In the spirit of the recent conversation on ArtsBlog, Emerging Ideas: Seeking and Celebrating the Spark of Innovation, I thought it would be interesting to talk to a curator about how he makes room for the unfamiliar in his work. Douglas Laustsen is a music educator and trombonist based in New Jersey who runs a radio program called Endless Possibilities on WRSU, Rutgers’s college radio station. We decided to continue a discussion we began on Twitter a few months ago about curatorship and new music.
Tell us a little bit about your radio show – what is it? How did it come to be, and how did you get involved?
Endless Possibilities is a weekly radio program I have hosted since 2008 on WRSU, the college radio station of Rutgers University. I began hosting shows on WRSU in 2005 with a wildly free form show called Trivial Pursuits. My initial motivation was to interact with music in a very non academic way because I was beginning to feel some conservatory burn out. As fun as it was to segue Pierrot Lunaire into London Calling into Hauschka, I eventually limited the format of my show and renamed it Endless Possibilities. While I don’t restrict myself from playing any specific genres, the core of each show is decidedly contemporary art music.
You announced an open call for submissions recently. What kind of response have you gotten? What is your process for evaluating what comes in through the door?
I’ve actually had an open call for submissions to a semi-regular segment of the show, Explorations, for about as long as Endless Possibilities has existed. The original motivation was to highlight great new music that may not have the shine of professionally made recordings or a publicity budget. This has long been one of the best parts of college radio, and I was hoping to do a little bit of that for new music. Additionally, I was looking for music that presented me with a new idea or fresh approach to an old one. I am more concerned with the idea than execution, and I hope to give the audience, which I assume to be college radio listeners more than new music insiders, the opportunity to connect with something they haven’t been previously exposed to.
A large majority of the submissions have been more polished than I expected. Upon reflection, the music has to survive the composition, rehearsal, and performance stages before it can even exist as a recording, and then the submitter has to be proud of the result. The bar is a lot higher than a call for scores, and I have no shortage of air time. As a result, I’m able to program a little more than half the works I am sent. While I’ve received a diversity of submissions, one thing that is clear is that most of the music I receive comes from people who have an affinity for self promotion.
Do you feel like you’ve “discovered” any artists through your submissions process (i.e., that nobody knew about before)? Do you ever try to promote their work beyond the radio show?
One composer I featured was solicited the following day for a commission. Another composer, Nat Evans, wrote a piece for a chamber group I run, and we’ve performed the piece multiple times. I certainly haven’t catapulted any composers from obscurity to household name, but I am pretty sure I have raised the profile of some musicians, including International composers who do not seem to receive attention in America. Additionally, I’ve kept tabs on the composers I’ve programmed and mention them on my website when they are promoting new projects.
You mentioned that the recordings people send you tend to be more polished than you expected. On the one hand, that perhaps makes for a better listening experience, but on the other, it perhaps gets away a little bit from the original vision for Explorations. How do you negotiate that tension in your curation process?
It is interesting, to me at least, that I’ve had to be more concerned with creating a ceiling for the segment than a floor. Luckily, I have space during the rest of my show to feature music I don’t find appropriate for Explorations, and I have played submissions outside of Explorations as a way to promote a piece and maintain the spirit of the segment. Clearly there is a lot gray area in making this determination, but over time my familiarity with the new music world has made this judgement a lot easier.
How much of your time do you spend listening to people’s submissions? And what keeps you going?
Submissions for Explorations don’t really follow any week to week pattern, but I’ll listen to each piece 3 or 4 times to get a firm grasp of it before deciding if it is appropriate. These submissions also have priority over the albums I receive from labels each month for regular airplay (which is generally about 10 hours of music a month), and the time I spend on soundcloud/twitter/etc. seeking out new music. As for what keeps me going, I am pretty addicted to finding new music and hearing things for the first time, so I’m generally excited to sit down and hear some fresh sounds.
What do you consider to be “good” curation? Is it about ethics, is it about filling a gap, etc.? What kinds of shortcuts do you think are permissible, and which ones do you not let yourself take?
I think any curator, whether creating a concert series or publishing a monthly short story series such as One Story, needs to have a clear focus of the type of art it is trying to feature and what makes his or her space unique. There is literally more music out there than hours in the day, and as a curator I’m attempting to create a virtual space that a listener can approach and quickly recognize the space’s identity.
I also have to deal with the critical mass of music being created. My social networks help limit the amount and quality of music I come in contact with. For example, Paul Bailey’s alt-classical has been a great source for finding new material. I don’t think this solution would work for any other medium, but I rely on iTunes Smart Playlists to filter music: Some of these playlists help me cycle through tracks within genres, while others keep the newest albums I’ve received close at my fingertips (as well as cycle out older tracks) and shuffle the pieces to explore how music would fit together for airplay. These playlists took a while to set up, but have saved me countless hours by targeting the most important music to listen to, as well as varying the tracks to keep my interest.