The resilience of Alaskan music communities

2020 has been particularly difficult for Alaskan musicians. COVID-19 eliminated many gigs in an already sparse market, and many remaining gigs went virtual. Not only did performers struggle to find audiences online, compete with global media, and effectively monetize their craft, but audience engagement was fraught with uncertainty and less rewarding in cyberspace than in the bardic boîtes they used to haunt. Livestreamed and prerecorded content has been important for keeping musical careers afloat, but they afflict performers with the very maladies that music otherwise treats—feelings of emptiness and isolation.

Performers may be the front line of the music community, but they were not the only ones affected. Administrators, composers, songwriters, and others who play supportive roles also retooled for a changed music market. Presenters relied more heavily on out-of-house media producers and web experts to convert and distribute performances as content while simultaneously responding to shifts in patronage. Venues, for their part, were forced to reinvent their physical and virtual spaces while scrambling to meet safety protocols and keep workers employed. Composers and songwriters trimmed creative output to fit new performance contexts, ensembles, and audiences.

Amid the disruption caused by the global pandemic, national events have also impacted Alaskan musicians. The killing of George Floyd in May of this year exemplified unreckoned social injustice within our own borders. His death vivified a conflict that spread into the Great Land from roots as old as the country itself. Not only do Alaskans struggle with racial tensions of our own, some residents also have ties with distant hotbeds of racism and brutality. During such times of tension, music can unify communities by provoking discussion about important issues, but it can exhaust musicians themselves, especially during an otherwise difficult year.

Alaskan musicians faced local challenges this year as well. One in particular stands out for Anchorage: Randy Fleischer, the beloved director of the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, passed away unexpectedly in August. The loss rippled outward from his organization into a state of general confusion about how to move forward. Musicians knew Randy as a mentor, a friend, and a leader. His impact reached beyond them personally into the bands and independent ensembles they formed, the organizations where they served, and schools and private studios where they taught. These connections constituted a community, which the loss of leadership tends to fracture.

The global, national, and local difficulties of 2020 exacerbated financial strain from preceding years. Funding for the Alaska State Council on the Arts was cut in 2019, and although ASCA was ultimately spared, statewide education was slashed in a different line of the same veto after years of belt-tightening by school districts and universities. Alaskan musicians, many of whom teach in schools and universities, were further strained when private funding for the arts was redirected toward health and social services during the pandemic. The net effect of these budgetary priorities has been devastating.

Yet Alaskan musicians have shown resilience to the global pandemic, social unrest, local tragedies, and budget cuts. The creativity of Alaskan festival organizers, radio stations, orchestras, schools, studios, universities, residencies, grantmakers, and live performers offer inspiration and ideas for overcoming difficulties in the upcoming year.

Festivals may have seemed an unlikely candidate for a comeback at a time when gathering in person was not safe. Nevertheless, aggregating audience interest around places and themes proved an effective online model for generating paid performance opportunities. Shortly after community spread began in Alaska, Spenard JazzFest reorganized its annual revelry into broadcasts of live performances and pre-recorded material. This provided an early, local model of how an online festival can work. Later in the fall, Anchorage Museum held NorthXNorth, a “multi-modal, multi-site, multi-month, multi-discipline creative festival examining liminal space”. This logistical feat included moving some components online, distributing physical content to virtual festivalgoers, and leveraging real estate to safely screen films, display murals, and offer installations. For musicians, NorthXNorth featured artists from elsewhere whose approaches to sound both engage Alaskan landscapes and differ palpably from homegrown projects.

Virtual festivals existed before the pandemic, but moving live festivals online may have catalyzed some enduring changes in Alaska. Organizers have expressed interest in maintaining online components alongside in-person events in future years. The latter provide a sense of purpose, while the former provide access to, as well as some branding of, local music. Festivals also provided opportunities for local organizers and musicians to build collaborative teams with each other and develop digital media skills often neglected during busy, pre-pandemic performing schedules. Those skills have already proven useful to many Alaskan musicians. For example, musicians who rely on teaching for income have used digital literacy to offer online lessons during the pandemic (more below).

Some festivals also became distribution channels for relief funding, converting administrative teams into application review committees. The familiarity of the festivals to musicians made the relief funding visible to a new applicant pool, and the process of applying provided that pool with valuable experience. Like digital literacy, the skill of applying for money is likely to become more relevant in years to come, as a widening wealth gap in the US results in new private grants alongside federal aid packages like CARES.

This year’s festivals relied on radio to reach audiences, and together they faced a unique choice. On June 2, many national media organizations participated in Blackout Tuesday to call attention to voices silenced by oppression. Early June was a time when orchestral and educational music programming was largely on break, either because of regular summer recess or because of public health and safety concerns. By contrast, radio stations and some festivals were in full swing. Their responses were considered and heartful. Some joined Blackout Tuesday in solidarity with the BLM movement, disrupting a media stream that audiences take for granted in order to call them away from routines and prompt reflection. By contrast, some festivals and events, which by nature offer a break from routine, chose instead to address social injustice through community-building conversations and other bespoke programming.

Seasonal balances between festivals and orchestral performances are not the only differences between the two models for music-making. The orchestral model is built on organizing large groups of musicians for even larger audiences to perform a complex canon of music. Not only were large gatherings unsafe this year, note-perfect recordings of the entire canon have long been available online for free. Indeed, the value local orchestras provide was explicitly banned several times during the pandemic. Complicating matters further, Alaska is physically isolated from the larger talent pools where orchestras search for directors, soloists, and ringers. One solution to these challenges has been to rediscover the orchestra as a single body of musicians composed of small, independent ensembles that work together toward common goals. Physical distancing can change both the shapes of ensembles and the way they work together, even while the orchestra provides unity.

To that end, Kenai Peninsula Orchestra organized recordings of constituent brass quintets, a string quartet, and a flute quartet. Some of these ensembles were able to gather safely for live sessions, whereas others sent individual tracks to producers for mixing and mastering. Likewise, The Juneau Symphony recorded live chamber music with its regulars this year, some of whom are out-of-state ringers flown in for the Holiday Cheer Virtual Concert. The Juneau Symphony also organized a tuition-funded virtual music theory education event and continued to broadcast Sundays With The Symphony from their archives via KRNN. Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra spent a long summer and fall recess establishing safe operating procedures for the performance of their 2020-2021 programming as planned, with one major adjustment—audiences will enjoy FSO music for free online, rather than for ticket prices in person. Anchorage Symphony Orchestra faced the weighty challenge of celebrating the life of Randy Fleischer while also grieving his death. His memorial streamed a mix of live and pre-recorded performances from a variety of ensembles. In keeping with Randy’s practice of empowering local musicians, much of the program was selected by the players themselves. Following the lead of Executive Director Sherri Reddick, musicians and audience members commemorated Randy with words, and their homage has continued in the programming Randy established before his death.

Like adult orchestras, youth orchestras and arts camps bring people together in creative community and provide opportunities for education. Unlike adult orchestras, a year in the life of a child is different than a year in the life of an adult. In the words of Roger Schmidt, Executive Director of Sitka Fine Arts Camp, “the younger you are, the less you get back after waiting”. For Sitka Fine Arts Camp, resilience took the form of reflection and repose until the systemic issues leading to its temporary closure are resolved. In the meantime, the same sense of urgency has prompted the Anchorage Youth Orchestra to take up work on an Alaska Virtual Symphony, tentatively led by one of Alaska’s newest and youngest conductors, Colin Roshak.

Some of the most resilient people in Alaska teach music in schools. District closures have made their job more difficult, because most students do not have home access to instruments and other musical resources. Those who do still struggle with the same barriers that frustrate adult musicians—lagging internet connections, poor sound quality, and no good place to play. Yet the pandemic has also made school music classes more important than ever. Many students are stuck behind screens for long hours to complete schoolwork, and some have not been able to spend time with friends in person since the pandemic began. Parents are often unable to provide support to their children, because they too put in long hours and need emotional support. In response, K-12 music teachers are redefining their jobs by finding unique ways to address the needs of their particular students.

University faculty play different roles in the lives of students and communities. Many professors have felt the budget pinch as a growth in responsibilities but not salaries. Their payoff may take the form of increased community engagement and influence instead. For example, Armin Abdihodžic’s Anchorage Classical Guitar Society hosts open mics, which have enjoyed good attendance during the pandemic. Their editor has enjoyed the opportunity to explore topics related to the classical guitar through the group newsletter. Abdihodžic’s relationships with other organizations has also boosted synergy, cross-fertilization of ideas, and student involvement. Such direct investment of time and intellectual resources by professors and university students builds music scenes from the ground up.

Private studios offer another source of music education as well as a mainstay of revenue for many gigging musicians. They have become particularly important during 2020. For bandleaders such as Kat Moore of The Super Saturated Sugar Strings and The Forest that Never Sleeps, growing her private studio meant saying yes to more students and spending more time teaching online. Established, full-time teachers have moved existing student relationships online, hastening a trend set by busy touring musicians long ago. Other music educators are taking notes from affluent families and homeschool groups in big cities elsewhere, who split the cost of a full-time private teacher to reduce the risk of group exposure to the pandemic.*

Some musicians rely on artist residencies and awards for resources, validation, and exposure. Many such programs have restructured during the pandemic. Rasmuson Foundation offered its Individual Artist Award recipients an extra year to complete their projects and some flexibility in how they are carried out. Many private residencies closed their doors for the year, but some have treated the lull in tourism within Alaska as an inflection point toward new types of operations.

One of the most direct examples of resilience within Alaskan music communities is that some performers have stayed busy with physically distanced events through the summer and fall. The mix of performances spaces, if not the logistics, were familiar: restaurants with decks and ventilated spaces, barns with lawns outdoor wedding venues, etc. Reduced venue capacity and meant fewer gigs, but some of those who cast their nets wide were able to perform full time.

These snapshots of resilience qua music contrast with other examples of musicians’ resilience as people. Some have found work by leaving Alaska, others have pivoted toward new careers in other fields, still others have drawn on savings to attend to personal projects. It makes sense that Alaskan musicians are resilient, because both music and the beauty this place are fountainheads of renewal. Moreover, much of the value of music lies in its power to build community. Becky Kendall of the Anchorage Concert Association and Momentum Dance Company described these dynamics when speaking of the emotional support artists provide for one another during times of difficulty. “It’s about mental health,” she said, “when there isn’t the opportunity to do work.”

She makes an excellent point that we would do well to remember, even after opportunities to make a living as an artist reappear. Competition often inhibits creativity by defining a clear goal for art. If art (including music and dance) were strictly entertainment, then competition could perhaps promote quality creative output. But art is also, or perhaps mostly, about creativity that connects us and makes sense of the world. When instead we compete for recognition and opportunities as professionals, we sever the bonds that creativity builds. We would do better to support one another, rather than vie for limited funds and kudos.

Fostering collaboration and creativity, rather than competition and entertainment, has practical benefits as well. Artists who collaborate and think creatively are more effective at finding opportunities to support themselves. More broadly, creative practice of all kinds prepares people to work together and find innovative solutions. It provides safe spaces to experiment with different ways of thinking, observe their results, share them with others, and decide whether or not to own them. Before facing real difficulty, creative practices instill the confidence and mechanics of creative problem-solving.

Organizations are also more resilient when they foster collaboration and creativity, especially during times of disruption. Alaska’s largest organizations may have the inertia and resources to hunker down and wait it out, but often lack agility. By contrast, smaller organizations have a harder time hunkering down, yet are more willing and able to adapt. These strengths and weaknesses can balance each other through collaboration.

One final reason for our creative communities to band together as we move into a new year is that Alaska is small, artistically speaking. Big, global cities invite artists and organizations to convene and compete in a way that Alaskan cities cannot. Some of our artists and organizers interact with those confluences of resource and recognition, and exchange pieces of this place and with pieces of those. In order for that exchange to be meaningful, Alaska needs to be a real place for our artists to call home. We need a context that shapes us and is shaped by us to endow our creativity with something unique, authentic, and inimitable. We need to build this place through mutual support and collaboration.

*I have not been able to determine whether any such arrangements provide Alaskan music educators with a mainstay of income.

Michael Dickerson is an Anchorage composer, writer, and administrator. He is a board member at Northern Culture Exchange and a 2020 Rasmuson Individual Artist Award recipient.

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