Back to the Future: D.C.

I still remember the Beltway traffic that seemed hell-bent on keeping us from Gershwin.  This was a decade before California pulled me westward, and several years before New York pulled me north – the beginning of the end of my Virginia childhood.  Clinton was president.  CDs were the medium.  I had something of a Southern accent.  And Peter Nero was performing at the Kennedy Center.

Since I’d been hammering away on the Gershwin Piano Études for way too long, my mom got us tickets to check out a real master.  Unfortunately, between the two of us there is exactly zero directional ability, so we were late and lost.  But somehow my mom managed to claw us out of the defense contractors and CIA agents commuting home, and we made it just in time.  It may not be the hippest memory of my teenage years, but it sure stuck with me.

The Kennedy Center still looms large in my formative education, so it is especially poignant to be named its first composer-in-residence.  Over the next three years, my work there will be animated by a singular mission: to help audiences experience new art in fun, challenging, adventurous, and even social ways.  Think of a new-music series that inhabits different lounges that explore the history of ambient music; or a digital program book that appears on the walls of the concert hall during set changes; or jazz musicians colliding with a DJ during a dance festival.  In a place with so many artforms – and so many sleek public spaces – the possibilities are myriad.

This position shares some surface similarities with my five-year residency at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  After all, it grew out of it: Deborah Rutter, who led the CSO for ten years, invited me into the Kennedy Center family soon after her appointment as president.  In Chicago, she has watched me and Anna Clyne move the MusicNOW series into a more eclectic and immersive realm, with music from minimalist to maximalist enhanced by imaginative stagecraft.  So there will be a brand-new series focusing on new music at the Kennedy Center, something that D.C. could use. And of course, there will be newly created works, from me and others.

But many aspects of the residency are new.  The big difference is that this position extends across the entire Kennedy Center, which houses everything from symphony to opera to ballet to jazz and beyond.  A composer is one of the few life-forms capable of first-hand encounters with all of those fields, so making connections between the constituents will be a top priority.  And the Kennedy Center has some really creative presenters to work with: I think of Alicia Adams, who mounts extraordinary international festivals across artforms; or Garth Ross, who curates the daily performances at the Millennium Stage (that’s right, 365 performances a year); or Francesca Zambello at the Washington National Opera, which presents new operas a year under its American Opera Initiative project.  And a healthy commissioning fund means that new works appear each year at the National Symphony and on the Fortas Chamber Music series.  Advocating for more new work, and helping coordinate the various iterations of it across the Center, will be important an important focus.

Also new for me, in many ways, will be the D.C. cultural community.  Having grown up nearby, I am familiar with many of the crazy idiosyncrasies of the nation’s capital.  But I need an update on the communities around it and their sprawling cultural scenes.  The Kennedy Center has a gravitational pull throughout the region, drawing people from Maryland, D.C., and Virginia to experience a vast range of performing arts at the highest quality.  Countless kids encounter “big art” for the first time there, just like I did eons ago.  I’ve had a blast throwing myself into Chicago’s concert halls, clubs, and warehouses, getting to know the community and the key players, and I look forward to looking at D.C. with fresh eyes.

Perhaps most inspiring of all is the Kennedy Center’s national responsibility.  As America’s largest arts center, and one of the few empowered by federal funding, it helps lead the national conversation about art’s place in society.  And in the Kennedy Center’s vision, art occupies a central and visible place, approachable by many angles.  Stumble around the vast campus, and you will see a steady stream of people coming and going at all times – there’s always something cooking.  In my opinion, a key component in navigating these rich offerings will be information.  In Chicago, one of my big passions has been “ambient information” – ie, projected program notes, a 21st Century update to the program book.  Anna and I continue to develop this concept, which has been a crucial reason our crowds have swelled over the years.  Educating audiences with projections, video, flatscreens, and even mobile devices lowers the intimidation factor for everyone.  I’d like to see more institutions rethink the way they get information to their audiences.  It takes time, resources, an eye for imagery and a knack for a well-timed surprise to get it right.  But it’s well worth it, and the Kennedy Center is well-positioned to lead the way.

So, all I need is to reacquaint myself with a map, maybe get some pointers on traffic patterns, and with any chance I’ll make it into the building next Fall.  Stay tuned.