Reprinted from American Canvas: An Arts Legacy for Our Communities
for the National Endowment for the Arts
Perhaps the final word on what the arts mean to Americans should go to Phillip Kent Bimstein, a participant in the American Canvas forum in Salt Lake City. “Some activists choose to spread their message through arts or music, others delve into poliltics,” writes Andrew Kiraly in the Las Vegas New Times. “Phillip Kent Bimstein does both.” First as a composer, and then as an arts council volunteer, and most recently as the mayor of a small town, Springdale, Utah, Bimstein has had three vantage points from which to view the arts.
As a composer and performer, Bimstein’s career has zig-zagged all the way from the Chicago Conservatory of Music, where he majored in theory and composition, to “Phil ‘n’ the Blanks,” a new wave rock group that released several recordings and music videos in the early 1980s. Following graduate studies in music at UCLA, Bimstein eventually settled in rural Utah, which provided the inspiration for what has become his most famous work to date, and something of an underground hit (although this being experimental, electronic music, it was pretty far underground). “I awoke one morning to the sounds of cows mooing in the pasture next to my home,” Bimstein recalls. “Music to my ears, the moos became the inspiration for a concerto… Garland Hirschi’s Cows, which premiered at the Salt Lake Alternative Music Festival in October 1990. The piece, which uses an Akai sampler to make music of the moos, also includes the voice of the cows’ owner, Garland C. Hirschi of Rockville, Utah, as he tells the story of growing up with cows and what makes them moo.”
Aside from the subject matter, however, this is not the kind of work one would suspect to emerge from bucolic, rural Utah, and as such probably owes as much to Bimstein’s formal training in Chicago as it does to his new surroundings. But music has played an important role for Bimstein in Utah, too. “When I moved from Chicago ro rural southern Utah eight years ago,” Bimstein notes, “I didn’t know a soul. Some of my old friends thought I would always be an outsider, but I was welcomed into the community. The vehicle that introduced me to my new neighbors, and which allowed me to get to know them, was my music.” And the region continues to provide a rich vein of material for Bimstein’s musical explorations.
Like a lot of modern composers, Bimstein works in a variety of styles, some more accessible than others, including works rooted in the history of his new surroundings in Utah. “I composed a work about the history of the area for the local church choir. At rehearsals I was warmly received, even though I am not a member of the church. At the 4th of July premier my wife sang in the choir, my parents drove in from California, and most of the town was there. I knew then that Springdale had truly become my home.”
Bimstein’s art eventually led him to the civic arena, initially as a member of the local arts council, and later in his effort to rally the community around the idea of presenting a contemporary music festival, the esteemed New Music Across America Festival, which included Springdale among 15 much larger cities in 1992. “For several years,” Bimstein explains, “I served on the board of our local arts council. From that vantage point I saw our town transformed by the arts. Springdale had become fractured and polarized, divided by growth and development issues. People had lost respect and trust for each other, and were losing faith in our ability to get along. Town council meetings were hostile environments, and citizens hated to go. Our dialogue had broken down.” With Vaclav Havel as his inspiration and using his position with the arts council as an entry point, Bimstein proposed a creative solution to the town’s problems. “Our arts council presented a series of roundtable discussions, entitled ‘Embracing Opposites, In Search of the Public Good,’ which helped us to develop a language of cooperation. Poetry readings, creativity workshops, and concerts became our positive meeting places, where we strengthened our social bonds, sustained our spirit, and nurtured the health back into our community. The arts provided the breeding ground for the cooperation and communication which brought us back together.”
The arts also turned out to be the breeding ground for Bimstein’s latest performance, as the mayor of Springdale. “That really surprised me,” Bimstein admitted in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, speaking of his entry into local politics. “…[but] I realized that instead of regarding political office as a conflict with my life as a creative person, it could actually be a different manifestation of my creative side.”
“The arts help me be a better mayor,” Bimstein adds, “furnishing me with techniques which strengthen the bonds of our community. As a composer, I know that dissonant notes have value, and that even opposites can be orchestrated together. From a musical perspective, our community is engaged in a collaborative improvisation. If we play it well, a good work emerges, a constantly evolving composition.”