Author: Daniel Temkin

Ethical Artistry: Does Any of This Really Matter? If So, What Practical Steps Can I Take?

Airport Stairs

This is the final post in a four-part series looking at concert curation and some of the larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists as a result. If you want to jump back, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 are here.


The first three parts of this series consider a wide spectrum of topics related to ethical artistry. Part 1 discusses the conviction with which we approach our work and who it benefits; Part 2 considers aspects of the artistic process where ethical issues arise; and Part 3 suggests that we evaluate our work both quantitatively and qualitatively, helping us adjust and adapt over time.

Thinking through these many topics, two lingering objections come to my mind:

  • Many subjects I’ve discussed (e.g. what pieces you program, what venue you present at, etc.), are pragmatic and relevant for artists, but not necessarily of ethical consequence.
  • Even if these areas involve ethics, it’s just art and music, so does it really matter?

Here in Part 4, I’ll try to persuade you that these issues really do matter in important ways. I’ll also suggest some practical steps we can each take, if we care about confronting ethical artistry more critically as a field.

Does Any of This Really Matter?

The short answer: if you care that your art affects others’ lives, then yes, this all matters.

The main takeaway from Part 1 of this series is that our artistic conviction can inspire and transform those who encounter our work. If you reject this idea and feel that art and music are, perhaps, objects or experiences we appreciate (in the same way we appreciate, say, a table, or a lamp, or a stroll in the park), but that the art and music (or the table, or the lamp, etc.) aren’t meant to provide a deeper transformational experience, then many of the concerns I’ve raised may not have ethical implications for you.

Essentially, if your artistic project is being created purely for its own merit in your mind, or if it is intended more as entertainment or a commercial commodity, not aspiring to reach and transform others in a deep way, then your careful planning of each project step may be of pragmatic concern, but not of great moral consequence (to you), since your project’s outcome on others was never of particular concern. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing, by the way! When we build a table or a lamp, we might want it to be useful to others and be something they’ll enjoy in their lives, and we might want to sell it commercially, but we are not especially concerned that the object we’ve created will have a deep moral impact on another’s life.)

Ethical Lamps

When we build a table or a lamp, we might want it to be useful to others and be something they’ll enjoy in their lives, and we might want to sell it commercially, but we are not especially concerned that the object we’ve created will have a deep moral impact on another’s life. IMAGE: Rishab Lamichhane

However if, like me, you intend and indeed hope to have an impact on others’ lives with your work, or if you feel a sense of obligation to a larger artistic community regarding the types of projects you pursue, then each step along the way seems to have greater ethical relevance.

For me, art not only has the ability to affect others, this is in fact its essence and what makes it particularly redeeming and socially relevant.[i] If I hope to reach others with my conviction, and to be a conscientious member of my artistic community, aspects of my artistic process—everything in Part 2, from the type of music I program, to what composers I include or exclude based on a theme, to what venue I present at—is relevant with respect to my ethical intentions of reaching others. In fact, even beyond what I have intended, my art and process is ethically relevant on some level, because choices I make will invariably affect others.

Not all ethical categories have the same weight. I think we can agree that excluding a set of composers based on their gender, ethnic heritage, or musical style, seems especially troubling, whereas issues of venue lighting may not be that big of a deal one way or another. Yet, then again, as we think deeply about each stage of our artistic process, we realize seemingly innocuous issues—such as venue location, or lighting, or concert order—can end up limiting access to our event or affecting those who experience our art in powerful ways.

If we have a deeper overall commitment to considering and executing small details, and if this can result in more powerful artistic experiences for those who encounter our art, don’t we, as individuals and a community, have a moral imperative to consider these issues on some level?

What’s At Stake?

As an individual artist, you may feel a varying sense of personal responsibility towards others in your work. I don’t want to tell you what artistic and communal goals you should aspire to, and I believe deeply in this “broad view” idea, where some projects we pursue are centered on our personal goals, while others become a platform primarily for us to reach others. Regardless of where you stand on these issues, as NewMusicBox’s own Molly Sheridan emphasized so eloquently to me in our discussions on this series, we all play a role, both individually and communally, in the “new music ecosystem” and our commitment to ethical artistry impacts this ecosystem.

We all play a role, both individually and communally, in the “new music ecosystem” and our commitment to ethical artistry impacts this ecosystem.

As I mentioned in Part 2, I believe new music is alive and well, and it is finding support in corners far and wide across the U.S. and abroad. Yet, even in its most generous description, we can acknowledge that our work as contemporary musicians and artists is often more “fringe” than “mainstream” in terms of broad-scale popular culture. This is a major reason we have taken it upon ourselves as a community to advocate for new music, to run conferences, to start ensembles that better fit the needs of composers, and to create a culture where artists can be taken seriously even if their passions fall outside traditional paradigms.

The fact that we are largely creating this community for new music together, as individual artists and ensembles, makes our ecosystem somewhat fragile. There is no uniform set of guidelines we follow, and no corporate policy being passed down from on high. If we have competing interests, we sometimes detract from one another, and if we are not holding ourselves to high standards, the tenets we aspire to uphold may be easily eroded.

I don’t propose that we draft a “New Music Constitution” to govern the arts, but for those of us who do care about these issues, to what extent are we committed to making a difference in our work? Are we having serious conversations with other ensembles and groups in our sphere of the world? Are we willing to put in some long-term planning, and try to gradually evolve, aligning the execution of our artistic processes with our stated intentions?

Or, are we content with talking a big game about things like stylistic diversity, equality of opportunity, representation of composers from various demographics, and so on, but not actually following through in a way that is ethically consistent or impactful?

The change we seek in our new music ecosystem isn’t going to occur by spouting off in anger on a Facebook thread, or even in writing an article series like this. We have to take this passion and conviction we feel, and carry it through with real-world projects that directly engage others. For me, that has been artistic endeavors like Intricate Machines and Refractions and helping curate the American Voices project; outreach efforts with Chamber Music by the Bay and the Opportunity Music Project; and pedagogical efforts to discuss socially relevant texts like Alex Ross’s “Invisible Men” or Nancy Rao’s Chinatown Opera Theater in North America. For you, it may be other areas and ideas you are passionate about.

Some of us care deeply about these issues and have been looking for ways to make a difference; some want to get involved, but are seeking guidance for how and where to start; and some remain indifferent. In the new music community we foster together, if we only care about our personal careers and gigs, or if we are so caught up in a parochial view of the musical world that we are blind to a larger picture of what is out there, we won’t create the type of meaningful change that many of us are calling for today.

What Pragmatic Steps Can I Take?

Let’s say you are motivated to try and make a positive impact with ethical artistry. Here are some specific pragmatic steps you can take to keep these issues in mind in your career:

Individual Artists:

– Program with conviction
– Think about who your projects benefit
– Think deeply about the complex layers of the decision-making process
– If you see a problem, come up with a measured response, don’t just take the “easy way out”
– Keep in mind the big picture of your artistic work and try to find a balance in your efforts
– Use tools like statistics and data to help evaluate the steps you’re taking
– Always keep in mind the quality of your work and initiatives, not just their quantity

Programming Checklist:

– Are my repertoire choices consistent with my larger artistic goals?
– Am I presenting a narrow range or wide variety of pieces? Is this an intentional choice?
– How does any one project fit and balance within the larger scope of my work?
– Am I favoring or neglecting composers of a specific demographic?
– As I look at data, have I had a blind spot about certain demographics or styles?
– I don’t have to change things overnight; I have a long career and can work to evolve.
– I can make some short-term changes, and also keep in mind other long-term goals.

Educators/Institutions:

– Is my curriculum promoting egalitarian thinking about different musics, styles, and ideologies?
– Are my syllabi/courses/ensembles promoting or neglecting composers of specific demographics?
– As I look at data, have I had a blind spot about certain demographics or styles?
– Does my institution support a narrow or wide swath of artistic thought? Is this intentional?
– Can I teach a course specifically looking at issues related to ethical artistry?
– Can I weave issues of ethical artistry into other courses like composition, entrepreneurship,
theory, music history, etc.? Can I involve non-music professors in the discourse?
– Are we actively discussing and encouraging thought about these issues with our students?
– Are we actively discussing and encouraging thought about these issues as a community?

Ensembles/Conductors:

– Do I work with living composers regularly?
– Does my ensemble provide audiences with access to living composers?
– Am I able to commit to ambitious and high-quality dissemination of contemporary music?
– Am I balancing quality and quantity in my approach to new music programming?
– Are the contemporary works I feature often varied or often similar? Is this intentional?
– Am I promoting or neglecting composers of a specific demographic or style?
– Am I making time in my routine to actively listen to new works?
– Am I soliciting suggestions from others about new composers I can discover?
– Is my ensemble promoting educational initiatives for young composers?
– Through these combined initiatives, am I creating a culture for the appreciation of new music?

Community:

– Can we commit to thinking deeply about these issues, and not settling for “the easy way out”?
– Are we making time to reach out to colleagues and have discussions about these issues?
– Are we (individually) in a position of power where we can shed light on these issues?
– Are we (as a group) able to advocate to those in power, so we focus more on these issues?
– Are we listening to broad viewpoints with an open mind, or are we tuning out those who differ?
– When we do voice our opinions publicly, are we trying to thoughtfully affect positive change?


[i] I might add that while some find this notion of art’s transformational power too idealistic, its echoes are found in a wide swath of material: everything from pop-culture references about “the beauty of music” in movies like Shawshank Redemption, to articles like “We Need Music to Surive” by musician Karl Paulnack, to the notion put forth by Gustavo Dudamel that “music is a universal human right.” In fact, going back as far as the ancient writings of Plato’s Republic, we see the argument that music is important in strengthening the moral fabric in society and that music can uniquely bring people together because “rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.”

Ethical Artistry: Changing our Approach & Evaluating our Efforts

Compass

This post is the third in a four-part series looking at concert curation and some of the larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists as a result. If you want to jump back, Part 1 and Part 2 are here; Part 4 will follow next week.


Changing our Approach to Avoid the Easy Way Out

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I argue that our musical world can be more rewarding and have its most substantial positive impacts when we present projects passionately and when we take a deeper look at our institutions, decision-making, and artistic processes.

Part 2 showed how simple issues can get complex pretty quickly, and that it can take real effort to confront ethical issues in a meaningful way. This “real effort” part can be a disincentive. Why spend extra time thinking through complex issues—especially if there is an easy fix in front of us? It’s often simpler to keep moving through our work and busy lives by avoiding complex questions, rather than taking time to confront them and come up with nuanced solutions.

Unfortunately, it is this “easy way out” or “path of least resistance” or “quick fix” (whatever you want to call it) that can lead us into ethical gray areas. I’ve argued that by spending a little more time sorting through the complexities of both our decision-making and execution, we can make a real difference. And there’s even better news: if you start building this “extra” planning into the framework of your professional life, it can quickly become part of your normal routine, without adding any “extra” or undue burden.

If you start building this “extra” planning into the framework of your professional life, it can quickly become part of your normal routine, without adding any “extra” or undue burden.

Let’s consider an example. You want to put on a concert! You’re excited about it, and a little scared (because you haven’t done a lot of this before), but you’re really committed to making it happen! Many of us have been in this exact position. So, we launch into what is easy and familiar: we program pieces we already know, written by composers we’ve worked with before, and we team up with a local ensemble at a cheap venue. This is sort of a “simplest variables” version of your project, and it is coming from a genuinely good place in your heart!

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Now, halfway through your project, you are already many emails in (with the ensemble, venue, music rental companies, and so on), when you get the following message from a colleague: “Hey! I got your project e-blast. Looks cool! I noticed all of the composers are alumni of School X. Did School X sponsor this concert?”

Hmm. You pause. This wasn’t something you had really considered. You were turning to music you knew and loved, and maybe it’s no surprise that the composers you picked were your classmates or friends from a certain school or geographic region. And, it isn’t necessarily a moral failure on your part, but you’ve clearly been a little narrow or had a bit of a blind spot that may have held back your programming. So, what can you do about it? At this point, halfway through, overhauling the project would be a major undertaking and would add a lot of extra work as you redo many steps.

Now, imagine a variation of your original concert and idea. We’re back at the beginning. You are still passionate and excited, and you’ll still start the process with pieces you know, by composers you’ve worked with. But…you want to make sure your program is as strong and vibrant as it can be. So you’ll also make sure to take a look at a few other pieces in their catalogs, and you’re going to ask for suggestions from colleagues for other composers outside of your circle. Spend some time listening there, too. Now it’s time to contact ensembles. You should still plan to reach out to the local group you’ve worked with before, but maybe there are one or two others you can consider as well. Have you emailed them before, or even checked out their websites and work? And what about venues? Can you expand your list? Maybe another great option is out there?

If you didn’t plan in these layers at the start, they become a major burden later in a project, but at the beginning, these “extra” steps aren’t really extra at all. In fact, if we build them into the project from the outset, they sort of seamlessly integrate into the overall planning process, and they can lead to a final result that is much more impactful! In this particular hypothetical example, some extra listening at the beginning might lead to a program that includes music of a few close friends, as well as others you didn’t know before who have similar artistic work.

Here’s the big takeaway: it can be hard to accommodate a lot of ethical nuance when we are in the thick of our busy professional routines and schedules. This is often where we run into dilemmas and we don’t have time to pursue anything other than the “easy way out.” But, if we can put in a little more planning at the start of our work, and tweak our general approach, our final work will likely have a more virtuous impact, without adding more burden into our routine.

Evaluating Our Efforts: The Broad View, Quotas & Metrics, and Qualitative Concerns

Many of us care about ethical artistry, but how do we measure our efforts? And how do we balance competing demands, if it feels like promoting one set of criteria will negatively detract from another? (We looked at some of these in Part 2—e.g. should I program more pieces but know that each will have less rehearsal time?) Every case can be a little different, but here are some general tenets and tools that can aid us in evaluating our work.

The Broad View

As I suggested in Part 1, it is particularly important that we take a broad view in assessing our work. Invariably, any single project you focus on will favor certain criteria/variables over others. For example, if you present a regional composer festival, you will automatically be promoting music of composers inside that region, and excluding music outside of it. There are pluses (promoting local artists; strengthening regional ties) and minuses (not giving audiences exposure to outside composers; excluding based on geography).

It seems to me that if this is the only artistic project you pursue regularly, the minuses stand out a bit. Do you have a bit of a blind spot? But, if we take the broad view, and we consider that you pursue many projects which promote living composers of diverse styles, demographics, geographies, and so on, then the potential “minuses” of your regional festival seem to melt away in terms of the larger picture of your artistic work. (This is true for any specific programming initiative like focusing on regional composers; focusing on a certain ethnic demographic; focusing on a certain aesthetic movement; etc.).

The broad view can also provide important context. In a real-world example, I attended two concerts a few months apart in 2017 featuring two different violinists. (I’ve tried to keep any living artist information anonymous.)

Program 1:
Violinist 1

Beethoven, Sonata No. 3
Franck, Sonata in A Maj
Anonymous Living Composer, World Premiere
Moszkowski, Suite in G Maj
Sarasate, Navarra

Program 2:
Violinist 2

J.S. Bach, Sonata No. 1 in G Minor
J.S. Bach, Partita No. 1 in B Minor
J.S. Bach, Sonata No. 3 in C Major
J.S. Bach, Partita No. 2 in D Minor

At first glance, neither of these programs seems especially adventurous. Are these projects that were curated with passion? Or are they run-of-the-mill violin recitals? (Maybe something in between?) The context of the broad view makes all the difference in this specific case.

Program 2 features four pieces all by the same composer (Bach), which are all in the same general style (dance suite) from the same era (Baroque). Program 1 at least has a bit more variety in that it features composers who are German, French, American, Russian, and Spanish, and it also features music of different eras (early-Romantic, late-Romantic, and the commission/premiere of a new work). Under a short-term view, Program 1 seems to have a bit more going on, since it features a living composer and a wider swath of musical material.

Yet, when taking a broad view, Program 2 was perhaps even more powerful and exciting for me to experience for a few reasons. Most importantly, the violinist performing Program 2 has dedicated a particularly large extent of his performing career to championing the music of living composers (this includes his founding of a major new music string quartet; his work as a core member of a major new music large ensemble; and his work to premiere numerous solo works). Second, the violinist performing Program 2 had worked with great conviction on this program so that it wasn’t “run of the mill.” The works were performed attacca, with thought and attention given to how one suite would elide into the next, so that the immediate transition provided a curious re-contextualization of the subsequent music. Further, the performer added contemporary techniques of ponticello bow position and harmonics in deliberate moments so as to inflect and change the intonation and color of Bach’s original score. The sum total of these curatorial decisions gave Bach’s music a peculiar freshness and challenged the listener to consider an interpretation divergent from the norm.

Thus, within the larger scope (“broad view”) of his work, Violinist 2 and Program 2 didn’t seem to be a conservative rendering of standard Bach works at all; instead, it was a refreshing approach to Baroque music from a performer whose specialization in contemporary music added new ideas and insight. Perhaps most importantly, the project revealed a passion, conviction, and thoughtfulness that resonated deeply with the audience. While Program 1 did showcase a living composer and did include thoughtful, deeply musical playing, it did less to provide a powerful curatorial experience, and more to highlight the performer’s attributes as a violinist. While neither of these programs was a statement on the diversity and talent of today’s living composers, the “broad view” provides especially important context as to the deeper artistic merit each program did or didn’t provide.

Stones in balance

Image: Andrik Langfield

Quotas & Metrics: What They Do and Don’t Tell Us

Programming quotas and statistical metrics can be useful tools to quantify some of our artistic efforts. When we use them thoughtfully, they can help us gather meaningful information and guide our decisions; but, these statistics tools, by themselves, are not the whole story!

Imagine your ensemble is having an artistic planning meeting. You all agree you are committed to championing contemporary composers! How will this actually play out? Are there specific quantitative criteria you are considering?

Are you interested in:

  • the total number of contemporary works you program in a season?
  • the total minutes of music, regardless of how many total works?
  • the specific percentage of contemporary works within your larger season?
  • certain specific demographics (e.g. age, race, gender, nationality, etc.) of the composers?
  • defining “contemporary” based on decade of composition or a composer’s age?
  • only your own ensemble’s metrics, or how they fit within those of the larger field?

In these examples, hard statistics can be useful. If you’re coming off of a busy season where many decisions were made “off the cuff,” a statistical spreadsheet at season’s end may show where your programming tendencies lay: male vs. female composers; local vs. non-local artists; American vs. International composers; pre-2000’s vs. post-2000’s; etc. If something seems out of balance, can you pay more attention to it next season by planning ahead?

These statistics also illustrate how your programming stacks up within the field. The Institute for Composer Diversity has started keeping statistics on various U.S. orchestras, and they have provided a helpful chart (below) that shows how many works you need to program each season in order to meet a quota of 15% of works by under-represented composers.

In past years, groups like the League of American Orchestras or the Baltimore Symphony have gathered hard data, in an effort to consider how our institutions are functioning. And, individual composers have started keeping tabs in areas where they are passionate. For example, composer Michael Mikulka publishes some statistics on Facebook each year of the repertoire programmed at the annual Midwest Clinic for band and wind ensemble music.

Michael Mikulka: Midwest Clinic

So what do we do with all of this information? How can it be a helpful tool? And, what other factors should we consider besides quantitative data?

Sometimes these sorts of clear statistics help keep us honest. Mike Mikulka’s data, for example, shows that at one of America’s major music conventions, an overwhelming majority of programmed music is by white male composers. His data doesn’t speak for every ensemble, director, or composer working in the field, but it does show an alarming demographic disparity at a major convening. (And his statistics have been consistently similar over multiple seasons.)

In this case, the data (“works by composers of demographic X”) seems pretty black and white, and the ethical implications are obvious: whole groups of composers are under-represented.

But, as much as this data tells us, it is, in itself, a statistical summary of choices already made, not an explicit moral compass that guides our decision-making process in the future. This distinction is vital if we want this data to help us. Otherwise, we may fall prey to taking rash action that doesn’t solve the underlying problems.

As much as this data tells us, it is, in itself, a statistical summary of choices already made, not an explicit moral compass that guides our decision-making process in the future. This distinction is vital if we want this data to help us.

As we considered in Part 2, in a controversial programming debate involving a serious look at hard data, the Philadelphia Orchestra made a big quantitative shift in their season: going from 0 works by female composers to 9 works. This was an undeniably positive step in a quantitative category, but it didn’t fully address other larger ethical considerations, such as “quality of opportunity” for younger composers (male and female) to have access to orchestras. In this case, and others like it, statistical data and quotas (e.g. programing Y works, by demographic X in a single season) only partially satisfy our ethical ambitions.

This illustrates two important limitations about quotas and statistical metrics:

  1. They often emphasize quantitative thinking, not qualitative thinking.
  2. They require you to choose what categories you measure and value most.

If we have a clear vision of what ideals we hope to promote in our artistic work, we have a better sense of which statistics will be useful to gather and use in evaluation. And, as will become clear, no single category or criteria will be sufficient for measuring the impact of our work.

Let’s look at the metric “total number of works” by contemporary composers. If this is the main statistic we use to evaluate our programming, a group like the New York Miniaturist Ensemble, which performed more than 300 contemporary pieces during their existence from 2004-2010, did a pretty amazing job and probably outperformed (in quantity) many other new music groups. (Be honest: how many works has your own group performed in six seasons?)

However, according to NYME’s mission and approach, all of the “performed music [was] composed of 100 notes or fewer.” In this case, the sole metric of “total number of works performed” isn’t telling us the whole story! NYME still did something interesting and important that supported composers, but the single statistical category of “total works performed” doesn’t meaningfully compare their efforts to those of other groups.

This is obviously an extreme example, but there are many others where quantitative metrics only tell part of the story. For example, if the Nashville Symphony features four composers in their Composer Lab every two years, and each composer gets roughly equal rehearsal time, how does their approach compare to a group like the American Composers Orchestra whose Underwoood Readings often feature five or six composers every year, but who may not get quite as much rehearsal time since it is being divided amongst more participants? In this case, we have competing metrics: “most composers performed” vs. “most rehearsal time” for individual pieces.

What about a concert experience like the Riot Ensemble’s performance of a single 70-minute work (Solstices by Georg Fredrich Haas, exploring light and darkness) relative to Contemporaneous’s “Orbit” (a program featuring five works also exploring sound and light)? Here, data from any single metric (“total works featured” vs. “total amount of music” vs. “amount of rehearsal time for a single piece”) would tell a very different story.

The truth is, in all of these cases, groups are working hard to give living composers a voice. The point is not to praise one group over another based on hard statistics, but to point out that no single metric can tell us the whole story about the impact of our artistry! In fact, these examples serve to illustrate that quantifiable data is only part of the story. If our programming is oriented solely around meeting numerical quotas, we can easily lose sight of other considerations.

No single metric can tell us the whole story about the impact of our artistry!

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Concerns

While I do advocate using statistics to help quantify and compare our artistic efforts with those of the larger field, I caution us to use the data thoughtfully and to make sure we pay attention to other concerns that are more naturally evaluated with qualitative intuition, rather than hard data.

The issue of quantitative vs. qualitative impact is one of great complexity in ethical debates. Moral philosophers, economists, and political theorists have long scrutinized the merits of strict utilitarianism (which emphasizes helping the most people possible, or doing the most good possible) relative to other pluralist or egalitarian views (that ask us to consider the qualitative nature of the impact we are having, in addition to the total amount).

I wouldn’t stipulate that you should fall on one side of this debate versus another, but we should be cognizant of our work’s quantitative and qualitative impacts. If we are putting all of our efforts into a quality artistic experience, but overlooking hard data which points to our intuitive programming biases, we likely have a blind spot we could address. On the other hand, if we are checking off metric boxes in our programming, but presenting lackluster concerts that aren’t engaging others in vital ways, what is the deeper extent of our impact?

My biggest caution is that we not be too quick to pat ourselves on the back, just because we seem to be satisfying statistical data in our work. Sometimes this data distracts from other issues we are not addressing—like quality of artistic experience; quality of access to our work; and other factors that don’t easily show up in a pie chart. I argue in Part 1 that we have to be really passionate in our programming, and trust our intuition to pursue projects we deeply believe in. Sometimes a single concert experience we create with this passion can reach others in tremendously deep ways that are hard to quantify in hard data, but which are every bit as relevant, if not more so, than meeting a categorical quota.

Ethical Artistry: Falling Short—Logistics, Programming, and the Moral Complexity of Well-Intentioned Decisions

Planning

This post is the second in a four-part series looking at concert curation and some of the larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists as a result. If you want to jump back, Part 1 is here; Part 3 and 4 will follow in the coming weeks.

(Fair warning: this is the longest article in the series, so you may want to skip around. I cover calls-for-scores; age limits; rehearsal time; venues; thematic programs; and demographics. The final portion takes a closer look at the Philadelphia Orchestra’s choice to add female composers to their 2018-19 season and ethical issues that arise.)

In a recent Facebook thread, composer Ryan Olivier (professor of composition at Indiana University South Bend) asked for help compiling a list of ensembles who specialize in new music repertoire. Ryan had already tallied approximately 50 groups on his own list, and more responses poured in, listing dozens and dozens of ensembles working in every sphere to champion new music.

Ryan Olivier FB thread

It was exhilirating at first, reading Ryan’s thread. I thought of the many groups and artists large and small, supporting projects of all kinds. It reminded me that even in our specialized field—one that can feel lonely and isolating at times—there is a larger community out there that is optimistic and passionate about contemporary music. In fact, most colleagues I’ve come into contact with in the field are creative, eager collaborators who support one another.

However, thinking more about Ryan’s post, I felt conflicted.

On the one hand, our vibrant community aspires to promote positive moral virtues: everything from championing new music, to creating databases cataloging works of living composers, to running calls-for-scores, to devising projects and fellowships promoting under-represented composers, to founding large advocacy and service organizations such as New Music USA, New Music Gathering, the American Composers Forum, to others who sponsor forums, infrastructure, and opportunities. All of this helps new music thrive and stay relevant in modern culture.

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On the other hand, in spite of our enthusiasm and good intentions, we’ve seen persistent ethical problems in our field. This includes pragmatic issues, such as the way we review work (and the bias, nepotism, or inconsistency that can occur on panels); to other major philisophical challenges, such as our field’s long history of demographic exclusion and gender bias. (I’ve footnoted just a handful of the many insightful articles discussing these issues.)[i]

We, as a musical community, really do strive to promote positive virtues in our work! We have passionate discussions on Facebook and Twitter, and we see nuanced conference lectures and articles emerging on these topics, yet clearly problems persist, as evidenced by these ongoing discussions.

So why do we keep falling short? I believe that our hearts are mostly in the right place, but that in our zeal to launch a new initiative, or in our constant stream of work running an ensemble, or in the haste of trying to pull off an ambitious project, we often undercut our good intentions.

Here in Part 2, I’m going to dive into many specific issues we’ve all encountered in the field, pointing out some ethical pitfalls lurking behind decisions we frequently face.

Ethical Pitfalls in Logistics & Programming

How do performers, ensembles, festivals, administrators, or curators connect with composers and their music? If you are a curator, do you go on Soundcloud/YouTube listening binges? Are you the spread-sheet type, tallying “bucket lists” of repertoire you hope to perform? If you’re a composer, do you wildly shotgun your music to all competitions far and wide? Do you focus on teaming up with the same set of performers for every piece? Do you have any strategy at all?

There are a lot of ways our music can come into contact with others, but there isn’t a lot of consistency in our field at large for how we evaluate works and provide opportunities for composers. (Sometimes it seems like every ensemble has their own method!) And, no matter what processes we use—from an open call-for-scores, to a competition format with specified prizes and a panel of judges, to a curatorial model that asks individual artists to build programs—we often face a series of similar challenges if we care about promoting works fairly.

Calls-for-Scores: Submission Fees, Review Process, and Transparency[ii]

Calls-for-Scores are a major way to connect composers with ensembles and vice-versa. Many of us have participated in them, some on both sides as submitters and reviewers. Ensembles offering calls-for-scores are usually genuinely interested in promoting composers, but, even with virtuous goals, choices along the way can negatively undermine our good intentions.

Is there a submission fee involved? What type of prizes and opportunities are included with the call-for-scores, and does this justify the fee? (This is a question for both organizers and composers submitting!) It takes a lot of work to run a call-for-scores, and outside judges are often compensated, so sometimes a fee is necessary. Is your organization transparent on your website about why you are charging a submission fee? (I hope this is not a fundraiser!)

Some groups waive a submission fee, if it limits opportunities for otherwise-qualified composers to apply because of financial constraints. This is noble! However, is this approach being consistently applied to all applicants? I know some groups who formally list (and collect) a submission fee in their general call for scores, but also selectively waive its enforcement as they see fit with certain composers in their close circle. (Not cool!) Apply your policies with consistency! It is extremely unfair to require only some composers to pay.

Has your ensemble been realistic about the number of submissions you might receive? Do you have a process in place to ensure…submitted scores are…reviewed in a similar manner? Are you transparent about this process?

Another big issue: how have you structured the review process? Has your ensemble been realistic about the number of submissions you might receive? (Hint: it could be hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds, depending on what opportunity you are offering.) Do you have a process in place to ensure that all of the submitted scores are being reviewed in a similar manner? Are you transparent about this process in your application materials?

pile of scores

Fee or no fee, it takes a lot of time and effort for composers to submit their work, and it is disheartening when bias or inconsistency plays a role in the evaluation process. As an ensemble, think about whether the evaluations should be anonymous or not. Also, can you split up the listening into multiple rounds? Maybe in the first round all pieces will have a similar-length excerpt played and judged. There is no perfect process, but try to at least give each piece the same fair shake!

I was very frustrated sitting on the review side of a call-for-scores one year, as a vague email went out to our rather-large group of performers, encouraging us to access a Dropbox folder where multiple hundreds of scores had been submitted. We were told that we could listen to any number and portion of recordings we chose, and that any comments we left about any pieces would help narrow the batch down to the winners. This group really aspired to champion living composers, and eventually performed dozens of new works on their season, yet their selection process had no consistency or fairness, and hundreds of composers who had paid a submission fee and spent time sending materials weren’t evaluated with similar criteria.

Bottom line: it’s great if you want to curate with a call-for-scores, but make sure to put some real thought into how your ensemble’s selection process can promote the values you stand for!

Age Limits in Programming

There have been wide discussions in our field about age limits. Does having an age-limit minimum or maximum discriminate against those outside of the range? Or does the age limit try to promote a particular initiative (for example, encouraging 10-14-year-old musicians to start composing)? Is it feasible for your group to have multiple age categories? (I think the American Modern Ensemble has a well-thought-out system with two age-based categories, and a third general category open to all.)

Here’s a more subtle question: Do you care about absolute age, or the number of years applicants have trained in composing? Depending on your ensemble’s goals, these questions matter. Let’s consider a hypothetical example.

Imagine two 19-year-old musicians, Jim and Jenny. Jim is a sophomore trumpet major who started composing lessons on the side when he entered college. Jenny is a sophomore composition major, who trained in composition at pre-college for three years. If your ensemble seeks to celebrate your city’s musical youth, then an absolute age category (say, “under-21”) meaningfully promotes Jim’s and Jenny’s work. But, if your ensemble is looking to evaluate and perform works of beginner, intermediate, and advanced composers, age limit categories place Jenny and Jim side-by-side, when in fact Jenny has 5x the experience.

Ultimately, whether age feels artistically and ethically relevant to you is one issue; making sure your policies are promoting this consistently is another!

Rehearsal Time

Most people reading NewMusicBox care about supporting living composers and their music.   Have we thought about the rehearsal demands that bold new works require? Are our rehearsal processes supporting or undermining our larger goal of promoting new music?

This is a really tricky issue! Anyone running an ensemble sees how performers are learning a constant stream of challenging works (new and old), while juggling jam-packed schedules of gigs, teaching, and travelling. There are always budget considerations (even in ensembles with high pay scales) as we determine how much rehearsal time we can afford to pay for any given project, and how many pieces can fit into that schedule. And, as pointed out by Patrick Castillo in a recent NewMusicBox article, there are often other organizational limitations we might rarely consider, including the very spaces in which we work.

Sometimes we make sacrifices: either we program a smaller number of challenging new works, so we can devote more rehearsal time; or, we program more works, but they each receive much less detail in rehearsal; or, we specifically choose works based on their relative ease of rehearsal and performance demands, rather than purely on their artistic merit.

In truth, most ensembles end up considering many of these factors as they make final programming decisions, and in the best cases you can strike a balance where a relatively large number of new works are featured, with each still being artistically ambitious and receiving enough rehearsal to be polished.

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency.

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency. From left to right: Lisa Kaplan, Yvonne Lam, Nick Photinos, Matthew Duvall, Michael Macceferri, and former member Tim Munro.

However, we have all seen the flipside. It can be frustrating when a performer is improvising your piece on stage, because they didn’t leave enough time to learn it properly. It can be equally frustrating as a performer if a composer or administrator hasn’t put you in a place to succeed, because they gave you the music too late or didn’t schedule enough rehearsal time.

If we devote substantial resources of money, time, and promotional effort to commissioning a new work or organizing a major project, we have an obligation to make sure the music is thoroughly rehearsed and polished before it is brought to life.

There is also a further ethical consideration we tend to overlook: if we devote substantial resources of money, time, and promotional effort to commissioning a new work or organizing a major project, we have an obligation to make sure the music is thoroughly rehearsed and polished before it is brought to life. Otherwise, we undercut our great intentions of supporting new music, and we have also wasted many of the resources we devoted to the project—resources that could have meaningfully benefited any number of other projects!

Project Partners & Venues

Depending on your project goals (see Part 1: “Why am I doing this?” & “Who do I hope to impact?”), certain pragmatic choices you make about collaborators and venues can amplify or detract from your project’s aspirations.

When we choose to work with a specific ensemble or performer, many factors go into the decision. Artistic goals, budget, and availability all play a part. But, just as important is gauging an ensemble’s genuine interest in partnering for a project.

Is this just a gig for them, or are they are really excited about it? How does their ensemble identity and their skill set fit with the project specifics? Remember, prestige isn’t the only important factor; sometimes the best artistic pairings have more to do with passion and commitment to a project, rather than any absolute criteria in performing ability and repertoire.

The most prestigious venue isn’t always the best one to showcase the music you’ve chosen…Which spaces will really help your curation shine in its intended way?

The same general principle is true of venues. Have you thought about spaces best suited for your project? The most prestigious venue isn’t always the best one to showcase the music you’ve chosen. Think about everything from acoustic specifics to lighting and atmosphere, and consider which spaces will really help your curation shine in its intended way.

Also, do logistical factors of venue location, ticket price, and concert time prejudice access to your event to a select audience? Is there a significant portion of potential concert attendees who will be excluded by one of these aspects?

Concerts or Festivals with a Theme

Let’s say your ensemble wants to program music with a specific theme. What do you gain and what do you lose with this approach? Consider some specifics of your theme, and why you are drawn to it. Also consider how your theme might include some pieces, but exclude others.

One popular theme I’ve seen is regional composer festivals and concerts. In these cases, only those from a certain geographic area are eligible to participate. On the plus side, there can be good funding to sponsor artists from a specific region (yay!) On the minus side, composers outside of the region are excluded (boo!).

Sometimes a local or regional festival can strengthen ties and promote artists working in the same area, showcasing a spotlight on local creators. But, does this gain outweigh the fact that local audiences might already have access to artists in their area? Does your theme allow the project to showcase some composers from outside the region, as well?

What about programming themes based on social causes or movements? When planned carefully, these themes can be a powerful tool to give voice to under-represented composers and pieces within larger, holistic, artistic planning. If approached haphazardly, myopic programming may do little to shine a meaningful light on a social cause, or worse, it may end up excluding many composers (including those it aspires to promote).

Have you seen approaches more successful and convincing? Or some which left you wanting more? I’ve been particularly impressed with ensembles who take strides to balance their programming, year after year: regularly featuring living composers; working to commission new works and also to give second or third performances of other recently composed works; sometimes curating mini-festivals that celebrate a specific social demographic (e.g. all-female composers; or all African American composers); sometimes curating mini-festivals that celebrate a single composer or aesthetic movement; etc.

I’ve found myself less than impressed with ensembles who don’t consistently promote living composers, or those who claim to promote diversity by featuring a single composer from an under-represented group, while not featuring the work of any other living composers (from any demographics). Real diversity in programming is something many of us aspire to, but it involves careful planning and thinking. Is diversity truly achieved along the lines of any single criteria? Is it accomplished by a single project initiative like a festival of “X” composers or “Y” aesthetic movement? We can probably safely say no.

If we really care about diversity in our programming and musical work, we have to be committed to the “broad view” (see Part 1) and consistently take a look at the projects we pursue over the long haul. Some spreadsheets and quick demographic tallies of season programming can be helpful tools (as we’ll see in Part 3) to assess whether we are a little too zoomed in on a specific niche of repertoire and have unintentionally left out whole branches of composers without being aware.

Recognition is an Important First Step; A Measured Response is Second

Recognizing the moral complexity of these many decisions we face in the field is an important first step. Do our artistic actions align with our stated intentions? Of equal importance is the second step: coming up with a measured response (not a knee-jerk reaction) to the tough questions we are asking. At times, we rush our decisions when an issue feels urgent, but this can do more harm than good, or it can fail to address deeper issues.

At times, we rush our decisions when an issue feels urgent, but this can do more harm than good, or it can fail to address deeper issues.

Let’s consider an example, which will serve to finish Part 2 and lead us to Parts 3 and 4. This centers on the complex and delicate issue of representing diversity in our programming.

Imagine that you are an ensemble or organization that presents concerts to the public. It has come to your attention through public feedback and discourse that you’ve had a fairly big “blind spot” over the years: you’ve programmed contemporary music only marginally, and within that you’ve rarely featured composers of color or female composers. What do you do?

A lot of us would want to spring into action to remedy the situation, and surely there are some short term steps you can take. It would be a good start to rethink your season programming and look for spots where you can insert repertoire by living and under-represented composers. But don’t be too quick to pat yourself on the back. This immediate fix only addresses your blind spot on a very local and short-term level.

What about the larger issue of diverse programming? One major factor in the push to include more works by under-represented composers is that, historically, they haven’t had the same opportunities to work and succeed in our field. So, if you are serious about addressing this issue, it takes increased commitment in the long term—considering not only the numerical quotas and statistics of works we program in a single season, but also the general quality of opportunities we are providing at large.

A few months ago a scenario very similar to this one played out in a very public way. NPR media published a stirring article (“The Sound of Silence”) talking about the lack of diverse programming in major American symphony orchestra seasons. If you missed it, critic Alex Ross summed it up in a succinct, but damning tweet:

Alex Ross tweet

Responding to the intense scrutiny, the Philadelphia Orchestra actually re-worked some of their concert season, adding pieces by Anna Clyne and Stacey Browne, appointing Gabriela Lena Frank as a composer-in-residence, and scheduling a reading session in partnership with the American Composers Orchestra of six emerging female composers (who had previously worked with ACO).

These steps were an important short-term fix, and the orchestra knows the work is not done. Philadelphia Orchestra Artistic Administrator Jeremy Rothman was quoted in a follow-up article as saying, “We acknowledge there is still a great imbalance…At the same time, it’s certainly more productive than ignoring the conversation. When it’s pointed out, we are right to be responsive.”

So what are the larger ethical issues at stake in a case like this? One obvious problem is in demographic disparity. This is, to a large degree, a numerical or “quantitative” issue. The orchestra’s response had a meaningful impact in this regard, as they quickly restructured their season to feature nine female composers in some capacity, instead of zero. (And there may be a greater quantitative ripple felt, if other young female composers can look up to these nine as role models, and feel inspired to pursue orchestral composing as a result.)

Yet, other ethical issues should not have been overlooked. One major aspect of the discussion about female composers is that there are hundreds of talented and qualified female composers working in the field; so if we’re not programming them, it means we’re not taking the time to look broadly at their work (and at the work of all living composers) in the first place.

Where does the Philadelphia Orchestra fall on this issue? Are they committed to looking widely or not? I was not privy to artistic talks on these matters, but I do know that many other orchestras around the country have started public initiatives to review the work of emerging composers.[iii] Has the Philadelphia Orchestra considered anything like this?

Even in the case of this season, the orchestra agreed to feature six mid-career female composers in a reading workshop. But, they relied on the American Composers Orchestra, as a partner in the selection process. Going forward will we see more independent committment to exploring works of living composers from Philadelphia directly? When we feel the need to act urgently with short-term solutions, we may not address other long-term issues that are just as important.

Another issue: what steps are being taken within these major institutions to support and encourage composition education? Other orchestras (including ”Group 1” peers like the LA Phil and NY Phil) have pursued young composer programs in their education departments, giving students opportunities for mentorship and interaction with orchestra musicians. If (and hopefully as) more major institutions really commit whollistically to supporting composers by establishing education programs for students, supporting emerging composers with calls-for-scores or readings open broadly (not just to those previously selected by another organization), and taking a careful look at quantitative programming for established composers featured on their subscription season, we won’t end up with more NPR articles like “The Sound of Silence”[iv] because there is a wealth of amazing music out there that will end up being featured!

At the end of the day, when facing complex ethical dilemmas, it is not enough that we care; we must also take extra steps to ensure a complete outcome. This is where we often fall short as individual artists and larger institutions. The good news is, if we commit to ensuring a complete outcome, our institutions can transform and become a major platform for the opportunity and dissemination of vital creative work.


[i] There is a large archive of articles going back many decades on these subjects, and recently NewMusicBox and passionate individual artists in our field have been trying to shed light and start meaningful dialogue on these complex issues. Here are a few great articles: on issues of systemic racism in music by Anthony R. Green and Jack Curtis Dubowsky; and issues of gender bias and exclusion by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Kristen Kuster, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Rob Deemer (who includes links to many other articles in his work).

[ii] For those interested in running a call-for-scores or a competition, you may want to ask the advice of colleagues and ensembles who have organized these before, and you may also want to check out: https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/so-you-want-to-host-a-composition-competition/.

[iii] Some orchestras have run their own calls-for-scores and workshops for emerging composers for many years, including the Minnesota Orchestra, the American Composers Orchestra, the Nashville Symphony, the Milwaukee Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Houston Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and others; and many other orchestras including the Colorado Symphony, the San Diego Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and many regional orchestras, have teamed up with the Earshot Network to sponsor calls-for-scores and workshops.

[iv] I am optimistic the orchestra heard the message and that they are trying to address some of these issues on a deeper level (not just with a short-term fix).  They recently appointed two female conductors to their staff roster, and according to a recent press release, current Philadelphia Orchestra “Music Alive” Composer-in-Residence Hannibal Lokumbe has been active, both in taking music into community venues as part of his residency, and also helping to lead some “Composer’s Umbrella” workshops.  I’m hoping these, and other initiatives, will endure and feature more prominently in future seasons.

Ethical Artistry: Are we really asking ourselves these tough questions?

Outdoor string quartet performance

A little background: For more than two years, I worked to co-curate the Intricate Machines project with composer Phil Taylor and the Aizuri Quartet. Along the way, we had many discussions ranging from the pragmatic details of venue and budget, to deep artistic conversations about musical values. Our process challenged many of the assumptions we had about concert curation and presenting routines, showing us that no single set of guidelines apply to every project, and that decisions we made at every stage—from instrumentation to venue to repertoire—encompassed “lessons” that weren’t unique to us, or even to concert curation in general; instead, they were part of larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists.

So here we are. In a nutshell, over the next four weeks I will discuss the types of projects we pursue and who they benefit (Part 1); I will illustrate the complexity of certain decisions we face when running ensembles and curating concerts (Part 2); I will consider various ways we tend to evaluate our work (Part 3); and, I will argue that our efforts really do matter in terms of how we affect and reach others through our artistry (Part 4).


Pursuing Projects, Finding the Balance, & Reckoning with Artistic Guilt

It came as a surprise when I realized I’d been organizing, presenting, and performing contemporary music concerts for more than a decade. Sometimes these were really special projects near and dear to my heart, but more often they were rather pedestrian, fulfilling some calendar quota at a summer festival or university.

From a very young age musicians get lulled into the routine of these events, from holiday concerts in grade school to those tedious group studio recitals.

Later, in universities and conservatories, we perform degree recitals where our artistic choices are filtered through a rubric of academic requirements. They are often structured with a sort of formula or routine. For example, if you do a quick google search for “voice recital degree requirements,” dozens of similar rubrics pop up. (Here are a few from the University of North Texas and San Francisco Conservatory.)

These sorts of prescriptive recital curricula have strong educational value, ensuring that any student working through a degree program will develop targeted skills. Voice students, for example, will have practiced singing works in different languages, different mediums (e.g. art song, aria, oratorio, etc.), and different historical periods, and this will help in a variety of professional areas where they may later work.

Yet, in spite of their pragmatic design and pedagogical value, our students easily conflate that ticking off these sorts of checkboxes is the essence of what we are meant to do as artists. In fact, these recitals are not an end unto themselvesthey are meant to develop our skills so we have the versatility to pursue other far-reaching artistic endeavors!

When I first started curating concerts outside of school, I struggled to make this distinction. I was swept along in the entrenched patterns I trained under, and it was all too easy to keep my head down and just go with the flow—Hey, just tell me where/when the gig is and I’ll be there!rather than asking if my concerts and artistry were really reaching people in powerful ways.

Crowd Out w/David Lang

A performance of crowd out for 1000 untrained voices by David Lang, performed in Chicago, 2014
David T. Kindler, courtesy of Chicago Humanities Festival and Illinois Humanities

If we’re not careful, we can easily take for granted the ways in which our concerts provide a vital point of connection to a public audience that may or may not have an intimate knowledge of the musical world we inhabit. Because of this, we not only have a chance to connect to our audiences, but an obligation to help guide their concert experience in meaningful ways. If we don’t embrace this responsibility and challenge, we miss the opportunity to showcase the beauty and relevance of our unique artistic world, or worse, we risk turning people off from it.

Our concerts provide a vital point of connection to a public audience.

Why Am I (Are We) Doing This?

This is one of the toughest artistic questions we face, and one easy to run from when we curate a project. It is often easier to follow the steps of a well-defined rolelike gigging as a freelancer, enjoying the active musicking of performing in a community choir, or working as an employee in a professional ensemblethan it is to invent or craft our own projects.

But, at other times we do choose to step outside of these defined roles, pursuing projects in which we invest our own time, money, and mental energy. In these cases, what is the driving force? Is it a career boost? Is it a musical opportunity we don’t have elsewhere? Is it part of curatorial duties we fulfill with an ensemble? Is our project centered around an aesthetic idea, or a collection of repertoire and artists? Is the project fulfilling a social or cultural need in the community? Or maybe it’s a combination of these (and other) factors.

Understanding and deeply connecting to your project’s underlying artistic goals can inexorably guide your work. Your belief and passion is the basis around which others will connect to your ideas. Whether your project centers on a social movement, a set of composers, or even a vague artistic notion that you imagine but struggle to articulate in words, your conviction becomes a rallying cry that can reach others and transform them.

One of the most memorable concerts I ever attended was dancer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Fase (1982), a choreographic rendering of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, Come Out, Violin Phase, and Clapping Music staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the 2006 BAM Next Wave Festival.

 

For those unfamiliar with Fase (and with early Steve Reich), this setting lasts over 50 minutes, as each of the four Reich scores is played in its entirety. Unlike many of Reich’s later works, these early pieces are extremely limited in their materialrepeating a few small musical cells over and over and over, in phasing repetition. Keersmaeker’s choreography is similarly minimal and repetitive, focusing on a few gestures and movements that cycle again and again, closely mirroring the musical architecture in long, unvaried, stretches.

In other words: it’s long, extremely intense, and fairly boring in the sense that it provides very little variety or reprieve. But, for me, it was also nothing short of brilliant and inspiring!

Keersmaeker’s work had such conviction and dedication to its concept. Meanwhile, Keersmaker and Dolven performed with virtuosity, focus, and determination, sweeping me up in the experience, in spite of the fact that it was long and psychologically intense![1]

This was the type of concert experience that illustrated the visceral power of art and made me want to be a composer. Today, curating my own projects, I try to harness the type of conviction I saw in Fase as I craft projects to try and reach others.

Your convinction becomes a rallying cry that can reach others and transform them.

Unfortunately, as much as conviction can positively guide our artistry, a lack of conviction in programming ideas can also detract negatively. Sometimes our programming can be sort of lazy and half-hearted (e.g. going through the motions, checking off the boxes, etc.). At other times, we feel indifferent, making curatorial choices that are sort of random, or which we feel are minimally relevant. Perhaps scariest of all, we can take a nihilistic view that no programing decisions we make will really matter or affect others in a meaningful way.

I can’t force you to be morally optimistic, but I think a lot of us as artists and listeners have experienced moments of powerful personal reflection and transformation at a concert, and these moments seem to fly in the face of artistic pessimism. Whether it is towering sound giving us chills and goosebumps, or the depths of a haunting piece that ravages our emotions, or some unique communal experience we felt while participating together in a live musical event, it often feels like these revelatory moments result from musical conviction, not from coincidence.

In a word, if we ask ourselves, “Why am I even doing this?” and spend some time really thinking about our answer, I suspect it might guide us towards a sense of conviction that will reach others in a powerful way.

Who Does My Project Benefit? Be Honest, Not Guilty.

As artists, it is important to have autonomy and freedom. And, pursuing any kind of curation or concert project takes a lot of work. So we shouldn’t feel guilty about pursuing projects that deeply interest us, or that will benefit our career in an obvious way. (After all, we’re the ones putting the work inwriting grants, calling venues, renting equipment, and so on!) Furthermore, many of us see the value of projects oriented towards community or social justice, but are reticent to involve ourselves if we feel the projects won’t meaningfully contribute to our own artistic life and goals.

We shouldn’t necessarily feel guilty about any of these positions, but we also should be willing to face the music and admit that some projects we pursue primarily benefit ourselves, and some more widely engage with others.

Wrestling with this balance is largely the crux of what Elliot Cole discusses in his article “Questions I Ask Myself.” Cole notes how much of our musical work as contemporary composers is often structured around personal gain and value systems defined by the specialization of our field, rather than being focused on what it provides to communities outside of the field. Cole’s honesty, and his willingness to engage with these questions, are important steps to take in measuring the impact of our artistry. Are we lost in a monotonous flow of formulaic concerts and accepted practices for artistic work? And are we putting too much weight on awards-based paradigms as the main criteria of evaluating artistic work?

In thinking about many of Cole’s specific questions, and about my general query of who our concerts benefit, we might bear in mind two important considerations. First, we should evaluate our artistic efforts and impact according to a broad and long-term view. In a lifetime spent in the arts, we have a chance to pursue certain projects for ourselves, focusing on individual growth, career gain, and other personal considerations, while other initiatives we pursue primarily benefit others as we provide education, access to music, community engagement, and so on.

Second, the purposes and impacts of any one project can be manifold, meaning the event you are investing so much time and effort into can ideally benefit you and others at the same time. In fact, many times we start a project focused on its benefit to our career or artistry, but as it grows, we may find ways for the project to have a wider outward impact.

When Phil Taylor, the Aizuri Quartet, and I began work on the Intricate Machines project, our passion for presenting five powerful, recent, string quartet works guided many decisions. Audiences on our tour connected deeply to our conviction for the music, which had spawned the project in the first place. But the project also evolved over time, and we ended up leading composer guest talks at five different universities, as well as multiple outreach events with the Aizuris coaching teenage and collegiate string musicians. In the end, our project benefited our careers, while also impacting audiences and communities on a wider level.

If you look at your own career (or ensemble or series, etc.) what balance do you strike? Are your projects exclusively career oriented? Or, are you devoting substantial time towards community ventures, but putting your artistic growth on hold as a result? Is there a middleground you can find?

Maybe the core of the amazing artistic project you are pursuing (e.g. a recital, recording, commission, etc.) can stay the same, but you can find additional ways for the project to impact (or be accessed by) communities that might not otherwise experience it. Or, maybe the community project you spend so much time on can start to include repertoire or curation that will simultaneously benefit your career in a direct way.

These ideas and suggestions take time to pursue, and they may not apply to every project. But, when we take extra steps to think deeply about our artistic work, we often improve both the quality of our projects and the scope of their impact.

For me these two central issues—conviction in concert programming (“Why am I doing this?”) and audiences who are potentially impacted (“Who does my project benefit?”)—are an important litmus test. Some groups are striking a great balance in their work, while others, it seems, are hardly taking these issues into consideration.



1. I think others experienced the work in a similar way. John Rockwell, writing for the New York Times remarked, “It is dry, austere and long, the movements inevitably lacking the shimmering resonance of…Mr. Reich’s scores. But in its intensely focused way it’s still a masterpiece.”