacre’s instruction video for his first virtual choir.  In 2009, he posted this video on YouTube and individuals submitted, also on YouTube, video of them singing their own part to eventually be digitally embedded into a unity of voices.

So Whitacre conducts no one against a black backdrop.  Then kids sit alone in their quiet rooms, wearing black shirts and singing into the impersonal microphone of a computer to the beat of Whitacre conducting no one.  Then someone takes all the videos and slams them together digitally.  And, voila, we have a choir.  A choir of people who have never met, conducted by someone they probably never will meet.

Intriguing, to be sure, but is this really a choir?

Though I applaud Whitacre’s originality in attempting to bridge the gap between the traditions of choral music and how the world in which we listen to choral music is changing those traditions, I stop short at lauding this as choral music’s grand future because one of the best things about singing in a choir is the interaction you have with the individuals around you toiling for the same gain; beautiful music.  Choral music done well fosters a true sense of community.  A sense of family.

Choral music done well gives its participants a tangible connection and one of the main reasons the singers of Octarium sing so well together is the intimate human relationships the singers have built with one another.  Those relationships make our music worth hearing.  And worth making.

posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director

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0 Why I Love Music

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Sometimes someone says it much better than you ever could …

“Music would never make the traditional list of basic human needs:  food, shelter, clothing.  But just see how long you could get along without it.” – Jake Armerding

Read his whole post below …

I Love Music: Jake Armerding
October 28, 2010

I love music because it can’t be conquered.  No one will ever get to the end of music, solve it or master it, although it can be dumbed down.

I love music because it is only occasionally black and white.  It deigns to be black and white only because it represents all colors, and black and white technically qualify as colors.  Music has no more desire to be black or white than it does chartreuse.

I love music because no one should make it because they feel required to.  I don’t mean musicians don’t have a responsibility to make it; rather, I mean anyone who isn’t making it because they love to, probably shouldn’t be.  Music is there to be made, or not, just as you please.  It is the opposite of bills, jogging, taxes, health insurance and laundry.

I love music because it’s such an easy way to get happy.

Music is good for you.  What some people do to music can be bad for you, but music itself is good and does not require moderation.  It is good for weekdays, the weekend, holidays, Sundays, cloudy days, sunny days, fast days, slow days, work or play, alone or with friends, home or traveling, relaxed or serious, weddings and funerals and Tuesdays, year-round.  And it is especially good for boredom.

I love music because it is free and unregulated, and anyone can make it.

I love music because it is never offended by incompetence.  It’s very patient with my pitiful efforts.

I love music because it’s like food:  after you’ve made it, you can enjoy it.  Also like food, music can be complex or simple and still be delicious.  It’s also better than food:  once you’ve made it, it can’t be used up.

I love music because no one can spoil it.  It can be insulted and abused, adulterated and prostituted, but music is never harmed for good.  It still exists in its pure form, ready and willing for somebody more humble to visit.

I love music because it is not of this earth.  It has its own dimension.  We hear ourselves in music, but we also hear something else, something we can’t quite wrap our minds around.  It is beyond us.

I love music because it is better than I am.  It is more beautiful, cleverer, stronger, truer and more creative, and I have to respect that.

But most of all, I love how music makes no sense.  Life is terrible when it is made up only of things that make sense.  In this way, music is both an escape from real life and a glimpse of what life is really all about.  Music is impractical and pointless and absolutely vital to existence.  The ultimate observer of this was, of course, Oscar Wilde, that master of the bon mot, who in the introduction to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray declared, “All art is quite useless.”

Music would never make the traditional list of basic human needs:  food, shelter, clothing.  But just see how long you could get along without it.

posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director