Percussionist and arts policy consultant Sidney Hopson shares how he found strength and comfort in classical music as a young child struggling to care for his ailing parents. We discuss how Sidney’s discovery of cultural policy, pinpointing how he could bring the transformative power of music to others through legislative action, enabled him to combat audition anxiety, a decade of depression, and the pervasive racism of the classical music industry. Lastly, Sidney unpacks why he’s experiencing increased creativity and motivation during the pandemic and offers advice to those of us who may be struggling to produce creative work or take social action during this difficult period.
The resurgence of positivity rates and return of mask mandates in recent weeks has become a huge tug on the loose thread that has been holding choral directors and singers from unraveling during this pandemic. Concert cancellations are likely to commence in the coming weeks and we should be concerned for the musicians and the small choral art organizations who support them. Even if choral music may not be your jam, over 54 million Americans sing in a choir and an even greater number enjoy watching and listening to choirs, ensembles, and a cappella groups. You may even have shared one of those inspiring virtual choirs videos during the height of the pandemic isolation. A number of choral ensembles have a mission greater than cultivating singing, such as creating community for marginalized groups or a vehicle for exploring social justice. Thus, the latest COVID trend is just one more reminder of the trauma that has perforated the choral landscape these past 18 months and decimated many small community choirs. The general public is likely unaware of the carnage or how to help.
From the start of COVID-19, choir became labeled as unsafe, with singers being inappropriately branded as “super-spreaders”. This admonishment really only presented singing groups with two options during the pandemic: go dark and wait out the storm or reimagine choir by transitioning to a virtual model. Neither option was desirable as a hiatus bred despondency for singers and virtualizing choir accelerated burnout for choir directors. But, the choral world stepped up regardless and gave tirelessly during a tumultuous time to soothe and offer connection through music by sharing it virtually. The rate at which choir directors became sound engineers/video editors by proxy in 2020 to keep their singers and community connected virtually was an impressive feat of strength. Choristers braved all types of weather and nature to safely sing and record outside. Directors employed complicated formulas to calculate air exchange rates and hepa filter strength to gauge the safety of inside rehearsal spaces. Some musicians even harnessed long forgotten sewing skills to produce special singers’ masks for their ensembles.
All of these impressive undertakings were often accomplished with little to no financial support for these choirs, which was especially true for small community choirs and choral arts organizations who were not eligible to receive state or federal aid. It is akin to a tree still managing to grow upward when the earth has been washed away underneath. The branches continue to extend skyward, but the possibility of the tree being able to survive for long without soil foundation is debatable.
Nevertheless, many choirs innovated, collaborated, and stepped out of their comfort zones in 2020 to keep the greater community engaged while singers quietly mourned the loss of “choir” from behind their home computer screens. Let’s face it: choral singing while wearing a face mask, singing outside, or recording virtually is not a particularly enjoyable endeavor for the singer. This type of choir fits into the “better-than-nothing” category or checks the “it-makes-our-audience-happy” box. Many choirs managed to endure, but at a significant financial and emotional cost. It is no wonder that after navigating through the stages of grief since March 2020, many choral musicians found themselves settling into the acceptance stage of the grieving process toward the end of the year—life without choir.
But then came the light at the end of the tunnel in 2021: vaccines. Virtual rehearsals over Zoom or outside/masked choir sessions concluded with the gleeful countdown of when the singers would be eligible for their shot. The possibilities of a performing season for 2021-22 seemed within reach. The vaccines did allow for a return of singing safely for the vaccinated, but only for a very short time in the early summer. We fell prey to hope that vaccines would open the door to our concert halls, but any plans for a permanent return of communal singing were dashed on the wave of the Delta variant. If we did not express trepidation before these virus variants took hold in the US, you can bet that choral directors and singers everywhere are calculating how much more disappointment and letdown their hearts can take. Choir is not only our livelihood, it is deeply connected to our identity, health, and emotional well-being. Planning in earnest for the return of choir has become wrought with apprehension because we now know how quickly it can be taken away. Yehuda HaLevi once wrote, “Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.“ Choral singing has become capricious.
As we stand on the precipice of the 2021-22 concert season, the anxiety and unease about the future of the choral landscape is palpable. The difficulty extends beyond losing the opportunity to sing together… once again. The revenue streams we had anticipated with a return of in-person performances this season to keep our choirs afloat are uncertain once more. For many small choral organizations, ticket sales and donations to support performing activities are the main source of revenue. If performing is not available… you can surmise the outcome. Also, there are significant costs associated with creating virtual content; however, virtual concerts do not yield much in the way of revenue. As for balancing the ventilation calculus in our rehearsal spaces and concert halls, the process and equipment is cost-prohibitive for most choirs under normal circumstances let alone after 18 months of barely scraping by. Many small ensembles rent rehearsal and performance space, which compounds the issue. As previously mentioned, most small choral organizations did not receive any state or federal pandemic aid because they do not have full-time employees nor own a venue, both of which do little to measure the impact these choirs have on their community. Although grant opportunities did exist, not everyone is chosen to receive the funding and each application requires herculean effort.
For many choral musicians, the thought of another virtual choir season in the wake of the Delta variant conjures feelings of dread. The amount of hours and funding a choir director needs to invest to create one 3-minute remotely recorded virtual choir video is considerable. There is an added cost of procuring a sync license per song to place the video online, which mounts quickly, especially for those choirs committed to sharing music by living composers. In addition, the process to create the virtual choir is stressful on most choral singers as they need to sing alone, which is exposing and time consuming to get the perfect take.
Singing in a mask to record the choir to share virtually is a possible solution, but masks are uncomfortable, vocally tiring, and hinder the choral sound. Specialty singers’ masks exist to mitigate these issues, but they are pricey (multiply $20 by 40 singers to get an idea). Recording outside without masks is possible, but comes with a long list of vocal production constraints and numerous recording difficulties (the wind is much louder than you think.) Most unfortunately, some choir members have recently professed they will not commit to another season of singing in a mask, virtually, or outside. The confessions of these dedicated singers suggests a trauma response to having the craft they love taken away again and provided a substitute that offers reduced benefit to the musician. If producing virtual content does not yield much, if any, revenue for the choirs and the process is not as fulfilling for the singers, what is the purpose? The benefit of virtual content is to continue that which choirs have cultivated all along – connection, collaboration, beauty, and hope. How do we continue with exhausted singers, directors, and coffers?
It is as if we have reached a choral impasse in the wake of impending virus variant waves. As a society, we need the essence of choir to help evoke community and hope. Directors and choral organizations want to financially support their professional singers. But, forging ahead for singers and community choirs is colored by trauma and compounded by financial fears. Many choral directors are currently managing their exhaustion as they desperately rework the upcoming 2021-22 season to be safe for singers and audience members. Choristers are weighing the emotional cost of virtual participation or singing in masks or outside while still working through the grief of losing choir. In addition to considering the emotional component, choir directors and boards are calculating the extensive financial costs of the now ever-changing choral landscape. Many choirs have committed to adapting, but may not survive the next onslaught without significant support from the community and considerable additional funding. Choirs want to offer connection for the singers, share music with the greater community, and financially support their professional musicians this next season. But, to be brutally honest, community choirs cannot do it without additional funding, especially from local and state municipalities. The good news is that we can all be part of the solution to this problem: donate to your local choral organizations and contact your local governments requesting they dedicate funding to the arts. Alleviating some of the financial burden of sustaining choir through this next season would be the easiest way to support your local community choir. Help replace some of the nutrient “soil” washed away with the pandemic so the communal singing in our communities can endure.
Spending an hour over Zoom chatting with Renée Baker about her more than two thousand musical compositions and perhaps almost as many paintings was inspirational as well as motivational. Especially during this time when the ability for anything we do to have a certain future seems somewhat precarious at best. But Renée does not let anything deter her and while her music is extremely wide ranging and gleefully embraces freedom of expression, her daily schedule is precise and meticulous.
“I don’t separate life from creation,” she explained to me as she outlined a typical day in her life. “Breakfast about 7:30. And right behind that, about 8:15, started [making] dinner. … When I’m done with my conversation with you, I have four gallons of paint in the hallway that will make their way to my studio garage; I’m working on a series there. … These might not be finished for a couple of weeks while I determine what the palette is gonna be. You know, it has to strike me. Once I do that, I might wander out. I’ll go past a thrift store or something looking for pieces because I do make sound item sculpture, so that’s always fun, especially with wood and glue. And then I’ll probably nap and watch a few zombie movies. I’m a Walking Dead aficionado. When I’m done with that, since dinner’s already fixed, my husband can eat whenever he wants, I will probably go to a coffee shop or sit outside a coffee shop. I keep my manuscript book in the car. So anytime I’m driving or going to sit by the pond, or sit by the lake, or feed the ducks, I keep adding to these compositions. When they’re finished, I pull them out and I put them in the envelopes. So I touch almost everything every day.”
Her discipline has paid off. In addition to the ensembles that she herself has formed to perform her compositions, most notably the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, organizations around the country and the world have commissioned and presented her music including the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Spektral Quartet, Boston’s ECCE Ensemble, Berlin’s International Brass, DanceWright Project SF, the Joffrey Ballet, Berkeley Books of Paris, the Destejilk Museum in the Netherlands, and on and on. Plus her paintings are represented by two different galleries—and they sell.
Given her broad range of artistic pursuits, it’s no wonder that Renée Baker is a member of Chicago’s pioneering AACM (The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), an organization founded in 1965 by the late Muhal Richard Abrams who counts among its members such legendary genre-defying Black artists as Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Amina Claudine Myers, Henry Threadgill, George Lewis, and Tomeka Reid. Yet at the time Nicole Mitchell first suggested she join, Renée had acknowledged that she had never actually improvised. And while she proudly identifies herself as “a Black woman in America that survived classical music,” she “never sought to do an all-Black anything.” As she explains, “When you’re looking at my music, you can say, oh, it’s Black music because she’s Black, or whatever. But the fact is I’m interested in people who can play in four with my beat pattern and stay with me. It’s very simple. I don’t care; I don’t care what you are.”
Also, despite the fact that she creates vital work as a composer and as a painter (plus she also writes poetry and makes sculptures), Renée Baker does not compartmentalize. She does not think in terms of synaesthesia, but if you spend enough time looking and listening to the different forms of art she creates, you will notice clear aesthetic affinities. E.g. the striking combinations of colors in her paintings share a kinship with the way different timbres interact in her musical compositions. In fact, she has worked extensively with graphic scores that are as fascinating as visual art as they are as music. Ultimately, Renée Baker’s work is a by-product of an extremely healthy confidence, and her advice about perseverance is something that all artists should heed, especially in these extremely uncertain times:
“If your heart is married to creating, then there’s nothing, even a pandemic, that’s gonna stop you from creating. You might not create as much. You may experience a bit more stress, some financial worries—no telling what everybody individually is facing. But you can’t stop the train. Just keep going. Just keep going. Look at other directions. Maybe the direction you were going in would have been stopped without the pandemic. Maybe you’d gotten to a wall and there’s something else for you to access. Don’t be frightened, and don’t be cowed by criticism.”
NOTE: As part of this month’s Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago, Renée Baker will lead a string quintet from her Chicago Modern Orchestra Project in a performance of her composition Eternal Units of Beauty for one of the Spotlight Concerts at Chicago’s Phantom Gallery on September 26. Learn more about Ear Taxi’s Spotlight Concerts here. She will also participate in Ear Taxi’s panel discussion “What are the components of a thriving ecosystem for new music?” moderated by New Music USA’s CEO Vanessa Reed on September 29 at the DePaul Art Museum. More info about that panel can be found here.
Private Music Teachers in Unchartered Territory
Unfortunately, many of us are back to feeling unsafe when it comes to in-person learning, due to the increase in the Delta variant. Here are some tips for private music teachers who are transitioning back to Zoom learning.
Background: This article is written from the perspective of a classical flutist who has a background in instrumental music education, particularly, band. That being said, many of these tips can be adapted to other instruments.
Keep Students Connected
I am a huge advocate of taking the time to get to know your student on a more personal level. This means that you need to take a breath and keep your students connected. Learn more about their school: Are they in-person, are they online? What are they doing when they’re not so busy? While this tip may sound basic, it can mean the difference between keeping your student on Zoom or losing them to a competitor who is still offering lessons in person.
I recall the ‘Aha’ moment I had with a student when I realized that she was reading The Lunar Chronicles Series; A set of books that I had begun reading when I was her age as well. Knowing that she was into fantasy and dystopian novels helped me make more relatable allegories for her during flute lessons. Checking in is always time well spent, whether it’s about sports, family, or video games. While we can’t always physically be there, we can get emotionally closer to our students. The better the rapport you have with your pupil, the easier the transition back to online will be.
Just because you can’t be with your student in person, doesn’t mean that you can’t use manipulatives. Do some research, and find things that your students can make at home. Some of my favorite tools to use for flutists include simple household items like disposable chopsticks, straws, and Smarties. Chopsticks and straws make easy fixes for weak embouchures and poor tonguing techniques. A roll of smarties (the candy) can be placed on the knuckles to check if the student’s wrist is properly lifted. Elementary students will enjoy making their percussion instruments from tubes and paper and performing new rhythm exercises on them.
Guitar students and other instrumentalists will benefit from manipulatives as well. For example, recently, when I was receiving an online bass lesson, I was instructed to hold a small object between my pinkie and ring finger. This helped me fix the position of my picking hand, without my teacher having to physically be there.
Change Their Angle
It can be very difficult to help your student hold their instrument properly when you can’t physically adjust it for them. Having your pupil periodically change their camera angle will help immensely. I remember when I was an undergrad, one of my professors was watching me during a lesson. He realized that he had only ever seen me play from one certain angle, in the same place, in his office. It wasn’t until he stood up from his chair that he realized that I was playing with a poor wrist technique. My left hand needed to be dropped so that I could play more comfortably.
Use Their Metronome
This is a tip that I learned from guitarist Samuel Rugg. Don’t teach Zoom lessons with your metronome. Lag is one of the biggest complications of teaching music lessons online. If you use your metronome, there will be two lags: One from your metronome getting to the student, and the second, in the student’s sound getting back to you. In essence, even if the student is playing perfectly in time with your metronome, you won’t hear it as such. It’s best to save you and your student some time (and headache) by having the metronome and performance coming from the same location.
Assign Something Unconventional
Students will greatly appreciate lessons that fall outside the norm. Even if they are studying cello performance, try throwing a vocal exercise or composition prompt their way. When it comes to studying music, there’s no irrelevant exercise. Everything is connected.
There are tons of great online music tools out there, too. So when it comes to Zoom lessons? Don’t be afraid to assign a bit of fun homework. For younger students, try giving them an online listening game from Classics for Kids (www.classicsforkids.com/games.html) or ask them to compose on a short melody in Chrome Music Lab (musiclab.chromeexperiments.com/).
For adult students, have them compose something on an instrument they don’t play inside of Garage band (www.apple.com/mac/garageband/). Or, get your students to work on a track together using a free collaborative music site like LoopLabs (www.looplabs.com/).
If you’d like to go more along the classical route, you can also try assigning ear training through a site like Teoria (www.teoria.com/).
Recruit a Family Audience
Many musically gifted students have had to endure the better part of two years with no on-stage performances. A couple of months back, I was teaching an intermediate flute student online. She had seemed far more engaged during this particular lesson than she had been in the previous weeks. I didn’t realize until the end of the lesson (when she turned her camera away from me) that her older siblings and parents had been listening in on us.
At first, I was spooked. I watched my internal teacher become critical: “Did I do a good enough job entertaining the family? Did I spend too much time making book references? “ But then, the mental chatter faded. I realized that recruiting family members can help fill that missing space of not having a stage. When her family was listening, she had an audience.
It’s a brave new world for all of us Zoom music teachers. But we’ve been here before, and we can do this again. Keep conversations during lessons light and lively, and don’t be afraid to try something a little odd. And remember: Online music is better than no music at all!
Librettist and Singer Aiden K. Feltkamp, who serves as the Emerging Composers and Diversity Director at the American Composers Orchestra, shares how they work with large institutions to identify & dismantle internal discriminatory practices and address unconscious biases. Aiden speaks openly about their personal experience transitioning, the impact that Gender Dysphoria (experiencing discord between one’s gender identity and one’s assigned sex at birth) had on their mental health, and how writing helped their healing process. We discuss our shared experiences of mental illness, or what Aiden and fellow diversity educators call Neurodivergence, the benefits of therapy; medication in treating Anxiety, Depression, and ADHD.
It is mid-August. In my profession (I teach college-level composition and music theory), that means it’s time to get down to the less lofty aspects of course preparation: ambitious ideas must be reborn as precise learning objectives, clear evaluation criteria, detailed weekly schedules, and finalized repertoires. As I comb the internet for pieces to use in the introductory orchestration course I will teach for the second time this fall, I am reminded of a familiar frustration: it is easy to find scores by white men, and much harder to find scores by anyone else.
Yes, IMSLP offers an ocean of free sheet music, and that’s to say nothing of the more carefully curated online resources such as Music Theory Examples by Women and the Composers of Color Resource Project. But this apparent abundance can obscure the many omissions. Looking for the full score of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade in A minor for Orchestra? The piece was composed in 1898 and begins with a stormy opening theme — a perfect example of how to subtly strengthen the melody in a passage scored for low strings. (Can you hear the lone bassoon doubling those violins?) Yet, on IMSLP, you will find only piano reductions of nearly all of Coleridge-Taylor’s orchestral works. A full score for Petite Suite de Concert, Op. 77, is the lonely exception. Curious about delving into the orchestral works of Louise Farrenc? Her three symphonies, all written in the 1840s (easily old enough to be in the public domain) are nowhere to be found on IMSLP.
It is true that with a bit of determination and more than a few disposable dollars, these scores can be acquired: Musikproduction Hoeflich offers in its “Repertoire Explorer” series an edition of Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade for a reasonable 18€; I eagerly bought it, but I’d have to think twice about requiring my students to purchase a copy unless I could find a way to make it a primary text for my course. In contrast, one must shell out over 150€ for the Hoffman/Heitman edition of Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3, rendering it highly impractical at best for classroom study.
I am grateful that these recent editions of long-neglected works exist, yet I can’t help but lament their inaccessibility, especially when compared to the ubiquity of freely available scores composed by white men. The simple question of why — why are Robert Schumann’s symphonies from the 1840s accessible at no cost for anyone to study and perform, while Louise Farrenc’s symphonies from the same period are behind a costly paywall? — is an important one, but it is related to a larger truth: music educators who wish to fundamentally rethink their content often face significant practical challenges in the simple matter of accessing viable learning materials. The last few decades have seen significant progress toward building web-based resources for inclusive music pedagogy, yet there remains in many disciplines a lack of adequate resources — a major disincentive for teachers wishing to move beyond inherited repertoires and perspectives. In perhaps no musical discipline is this absence more glaring than in the study of orchestration.
Orchestration as an academic study occupies a nebulous place, residing somewhere between composition and music theory, two fields which are themselves often grouped together. (As an example, I teach in my conservatory’s Composition and Music Theory program, where all music theory courses are listed under the same “MCOM” prefix.) My introductory orchestration course that starts next week will include student composers, performers, and music educators. For many of them, this class may represent their most sustained exposure to full musical scores for mid-sized and large ensembles, so the choice of composers studied in this context could profoundly influence their notions of whose music is worthy of study. (For a fascinating and bracing study on this topic, see Cora Palfy and Eric Gilson, “The Hidden Curriculum in the Music Theory Classroom.”)
Textbooks wield a special kind of power in perpetuating the canon of composers that still dominate the music academy, and music theory textbooks have been heavily scrutinized in recent years. In his Music Theory Online article, “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” Philip Ewell provides a racial demographic breakdown of musical examples in seven leading music theory textbooks, in which he reveals that, “of the 2,930 musical examples in all seven textbooks, 49 were written by nonwhites. This represents 1.67% of the musical examples from all textbooks.”
Orchestration textbooks have largely avoided such critiques, but they fair no better; they are actually a bit worse. The following chart presents a racial and gender demographic breakdown of the musical examples in three well-known orchestration textbooks:
|Textbook||Total # of examples||# of examples by non-whites||% of examples by non-whites||# of examples by women||% of examples by women|
|Adler, 4th Ed. (2016)||402||3||0.75%||3||0.75%|
|Blatter, 2nd Ed. (1997)||174||3||1.72%||4||2.30%|
|Kennan and Grantham, 6th Ed. (2002)||241||1||0.41%||1||0.41%|
The percentages shown in the chart are so extreme that they bear restating: fewer than 1% of the musical examples in these books are taken from pieces by non-white composers, and fewer than 1% are from pieces by women.
There is not a single example composed by a non-white woman in any of the books. In contrast, Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is used in 10 separate instances, while Johannes Brahms’s First Symphony and Claude Debussy’s La Mer are each cited 9 times. The outsize representation of these familiar works extends to the disproportionate attention lavished on the expected composers. Mozart leads the way with 18 pieces featured in Adler’s The Study of Orchestration, followed by Beethoven at 17, then Ravel, Strauss, and Stravinsky at 13 each, with Tchaikovsky, Bartók, Brahms, Mahler, and Richard Wagner rounding out the tidy list of ten composers with 10 or more pieces in the Adler book.
The racial and gender identities of the authors of orchestration textbooks are even more lopsided than the identities of the composers whose music populates the book. I could not find a single comprehensive orchestration manual authored by someone other than a white man. It’s worth noting that Blatter’s Instrumentation and Orchestration includes an unusually thorough bibliography containing related resources that reflect perspectives other than those of white men, including books on the history of the orchestra (Joan Peyser, ed. The Orchestra: Origins and Translations, New York: Schirmer, 1986), volumes on instrumentation (Sibyl Marcuse, A Survey of Musical Instruments, New York: Harper & Row, 1975), and several manuals about composing for individual instruments. And the internet offers numerous excellent tutorials on composing for individual instruments, such as Heather Roche’s excellent blog on contemporary clarinet writing. Yet when it comes to lists of books and blogs on orchestration, most look like this and this.
I gave a talk at this year’s Society of Composers National Conference called “Tossing the Textbook and Decentering the Canon in an Introductory Orchestration Course.” The talk focused on my efforts to move beyond the traditional orchestral literature in my orchestration class by relying on evidence-based pedagogical practices, such as using backward design, creating the conditions for meaningful student agency, and providing and receiving effective feedback throughout the semester. The pedagogy portion of the talk was met with a shrug; I was preaching to the choir about the why. How was another matter. The issue of access to scores and the challenge of finding adequate learning materials — along with the stark demographic statistics I provided about the orchestration textbooks — sparked engaging and sometimes passionate discussion.
It is easy to find scores by white men, and much harder to find scores by anyone else.
Why are Robert Schumann’s symphonies from the 1840s accessible at no cost for anyone to study and perform, while Louise Farrenc’s symphonies from the same period are behind a costly paywall?
I could not find a single comprehensive orchestration manual authored by someone other than a white man.
We must continue to demand that new textbooks do a better job with representation.
So, what of the pieces that are old enough to be in the public domain, yet are still nowhere to be (freely) found? Why is IMSLP full of Robert Schumann’s orchestral scores but devoid of Louise Farrenc’s, replete with Gustav Mahler’s symphonies but virtually empty of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s? Farrenc’s three symphonies were written in the 1840s, but the Hoffman/Heitmann critical editions were published between 1998–2000 and thus will remain protected for decades. Unless you can get yourself to the Bibliothèque nationale de France to peruse the original manuscript of Farrenc’s Symphony no. 3, or to the Philadelphia Free Library’s Fleisher Collection to pore over the microfilm, the critical editions are the only game in town. Similarly, many of Coleridge-Taylor’s orchestral works are available only as recently published, and sometimes costly, critical editions.
These critical editions are invaluable resources; their editors deserve to be credited and compensated for their expertise. I only seek to point out that, as of today, I can choose to invest in Schott’s critical edition of Robert Schumann’s Second Symphony but I can also access many earlier editions for free. I don’t have that choice with much of the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Louise Farrenc for the simple reason that their orchestral work wasn’t thought to be worth publishing until relatively recently.
Some editors and publishers are working to make these scores more accessible. The French site ComposHer strives to increase access to scores by women composers; its recent edition of Emilie Mayer’s Faust-Ouverture is freely accessible under a Creative Commons license and includes a full set of parts. Another publisher, Serenissima Music, restores and digitizes original editions of hard-to-find pieces and posts them to IMSLP; it is courtesy of Serenissima that we have access to the full score of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Petite Suite de Concert. (Serenissima has also partnered directly with IMSLP to print and sell physical copies of some of these reprints under the Petrucci Library Press imprint.)
We should feel a sense of urgency to join these efforts to make more scores of public domain works accessible. Imagine the possibilities for cross-disciplinary student projects devoted to creating usable and accessible editions of scores for Emilie Mayer’s first and second symphonies, or modern editions of Vicente Lusitano’s book of motets, Liber primus epigramatum. These projects would bring together music scholars from various disciplines and would galvanize students and faculty toward a common and profoundly meaningful goal.
We also must continue to demand that new textbooks do a better job with representation. Though alternative learning resources exist, textbooks continue to be important and influential forces in defining the values and boundaries of a discipline. It is encouraging that W. W. Norton has contracted Rosa Abrahams, Philip Ewell, Aaron Grant, and Cora Palfy to write a new music theory textbook, The Engaged Musician: Theory and Analysis for the 21st Century (projected 2023), which Ewell describes as “a modernized, reframed, and inclusive textbook based on recent developments in music theory pedagogy.” The field of orchestration is in dire need of a similar textbook, with the backing of a publisher willing to help with the costs of reprinting copyright-protected musical excerpts by BIPOC and women composers in addition to curating selections from the public domain.
So many of our students and colleagues want to move beyond the canonic composers. Let’s keep working to get them the resources they need.
Soprano Hila Plitmann and I discuss how engaging in playful creativity opens a space for internal healing, connection with loved ones and the world around us, and gratitude even in times of adversity. Hila shares her thoughts on mantra singing, motherhood, and how “the mind is a playful instrument.”
Adolphus Hailstork turned 80 in April, but he has been celebrated since the beginning of this year. On January 20, a wind band arrangement of his Fanfare on “Amazing Grace” was performed by the United States Marine Band during the inauguration of President of the United States Joe Biden. It was only the second time that music by a contemporary African American composer had been selected to be part of the repertoire performed at a presidential inauguration ceremony. And in June, as part of a digitally streamed concert on the first Juneteenth that was an official U.S. national holiday, J’Nai Bridges and the Harlem Chamber Players gave the world premiere performance of his concert aria Tulsa 1921 (Pity These Ashes, Pity This Dust), a retelling of the Tulsa Race Massacre to mark its centenary. The concert was even previewed on CNN which rarely covers music outside the commercial mainstream.
It was definitely time to catch up with Dr. Hailstork to talk about his life in music. His passion for making music stretches all the way back to his childhood when he sang as a boy chorister. While growing up, he sang his way through all the parts, eventually singing bass. After he embarked on his path as a composer, he never lost his love for the human voice and for melody.
“Choral music is so rich,” Hailstork exclaimed during our conversation over Zoom. “It is my favorite medium.” And Hailstork’s music has been treasured by choirs for half a century. He received his first significant compositional accolade, the Ernest Bloch Award, for his choral composition Mourn Not the Dead in 1971, the same year he received his Ph.D. from Michigan State University. Ironically, only a few years earlier, as he confessed during our talk, he didn’t even know what the words “graduate school” meant. After he had completed his Bachelor’s degree at Howard University, he went to Paris to study composition with Nadia Boulanger, not really sure about what his next steps would be.
Hailstork, however, took a very different path from most composers who pursued academic degrees during that time, eschewing what he described as the “plink, plank, and plunk” of the avant-garde music of his contemporaries. And for many years, his music was overlooked as he acknowledged. “It used to be a lot more difficult for lyrical types like me to have a place, just to be recognized, to be heard.”
Throughout this time, Hailstork, nevertheless, held his aesthetic ground, settling in Virginia and teaching for decades at Old Dominion University in Norfork while composing a stunning output of chamber music, solo piano and organ pieces, as well as many formidable orchestral works including four symphonies, in addition to writing numerous works for chorus. But while he is clear that he wants his music to be “a continuation rather than a breaking away from” the Western classical tradition, he very clearly has his own voice which has been enriched by his immersion into African American spirituals.
“I do worship the spirituals,” he explained at one point. “They’re gorgeous melodies and they’re very useful, and also I believe in the old statement by Dvořák that an American art music could be based on using African American materials or Indian materials also. I decided that Dvořák was right, and that’s what I wanted to do and I tried to work them in.”
The result of Hailstork’s idiosyncratic amalgamation of these two traditions has yielded an extraordinarily rich compositional language which also serves his other goal, “to capture or reflect the tribulations and the occasional triumphs of African Americans in this country.”
We almost killed music 50-60 years ago as a group experience.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
This whole thing of plink, plank, and plunk, count to 12--I couldn’t get into it.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
I learned a lot from those wonderful musicians who took the time to let me know that: "Your harp writing sucks, man. We got to teach you how to do this."
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
Harp makes a great melding together kind of goo.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
I wound up teaching comp to undergrads without any kind of theory background. It was excruciating. They didn’t know what they were doing. "I’m going to be a Composah." Well, sorry, it helps to know how to; it’s like if you’re going to build buildings and you never knew what a girder was.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
I believe in the old statement by Dvořák that an American art music could be based on using African American materials or Indian materials also.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
I think "We Shall Overcome" is a great classical melody.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
In my music, I try to capture or reflect the tribulations and the occasional triumphs of African Americans in this country.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
Music is supposed to have meaning to me.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
I salute all the band directors of America for their constant looking for new pieces.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
I was reacting to all the black men who are getting shot in the back--16 bullets here, seven bullets there
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
I love grand opera, though I never had a chance to write an evening’s length opera. I’m getting kind of old for that.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
If anything good came out of the pandemic, it's that so many artistic groups have started to rethink their hopes, their plans, and also their whole programming.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
I once called music a service art, and that’s probably because growing up as a chorister, I was performing service. ... You take all that out of listening to music, and no wonder people are gonna stop coming to it.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
[Ed. Note: Although Julia Adolphe’s talk with New Music USA Amplifying Voices composer Jessie Montgomery was recorded eight months ago, in November 2020, it is still an extremely timely conversation which is why we wanted to share it again now on NewMusicBox – FJO]
Composer and Violinist Jessie Montgomery shares how she has shifted her creative process since the pandemic began to cultivate a sense of playful freedom and reconnect with her childhood love of diverse musical styles. We discuss how systemic racism has affected Jessie’s perception of her own musical identity, and her thoughts on her growing role within the classical music community to represent Black women. Jessie offers advice on how to pace oneself while participating in the ongoing process of Anti-Racism work so that we can continue to care for our own health and creative vitality.
I spent my youth playing notes on a page. And if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you did too. This notation, particular for what we think of as Western music, is merely one graphic, albeit specific, representation of musical sound. And some of it is quite pleasingly arranged on the page, with calligraphy and shaped staves. But connections of music to visual art are as old as music notation itself.
Chant was notated with beautiful framing on the pages. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition translates the paintings of Richard Hartmann just as Debussy’s La Mer is a sonic response to Katsushika Hokusai’s Great Wave Off Kanagawa. William Grant Still took as his subject works by Richmond Barthé, Sargent Johnson, and Augusta Savage in his Suite for Violin and Piano. Gian Carlo Menotti broke through his writer’s block when he visited Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi to come up with perennial holiday favorite Amahl and the Night Visitors, and Lady Gaga was likewise inspired by the same artist’s Birth of Venus for her own “Venus.”
These visual connections give the listener a starting point for understanding, which is especially useful in the field of experimental music. What is unidentifiable sonically can trigger a memory or a feeling when it’s attached to a visual. A visual that inspires the composer or improviser is sure to also inspire audiences to a fuller and more moving experience.
The Kentler International Drawing Center is driving this connection home with its now-touring exhibition Music as Image and Metaphor. The Kentler Flatfiles have been accessible to Brooklyn visitors for three decades, and curators planned to bring a selection of the collection to the Bartlett’s Center in Columbus, GA this past year. This would have combined with performances by composer/pianist Michael Kowalski and percussionist/composer Allen Otte via the music department at Columbus State University.
In a dilemma familiar to many last year, by October 2020 it was decided that the plans had to change. But Kowalski and Otte did not completely abandon the concert – they instead created a lasting musical installation, able to reach far more visitors than a single performance, with an opening in January 2021. For 40 pieces from the collection, Kowalski and Otte would create individual short musical responses. 40 new pieces of music, connected to visual works, accessible in the gallery and also online. A setup that allows the visitor to absorb themselves in the aesthetic conversation, or, exist within the infinity mirror of creativity.
Both Kowalski and Otte, as well as curators David Houston and Florence Neal, were happy with the result, and now the exhibition is headed to the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi, MS this month.
Allen Otte is a member of the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame. With the Black Earth and later Percussion Group Cincinnati he has been on the cutting edge of percussion-based chamber music. (Note: the author is a former student of Allen Otte.) Michael Kowalski was a pioneer of computer-based composition, who moved from chamber music to opera when he founded The Postindustrial Players. The two overlapped as students at Oberlin, and have collaborated before. But while being quite like-minded artistically, their approaches could best be described as opposites.
Knowing the likely answer, I asked both men if it was easier to write one 20-minute piece or 20 one-minute pieces.
Otte found the episodic nature delightful. “I could boom, you know, get an idea, make a response and not be responsible for actually much more than than the idea and the response. And in a minute or 90 seconds, it’s gone.” Percussion being an area where less is more in many cases likely made this more intuitive. “If it were twenty one minutes from me, I would have been uncomfortable,” he said. But he had expected Kowalski, who lists “composer” first among his occupations, to keep the game at a high level.
Kowalski agreed that the two are of a different mind, and thinks an attentive listener could take note of different kinds of craftsmanship happening. But that’s part of the fun, “because you don’t get in one person’s groove and stay there. It takes 45 or 50 minutes to actually hear the whole thing. If you just walk through the show and spend a minute on every piece, that’s how long it would take.”
Guests can take a tour through the exhibition, listening to pieces inspired by each piece of art. There is no stated theme, and no planned progression. The locations in Columbia and Biloxi are set up differently, with the images in a different order, so if a story can be extrapolated, it will be different than any other version of the exhibition. This includes an online visit, which can of course be in any order one likes.
In the compositional process, nearly opposite approaches were both successful.
Kowalski outlined specific procedures for himself, almost like a game:
Music as image:
- Provide a soundtrack (as if the image is a film) or
- Use the image as a graphic score
Or music as metaphor:
- If the artist were making music, what would this image sound like? or
- Enter a dialogue with the visual art
Random selection of these approaches created structure – more of a puzzle to solve and less of a blank page. And he applied these four procedures with a simple shuffle of the deck – mostly sticking to whatever process came up, no matter the image.
Otte was more intuitive, keeping a chart of the images he had an immediate reaction to, and curating himself from there: asking “whether I was doing too much of one kind of thing and whether I really ought to find a way to push myself to think about a piece in a different way.”
Both Otte and Kowalski spent time studying with composer Herbert Brün, who was a pioneer of graphic notation, and who is also represented as a visual artist in the Flatfiles. In Otte’s hands, responding to Brün’s piece was unexpectedly his most difficult assignment.
“Herbert’s piece was one of the hardest ones to do and one of the last ones that I came up with,” he said. But also pointed out that throughout the project, difficulty often yielded a better result. This is possibly because some of the pictures presented a challenge, or because the challenge demanded more time be taken, and led to more self-questioning. Of Brün’s work he noted, “Well, actually, that’s the one that’s somewhat strong, that has some substance to it.”
For Kowalski, who is a white man, this challenge came in the form of an image of musicians at New York’s iconic Five Spot by biracial artist Robin Holder. His randomly selected procedure was to create a soundtrack – something that could easily have come across as an appropriation.
Five Spot 2 is one of the more literal images in the entire exhibition, so there was no way to ignore what was in it. “I had to be honest and embrace that. So that was a toughie.” So in this one case, he did break his procedural “rules,” writing what he felt was a more appropriate musical response. He also recruited an ensemble. Once again, having to think a little harder being a good impulse “that just forced me to come up with something else, maybe something better.”
While the ensemble was an enjoyable addition to the project, one standout is fairly minimal, as Otte responds to art by Mary Judge using just an amplified pencil.
The museum’s notes call the music “often surprising, sometimes baffling, always illuminating.” The connection between the 40 works chosen (out of 2000 options) by David Houston and Florence Neal is up to the beholder. The same can be said about the pieces of music.
Otte felt a connection with the works by relating to what he called the performative aspect of an artist–the idea of still engaging an audience while the visual artist’s work remains still. Whereas Kowalski found a kinship with the act of creation – making a picture being analogous to making a sound. Different results, but the mindset implies a similar procedure.
All of which are ideas that can apply to other visuals when they combine with music–especially dance, where both Otte and Kowalski have a great deal of experience.
“I can only say that I’ve been, more often than not, astounded at what dancers are hearing in music and how they experience music and it’s often fascinating,” Otte said. In his experience dancers may give apologies for not “knowing” an appropriate musical term, while their assessment of the piece is generally quite insightful.
Kowalski also noted the complexity of choreography as a visual form: existing in three dimensions and moving. “If you’re sitting beyond about row 12, you’re seeing a great deal of usually very complicated forms, tracing patterns, on a fairly large stage.”
A previous collaboration between the two featured this interaction. Kowalski wrote a piece for the Percussion Group Cincinnati called Rebus, which includes choreography with flag signals. Initially composing a storyboard, once again the visual existed before the sounds. But, that piece was quite concrete – something Kowalski has always found essential working with dancers.
“Unlike musicians, dancers don’t notate, usually they don’t go into a rehearsal with a bunch of things in their head already,” he pointed out. “They work it out. It’s a very different way of working from most musicians that I know.”
There is no one right way to do a project like this. But like any collaboration, trust must be involved. If the creators are open and welcoming to each other’s vision, then brilliant combinations are possible. If we were to call the visual and the musical participants “sides” of the equation – the sides have to balance, and be somewhat open to the other’s contributions. Kowalski describes this as a tension, much like a conversation. But to be successful, each factor, visual and musical alike, must point to the other.
“Some people dig it more visual, and then they get into the music and the other people the other way around, and I just think that’s ideal,” he explained. “I’m very happy about that.”
Despite their different approaches, both musicians planned and charted and graphed to create each of these responses. Otte describes the planning as a math problem. “The calculations that went into that final one minute; that final 60 seconds repeated for each of us 20 times in one way or another.” But also occasionally the minute of music came quickly and easily. “The ones which just came in in some burst of fun, we stuck with a few of those.”
Otte and Kowalski will be live at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum for a talk and performance of even three more premieres. Forms of falling dust is a work for prepared yang-qin by Rachel C. Walker, a former student of Otte. Another collaboration between Otte and Kowalski called How To Compose Yourself involves a fairly frenzied piano part with percussive commentary. And the concert includes a new iteration of Begin Again, a work by Kowalski whose material stretches from the year 1597 to 1977 and now to 2021. In Begin Again a treatise by Thomas Morley was interpreted on an IBM computer by Ed Miller. A 1977 rendition included the voice of soprano Marlene Rosen, and this version it will include today’s additions from Otte and Kowalski.
The act of drawing on decades of material is part of what makes the project feel so substantial. Music originally created on an IBM the size of a linen closet, being watched and heard on a phone that fits in my hand, still feels fresh and new in this context. And while these pieces of music once again come to life thanks to fresh realizations, they also have renewed meaning thanks to the pairing with another artist’s visual material.
The clichés about art and music would tell us that the two aesthetic forms are bound to go together. I leaned into one of these, by Jean-Michel Basquiat, in my conversation with Otte and Kowalski.
“Art is how we decorate space. Music is how we decorate time.”
“Decoration,” said Otte. “That’s a loaded word.” Kowalski objected as well.
But at the surface level he immediately conceded that music could be “delightful if it is in fact decorative and entertaining.” And Kowalski identified “entertaining” as a secret word.
“That’s the word that overlaps: ‘decoration,’” Kowalski said. “Decoration is congenial and attractive and so is entertainment when it’s any good, I think. And so I would use the word ‘shape’ instead of ‘decorate.’”
So Basquiat is possibly correct, depending on what the music has to say. Whether or not you can welcome the word “decorate” for a serious piece of music is up to you, just as whether or not a piece of art “shapes” your space. And the fact that we’ve returned to these kinds of philosophical artistic conversations is another sign that we’re emerging from the harshest closure in the history of music with our thoughtfulness intact.
As a pandemic-pivot, this project was enormously successful in that some music-making happened at all. While the music world navigates a bumpy road to a new normalcy, this project is quite possibly a model. Not just of the value of interdisciplinary connections, but also one of flexibility and access.
Music as Image and Metaphor has visual and aural elements that are complete statements on their own. It can be experienced at an individual level, at one’s own pace. And it’s available in varying degrees of in-person participation, including online. And geographically, it has been available to viewers in the southeastern USA. While the Kentler Flatfiles reside in Brooklyn, they have been available in this form to viewers in Georgia and Mississippi. Modeling and sparking conversations – musical dialogues – that allow us to grow our audience, our depth as artists, and our own creativity.
40 Flatfiles down, 1,960 to go.
This exhibition of the Kentler Flatfiles includes pieces by the following visual artists: Herbert Brün, Beth Caspar, Phillip Chen, Abby Goldstein, Takuji Hamanaka, Keiko Hara, robin holder, Richard Howe, Hannah Israel, Mary Judge, Kazuhiro Nishijima, Ralph Kiggell, Rosalinda Kolb, Jiří Kornatovský, Robert Lansden, Simon Lewandowski, Jim Napierala, Florence Neal, Margaret Neill, Morgan O’Hara, Gahae Park, Jaanika Peerna, Scott Pfaffman, Orlando Richards, Susan Schwalb, Viviane Rombaldi Seppey, Molly Snyder-Fink, and Hugh Williams.