Author: Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

Renée Baker: Nothing’s Gonna Stop You From Creating

Renée Baker

 

Spending an hour over Zoom chatting with Renée Baker about her more than two thousand musical compositions and perhaps almost as many paintings was inspirational as well as motivational. Especially during this time when the ability for anything we do to have a certain future seems somewhat precarious at best. But Renée does not let anything deter her and while her music is extremely wide ranging and gleefully embraces freedom of expression, her daily schedule is precise and meticulous.

“I don’t separate life from creation,” she explained to me as she outlined a typical day in her life. “Breakfast about 7:30. And right behind that, about 8:15, started [making] dinner. … When I’m done with my conversation with you, I have four gallons of paint in the hallway that will make their way to my studio garage; I’m working on a series there. … These might not be finished for a couple of weeks while I determine what the palette is gonna be. You know, it has to strike me. Once I do that, I might wander out. I’ll go past a thrift store or something looking for pieces because I do make sound item sculpture, so that’s always fun, especially with wood and glue. And then I’ll probably nap and watch a few zombie movies. I’m a Walking Dead aficionado. When I’m done with that, since dinner’s already fixed, my husband can eat whenever he wants, I will probably go to a coffee shop or sit outside a coffee shop. I keep my manuscript book in the car. So anytime I’m driving or going to sit by the pond, or sit by the lake, or feed the ducks, I keep adding to these compositions. When they’re finished, I pull them out and I put them in the envelopes. So I touch almost everything every day.”

Her discipline has paid off. In addition to the ensembles that she herself has formed to perform her compositions, most notably the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, organizations around the country and the world have commissioned and presented her music including the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Spektral Quartet, Boston’s ECCE Ensemble, Berlin’s International Brass, DanceWright Project SF, the Joffrey Ballet, Berkeley Books of Paris, the Destejilk Museum in the Netherlands, and on and on. Plus her paintings are represented by two different galleries—and they sell.

Given her broad range of artistic pursuits, it’s no wonder that Renée Baker is a member of Chicago’s pioneering AACM (The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), an organization founded in 1965 by the late Muhal Richard Abrams who counts among its members such legendary genre-defying Black artists as Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Amina Claudine Myers, Henry Threadgill, George Lewis, and Tomeka Reid. Yet at the time Nicole Mitchell first suggested she join, Renée had acknowledged that she had never actually improvised. And while she proudly identifies herself as “a Black woman in America that survived classical music,” she “never sought to do an all-Black anything.” As she explains, “When you’re looking at my music, you can say, oh, it’s Black music because she’s Black, or whatever. But the fact is I’m interested in people who can play in four with my beat pattern and stay with me. It’s very simple. I don’t care; I don’t care what you are.”

Also, despite the fact that she creates vital work as a composer and as a painter (plus she also writes poetry and makes sculptures), Renée Baker does not compartmentalize. She does not think in terms of synaesthesia, but if you spend enough time looking and listening to the different forms of art she creates, you will notice clear aesthetic affinities. E.g. the striking combinations of colors in her paintings share a kinship with the way different timbres interact in her musical compositions. In fact, she has worked extensively with graphic scores that are as fascinating as visual art as they are as music. Ultimately, Renée Baker’s work is a by-product of an extremely healthy confidence, and her advice about perseverance is something that all artists should heed, especially in these extremely uncertain times:

“If your heart is married to creating, then there’s nothing, even a pandemic, that’s gonna stop you from creating. You might not create as much. You may experience a bit more stress, some financial worries—no telling what everybody individually is facing. But you can’t stop the train. Just keep going. Just keep going. Look at other directions. Maybe the direction you were going in would have been stopped without the pandemic. Maybe you’d gotten to a wall and there’s something else for you to access. Don’t be frightened, and don’t be cowed by criticism.”

NOTE: As part of this month’s Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago, Renée Baker will lead a string quintet from her Chicago Modern Orchestra Project in a performance of her composition Eternal Units of Beauty for one of the Spotlight Concerts at Chicago’s Phantom Gallery on September 26. Learn more about Ear Taxi’s Spotlight Concerts here. She will also participate in Ear Taxi’s panel discussion “What are the components of a thriving ecosystem for new music?” moderated by New Music USA’s CEO Vanessa Reed on September 29 at the DePaul Art Museum. More info about that panel can be found here.

Adolphus Hailstork: Music is a Service

Adolphus Hailstork

 

Adolphus Hailstork turned 80 in April, but he has been celebrated since the beginning of this year. On January 20, a wind band arrangement of his Fanfare on “Amazing Grace” was performed by the United States Marine Band during the inauguration of President of the United States Joe Biden. It was only the second time that music by a contemporary African American composer had been selected to be part of the repertoire performed at a presidential inauguration ceremony. And in June, as part of a digitally streamed concert on the first Juneteenth that was an official U.S. national holiday, J’Nai Bridges and the Harlem Chamber Players gave the world premiere performance of his concert aria Tulsa 1921 (Pity These Ashes, Pity This Dust), a retelling of the Tulsa Race Massacre to mark its centenary. The concert was even previewed on CNN which rarely covers music outside the commercial mainstream.

It was definitely time to catch up with Dr. Hailstork to talk about his life in music. His passion for making music stretches all the way back to his childhood when he sang as a boy chorister. While growing up, he sang his way through all the parts, eventually singing bass. After he embarked on his path as a composer, he never lost his love for the human voice and for melody.

“Choral music is so rich,” Hailstork exclaimed during our conversation over Zoom. “It is my favorite medium.” And Hailstork’s music has been treasured by choirs for half a century. He received his first significant compositional accolade, the Ernest Bloch Award, for his choral composition Mourn Not the Dead in 1971, the same year he received his Ph.D. from Michigan State University. Ironically, only a few years earlier, as he confessed during our talk, he didn’t even know what the words “graduate school” meant. After he had completed his Bachelor’s degree at Howard University, he went to Paris to study composition with Nadia Boulanger, not really sure about what his next steps would be.

Hailstork, however, took a very different path from most composers who pursued academic degrees during that time, eschewing what he described as the “plink, plank, and plunk” of the avant-garde music of his contemporaries. And for many years, his music was overlooked as he acknowledged. “It used to be a lot more difficult for lyrical types like me to have a place, just to be recognized, to be heard.”

Throughout this time, Hailstork, nevertheless, held his aesthetic ground, settling in Virginia and teaching for decades at Old Dominion University in Norfork while composing a stunning output of chamber music, solo piano and organ pieces, as well as many formidable orchestral works including four symphonies, in addition to writing numerous works for chorus. But while he is clear that he wants his music to be “a continuation rather than a breaking away from” the Western classical tradition, he very clearly has his own voice which has been enriched by his immersion into African American spirituals.

“I do worship the spirituals,” he explained at one point. “They’re gorgeous melodies and they’re very useful, and also I believe in the old statement by Dvořák that an American art music could be based on using African American materials or Indian materials also. I decided that Dvořák was right, and that’s what I wanted to do and I tried to work them in.”

The result of Hailstork’s idiosyncratic amalgamation of these two traditions has yielded an extraordinarily rich compositional language which also serves his other goal, “to capture or reflect the tribulations and the occasional triumphs of African Americans in this country.”

 

  • We almost killed music 50-60 years ago as a group experience.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • This whole thing of plink, plank, and plunk, count to 12--I couldn’t get into it.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I learned a lot from those wonderful musicians who took the time to let me know that: "Your harp writing sucks, man. We got to teach you how to do this."

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • Harp makes a great melding together kind of goo.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I wound up teaching comp to undergrads without any kind of theory background. It was excruciating. They didn’t know what they were doing. "I’m going to be a Composah." Well, sorry, it helps to know how to; it’s like if you’re going to build buildings and you never knew what a girder was.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I believe in the old statement by Dvořák that an American art music could be based on using African American materials or Indian materials also.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I think "We Shall Overcome" is a great classical melody.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • In my music, I try to capture or reflect the tribulations and the occasional triumphs of African Americans in this country.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • Music is supposed to have meaning to me.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I salute all the band directors of America for their constant looking for new pieces.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I was reacting to all the black men who are getting shot in the back--16 bullets here, seven bullets there

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I love grand opera, though I never had a chance to write an evening’s length opera. I’m getting kind of old for that.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • If anything good came out of the pandemic, it's that so many artistic groups have started to rethink their hopes, their plans, and also their whole programming.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I once called music a service art, and that’s probably because growing up as a chorister, I was performing service. ... You take all that out of listening to music, and no wonder people are gonna stop coming to it.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer

Susie Ibarra: Hybrid Culture

Susie Ibarra performing on a drum kit

A week before I finally had a chance to have an extended conversation with multi-genre composer and percussionist Susie Ibarra, she performed at Roulette–her first concert with a group in front of a live audience since the pandemic shut everything down around the world. To say it has been a challenging 16 months for everyone is a tremendous understatement, but for Ibarra–whose artistry has been so deeply shaped by collaborations with other musicians–it could have proven stifling. And yet, this strange period has been remarkably productive for her.

Thus far this year, she has released two albums. First, Talking Gong, a spellbinding New Music USA-funded debut album of her new poly-stylistic trio with Claire Chase and Alex Peh. Then Walking on Water, a deeply moving homage to the victims of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsumani created in collaboration with visual artist Makoto Fujimura which uses the sounds of water as a central musical element. Both of these albums were recorded in studios over the course of last summer as COVID-19 cases were raging; musicians were tested before each session, remained masked whenever they could, and maintained physical distances. Susie Ibarra was also able to continue another strand of her output, her remarkable series of solo percussion explorations. An extraordinary performance she gave in a surreally empty hall at William Paterson College back in February is thankfully still available to stream. And a few months before that, in December 2020, she launched the Composers Now Impact series of composer presentations with a fascinating audio-video stream about her music.

Obviously we talked about these unprecedented times in which we are still living; it’s pretty much impossible not to talk about it. But we also talked about a wide range of other topics during the hour we spent together over Zoom. The very first time I ever heard Susie Ibarra, she was part of the legendary David S. Ware Quartet alongside Matt Shipp and William Parker. So I was eager to find out more about how she found herself in her 20s as part of this legendary free jazz quartet as an equal partner in what many aficionados consider to be some of the most enduring music of the late 1990s. I was also curious to learn more about her stint playing with the New Jersey indie rock band Yo La Tengo and the collaborative improvisatory trio Mephista she performed in with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and laptop artist Ikue Mori.

  • We were all just happy to be in the room and back into our practice of attending or performing concerts. I really missed that a lot.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • I played that performance the day before one of my dear mentors passed away. Milford Graves passed the next afternoon. I had a kind of spiritual visit from him while I was playing and in one piece, I ended up playing some rhythms that he had directly taught me.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • Putting gender to instruments has always been a strange thing for me, ‘cause it has affected all of us as human beings. And it’s all these inanimate objects that we culturally have put gender on.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • When I hear younger generations, and their voices, and how they’re able to voice this politically right now, and socially, I’m really happy and hopeful. In my generation, I think there are certain things that just weren’t even touched or addressed.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • It wasn’t that I was buying albums. I had some, but I wasn’t a giant collector. I wanted to go to the live performances.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • I was just so happy playing music. It's the best way to keep growing and learning.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • Sometimes when we were playing pieces, you don’t know who’s making what sounds. I love that actually, ‘cause we were all really integrated in playing that music in the moment.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • It was never like: "Susie, you can’t do this because you’re a woman." I didn’t come from that culture. So I feel really lucky. … But I certainly got schooled on how society saw it.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • I grew up with a hybrid culture. So it’s what I know. I don’t know anything otherwise. … I love that aesthetic that everybody has their own thing that’s really special and it’s different.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • I love rehearsals in any situation. It’s great when you get a lot of players that just want to play, and we want to play and see how it’s going to grow.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • At one point, I was living the winters in the Philippines. It was like having two lives.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • We felt that particularly with water rhythms, listening to climate change, we are personally inviting the listener in to have a more personal experience and to connect, because everybody’s had a connection to water.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist

An undercurrent that runs throughout Susie Ibarra’s career trajectory is that many of the activities she was engaging in–performing in genres such as free jazz, particularly as a drummer–were unusual for a woman back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Her memories about that era were particularly illuminating:

“Having been a young musician, I definitely went through it, like with the naivete of all of a sudden having to wake up to that–wow, oh, the world is like this. Because I was raised by a very strong mother. She was a doctor and grew up in World War II in Manila. She’s very bright. She skipped three grades. She graduated from med school when she was 22. It was never like: ‘Susie, you can’t do this because you’re a woman.’ I didn’t come from that culture. So I was really lucky. Really lucky. Because in that particular style, whatever genre of jazz it is, it’s very socially difficult to a point where you think: Well, I can be empathetic and supportive to issues that are going on, but I also know that what my life path is is different than other people who are born into their life paths. So I also can’t just take on giant, heavy stones on my back that are not going to serve a purpose or be useful for anything. So initially, I think I just loved so much a lot of this music and playing, and I was also raised in a certain way. I didn’t see it that way. But I certainly got schooled on how society saw it. And then it’s the question of: do I want to accept that, or do I want to not accept that.”

Another thing that has given her tremendous strength and perseverance has been her immersion into her Philippine heritage. As she would later learn when she began to spend time absorbing the myriad musical practices in the Philippines, percussion instruments were traditionally played by women. So the way that cultures have gendered certain musical instruments is by no means universal. However, being born in California, raised in Houston, and coming of age as an artist in New York City, no single cultural force has exclusively shaped her approach to making music.

“I grew up with a hybrid culture, so it’s what I know,” she explains. “I don’t know anything otherwise. … I love that aesthetic that everybody has their own thing that’s really special and it’s different.”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Susie Ibarra: Hybrid Culture
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Susie Ibarra
June 18, 2021—Noon EDT via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Tania León Orchestral Work Stride Awarded 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music

Tania León has been awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her orchestra work Stride which received its world premiere in a performance by The New York Philharmonic conducted by Jaap van Zweden in David Geffen Hall in New York City on February 13, 2020. According to the Pulitzer Prize guidelines, the annually awarded $15,000 prize is for “a distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the previous year.” The Pulitzer citation describes Stride as “a musical journey full of surprise, with powerful brass and rhythmic motifs that incorporate Black music traditions from the US and the Caribbean into a Western orchestral fabric.” Published by Peermusic Classical, Stride was one of 19 commissions of the New York Philharmonic as part of its Project 19 initiative commemorating the centenary of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the United States constitution which established that women have the right to vote.

“I don’t know what to say!” said Tania León during a telephone conversation minutes after the announcement. “All the women that motivated me to do this: I am the product of my grandmother. My mother and my grandmother were both maids when they were eight years old. And Susan B. Anthony and all the suffragettes inspired me. I think of all these women and I want to honor them.”

The announcement of the Pulitzer Prizes, which traditionally take place in the Columbia University Journalism Building and are scheduled on the third Monday of April, were delayed again this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, this year’s announcement was made online by Pulitzer Prize co-chairs Mindy Marqués and Stephen Engelberg via a stream posted this Friday afternoon on the Pulitzer website and on YouTube.

Also nominated as finalists for the 2021 music prize were: Place by Ted Hearne (released on New Amsterdam Records on April 3, 2020) which is described in the Pulitzer citation as “a brave and powerful work, marked by effective vocal writing and multiple musical genres, that confronts issues of gentrification and displacement in Fort Greene,” and Maria Schneider’s Data Lords (a recording released by the Maria Schneider Orchestra on July 24, 2020 via ArtistShare), which is described in the citation as “an enveloping musical landscape of light and shadow, rendered by the many personalities of a large jazz ensemble, reflecting the promise of a digital paradise contrasted by a concentration of power and the loss of privacy.”

Tania León was the very first individual composer featured in conversation in NewMusicBox back in August 1999. You can read a complete transcript of that conversation here. Tania León is one of the eight composers involved in New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices program and Stride is one of the six works submitted by New Music USA in consideration for performance during the 2021 International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) World New Music Days in Shanghai scheduled for September 2021.

The jury for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music was: John V. Brown, Jr. (Chair), Vice Provost, Arts, Duke University; Regina Carter, Jazz Violinist, Maywood, N.J.; Ellen Reid, Composer/Sound Artist, New York City (and prior winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Music, in 2019); John Schaefer, Host, “New Sounds,” WNYC Radio; and Christopher J. Washburne, Composer/Trombonist; Professor of Music, Columbia University.

2021 ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Awards Announced

The ASCAP Foundation has announced the 21 recipients and 17 honorable mentions of the 2021 ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Awards, which encourage talented young creators of concert music ranging in age from 13 to 30.

Established as The ASCAP Foundation Young Composer Awards in 1979 with funding from The ASCAP Foundation Jack and Amy Norworth Fund, the program grants cash prizes to concert music composers up to 30 years of age whose works are selected through a juried national competition. These composers may be American citizens, permanent residents or students possessing U.S. student visas. The annual ASCAP Foundation Young Composer program was renamed to honor the memory of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Morton Gould, who served as President of ASCAP and The ASCAP Foundation from 1986 to 1994, following his death in 1996 to honor his lifelong commitment to encouraging young creators and his own start as a child prodigy. The 2021 Morton Gould Young Composer Awards composers/judges were: Chen Yi, Anthony Cheung, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Caroline Mallonee, James Matheson, Matt Van Brink, and Dalit Warshaw.

The 21 recipients of the 2021 Morton Gould Young Composer Awards and their award-winning works are listed below with the composers’ place of origin and current residence. Recipients under the age of 18 are listed by state of residence:

Alex Berko (b. 1995 in Solon, OH) of Houston, TX: Among Waves for full orchestra [12′]
Paul Berlinsky (b. 1994 in North Miami Beach, FL) of Kansas City, MO: The Inner Light for wind quintet [9′]
Alistair Coleman (b. 1998 in Washington, D.C.) of Philadelphia, PA: Sonata for trombone and piano [16′]
Julián Fueyo (b. 1996 in Tampico, Mexico) of New Haven, CT: Serpiente de Turquesas for violin and orchestra [12′]
Brittany J. Green (b. 1991 in Raleigh, NC) of Durham, NC: Rencontras for string quartet [8′]
Moni Guo (b. 1993 in Taiyuan, Shanxi, China) of Los Angeles, CA: Rays of the After-rain Evening Sun for full orchestra [8′]
Patrick Holcomb (b. 1996 in Fairfax, VA) of Ocean View, DE: The Harvest of the Amulet of the Deer for mezzo-soprano and sinfonietta [11′]
Soomin Kim (b. 1995 in Uijeongbu, South Korea) of New Haven, CT: THE EIGHTH SONG for three violas [13′]
Chelsea Komschlies (b. 1991 in Appleton, WI) of Montreal, Canada: Hexactinellida for chamber orchestra [8′]
Piyawat Louilarpprasert (b. 1993 in Bangkok, Thailand) of Ithaca, NY: scattered bones for full orchestra [13′]
Wenbin Lyu (b. 1994 in Liaoning, China) of Cincinnati, OH: Germination for chamber orchestra [10′]
Jorge Machain (b. 1993 in Lazaro Cardenas, Mexico) of Henderson, NV: The Espresso Express, a drum set concerto with wind orchestra [17′]
Christopher O’Brien (b. 2002 in Los Angeles, CA) of Pacific Palisades, CA: LETHE for full orchestra [17′]
Marco-Adrián Ramos (b. 1995 in Springdale, AR) of Gravette, AR: Guadalupe o Retablo for chamber orchestra [18′]
Ben Robichaux (b. 1991 in Thibodaux, LA) of Thibodaux, LA: As the Lights Go Out for wind ensemble and quadrophonic electronics [15′]
Ari Sussman (b. 1993 Elkins Park, PA) of Ann Arbor, MI: Higaleh Nah for solo soprano, solo viola, SATB chorus, and piano [8′]
Siqi Wang (from Henan Province, China) of Kansas City, MO: Three Bagatelles for wind quintet [11′]
Emily Webster-Zuber of Los Angeles, CA: Ocean Waves for string quartet [9′]
Brady Wolff (from Kansas City, MO) of Lake Winnebago, MO: String Quartet [32′]
Elizabeth Younan (b. 1994 in Sydney, Australia) formerly from Philadelphia, PA and currently in Australia: Woodwind Quintet No. 2 ‘Kismet’ [6′]
Hao Zou (from Huaibei, Anhui, China) of Kansas City, MO: Song on the Wind for full orchestra [6′]

Photos of all the composers who have either won or received an honorable mention in the 2021 ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Awards.

The following 16 composers received Honorable Mention (recipients under the age of 18 are listed by state of residence):

Hannah A. Barnes (b. 1997 in Geneva, IL) of Chicago, IL: five images for clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola, harp, and percussion [9′]
Olivia Bennett (b. 2002 in Springfield, MO) of Houston, TX: Mass for string quartet [7′]
Luke Blackburn (b. 1992 in Ocala, FL) of Seattle, WA: Menagerie of Spectacular Creatures: Insecta for flute (doubling piccolo and alto flute), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), violin, violoncello, and harp [25′]
Lucy Chen of MD: The Magic Forest at Night for 14 musicians [8′]
Emily DeNucci (from Springfield, MA) of Somers, CT: The Evolution of Climate Change for trombone, tuba, and piano [12′]
Joe Jaxson (b. 2000 in New York, NY) of Staunton, VA: Perservering for flute, clarinet, violin, violoncello, piano, and percussion [10′]
Marco Jiminez (from Miami, FL) of St. Petersburg, FL: Requiem Mass “de Angelis” for large mixed ensemble [28′]
Quinn Mason (b. 1996 in Dallas, TX) of Dallas, TX: A Joyous Trilogy for full orchestra [17′]
Sophie Mathieu (from Bedford, TX) of Austin, TX: moons for full orchestra [12′]
Celka Ojakangas (b. 1992 in Springfield, MO) of Los Angeles, CA: Sploopy for sinfonietta [29′]
Luca Pasquini (b. 2004) of CO: Danse Orphique for string quartet [16′]
Yash Pazhianur of NJ: Impulses for orchestra [17′]
Aaron S. Ricucci-Hill (b. 1992 in Troy, MO) of Kansas City, MO: Colors of Pride for wind quintet [10′]
Daniel Sabzghabei (b. 1992 in Denton, TX) of Ithaca, NY: At any rate II. “what remains” for singing string quartet and record player [9′]
Winston Schneider of NE: Expiculating Quintet for clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola, and violoncello [8′]
Sami Seif (b. 1998 in Keserwan, Lebanon) of Cleveland, OH: Orientalism for string quartet [14′]
Danae Venson (from Austin, TX) of Houston, TX: Riot! I. Peace for 2 pianos, contrabass, Drums, Congas, Rainstick, Shaker, Tambourine, Den-Den, Daiko, and drums [4′]

Additionally, Paul Berlinsky was recognized by the panel with the 2021 Leo Kaplan Award created in memory of the distinguished attorney who served as ASCAP Special Distribution Advisor. The award is funded by the Kaplan Family.

In addition to The ASCAP Foundation Jack and Amy Norworth Fund, The ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund also provides financing for the Morton Gould Young Composer Awards. Caesar was best known as the lyricist of “Tea for Two” and “Swanee,” while Jack Norworth wrote such standards as “Shine On Harvest Moon” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Ricky Ian Gordon: My Way of Enveloping a Story

For the past 20 years, Ricky Ian Gordon has been creating works for the stage—operas, musicals, or one-of a-kind music/theater hybrids—and getting them produced one after another, seemingly without a pause. But 14 months ago, fresh off from the PROTOTYPE production of Ellen West and with two new works about to open—Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis with New York City Opera—plus a revival of The Grapes of Wrath at Aspen in the works, everything came to a screeching halt as the world went into lockdown due to the pandemic.

“They didn’t even take down the set of Intimate Apparel,” Ricky exclaimed when we spoke over Zoom. “Michael Yeargan’s set is there. Cathy Zuber’s costumes, Jennifer Tipton’s lights, everything’s in place. We just have to get back in the theater. We’ll open the theater again.”

But since everything has been on hold for over a year now, he has taken a break from madly finishing new scores. Instead, he has focused mostly on other things—writing poetry, a candid essay about his teenage obsession with Joni Mitchell which was published in Spin, and he’s now furiously at work on a book-length memoir that will be published in 2022 by Farrar Straus & Giroux.

“I couldn’t get behind writing music and anything that relies on performance during a period when there was not going to be any performance,” Gordon explained. “It just felt like the wrong direction. And also the whole Zoom music thing, like operas on Zoom, just doesn’t interest me that much. … But we’re all fickle, and if suddenly it was a form that was about my work, then I’m sure I’d turn around on it, ‘cause I’m 12-years-old inside.”

  • I actually decided I’m going to take a break from notes for a little while.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • I’m the guy who writes hybrid.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • It’s better to open a house on Madame Butterfly than on a brand new opera that is going to ask new things of this space.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • By the next time you see Pacific Overtures, it might be for like kazoo and French horn.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • If I could go back and have another life, I would be reading 24 hours a day.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • If you want to be a librettist, you have to be attached to the events and the stories.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • There is no such thing as history or then and now.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent.

    Ricky Ian Gordon

It’s somewhat surprising that Ricky Ian Gordon didn’t jump on the virtual music bandwagon, since for years he’s been involved in creating works for the stage that redefine possibilities and break boundaries. But he also excels at creating work that is emotionally direct and has an immediate impact with audiences, so it makes sense that he’d be skeptical about creating something designed to be experienced by isolated individuals in front of computer terminals. And what inspires him more than anything else is the narrative arc of a great story, whether it’s a John Steinbeck novel, passages from Marcel Proust, a poem by Frank Bidart about a patient of an early 20th century psychiatrist suffering from anorexia nervosa, or the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. While most of his stage works are based on events from the distant past, these stories are very much in the present for him.

“Is Grapes of Wrath any less resonant now than it was then?” he asked at one point in our talk. “The entire world is one big refugee crisis. One big drought. One big food shortage. One big government saying: it’s not my fault. The Grapes of Wrath could have been written yesterday! When we wrote 27 about Gertrude and Alice, what was the zeitgeist? Gay marriage. And this is like the original gay marriage. These two women were calling themselves husband and wife before World War I. It all feels like it’s happening now. … I never feel like I’m back in time. … I just feel like … I’m making myself available for those stories. Then I feel like they sort of explode through me. There is no such thing as history or then and now. There’s only the current moment and what seems to be my way of enveloping that story.”

Thankfully, though he has had numerous productions put on hiatus, Ricky Ian Gordon has not suffered great hardship during the past year as have so many others who have lost loved ones or have gotten sick themselves. But he is also a war-scarred survivor of the AIDS crisis which claimed tons of people dear to him, most significantly his partner Jeffrey Michael Grossi, whose death inspired his deeply personal adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice and his poignant monodrama Green Sneakers. The lessons Gordon learned from that horrific time inform his outlook on where we as a society are right now.

“It was a very intense time,” he recalled. “Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying … We live in a very divided country right now, but I just can’t imagine we’re not all gonna be affected by this. … The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent. … How do you incorporate that into a new world where at any moment you could get a pandemic and everyone could be killed? What does art mean then?”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Ricky Ian Gordon: My Way Of Enveloping A Story
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Ricky Ian Gordon
April 19, 2021—1:30pm EDT via Zoom
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations

The only thing that is almost as exciting as watching and listening to a multimedia performance by Pamela Z is to hear her talk about it, which she does for almost an hour in a fascinating conversation that spans a wide range of topics including: creating and performing during the pandemic; her artistic beginnings as a singer-songwriter and how she transitioned into an experimental composer; a difficult encounter with TSA agents; dealing with constant changes in technology; and her obsession with old telephones.

Although Pamela is a composer who is mostly focused on creating new sounds by new means, it was extremely interesting to hear her describe her occasional frustration with the ephemerality of so many of the devices on which we all have become so dependent.

At one point she exclaims, “There are a lot of people in the world who all they care about is changing things. They don’t get attached to something. They really think everything is oh so yesterday, so six months ago. That is not compatible in a way with becoming virtuosic on anything. Building an instrument that you can become virtuosic on without having to pause every few minutes to update it and then change all of the things that no longer work with the update and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I always jokingly say: ‘Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a violinist or a cellist or something and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one. And by the way, we’ve made the fretboard a little narrower because you don’t need all that extra space?’”

And yet, those technological changes and sometimes the strange glitches and disconnects that result from them have informed so much of this San Francisco Bay Area-based maverick’s creative work. Attention, a work she created for the Del Sol String Quartet, will forever change your perception of telephones ringing. Baggage Allowance will make you rethink your next airplane trip when it is safe to take one again. She hopes Times3, her sonic installation created for the 2021 Prototype Festival to accompany a walk around Times Square that has now been extended through April 30, 2021, “cues people into the thought of expanding their imagination to past, present, and future of whatever place they’re in.”

  • The time we’re living through right now is turning us all into filmmakers.

    Pamela Z
  • One of my least favorite things is to see somebody making the awkward effort to make their performance visual just because they think that’s expected.

    Pamela Z
  • I’ve actually been telling people that if they do have the chance to go and listen to the piece in Times Square that I also encourage them to have another listen to it, not in Times Square.

    Pamela Z
  • I suddenly woke up one day and realized that the music I was playing for a living did not resemble what was on my turntable.

    Pamela Z
  • I spend just as much time going to visual art museums and galleries as I do going to concerts.

    Pamela Z
  • Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a cellist and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, “Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one.”

    Pamela Z
  • Nothing dies on the internet. Well, except Flash.

    Pamela Z

Pamela Z’s quest for new solutions which create problems that are also an integral part of the resultant work also informs her brand new Ink, a work which includes some surreal reflections on how musicians interact with notated scores which will be premiered by the San Francisco-based chorus Volti in an online performance on April 24.

Aside from learning more about all of these one-of-a-kind compositions, it’s a delight to hear all of her stories since, as anyone who has experienced her work already knows, she is an extremely engaging storyteller. Our time together over Zoom was a non-stop adventure except for, perhaps appropriately, the occasional internet connection hiccup which we mostly were able to fix in post-production editing.

New Music USA · SoundLives — Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Pamela Z
March 16, 2021—4:00pm EDT via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between San Francisco CA and New York NY
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce and Jonathan Stone; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

New Music USA Submissions for the 2021 ISCM World New Music Days

The logo of ISCM

New Music USA has submitted six works for consideration in the call for scores for the 2021 International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) World New Music Days which, pandemic willing, is scheduled to take place in Shanghai and Nanning from September 17-25, 2021. Each of these six works is by a composer who was chosen to participate in New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices program, which was launched in January 2020 to promote marginalized voices in orchestral music and now involves a consortium of 35 American orchestras. Since orchestral music is only one of 12 categories in this year’s call for scores, and each of these composers has created vital work in a wide range of instrumentations, New Music USA has submitted three orchestral scores and three works scored for other combinations. The six composers are Valerie Coleman, Tania León, Jessie Montgomery, Brian Raphael Nabors, Nina Shekhar, and Shelley Washington.

Every year since 1923, with the exception of hiatuses during World War II (1943-45) and the global COVID-19 pandemic (2020), there has been a festival of new music presented somewhere in the world under the aegis of the ISCM, which is a global network of organizations devoted to the promotion and presentation of the music of our time. Some now canonical contemporary music compositions which have received their world premiere performances during these annual ISCM festivals include Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (posthumously), Pierre Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, Hindemith’s Clarinet Quintet, György Ligeti’s Apparitions, George Perle’s Six Etudes for solo piano, Stockhausen’s Kontakte, Isang Yun’s Third String Quartet, and one sixth of Anton Webern’s published output. These festivals have also had a laudable track record in embracing a wide diversity of new music aesthetics and have been historically way ahead of the curve in showcasing tons of emerging composers, in particular, some significant female composers relatively early in their artistic trajectories: Joan La Barbara, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Canada’s Barbara Pentland, Chile’s Leni Alexander, Serbia’s Ljubica Marić, Korea’s Unsuk Chin, etc. Zwilich and Chin have both credited the ISCM for helping to launch their compositional careers.

For each year’s festival, member organizations submit six pieces of music for consideration in a call for scores. If the member’s submissions follow the ISCM guidelines (the six works must be in at least four different categories of instrumentation, which varies each year), then at least one work must be selected for performance in the festival to ensure that new music from all over the world is presented each year. Many member organizations hold specific competitions to select their six submitted works. Each year New Music USA, which has been a member of the ISCM since 2014, submits six works which have been previously vetted through our various grant programs or through various initiatives for which New Music USA has served as a partner (e.g. EarShot, the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s Edward T. Cone Composition Institute). Composers whose New Music USA submitted works were previously performed during the ISCM World New Music Days include Katherine Bergman, Chen Yao, Saad Haddad, Geoffrey Hudson, and Missy Mazzoli.

New Music USA’s submissions for the 2021 ISCM World New Music Days are three orchestral compositions and three works scored for other combinations.

A composite of photos of Valerie Coleman, Tania León, Jessie Montgomery, Shelley Washington, Brian Raphael Nabors, and Nina Shekhar.

The six composers whose works have been submitted by New Music USA in the 2021 ISCM World New Music Days call for scores: (top row) Valerie Coleman, Tania León, Jessie Montgomery; (bottom row) Shelley Washington, Brian Raphael Nabors, and Nina Shekhar.

Valerie Coleman (b. 1970): Seven O’Clock Shout for orchestra (2020)
Seven O’Clock Shout is a declaration of our survival,” says composer Valerie Coleman. “It is something that allows us our agency to take back the kindness that is in our hearts and the emotions that cause us such turmoil. … We cheer on the essential workers with a primal and fierce urgency to let them know that we stand with them and each other.” Seven O’Clock Shout was commissioned by The Philadelphia Orchestra which is the consortium lead for a future commission by Valerie Coleman as part of the Amplifying Voices program. Seven O’Clock Shout, which received its world premiere in a physically-distanced performance by The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin during the League of American Orchestras’ Virtual Conference in 2020, has become the orchestra’s anthem in response to COVID-19. In addition to honoring frontline workers, this special commission celebrates the strength of human connection even during times of isolation. (Read and/or listen to a conversation with Valerie Coleman.)

Valerie Coleman: Seven O’Clock Shout
Performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Tania León (b. 1943): Stride for orchestra (2019)
Stride is a single-movement orchestral composition which was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the Oregon Symphony as part of the New York Philharmonic’s “Project 19,” an initiative commissioning new works by 19 female composers in honor of the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which extended voting rights to women. It was first performed by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Jaap van Zweden in David Geffen Hall at New York City’s Lincoln Center on February 13, 2020. The piece is dedicated “In honor of Susan B. Anthony and to the visionaries Deborah Borda and Jaap van Zweden.” Composer Tania León, who will create a new work for the Arkansas Symphony as the lead commissioner in the Amplifying Voices consortium, has acknowledged that Stride was also inspired by her progressive grandmother. The work’s title refers to the action of moving forward. (Tania León was the very first individual composer interviewed for NewMusicBox back in 1999; you can read a complete transcript of that interview here.)

Tania León: Stride
Excerpts from a rehearsal by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Jaap van Zweden.
There is no publicly available performance of the entire composition online currently, but at least there is some rehearsal footage of the New York Philharmonic posted on their YouTube page.

Nina Shekhar (b. 1995): Lumina for orchestra (2020)
According to composer Nina Shekhar, who was recently selected by the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) to compose a new orchestra work for which they will serve as the lead commissioner in the Amplifying Voices program, her work Lumina “explores the spectrum of light and dark and the murkiness in between. Using swift contrasts between bright, sharp timbres and cloudy textures and dense harmonies, the piece captures sudden bursts of radiance amongst the eeriness of shadows.” The work, which was written for the USC Thornton Symphony and premiered by that orchestra under the direction of Donald Crockett at USC Thornton’s Bovard Auditorium in Los Angeles, California on February 28, 2020, was awarded the 2021 ASCAP Foundation Rudolf Nissim Prize.

Nina Shekhar: Lumina
Performed by the USC Thornton Symphony conducted by Donald Crockett
Bovard Auditorium (University of Southern California) Los Angeles CA
February 28, 2000

Shelley Washington (b. 1991): Middleground for string quartet (2016)
About her string quartet Middleground, Shelley Washington writes: “MIDDLEGROUND: the space grounded, the between, the center. The Heartland. The prairie, the grasslands, Konza, Flint Hills, Manhattan, Emporia, Salina. Where we gathered. Home of the heart, heart of the home. The years spent in cars, daydreaming, scooping handfuls of wheat, racing out into amber fields, cycling together, water wheel ice cream, fireworks and apples. The stories shared, books read sprawled in the yard, family prayers over anything, late evening walks, quiet nights. Open arms, open hearts, humble and extraordinary. Together, with our wonder, our joy, we created an incredible painting with abounding colors. The kinds of colors that linger in the mind’s eye long after they are out of sight and cradle you long after goodbyes are spoken and car doors closed. The kinds that find you counting the days until the next birthday, the next holiday, the next bike ride, the next Camp, the next anything just so you can see them again. When you close your eyes you feel their warmth. They stay. The middle ground: my refuge born from the land living in my heart. Where my home is, living and breathing outside of my body, thousands of miles apart. This hallowed ground. For my family.” Middleground was first performed by the JACK Quartet in New York City in 2016 and has subsequently been performed by the Jasper String Quartet as well.

Shelley Washington: Middleground
Performed by the Jasper String Quartet
(J Freivogel and Karen Kim, violins; Sam Quintal, viola; and Rachel Henderson Freivogel, cello)
Live in concert, Jasper Chamber Concerts 2019

Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981): Duo for Violin and Cello (2015/18)
Jessie Montgomery’s Duo for Violin and Cello, also known as Three Pieces for Violin and Cello, was written for the composer’s friend and cellist Adrienne Taylor. The piece is meant as an ode to friendship with movements characterizing laughter, compassion, adventure, and sometimes silliness. Montgomery will compose an orchestral work for the Amplifying Voices program which will receive its premiere performance by its lead commissioner, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. (Jessie Montgomery was featured in a conversation on NewMusicBox in 2016.)

Jessie Montgomery: Duo for Violin and Cello
Performed by Airi Yoshioka (violin) and Alexis Gerlach (cello)

Brian Raphael Nabors (b. 1991): Énergie for flute and electronics (2015)
According to composer Brian Raphael Nabors, whose Amplifying Voices commissioned orchestral work will be premiered by its lead commissioner, the Berkeley Symphony, his 2015 work Énergie for flute and fixed-format electronics, “encompasses the very nature of energy and its purpose throughout the universe. It also uses its musical material to depict life’s everyday movements, as well as forces of nature such as wind and gravity. The flute is written in a way that captures a very expressive range of tone and timbre throughout the piece; to enhance the expressive nature of the electronics.” The electronics were created from synths using various effects such as phasing, reverb, granulation, and more. Processed vocals, educational material on the subject of energy, as well as recordings of President Barack Obama’s comments on green energy were also utilized. The work was first performed by Brittany Trotter on the Fresh Perspectives new music series launch concert at Lab Studios by Glo in Cleveland, OH in 2018.

Brian Raphael Nabors: Énergie
Performed by Timothy Hagen
Amplify, Concert No. 1, Virtual Concert
September 9, 2020

New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices program was kick-started with a generous contribution from The Sphinx Organization which selected this initiative to shift the canon for future generations as a Sphinx Venture Fund (SVF) recipient for 2020. Additional funding from the Sorel Organization and industry partners ASCAP and Wise Music Trust has enabled the program to further expand. Through a national call, New Music USA asked orchestras to come forward with proposals for co-commissions and a commitment to promote existing repertoire that deserves further performances. There are now a total of eight orchestras serving as consortium leads in the program. The other two composers involved are Tyshawn Sorey and Juan Pablo Contreras who will work with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Las Vegas Philharmonic respectively. Other partner orchestras involved in the program include the Aspen Music Festival and School, Auburn Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Boston Landmarks Orchestra, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, California Symphony, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Kansas City Symphony, Louisiana Philharmonic, New Jersey Symphony, New World Symphony, Richmond Symphony, ROCO, and Seattle Symphony.

Judith Lang Zaimont: The Music She Has to Write

Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom

Judith Lang Zaimont has been active as a pianist since she was five. She performed on national television at the age of 11 and began her studies at Juilliard at age 12. But despite her deep love for music from the very beginning, she realized early on that she hated practicing, playing the exact same thing again and again. One day, while sight-reading through some music by Chopin, she had an epiphany. The constant variations in his music meant he also hated playing the same thing again and again. And it suddenly dawned on her that her constant desire to play something new meant that she was a composer.

That endless search for something new still fuels Zaimont’s creativity many decades later. She is defiantly unwilling to be typecast for creating music in a particular style, which makes her music always a welcome surprise. But it has also proved challenging for her in terms of typical opportunities for composers.

“I have very particular ideas or thoughts about commissions,” she explained when we chatted over Zoom in early February. “They open doors. But they always come as a result of knowing past music by the person. And if you are not a one-groove individual artistically, if you have many parts to yourself, then you could open a door you’ve never opened before in a new piece. … We suffer a little bit, if you’ve been at this for a while, from being branded thus or such. And artists are not their brand. If you relax into that groove, beware.”

For Zaimont, composing music is always a work in progress, an ongoing journey of discovery and reinventing oneself. It has also made her very critical of her own work over the years which has led her to take works she no longer thinks are worthy out of circulation.

“The world doesn’t need those pieces,” she exclaimed. “I’m constantly going back and making sure that what I put forward is the best that I can do under the circumstances.”

Thankfully, however, there are quite a few pieces that she does still acknowledge and many performers acknowledge them, too. While so many composers are lucky if a piece they’ve written gets a performance and a recording, several of Zaimont’s works have been recorded multiple times which is, after all, how music becomes repertoire. And that is her goal since her music is deeply informed and inspired by the canon of classical music repertoire. Among the pillars in her catalog are six symphonies, two piano trios, a hefty piano sonata, and two string quartets—at least that she still acknowledges (believing that she only fully grasped the string quartet medium in her 60s). She has also composed a formidable Judaic sacred service, perhaps her most significant choral work although it has yet to be recorded in its entirety.

Yet despite Zaimont’s deep immersion in European musical traditions, her music is very much American. She has composed several rags and the rhythms and harmonies of jazz and various American popular music genres have seeped into her own compositional language, so much so that they’re not influences per se, but rather additional vocabulary that she has mastered and incorporated into her own ever-evolving sound world.

  • I have a super appreciation of the performer’s entry point...

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I think a long time about how the music is going to be notated.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I always want horizons that don’t fence you in.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • All of my pieces solve puzzles.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I have tried not to be branded.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I do charts of other people’s periodicities. I did all the development sections of all the Beethoven sonatas.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • My father used to come to all my concerts and applaud like crazy. And then he’d get this funny look on his face, like maybe he didn’t understand the music.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • Ned Rorem once wrote that a composer has three arrows in his quiver, and he shoots them over and over again. I took that as a challenge.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • If each piece isn’t a struggle to do, you’ve got to question how valid it is.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • Nobody ever told me that any women wrote music. Did it stop me? No.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer

Early on in her career, Zaimont was also a major champion of other female composers, both contemporaries and women from earlier times, editing an important series of volumes of critical studies of their music.

“Nobody ever told me that any women wrote music,” she remembered. “Did it stop me? No. I knew I was born to write music. Didn’t matter to me. … But I saw there was a whole cohort of women who were writing music. I started to learn the history of music that had been written in times past by women. … These people were not in the history books. They were not there. Generations of the present moment weren’t knowing about them. The world needs to know about what they have accomplished and appreciate it. I got letters from some of the standing composers whom we profiled in the critical appraisals sections of the books to thank me for finally having been able to engender these really critical articles dealing with the stuff of their music. Not who they were as a person. Whether they were married or had children, how old they were. That they were women in a man’s world. None of that. Deal with their music. That’s why I did that. I set my own creative work aside to do this because somebody needed to step up and do it. … I’m very grateful to the music that these people wrote, that it is now in the world.”

But don’t call Zaimont, as she described it, an “adjective” composer.

“The thing I don’t like is being a column B composer. I don’t want to wait until you get adjective before the world composer. Before you think Judith Lang Zaimont. Think of me right up there. I sit at Chopin’s—just behind Chopin, I can’t sit at his shoulder. I sit back there a ways. But I’m on the stage.”


New Music USA · SoundLives — Judith Lang Zaimont – The Music She Has To Write
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Judith Lang Zaimont
February 2, 2021—4:00pm EST via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Maricopa AZ and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Kris Bowers: In Love With Accompaniment

Kris Bowers

Kris Bowers is one of the humblest and most introverted composer/performers I have ever encountered. This is astonishing considering his accomplishments—winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition at 20, a daytime Emmy four years ago, and now one of the most in-demand composers for film and television, most recently scoring the Netflix sensation Bridgerton. And yet it all makes sense when you begin exploring Bowers’s incredible versatility, his openness to all genres of music, and hear how attuned his music is to whatever project he is working on as well as all the musicians he has worked with.

“As a jazz pianist, one of the things that I fell in love with was accompaniment,” he acknowledged when we spoke with him about his music and career back in October. “I’ve never really wanted to be the center of attention in a performance space.”

  • I’ve never really wanted to be the center of attention in a performance space.

    Kris Bowers
  • I’ve always been into different styles of music.

    Kris Bowers
  • I always like giving myself limitations or rules, or a box, and then going wild within that space.

    Kris Bowers
  • I have a lot of family members that I don’t agree with… But, at the same time, I have a profound love for them.

    Kris Bowers
  • Until I started doing scoring sessions, I wasn’t able to have a group of musicians of a large size, play my music since college.

    Kris Bowers
  • I felt just as much kinship with John Williams as I did Quincy Jones and Terence Blanchard.

    Kris Bowers
  • I realized I would rather be up until five in the morning at home working on a score than getting on a bus to go to the next city.

    Kris Bowers
  • I have maybe a week to ten days to turn around the score.

    Kris Bowers
  • Whenever you hear a musician’s album, you know whose album it is by who’s the loudest on that album. … I didn’t want that.

Scoring films and television series might be the ideal medium for Bowers since it allows him to immerse himself in the characters and plots which should be foregrounded rather than the music. Nevertheless the music he writes is always attention grabbing and works well as a listening experience independently of whatever it was originally written to enhance, whether it’s the score for the 2018 motion picture Green Book, which was based on the life of composer/pianist Don Shirley, or the 2019 EA Sports videogame Madden NFL 20. Whatever project he is working on, Bowers always operates from a zone of empathy.

“That’s the only way that I can really get to something honest,” he explained. “I think that it’s more likely that it will reach other people if it’s something that came from an honest and emotional place for me.”

Considering his need to relate to the characters he creates music for, it’s somewhat surprising that Bowers also composed the score for Mrs. America, a 2020 Hulu series about the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. “I actually really loved needing to represent this human side to this character that I didn’t agree with,” he admitted. “It even helped me understand or remind myself that those people that I might disagree with politically, especially in a time like this, that they’re humans at the end of the day. And that’s something to keep in mind and to really remember.”

As a Black composer who works in a medium that is still overwhelmingly dominated by White composers, it is also important for Bowers that his music not be typecast and the fact that he has worked on such a wide range of projects, in which he has explored an extraordinarily broad range of musical styles, is testimony to his music being impossible to typecast at this point.

New Music USA · SoundLives — Kris Bowers: In Love With Accompaniment
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Kris Bowers
October 22, 2020—12:30pm EST via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Los Angeles CA and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves