The whimsical spires of Watts Towers are not the only things under construction in the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. Composer Michael Abels is hard at work forging a new relationship between community residents and their own creativity. The tool he is using is the Meet the Composer New Residencies program, which pays to place musicians in cities for three-year stints.
New York-based Meet the Composer is a national music advocacy group that works with local organizations to stimulate understanding and involvement with the creative process. Mr. Abels is sponsored locally by the Watts Towers Art Center, Cornerstone Theater, the University of Southern California (USC) School of Music, and the Housing Authority of Los Angeles.
Face-to-face exposure with a composer is an important part of understanding music, says Heather Hitchens, acting president of Meet the Composer.
"The composer is the spine of American culture," she says, "who can play a significant role in showing how cultural institutions are relevant to a community."
The goal, says Abels, a former South Dakota farm boy, is to stimulate ideas and interaction within the community in addition to working with local arts groups. He will create a musical composition to be performed by the local USC orchestra as well as work with Cornerstone Theater, a resident drama company.
The program is designed to instruct and also inspire. Abels plans to establish a mentoring program through USC, encouraging high school students to pursue music careers.
"We come up with ideas that will cause collaboration," he muses in his studio. "We hope that we will be a catalyst for social effect in the community," he reflects.
This sentiment is shared by Mark Greenfield, the Watts Tower Art Center artistic director. "The composer can serve as a role model," he says, adding that whether or not the residents end up playing an instrument, what Michael [Abels] offers would "benefit anyone in the community."
Abels sees the position as an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream. "People feel so alienated from their own creativity," he says, pointing to what he calls the dark side of the entertainment industry, in which people are encouraged to be "good consumers, not creators."
"Everybody thinks that if they can't be professional, or as good as the guys who get paid top dollar, they shouldn't do music at all," he points out. The USC music graduate maintains that learning to interact creatively is the foundation of real community.
He adds that, whether or not a professional career is the goal, "the lessons from creative interaction stay with you and help you be a better citizen."