How Abbie and William built their careers
newmusic box November 06, 2007

My career has been strongly shaped by decisions my wife and I made, starting when we got married 33 years ago. First, we decided we would move around to follow Abbie's career. I could compose anywhere, but as a trombonist, she needed an orchestra job (which is what she wanted to do back then.) Second, I wanted to avoid the new music world as much as possible, because it seems to lead to composers writing for other composers. I feel composers should form their closest working relationships with performers, who then take their music to publics. Third, we decided to try to devote ourselves to chamber music theater. The works we ended up creating were so unique, and required so many integrated musical and theatrical skills, that Abbie is one of the few people on earth who can perform them. (Or at least, she is one of the few who would dedicate herself to the long process of developing the necessary inter-media proficiency.) Fourth, we decided to move to Europe where the arts are better funded. And fifth, we eventually decided to use electronics to accompany Abbie, thus allowing us present one-woman shows that are economical to produce and travel with.

By good fortune and talent, Abbie became one of the world’s most famous classical trombonists. Abbie’s eventual fame allowed us to perform our works in over 140 cities since she left the Munich Philharmonic. (The actual number of different cities is slightly smaller because we visited some twice.) They are listed here:

Interestingly, it was Abbie’s very unusual work in music theater that increased her profile, especially among her colleagues. New music actually helped us build our reputation.

Most of our performances have been in American university music departments. We have very few performances in Germany where we live, because we are strongly ostracized due to our direct opposition to sexism in German-speaking orchestras. Our work is also feminist, and postmodern, which does not fit well in the German scene, and exacerbates the problems we already face.

When we perform at American universities we ask for $1000 – which is dirt cheap. We usually visit from about 12 to 16 cities per American tour. We thus take in quite a bit of money, but with the costs of flying overseas, staying in hotels, and eating out for about six weeks we usually break about even. When we add in the costs of keeping a van, a six hundred pound quadraphonic sound system, props, and video equipment in the States, as well as a second complete set in a van here in Europe , we lose money.

Due to Europe’s extensive system of public funding, gigs here in Germany generally pay much better than in the States, but as I said, that door is largely closed to us. (The URL listing our performances shows that we were active in Europe in the 80s before we went public with our resistance to the sexism Abbie faced in the Munich Philharmonic.)

I gave up going to Eastman for my Masters and went to the Manhattan School instead so that Abbie could go to Juilliard. And I gave up a Doctoral Fellowship to Columbia with full-tuition and a monthly stipend with no work requirements, so that Abbie could accept a position as first trombone in the Royal Opera of Turin. (Nothing beats living in Italy anyway.) All of these things have paid off wonderfully. I have been able to compose fulltime and write long theater works that would have been impossible if I had followed the professor route. And I ended up with a famous performer who has been able to take our work to many places. (On the negative side, we had to live in Munich for 13 years – a place with a truly dark side and history that was a living hell for us.)

These do-it-yourself approaches will never substitute for an adequate system of public funding. Public funding, even here in Europe , seldom gives composer’s money directly, but it creates a deep infrastructure of state orchestras, state operas, music festivals, state radios, and a wide appreciation for classical music that makes life much easier for them than their American colleagues.

Ironically, it is exactly this European infrastructure that built the careers of people like Esa-Pekka Salonen, Kiaja Saariaho, Magnus Lindberg, Wolfgang Rihm, Osmo Vanska, Helmut Lachenmann, Tristan Murail, Christian Eschenbach, and many others who are active in the States. The poverty of American classical music cheats American composers and conductors out of the ability to build profile and careers. The better supported and more experienced Europeans are thus in a position to take our places, even in our own country.

William Osborne

Tuesday, November 06, 2007, 3:40:09 AM