If you’re charmed by the delightfully specific music-world humor of Mozart in the Jungle, Miller Theatre—a wonderful performance venue in New York focused on contemporary composers, early music, and jazz—has an April Fools’ gag that’s just for you. The “ad,” introduced with mock seriousness by Miller’s executive director Melissa Smey, is for a new reality competition show called Desperate Measures that promises to take viewers “inside the lives and processes of today’s great artists.”
What follows is a genuinely hilarious—and impressively produced!—series of reality show tropes. There’s the American Idol-style judging panel, including chilly Boston Globe music critic Steve Smith and a slightly warmer Paula Abdul-type in violinist Jennifer Koh. The contestants are real-life composers Michael Gordon, Ashley Fure, and David T. Little, the latter of whom wryly praises Measures for introducing a “much needed sense of urgent competition to the contemporary music scene.” Even the single-contestant confessional shots are on point, such as one in which Fure complains of a composition task: “Napkins, eggshells … I mean, please, what are we, Oberlin undergrads?”
Of course, given the relative difficulty of getting commissions and finding ensembles bold enough to present new work, there’s no lack of competition in contemporary music—and the challenges in Measures pick up on that. In addition to the giggle-inducing host’s command to “compose an entire chamber piece—in half an hour!” using napkins, crayons, and the totally “bullshit” key of C major, there’s a nod to RuPaul’s Drag Race in a lip sync to John Cage’s 4’33” and, most bitingly, an epic “Obstacle Course of Landing a Commission” that involves schmoozing with a patron looking for “this generation’s Beethoven” and sifting through a trash bin of clichés in order to construct a winning artistic statement. (“The relationship between identities and memories” wasn’t the luckiest of draws, but there’s much more grant-thirsty fluff where that came from.)
Alas, Desperate Measures is only a bit of levity fit for April 1. But it represents a refreshingly creative and smart approach to self-promotion for a corner of the art world that suffers from a reputation for being elitist and stodgy. Hopefully Miller’s charming gambit will have the intended effect of attracting more listeners to their own shows (of which, full disclosure, I am a regular) and to the vibrant world of contemporary music in general.