How to get your own works performed; Composers in Red Sneakers, music world's self-starters
Cambridge, Mass. — The words ''new music'' and ''contemporary classical'' make many people flee for the nearest baroque ensemble. It seems music lovers appreciate compositions written four centuries ago more than ones written four months ago.
This can make it tough for today's composers, whose music just doesn't have much impact when it's sitting undisturbed on paper.
But a group of seven young composers, most of them teachers at Boston-area music schools, has hit the ground running, so to speak - with the help of their sneakers.
In fact, they call themselves ''Composers in Red Sneakers,'' and they have taken the startling step - at least to the music world - of getting together to organize their own concerts. The composers do most of the work themselves, from writing press releases and setting up the stage to finding the musicians to perform the concerts.
It's deliberately very informal. At the concerts, which take place in a warmly rustic stone church near Harvard University, the composers can be seen scurrying around, moving instruments, caring for the lighting, and greeting friends - in red sneakers. They'll sometimes conduct their own works, but most of the time they remain very knowledgeable stagehands.
The result is a production that is both professional and whimsical. Since April 1981 they've put on seven concerts.
''The idea came at the culmination of a rather lengthy evening meeting we had ,'' remarks Christopher Stowens, the composer who admits to being the author of the soft-soled name. ''We discussed putting on one concert. But we had spent too many years in the music business not to know that the only way to succeed is to have a toehold that the public and the media can grasp onto.''
This toe, er, sneaker-hold was so successful that the group sprinted to early success in its first concert and decided to continue. It's had bulging audiences (turning away several hundred people at one performance last summer) and a moderate amount of recognition from the arts community. Mr. Stowens says he's ''getting a lot of offers and phone calls'' for his work. It's something he feels has been helped by his putting on red sneakers.
''Plenty of musical groups,'' he adds, ''have a good product but they aren't (successful). Our humor has helped get it working.''
Richard Cornell, another composer, remarks: ''At many classical-music performances you see the knitted-brow syndrome. Yet, there's a lot of humor in music that people miss.'' He attributes this to ''the formality and almost ritualistic nature of so many concerts.''
Before each concert Stowens softens up the somewhat academic-looking audiences with a comical tape recording. Afterward, the listeners are welcome to remain for refreshments and for a chat, if they wish, with their choice of sneaker-clad composers.
Announcements read ''Admission: $2, students with ID, $3. Anyone in red sneakers admitted free.'' ''Students get a break everywhere,'' remarks Madeline Leone, wife of Mr. Stowens, the treasurer of Red Sneakers and a frequent performer for the group. She adds that they never really ask students for the extra dollar.
Thomas Oboe Lee, who composes full-time, says he feels artists must become advocates for their own work, especially in what has recently been a tough economic climate for them. ''Most artists have a very narrow attitude toward their artwork. They are willing to make it but not willing to market it.''
''Music that is written and not performed is a little less than music,'' says composer Michael Carnes. ''If you write music, it's up to you to make sure it's put on. I think it really helps to be dead for the New York Philharmonic to perform your work. I just haven't been ready to put that on my resume yet.''
Running Red Sneakers, however, hasn't exactly been easy - or lucrative - but then it wasn't intended to be. The composers earn no money for their work, and sometimes foot the bill for musicians, although the performers frequently donate their time.
They have received some aid, though, from the Cambridge Arts Council, which has given them a grant. And from a well-heeled sneaker manufacturer they've gotten a donation of some special footwear.
This organizational success has been a step toward demystifying the image of composers, or so composer Robert Aldridge thinks. ''The typical image of the classical composer is a helpless person who sort of sits in the clouds and writes music. Well, we've found that it's possible to do it all yourself and in a way it can be more satisfying.''