An Interview with Frank J. Oteri
Q&A with a composer, writer, and editor of NewMusicBox.
by Drew McManus
June 5, 2006
You mean there's more to classical music than just performers and dead composers? There sure is and if you take the time to look under some of the more fascinating rocks within the classical music environment, you'll eventually unearth something besides decaying Mozart manuscripts and another recording of Beethoven 7.
Fortunately, Frank took some time out of his busy schedule for a telephone interview where he shares some of his insight on his path toward classical music, where the business stands, and what the future might hold.
Drew McManus: What were your formative years as a musician/composer like?
Frank J. Oteri: I lived in NYC nearly my entire life which I consider a very lucky thing. I see myself as a real New Yorkaphile as this city was my introduction to music and culture. What's wonderful about that is that it's all here, all cultures and genres of music are represented. There are some things it doesn't do as well as others but everything is represented here in one form or another, but that's what records are for (Frank started collecting records in his teens and now over 5,000 LP's and nearly 4,000 CD's).
I went to the High School of Music and Art, known to most of the world as the high school which inspired the motion picture Fame (Frank has the distinction of having a brief cameo in Fame as the character Schlepstein where he accompanies himself on piano while singing one of his original songs). I started writing music at age 9 but I don't really value much of what I composed through High School; however I do revisit some of what I did in college.
My family eventually made me take guitar lessons for two brief years when we lived in Miami because we didn't have space for a piano in the place we lived. That was probably the only part of Miami I really liked but I really wanted to take piano lessons so I started teaching myself how to read music and play from old sheet music of Broadway and standard tunes.
Eventually, once we returned to NYC my parents thought I was sounding pretty good so they enrolled me in piano lessons. Unfortunately, I only took piano lessons for a brief period because I had a rather draconian teacher that insisted I would have to start learning all over from the beginning because my self taught fingerings and technique were all wrong.
Once I was accepted to the High School of Music and Art I was introduced to classical music. I also had a relative that started taking me to New York Philharmonic concerts and Opera in the Park at that time so my exposure to classical music really picked up.
I went on to Columbia University as a composition major where I was interested in minimalism, alternate scales, and microtonality; all of which still play a very significant role in my music. But that wasn't what was at the heart of what was going on in Columbia at the time as these were all things the folks there were really not terribly appreciative of. So I sort of forced my own path there. Eventually, I left Columbia with a double degree in Music and English Literature.
Drew McManus: What has been your most memorable experience as a composer?
Frank J. Oteri: One of the most gratifying moments was working with the Prism Saxophone Quartet. I never have had the same sort of involvement and interest from traditional quartets, like string quartets. It was such a rewarding experience. I think the younger, newer the ensemble the more you have passionate people who want to develop it.
Sadly, orchestras had that sort of passion in history when it was developing 100 years ago. Once it reached the point where it is now, it lost that momentum. There seems to be a drop in advocacy, evangelicism, and wanting to do something new.
In addition to the Prism Quartet, the most important thing that has happened to me to date as a composer has been the world premiere of my opera MACHUNAS, which my collaborator Lucio Pozzi and I call a "performance oratorio". This happened last summer, August 2005, in Vilnius Lithuania under the auspices of the Christopher Festival under the direction of conductor Donatas Katkus.
The effort these wonderful singers and instrumentalists put into this evening-length piece blew my mind. We rehearsed from morning till night for an entire week leading up to the premiere when I was there and they had been rehearsing before I arrived as well. What struck me more than anything though was the camaraderie between the conductor, the singers, the players and the administration of the orchestra. Everyone hung out eating, drinking, and bonding with each other for a common goal. Here in the U.S., sometimes each vital constituency in this complex puzzle of realizing a large-scale work seems unconnected which I believe needs to change if we are to successfully extend the connectivity to this musical tradition toward a larger audience.
Drew McManus: How does a composer get involved with an organization like American Music Center's NMBx?
Frank J. Oteri: After graduating from Columbia in 1985 I became a high school teacher in one of the toughest schools in the NYC school system as an English as a Second Language instructor. I did that for four years and slowly got burnt out; as such, I like to tell people that was my version of doing the Peace Corps. It was a wonderful thing to do and I think it taught me a great deal of perspective.
I have never learned how to drive and I knew I wanted to stay in NYC so I went back to Columbia and enrolled in Grad School as an ethno-musicology major. After earning that Master's Degree, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program but stopped that early on.
There have been many attempts to establish classical music magazines over the years, all of which have failed so this was a risky, revolutionary idea at the time. The Executive Director of AMC at that time, Richard Kessler, wanted to start NMBx and tapped me as the person to begin putting it together. In May, 1999 we went live and has been successful ever since.
The internet did something unique for composers, which was to create a community for these individuals which never existed before. Essentially, it socialized a segment of classical music that has historically been a very unsocial activity. NMBx has really tapped into and helped shape this new culture. Seven years later, we're still online and stronger than we've ever been.
Drew McManus: What accomplishments as a musician are most satisfying to you at this point in your career and what goals remain?
Frank J. Oteri: I just passed my 42 birthday and that's a time I suppose we start to define ourselves. It might sound kooky but I love where I am right now in life and what I'm doing.
Being the editor of NMBx is a great position, I love constantly listening to new music; it's like the greatest post graduate work anyone could have. I'm constantly listening to new ideas and getting others turned onto ideas. What can be better than that? Writing articles, giving talks, giving interviews, that's just really cool.
For composing, I do wish I had more time but at the same time I don't want to give up anything else that I'm doing because it fuels my composition. Without that other part of my life I don't know if the composing would have the same momentum.
Drew McManus: Do you think the classical music business will be very different 20 years from now?
Frank J. Oteri: I'm not a prognosticator but I hope that classical music will always be around. Eventually, I think classical music will need to rely on the new in order to bring a new audience to our performances. When I first got exposed to classical music in my teens it was a real turn off. I went to hear Beethoven and Bach, composers I now treasure, but when I heard it then I wondered what these composers had to do with me. These were people from another time, another place, which spoke a different language; as such, I remember thinking to myself "why should I care?"
I hope we always appreciate and love listening to Mozart but having living composers there to advocate the medium - having someone who might live next door to me as the composer - is exciting. 20 years from now I hope the orchestra business realizes that all of this is important or we'll risk losing what we have. In the end, new music needs to be the entry point.
I remember how orchestras used to market new music (and still do): they would say there's going to be a work from Brahms and Beethoven and then under their breaths, "oh, and there's also this new piece". They usually stick the new work first on the program so if all the people coming late miss it, it isn't a big deal because that's probably not what they are there for anyway. It all smacked of obligation instead of desire.
I am also concerned about the lack of music education right now. For example, when I left Columbia in 1985, I couldn't get work teaching music in the NYC school system but I could get work teaching English. That's not enough to build an audience for the future so this will need to change.
Drew McManus: Why are classical music and the concert experience important?
Frank J. Oteri: The idea of teaching people to listen, to hear music, to have an attention span capable of processing something that lasts longer than a few minutes, and to participate in the experience by coming together with other people is such an apt metaphor for society. Without teaching this to people in society, we're not only losing the ability to appreciate new music but we're losing the ability to be a society.
It begins with learning how to listen to music and expands by participating as a player and ultimately, it leads to creating music. I think it's sad that you can be trained how to create music as a performer and never really get infected with the desire to create your own works. Having an ownership of music on that level is important. Every human being has the capability of creating music on the most fundamental levels.
I came to this point from my years with ethno-musicology. In so-called primitive societies, there are groups where every member of a society has their own song. Various Polynesian tribes are set up so everyone has their own song and they must sing their own song.
Some call that primitive but in many ways it's more advanced than most elements of our society. For example, the majority of people in this great United States of America can't create their own music and not only that, they can't recreate music. What's worse is they don't have the attention span to listen to others that can recreate music. This is a real problem.
I do think if people from the youngest age were introduced to the process of listening to, recreating, and then creating original music you would have more people not only engaged in music but more people engaged in critical thinking skills. And that translates into a better society.
Drew McManus: Is there anything else you'd like to say?
Frank J. Oteri: If classical music is to survive (and it must if we are to remain a civilized democracy) then it needs to me made clearer that this music belongs to everybody: all genders, all ethnicities. And, indeed the landscape of contemporary American composers is one of the greatest multicultural rainbows of all time. Of course, part of this requires an expanded interpretation of what is meant by classical music. There have been art music traditions on all continents that could and should be appreciated by everyone plus a myriad of folk and popular music traditions from the past up until the present time that can also be listened to with "classical music ears." This is not a plea for some sort of unattainable classical music political correctness, rather the realization of a cultural truth.
Here's an interesting aside anecdote: When I was an ESL teacher in East New York Brooklyn back in the mid-1980s, I had a student in my class who was listening to a Walkman instead of me. I went up to his desk and took off his headphones and put them on my head to make a point with him and the class. Everyone found it amusing and I would therefore make a point about not wearing a walkman during class. However, when I put on the headphones I discovered that he was listening to Beethoven's 6th Symphony, the Pastorale! I put the headphones back on his head and told him that what we was listening to was better than anything I would be saying that day...
Photos of Frank Oteri © 2005 Jeffrey Herman
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