Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen): The Landfill of Meaning

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Beyoncé’s latest album Renaissance made international headlines last week when Australian disability advocate Hannah Diviney called out one of the album’s songs, “Heated,” for using an ableist slur in the lyrics and Beyoncé subsequently agreed to re-record the song without that word and replace the track. Earlier this summer, the electronic music community was up in arms when an advance promotional video for that album made for British Vogue showed the pop icon scratching an LP with her fingernails. It turns out that it is a performance technique created by San Francisco-based experimental artist Victoria Shen, who performs under the moniker Evicshen, and she was not credited. But soon after the outcry, the appropriation was acknowledged and Shen was offered an apology. Both of these stories show that even if Beyoncé’s creative team is not always completely careful choosing all the details, they are paying very close attention to how people are reacting to her work on social media. And in Shen’s case, it actually gave her a new level of notoriety.

Victoria Shen's needle nails

Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen) and her needle nails. (Photo by Caroline Rose Moore, courtesy Victoria Shen.)

“The fact that my work was able to reach a much broader audience than I would have been ever able to have, even if it wasn’t credited at first, I think, is kind of amazing,” Shen said when I spoke with her over Zoom a few weeks ago during her residency at Wave Farm. She also pointed out that the concept, while visually startling and aurally fascinating, is perhaps not the most radical idea. “It’s just kind of like a natural thing. I also used to do nails, so this is a kind of thing where you think somebody would have done this already. It’s sort of low hanging fruit. But of course it takes both someone who used to do nails professionally and does electronics that had to make the bridge.”

As I would soon learn upon digging deeper into Shen’s creative output after she was first mentioned to me by my New Music USA colleague Ami Dang, who also creates electronic music and is a huge fan of Shen’s work, the needle nails technique is just one of many new approaches to making sounds that Shen has used in her performances and sound installations. After hearing and watching a segment of her extraordinary Zero Player Piano, in which disembodied piano strings and hammers are positioned along an ascending staircase and triggered remotely, I knew I had to talk with her.

“That was the gateway into more physical, electro-acoustic things I’m interested in now,” Shen explained. “To me, it was definitely a Modernist strategy … Something that’s self-reflexive. Something that is medium-specific. Like: what is a piano? How far can you push it to its logical conclusion while still maintaining we’re still arguing that it is within the medium of piano?”

Although some of her work can sound quite austere at times, Shen is ultimately suspicious of Modernist aesthetics. “I do like the Modernist kind of mission,” she admits, “but I know that it ultimately fails because all value divides contextually, arbitrarily. It could go in one eye and go out another, or it could be worth something based on some arbitrary factor which is like some institution assigns value to it. Or some kind of cultural capital gets ascribed to it. That’s bullshit. And we all know that, so how can we use things that are hyper, or super full of meaning, I call it the landfill of meaning. I use that in some recognized tactical way. I think I try and create this interface between non-meaning, that which is noise, and that which is over filled with meaning, and then take that interface, that line, and mine that for different conclusions as to how we derive our sense of value.”

Shen is also ambivalent about whether or not she is a composer, even though all the sounds she makes are completely her own, often including all the devices she uses to make them.

“I’m not a composer, I think mainly due to the fact that I don’t work with other people. I think composers really shine when they’re able to provide a set of instructions for other people to execute their work. … I think I’m much more of an improviser than a composer. I think part of composition, at least traditionally, is all about having a pre-packaged work being shipped out and executed, realized anywhere. And so for that, you want to control expression of your piece. You want to control the space in which it takes place. And it’s all about control, control, control. To me, it’s sort of the McDonald’s of sound.”

As for Beyoncé, Shen remains a fan though she doesn’t imagine that the two of them will ever collaborate.

I really doubt that she even knows I exist. I think her PR person knows I exist, but that’s as high as it goes. … I would just love to play at her mansion, to play a pool party or something with needle nails, it would be great.

Victoria Shen carefully scratching a home made record with audio playback styluses affixed to her fingernails during a performance.

Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen) during a performance on February 23, 2022. (Photo by Matt Miramontes, courtesy Victoria Shen.)

  • I just like being able to put in different sounds together at the same time. So Chinese opera, ltalian opera, swing music.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I’m a very technical person, but everything I do is by feel and not by the interest in pure math or manipulation in numbers or anything like that.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • My identity is something that is completely inescapable. I do like the Modernist kind of mission, but I know that it ultimately fails because all value divides contextually, arbitrarily. It could go in one eye and go out another, or it could be worth something based on some arbitrary factor which is like some institution assigns value to it. Or some kind of cultural capital gets ascribed to it. That’s bullshit. And we all know that.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I think I try and create this interface between non-meaning, that which is noise, and that which is over filled with meaning, and then take that interface, that line, and mine that for different conclusions as to how we derive our sense of value.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • The rules of music are also arbitrary. So anything that exists outside of these rules is considered experimental or noise. But that’s the freeing thing; there are no rules here.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • In anything that I’ve released on vinyl, on tape, on Bandcamp, digital, I think I’m playing the role of composer with those pieces. But otherwise, I’m not a composer, I think mainly due to the fact that I don’t work with other people.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • Part of composition, at least traditionally, is all about having a pre-packaged work being shipped out and executed, realized anywhere. And so for that, you want to control expression of your piece. You want to control the space in which it takes place. And it’s all about control, control, control. To me, it’s sort of the McDonald’s of sound.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I always loved experimental music. I was listening to a lot of noise rock and IDM and even psych-folk stuff in high school. But harsh noise was something that was cracked open for me by Jessica Rylan.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I like to dance a lot. I don’t necessarily consider what I do in my performances as dance, but it could be considered movement.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • For me there has to be some kind of grounded-ness, some kind of gold standard. And the gold standard I think for us is always going to be the human body.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • This is why I think improvisation is so good. It’s because you’re risking it all. With composition you can feel really safe because you have an expectation and that expectation is met. If it’s not met, if it’s underwhelming, then oh well who cares, right? But risk and the position of possible failure I think is very important. ... Failure happens all the time! I’m like, oh I have an idea, it’s spur of the moment improvisation. Let me try this out. Uh, will it fail? Sometimes. Is it embarrassing? Maybe. Move on. You know, but I think that is a point that is compelling for people.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I did not grow up with records. My earliest memory is listening to Peking Opera on a cassette tape with my mom and we were splitting the ear buds. I wasn’t around records. I had some records, but never really messed with them.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I would just love to play at her [Beyoncé's] mansion, to play a pool party or something with needle nails, it would be great.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)

Empowering Teenagers to Compose: A Guide for Educators

A pen and a notebook with handwritten notes, a CD and a smartphone with a display of a video of music performance overlayed with the New Music Toolbox logo

Although K-12 music standards call for students to develop skills in composition, I often hear educators express that they feel ill-equipped to support their students in this endeavor. Many music teachers do not get trained on how to facilitate composition projects in the classroom, and their own experience with composing can be quite limited if their studies placed an emphasis on performance. As a result, instead of giving students the confidence to express themselves through their own works, many composition projects can turn out to be theory assessments in disguise.

Though these assignments can serve a purpose, they often do little to develop a young musician’s creativity, and at times, they can even stifle students’ artistry by implying that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to compose. Instead, students need activities that empower them to make their own artistic choices and explore music creation at any stage of their development. This is especially crucial in music programs where many students’ only access to formal music instruction is in the classroom, where their studies are typically not as individualized as they would be in a private lesson setting.

This article is a collection of actionable tips primarily from my own experience as a composer-educator and founder of the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop. These strategies can be adapted to group or private lesson settings and don’t require that educators have extensive background in composition. Though these approaches are geared towards middle and high school students, many of these tips can be adapted to create lessons for students of different age groups.

  • Instead of giving students the confidence to express themselves through their own works, many composition projects can turn out to be theory assessments in disguise.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • Students need activities that empower them to make their own artistic choices and explore music creation at any stage of their development.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • Just as there are no right or wrong notes in a composition, there is no right or wrong way to compose a piece.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • I encourage students to improvise their ideas on their instrument while they record themselves on their devices. Then, I guide them in transcribing their improvisations to the best of their abilities. For students who have a limited fluency in written notation, this approach can be modified by using graphic or text-based notation, focusing on transcribing elements such as pitch or rhythm alone, or omitting the notation aspect altogether and allowing the student to memorize, perform, and even record finished versions their work.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • If students feel insecure about their ability to make creative decisions, this paralyzing mindset can be carried well into adulthood.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • All students need an environment where they are taken seriously and their creative ideas are not dismissed as being too weird, too simple, or too ridiculous, to name a few.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • Tasks such as recruiting performers, designing art for a concert program, or creating posters to advertise a performance are great ways to empower students to make creative choices and make their vision become a reality – skills that are vital for the career of any artist in today's world.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer

Cultivate a practice of observation and discussion.

Eric Booth, in his book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible, advises that we need to guide students in practicing observation before defaulting to interpretation or judgment – a discipline that we also need to cultivate in our own practice.1 This approach enables students to learn a great deal from the music that they listen to, yet it also gives them an ability to ask insightful questions of themselves while they are in the process of realizing their own ideas.

If a student listens to a new piece and responds with “This piece makes me feel as if I am watching a cartoon,” giving a follow up question such as “What about the music reminds you of watching a cartoon?” can help them to return their focus to aspects such as the instrumentation or texture of the piece.

When we model questions that focus on observation, this empowers students to practice asking themselves more insightful questions during the composition process. For instance, a student who is dissatisfied with how their melody resolves can ask themselves, “What about this melody makes it sound incomplete?” However, if they immediately judge the melody as something that is “no good,” they will likely abandon their original ideas, and the opportunity to learn from their experiences will be missed.

Even if the student ultimately decides to scrap their composition and start over, taking a moment to pause and observe what they have created so far can give them the insight needed to accomplish what they set out to write the next time around.

Focus on one element of music at a time.

In the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop, one of our topics during the first week of classes is a lesson on the elements of music. When we give students the vocabulary to talk about elements such as rhythm, pitch, and texture, they become better equipped to make observations about the music that they are listening to. That way, they are less dependent on interpretations and judgment.

Even if students are having trouble finding the right terminology to use in the midst of a discussion, it can be helpful to invite them to describe what they are observing to the best of their abilities without having to utilize the proper musical term right away. The vocabulary can always be taught later, and the students’ findings can be great ways to open up conversations around new terminology.

Aside from listening exercises, composition projects that focus on a singular element of music are great for narrowing the scope of a lesson while allowing plenty of room for creativity. For example, I’ve often used the Sonic Scavenger Hunt by composer-educator Danny Clay as a starting point for students to explore the concept of timbre.

Experiment with many approaches to composition.

When students can try their hand at a variety of approaches to composing, they will eventually choose a writing process that is most inspiring to them. Just as there are no right or wrong notes in a composition, there is no right or wrong way to compose a piece. They may even decide to change their approach based on the result that they are trying to accomplish in a given project.

Though a new approach may be uncomfortable at first, sometimes, students can actually be inspired in unexpected ways. I’ve taught workshops where students work together to compose chance music; however, I always tell them that even if they set up a system for choosing the notes, they are always free to break their own rules and edit the piece if they are dissatisfied with the result.

After using a die, a coin, or a picker wheel to determine certain elements of a piece, often, they will become quite opinionated about which notes to change and why they are changing them–another great opportunity for conversation.

Bringing in guest composers to teach a class (either in-person or virtually) or finding videos of composers talking about their creative process can motivate students to try something new. Though some students may initially feel that processes such as rolling a die or turning their name into musical notes are not legitimate ways to write music, when they discover that there are many established composers who have created masterpieces with similar strategies, they will feel validated in their own creative process.

Many of the reasons for introducing a variety of approaches to composition also apply to experimenting with different styles of notation. Another great aspect of Danny Clay’s Sonic Scavenger Hunt is that it is a great example of a graphic score – a concept that is fit for beginners and more experienced students alike.

Students can also explore projects that don’t require any notation, such as composing a fixed media piece in a program like Audacity. Young composers tend to fixate on pitches and rhythms, but these alternatives to traditional notation can be useful exercises in developing elements such as timbre, texture, and dynamics when students might not have focused on them before.

Use technology to your advantage…

Even simpler apps, such as voice notes or a video camera that’s included with a mobile device, can be useful tools for composing. When I teach composition, I often encourage students to record their ideas as they go. That way, they don’t have to worry about forgetting concepts that they are experimenting with – a strategy that I often use in my own work before I begin to notate my ideas. Documenting the composition process can also enable students to better reflect on their experiences since it will be easier to see how the piece evolves over time.

Aside from being a way to introduce students to other artists and composers, watching and discussing videos of performances, interviews, and demonstrations can be a great way for students to witness how sounds can be created in innovative ways. For instance this performance of Zaka by Jennifer Higdon has been a great conversation starter amongst my students since it demonstrates the concept of extended techniques. Additionally, this profile of Angélica Negrón has piqued my students’ curiosity about electronic music and found sounds.

…but be mindful of where technology has its limits. 

At times, introducing certain technology too early in our students’ development can encourage them to “color inside the lines” in unintended ways. I have often seen this happen to students who begin to use notation software long before they have started to get comfortable demonstrating their ideas on an instrument or writing sketches by hand, however imperfect these methods may be at first.

In a lot of notation software, such as Noteflight, MuseScore, or Sibelius, to name a few, users are asked to specify parameters such as the meter and key signature before they begin to enter the piece itself. Changing these options later on can become a barrier if students aren’t aware of how to work around these limitations or if they are not aware that their tools are imposing such limitations in the first place. This often results in melodies and rhythms that sound too “square” and pieces that can become too redundant.

One way that I counteract this is by encouraging students to improvise their ideas on their instrument while they record themselves on their devices. Then, I guide them in transcribing their improvisations to the best of their abilities.

For students who have a limited fluency in written notation, this approach can be modified by using graphic or text-based notation, focusing on transcribing elements such as pitch or rhythm alone, or omitting the notation aspect altogether and allowing the student to memorize, perform, and even record finished versions their work.

Some verbal and graphic notes for a musical composition that can be used instead of music notation

Save the theory assessments for another time.

When composition projects are primarily intended to examine whether your students can write an eight-bar melody in D Major, for example, they are much more likely to become fixated on whether they are choosing the “right” notes and pleasing their teacher. Instead, opt for open-ended projects that enable students to explore and define their musical tastes.

Students who feel empowered to envision and realize their own ideas will gain a sense of confidence that can be applied to any profession whether they choose to continue in their musical development or move on to other endeavors. On the other hand, if they feel insecure about their ability to make creative decisions, this paralyzing mindset can be carried well into adulthood.

Alice Kanack, the pioneer of Creative Ability Development, has a very helpful formula to refer to when structuring creative exercises for students:

Freedom of choice or Freedom from criticism + Disciplined practice and repetition of making choices = Creative Ability2

Whether I am teaching composition in my own studio or I am visiting another teacher’s class to do a workshop, I’ve found it much more empowering to encourage students to express their intentions and their artistic vision so that we can explore how they might accomplish what they intended. This is another reason why lessons that incorporate plenty of time for discussion and reflection are so important.

Embrace imperfection.

As educators, we can enable students to take creative risks and break free of a fixation on choosing “right” versus “wrong” notes by creating multiple opportunities for them to share works-in-progress. Often, I will set a short timer (e.g. 5-10 minutes) for students to respond to a prompt that is very narrow in scope. Then, they will have an opportunity to share what they came up with and express their intentions for their work as they go forward.

Even though there will often be at least one student who is too shy to share their unfinished works, I’ve found that simply inviting them to reflect on what the experience of composing was like can gain their trust. More often than not, they ultimately decide to present the music itself.

That being said, it is crucial to create a safe space for them to be vulnerable in this way, especially if they are in a group setting with their peers. All students need an environment where they are taken seriously and their creative ideas are not dismissed as being too weird, too simple, or too ridiculous, to name a few. This goes for all parties involved — their peers, their teachers, and even parents or guardians who are supporting them in their studies.3

Because of this, modeling what it’s like to embrace imperfection can be a powerful tool. When I give students an opportunity to work independently during class, I will often use the time to compose ideas for the same prompt and demonstrate what it’s like to share my own imperfect, unfinished work. This includes verbalizing my thoughts on how I feel about the creation at the moment. Whether I am excited about moving forward with my ideas or I feel ambivalent and want to scrap them, I make a habit of sharing these reflections with my students so that they can feel safe to do so as well.

Connect lessons to real-world experiences.

Introducing our students to living composers, whether it is via a live workshop or through pre-recorded media, can illustrate the many ways in which a career in music can take shape.

This can easily become a starting point for activities that give students a taste of what the music profession can be like. For instance, prompts such as writing a short solo for a classmate to perform can give students a glimpse into the process of writing a commission.

As part of the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop, Samantha Hogan, has visited our class to share excerpts from her concert works as well as selections that she wrote for games and film. After her presentation, she facilitated a lesson in which the students created music to portray characters from I Wish I Were A Butterfly, a children’s book by James Howe. This kind of activity is a great way to introduce students to the idea of telling stories with music.

Aside from empowering students to make creative choices in the music itself, encouraging students to assist in the production of their work can give them confidence to initiate their own projects later on. Tasks such as recruiting performers, designing art for a concert program, or creating posters to advertise a performance are great ways to empower students to make creative choices and make their vision become a reality – skills that are vital for the career of any artist in today’s world.

One of Sakari's online composition lessons.

Conclusion

As you begin to apply these practices, my hope is that you will feel more confident to share the art of music composition with your students, even if you have little formal training in composition or you do not identify as a composer. Though an emphasis on observation and experimentation will take much more time than prompting students to “color inside the lines,” approaching the study of composition in this manner will offer more enriching opportunities for us to learn alongside our students, inviting them to take risks and explore new territories in their creative practice.

Sources

  1. Eric Booth, The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible: Becoming a Virtuoso Educator (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 33.
  2. Alice Kay Kanack, Fun Improvisation for Violin: The Philosophy and Method of Creative Ability Development (USA: Summy-Birchard Music, 1996), 15.
  3. Kanack, 20.

 

20 Predictions for the Music Business in 10 Years

Ted Gioia photo in Out of The Box banner

The ideas below came to me in a dream. Some of them seem a little unusual—I should probably apologize for that. I had a couple glasses of a very fine Barolo from the Monforte region of northern Italy before falling asleep, so maybe that played a factor. But I’m determined to share what I heard exactly as it was told to me in my sleep.

Ten years from now. . .

1. A major Silicon Valley company will announce that it has created the ‘next Beethoven’ with quantum computing technology.

2. A legitimate musical counterculture will arise, with a cadre of new artists achieving superstar status while rejecting the roles of influencer and content provider. The motto “music comes first” will be a key part of their marketing message. The movement will have a name, but that word doesn’t exist yet.

3. YouTube fans will fondly recall the days when they only had to sit through two short commercials before watching a music video.

4. Web platforms will have destroyed record labels—which will no longer play a meaningful role in building the careers of new artists.

5. A reality TV show will launch a very popular song competition. But only children under the age of 8 will be allowed to vote. The success of the show will create a popular new genre known as TDM (Toddler Dance Music). It will even get its own Grammy category.

6. Musicians will find ways to capture 80-90% of the revenue from their music. This is already happening at Bandcamp, but the trend will spread rapidly. A whole host of other platforms will emerge that give most of the money to the artist and only keep a small percentage for themselves.

7. AI-driven Robots will increasingly replace DJs at dance clubs. Club owners will insist that the algorithm is better at pleasing customers than a human being.

8. The President of the United States will launch a curated playlist on a major music platform. At first music industry insiders will ridicule it, but change their tune after 40 million people sign up as subscribers. All proceeds will go to support animal rights organizations.

9. A song composed entirely by artificial intelligence will reach the number one spot on the Billboard chart. The music video (also AI-created) will be a major contributor to its success.

10. Trombone sales will skyrocket after the instrument is implicated in a high-profile celebrity scandal.

11. Before a hot new album by a major star is released, each track will be auctioned off as a separate non-fungible token. A prominent hedge fund manager who is famous for his large portfolio of music NFTs will become personal financial advisor to many leading rappers and pop stars. His nickname on Wall Street will be DJ Blockchain.

12. Individuals who can identify rising talent will set up their web channels, and fill the role once played by the A&R department at a record label. But there’s one big difference: they can do everything themselves without a huge corporation behind them. If these talent scouts have a web channel with a few million subscribers, they will have more clout than Sony (which, by the way, currently has a pathetic 40 thousand subscribers to its YouTube channel) or most other labels. They can sign artists, showcase them online, and build their audience—acting as sole operators, but with the influence of a big business.

13. A hit song by a K-Pop band will still be in the top 40 after four years.

14. Streamed music events will generate more income than live concerts.

15. The only child of the CEO of Google/Alphabet will date a musician with no discernible talent, but who now suddenly shows up everywhere on search engine results and even wins a prominent music industry award.

16. Spotify threatens to delist every track that doesn’t get at least one thousand streams per year, unless the artist pays a stiff annual fee.

17. Record labels won’t disappear, but will live mostly off the income from their publishing catalogs (which they are in a mad frenzy to acquire right now) and the old music in their archives. They will start to fear impending copyright expirations that threaten much of their cash flow, and try (unsuccessfully) to get legislators to extend IP protection for music.

18. The most discussed movie soundtrack of the year will feature complete silence—except for 12 seconds of music at a dramatic point in the story.

19. New music industry power players will emerge in Asia and other non English-speaking regions. New York, London, and Los Angeles will still be centers of activity, but hardly as dominant as they once were. The savvier music companies will be in a mad scramble to expand their presence in Seoul, Kinshasa, Jakarta, etc.

20. The TV audience for the Grammy Awards will fall to a new low. Instead, the music event with the highest TV ratings that year will be a live broadcast of the 90th birthday concert of a famous rock/pop star.

Joy Guidry: Transforming Trauma through the Creative Process

Joy Guidry

Composer/Bassoonist Joy Guidry shares how they protect their own mental health while exploring personally traumatic content in their art. We discuss their critically acclaimed debut album, Radical Acceptance (2022), which traces Joy’s personal experiences of Bipolar Disorder and PTSD. Joy differentiates between the harmful nature of forcing oneself to relive a traumatic personal memory in order to create art, and the act of reclaiming and transforming one’s experience through communal storytelling. Lastly, Joy shares what they wish others knew about Bipolar Disorder and how musical institutions can be more ADA compliant and accessible.

Raven Chacon: Fluidity of Sound

Banner for the Raven Chacon episode of SoundLives featuring a photo of Raven writing music on a piece of score paper.

Raven Chacon in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded Wednesday, June 8, 2022 at 10:30 A.M. over Zoom
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

When Raven Chacon was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in April for his composition Voiceless Mass, quite a lot of attention was given to the fact that he was the first Native American ever to receive this accolade. He is also perhaps the most experimental composer to get the nod, and that is true even considering that previous honorees include Henry Brant and Ornette Coleman. But while his idiosyncratic graphic scores are stunningly original in their conception and have been recognized as works of visual art in their own right (several are in this year’s Whitney Biennial), they have a larger social purpose.

“I think a lot about people who didn’t have the privilege to come up in an academic music setting or western music education,” explained Chacon when we spoke over Zoom earlier this month. “I think about the students I teach on the reservation and their lack of access to classical music, or western music education. Even having an instrument is a privilege for students out there. And so a lot works that I’ve made, especially these graphic scores, they’re done because they want to include more people. They aren’t these kind of esoteric languages that are hidden from everybody and they’re also not open interpretation kind of documents either. They have a language that is shared with people who want to contribute to their meaning, to add to the possibilities.”

The ideas that generate Chacon’s often highly experimental sound results are charged stories with deep implications about ecological concerns or social justice, such as Tremble Staves, an immersive work about the environment created for the San Francisco-based duo The Living Earth Show, or American Ledger No. 2, a visceral aural as well as visual response to this nation’s shameful history of enforced repatriations which received its world premiere in the parking lot of the Oklahoma Eagle in the Greenwood District of Tulsa.

“It’s thinking about this space that is existing in a city where there’s folks who don’t have privileges and resources,” Chacon said of the latter work. “Also talking about the policy of forcing native peoples from other tribes into Oklahoma. Once these minoritized communities become successful, such as the black community of Tulsa in the early 20th century, they were then driven out. Were forced out. And so sonically, I was interested in seeing what this system does. Does it create chaos? Does it create organization? Does it create a steady beat? Does it create voice? What happens inside of this?”

To hear Chacon speak of sonic experimentation this way makes his often intentionally inaccessible-sounding music extremely accessible. His occasionally jarring sonorities are always a means to an end. It isn’t always something that even he himself finds pleasant to listen to as he acknowledged when talking about his wind band composition American Ledger No. 1:

I can’t say that I particularly like the sound of the chopping of wood. I was thinking about this as an instrument and realizing I didn’t think it was a good way to make music. And I had to work with that. I had to think if I’m just making music that should be something that I like to listen to. And even if it’s a sound that nobody likes to hear, I wanted to weigh the meaning of what it could mean. And so in the case of American Ledger 1, the chopping of wood signifies the building of ships. It signifies the building of the colonies that happened in the place after the ships arrived. And it has the potential to talk about then cutting down those buildings–chopping them down with an axe, lighting them on fire. A matchstick is another instrument I use in American Ledger 2 and in Tremble Staves. And I do like the sound of a match being lit. That, on the strike pad, is a beautiful sound.

One of the most extreme examples of this is his early composition Report in which an ensemble of eight people fire shotguns according to a precisely notated musical score. His feelings about that work now and around whether to let future performances of it occur in an era when mass shootings occur somewhere in the United States every week, are understandably extremely complicated.

Because societal awareness is so central to Raven Chacon’s aesthetics as an artist, he has proven to be a natural collaborator, often placing himself in situations where few composers would feel comfortable. For the opera Sweet Land, which was produced by The Industry just before the pandemic lockdown began in 2020, he immersed himself in a total collaboration with another composer, Du Yun, both contributing their own music as well as harmonizing, orchestrating, and further developing ideas of each other. His collaborative sensibilities were on display most recently in the score he composed for Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli’s documentary film, Lakota Nation vs. United States, which just received its premiere screening at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

“I appreciated not being in the foreground for anything,” Chacon said. “I appreciated being able to reach into archives of things that I have that didn’t fit my normal music. You know, like Baroque fugue or something, why couldn’t that end up in the documentary about the Lakota nation, you know? Because we’re contrasting different times of American history. And sometimes the placement of just music you don’t expect is going to add to telling that story of that conflict. What we’re talking about throughout this documentary is conflict, encroachment. … That was how I approached it because again the last thing I wanted to do was bring new age, reverbed wooden flutes to this score. That’s what’s expected. And so the producers and directors had known my music, and that’s what they wanted. They wanted noise. They wanted the things that one does not associate with native people. Because to do so, might place them in the past. And we’re talking about an ongoing disrespect of Lakota treaties and people that something had to bring it at least into now and into what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

  • As composers, it’s very hard to say what you want to say with instrumental music. You can make the title say what you want to say. You can write program notes all day about it. But ultimately, what does the music have an opportunity to actually convey?

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • In all honesty, I kind of accidentally found myself in that art side of things. I’ve always considered myself a composer first. It’s just that I found opportunities and maybe different attention from that world. And it did come about by way of scores. Some of the graphic notation that I was working with were things that people wanted to exhibit. And I kept telling them it’s just the document to make the music happen.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • Every music you listen to, probably everything you’ve ever listened to, will end up in the music you make. ... If you live near a highway in a city, that might influence a kind of music to be made. If you live near a highway in a very rural place, that might end up as another kind of music. And so I think that second one is the kind of music that I end up making.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • often get asked okay, am I supposed to hear native music in here? You know, a particular tribe’s melodies or rhythms, and I say no. I don’t do that. I don’t have to do that actually, if that’s a connection that a listener makes because of all the tropes they’ve heard throughout popular culture, then that becomes their thing that I get to play with. But it’s not something I’m going to intentionally put into a music work.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • The interesting thing about ruins is unless you’re some kind of expert, an archeologist or something, you might not be able to tell how old the ruins are.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I’m not a person who tries to write difficult music to stump people. I’m not a new complexity type of person.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I think a lot about people who didn’t have the privilege to come up in an academic music setting or western music education. I think about the students I teach on the reservation and their lack of access to classical music, or western music education. Even having an instrument is a privilege for students out there. And so a lot works that I’ve made, especially these graphic scores, they’re done because they want to include more people. They aren’t these kind of esoteric languages that are hidden from everybody and they’re also not open interpretation kind of documents either. They have a language that is shared with people who want to contribute to their meaning, to add to the possibilities.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I can’t say that I particularly like the sound of the chopping of wood. I was thinking about this as an instrument and realizing I didn’t think it was a good way to make music. And I had to work with that. I had to think if I’m just making music that should be something that I like to listen to. And even if it’s a sound that nobody likes to hear, I wanted to weigh the meaning of what it could mean.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I do like the sound of a match being lit. That, on the strike pad, is a beautiful sound.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • If anything is possible, then I should write a piece of music that is going to have limitations on myself. No pitch. No timbral changes. No volume. I can’t control the volume. And maybe no tuning, no harmony. Nothing. No time. Of course, I found you can’t escape time. But everything else I felt I could. What kind of instrument can I find that could eliminate all of these possibilities and choices? And so I was thinking, okay a snare drum. But no, you could play a snare drum very quietly. There’s still a lot you can do with a snare drum. And so I thought, okay guns. You know, being in New Mexico, it’s something we would actually go do on the weekends: go practice shooting. And it’s ten minutes to drive out to the desert and nobody cares what you do. I have relatives who hunt. Friends who hunt. It’s a way of life in rural places.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • Sometimes the placement of just music you don’t expect is going to add to telling that story of that conflict.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon

2022 ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Awards Announced

ASCAP Foundation Logo with Morton Gould Awards header

The ASCAP Foundation has announced the 23 recipients of its 2022 Morton Gould Young Composer Awards as well as 15 additional composers who received honorable mentions. The awards, which encourage talented young creators of concert music ranging in age from 13 to 30, are selected through a juried national competition. These composers may be American citizens, permanent residents or students possessing U.S. student visas. The 38 compositions of the composers recognized in 2022 were among the more than 500 scores that were seen by this year’s judges (who are all ASCAP-member composers): Svjetlana Bukvich, Daniel Felsenfeld, Yotam Haber, Felipe Lara, Fang Man, Jessica Mays, Shawn Okpebholo, and Jorge Sosa.

Below is a complete alphabetical list of the 2022 Morton Gould Young Composer Award recipients and their award-winning works (with links to audio recordings of them and additional information where available):

Benjamin Thoreau Baker (b. 1998 in Pleasant Plain, OH; currently based in Kansas City, MO): Primordial (2019) for saxophone and live electronics [ca. 9′];

Alex Berko (b. 1995 in Cleveland, OH; currently based in Houston, TX): Oh Me! Oh Life! (2021) for unaccompanied chorus [ca. 11′];

Paul Berlinsky (b. 1994 in Miami Beach, FL; currently based in Kansas City, MO): Book of Birds (2021) for flute and electronics [ca. 27′];

Anuj Bhutani (b. 1993 in Houston, TX; current based in Austin, TX): On Letting Go (2020-21) for solo cello and live electronics [ca. 16′];

Aiyana Braun (b. 1997 in Ardmore, PA; currently based in Philadelphia, PA): Refractions (2019 rev. 2022) for orchestra [ca. 6′];

Cao Shengnan (b. 1992 in Beijing, China; currently based in Kansas City, MO): Fantasia Nirvana (2021) for full orchestra [ca. 11′];

Bryn Davis (b. 1992 in Richmond, VA; currently based in St. Paul, MN):
☞︎□︎❒︎ ❄︎□︎❍︎ 👍︎◆︎❒︎❒︎⍓︎ (2019) for tuba septet [ca. 10′];

Baldwin Giang (b. 1992 in Malvern, PA; currently based in Chicago, IL): roses (2021) for sinfonietta [ca. 15′];

Soomin Kim (b. 1995 in Uijeongbu, South Korea; currently based in Minneapolis, MN): star / ghost / mouth /sea (2021) for full orchestra [ca. 9′];

Joel Kirk (b. 1996 in Manchester, United Kingdom; currently based in Buffalo, NY): update status, always (2021) for solo violin [ca. 7′];

Cheng Jin Koh (b. 1996 in Singapore; currently based in New York, NY): Luciola singapura (Singapore Firefly) (2021) for sinfonietta with blended yang qin [ca. 6′];

Sam Kohler (b. 1996 in Eugene, OR; currently based in New Orleans, LA): sun-splash color-room (2021) for flute, clarinet, violin, piano, and percussion [ca. 10′];

Daniel Leibovic (b. 1995 in Richmond, VA; currently based in Houston, TX): Padamu Jua (2020) for 16 voices and small gongs [ca. 9′];

Maxwell Lu (b. 2002 in Dayton, MD; currently based in New York, NY): shatter (2021) for full orchestra [ca. 6′];

JP Merz (b. 1992 in Janesville, WI; currently based in Los Angeles, CA): gun, fire (2021) for full orchestra [ca. 15′];

Celka Ojakangas (b. 1992 in Springfield, MO; currently based in Pasadena, CA): Bantam Winds (2021) for oboe, bass clarinet, and French horn [ca. 10′];

Siddharth Pant (b. 2004 in California): Dodecahedron (2021) for string quartet [ca. 5′];

Marco-Adrián Ramos Rodríguez (b. 1995 in Betonville, AR; currently based in New Haven, CT): Five O’Hara Songs (2020) for soprano and piano [ca. 13′];

Lucy Shirley (b. 1997 in Indianapolis, IN; currently based in Kansas City, MO): Stretch Marks (2021) for soprano voice, clarinet, and piano [ca. 7′];

Sage Shurman (b. 2005; based in Los Angeles, CA): what’s left behind (2021) for string orchestra [ca. 9′];

Tian Songfeng (b. Daqing City, Heilongjiang Province, China; currently based in Kansas City, MO): Winter Solstice for string quartet [ca. 6′];

Meilina Tsui (b. 1993 in Almaty, Kazakhstan; currently based in Orlando, FL) Nomadic Trails (2021) for chamber orchestra [ca. 14′];

Casey Weisman (b. California): Beasts of the Seven Seas for full orchestra and instruments from Asia and Africa [ca. 15′].

Baldwin Giang was further recognized by the panel with the 2022 Leo Kaplan Award, created in memory of the distinguished attorney who served as ASCAP Special Distribution Advisor. The award is funded by the Kaplan Family.

Below is a list of the additional composers who received Honorable Mention and their works:

Orkun Akyol (b. 1992 in Istanbul, Türkiye; current based in Davis, CA): uneasy in my easy chair (2021) for oboe, harp, percussion and electronics [ca. 6′];

KiMani Bridges (b. 2002 in Louisville, KY; currently based in Bloomington, IN): Healer (2021) for 2 voices, spoons, and cardboard box [ca. 6′];

Victor Cui (b. 1998 in Beijing, China; currently based in Baltimore, MD): Onyx is the Color during the Silence of Järvenpää for flute and electronics [ca. 10′];

Matthieu Foresi (b. 2005 in Geneva, Switzerland; currently based in Washington): The Monster in the Closet (2019) for full orchestra [ca. 6′];

Aidan Gold (b. 1997 in Seattle, WA; currently based in New York, NY): Ripple the Ocean of Eyes (2022) for full orchestra [ca. 15′];

Camilo Gonzalez-Sol (b. 1999 in Takoma Park, MD; currently based in Austin, TX): Four Brainscapes (2021) for fixed media in stereo [ca. 9′];

Liu Yizhang (b. 1995 in Hunan, China; currently based in Kansas City, MO): Phanstasmal (2021) for string quartet [ca. 5′];

Chuyi Luo (from New York): In The Conversation… for full orchestra [ca. 6′];

Quinn Mason (b. 1996; based in Dallas, TX): Symphony No. 4 ‘Strange Time’ (2019-21) for expanded wind ensemble [ca. 20′];

Jordan Millar (b. 2006; based in New York City): Masquerade (2021) for flute, violin, viola, and classical guitar [ca. 7′];

Chris Neiner (b. 1994 in Burnsville, MN; currently based in Cleveland Heights, OH): Many Universes (2019) for chamber orchestra [ca. 14′];

Luca Pasquini (b. 2004; based in Denver, CO): Where am I in the Sublime? for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion [ca. 7′];

Grant Shueh (from New Jersey): Arrival for string quartet [ca. 6′];

Eunike Tanzil (b. 1998 in Medan, Indonesia; currently based in New York, NY): Veni Vidi Vici (2020) for clarinet and orchestra [ca. 8′];

Isabelle Tseng (from Florida): Ringlorn for violin and cello [ca. 10′].

Established as The ASCAP Foundation Young Composer Awards in 1979 with funding from The ASCAP Foundation Jack and Amy Norworth Fund, the program was dedicated to Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Morton Gould’s memory following his death in 1996 to honor his lifelong commitment to encouraging young creators. A child prodigy himself, Gould’s first composition was published by G. Schirmer when he was only six years of age. Gould served as President of ASCAP and The ASCAP Foundation from 1986 to 1994. Founded in 1975, The ASCAP Foundation is a charitable organization dedicated to supporting American music creators and encouraging their development through music education and talent development programs. Included in these are songwriting workshops, grants, scholarships, awards, recognition and community outreach programs, and public service projects for senior composers and lyricists. The ASCAP Foundation is supported by contributions from ASCAP members and from music lovers around the world.

Photos of all the winners and honorable mentions in the 2022 ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Awards

Frank Ticheli: Overcoming Anxiety & Trusting the Subconscious

Frank Ticheli conducting

Composer Frank Ticheli shares his experience with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which manifested in his 30’s in the form of chronic pain and impeded his ability to compose. We discuss how Frank reframed his relationship to his writing process in order to reconnect with his work, difficulties with medication and therapy, and how cultivating a dialogue with one’s subconscious enriches creativity. Lastly, we discuss Frank’s An American Elegy, commissioned by the Alpha Iota Chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi in memory of the victims of the mass shooting at Columbine High School, and the role that educators can play in caring for and monitoring their students’ mental health during increasingly anxious times.

Different Cities Different Voices – Portland OR

Header for the Portland Oregon edition of Different Cities Different Voices showing an image of the Sky Tram

Different Cities Different Voices is a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators. Discover what is unique about each city’s new music scene through a set of personal essays written by people living and creating there, and hear their music as well as music from local artists selected by each essayist. For our latest edition we are putting the spotlight on Portland, Oregon. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.

  • Portland’s signature "maker mindset” and love of all things handcrafted carries over into the way we approach music.

    Amelia Lukas (photo by Rachel Hadiashar)
    Amelia Lukas
  • Instead of six degrees of separation, there are usually no more than two. That interconnectedness and proximity makes for some strikingly original ensembles, and has presented opportunities for me to interact with urban planners, scientists, political activists, entrepreneurs, winemakers, coffee roasters, chefs, and artisans from many fields.

    Darrel Grant (photo by Thomas Teal)
    Darrell Grant
  • During the summer of 2020, when things seemed to be at their most dire, I purchased a battery-powered amplifier and started hosting jazz concerts in my driveway.

    Kerry Politzer
    Kerry Politzer
  • This feels, and will always feel, at least for me, like the perfect place to compose.

    Jay Derderian
  • The spirit of imaginative resourcefulness that keeps Portland “weird” and alive is exactly the reason the new music scene thrives.

    Monica Ohuchi
    Monica Ohuchi
  • I’ve found people in this community to be genuine and passionate. People like experimentalism and nerdiness here. It's cool to be nice here.

    Alex Arnold a.k.a. !mindparade
    Alex Arnold a.k.a. !mindparade

Amelia Lukas

Amelia Lukas (photo by Rachel Hadiashar)

Amelia Lukas (photo by Rachel Hadiashar)

I relocated to Portland in 2014, hoping to shift the “hustle culture” I had adopted in New York City and create a new framework for myself that emphasized balance and a slower pace. I grew up in Boston and have since lived in London, San Francisco, and New York – all incredibly rich cultural epicenters that I fully enjoyed being a part of – but the magic and beauty of the Pacific Northwest had always beckoned. The access to nature here is incredible (something I highly value), and for a smaller city, Portland is home to a remarkable number of talented artists and musicians.

The spirit of the Pacific Northwest emphasizes innovation and social responsibility. The synchronicities, connections, and integrations that abound in this community, and its strong sense of place and presence, are extremely special. Portland’s signature “maker mindset” and love of all things handcrafted carries over into the way we approach music. Energized by creating something new, both in the music itself and in the models through which we experience it, musicians here tend to program with meaning, intention, and a desire to connect deeply with the community. For example, I’m proud to be a member of Fear No Music, an organization that highlights the music of living composers while leveraging its platforms for healing, activism, and social justice. Also, the brand new Patricia Reser Center for the Arts just offered an impeccably curated grand opening spring season featuring all kinds of new music from around the world, dissolving boundaries and emphasizing inclusivity.

Although Oregon is a state that values the arts, Portland faces some challenges, including a dearth of appropriate venues for intimate multi-media performances. Thankfully, potential barriers only serve to fuel the resourcefulness and creativity of local musicians. As the PR representative for SoundsTruck NW, I’m supporting the launch of an unconventional mobile venue that will bring live concerts and enrichment programming into neighborhoods and institutions, increasing access and connection to the arts with a focus on underserved areas. Chamber Music Northwest also adds fantastic variety to the mix with their [email protected] series, featuring shorter, early evening performances in the lobby of a major theater. These types of creative, modernized concert experiences sustain a vibrant new music scene.

As an artist whose career is split between freelance performance and running Aligned Artistry (the arts PR company I founded in 2018), the pandemic was very difficult. I lost all of my performing overnight, as did the vast majority of my clients. It was devastating and overwhelming; I applied for and received several artist relief grants, including one from New Music USA, which proved to be both financially and emotionally supportive, and for that I’m very grateful. With my performing at a standstill, I focused my energy on Aligned Artistry, working closely with each individual client to assess the best path forward, whether that involved putting agreements on hold, or creating new platforms to share work. At the outset of the pandemic, I felt a strong urge to make productive use of my time, and to try to “figure out” what the new paradigm should be and how to implement it. But a louder inner voice told me it was time to slow down and listen. Only after lots of observation, processing, and reflection did I feel equipped to break through the explosion of digital content, recontextualize my clients’ needs within this new framework, and develop what I hoped would be effective, thoughtful solutions that were also meaningful and sustainable. Through this process, I navigated very successful album releases (one of which received a JUNO Award nomination for Classical Album of the Year, solo artist – go Catherine Lee!!); helped clients secure transformative levels of funding; managed transitions to virtual seasons that resulted in exponential audience growth; and have begun to serve clients nationally and even internationally through Aligned Artistry. I’m passionate about using my knowledge and skills to help clients expand the impact of their work, and by staying the course and trusting in the process even when things became quite scary, I ultimately expanded my own impact and business. It’s my great privilege and joy to experience life as an artist, and I hope that my perspective, dedication, and uniquely aligned artistry adds to this community’s depth and resiliency.

Music Picks

My performance of Carlos Simon’s move it for alto flute

Recommendation: Remote Together by Catherine Lee; music for oboe, oboe d’amore and English horn with electronics, field recordings and fixed media by Canadian and American composers residing in the Pacific Northwest


Darrell Grant

Darrel Grant sitting in front of a grand piano

Darrel Grant (photo by Thomas Teal)

I moved to Portland in 1997 to join the music faculty at Portland State University after ten years as a touring and recording jazz artist based in New York City. Ironically, I was not looking for a career change when I decided to make the move. I was seeking a sense of community and to feel like my work was making an impact. The series of serendipitous events that led to me accepting a tenure-track teaching position in Portland have always made my being here seem a bit predestined, despite my trepidation about saying goodbye to the New York jazz scene. A friend gave me an important piece of advice at the time that I have remembered ever since. “You don’t need to go in search of a scene,” he said. “Wherever you go, YOU are the scene.”

In my twenty-five plus years here, that has meant using music as a means to build connections, explore stories and history, and invest in serving the needs of this community by cultivating a practice of artistic engagement that promotes positive change. I have driven pianos deep into state forests to support the environment, arranged protest anthems, and shared the stage with Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu. I have curated live performances, started a record label (Lair Hill Records), launched jazz venues (The Typhoon Lounge and LV’s Uptown) and created a Jazz institute at Portland State. Being in Portland has also allowed me to shift outside the jazz genre as a composer. My 2012 chamber jazz commission “The Territory” explores the state’s geology and cultural history. A Black history month commission for the 100th anniversary of Portland’s Reed College spawned “Step By Step: The Ruby Bridges Suite,” a concert piece based on the life of the civil-rights icon Ruby Bridges. In 2017, I was commissioned by Portland’s Third Angle New Music to compose “Sanctuaries” a chamber opera exploring the racial and political underpinnings of gentrification and the experience of displaced residents of color in Portland, Oregon’s historically black Albina district.

The music scene here reflects a great deal about the city’s ethos. Portland’s progressive reputation attracts creative people of all stripes to the region. It is a large city that feels like a small town. Instead of six degrees of separation, there are usually no more than two. That interconnectedness and proximity makes for some strikingly original ensembles, and has presented opportunities for me to interact with urban planners, scientists, political activists, entrepreneurs, winemakers, coffee roasters, chefs, and artisans from many fields. Added to this is Portland’s DIY culture, which makes for a fertile environment in which to start and incubate new projects. On the downside, the lack of a substantial philanthropic base can make it hard to scale those projects beyond the startup phase.

Its dubious distinction as the whitest city of its size in America means Portland also has plenty of historical and cultural baggage to address. As a Black artist, I often have to look outside my own locale for artists with whom I share cultural identity. At the same time, I have had opportunities to share my voice at tables where folks are reimagining Portland’s future in terms of public space, policy and funding. These encounters have given rise to projects like The Soul Restoration Project’s Albina Arts Salon, a six-month residency in which I activated a historic space in the heart of Portland’s Black community that transformed a vacant storefront into an ongoing hub of arts and cultural activity. In all I’m grateful for the reception and recognition my work has received here. I was inducted into the Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame in 2009. And was named Portland Jazz Hero by the Jazz Journalists Association in 2019. In 2020, I received the Governor’s Arts Award, Oregon’s highest arts honor.

In many ways Portland is still reeling from the twin pandemics of COVID and racial unrest that started in 2020. Our boarded up downtown still bears the signs of protests that turned our streets into an “anarchist jurisdiction”, and the economic impacts that increased homelessness. The past two years have also brought clarity regarding the critical role the arts have to play in reimagining our cities and healing the traumas we face as communities, as well as deepening my engagement with communities of color and my own role in challenging systemic racism. Even as these efforts have drawn me back to my roots in jazz, I have been fortunate to expand my own circle with creators of color from a number of artforms . I am seeing some organizational transitions from performative acts of inclusion to meaningful equity, and I am interested to see how the city navigates the rechartering of its leadership after the vote this fall.

Music Picks

Here is a link to the title track for my upcoming CD entitled The New Black. This piece is both a retrospective of my early years in New York City, and a statement of identity that celebrates the joy and unfettered possibility of Black artistic expression.

This is a link to a track from the latest CD by Blue Cranes, one of my favorite bands that embodies the ethos of generosity, collaboration and genre-crossing expression that defines Portland to me. From their 2021 album Voices, this piece “Tatehuari” is a collaboration with Mexican-American vocalist/composer Edna Vazquez, with whom I created a 2018 performance project around immigration called “21 Cartas.


Kerry Politzer

Kerry Politzer at the piano

Kerry Politzer

I moved to Portland in 2011 because my husband, George Colligan, accepted a position as Jazz Area Coordinator at Portland State University. Currently, I serve there as an adjunct on the jazz faculty as well as at the University of Portland.

As far as what makes Portland unique, there are a lot of creative, innovative artists here fusing different genres and mediums; I think that’s really exciting. One organization that is tremendously supportive of original music and projects is the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (PJCE), which operates a record label (PJCE Records) and is also associated with the ten-year-old Montavilla Jazz Festival. This local festival features a wide variety and diversity of Portland-based artists. I will be headlining it this year with my quintet, as we are about to release my seventh album, In a Heartbeat (PJCE Records).

The pandemic has been challenging for all of us, of course. Many venues closed, and we really missed social and artistic connections. I had received a grant from Portland State University to host the excellent Brazilian pianist Cassio Vianna for a concert and master class, but everything went virtual. So, I instead enlisted the help of several musicians (including Cassio) to put together a YouTube mini-series about Brazilian piano legends.

During the summer of 2020, when things seemed to be at their most dire, I purchased a battery-powered amplifier and started hosting jazz concerts in my driveway. This turned into The Driveway Jazz Series, which is now in its third year and has received grants from the Regional Arts and Culture Council. The free series is live-streamed and continues to bring the jazz community together, not just in Portland, but around the country. The pandemic really brought home to me how important it is to build community and to share music together.

Music Picks

Here’s a track from my most recent album (not the one that will be released in October):

And here is a recommendation for my endlessly prolific pianist/drummer/trumpeter husband! (I designed the album cover.)


Jay Derderian

Jay Derderian

Jay Derderian

Below my feet are the glistening slabs of concrete leading me towards the waterfront. From my right arrives the compounded smells of 20 different food carts, each offering tastes of their own little worlds. To my left is “Big Pink,” the iconic pink skyscraper so often seen in Portland’s skyline. In front of me about five or six blocks down is the waterfront. If I were to follow the Willamette River along the waterfront towards the north, I could find myself at Saturday Market – a site for local artisans, artists, and food vendors to show off their goods, for folks to mingle, meet, learn, and support these artists – an open-air tapestry of creation. If I were instead to follow the river south, I could eventually find myself passing Salmon Street Fountain and arrive at the Hawthorne Bridge. From there, the entire East Side.

These are paths I’ve walked countless times, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get tired of them. But at the moment I still haven’t moved – instead, I’m looking at the concrete below my feet. There are these little chunks of glass embedded in it. They’re smokey with an airy hue of purple, and offer the faintest hint of what’s below the surface. As it turns out, this smokey glass was the only source of natural light for this section of Portland’s infamous Shanghai Tunnels. Right below my feet are the remnants of Portland’s darker pasts with a present day firebrand of activism that saw 150 nights of protests against the police built on top of it. This feels, and will always feel, at least for me, like the perfect place to compose.

I’ve performed in Portland State’s recital hall, a dance studio, a grocery store, a decommissioned steam boat, the middle of several fields, street corners, a graveyard, a warehouse, living rooms, coffee houses, and many, many other places across this city. I’ve been involved with a local new music organization called Cascadia Composers since 2008. They’ve been absolutely instrumental in getting tons of new music by local composers performed, and are just some of the loveliest people. I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to work with FearNoMusic and Third Angle – two absolutely top tier new music ensembles, both of whom have been leading the way in championing new voices locally and abroad. New Music is alive and well in this city, and remarkably adaptive to our world and our collective circumstances.

For myself, I’m currently in the middle of a graduate program in Computer Science. This has been my adaptation to the last 2 years. I suffered from major burnout at the start of 2020. I couldn’t compose, couldn’t build off old ideas, nor hear anything coming from that internal ether. It just… went silent. Like so many others, I also saw major projects fall apart, plans get canceled, opportunities vanish. The trajectory of the last decade and a half of my life suddenly stagnated. This was all in conjunction with losing my day job, so I needed to find a way to stay above water, if not for myself but for my daughter’s sake. Enter computers.

I’m a long way away from being done with music. I don’t think I ever will be. I still play nearly every day, and have managed to scribble some fragments here and there. I’ve spent the last two years using the skills learned through my CS program to develop algorithmic composition tools to aid me in my creative efforts. I can generate anything from purely random compositions to poly-rhythmic/modal canons (or really any process based composition) in seconds. I’ve been able to use these tools to generate hundreds of facsimiles – there will be ideas forever, and I plan to keep on building this framework. If the last two years have given me anything, it’s the ability to adapt and evolve my creative processes.

Portland is my home. The energy of this city has always fueled me, and I think it always will.

Music Picks

The People They Think We Are (2018) for piano, video, and fixed media. (Me). Performed by Kathy Supové

Your Absence, from Like Water, Like Sound, Like Breath by Bonnie Miksch. Performed by Renée Favand-See, mezzo soprano; Amelia Bierly, cello; Lisa Marsh, piano


Monica Ohuchi

Monica Ohuchi

Monica Ohuchi

I grew up in Seattle, so the Pacific Northwest has always felt like home to me. My husband, composer Kenji Bunch, is originally from Portland, so when we first met in New York City, we connected about this common background and shared desire to return one day. Soon after the birth of our first child, we took a leap of faith and decided to move back to be closer to our families. In a whirlwind, our Brooklyn condo sold in one weekend, I flew out and made an offer on a house, and just a few months later we found ourselves moving to Portland without any concrete work lined up, fingers tightly crossed that things would work out.  We’re both so grateful to have landed on our feet fairly quickly, and were welcomed with open arms by the vibrant music community here. We’ve now been living and working in Portland for nine years, and moving home to the PNW is the best decision we have ever made.  I’m currently wrapping up my eighth season as Executive Director and Pianist of Fear No Music, and my first as Program Director of Music Performance at Reed College.

Portland is well known for its vigorous DIY ethos that embraces creativity and grass-roots initiatives with a cheerful lack of regard for the credentials that traditionally grant “permission” for such undertakings. Everywhere you turn, someone is brewing their own beer, bottling their own hot sauce, writing a novel, or building their social justice-driven non-profit from the ground up. The spirit of imaginative resourcefulness that keeps Portland “weird” and alive is exactly the reason the new music scene thrives. The music community is intimate and supportive of one another. Portland new music groups mostly pull from the same roster of musicians, so we all feel like one big family and celebrate each other’s successes. And just as Portlanders love their books, there’s also a voracious appetite for experiencing live music, and open minds eager to discover new sounds and ideas.

While recognizing the tremendous difficulties so many of us faced during the pandemic, our music non-profit, Fear No Music, fared as well as we could have hoped. There were challenges at the beginning of the lockdown period, given the need for an immediate pivot to online-everything, and the steep learning curve and trial-and-error process to find the right people and resources to help solve various unforeseen difficulties. However, Fear No Music is a relatively small organization, which allowed us to be nimble enough to adapt quickly to the necessary changes, and as a result, we were able to flourish moving forward. Of course, in addition to the pandemic, the nationwide reckoning of our racial history and present-day culture has caused a tremendous upheaval in the music world, bringing long-overdue attention to composers and musicians traditionally overlooked from mainstream audiences. For our organization, this has meant an even greater push for equity and diversity in our programs and initiatives, and a move to a donation-based ticketing model for our concerts, to promote accessibility, while still maintaining excellence in our programming.

Music Picks

Fear No Music: Monica Ohuchi, piano, performing BQE by Hiromi Uehara:

Portland Taiko performing Dango Jiru by Kenji Bunch:


Alex Arnold a.k.a. !mindparade

Alex Arnold a.k.a. !mindparade

Alex Arnold a.k.a. !mindparade

I moved to Portland from my home town of Bloomington, Indiana in 2017. I’m a multi-instrumentalist, one of those musicians that played in multiple bands for years. I was lucky enough to travel and see much of the US via touring and independent road trips. I always felt drawn to the PNW; the mystical feeling of the mountains and the dynamic landscapes appealed to me. The mist whispered something important to me. I decided it was time to move to a major city with a larger music scene to grow my band/songwriting project !mindparade. As an outdoorsy person, I thought, well, if I’m going to move my whole life, I should probably move near mountains. I’m so glad I made that choice. As soon as I honed in on Portland as a potential place to live, I began applying for jobs here, and landed an internship at a music licensing music company that I had signed to as an recording artist. I moved as soon as I had the opportunity, and threw myself into every aspect of music in Portland that I could. I didn’t really know anyone here when I arrived, and just started biking around to shows, meeting musicians.

There is a high level of musicianship in the scene here. So many great artists doing their thing, and in so many different genres of music. The city lacks a robust music industry compared to places like NYC and LA, or Nashville or Austin. That means there are less of those kinds of industry jobs, less labels, etc., but maybe that means people in music here may be in it for other reasons than money or prestige. I’ve found people in this community to be genuine and passionate. People like experimentalism and nerdiness here. It’s cool to be nice here. It seems like so many people you meet are in a band or are music fans, and that means more people to connect with. The location is incredible as well, as the surrounding nature provides endless perspective and inspiration. The city is nestled between very tall mountains and a very deep ocean.

Moving here was definitely a good choice for me overall. I was lucky to find an inspiring and engaging community. When everything stopped during the pandemic, I found myself focused on songwriting. I’ve worked up around 4 albums of !mindparade material that I am now chiseling into completion. It wasn’t necessarily a choice I made, it was most likely a coping mechanism. It was definitely a challenge to not play live for so long, which is something I’m so happy is happening again. There is really nothing else in life like live music.

Music Picks

Here’s one of my songs to include…

(!mindparade: “The Vision”)

And a local recommendation:

(Paper Gates: “Ophiuchus”)

On the Value of Time

Not too long ago, I received an email invitation to apply for an opportunity to work with an established ensemble. The application was a highly involved process and would make considerable demands on my time—including a trip out of state. If awarded the appointment, the position would require many obligations in addition to composing, including outreach, lectures, and a series of curated concerts.

The only mention of money? “We’re in the process of securing some grants,” the email read. Oh, okay.

I politely declined the invitation, explaining that I was already fully committed for the season in question (which was true). But, the more I contemplated the massive time commitment requested by the organization, the more troubled I became. How was it remotely appropriate to contact a person about a highly specialized, complex job—which also required a time-consuming, rigorous application process—without mentioning compensation?

This kind of treatment is rampant throughout our industry, and I know that performers certainly experience their own versions of the above scenario. Our field is plagued by an aversion toward discussing money, and this problem exists on both sides of the hiring equation. For composers, however, this issue is compounded by the very nature of our work. Because composers’ processes are diverse and often opaque, potential commissioners sometimes don’t know how to value what we do. This lack of understanding can result in a reluctance to discuss compensation and often justifies gross demands on our time and abilities.

Out of all the wacky things that composers do, money ought to be the most uncomplicated and straightforward component. When you approach a composer about a potential commission or collaboration, funding should be among the first issues you address. While it may feel distasteful to discuss money alongside your artistic vision, know that avoiding the topic—and even placing the impetus on the composer to inquire—is enormously disrespectful. Most composers wouldn’t claim to be in this business for the money, but we do expect to be treated professionally and compensated appropriately.

So. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you approach a composer and begin a conversation about a project:

Reach out to us in advance. Way in advance. Composition is a time-consuming activity. I do not write my music in “real” time, and I often plan my projects up to two years in advance. While there are exceptions, I typically can’t take on last-minute projects. Definitely reach out and ask us, but keep in mind that we’re often planning a season or two (or more!) ahead.

Be up front about the amount and source of your funding. This is critically important, regardless of your budget size. If you’re working with a low budget, unsure of your resources, or unable to pay—don’t misrepresent your financial limitations. We’ll respect your honesty, and if we can’t work with you this time, we’ll be more likely to consider future projects.

Directly address the work that you and/or your organization are putting in. Programming, performances, promotion, recording—what’s your investment? What are you contributing to make this project worthwhile for both parties?

Understand that demands on time separate from composing must be compensated. Community outreach? Masterclasses? A meet-and-greet with donors and subscribers? Great! Some musicians might offer these services for free or as part of their commitment; however, you should not make this assumption. Our time is valuable, and we need to be paid for our time.

Speaking of non-composing tasks: Address the time, effort, and expense that goes into engraving and preparing parts. This one is different for everyone—some composers consider engraving and parts preparation integral parts of their compositional process. Others don’t, and many composers outsource this work. Either way, budget both time and money to accommodate this phase.

Don’t act surprised or attempt to guilt us when we don’t offer a service for free or for a low/discounted fee. I’m frequently approached by individuals seeking music critiques, new arrangements of current works, business and marketing advice, and copyediting—with the expectation that I offer these services for free. When I indicate otherwise, I’m often met with incredulous responses like “But this will only take a few minutes!” Right, cool, but since when do you get to determine the value of my time?

Composers, I encourage you to examine how you spend your time and how you offer it to others. It is imperative to understand collaborators’ expectations before agreeing to a project (and always make sure your exact responsibilities are detailed in a contract). Guard your time, and don’t be afraid to set firm boundaries.

Time is valuable. This is something that I remember every day when I sit down to compose—truly, respect for others’ time is demanded by the very nature of my craft. The time that an audience member spends listening to my music ought to be worthwhile, and that’s the standard that I strive to uphold.

In short: We, as composers, respect your time. Please respect ours.

  • Because composers’ processes are diverse and often opaque, potential commissioners sometimes don’t know how to value what we do.

    Hilary Purrington
    Hilary Purrington
  • Out of all the wacky things that composers do, money ought to be the most uncomplicated and straightforward component.

    Hilary Purrington
    Hilary Purrington
  • I do not write my music in “real” time, and I often plan my projects up to two years in advance.

    Hilary Purrington
    Hilary Purrington
  • If you’re working with a low budget, unsure of your resources, or unable to pay—don’t misrepresent your financial limitations.

    Hilary Purrington
    Hilary Purrington
  • Composers, I encourage you to examine how you spend your time and how you offer it to others.

    Hilary Purrington
    Hilary Purrington

Winners of the 2022 BMI Student Composer Awards Announced

BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), in collaboration with the BMI Foundation (BMIF) has announced the seven winners and three honorable mentions in the 70th Annual BMI Student Composer Awards. Each year these awards recognize superior musical compositional ability with educational scholarships totaling $20,000. For the first time in three years (due to the pandemic), the awards were once again announced in person in a live ceremony yesterday evening at Tribeca 360. The ceremony was presided over by Deirdre Chadwick, BMI Executive Director for Classical Music and BMI Foundation President, along with composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the permanent Chair of the Competition, who announced each of the winners.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich announcing the winners of the 2022 BMI Student Composer Awards

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich announcing the winners of the 2022 BMI Student Composer Awards (photo by FJO)

The seven winning composers and their works are:
Ábel Esbenshade a.k.a. Ábel M.G.E. (b. 1994): Sadie’s Story for flute and fixed media (2021)

Cheng Jin Koh (b. 1996): Luciola singapura for sinfonietta and yang qin (Chinese dulcimer) (2021)
(Ms. Koh was also the recipient of the William Schuman prize which is annually awarded for the score deemed most accomplished in the competition.)

Oliver Kwapis (b. 1997): Dreams of Flight for full orchestra (2021) [10′]

Alan Mackwell (b. 1998): Remains of a Permian Gas Station for string trio (2021) [c. 20′]

Sehyeok (Joseph) Park (b. 2003): String Quartet no. 1 (2021)
(Mr. Park also received the Carlos Surinach Prize which is annually awarded to the youngest winner in the competition.)

Nina Shekhar (b. 1995): Hate The Sin, Love The Sinner for orchestra and fixed media (2021) [20′]

Kari Watson (b. 1998): of desire for voice and percussion (2021)

Group photos of the 7 winners in the 2022 BMI Student Composer Awards with BMI Foundation President Deirdre Chadwick

(L-R) BMI’s Student Composer Award winners Alan W. Mackwell, Ábel M.G.E., Sehyeok (Joseph) Park, Nina Shekhar, Kari Watson, Cheng Jin Koh and Oliver Kwapis pose with BMI Foundation President & BMI’s Executive Director- Classical Deirdre Chadwick at Tribeca 360 on May 17, 2022, in New York, NY. (Photo by Jennifer Taylor for BMI; courtesy BMI)

The three composers who received an honorable mention were:

Lucy Chen (b. 2005): Muse for orchestra (2021) [10′]

Apoorva Krishna (b. 1996): Merging Parallels voice and ensemble (2020) [3′]

Malcolm Xiellie (b. 2007): The Voyage for solo piano (2021)

During the ceremony there were also presentations of two of the 2021 winning works: Elizabeth Gartman‘s [Weight] for soprano and fixed media in a live performance by Shannyn Rinker (which was its world premiere in front of a physical audience) and Elliot Roman‘s orchestral work Tzirklshpitz which was shown on video. In a poignant speech during the ceremony, Chadwick acknowledged previous recipients of the award who were present at the event as well as this year’s winners, but also pointed out that “there are excellent composers who’ve never won a competition.”

Deirdre Chadwick congratulates all the composers in the room.

Deirdre Chadwick congratulates all the composers in the room. (Photo by FJO)

The ten composers who were honored in the 2022 BMI Student Composer Awards were among 450 applicants in this year’s competition which are all judged anonymously through a rigorous two-panel process. The preliminary judges were BMI member composers Alexandra DuBois, Carlos Carrillo, and Jeremy Gill. The final judges were BMI member composers Oscar Bettison, Hannah Lash, Jose Serebrier, and Matthew Evan Taylor. Further details about the awards, including individual photos of each of the 10 composers who received awards and honorable mentions, are available on the BMI website.