Author: Derek Bermel

Lift Every Orchestral Voice

[Ed. Note: When the American Composers Orchestra (ACO) announced its 2018-19 season last month, music critic Alex Ross immediately noticed that the repertoire for the orchestra’s concerts at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall was written exclusively by living female composers except for one lone piece by the late Morton Feldman. Since then, Ross’s tweet about it was retweeted 40 times. Granted it is only two concerts, but it was a welcome piece of news, especially after several major American orchestras had announced 2018-19 seasons that did not include a single work by a female composer. Thankfully, the season announcements by the Seattle Symphony and the Los Angeles and New York philharmonics that soon followed proved to be more equitable. Still, all these announcements drove home the message that the orchestra world has a long way to go to achieve real diversity, not just in terms of having a better gender balance, but also in terms of racial, generational, geographic, and stylistic equity. Composer Derek Bermel, who is currently ACO’s artistic director, has long been an articulate advocate for more pluralistic musical aesthetics and the ACO has a 40+ year track record for advocating for offering performance opportunities to an extremely broad range of composers. Given his stance and his position, we thought that Bermel would have some interesting insights into how orchestras could make their programming more diverse.—FJO]

An intro

“One day I’ll jump. Out of my skin. I’ll shake the sky like a hundred violins.” – Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street

The American Composers Orchestra’s next season of concerts at Carnegie Hall has attracted some attention because most of the composers represented are women. The truth is that we just programmed good music, and most of the composers turned out to be female. It’s not that we didn’t notice, but we didn’t sound the trumpets. ACO has a long history of programming works composed by women—well over two hundred in 40 years—so statistically next season is not such an anomaly. The mission of our orchestra frees us to dream, because we’re not required to program the “canon.” And our vision statement includes a commitment to the three Ds, “diversity, disruption and discovery,” which all point toward wider gender representation.

As a white, male composer, it’s not without trepidation that I grapple with the topic of diversity in the orchestral world; my demographic cohorts have been the main beneficiaries of the status quo since the first dissonances clanged forth. But access is a subject about which I care deeply, and my position at ACO gives me a glimpse into a quite conservative world, albeit at an institution that tries to work against the grain. So this essay is written in the spirit of shedding light on the murky process of programming and how it might be reoriented to serve shared values. I hope that these thoughts, rather than attempting to signify some kind of “woke” status, can help stimulate more discussion, within our field and beyond.

There but for the grace of God go I

Diversity has been a defining feature of American identity since the country’s inception.

The word diversity gets bandied around a lot, and in today’s ultra-partisan environment it has incurred political baggage. But the etymological root, the Latin diversus or “difference,” is a perfect fit for creative artists, who tend to depart from the norm (usually to a high degree)! For me the word resonates most brilliantly in the broadest possible context: referring to artistic imperatives—including style, process, technique, and genre—but also to personal attributes like gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, age, and geographic distribution. Diversity has been a defining feature of American identity since the country’s inception, interwoven with our history and our sociology, and I am convinced that it’s the source of our strength.

My dad was a European Jew who lived through World War II, and my mom was born in New York City during the Great Depression. Both my parents were raised by single mothers. My brother and I had a childhood that was less scrappy, but our upbringing was shaped by an outlook that nothing could be taken for granted. We were lucky to grow up in a community of peers hailing from a multitude of cultural backgrounds, in an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect. There certainly were challenges, and I saw the ugliness of bigotry and racism up-close, but it was always clear to me that achieving and sustaining diversity was possible with dialogue and persistence.

Around the time I attended college, I began to notice and understand more about privilege. At the time I didn’t use that term, but it’s the best word to describe the entitlement that I encountered, in even mundane interactions. At first I saw privilege uniquely as a consequence of wealth, only later recognizing that it also encompassed other qualities, some of which I possessed by virtue of simply being me.

It’s very human to perceive our lack as opposed to our luck.

The tricky thing about privilege is that there’s always someone at whom we can point who seems to be more privileged than we are. And it’s very human to perceive our lack as opposed to our luck, so we may easily believe that we’re not the fortunate ones. All this is to say that I miss the diverse and tolerant community from which I emerged, and I am aware that rediscovering that sensibility is partly my own responsibility. Therefore I seek to apply it in music, feeling strongly that the best of human experience is not found in sameness.

No country for new music

Since the 20th century, one aspect of American orchestral programming has been pretty consistent: living composers are sidelined. Less new music begets less diversity on all levels. This truth is painfully self-evident at orchestral concerts, especially with respect to equity and inclusion (also variety of musical style, but that would require a whole separate discussion!). Even when contemporary music does appear on a program, the percentages of work by women and composers of color are infinitesimal.

Living composers are sidelined.

I’ve spoken to several artistic administrators and conductors who insist that their audiences aren’t asking for more of the new; their internal research shows that their audience wants to hear what they already know. When I hear that argument, I think, “Well, of course! Audiences haven’t experienced what they don’t know, so how could they possibly be clamoring for it?” One of the responsibilities of curators is to introduce the public to work they didn’t know existed or to help bring it into being. Five years ago, how many regular music theater patrons were yearning to see a hip-hop musical? We all know that answer: very, very few. Today it’s impossible to get tickets for Hamilton. Some of that audience is coming from outside the typical music theater audience; all the better!

Much frustration is being vented at larger classical music institutions, whose very traditional programs are coming under increased scrutiny from the press and on social media. Some foundations and philanthropists are also showing signs of restlessness, especially in light of declining attendance. In response, within artistic and executive management there has been a great deal of discussion about the canon, and what steps orchestras might take to imagine a new, more inclusive repertoire as a path toward achieving longevity. Many are actively seeking solutions to the lack of ethnic and gender diversity as it relates to both performers and repertoire.

Large institutions can take years to change direction, however, and for change to be lasting it must be embraced by the board and identified in the organization’s mission statement. Then a process has to be created to achieve those objectives. Some non-profit entities have developed clear language to help bring their mission in line with the kind of inclusive world they would like to see.

Embedding a composer

I’ve noticed that the relatively small step of embedding a composer in the administration not only helps the organization to address the “canon” issue, it can also lay the groundwork for solving questions of relevance in the community. A case in point is the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where longstanding curatorial and advisory relationships with living composers have helped the orchestra stay vibrant in its programming. Next season’s impressive centennial commissions feature a diverse mix of old and new voices; rather than marginalizing or apologizing for the presence of contemporary composers, it boldly highlights living music. This would likely never have happened without a tradition that included the composer-advisor as an essential component in the organization; and while this decision may alienate a few audience members, it encourages the rest to enjoy new perspectives. The LA Phil’s mission, after all, is “to perform, present, and promote music in its varied forms at the highest level of excellence to a diverse and large audience.”

Embedding a composer in the administration lays the groundwork for solving questions of relevance.

A peek at the Seattle Symphony’s next season demonstrates a similar commitment to a diverse range of composers, in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, age, country of origin, and style. It’s probably not a coincidence that this orchestra also enjoys a long history of working with composers-in-residence; the most recent is Alexandra Gardner. Other smaller orchestras—Albany, Alabama, Princeton, to name a few—perform a healthy percentage of new work in their seasons. And, as a bonus, commissioning diverse, contemporary composers renders the orchestras immediately more attractive to foundations, government, and potential new audience members.

I often reflect on the fact that 90 years ago orchestras were all-male, in response to which concerted efforts were made to open up access to women. The Sphinx Organization is attempting to offer equality of opportunity to two of the most underrepresented groups in America—African-American and Latinx musicians. Why not strive for similar access among composers? Let’s not kid ourselves; in America, white men are less than a third of the citizenry. Within a population of more than 100 million Asians, Latinx, African-Americans, and Native Americans, the country is merely facing a crisis of vision and will.

In America, white men are less than a third of the citizenry.

It’s precisely for this reason that affirmative action came into being. ACO’s President Ed Yim articulated it this way: “The goal is to make the pool of opportunities bigger so that gender and ethnic parity does not mean fewer slots for anyone. Quality and parity are not opposing forces.” In our field, this necessitates a fresh approach to artistic planning: a commitment to listen to a great deal of music that may be unfamiliar and to investigate new pathways to find that music. It demands a deeper engagement than simply programming what a few powerful publishers, public relations firms, or journalists promote.

Nevertheless, they persist…

Every month multiple articles dramatically sound the death-knell of either orchestral music or classical music in general. Yet composers blithely or wantonly continue to ignore these dire pronouncements, producing more orchestral music than ever. Each year ACO receives hundreds of scores for the Underwood New Music Readings as well as the Earshot Network Readings hosted at orchestras across the country, and that’s one way we learn about the multitude of emerging voices. Some of our mentors and advisors have also helped establish major programming initiatives, including themes centered on diversity. As an example: about 20 years ago ACO decided that it needed to do more for Latinx composers and launched Sonidos de las Américas, delving into Latin American orchestral music by focusing on a different region each year. It was composer and conductor Tania León who navigated the orchestra through six seasons of existing revolutionary repertoire as well as commissions from composers from Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico—some from a concert music tradition, some fluent in Latin music, jazz, and other genres.

A second example: When I became involved with the orchestra, we were in the early stages of formulating the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute. Composers from a background in jazz (and other Afrological musics)—with profound and distinctive sensibilities in harmony, counterpoint, texture, rhythm, and form—were largely missing from American concert music in general, and notably from symphonic music. Composer and musicologist George Lewis helped conceive of and foster the program we continue today, mentoring jazz composers and facilitating readings and performances of their orchestral work. These programs are just the tip of the iceberg, both designed with an eye toward more inclusion, equity, and diversity of creative voices.

Living composers also help unlock America’s multifaceted musical past.

Living composers also help unlock America’s multifaceted musical past. Wynton Marsalis has championed and promoted Duke Ellington’s entire catalog, including many lesser-known compositions. Trevor Weston created a critical edition of Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement from surviving manuscripts. Mary Lane Leach painstakingly gathered and documented Julius Eastman’s scattered catalog. The quartet of Marylou Williams, T.J. Anderson, Gunther Schuller, and William Bolcom were integral in bringing Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha to life.

A catalyst for change

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” –Mahatma Gandhi

Of course not everything that ACO commissions and performs will become part of the “canon” of the future. But over 40 years, a legacy of commissioning—more than 350 works by a diverse range of composers—has added substantially to the repertoire. And more recently we have partnered with the League of American Orchestras and the Toulmin Foundation to commission women composers. In this way we hope to be a catalyst for change. ACO is currently loading all our past concerts and readings onto a database accessible from our site, another resource for interested parties.

In the present day, our most profound contribution may be as a prototype. Many forward-looking conductors and orchestra administrators seek advice from us on a regular basis: Whom might they commission? Could we help them design an American music festival? How can they host a reading for young composers, local composers, composer/performers, African-American composers, electronic-music composers, LGBTQ composers, jazz composers, film composers, women composers, and so on?

And of course beyond ACO a whole host of other institutions can help in this quest: orchestras devoted to new repertoire, such as BMOP and the Chicago Composers Orchestra; service institutions for contemporary music, such as ASCAP, BMI, the League of American Orchestras, the American Composers Forum, Composers Now, and New Music USA; university archives like Yale’s Oral History of American Music (OHAM) assembled by the visionary Vivian Perlis, the Latin American Music Center at Indiana University founded by Juan Orrego-Salas, or the recently unveiled Women Composers Database compiled by Rob Deemer at SUNY Fredonia.  This list just scratches the surface.

Bird’s eye view

We composers are not alone. There are similar systemic imbalances present in other performing arts organizations and in the pipelines to these organizations. In music education, huge gulfs exist in access to quality instruction, role models, instruments, and resources; these deficits dramatically skew the pool of creators, performers, and administrators who emerge. In any comprehensive discussion of marginalization and access, involving the next generation’s widest possible pool is a vital component.

“Stay hopeful and do uncomfortable things.”

Those who truly love discovering new orchestral voices may find the task invigorating and rejuvenating. I once attended a lecture by the public interest lawyer and justice advocate Bryan Stevenson, who defends many death row inmates. He advised people in the audience to “stay hopeful and do uncomfortable things.” I found that statement to be oddly comforting and inspiring as a way to move forward in society to effect positive change. It’s also a powerful motto for making art.

Why Louis is Different

Louis Andriessen
Photo © by Jeffrey Herman, used with permission

Last week I was thrilled to read that Louis Andriessen had been awarded the 2011 Grawemeyer Award for his opera La Commedia. My thoughts turned to the hundreds of young composers from all over the world who have studied with Louis over the past thirty years. This year’s award carries special meaning in America, since Louis—apart from being one of our era’s great composers in his own right—has become one of the most important mentors for two generations of American composers, a modern Nadia Boulanger or Darius Milhaud with a Dutch accent.

The Grawemeyer citation recognized that Andriessen “uses Dante’s epic poem as a springboard for subtle and ironic commentary on modern life.” La Commedia is a tour-de-force, a work that simultaneously evokes mankind’s fragility and awesome powers of destruction. A stunning, evening-length opera, it is monumental in its depth and daring, a fitting sequel to the impertinent and relentless Rosa, the alternately dark and light Trilogy of The Last Day, and the passionately austere Writing to Vermeer. Louis does not shy away from profound and complex subjects, be they Plato’s laws or Dante’s ruminations about heaven and hell. Listening to the American premieres, both at Disney Hall in Los Angeles and at Carnegie Hall in New York, I was reminded of his global sensibility, one of the reasons why I wrote to him back in 1993, requesting a place in his studio.

From an early age I had dreamed of studying composition abroad. The stories of young Americans heading to Paris (Copland, Thomson, Carter, Piston, and a later generation—Quincy Jones, Bill Bolcom, Philip Glass, etc.) seemed an inspiring rite of passage. I was also aware that many of our greatest jazz musicians—like Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor—had also found tolerance and a sympathetic audience for their work in Europe. I hoped to explore new aesthetic pathways and to immerse myself in a European contemporary sensibility. But I also wished to work with a mentor who had a familiarity with and an appreciation for American (especially African-American) vernacular music. As I scanned the horizon of possibilities, the most logical one seemed to be traveling to Amsterdam to work with Andriessen.

At the time, I already knew several of his larger pieces, having been especially struck by the dark grandeur of his opera De Materie. Listening with rapt fascination to the pulsing, shifting De Staat, the Ivesian Anachronie I, the jocular whirlwind of De Stijl, the relentless Hoketus, the hypnotic Hout, and the biting wit of M is for Man, Music, and Mozart, I recognized that Louis’s music, while bearing hallmarks of the European avant-garde, clearly embraced American sounds and rhythms. Like Stravinsky and Ravel, Louis was omnivorous, filtering art, political theory, philosophy, and scientific texts from all over the world in a manner uniquely his own. And like his American contemporary Steve Reich, Louis formed his own ensembles when existing forces didn’t suit his artistic tastes and composerly needs.

I can’t claim that seeking out Louis was an original idea; he had been a frequent guest at Yale University and at Tanglewood, and a steady stream of Americans had already trekked to Amsterdam to study with him. Some of them have remained in Holland—David Dramm, Ron Ford, and Jeff Hamburg—while others returned to the States—Julia Wolfe, Michael Fiday, Jack Vees, and Jay Alan Yim. My decision was nonetheless quite personal; it was an appealing idea to study with a composer who found as much inspiration in Jimmy Yancey, Charlie Parker, and Steve Reich as he did in Bach, Ravel, and Berio.

Louis continually acknowledged his debt to American music and culture, even as he was quick to rail against unbridled American capitalism and the materialistic culture that often accompanied it. Yet one cannot possibly mistake his music for that of an American. Like Mondriaan’s paintings, Louis’s music is jazzy, but filtered through a harmonic, rhythmic, and philosophical prism that is unmistakably European, unmistakably Dutch in fact.

He welcomed and encouraged international students to revel in Amsterdam’s cosmopolitan and open-minded scene. A city that rose to prominence in the Renaissance, Amsterdam experienced a second renaissance in the late 20th century, and Louis was a key player in its re-emergence as a center for the contemporary arts.

The first night that I arrived in town, Louis invited me to a show, and naturally I accepted, though I was heavily jetlagged. “This is very important work, very important,” he insisted, as a gaggle of his students crammed into a tiny artsy cinema. We watched several avant-garde films, culminating in the hypnotic AAA – AAA by Marina Abramovic and Ulay, who—seated and facing each other—first sighed, then moaned, then screamed at the top of their lungs for what seemed like an interminable period of time (but which was in fact only about ten minutes). “Bravo!” Louis clapped vivaciously, and immediately we made plans to convene for “late drinks,” a ritual for conviviality and “all sorts of profound discussions,” as Louis would remark jocosely.

An important component of studying with Louis was hanging out, attending various artistic events, and meeting other composers and musicians in Amsterdam. Then of course, there were the lessons, which were intense and occasionally combative. In my case, Louis stressed the economy of material and the complete exploration of an idea. (A few years ago, I wrote a blog post which goes into greater detail about studying with Louis, which can be found here .)

Louis is a singular figure in the musical world, which may be why he has garnered such admiration and emulation among a younger generation of North American students—from John Korsrud, Rodney Sharman, and Paul Steenhuisen, to a still younger generation—Emily Doolittle, Nathan Michel, Ryan Carter, and Missy Mazzoli. Earlier this year, the American Composers Orchestra presented a full program (“Louis and the Young Americans“) to honor his contribution to young American composers.

It would be hard to imagine another living European teacher who has had as profound an influence on successive generations of American composers. Many Americans would love to claim Louis as ours simply because we recognize so much of us in him and of him in us. However, we will have to come to terms with the fact that he’s pretty damn Dutch, and perhaps we can be content to remember there is always a piece of America in Louis’s heart. And vice-versa.


Derek Bermel

American composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel creates and performs in a wide range of musical styles. Bermel has received commissions from major orchestras and chamber ensembles throughout the U.S. and overseas, collaborating with as diverse an array of artists as Wynton Marsalis, Midori, John Adams, Paquito D’Rivera, Philip Glass, Gustavo Dudamel, and Stephen Sondheim. After having served as 2006-09 Music Alive composer-in-residence with the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Bermel has become creative advisor for the orchestra. He also serves on the board of directors of the American Music Center.

Making The I-Hop

When I was living in Amsterdam, American composers would often write to ask, “How can I get my music performed over there?” My usual response was come visit! Of course, setting out to establish one’s music in another country can feel overwhelming; it’s often problematic enough getting your music played in your own town! But overseas performances don’t have to remain a distant fantasy. Here are some thoughts about how you can approach this daunting—but ultimately rewarding—task.

Making a trip to meet performers, composers, and presenters—or tacking such an excursion onto a vacation—is certainly the most direct way to introduce your music to a new place. But you must think of yourself as more than just a composer; in traveling to a foreign land, you also become a de-facto cultural ambassador and full-time student of society. It is therefore worthwhile to transform the above question into: “How can I have an enriching and satisfying experience overseas?” This holistic approach may seem incomplete, but ultimately it will be much more fruitful. Integrating yourself into a new country’s musical scene is not something that happens overnight; it takes time, commitment, hard work, and continual nurturing, and it will certainly not evolve in the way you expect. The shortest distance between two points in time—now and the date of your first international performance—will not trace a straight line, so make the decision at the outset to enjoy your unique journey.

If the “exploratory excursion” busts your budget, you may have to get creative in order to finance your trip. For those with academic jobs, your school may offer funds to defray the cost of airfare, hotel, and other expenses. Employment with a professional ensemble, venue, or foundation may carry similar perks, or you might suggest such a trip to your boss, if you can identify ways that it would assist the organization. If you are a good writer, you might be able to find a publication that would help cover your expenses in exchange for a blog or an article. The more unorthodox your potential funding source, the less competition you will have.

Think globally, act locally

In your quest to seek international fame and fortune (or at least fame), a great deal can be accomplished here in the States. Start off by reading Todd Reynolds’s excellent article about the ensemble/composer relationship and apply his advice to your global perspective. Next, do some research on the music scene in the country you’ll be visiting. Identify which American composers are played most often there. Some American music seems to travel better, and certain countries reveal a fondness for particular composers or trends (though this may simply indicate which types they have been exposed to). Try to narrow your sights to one city, especially if you’re dealing with a rather populous or diverse country. It would be overwhelming—and not particularly useful—to try and identify all potential venues for your music in France or Japan; better to concentrate on Marseilles or Kyoto. Of course, it helps if you’re choosing a place in which you have a genuine interest, beyond its contemporary music scene.

Web surf’s up!

The Internet is an indispensable tool for research. One of the most useful publications is the Gaudeamus Information Newsletter, published in Holland twice a year and updated continually online. It contains a range of information for composers and new music enthusiasts of all different stripes. Students or emerging composers should look for workshops and courses like Domaine Forget in Québec, the Britten-Pears Young Artists Programme at Aldeburgh, the Vancouver Creative Music Institute, New Music Indaba in South Africa, the International Young Composers Meeting in Apeldoorn (info on Gaudeamus website), or Ostrava Days in the Czech Republic. Fulbright and Rotary Fellowships, though very competitive for certain countries like France or Germany, can be considerably easier to secure for less traveled places like Uzbekistan, Uruguay, or Uganda; for some countries there aren’t even enough applicants to fill available slots! More established composers should check fellowships like the Rome Prize, the Sacatar Foundation in Brazil—both of which include airfare—Ircam in Paris, ArtsLink for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, or the Japan Foundation. Some of these courses, fellowships, and residencies include performances and showcases of your music, which can lead to other possibilities. A ton of information is available from the Foundation Center, which costs a small fee to join. It can also be useful to get in touch with the U.S. Consulates and Embassies. There may be a cultural attaché, who can help to introduce you to folks in the local arts scene.

Once you’ve settled on where you want to go, create a contact list. Ask friends whether they know people you should meet in your chosen country, especially contacts who speak some English if you are unfamiliar with the local language. Set up appointments before you visit, so that when you arrive you can make the most of your limited time. Don’t start by asking for connections; just schedule a meeting to talk and listen. Be patient. It can take a while for anything to happen, and Americans—especially ones from big cities—can easily get frustrated by slow, or no, results. Remember, hearing about a cheap apartment can be as valuable as connecting with an excellent musician. Attuning yourself to a foreign country is something like assembling a jigsaw puzzle; you can spend a great deal of time feeling lost, then all of a sudden the right pieces fit together in a way you didn’t quite anticipate.

Identify overseas institutions which can be of help. Many countries—from Norway to New Zealand—have contemporary music centers or foundations devoted to jazz, improvised music, electronic music, folk, or even pop music; the International Association of Music Information Centres publishes a list. Most of them have websites and newsletters with important listings for composers—the equivalent of the American Music Center’s Opportunity Update, the American Composers Forum‘s bulletin, or the Calendar for New Music. Contact them well in advance of your trip and set up a meeting for the first day you’re there. Correspond in advance to learn whom you might meet while you’re in town and what festivals are happening. You might even decide to plan your trip around a major festival, like Warsaw Autumn, Umbria Jazz, the Adelaide Festival, or the World Music Days of the International Society for Contemporary Music. If the subject of your music comes up during the correspondence, refer them to a website or an article about you. If you have enough time, send them a CD or share a site where they can download or listen to your mp3s (like the AMC’s NewMusicJukebox). Don’t bother sending scores unless asked; they’re too bulky and not really of much help when trying to introduce most folks to your music. Send perhaps one or two pieces on a CD, works that you consider to be your most representative and compelling.

Contemporary music outside of America is often featured at local or national festivals, some of which last for weeks. It’s worth checking out the Gaudeamus bulletin and other new music journals to see which festivals and ensembles are the most pro-active in the country where you’re going.

You say goodbye and I say hello

You’ll most likely have strong first impressions of the “natives” upon your arrival, some reinforced by preconceptions. Don’t worry; the folks there will also have impressions (and preconceptions) of you. Americans have a reputation abroad for being friendly, outgoing, and dynamic, open to fresh angles and new relationships. Europeans, in particular, envy the fact that we come to the artistic drawing board less hindered by the weight of history (though in improvised music, these tables are sometimes reversed). That said, we can also be seen in a negative light—as self-promoting, ignorant, superficial, disingenuous, and stubbornly independent. Americans may perceive foreigners in equally suspicious ways, as dogmatic, aloof, stiff, jaded, and lacking polish.

The best way to break down those stereotypes is to be conscious of them. Attempt to view things from your host county’s perspective. Sometimes other cultures and countries have a completely different way of handling every aspect of a performance, from financial transactions to programming to planning. If you’re in Caracas, try and imagine how America fits into a Venezuelan’s vision of music, and of the world in general. Apply your acquired knowledge of their arts, politics, history, religious life, and culture. Ask for candid views of America and of American music. You are bound to find out information which will be useful to you. Before you know it, you may find yourself appreciating—even incorporating—some of their approaches, and you may discover nuances of your own personality of which you were unaware.

Du bist ein Berliner

The more interest you show in a foreign country’s culture, the more likely it is that they will be inclined to open up to you. In many countries, promoting your music directly can seem rude or inappropriate. You should also seriously apply yourself to studying the language. Conductor Steven Burns of Fulcrum Point cites “lack of language proficiency” as a key obstacle to American composers procuring performances overseas. Especially when abroad for more than a month, learning the language will offer you more self-reliance and allow you to communicate—and by extension, network—on a much deeper level. Just knowing the phrases for “hello” and “thank you” in Bulgarian will remove huge barriers and so it’s well worth the time it takes to learn to pronounce. If you’re in Bulgaria, that is.

In addition to the language and history, the particular type of music-making in a country or region may provide clues to successful compositional approaches. Yeesun Kim, cellist in the Borromeo Quartet, notes that “operatic singing is a deeply important part of Korean folk music. There are T.V. shows in which housewives, some of whom are fantastic singers, enter to compete in singing contests for popular and traditional music.” Composers can increase the likelihood of performances or commissions by tying their ideas to this kind of local tradition of style or instrumentation. This rule holds true for many other countries, especially ones in which folk culture remains vibrant. One is much more likely to engender high-quality (or, for that matter, any) performances in Senegal by writing works for djembe and kora than by composing for snare drum and harp. When teaching at the Universidade Federal de Bahia in Brazil, I found that almost two-thirds of the composition students at the conservatory were acoustic guitarists. After witnessing spontaneous guitar sing-alongs at every party I attended, I came to accept that this instrument had a special place in the society, one which transcended music. For composers seeking performances overseas, a creative approach to musical traditions already embedded within a culture can serve as a deeply effective starting point for new projects.

A franc assessment

Be sensitive to the financial situation in the country where you are traveling. Most places have different fee structures than in America, and you should try to work within their means. Commission fees in most countries are generally lower than in the U.S., but not always. Don’t be afraid to ask about money, but proceed cautiously; until you figure out how the system in a given country works, it’s often wisest to ask a fellow musician who is not directly involved with your project.

Government organizations are the most common source of funding in other countries, which can be both a help and a hindrance. Conductor Clark Rundell, director of contemporary music at the Royal Northern College of Music, points out that “many ensembles have an obligation to play music by local composers and many national organizations will only commission composers from that country.” This situation dims prospects for American composers seeking money through official channels. So if you’re looking for a sponsor, search first in the U.S. Meet the Composer offers “Global Connections Awards” which allow composers to pursue individual projects abroad. Private individuals—notably those affiliated with the country or city in question—may also be a viable option. Or find a company that does business overseas and see if they will help sponsor a project (foreign companies which do business in the U.S. are also a good bet).

Ask not what your country can do for me…

Many overseas performers and groups are eager to play in the U.S., and some may pay more attention to your music if you can help them organize a tour here. A composer delivering a score and recording may not garner immediate attention from an ensemble, but a composer who engages them in a dialogue about performance opportunities is unlikely to be ignored. Help them make connections in the U.S.—to venues, festivals, press, or presenters—or simply help plan a concert, perhaps (but not necessarily) one including your music. One can either take a cynical view of such actions as being “politically motivated” or see them as an empathetic gesture, a “two-way street.” I would encourage the latter interpretation. When the U.S. is unknown territory to a musician or to an ensemble, even small favors are greatly appreciated. I firmly believe that karmic energy is an important reality; if you offer a helping hand, it’s more likely that one will be offered to you, sometimes from a completely unrelated source, sometimes years later. It can also feel empowering to do a good musical deed without expecting something in return.

The show must go on

When a group, festival, or presenter finally decides to program your work, clear communication suddenly becomes vital. Try and avoid vagueness in details (unless it is an indelible part of the culture), and make sure you know what is meant by a certain question or response. It is especially important to be clear what is expected of you in terms of scores, parts, attendance, and participation, just as you would in the States. Find out how often your contact person checks their messages, and what mode of communication they prefer. Inquire also whether you should correspond with separate folks about artistic and logistical issues. If you continue to have unanswered questions due to language barriers, ask a native speaker to help write or translate an email, letter, or phone message. If the project in question is rather extensive, you may want to consider employing a translator to help you communicate on a regular basis.

The procedures for generating and delivering scores and parts are not necessarily different than in the States, though you may have difficulties with the paper size or availability of copying facilities, depending on where you’re going. If facilities are available on the opposite shore, PDF or other computer files can be a safer, cheaper, and faster way to send music (though you shouldn’t be surprised when your picture-perfect page turns get printed back-to-front). When shipping materials by post, remember that mail can take an excruciatingly long time getting to and from certain countries. If you want to make doubly sure the music arrives in a timely manner, use a courier like UPS, FedEx, or DHL (though this can be expensive); some—like Aramex—are cheaper and specialize in certain areas of the world.

Needless to say, never send the only copy of your music and always bring an extra set of everything with you, just in case. It is risky and expensive to send musical instruments or other valuable objects by mail. Much wiser to include them as “excess baggage” and pay an extra fee at the airport. In certain countries, be prepared to pay small bribes to folks handling delicate instruments or baggage. It can be well worth the tip.

Doe maar gewoon (dan doe je al gek genoeg…)

This Dutch cliché essentially means “Be normal!” Remember that your first performance overseas is a learning experience as well as a musical experience. Composer Tania León affirms that a foreign composer’s presence “is always vital to the performance of the work, as long as the composer does not become confrontational with the ensemble.” How much input do they appear to want from you? If you’re performing, try to view the ensemble in action before you come into the mix, so that you can observe their process. In general, it’s best to offer your presence at the first rehearsal, but not to insist. If you do attend rehearsals, try and keep your initial comments to a minimum (unless there is a misunderstanding of great magnitude), responding to questions asked of you, and keeping notes to discuss with a conductor, director, musician, or choreographer afterwards.

Answer your mail!

This was Aaron Copland’s reply to students who inquired how they could further their careers. After a performance, keeping contact is the most important action you can take. Be courteous and (at first) formal. Americans have a tendency to use casual language before it might be appropriate. In corresponding with your performers, be appreciative of their efforts and ask their opinion of how things went. They may express reservations, but that doesn’t mean they won’t play your music in the future. Americans tend to view negative feedback as harsh criticism, but many other cultures place less importance on niceties than we do. A friendly note to a presenter or festival administrator may be greatly appreciated; however, your most valuable contacts—perhaps one day your champions—will be the musicians themselves, and perhaps the choreographers, writers, filmmakers, directors, or other artists with whom you work. And don’t forget your colleagues, the composers. They are the ones who will best understand why your music should be heard in their country, and they will be able to articulate it to their comrades better than you can.

Ultimately, an overseas experience is about much more than being performed. Discovering what makes another culture tick is itself an enriching and fascinating journey, and ultimately the lens is turned back on yourself. It may take a great deal of energy and perseverance in order to engender interest in your music abroad, and the payback is not necessarily great in monetary terms, but what is refracted and reflected back—in knowing yourself on a new level—will help you grow as a person and as an artist. And that reward is well worth the trip.


Travel Tips

How should you approach writing for ensembles that are far away? International performers offer suggestions for composers when it’s not possible for them to have face-to-face contact. Violinist Midori writes, “I particularly find it helpful if the composer can establish or initiate some kind of a dialogue with the conductor, librarian, artistic administrator, etc. of an orchestra. This is especially true when the composer can’t be at the rehearsals or the performances.”

How does the mindset change in different cultures and on different continents?

ASIA: Composer Eli Marshall writes from Beijing that “the most efficient way to go about things is to meet at least once in person, or have someone meet on your behalf. Similarly, many senior composers in China don’t seem very interested in sending scores to someone without knowing them first.” Composer Chen Yi notes the importance of radio broadcast in China as a medium for “introducing orchestral works by American women composers by the Central People’s Broadcasting Station, which covers 1.2 billion listeners.”

AFRICA: Composer and percussionist Mark Stone, who has studied xylophone music in Ghana and Uganda writes, “Africans…generally value art forms that are inter-related; thus music for music’s sake does not go over well while music that is connected to dance or theatre—including community oriented Western choral works and theatrical productions—can be successful. The African composer Akin Euba has written extensively on this subject.”

LATIN AMERICA: Composer Gabriela Lena Frank writes, “You should have a friend who can make an introduction, and make a trip to introduce yourself in person. Hang out with the musicians and presenters. Bring a lot of CDs and scores. Many of the classical musicians are also folk or jazz musicians, and those scenes have their own set of rules about how music picks up a concert life; so it’s important to realize that these rules influence the classical music scene. The money is even tighter than here, so at first the waiving of rental fees can be a gesture of good will. Also, if you can afford a mutual exchange—offer to help get Latin American music performed in the States—then that will grease the wheel considerably for performances in Latin America.”

EUROPE: Composer Lukas Ligeti notes that “Experimental music in the U.S. is largely an ‘underground’ activity, while classical music is ‘official culture’. In Europe there is less of a distinction, because the ‘underground’ exists to a much lesser extent. This has advantages, but also leads to a situation where finding low-key gigs to experiment is sometimes very difficult.” Violinist Monica Germino of the Dutch ensemble Electra notes that “in the Netherlands, amateur music-making is a way of life for a large percent of the population. As a result, people are more interested and more connected to music; it is not as much of a strange elitist activity.” Composer Donnacha Dennehy, founder of the Crash Ensemble in Dublin writes that “we have a big interest in American music, but mainly we are just driven by a desire to do music that fires us up. Issues about part production, etc. are secondary!” Paul Meecham, executive director of the Seattle Symphony and former General Manager of the London Sinfonietta, writes that “the success of Steve Reich, for example, had a lot to do with touring his own ensemble to Europe. John Adams has become a regular conductor of his own music. In other words, those Americans came to Europe in part to champion their own work. The real challenge is finding what is out there. The U.S. is such a large country and there are composers working quietly away who are hard to track down.”

Composer Derek Bermel’s works have been performed across the globe, and his many appearances as a clarinetist, conductor, and rock musician have been met with wide critical and audience acclaim. His music is published by Peermusic Classical (US) and Faber Music (UK). More information can be found here and here.