Throughout a long design career, including a stint as creative director at CCA, Bill Bonnell has been a spokesperson for Midcentury Modernism, an outlier of late-century Postmodernism. His papers are held by the Vignelli Center archives at RIT. He is also a classic music lover who organized and is hosting the first-annual Arpeggio Music Festival in Greenwich, Conn., for three weeks in June. The post-pandemic festival is devoted to an exploration of the history and wide range of music written by American classical composers over the last 100 years. Featuring nine musical groups and soloists in nine concerts over three weekends, the goal is to shine a light on the diversity, versatility, range and creativity of American composers who, says Bonnell, “have historically been underrepresented on American concert stages.” When I learned about the event I wondered how his design fits in—and then I saw his announcement typography. I recently asked him about the relationship of Modernist design to classical music.
For decades, your practice has been intellectually centered on design, especially Modern(ist) design. What are your classical music origins?
My interests in classical music precede my design interests. I took up the French horn in fifth grade and have been playing now for over 50 years. But my interests in the horn led me to interests in horn parts in classical music, and thus to Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, who both wrote the most flamboyant and out-there horn parts. And from there I got into Wagner and most other classical music. By the end of high school I knew most of the classical repertoire and had hundreds of records of symphonies and operas. But I never got interested in any popular music except maybe The Beatles. That short-circuited my social life in high school and college, of course. I pretty much know Western music repertoire from Bach to the mid-20th century. Never got into the serial composers from Schoenberg on.
How does classical music exist in the Modernist world?
In ways it seems to thrive. There is a new post-serial generation of composers that is gaining an audience—Michael Torke, John Adams, Phillip Glass and David del Tredici are some of my favorites—and an even younger generation that have pop and bluegrass interests as well. Check out a Kenji Bunch or Will Healy to see what I mean. But mainstream organizations like the New York Philharmonic and Met Opera are way behind the curve.
Why did you organize this festival?
I have always liked attending music festivals. I’ve traveled to opera festivals around the world as vacation excuses (Glyndebourne, Santa Fe, Munich, Paris, Salzburg, Bayreuth) and orchestra and chamber festivals (Tanglewood, Marlboro, Aspen). One of the best is the Bard Festival located at Bard College here in New York. That one combines music scholarship with performance and is a feast for ears and intellect.
But during the COVID lockdown period I grew restless and a bit bored and just decided to create a small festival of my own. I decided to focus on what interested me and not worry too much about the cost. I decided I could afford to lose some money to have fun. I certainly have done that for years buying old cars. And I had always felt that American music was not performed enough, so that became the theme for the first year. I mean, I love Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Hadyn and Bach as much as anyone, but enough! There is a whole history of American composers from the early to mid-20th century that has vanished from the repertoire. The Met had successful American opera premieres in the ’30s that played successfully for a season or two and then were never heard again. They needed to make more room for Tosca and Boheme, I guess.
What is the content of the festival? And where do your performers come from?
The performers are all from the NYC and Connecticut area and the content for this first year is American composers. There are over 50 composers whose works will be heard. Over half of those are living composers. Many are mainstream familiar—Bernstein, Copland, Ives, Gershwin, etc.—but many are not. How about Amy Beach, William Bolcom, Samuel Barber, Gian Carl Menotti and Marc Blitzstein? There is a concert of film music, a program of excerpts from American operas, a concert featuring a young NYC composer playing his music and music that influenced him and talking about what it’s like to be a composer today. There is also a concert featuring two jazz composers playing and demonstrating what improvisation means. And the final concert is a 70-piece concert band. And there will be no marches or show tunes, just symphonic band music. I might even join in for that concert.