World Music Profiles: Kathy Silbiger, Duke Performances

Kathy Silbiger, Duke Performances
Kathy Silbiger, Duke Performances
Kathy Silbiger is retiring in December. She has been at Duke University since 1984, running various arts programs. Kathy is known in world music circles as head of the Institute of the Arts and Duke Performances. She is also an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies, where she has taught a class in arts management since 1989.

Under Kathy’s leadership, Duke Performances has grown into a truly significant cultural asset, serving a diverse audience of students, faculty, and members of the community,” Duke University Provost Peter Lange said.

World Music Central interviewed Kathy Silbiger for its World Music Profiles series:

When did the Living Traditions begin?

I started this series in a very modest way during the 1989-90 season.

What was the purpose behind the Living Tradition series?

Well, at the time I was the program director for the Duke Institute of the Arts (now Duke Performances), and I had become aware personally that I really liked a lot of the different musics I was hearing on radio and in CDs that wasn’t part of the regular “concert scene” here in the Triangle [Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill].

Duke had developed a big audience for western classical and chamber music, and that’s basically what was being taught in the Duke curriculum, but there were so many other musics that seemed to me to be of equal value, however you define that (seriousness of purpose, complexity, aesthetic appeal), and we just didn’t have many opportunities to hear it live in the Triangle. So I thought, let’s see if we can begin to program in this area and find an audience for it, among the university folks as well as in the larger area. Basically, I just wanted to break out of the mold.

When did Duke University begin to program world music on a regular basis?

That first season I did three events, and they went well–I was excited by the diversity of the audience–we brought in folks who had never come to Duke before for any programs (I know that, because they had a lot of trouble finding the performance venues!). So I just kept going, and building on that first year, basically never looking back.

I think the next year we presented four world music events, and then kept expanding for a while. Then other presenters in the area started programming world music, too, so the field heated up and the audience spread itself out. NC State, the Arts Center at Carrboro, NC Museum of Art’s summer series, UNC-CH, even the BTI Center (now Progress Energy Center), the Carolina Theater, all are doing world music on a fairly regular basis. The audience has definitely grown.

Do the artists who perform at Duke also participate in workshops and other events for the community?

Absolutely–whenever their touring schedules and dispositions make that possible. We always try to find ways to have more in-depth interaction between the artists and folks in the community and on campus. It might be as simple as a visit to an appropriate class, or a workshop or master class for students and community members. For example, we’ve had a number of drumming workshops with groups from different regions of the world, since there is a fairly large drumming community here in the area, and folks come and learn about African, Afro-Cuban, Haitian. . .directly from the source!

We’ve also sponsored a number of dance workshops. Even if there don’t seem to be enough local practitioners to make a workshop or class worthwhile, we will still try to
make some opportunity for interaction–again, if the artists are amenable to that–with a reception or get-together of some kind so people can meet the artists as people and just exchange viewpoints.

Did you notice a change in the audiences’ interest in world music?

I suppose, over the course of the sixteen years I’ve been doing this, I have noticed some changing patterns–or at least I’ve suspected them. First, as I indicated above, there are a lot more choices in the Triangle now, so so those with interests in world music spread themselves much thinner, and you can’t count on having a full house for even the most well-known artists, it seems.

In the beginning, people would come out in droves because there were so few opportunities and it was all relatively new. We’ve become a bit saturated in some respects, and also, with so many other ways to encounter world music (CDs, online, radio, etc.), people may be a bit more discriminating–only wanting to come out for the big names, when it’s a real “event.” Then of course, different world regions seem to have their day, and then the mass interest migrates to something else. For a while, West African artists were all the rage, then we went through a period (and may still be in it) when Latin artists were the big draw.

I’ve always been interested in trying, over the course of two or three seasons, to bring artists from as many different parts of the world and different cultural traditions as possible, including our own (our Living Traditions series always includes some good old’ American traditions–usually updated by innovative contemporary practitioners of those traditions, since there are other Triangle entities dedicated to preserving truly traditional sounds).

You must be approached by numerous agents and even artists. How do you choose the artists?

You bet! I am inundated by agents and artists–all presenters are. Choosing a season is a balancing act, and decisions are of course affected by my personal taste, my sense of what’s NOT been done in the area, or at Duke, in a while (so there might be some pent-up demand), what I think will find resonance here, both on campus and in the community, what additional residency opportunities might be available with a particular artist to extend the impact of the visit beyond the performance, and of course the usual constraints of budget (a lot of artists are simply out of our price range, to put it bluntly), technical requirements, and touring schedules.

I think a lot of folks may not understand that we don’t have unlimited access to performance spaces, and when an international artist is only touring for a total of a month, and only three or four days of that may be in the southeast, we’re limited by whether we can find a suitable place, and whether we have enough money in the budget at that point. So choosing is always a matter of heart (do I love this artist and do I think others will, too?) and head (can we afford it, do we have a space, and is anybody else in the area already covering this).

Are there other arts programs at Duke that present world music?

Occasionally one of the student union groups or cultural organizations will present a world music artist or group, yes. The student groups actually have a lot more “discretionary spending money” than we do, and if there’s a strong student leader who can convince his peers that this is something cool, they might go for it. Although lately, student taste has been going in a different direction, it seems.

Also, there are certain faculty members in the music department at Duke who have encouraged me to program groups from different regions of the world that they know a lot about, or are teaching about, and sometimes the department will cosponsor those with Duke Performances.

What elements do you take into account aside from music quality?

This is related to the question about how I choose artists. Quality (as I judge it, of course, and I certainly don’t know everything there is to know about that!) is always the first considering, but there are others, such as marketability (will anyone come to this??), community connections. We’ve done things in partnership with community organizations because the group is one that they are supportive of, and in that case I feel I’m responding to the wishes and taste of a particular cultural group in the Triangle, rather than using my own personal taste–and that’s OK, too.

Of course, I also need to feel that we can properly present the artists in the right setting, and that’s not always possible at Duke. For example, a lot of the groups I’d love to present are really best heard in a setting where people can dance, and we don’t have that at Duke. Those groups will be more comfortable–and the audience will have a
better experience–at, say, the NC Museum of Art’s Park Theater, where the ambiance is more conducive to hearing and responding to the music in the kind of environment it springs from.

There are many other examples in my experience that I could go into, but basically, if I feel the power of the overall experience is going to be compromised by the fact that I can’t present a particular artist or group properly, then I may regretfully pass.

What world music concerts were the most popular?

One of the first groups I brought was the “original” Tuvan Throat Singers–back in, like 1990 or so, and I remember putting them in the Nelson Music Room which seats 300, and the place was packed half an hour before the show, and there were people literally climbing the walls and trying to get in. We couldn’t accommodate everyone. They were still something of a novelty back then.

Of course, the big names sold out Page Auditorium (Paco de Lucía, Ravi Shankar), and for a while we had good audiences for African artists (Salif Keita, Baaba Maal). We even had a decent audience for a wonderful tango orchestra from Argentina, but not nearly as big as it should have been, given the quality of that group. The fact that it was only the music–no tango dancing–probably kept a lot of “tangophiles” away. And of course Flamenco shows usually sell well, but their quality has been mixed, in my opinion.

Are there any artists that you enjoyed working with the most?

You know, I’ve rarely had a bad experience with world music artists. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know these people, even just a little bit.

The Scandinavian folks have all been super (there was a terrific Finnish Fiddle Band called JPP that performed along with the Väsen group from Sweden, who were just the nicest folks, that for a while I was booking a Scandinavian group every year!).

I remember spending some time in the Duke Emergency Room with Oumou Sangare and Habib Koité (Malian artists) when one of their drummers had an injury, and so we had a little time together, and they were just lovely people. Really, I’ve liked all of these artists who have come through here, although some were harder to “understand”, just because of the cultural differences. But basically, if they’re decent, bright people–which nearly all of them have been–we’ve gotten along just fine, and it’s been personally enriching to me to know them.

What will you be doing after you retire?

I’m still really too busy to have had time to make many definite plans, but I know I’ll be taking a few months off to take care of my mother, who’s approaching 90 and not in the best of health. Then I plan to start an exercise program and lose all those pounds I’ve added while I’ve been eating all those backstage catered meals! And then my husband and I have planned a two-week trip to Argentina! After that, I may start looking around for something to do part-time, maybe something in a more entrepreneurial vein, but trying to find a better balance between work life and personal/family life.

Do you know what’s going to happen to world music programming at Duke?

Not really, but I know that it’s something that won’t go away. There’s a lot of talk in Duke’s new strategic plan about increasing internationalization, and about investing more money in the arts at Duke–something that’s desperately needed, so maybe it will be possible to do even more and more expensive initiatives, in better facilities. I hope so.

And now tell us about yourself. Where were you born?

I was born in Los Angeles and lived in Southern California until I went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

What is your favorite meal?

Favorite meal: this is impossible. I love food–all kinds (which is why I need to go on that exercise program.

What music are you listening to lately?

I can’t “multitask” to music. If I’m listening to music, I like to really listen–I’m not a fan of background music. If you mean what am I listening to in my life in general, it’s like the question about favorite meal, I listen to a huge variety of music.

My husband has gotten hooked on these internet radio stations that broadcast from all over the world, so we’re constantly, at home, listening to things I never even knew existed. Actually, we’ve been listening recently to some very early Tango music–not like current Tango, but going way back to when it was even a vocal form–sounds almost like French cabaret music–very interesting.

What is your favorite movie?

Basically, I don’t have “favorites”–I’ve enjoyed lots of variety in movies–different movies seem to be more appealing at different times in one’s life–it’s like any art form, I think. We just watched Syriana, and I thought that was pretty good, but it’s not my “favorite,” by a long shot.

What do you like to do during your free time?

I’ve not had much free time in the last twenty years, but I have enjoyed traveling, reading, and, believe it or not, cleaning my house! Before I got so busy, I used to play music in a few different groups–mostly early music (Renaissance and Baroque), and before that, I played trumpet in bands and orchestras. I do hope to get back to making music in some form or fashion, on a purely amateur level, of course.

What country would you like to visit?

Well, we’re going to Argentina, as I mentioned. There are many other places I’d like to visit–I’ve done the ‘usual’ tourist places: western Europe, Central Europe, and there are a few places there I’d like to go back to (Italy, for one), but I’ve never been to Scandinavia, and I’d like to there; also eastern Europe, and more parts of Latin America, and Mexico, and Spain and Portugal. Hope I make at least some of them!

What is your favorite city?

I love New York City and I love San Francisco. Rome was great, and I enjoyed Berlin (right after the wall fell) and might like to go there again. Once again, picking a “favorite” is just not possible!

What was your best moment?

There have been many–I especially felt good when I brought an artist that not many people had heard of, but ended up wowing everyone and really providing a genuine contact with the audience. Fortunately, there’ve been a lot of those!

What was your most embarrassing moment?

Fortunately, not too many. It’s usually been when there’s been some misunderstanding about what the artist really needs (like special percussion, for example) and I haven’t provided it, and I feel like I’ve let them down. Or when the catering is bad and the group can’t bring themselves to eat it, and I have to run out and get food that IS edible and attractive. I always wish we could have got it right the first time, to show proper respect, as you would to any guest.

What was the first big lesson you learned about working in the academic world?

I guess it’s that you can’t let personal taste dictate everything you do–and also you have many different constituencies to whom you have responsibilities, and each one thinks they’re the only one that matters! And you can’t please everyone. And you definitely have constraints you must work within; on the other hand, the paycheck is regular, so you should shut up and just do your best!