Author: Ed Harsh

Ed Harsh to Embark on New Endeavor

New Music USA is announcing today my decision to step down as president and CEO this fall. Leading New Music USA has truly been one of the peak experiences of my life, and I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in the nearly eleven years I’ve been president (counting back to my taking over leadership of Meet The Composer in 2007, four years before its merger with the American Music Center). I’d like to take the opportunity here to add a little personal perspective on why I think this is a great moment of opportunity for New Music USA, and for me too.

New Music USA has reached a very high level of achievement and function. Its programs are serving its mission well and with innovation. There are a bunch of great indicators of its readiness for next steps. It’s financially stable, with an outstanding staff committed to the new music cause and a wise and supportive board. And it’s fortunate in having an extended collection of supporters and constituents who have proven time and again their belief in the organization’s work and who will continue to live that belief out.

So this is an excellent moment to transition to a new CEO to start the next chapter of the New Music USA story in a dynamic and fast-changing world. Yes, transitions to new leadership can feel uneasy and uncertain. Those feelings are familiar to anyone who deals in The New—artists, for instance! It’s in the nature of what we do that we trade the safety (illusory, by the way) of the status quo for the exciting possibility of the future. I’m eager to work with everyone in the New Music USA family to minimize the uneasiness and maximize the opportunity.

New Music USA is much more than any one individual. It has so much potential and so many ways in which it can move forward and grow in the world.

I think it’s worth making a general point here too, about the relationship of institutional to individual identity. That is, it’s important for the one not to get too closely mixed up with the other. New Music USA is much more than any one individual. As an institution, even as an idea, it has so much potential and so many ways in which it can move forward and grow in the world. I’d like to think the same is true of me, too.

So what’s next for New Music USA? Most importantly, during the transition we’ll continue delivering the same great assemblage of programs and services to our field as we have in the past. At the same time, we’re going to work positively and productively together toward the future, energized by the exciting potential of new leadership partnering with board and staff to carry the organization into the years ahead.

And what’s next for me? Well, after doing everything I can to support my board and staff colleagues throughout the transition, I’m going to embark on a couple of new adventures. For one, I’m going to write a book. Challenged by the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election and its potential meaning for artists in our culture, I’m going to examine Kurt Weill as a model and test case for the way individual and artistic values play out in artists’ decisions at times of complexity and crisis. I’m grateful to Kim Kowalke, president of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, for offering me an opportunity, concurrent with my personal writing project, to work as a member of the foundation’s staff to help advance the performance and visibility of Weill’s music around the world.

In writing this post, I want to take the opportunity as well to express my very real gratitude to all those who have served on the boards of Meet The Composer and New Music USA during my tenure. They have given me unflinching support and allowed me to do all that I was able in order to make both organizations the best and most effective they could be. Above all, I can hardly find words enough to honor my staff colleagues over the years. A more dedicated, talented, brilliant group of new music partisans you will never find anywhere. Everything we’ve done we’ve done together. They deserve all the gratitude and support imaginable from those who care about the new music cause.

It Ain’t Over Yet. Don’t give up on Net Neutrality.

Today the Federal Communications Commission voted to reclassify internet providers from utilities to information companies. This apparently simple act undoes years of bipartisan agreement on the concept of net neutrality as the guiding principle behind internet rules. Commissioner Ajit Pai, a former Verizon attorney appointed to his position by President Trump, has been relentless and single-minded over the past months in pursuing his goal, which is at best misguided and at worst deeply craven.

You’ve probably already heard a lot about why this reclassification is a truly terrible idea. I’ll just underline the perspective from New Music USA. Our constituency includes thousands and thousands of independent artists. We believe that the internet provides an absolutely indispensable tool for creating, distributing, and promoting the amazing array of musics that make this a potentially golden age for our sector. In a culture that so inattentively leaves the playing field so unlevel for artists, at least a neutral internet gives us a fighting chance to advance our work on the same terms as anyone else.

So who is actually in favor of this reclassification, this repeal of net neutrality? Very few, and (surprise!) they’re big corporations who stand to make billions of dollars off a newly unequal internet. Who’s against? Pretty much everyone else. Surveys show that more than 80% of Americans support net neutrality, and more than one million people called Congress in the last month alone, asking their representatives to save it. In a climate of deep and troubling divisions in our country, 80% (that’s eight-zero) agreement stands out as virtual unanimity. I’ve been truly moved the see the images of protests from all over the country, with ordinary people exercising their right to speak out and speak up for themselves. This is the country I want to live in.

If there’s good news here, it’s this: The FCC currently has the authority to do what it has just done. But Congress can step in and pass legislation that repairs the damage. There’s broad support for doing so. Lawmakers from all sides weighed in with letters to Chairman Pai asking him to delay the Commission’s vote: 39 Democrats and Independents signed onto one letter; Republican Senator Susan Collins joined another; Republican Representative Mike Coffman sent one of his own; not to mention the mountains of letters like this one from 32 House Democrats going all the way back to April.

There’s truly broad concern about the FCC action. And in that concern lies real hope to save the precious quality of an internet that’s equal for all.

Speak Now: Amplifying Our Voices

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The 2016 presidential election was a seismic event for the United States and the world. The days since November 8 have brought forth a tsunami of uncertainty, fear, anticipation, verbiage, and introspection unlike any other comparable period in most of our memories. It seems likely that the weeks and months and perhaps years to come will be similarly without precedent.

I believe that this extraordinary time will bring monumental challenges. But we don’t need to be Pollyannas to recognize opportunity in the moment as well. We can all be freshly awake to our agency within the civic fabric of our communities, and to our potential for helping bring about the country we want to live in. We all have roles to play as individuals—and as organizations, too. If there ever were a more important time to speak and act within those roles, I haven’t seen it in my lifetime.

For almost eighteen years, NewMusicBox has been driven by a core commitment to providing members of the new music community with a place to speak thoughtfully in their own voices about the truth they see. At a time when even the notion of truth itself is in question and thoughtful, civil discourse by no means a given, it’s natural and organic for us to provide opportunity for community members to share their personal views of the moment at hand.

As a first step, we’re beginning a series of posts by artists responding to a simple request that they share what they’re thinking in their roles as artists and community members. The series title is “Speak Now.” We’re not making any assumptions about how long this series might continue or where it might lead. It’s a first step, which is the way every journey begins. It is our hope that it will invite further conversation and connection as more voices and ideas come to the table—in person, via social media, and right here on NewMusicBox.

It’s important to emphasize that, as always, the opinions of NewMusicBox authors are their own. New Music USA itself is focused not on expressing specific opinions but straightforwardly on living our values. (I say more about this in a previous post.) Amplifying the voices of our community members is one fundamental way we can do that.


It Is Time to Create by Meg Wilhoite

What change for good can I possibly effect with my distinctly non-political pieces? What can my small drop in the ocean of music do to help anyone at all?

Turning Around, Turning Away, and Turning Over by Kristin Kuster

Staying in a place of worry is reliable because it feels real, it comes naturally, it’s not something we have to work at. But when the worry creeps in, composer Kristin Kuster has found that its antidote is patience. And social media teaches us, and fosters in us, the precise opposite of patience.

Our Job as Composers Has Changed by Mohammed Fairouz

Our current political state is due to the rise of a culture of “nothing matters but us,” an age of arrogance that glorifies narcissism. Music and the arts and poetry are essentially a training field for innovation and empathy. Today a new America begins. Vigilance is vital.

A Habit of Hearing by John Wykoff

I suggest that composers give up using their music to change people’s minds (their beliefs, opinions, and convictions). Music is poorly suited for that. But music is very well suited, or least it can be, for helping people to change their habits, especially habits of thinking and perceiving.

What We Believe

One of the supreme joys of my position as president and CEO of New Music USA is to have the opportunity to work with twelve brilliant and thoughtful staff colleagues. Yesterday we gathered for two reasons. We marked with a toast the five-year anniversary of the creation of New Music USA in a charmed merger between the American Music Center and Meet The Composer. Then we worked together to put in writing the core values that have driven New Music USA since its inception.

This seems a pointedly good time to be talking about values. The actual anniversary date of our merger was November 8. The events of the election that day have now sent shockwaves across the country and around the planet. Some welcome the disruptions to come, believing that they will restore feelings of security lost over decades of globalized inequality and dizzying social change. For others, those disruptions inspire anxiety, fear, and even despair. Fragile progress toward becoming a more perfect union seems poised to disintegrate before their eyes.

In a world in which the only certainty is constant and sometimes disorienting change, values are the most reliable compass. Our limited ability as individuals to control the course of outside events is balanced by an unlimited power to form and hold deep beliefs. Steadfast service to, and principled defense of those beliefs always serves us and will lead us eventually to a better place than we were before. In that spirit, I’d like to share three core New Music USA values that came to the fore in my conversation with my colleagues. We’ll continue to be guided by them in the days and months and years ahead.

We believe in the fundamental importance of creative artists and their work. A society without respect for its artists is a dead society.

We espouse a broad, open definition of “new music.” Closed borders limit. Openness empowers.

We uphold and embrace principles of inclusivity and equitable treatment in all of our activity and across our nation’s broadly diverse constituency in terms of gender, race, age, location, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, and artistic practice. Difference is not a threat. Difference is an opportunity: a chance to hear a new voice, see a new perspective, feel a new inspiration.

We’re the same people and the same organization today that we were on Monday. Even and especially through wrenching change, we’ll remain devoted to our values and be ever watchful of new ways to put them into practice for the benefit of both New Music and the USA.

Remembering Composer and MTC Founder John Duffy (1926-2015)

John Duffy

John Duffy
Photo by Glen McClure

American composer and beloved new music advocate John Duffy, who founded Meet The Composer in 1974, died in Virginia this morning after a long illness. He was 89.

In 2011, Meet The Composer and the American Music Center merged to form New Music USA. Ed Harsh, current president and CEO, reflects on Duffy’s profound impact on the field in the post below. Many in our community will feel this loss deeply. We encourage you to share your memories of John in the comments section.

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With John Duffy, everything was possible. He radiated an optimism as forthright and clear as it was free of guile and self-importance. Though the limits of observable reality might be challenged, audacity never distracted from core purpose. His optimism happily went about its business. It lived solidly on terra firma. It got things done.

In the immediate aftermath of a person’s death, we can feel an urge to sum up their impact and role and even character. We want to come to some kind of conclusion about what their life may have “meant,” perhaps as a benchmark against which to take some measure of our own. I certainly don’t propose to do that here. It’s a shaky notion in any case to impose a stable unity onto a life’s complex assemblage of experiences and relationships, joys and sorrows, narrative through-lines and irrational disconnects over time. Summing up any life is foolhardy—especially one as rich as John’s was.

My aim is something more modest and personal, though it’s certainly still daunting. I want to reflect on a few of the characteristics I treasured in John that I feel are his legacy to New Music USA, the second incarnation of his visionary creation Meet The Composer. Mine is just one perspective. I hope others will share in the comment section below their own personal perspectives and stories. John meant so many things to so many people. The more we share, the more we’ll be able to appreciate him.

A gathering of voices would be entirely appropriate to John’s devotion to the American ideals of democracy and pluralism. He was known to list the quality of “tolerance” at the top of his list of values he appreciated most. The example of his own life suggests something broader, more positive and more proactive than mere tolerance. He was omnivorously curious about and respectful of all music. Even if a given artist’s work might not have been to his taste, he would be interested to know more about it, to understand a bit better what drove its creation. What’s more, he wanted others to be interested, too.

This omnivorous openness was paired with a healthy disregard for conventional hierarchies. He didn’t recognize them as valid, so he ignored them. For John, the idea that a “classical” symphonic work was, by nature, automatically worthy of higher status than the work of, say, Ornette Coleman or Burt Bacharach—to use two of his favorite examples—was simply bunk. He was quick to fight the ingrained privilege and prejudice that often hide behind those hierarchies. The energy and self-assuredness he brought to such spirited struggles embodied for me a muscular, practical, American blue-collar view of the value inherent in solidly workmanlike effort, no matter its form.

The exploding variety of creativity we’re blessed with in 2015, which blows through genre categories like so much thin air, may obscure for us now the uncommon character of his views. It’s worth pausing for a moment to make sure that we don’t take John’s openness for granted. Because we shouldn’t. His views were decades ahead of their time and distinctly radical when Meet The Composer was founded in the 1970s.

We should likewise not underestimate the quality of courage he showed in standing up for his own convictions. The name of his organizational creation is its own example. He frequently told the story of thinking deeply about the name for his then-new program. He scribbled one possible name after another on a big yellow legal pad. Under the influence of the direct, human immediacy of Walt Whitman’s poetry, he wrote down “Meet The Composer.” When he finally chose that name—against the advice of many, let it be noted—he was met with a lot of resistance. “The higher ups” at the New York State Council on the Arts hated it, writing letters to him explaining that it wasn’t classy enough. He said he read the letters and just put them away in a drawer, figuring that people would come around to his view sooner or later. Which they did.

John embodied faith, broadly defined; faith in himself and in his fellow artists. This is the fuel that powered his will. And what a will it was, able to conjure abstract vision into very real being. For years in the late 1970s and early 1980s he enthusiastically regaled anyone who would listen with his idea for putting composers in residence with orchestras around the country. We can only imagine how many dozens (hundreds?) of indulgent smiles or blank stares he had to suffer. What an improbable idea it was for a little nonprofit with a tiny budget…. By 1992—ten years, several million dollars, and one transformed orchestral new music world later—it wasn’t improbable anymore. It was obvious.

That was a big victory, but it wasn’t the only one. There was also the MTC commissioning program, the composer-choreographer program, the New Residencies program. So many new realities conjured, to the benefit of so many. Yes, that’s the thing: to the benefit of so many. No one I’ve met more exemplified generosity of spirit than John. He used the term “angelic spark” relating to people who helped others in the spirit of pure common service. The term fits him so well.

I feel sure that in John’s case the spark was inherent and inborn. Life experience just as surely brought it brightly to the fore. John cited a key moment during his naval service in the Pacific during World War II. As he related the story, his ship was attacked and a number of shipmates were killed. He and another sailor stood guard over the bodies through the night. In the morning, with a few Old Testament words from the ship’s captain, the bodies were slid into the sea. That stark demonstration of life’s fragility seems to have inspired in John a permanent commitment to make a difference, to live a life of value and of service.

Future years would determine the focal point of that service: composers. You could talk to John for only a few minutes before feeling the energy, the power, the almost talismanic specialness that he conferred on composers. In truth, John felt this way about all artists, but when he spoke of composers the magic was palpably electric. The more society could come to put composers to work, the more society would benefit. Composers were the greatest national resource imaginable.

And composers deserved to be paid like the professionals they are. John’s experience as a composer in a broad range of marketplaces gave him a tactile understanding of creators’ economic value. He was an Emmy-winning composer for TV with deep experience in music for the theater as well as the concert hall. He understood the worthiness of matching appropriate money to appropriate work, and his perspective generated the ethos of MTC, which raised the consciousness of subsequent generations.

Bang on a Can Benefit Concert and Party Honoring John Duffy

Bang on a Can Benefit Concert and Party Honoring John Duffy, September 13, 1998. Left to right, seated: Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, John Duffy; standing: Cecil Taylor, Billy Taylor, David Lang, Steve Reich, and Alvin Singleton.
Photo by Peter Serling

To artists given less than their due attention and appreciation by their culture, John’s valuation of composers, both figurative and very literal, was manna for the starving. Like an oasis, John’s championing leadership brought new life and new energy to a community of composers who felt like creative travelers crossing a vast desert. His vision inspired high hopes for what might be built, in fact built together, on the other side. My vaguely Moses-like imagery here is intentional. On a less cosmic scale, John’s positive vision commanded deep reverence and even deeper human attachments. The theologian Forrest Church wrote that although agnostic on the subject of life after death, Church was completely convinced on the subject of love after death. He believed the most profound measure of the wealth of our lives to be the love we leave behind when we die. By this measure, John was a wealthy man indeed.

So IS everything possible? No. Not really. If it were, John would still be with us, having fought back like a champ once again, overcoming the will of the misguided cells in his body. There are certain rules we can’t change. One is that people die. But John’s life leaves a resilient legacy, especially precious at moments when our courage and faith are tested. John reminds us that what’s possible goes way beyond the horizon we see, and maybe even as far as we dare to dream.

John Duffy was featured by NewMusicBox in October 2003. Read the full hour-long conversation John Duffy: The Composer as Statesman.