Author: David Smooke

Excuse the Geek Out, Part 1

notesA couple of weeks ago in these august pixels, Alexandra Gardner asked “How much information does a composer working today attempt to convey to musicians through a written score?” Over the past few years, I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to this question.

In discussing this issue with my composition students, I sometimes begin by asking why they want to notate their music in the first place. In this day and age, we have many different methods by which we may convey information about our music, and printed scores can be relatively inefficient and can be devoid of the sorts of details that are important to the piece itself. Electronic pieces may exist solely as recorded sound, without any accompanying visuals whatsoever. Many rock musicians and other performers from aural traditions prefer to learn songs through collaborative performance and memorization, obviating the need for a score when creating music for these small traveling ensembles. Those of us working in similar genres may choose to eschew written representations of our ideas.

The main reason to create a musical score is to convey our compositional ideas to other performing musicians. Of course, this postulation leads to the next question: What do we consider our compositional ideas? Composers such as John Luther Adams and Arvo Pärt often pen entire pieces without giving the performer even a single dynamic marking. While on the surface these sparsely notated scores might appear to prioritize the pitches and rhythms, in practice these composers create a situation whereby the performer’s articulation, phrasing, and dynamic choices become part of the spiritual nature of bringing the music to life, as these pieces maintain their identity throughout a wide range of varied performances. Other composers attempt to convey their explicit wishes at every moment in the score, utilizing copious attention to detail in order to display the dramatic impetus for their works. I generally find that the more abstract the form of the piece, the more score detail that is necessary in order for the performers to understand their roles within the whole.

In my own music, I generally attempt to create scores that contain enough detail so that I may email PDFs to new performers and they can then perform the composition in a way that will convey my vision for the music. When I feel strongly about how a sound should be articulated, I try to be specific enough so that someone reading the score can hear the intended result. Conversely, when I believe that there are multiple ways of performing a motive that all could work within the context, or when I want a specific type of sound but am not certain as to the best way to achieve that sound (e.g.: I’ve generally found that percussionists have creative solutions for mallet selection that work better in my pieces than my initial thoughts), I try to give the performer the freedom to choose their own preferred solution. In general, when a musician presents multiple ways to play a line while respecting what I’ve put on the page, I ask them which they prefer and we go from there. If it is not in the score, I try to remain open to different ideas as to how something can be performed. If it is in the score, it is generally there because I feel strongly about that particular moment.

There are two situations that I try to convince my students to avoid. First, I attempt to prevent them from over-notating. If a line appears fussy and unmusical, I might ask them to perform it for me. We’ll then spend a little time discussing whether or not they’ve conveyed all the information on the page in an attempt to work towards the essential aspects of that moment. Second, I ask them to put the information that they believe is important into the score itself. When they bring large swaths of music without any dynamics or articulation, I might posit extreme interpretations that performers could bring to bear, in hopes that the student will remain open to all the possibilities conveyed by their score.

Thinking about these issues has led me towards some changes in my own notational style and system. Next week, I’d like to continue this geek out in order to present some of my personal solutions to these questions.

House Music

More and more often, musicians find that the typical career paths they assumed they would follow are closed to them. As regional orchestras go bankrupt or de-unionize and as schools of music turn away from full-time faculty with benefit packages towards contract faculty hired at miniscule pay without any additional support, those people who want to continue performing or composing need to create their own opportunities. Patrons with impressive supplies of willpower, vision, and energy who want to hear excellent music in their communities but who have limited access to the monetary resources necessary to prop up existing institutions realize that they must act if they want to preserve their favored art. While many people despair in the face of this rapidly changing paradigm, others take action. One of the most creative responses to these shifts in the musical landscape has been a renewed interest in house concerts and salon series.

In Baltimore, these independent venues have been cropping up throughout the city. A generous local resident with a nice piano and highly sophisticated palates for both art song and culinary adventure invites singers, including many students and alumni of the Peabody Conservatory, to give dinner recitals in his home. Megan Ihnen, a recent Peabody alumna, founded the Federal Hill Parlor Series in order to bring music and art events into her historic neighborhood, a place better known for its bars and restaurants than for its culture. Many larger buildings in the areas surrounding downtown have been converted into artist collectives with studio spaces, galleries, recording venues, and large open areas for readings and musical performances.

Andrea Clearfield, photgraph by John Hayes

Andrea Clearfield, hosting her Salon. Photograph by John Hayes.

Currently in its 25th anniversary season, the venerable Salon run by the Philadelphia-based composer Andrea Clearfield—who writes beautiful music and who has one of the most open sets of ears and generous souls of anyone I know—can serve as an paragon of all the elements necessary for a spectacularly successful house series. On the last Sunday of each month during the regular concert season, Andrea welcomes about 70 guests into her downtown loft home in order to enjoy music, dance, visual performance art, sound poetry, and any other type of presentation that can fit into the ten-minute slots and onto her living room stage.

I’ve had the great pleasure of performing as part of the Philadelphia Salon on four different occasions, and have heard musical styles including classical piano, song, and chamber music, several different styles of jazz, experimental improvisation, acoustic folk, traditional Turkish song, Argentinian tango/blues hybrid, and klezmer. Andrea creates new sonic confluences as the audience drifts through these seemingly disparate musical sounds, with the juxtapositions serving to open our ears to new experiences. The overall effect of hearing so many different genres of music in such a short time is to create an atmosphere that celebrates the possibility of finding beauty in all types of sonic expression.

The other reason why I keep returning to Andrea’s Salon is because of the audience she draws. Guests arrive expecting a variety of musical experiences, hoping to hear a variety of sounds. The vast majority of her patrons appear willing to explore any avenue that appears in an artist’s dreams, disregarding aesthetic boundaries while embracing the heartfelt expressiveness they hear in each presentation. The lack of any separation between the performance space and the seating area (along with the fact that the audience sits on the floor instead of in elevated chairs) allows for an immediacy of experience, a sense of firm contact between the people sharing the evening.

While the house concert cannot replace formal professional venues, these DIY presentations can fill a void in our communities. I heartily recommend supporting your local organizations. If you don’t have any concerts in your area that inspire you, I suggest presenting them yourself. And if you’re ever in Philadelphia on the last Sunday of a month, you should check out their Salon.

When I Say Forte…


In September 2010, the fantastic violinist Matt Albert posted to Thirteen Ways, the blog of the peerless new music ensemble eighth blackbird. In Albert’s post, “How Loud Is Loud,” he posited a framework for interpreting the dynamics found in musical scores.

In Albert’s system, everything begins with the mezzo-forte mark, which he perceives as meaning a “full sound” with “no extra effort.” From there, everything increases to fortissimo, or “max intensity” and decreases to pianissimo, or “intensely soft, like a scream from a mile away or a locked room.” He conceives of fortississimo and pianississimo as special markings, which necessitate sacrificing sound quality for effort so that, for example, in the quietest sections we accept dropped notes as the price for a line that approaches inaudibility.

I keep returning to Albert’s definitions, because I find that they accurately reflect my personal predilections as a composer. As I first began having my music performed by musicians outside of my immediate circle of friends, I invariably would ask them to exaggerate the dynamics. As I began coaching student and peer chamber ensembles who were learning my scores and those of my colleagues, in my attempts to make their interpretations more lively and dramatic I returned over and over again to this advice until it began to feel like a mantra. When performers apply Albert’s methodology, I no longer need to ask for this sort of exaggeration and can immediately turn to more subtle aspects of interpretation.

I’ve shared Albert’s post with many of my classes, and I find that the student performers can be surprisingly resistant to the idea of sacrificing tone quality for dynamic contrast. The students often declare that they can produce sound at higher decibel levels only through the purity of their timbre. Not only are they are afraid of their teacher’s responses, but they also worry that creating less than beautiful sounds might lead to poor habits and infiltrate their general musical style. In response, I argue—perhaps unconvincingly—that sometimes the physical dynamic level matters less than the perceived effort and that ugly sounds can be an important tool in our expressive repertoire.

I’ve become intrigued by this divide between the will of the performer towards beautiful tone and of the composer towards expressive variety. Certainly these two goals can coexist and even can enhance each other in order to create music that approaches the sublime; however, at times they appear incompatible. It’s when I’m in these latter situations that I can find myself at a loss. While I carefully choose all of the notes and rhythms within a score, I would happily sacrifice a few of the black dots and lines in service of enhanced expressivity. If asked to choose between two performances of my music where one is flat but accurate while the second interprets the score in an original way (derived from an analytic reading) while flubbing some details, I will prefer the more expressive performance every time.

As a composer, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work nearly exclusively with musicians who want to delve into my music in order to pull out the expressive qualities latent within the score. As an audience member, I’ve found that each year brings what seems like exponential growth in the number of ensembles and soloists who are prepared to create dramatic performances of brand new works. I believe that the influence of consummate professionals like Albert and the current members of eighth blackbird (among many other phenomenally gifted and intelligent musicians devoted to new music) has been a major factor contributing to this heartening trend. Thanks to these people, more and more musicians implicitly understand what I mean when I say forte.


I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate fellow Peabody faculty member Kevin Puts, who learned yesterday that he has been awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his opera Silent Night. Kevin shared a video of the Minnesota Opera production with the Peabody Composition seminar and I found the music to be incredibly beautiful, effective, and moving. I’m very happy to see that his incredible work has been recognized in this fashion.

Put a Bird on It!

putabirdonitThe first season of the show Portlandia introduced us to two artisans who help spice up the wares of knickknack stores. No matter the product, they are able to improve it, “spruce it up, make it pretty” by following their five-word mantra: “Put a bird on it!” As the bird images proliferate, I feel uplifted. I like birds and am invariably more attracted to decorative objects when they contain avian imagery. However, when overused, even I eventually find that bird silhouettes can lose their charm and fade into the background of over-adorned sameness.

Sometimes as I compose, I find myself turning back to the same creative solutions that worked in the past. No matter how different various projects may be, I can be tempted to impose the artistic tics that have embedded themselves deeply within my subconscious. Whether I’m working on the musical equivalent of a tote bag, a greeting card, or even a bird sculpture, I find myself putting a bird on it. Just like last year at this time, I’ve been working this spring towards seemingly impossible deadlines. (Note to self: don’t accept any projects with due dates next March or April.) As I’ve needed to speed up my work in order to meet the final, double-secret, last-chance due dates, I keep reminding myself not to fall into my usual solutions, to keep working creatively. Since I often utilize birdsong in my compositions, my fear of becoming the Put a Bird on It® composer is both literal and visceral.

Part of the reason why this issue is of special concern to me at this moment, beyond the usual deadline pressure, is related to the nature of the piece that I’m finishing: a concerto for amplified toy piano and chamber orchestra. As part of my work on this piece, I wrote a toy piano solo that began as a study towards the concerto but gradually grew into a major work in its own right. Now that I’m incorporating motives from this study into the main piece, the musical materials feel far too familiar to me. Some of these motivic fragments that began as part of the concerto now feel more attached to the solo and don’t want to become embedded in the new piece. Others slip so easily into the new piece that I’ve become concerned that they have wormed their way into my subconscious and will continue to appear unbidden in composition after composition.

Where should the line be drawn between my personal style and my overused crutches? At what point does a proclivity towards certain sounds pass the tipping point into cliché? I try to reassess my artistic goals periodically in order to ensure that I consider new ways of approaching musical problems. For me, it’s very important to take retreats, because without them I would continue to fall into the same creative traps over and over again. If the only item in my bag of tricks is a pretty bird, then I need to shop for new ones. As nice as bird calls can be, every piece doesn’t need a bird on it.

Lucky or Fortunate?

A recent New York Times Magazine profile of the excellent actor Peter Dinklage ends with him considering how happy he feels that he has been able to form a career playing complex characters in interesting projects. Dinklage has a very specific look and, like many different types of film and theater hopefuls, found that Hollywood wanted to typecast him into demeaning roles. He refused all of these parts, despite their alluring promise of making quick cash while working in his chosen field. In thinking about how far he has come, he said:

“I feel really lucky, although I hate that word—‘lucky.’ It cheapens a lot of hard work. […] Living in Brooklyn in an apartment without any heat and paying for dinner at the bodega with dimes—I don’t think I felt myself lucky back then. Doing plays for 50 bucks and trying to be true to myself as an”—here he put on a faux snooty voice—“artist and turning down commercials where they wanted a leprechaun. Saying I was lucky negates the hard work I put in and spits on that guy who’s freezing his ass off back in Brooklyn. So I won’t say I’m lucky. I’m fortunate enough to find or attract very talented people. For some reason I found them, and they found me.

I am struck by his formulation of the distinction between being blithely lucky as opposed to toiling at great cost and persevering through the great difficulty until finally being fortunate enough to find similarly minded people who recognize your talent. He recognizes that he owes his success to the kindness of others. He understands without those people, who have faith in him and in his vision, that he never would have been able to pursue the sorts of projects that interest him. And yet he also refuses to diminish the risks he took and the hardship he endured in order to maintain his artistic vision.

Since music is at heart a performance art, any degree of success in composition generally necessitates engendering excitement among possible supporters. For the most part, we need to inspire faith in performers and concert presenters in order to be able to present our pieces to the wider world. The act of bringing our music to life is essentially an act of collaborative artistry, but put to the service of projects that we conceive and create in hermetic solitude as part of a singular vision. Thus, music composition remains an essentially oxymoronic art form—it is inherently both collaborative and soloistic. Without an individual vision our music remains uninspiring, but without the assistance of others our music remains inanimate.

Budding composers who read Dinklage’s quote should take note of the two paths he proposes for artistic hopefuls. The path of least resistance would entail accepting the usual offers, whether or not they hold interest for you and even if you find them repellant or abhorrent. Those who chose this path might be guaranteed a measure of initial success and might find their ability to live comfortably while pursuing their art form helps them to continue in the field. The more difficult path involves remaining true to yourself despite society’s resistance, following your internal compass even as the greater world offers you enticing opportunities to deviate from your chosen course.

Those of you who follow the second path might eventually reap the fruits of your labors. Doing so would require a great deal of fortune, but would not mean that you are simply lucky.

The Genius Myth, Part Two

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Albert Einstein

GeniusLast week I began considering the pervasive genius myth and some of its ramifications. I postulated that a central aspect of our conception of the genius is in its removal from our quotidian experience, and that this distancing leads to two negative consequences: 1) our thinking that geniuses invariably lived in a different time and place has helped lead to an ossification of the classical orchestral repertoire, and 2) our belief that the products of the geniuses are exceptional absolves us of our responsibility to grapple with the issues raised by their work; because we are by definition unable to truly understand their arcane elements, we don’t need to make an effort to do so. Thus, as David St. Hubbins of the fictional band Spinal Tap most famously stated, “It’s such a fine line between stupid and, uh, clever.”

Another troubling aspect of the genius myth is that in application it invariably buttresses the status quo. In a world in which the default “composer” is white and male and in which other flavors of artists find their works shunted into sub-categories, we tend to reserve the center of the canon for those who most closely resemble the creators of the past. Indeed, the 2009 Encyclopedia of Feminist Literary Theory states that the “concept [of genius] is tied to gender and power in ways that cause problems for women,” and goes on to argue that “Romantic, Victorian and Modernist artists claimed that only ‘geniuses’ produced ‘great art’ and that only a man could be a ‘genius.’ However, in practice they defined ‘great art’ in contrast with the art of women and others who were labeled ‘inferior.’” This practice continues even today in much criticism.

In the music world, I think that the main way to stand against the racist and sexist applications of the term “genius” is to remember that some of the best art being created today was composed by people who are not white and male. We should ask ourselves why we’re neglecting to mention Saariaho, Gubaidulina, and Neuwirth in a discussion of the greatest European composers working today. Or if we’re considering orchestral music composed in the U.S., can we fully represent the range of excellence found in contemporary composers while neglecting Chen Yi, Jennifer Higdon, Shulamit Ran, Tan Dun, Joan Tower, Augusta Read Thomas, and Olly Wilson (just to pull a few names out of a hat)? Aren’t we doing ourselves a disservice when we write on American opera without mention of Anthony Davis and Deborah Drattell?

I’m not arguing for a watering down of standards or for us to have quotas. But with so much amazing music being created by so many different types of people, we should stop ourselves before producing yet another white male composer festival. Why would we blithely neglect to program music that might represent the unique concerns of more than 50% of our potential audience members? Why not question our choices in order to consider if the music we’re programming is indeed the best music out there. We might realize that we simply forgot about that composer who writes music that we adore but who we haven’t thought about in a while because they aren’t considered one of the usual suspects. Rob Deemer’s “A Helpful List” might be a good place to start looking if you need ideas for composer’s names.

By doing so, we will hopefully be able to re-define the idea of “genius,” working towards a connotation that’s more appropriate for our contemporary society. Until then, I suggest retiring the term entirely and casting about more broadly to find the best music currently being created.

The Genius Myth, Part One

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Albert Einstein

Dear Reader, indulge me, if you will, in a little experiment. I’d like for you to please imagine a genius, someone named “Smarty.” Picture Smarty on an average day. What does Smarty look like? In what field does Smarty work? In what era does Smarty live?

GeniusChances are that your genius was someone removed from your quotidian experience. If you’re a composer, you probably imagined a scientist from the early 20th century. If you’re a scientist you likely pictured a musician from the 19th century or earlier. Chances are fairly good that you imagined a white male with disheveled hair, unless, of course, your mental image of genius derives from the Road Runner cartoons in which Wile E. Coyote had business cards printed identifying his occupation solely as “Genius.”

If you Google the phrase “contemporary composer genius” your results will include pages devoted to Benjamin Britten, César Cui (?!), John Cage, Bach, Mozart, and other dead composers, with Philip Glass holding down the fort as the only living representative one finds among those determined by Google’s algorithm to be the most relevant. Obviously, this idea of the dead white composer-genius is outdated, at best. Yet it remains pervasive and, as this notion is applied to contemporary music, it remains problematic and unhelpful. I would like to propose shelving the very idea of the genius composer.

When 19th-century composers looked to Beethoven as the embodiment of the musical ideal, they were arguing for the contemporary currency of his rapidly aging compositions. They felt that Beethoven’s music deserved a continuing place in the repertoire, a newly developing notion, since concerts had previously been filled with the newest possible sounds. Their refusal to let the music of Beethoven fade into obscurity—and their revival of earlier composers—led to the development of the concept of a standard repertoire, focused on music of the past instead of the present. This 19th-century vision of the orchestral repertoire remains in place as we move well into the 21st century, and Beethoven’s visage has ossified as the Platonic ideal of the composer-genius.

We love the idea of the genius, of the Promethean figure descended from on high to bring knowledge to humanity. This Übermensch stands apart from the masses, pulling them forcibly into a future that they can neither understand nor appreciate. We embrace this notion because on the one hand it allows us to imagine ourselves as being among the limited numbers of initiates who can be trusted with the arcana, while on the other hand simultaneously absolving us of our responsibility in the matter—it’s not our fault that we can’t follow the meaning behind the music because we can’t all be geniuses.

When we can’t understand the basic elements of the discussion, we also can’t discern the distinction between the sublime revolutionaries and the ridiculous charlatans. In this sense, the label of “genius” can function as a way to dismiss art that we don’t understand. We’re saying that we cannot be expected to comprehend the art that makes us uncomfortable or that stretches beyond our immediate ability to analyze its constituent elements. And if we have no way to enter into a dialogue with these creations, then we cannot be held responsible for the relative value of the work. Therefore when I describe an artist as a genius, I’m telling you that I don’t understand the art and that I believe you won’t either.

This link between the idea of genius and our inability to comprehend the genesis of their creations is why our initial vision of the personification of the genius was someone removed from our daily existence. When you’re a scientist, you understand the work that goes into designing and then carrying out experiments. You have an intuitive sense of the road that one needs to travel to gain the sorts of skills necessary in order to be responsible for a leap in our understanding of the world around us. Similarly, when you’re a composer, you know how much training you’ve undertaken in order to master the ability to conceive of new sounds. When a new theorem or treatment of harmony arises, those working within the field have the tools necessary to assess the resulting work. Of course, even these experts will disagree as to the relative value of these new concepts, but they also will have a basis for considering them as coming from our human understanding instead of springing fully formed from the brain of a god.

I hope that we can emphasize the humanity of those creators who push the limits of our understanding. By doing so, I believe that we will be more inclined to grapple with those issues that push the limits of our mental capacities.

Spring Forward

Daylight savings timeIdeated by Benjamin Franklin and first implemented during World War I, daylight savings time keeps stretching further and further into our year. Originally intended to conserve energy by extending the amount of natural light available for daily activities, studies have found that the redistribution of the hours so that sunrise and sunset each arrive later might lead to greater energy consumption while helping stimulate the economy—with more daylight hours remaining after work, people are more inclined to leave their homes to shop or eat at restaurants. Because of the uptick in retail sales associated with the time changes, we keep extending the portion of the year spent in the non-standard time. Originally, we moved our clocks forward into daylight savings time in April and back to standard time in October. Currently, most of the U.S. spends one week shy of eight months in daylight savings time (Arizona and Hawaii remain on standard time throughout the year).

In Baltimore, this year’s time change has been accompanied by extraordinarily beautiful weather, with mild sunny days giving way to refreshing overnight rain. Abundant daffodils dot the gardens and the blossoms on cherry and tulip trees are beginning to unfurl.

Each spring, I teach a graduate music theory seminar in song analysis. We consider the relationship between poetry and music, and how they work together to create specific denotative meaning. The class begins by discussing “Come Lovely and Soothing Death” from George Crumb’s Apparition, with its conflation of spring imagery and renewed mourning, and currently we’re in the midst of an in-depth examination of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, in which the flowers and birds of spring evoke memories of lost love. Part of the visceral enjoyment that we derive from these songs arises from this unexpected juxtaposition of hermit thrush or nightingale songs and lilacs or lilies with opposing emotional reactions.

For me, this year’s time change and move towards spring have elicited a refreshing renewal of creative energy. I’m working towards the completion of projects whose deadlines quite recently had appeared menacingly improbable. As the burnout I experienced this winter slowly fades, I see new paths emerging that had been hidden from my view. Artistic conundrums that had seemed overwhelming suddenly appear manageable.

Most years, I abhor the start of daylight savings time. I like morning sunshine, and the first few weeks that I’m forced to awaken in darkness again can feel onerous. The loss of an hour always seems to arrive in the midst of a crunch of deadlines. I find it difficult to understand why we keep switching back and forth between two different time streams, and wonder why we can’t simply remain in daylight or in standard time. However, this year the arrival of the new time seems to have functioned as the true harbinger of a new season. The spring forward appears to have awakened my creative drive. I hope that all the readers of NewMusicBox are experiencing a similar renewal of energy.

By the Numbers

Last week, the website “Vida: Women in Literature” published their 2011 count. This series of pie charts visualizes the ratio of female to male representatives in various categories—including published fiction, book reviewers, authors reviewed—at some of the most prestigious periodicals in the fiction world. As an example, The New York Review of Books, considered one of the most important publishers of criticism on contemporary works, contracted with female reviewers 21% of the time (roughly four male reviewers for every female) in order to talk about books whose authors skewed 82% male. The New Yorker performed marginally more equally, with 28% of their articles generated by female authors and exactly one third of their “Briefly Noted” reviews devoted to works by women. A quick scroll through the statistics shows most publications representing women in the 20–30% range, with Granta standing alone as the only publication who published more women than men overall. For more context on these numbers, I recommend Danielle Pafunda’s “The Trouble with Rationalizing the Numbers Trouble”.

I’ve been following the online reaction to these numbers with interest. Writers from all walks of life quickly condemned the ratios, and many of the editors promised to look into improving the equality of gender representation within their pages. Although there are obviously many people who defend current practices, the literary community appears to have reached an overall consensus that this sort of inequality is wrong and should be corrected.

The main thing that struck me about these numbers is this: If they had been generated by concert presenting organizations they would have seemed exceptionally progressive.

I co-founded the ensemble League of the Unsound Sound, which has presented four different concert programs over two seasons. Since I try to be aware of gender inclusivity, as part of our programming, I took care to ensure that each concert included at least one female composer. As our ratio of 5 works by female composers compared to 13 by male composers shows (when considering specific pieces as represented on distinct concert programs—repeated programs at multiple venues are considered as a single concert), the literary community would have considered my efforts to be an abject failure.

LotUS Programming

I wondered how LotUS compared to other new music ensembles, and so I unscientifically perused the websites of some of my favorite groups. I want to emphasize that I chose the following groups because I think they are all wonderful and also because their sites made the data easily available. Each of these ensembles is comprised of amazing performers who I would pay to hear perform any repertoire, and I believe that they are among the most progressive programmers in the U.S. today. In short, I only included artists for whom I have the utmost respect and who I believe care about working towards gender equality in their programming. If I took the time to check other groups, I strongly believe that the ones listed below would remain among the most equal in their gender distribution. This makes the data that much less encouraging.

Before continuing, I need to stop for an important caveat. The Vida site spends months compiling and checking their statistics. They look at the same publications over years. Their charts are created with a scientific rigor that I am not trying to equal. I compiled the data for the charts and ratios below by quickly perusing the websites of some of my favorite organizations. I might have miscounted. Please consider the following as rough estimates only.

Now celebrating their 25th anniversary, Bang on a Can has long been on the vanguard of new music, and so I was not surprised that the listed ensemble repertoire for the Bang on a Can All Stars displayed the most equality among the ones I counted. Their ratio of 13 works by women compared to 47 by men composers counts as the highest percentage of women among those surveyed.

BOAC Repetoire

Other of my favorite new music groups all showed gender distributions with more than four men represented for every woman. The incredible JACK Quartet lists 100 pieces in their repertoire, of which 12 are by women. According to their website, Eighth Blackbird has been responsible for the creation of an astonishing 100 commissions, of which 18 are by women. Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente, prints event listings that show that they have programmed 75 works this concert season (when considered like LotUS so distinct concert programs are counted separately but the same set of pieces performed in multiple venues is only counted once), 7 of which are by women. The current repertoire list of Alarm Will Sound names 65 different works, of which four are exclusively by women, one is an arrangement of the all-female band the Shaggs, and one is a John Lennon/Yoko Ono collaboration.

JACK Quartet Repetoire

Eighth Blackbird Commissions

Ensemble Dal Niente stats

AWS Repetoire

As I state above, I chose these groups because I imagine that they are among the most progressive programmers working today (and also because their websites are organized so that this data is easily available). I believe each of the ensembles I cite above has artistic directors that keep the goal of gender equity in mind when they determine their concert repertoire. It seems that we still have to travel far in order to achieve true equality.

Truth and Consequences

The very concept of artistic originality is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before Beethoven, composers considered themselves craftspeople. Mozart’s position in the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg was officially above the cooks but below the valets, and Bach produced a cantata a week for over two years, in addition to his other composing and performing duties. (When I think about this latter fact, it completely boggles my mind, because I don’t think I could copy a score and parts by hand for a cantata a week, much less with a quill pen, while actually composing the work itself.) While earlier composers were writing for specific occasions with no expectation that their works would survive that single performance, the Romantic era ushered in a newfound obsession with originality of voice and the idea of artistry as being born out of original creative obsession. This 19th-century notion of artistic value continues to hold sway.

It’s important to remember the central position occupied by the concept of the composerly voice in discussions of artistic merit when considering the current discussions around the borrowing within Osvaldo Golijov’s Sidereus. Already, many people have weighed in on the issues raised by Golijov’s indebtedness to Michael Ward-Bergeman’s Barbeich, including Rob Deemer’s “A Real Mess,” an excellent assessment of the situation complete with an easy-to-follow history of the commission on NewMusicBox, Anne Midgette’s “From Pastiche to Appropriation,” and Alex Ross’s “The Golijov Issue.” If you’re unfamiliar with the situation, I suggest that you read all of these well-reasoned and objective articles about a difficult issue: whether Golijov’s creative sins reach the level of artistic crimes. Of course, I’m not accusing Golijov of an actual crime. Indeed, it appears that he very careful assured himself of operating within the letter of the law, including crafting an agreement with Ward-Bergeman that remains satisfactory to both parties. Still, I maintain that Golijov’s approach to Sidereus was wrong and that the new music community should continue to pressure him to openly address the situation.

I have known Golijov’s music for over 20 years. When I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing the music of their doctoral students in an orchestration/composition class led by Crumb and on their graduate student recitals. The skill and creativity among the student composers continually astonished me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the new works by such students as Jennifer Higdon, Pierre Jalbert, and Robert Maggio. To me, Golijov’s music stood head and shoulders above all the others, and I became such a strong fan that I even asked him for recordings of etudes that he composed for our class. When I stumbled upon the Kronos Quartet recording of his Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, the way that he updated the Klezmer sound with beautiful extended techniques and evocative string writing renewed my adoration of his music. Soon thereafter, I began to read about his La Pasiòn and was happy to discover that his music was reaching a wider audience. However, when I finally was able to hear the piece for myself, I was left feeling very cold about the whole experience. I could understand how the collaborative nature of the work might excite others, but to me it felt like the Venezuelan and contemporary classical elements never cohered and that the whole was less than the sum of its parts. For me, all of his music that followed had a similar issue in that the pieces appeared to be style amalgamations rather than composed works. For years, I kept trying to find the spark that had first kindled my love for his music, but each new work left me feeling colder and colder.

La Pasiòn functioned as a collaboration in which roughly half of the artistry of the work derived from the incredible performances of the Luciana Souza and the Schola Cantorum de Caracas. The nature of the work seemed clear: Golijov brought these amazing performers into the concert hall sphere and surrounded them with musical materials that allowed them to express their excellent musicality. That they stood on stage and performed as part of the piece helped to maintain the central notion of the work as one that unified various, seemingly disparate elements.

To me, the central problem with Sidereus is that Golijov now seeks to hide the contributions of his collaborative artists. In essence, he utilized Ward-Bergeman as a ghostwriter in the tradition of Robert Ludlum’s posthumous novels or an “as told to” autobiography. This practice is widely accepted in literature and shouldn’t be problematic in the slightest, except in situations like Charles Barkely’s 1991 “autobiography” Outrageous, co-written by Roy S. Johnson, which Barkely maintains misquoted him in several passages. The distinction is this: no one ever would consider Ludlum for a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and no ghostwritten autobiography would be eligible for a National Book Award. Golijov has enjoyed extraordinary accolades from organizations like the MacArthur Foundation and the Grammy Awards, while not being honest about the amount of responsibility he bears for the works under his name.

At this moment, I must believe that Golijov was aware that his borrowing was wrong and that he tried to hide it. First, although he does credit Ward-Bergeman in a program note available on the Boosey website, he does so in a manner that is entirely misleading. Golijov writes:

For the “Moon” theme I used a melody with a beautiful, open nature, a magnified scale fragment that my good friend and longtime collaborator, accordionist Michael Ward Bergeman came up with some years ago when we both were trying to come up with ideas for a musical depiction of the sky in Patagonia. I then looked at that theme as if through the telescope and under the microscope, so that the textures, the patterns from which the melody emerges and into which it dissolves, point to a more molecular, atomic reality. Like Galileo with the telescope, or getting close to Van Gogh’s brushstrokes.

To call this misleading is somewhat generous, for when you listen to the two pieces side by side the later work orchestrates the melody and accompaniment without changes to the melody itself, to the harmony, or even to the arpeggiation pattern, but with an additional introduction and coda. Golijov eschews such basic variation techniques as ornamenting the melody or interpolating passing harmonies between the structural chords. When I try to imagine the sort of compositional techniques Golijov describes in his program note, I keep returning to one of my favorite works of the 20th century, a piece that takes a traditional melody and puts it through exactly the sorts of processes Golijov describes, the second movement of Olly Wilson’ s masterpiece A City Called Heaven.

In addition, in 2009 Golijov “wrote” a commission for WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Inaugural Concert for Ethel and Michael Ward-Bergeman called Radio. In this interview and performance John Schaefer believes that the work was composed specifically for the event while Golijov nervously laughs a little as he credits Ward-Bergeman and Jeremy Flower as collaborators who “not only are performing but also were creating perhaps the best parts of the piece” (at the 55 second mark of the linked video). That he credits both of these artists similarly adds yet another disturbing layer, for it makes me wonder if the interesting electronics layered in the introduction of the piece, beginning at the 4:04 mark of the linked video, were created by Flower or by Golijov. When you listen to the now-famous music beginning at 6:44, you will undoubtedly realize that not only was Sidereus an unoriginal work, it was not even a new Golijov composition.

The fact that Golijov continues to change the title of the piece as it moves through its various orchestrations forces me to believe that he intended to cover his tracks, to hide the fact that he continues to recycle the works of other composers while taking credit for their work. I hope that he addresses these issues soon and that we continue to discuss the issues of what we expect when we commission an original work from a single composer.