Author: Aaron Holloway-Nahum

Some Thoughts About Dorico The Morning After

Members of the Ensemble Perpetuo join composer/pianist Thomas Hewitt Jones for the premiere of his new work commissioned for the launch of the Dorico music notation software program in London.

I’ll admit to being something of a notational geek.  Elaine Gould’s Behind Bars sits on my bedside table.  I collect contemporary scores.  I used to use Finale, then switched to Sibelius in 2005 after moving to London.

I don’t know any of its members personally, but it felt like a personal affront when Avid cut the Sibelius team.  And it felt akin to my team (Arsenal) winning the Premiere League (…insert joke here if you get the reference…) when I heard Cubase had scooped them up to build a brand new notation program.  All this is to say that, when I headed down to the Bush Theatre on October 18 to get my first full-on look at the new software, I was really excited.  I’m cheering for this entire experiment.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way very quickly:

• Dorico looks fantastic. It reminds me of the layout of Adobe Software such as InDesign and Photoshop. I want it. It looks intuitive and sensible. It might give me fewer rage moments than Sibelius.

• Dorico is a piece of professional notation software. (Hopefully this is not a surprise.) However intuitive it might be, there are plenty of idiosyncrasies, and it would take anyone time to learn it, and to make it do the things that you want. (It will almost certainly still cause you some rage moments.)

If you want to understand the strengths (and weaknesses) of Dorico, begin with the team that built it.  At the preview event l attended last night, Daniel Spreadbury told us that, when they first gathered together, they started with three basic goals.  Here they are, with some initial thoughts on how they impacted the software:

1. To be able to compose directly into the software.

This is fundamental to many of the innovations Dorico has created, especially the emphasis on flexibility early in the engraving process. Thomas Hewitt Jones, whose new work Doric Overture was commissioned for and premiered at the beginning of the evening, highlighted “flows” (the initial engraving step in Dorico) as inspirational and important to him because it allowed him to create an idea directly within the software without worrying about the time signature/key signature/tempo/details of that idea, and also said that this flexibility meant he would compose the remainder of his current (music theater) project in it.

2. To have a graphical output that is as good as possible, and built from the heart of historical notation.

As I’ve already said, Dorico looks great. The “graphical clarity” and attention to detail from the team is really quite impressive.  The defaults look great and, wonderfully, there is a really deep emphasis on customizability.  We naturally only skimmed along the surface of the program during the event (and I haven’t had the chance to trial it), but even from the short presentation we had, Dorico looked incredibly deep and nuanced.  This is to a point where I would bet money that most, if not all, of the major publishers will be working from Dorico very soon after its official launch. [Ed note: UPDATE – An extremely detailed description of Dorico’s history and design was just posted on the independent Sibelius blog.]

3. Since they were working at Steinberg, home of Cubase they wanted a program that sounds as great as it looks. (“At its heart is an audio engine.”)

Dorico contains within itself a playback control panel that effectively looks like the sequencer you’re used to seeing in ProTools/Logic.  It has impressive audio support (VST Plugins, 32-bit floating-point resolution, more than 1,500 sounds, etc.).  There are really no two ways about this, this is a huge step forward for the playback and programming possibilities through a piece of notation software.

I think most of the people reading this site will come to this post with two questions:

• Should I (assuming you are now an experienced composer/performer/engraver familiar with Finale or Sibelius) spend the money and time inherent in making the switch to Dorico?

• Should I tell my new/young students to start with/move to it? (Or, if you’re not yet working with Finale/Sibelius, should you start with Dorico over these competitors?)

Obviously these questions are impossible to definitively answer without actually using the software.  Intuitively, though, I think the second question is fairly obvious.  Dorico looks to be a more modern program in how it interacts with sequencing, and while I’m not sure everyone is going to love everything about it, it’s definitely every bit as powerful as either Finale or Sibelius.  Let me put it this way: I highly doubt you’re going to find something you used to be able to do in Finale or Sibelius that you’re not going to be able to do in Dorico.

But what about the first question?  This is harder to answer, particularly because we didn’t really get to see Dorico go through its paces or answer any truly difficult notational questions.  The new commission by Hewitt-Jones was fun, but there is really no question it could have been engraved in Finale or Sibelius quite easily.  And it’s great that the software is so quick and fluid at entering the music of Chopin (and Beethoven, the printed example we saw), but I write music that looks like this:

A sample of music by Aaron Holloway-Nahum engraved using Sibelius

and The Riot Ensemble, from time to time, performs music that looks like this:

A sample of music by Evan Johnson, engraving method unknown.

Now I don’t think Evan Johnson did that in Sibelius, but I made my score there, and while it wasn’t without its annoyances, my personal decision is probably going to come down to the price, unless the program really saves me a ton of time in producing this.

Two other little points:

• I write all of my music by hand first, and only then enter it into an engraving software. So, when it comes to their priority of being able to compose directly into the software, I don’t do this and the many options that facilitate it don’t really speak to me.

• I also don’t expect (or even want) my engraving software to play this back to me.In all my roles (composer, conductor, teacher) I’m a bit reticent about this move toward smarter and “better-sounding” software, because it hasn’t ever captured anything of the performance reality in new (contemporary classical) music, plus it can (and does) make a lot of composers lazy and a lot of performers lives a lot harder.  I’m involved in seeing and performing a lot of new scores each year with The Riot Ensemble, and without wanting to labor the point, we can tell really quickly when a composer is relying on the computer playback or notation engines.

So, I guess the summary is: be excited.  This is a really good-looking piece of software that has a lot of promise.  Do try it, and then you’ll have to see if it works for you.  I certainly will do this, and if NewMusicBox will have me, I’ll be back with further thoughts once I have!

Realizing Unrealized Projects

While writing this series of articles on curation, I thought I should take some of my own advice, and so I’ve been corresponding with performers and composers—generally via e-mail but also in person and via Skype—to begin asking them about their unrealized projects. A couple of patterns and important ideas have emerged from these first steps into the curatorial, and they make for a nice summation—and, in some cases, counterpoint—to the ideas I’ve been exploring here.

Firstly, there’s the point that embracing curatorial ideas and practice absolutely does not mean that every piece has to become some sort of multimedia site-specific cross-arts collaboration. Just as there are plenty of fantastic artists who continue to make art by painting with paint on canvas, the concert hall remains a very important space for performers and composers to work, because that setting expounds a set of values such as deep focus and shared experience which remain some of the most revolutionary and countercultural things being said in any art form anywhere.

A photo of a chamber ensemble performance on a proscenium stage in a concert hall.

Concerts remain important.

Indeed, many composers replied to my question by pointing out that even their most basic desire to have an orchestral piece properly rehearsed and performed would be the completion of an “unrealized project.” Many had equally straightforward, generally larger-scale ambitions, such as writing for an absolutely giant percussion set-up, possibly in conjunction with the idea of an outdoor venue. Often, even at the most basic point of creation, it’s practical considerations like percussion hire and the weather that delay us from writing the music we imagine. In all of this, there are many composers whose optimal work and space is a score being interpreted by musicians in a concert.[1]

Let’s imagine, for a moment, what a curator might do with an ensemble. There would be basic things, like travelling around and being present at as many important reading sessions and concerts as possible.[2] This person would also be placed in charge of a segment of the ensemble’s time. Note that I say “time” and not “season.” A curator is not a glorified programmer of concerts. The role would not focus on “programming” or “commissioning,” but rather developing collaborative relationships between the ensemble’s performers and any number of composers and seeking to fulfill the “unrealized dreams” of all parties involved. The curator would also be seeking to present the results of these collaborations to an audience, and would equally be charged with taking time to discover the optimal form in which to do so. This might be a standard concert, but it could equally be a flash-mob of musicians, a Vimeo video, a podcast, or an app, and so on.

A performance happening outdoors in the middle of a forest with audience members standing and listening.

This might be the best concert venue for a piece

I accept that a major factor in this discussion—which I have largely omitted to date—is economics. If this all sounds a bit financially untenable, though, consider as just one current example that the Hayword Gallery in London has just opened Decision. This is an exhibition that consciously aims to immerse visitors in a series of “experimental environments” in order to “ask them to reflect on the process of decision-making,” and includes slides, a paragliding machine, and gallery staff asking attendees if they’d like to consume an unknown pill.

While I (of course) agree that new music would benefit from more money, I think that the need for more volume of funding in the system only goes so far. The other side of this coin is that a lot of our most highly funded institutions and visible organizations are dominated by quickly aging visions of making music. This stretches from professional ensembles and orchestras to the academies and conservatories where future musicians are trained.

Looking at a new generation of entrepreneurs who are making their wealth by pushing on all sorts of boundaries in their various fields, I wonder why we don’t imagine that future philanthropists will be people who desire to see artists that reflect this progressive and expansive vision of the world in their approaches to art. I literally have no idea what the musical equivalent to an exhibition like Decision would be, but I imagine it could be wildly more exciting—and attractive to audiences—than “please write us an 8-12 minute piece using the following instruments….”

Back in my informal survey of colleagues, a number of performers lamented the difficulties in finding funding to create any sort of collaborative work, be it with film makers, visual artists, or even in the theatre (opera excluded, of course). That is, I think most of us know where we’d at least start trying to find funding for that new concert piece, whereas the guidelines for a lot of these same institutions rule out any possibility of working in more unusual ways. What this also brought into focus for me was the fact that none of these other arts were at all a fundamental part of my education.[3] Again, this is not to argue that every performer and composer needs to be an expert in all art forms. As a fellow composer wisely commented:

I can’t help but wonder if there is a danger in this discourse though, that we are trying to be too much at once. For the composer to be the source of critique, critical/cultural theory and commentary, curation, and music composition—this maybe spreads us a little thin, AND makes us a little more self-conscious than is healthy? Ideally, it should be more about the music, not us.

Of course, the ultimate point of these articles is that it would be the actual existence of actual curators that could really help us advance down these paths. We want to get to a point where there are experts taking on these roles and helping us to create truly awesome work that engages across all the many possibilities we are dreaming about. In the meantime, though, those of us who create this music are already involved in asking these questions and could, I think, improve by thinking about these questions more explicitly.

For The Riot Ensemble, this has meant things like explicitly asking these questions of composers and performers as we develop projects and dream up commissions. We could do better, though. As one example, my hope is that next year these ideas will work their way into a revamped call-for-scores that will be led more by the project ideas of composers, that our concerts will build on and realize more of the dreams of our performers, and that we’ll continue to improve at using all sorts of technology as a tool to open up all areas of the process to new and interested audiences.

Personally, at least I finally sent out some of those e-mails I’ve been meaning to send out, asking my professional colleagues about their unrealized projects. I think that just asking this question—especially in a world where we’re all scrambling so hard to stay afloat—is a good first step. It’s also a fascinating one, as people have come back with all manner of interesting ideas and projects. I know I won’t be able to do so with all of them, but it’s wonderful to have started collecting these ideas, and I’m already starting to think about which ones I might be able to help bring to reality.

I hope that—for you, too—these articles will be either a beginning or an encouragement to take these ideas more seriously in all the work that you create in whatever roles you create it in. One of the great joys of this process, for me, has been meeting new musicians and organizers who are already taking steps down these paths in an astonishing variety of ways. So do keep in touch—especially if you have an unrealized project for my new collection—and let’s keep the discussion going.

*

1. I really don’t mean this pejoratively in any sense. To date, I am one of them.


2. So far, this knowledge tends to rest with musicians who sit on selection panels that see a huge number of scores each year. While better than nothing, this is hardly the ideal situation to come into contact with work, and it provides virtually no opportunity for a relationship with the composer.


3. Though, admittedly, that’s not as recent as it used to be.

Curation as a Third Possible Activity for Composers

Various groups of people in conversations scattered around a room

Sound and Music’s Open Day for Composers (photo by Aaron Holloway-Nahum)

Recently, Sound and Music hosted an open day for composers in London. Individuals had the opportunity to raise questions and issues facing us as composers in 2015, and we then gathered in groups to discuss the ones that interested us. One of the groups was focused on this question: “Is it better for composers to spend time producing their own work or to apply to competitions/open calls?” These two activities represent the most likely career paths for emerging composers today, and
I doubt there are many composers reading this who do not spend a significant amount of their time and creative energy doing one or—more likely—both of these things. Compare this again, though, with a contemporary vision of a curator’s role:

[H]ave you ever been in a hotel with a partner and you’re going down for breakfast and you’re on the twentieth floor, and you ding the bell for the lift, it comes up and your partner is still in the room and so you try and keep the door open? …At the same time, there’s a guy down on the ground floor who’s dinging the bell and he wants that lift to come down to the bottom of the building, so there’s this pressure on. Now, when that’s happening, you’re trying to resist and your job at that point is to try to keep that door open for as long as possible….As a curator, I think one’s job is to hold that space open for as long as possible. It’s always trying to close in, to fill itself with stuff, and your job is to make a space available for an artist to work and to develop all sorts of relations to that space, which at the same time is always closing down.”[1]

Back at that Sound and Music conference, this question of our possible activity left me with a depressing and individualistic vision of our community. Here was a group of eighty (or more) composers, sitting in this small room, each trying to think up strategies to pursue their own work and achieve their own goals. The truth, though, is that it is virtually impossible for a person to be both the artist and the person holding the door open: you cannot be holding the elevator door if you are still in the hotel room getting ready.

So I continue to bang on my drum and say to all the musical organizations out there: we need curators! Since the current economy finds most organizations that could (and should) pursue establishing this role within our art form focused on other areas, it leads us to explore a third possible activity for composers. Since we cannot be those who hold the door open for our own work, we should be a community dedicated to holding the doors open for one another.

Imagine if, in that room of 80 composers, we decided that for the next three months we would not spend our extra energies (however much or little we have) producing our own work, nor would we expend it applying for our own opportunities, but instead we would look around our community—emphatically remembering that any room full of composers omits many of the most important people creating new music today—and set about creating spaces and opportunities for others who inspire and enthrall us. This does not replace the act of composing ourselves, of course. It could begin to move us, though, from our current situation where there never seems to be enough space or work, to one where there aren’t enough artists to fill all of the spaces that are being created.

It should also be pointed out that in music, one of the key elements of curatorship completely left to chance is that of research. I don’t just mean a knowledge of the current repertoire—which is always by chance, since repertoire is expanding too fast for any of us to really know more than a small corner of it—but a deep interaction with the most influential and innovative ideas of musicians as the platform from which this other curatorial activity is carried out.

Piles of musical scores somewhat in disarray on shelves.

Knowing the repertoire takes more than this.

For those interested in taking up some of these suggestions in your own practice, we should be equally serious about regularly reading this site as well as other new music journals and magazines (e.g. Tempo, Contemporary Music Review, and I Care If You Listen), other blogs from organizations, peers, and the relevant critics, as well as listening to podcasts (Meet the Composer, Relevant Tones, Tentative Affinities[2]). Placed alongside ongoing experiences of the live new music available to us locally, this reading, listening, and critical thinking informs the work we pursue, enable, and create ourselves.

When we say we are committed to knowing the repertoire that is being created today, we should mean understanding the ideas and motives of Raphael Cendo (for example) as much as we mean having heard and liked or disliked his music. To state this more clearly: curation requires rather more than someone of “good taste” (which really just means “someone who likes the same music I do”). It requires that we have people who have a wide and deep understanding both of music and what it means to be a musician in 2015. If this sounds like a role for an academic, it most decidedly is not:

[Curation] provides a platform for artists’ ideas and interest; it should be responsive to the situation in which it occurs; and it should creatively address timely artistic, social, cultural, or political issues. It could be said that the role of the curator has shifted from a governing position that presides over taste and ideas to one that lies amongst art (or objects) space, and audience. The motivation is closer to the experimentation and inquiry of artists’ practices than to the academic or bureaucratic journey of the traditional curator.[3]

The breadth of knowledge, founded upon solid research and a wide inquiry into the work of other musicians, is what allows for the true development of this practice. So, when we are looking for colleagues who “inspire and enthrall us” to support, this begins with, but is more than someone who writes good notes or plays their instrument well. It is everywhere seeking those who take responsibility for where new music is heading, and raises up musicians who see the development of our art form, and the implications of where we are going, as our collective responsibility.

Even with this vision of composers as curators, it must be said that there are aspects to the curator’s role that simply cannot be inhabited by the artists themselves. We urgently need, for example, to have a realistic and frank discussion about the economics of creating our work.
One of the things that is so precious about curators is that—although they are paid by the institution—they are expected to exist between institutions and artists: when they work properly, they ensure that institutions and organizations respect and care for the artists that populate their halls with art. Contrary to this, so much work—even work being carried out by the very best and most properly funded organizations in the musical community—is built in an “opportunity/exposure” model that is, in reality, exploitative and unsustainable.

We must be brave enough to point out that if the work cannot be financed properly it will eventually cease to exist, or devolve into a hobbyist pursuit. On the other hand, there is a learning curve to this, and there is an understandable and necessary mentality of working on spec as something begins. As a personal example with The Riot Ensemble, our first call for scores did not offer a commissioning fee. Our second call, run earlier this year, did offer a nominal fee for two commissions, along with money to cover travel costs for a third, collaborative piece. As we look forward and aim to grow, we are committed to raising these fees every year until they reach a level that is actually reasonable for the composers involved. Importantly, we are committed to raising the commission fees offered to this level before we raise the number of commissions.

The point is that it is our commitment to the ideas I have been laying out in these essays that leads us to this sort of thinking. An ensemble concerned with marketing or fundraising applications does well to squeeze six new commissions out of a small grant. The ideas of curation challenge this model and reveal it as flawed. At the moment, this is very much up to us. We should be concerned with moving forward in ways that ask these questions of each other rather than simply clamoring to fit into predefined spaces where the doors have already closed.

***

1. Andrew Renton, recorded from a talk in The Producers: Contemporary Curators in Conversation (5). BALTIC. 2002. pp. 11-12. (I am deeply grateful to Ed McKeon—who is currently studying for a PhD focusing on curation in music—for bringing this wonderful series to my attention.)


2. By the late Bob Gilmore.


3. Kate Fowle, “Who Cares? Understanding the Role of the Curator Today,” Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating, 2007.

Curation is Not a Form of Marketing

Since my first post in this series last week, I’ve been happily engaged in a number of discussions about the topic of curation and its role and/or use in new music. Opinions have ranged from people pouring out stories of their pursuit of these same ideals, to those voicing profound disagreement with the idea of any curation at all. What has most struck me about these many discussions is that the responses generally started from the unstated premise that the composer is the “artist” in this question of curation.[1] Even players, such as bass clarinetist Heather Roche, took this vantage point:

“This is fantastic. Curation = amazing. I love this idea of just “making artists’ dreams come true” as a curative principle (would absolutely be my approach, and perhaps with the competition it was my approach!). I approve of any encouragement that gets more musicians and festival directors, etc. to understand more about curation as a way to stop themselves from this principle of starting with a “theme” and then building a whole program around it. Themes are bad, people. Stay away from themes. Don’t do themes.”

It’s wonderful when players’ dreams include commissioning and collaborating with composers. It is equally vitally important to our art form, though, that any discussion about curation articulates the fact that performers are more than blank walls upon which masterworks are hung. Many of the most innovative minds in our field belong to performers, and the vibrancy of our art form consistently relies on their passion and precision. So when I say that I want new music curators concerned with “making the dreams of artists come true,” I mean something both wider and deeper than better programmed concerts with more opportunities for today’s composers.

Photo of a man sitting and playing a violin as audience members seated around the room listen.

What’s going on here? (All photos by Aaron Holloway-Nahum.)

In the same way that a museum’s curator can help a museum to reimagine its role and resources, we need people who find purpose in helping performers do the same. It’s no surprise that the International Contemporary Ensemble came up many times in my curatorial discussions this week, but more often than not this represented the limited viewpoint of the players being involved in choosing the music they play and running the ensemble itself. This is not the true curatorial accomplishment of ICE, and it is not where the most exciting opportunities for further innovation lay. ICE’s insight was that a flexible community of musicians could provide new, surprising, and exciting responses to the increasingly diverse questions about performance in our time. Their success should suggest to us that there exists an array of rewarding innovations to the concept of an ensemble, and indeed to performance itself. Curatorial thinking is vital to ongoing innovation in areas like this, and we are particularly in need of curators who encourage redefinitions of historically fixed ensembles such as the string quartet and orchestra.

A number of people, however, responded to my first post by pointing out that I had avoided the question of quality when it comes to asking these questions.

A screenshot from Facebook with a picture of Nick Sherrard and his quote which reads: “Interesting piece. You don’t make any quality judgements about the curators in that piece. It’s interesting that whilst ‘everyone is now a curator’ the professional (in the sense of paid) curatorial class have been encouraged into more and more specialized training. The result is a kind of middle management of taste making. To take it out of music for a second, we’ve seen so many new visual art galleries open in the UK in the last decade but there are few with a surprising curatorial vision. We’re at a point at which we need to celebrate provocative, remarkable, offensive, divisive curatorship. There isn’t enough of it about.”

Or, as a senior colleague commented:

Those who chose concert programmes and curate festivals etc. are often strikingly proud of their musical ignorance and lack of professional training in any musical field. Their choices are usually determined by such unartistic criteria as the amount of publicity this or that artist has already gotten and is therefore likely to get them. Or else a certain musical project will be chosen because it looks more publicity-friendly as it handles supposedly controversial subject matter…New music has remained refreshing, even internationally, precisely because it has not been dominated by the unmusical criteria of such so-called ‘middle men’…

Quality is a problem we all face, and new music is not served by a culture which consistently mislabels other practices as “curation” and then abandons the deeper and wider questions of curatorial practice to middle men and marketing departments.

One area where a higher quality of curatorial thought is required for new music is the growing practice of presenting new music in unusual venues. With the current rush toward “accessibility,” the fallacy here occurs when music intended for—and best served by—the focused attention of the concert hall, is parachuted verbatim into a venue with an entirely different culture and acoustic.

While more people might see it, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica would not have the same force as a piece of street graffiti as it does when presented in a gallery. Artworks are not disconnected from the space and context they are presented in, and nobody has a fulfilling experience (and nobody is converted to loving our music) if the music needs something (silence, a certain acoustic setup, the ability to focus) that the venue cannot provide. Similarly, we fail at any true development of our culture or outreach if a venue is calling out for new types of performance—and new possibilities for music itself—while we insist on the conventions of the concert hall.

A wide angle photo of Primrose Hill showing an open field with trees and lights in the background and city buildings in the distance.

Primrose Hill

It is also a missed opportunity. Take, as one alternative example, the London Contemporary Orchestra’s Imagined Occasions series from 2013. In the second of these concerts, the audience gathered at London’s Primrose Hill at sunset to hear Claude Vivier’s Zipangu. Following this, the audience walked from Primrose Hill to the Roundhouse while listening to Edmund Finnis’s Colour Field Painting, an electroacoustic “walking piece” that was especially commissioned for the event. Then, in the (somewhat) more conventional concert space of The Roundhouse, the audience sat and listened to four movements from Stockhausen’s KLANG – Die 24 Stunden des Tages as Conrad Shawcross’s Timepiece wove patterns of light above players dressed all in white.

There are other exciting and successful examples of this, but our current practice is still dominated by thoughtless parachutism[3]. Reimagining the concert experience in ways that fuse technology, movement, and space requires insightful curatorial thought, which is not a question of accessibility or marketing.

Our use of technology is another area where new music particularly needs our curatorial thought to grow to maturity. In my nightmares, we are headed toward a place where the greatest utilization of virtual reality in music will be the opportunity to attend Berlin Philharmonic performances of Beethoven in our living rooms. This is overstated (and life could be worse), but looking at the vast array of online and digital art being created, one can only lament the dearth of vibrant innovation we have had in this space so far.

Again, there are bright spots. This very week the London Sinfonietta and Kingston University launched an online platform called “co-curate” with the aim of inviting audiences to inspire and make contemporary art. Their first project will see members of the public respond to the brief “beauty in imperfection” prompt by uploading their own sounds, words, and still and moving images, which will then be gathered by composer Samantha Fernando into a multimedia performance in the Asylum Chapel.

There are some possible misnomers in how this website is titled. Uploading files is not “co-curating” a piece, it is contributing to a composition (if your files are selected). The artist doing the selecting (in this case Samantha herself) is not “co-curating” this piece, she is composing it.[2]

It is important to maintain that these are not the acts of curation, here, because what this platform is doing is using technology to reimagine what it might mean to be an audience, and what the relationship between an audience and composer can be. That is an interesting piece of curatorial practice and thought. We need curators to ask these questions in profound ways, so that profound answers can be brought to bear on our practice as performers and ensembles. The questions: “What work do you want to make that you can’t under current conditions?” and “What is it we need to change or accomplish so that these things can be attempted?” are not marketing decisions disguised as programming: they get at the heart of what it means to be an artist of our time.

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1. In these next two essays there’s a lot of discussion about people playing different roles in new music. For the purpose of clarity, here I refer to composers as those writing instructions for performance (in any form/variety), and performers as those who execute those instructions. Composers and performers are grouped together under the term “musicians”, while the audience, is anyone who is observing these performances, both digitally and in-the-flesh. An individual can play more than one of these roles, but for the purpose of clarity I am treating the roles themselves as distinct.


2. Sifting through an array of possible inspirations while selecting some and discarding others, is an activity familiar to most composers.


3. The aforementioned practice of parachuting down to a (supposedly) unlikely or ‘new’ venue and playing repertoire there regardless of its best context.

Primrose Hill at Sunrise.

Primrose Hill at Sunrise.

New Music Needs Curators

A low level bright lightbulb is almost on par with the head of a man performing on the trumpet who is reading scores from conjoined music stands as an audience stands around listening

(all photos by Aaron Holloway-Nahum)

At a time when the definition of curation is expanding rapidly, stretching from professionals in galleries, to curating your Google profile, to “tossers making a cup of tea,” there remains a lack of genuine curators and curatorial thought in the field of new music. While, historically, the curator was the person at a museum in charge of caring for that museum’s collection of artwork, this has only been a partial description of part of the profession for some time. Now, art curators are often at the forefront of enabling creative innovation and audience interaction. In the world of new music, on the other hand, curating is mostly a word we’ve usurped for use in funding applications and marketing materials. We use it because it sounds better to say someone (or a number of someones) “curated” a concert rather than “chose the pieces we’ll play.”

We’re not alone in this. For example, in his recent essay on curating the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown Festival in the New Statesman, David Byrne focuses his many-faceted discussion entirely on the process of selection. The emphasis on choice, he argues, is down to the ubiquitous access we have to, well, everything: “Where to find, amid the glut, what is right for us? How to separate the music from the noise?” In this situation, Byrne argues that what the expert curator—as opposed to an impersonal Facebook algorithm—brings to the table is surprise:

What is the value of the information brought back by the bee that is willing to explore an unusual flower? The value of encountering an idea, an artist or a writer outside the well-trodden and machine-predictable paths? I would never call myself an expert but my point of view and experience, being a wee bit outside the norm, are a little more biased, skewed, pre-edited and peculiar that what those herd-based and algorithmic services come up with.

Curating can, of course, include the organization, discussion, and presentation of music, and our field is not lacking in the area of having all manner of experts—from musicians to musicologists to critics—select works for programming. While it would be great if this were more often informed by a systematic and thorough research of the repertoire, the real problem is that this is a myopic view of what curation can be. If we look up from Facebook and glance at the world of contemporary art, we see a curatorial practice and theory that has developed around individuals working closely with actual artists to enable them to manifest their intentions in the optimal possible form and then bringing the result to an audience in the optimal possible way.[1] Here, for example, is curator Hans Ulrich Obrist recounting advice he received when starting out:

[Alighiero] Boetti told me that if I wanted to curate exhibitions, then I should under no circumstances do what everybody else was doing—just giving the artists a certain room and suggesting that they fill it. What would be more important would be to talk to the artists and ask them which projects they could not realise under existing conditions…He mentioned that a young curator could find great value not only in working in a museum, a gallery, or a biennial, but also in making artists’ dreams come true.[2]

Notice, here, that Boetti is not simply speaking about creating more of the familiar opportunities for artists. This is not a complaint that there are not enough commissions or tenure-track teaching position for young musicians. No, here Boetti is advocating that—to be of real value—the curator should be someone who allows the artists to expand the very horizons of the art form. Obrist has followed up on this advice throughout his career by asking this question in each of his interviews, and even running a project, The Agency of Unrealized Projects, based entirely around them.[3]

A very large audience in an outdoor tent is giving a standing ovation to an orchestra.

Of course it is not that these things don’t happen at all in the field of new music. Festivals, in particular, are places where the artistic director can sometimes embody this role. Normally, though, it is down to the musicians (performers, ensembles, and composers) to come up with their project ideas on their own, and then the game becomes one of tracking down funding. This process is not one of collaboration, but of application. The very site this writing appears on, of course, represents one of the few places any young American ensemble or composer can come with just about any dream of a project and find the possibility of funding, along with a platform to reach an interested audience. In the U.K., the new music organization Sound and Music has a similar mission and is primarily focused on helping composers to imagine and create new and exciting work.

There are problems, though, when the role we are talking about is divided up like this. Funding organizations are themselves fundraisers, and their money is normally secured and then offered with some constricting vision of the work it will eventually create. This places constraints on the art form when the newly imagined project does not fall into old models of thinking. Moreover, it is very difficult to have a collaborative artistic relationship with an organization. While the president, CEO, or head of programs will certainly come to know some musicians well, funding organizations often have a remit that requires their resources—both financial and personnel—be spread in an even and (as far as possible) fair way among a huge array of artists.

On the other hand, when you look at curators in the world of art such as Kirk Varnedoe, Okwui Enwezor, and Julia Peyton-Jones, you see that these are people who did far more than funnel money to artists with ideas: they themselves made commitments to certain ideas and artists and then, through their close and intimate relationships with those artists, helped inspire and shape the work being made.

With this in mind, in a series of three musings to follow, I’d like to consider some of the things our community could learn from the contemporary thought and practice of curation. How can this vision of curation impact the activity of performers and ensembles? How could it reshape the role of composers and expand the idea of community among them? Then, in the final post, I’ll be focusing on—and looking to gather from you—unrealized projects. For now, I leave you with Juliet Darling’s A Curator’s Last Will and Testiment, made for curator Nick Waterlow after his death in 2009.[4]

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1. This definition is lifted from a passage (pg. 32) in Terry Smith’s collection of essays, Thinking Contemporary Curating Thinking Contemporary Curating Thinking Contemporary Curating. It is presented there not as a definition of curation, but as one possible way curators could see their practice.


2. Obrist, Hans Ulrich. Ways of Curating. London: Penguin Group, 2014, pp. 10-11


3. There is also the artist-run web platform, established by Sam Ely and Lynn Harris in 2003.


4. A summary of the events surrounding Waterlow’s death and the subsequent creation of this video can be found here.

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Aaron Holloway-Nahum sitting at a desk with Copland materials in a room with a bookcase, grand piano, and big window from which trees are visible.

Aaron Holloway-Nahum at Copland House

Aaron Holloway-Nahum is a founding member and the Artistic Director of The Riot Ensemble in London. He has recently written pieces for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, and Atea Wind Quintet, and is currently writing an Opera based on the true story of Donald Crowhurst with librettist Peter Jones, along with a piece for the HOCKET piano duo . Aaron was the Polonsky Fellow at the 2014 Aspen Music Festival, and will be a composition fellow at the Tanglewood Music Centre this summer.