Music and Community: A Talk21 with Dan Visconti

It’s in the nature of composers to want to reshape sound, but how do we reshape what sound and music do for us as a community? This is a question that occupies composer Dan Visconti, and it started with a feeling of curiosity about how to make classical music a more communal experience, in the ways of jazz or folk music.

This curiosity has led to close collaborations with fellow musicians and non-musicians alike in projects that aim to understand other people more fully. With ANDY: A Popera, the audience is integrated into the performance. In Roots to Branches, along with percussionist Shane Shanahan and CityMusic Cleveland, Visconti worked with members of Cleveland’s refugee community to tell their stories. And in Voices From the Dust Bowl, Fifth House Ensemble (for which Visconti serves as director of artistic programming) collaborated with a smorgasbord of people including the Latino Union of Chicago, Interfaith Worker Justice, composer Steve Snowden and bluegrass band Henhouse Prowlers to create a program dramatizing the story of migrant workers through the decades.

At the 21CMposium, hosted by DePauw University, Dan Visconti shared what he’s taken away from his deeply collaborative approach to composing and urged fellow musicians to engage generously with their communities.


On updating the role of the composer…

One thing that I’ve come to realize is that building new audiences for classical music requires updating the very idea of the composer from some kind of lone, fusty genius who’s laboring away in isolation … to somebody who’s more of a cultural ambassador and a collaborator who’s deeply integrated in the communities that he or she serves.

On the two-way relationship between performer and audience …

I think there’s an argument to be made that all audience members are performers, in a sense. Just look at people getting dressed up to go to the opera. They’re in a kind of performance. And everyone who’s performing is also an audience, in a sense, because they bear witness. And I think in the greatest performances of all genres, of all arts, there’s something of a two-way street that’s created—not just something that is passively received but something that is felt, something that is returned. … When we feel seen and when we feel heard, we think and act differently.

On reaching out to the communities we want at our concerts…

[During] Fifth House Ensemble’s recent residency at DePauw for the Harvest Project, its members interviewed people in the farming community in Greencastle. And it really made me think, because I hear so much from our major arts organizations about how we have to increase ticket sales, [how] we have to get butts in seats somehow. What I would say to them is, until we in the classical music community go out and listen to the communities that we’re trying to serve—and find out what is important to them and find out what it is that we can do to help them—why on earth should we expect them to come and care about our own tiny bubble? 

On how we can reshape not just the content but the goals of music…

I think that we do need to have a resurgence of curiosity and creativity in terms of the music that we write and how we perform and present it, but also in terms of leadership and vision, and in the capacity to care for other people—especially those that are most different from ourselves. 

The above excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

Dan Visconti

Active as a composer, concert curator, and music journalist, Visconti is updating the role of the composer for the 21st century as he creates innovative concert experiences in collaboration with the community. …more 

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