Author: Jennifer Jolley

The Curious Case of Keiko Yamada

A Japanese face mask on a shelf

The evening of August 31 began like most Saturday nights at the start of the fall semester. I was reviewing course plans and readings for the upcoming week, while I casually scrolled through my email. It was late, and I had long since lost whatever drive had propelled me earlier when I received an email from David Biedenbender, a friend and colleague at Blue Dot Collective, with the subject line “Larry Clark.” Curious, I clicked on the message and was presented with a top-line that read, “This is SO NOT OKAY…” above two screenshots. The first was an image from jwpepper.com of a Grade 1/2 string orchestra piece entitled Kon’nichiwa by a composer named Keiko Yamada with the description: “This piece is ‘hello,’ with a smile on your face.”

I was confused. The title and description were, at worst, innocuous, maybe trite, but they certainly didn’t warrant an all caps critique. It wasn’t until I scrolled down further to the second screenshot that I began to understand. There I found a copied message from Owen Davis, a composer/percussionist/music teacher from Flagstaff, AZ that outlined the controversy signaled in the email’s subject line. It read in part[1]:

*PSA* to all of my friends in music education and specifically the band world: Prominent composer/Arranger Larry Clark made a pen name “Keiko Yamada” to pretend to be a Japanese Female composer in order to profit from calls for diversity in music education! […] To make things worse, after being pulled from some prominent music publishers after being publicly outed for this, some publishers decided to put his real name on the score. This winter [he] is an invited presenter at the prestigious Midwest Band Clinic leading a talk on “Selecting Quality Literature” for band.

Despite the anger expressed in Davis’s account and his speculated motives, my initial reaction was disbelief. The idea that a white male composer decided to use a pseudonym that did not conform to his race or gender read almost like a bad joke—who could possibly think this was a good idea? Moreover, I thought, who needs a pen name in twenty-first-century American music publishing? Women and people of color aren’t overtly banned from publishing or self-publishing their music, and white men are especially not prevented from getting their works performed. There’s no reason to have a pen name today. And while cultural appropriation has become a topic of discussion recently, there are no prohibitions that would necessitate a fake Asian identity to write a piece like Kon’nichiwa. White male composers have been doing it for centuries and continue to do so.[2]

The idea that a white male composer decided to use a pseudonym that did not conform to his race or gender read almost like a bad joke—who could possibly think this was a good idea?

I logged onto Facebook to see if the story had developed. It had, but like most social media discussion, it was more emotionally enlightening than factually informative. Comments were flooding in, some expressing confusion, but mostly anger. While monitoring the conversations, I decided to verify the charges against Clark as best I could. I checked the Midwest Band Clinic schedule, and Clark’s clinic “In the Eyes of the Beholder: Selecting Quality Literature” was indeed happening. Then I went to the JW Pepper site. I saw more Japanese-themed titles and pieces with duel compositional credit given to Larry Clark and Keiko Yamada.[3]

At this moment, my disbelief became resentment. The thought that Clark, a former Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Carl Fischer Music, one of most prominent publishing companies for educational music in the country, had used his position to publish and promote works under his Keiko Yamada pseudonym was enraging. Because it was late and no additional information was forthcoming, I grew irritable. I told my friends and colleagues I would certainly be there at Clark’s Midwest presentation to ask him what it meant to program “quality” literature. Like many commentators, I fantasized about a confrontation, the chance to be seen and be heard. But this online back-and-forth quickly exhausted its potential, and failed to provide any release. We needed and deserved to know more.

The next day, Clark issued a statement of apology on his Facebook page.

To my friends and colleagues in the music community, I offer my heartfelt apology. Several years ago, I wrote music using the pen name Keiko Yamada. I sincerely meant no harm in doing so. It has been common for composers and authors to use pen names for centuries. Times have obviously changed, and I realized that the use of this pen name was uninformed, insensitive, and out of touch with the need for cultural appropriation and diversity in music.

In 2016, together with my publisher at the time, we decided to eliminate the use of pen names altogether. I chose to have all of these pieces changed to reflect my name as a composer. Old inventory was removed and recalled from music retailers. New versions with my name as the composer were reprinted, at my personal expense.

I accept the responsibility for my uninformed decision to use this pen name. I believe in the music as I do all of the music I write, but what I did was wrong and needs to be corrected.

I can’t change the past and am trying to make things right through my own company Excelcia Music Publishing. Cultural authenticity is paramount, and I will strive to put the composer first by seeking out composers of diverse backgrounds that better reflect the students that will perform the music. I hope that my actions going forward will demonstrate my desire to learn from my mistake.

I am sincerely sorry and will continue to be better informed and sensitive to these important issues.

When I read this, I felt deflated. What should have provided the information crucial to making sense of the emotions riled up the night before was missing. Clark’s apology failed to explain why he decided to use a pseudonym. Its absence only aggravated my frustrations. I took to social media and again found comfort in peers who felt similarly disappointed in Clark’s statement. Unfortunately, by this time, the Internet had produced its inevitable backlash. And we were confronted by Clark’s defenders who posted hurtful remarks like “I’m sorry this was a problem for you ppl [sic] are so triggered and emotional these days I don’t think you need to apologise [sic]” and “Seriously? I see no need to apologize. This world is getting way too sensitive!” Needless to say, but this didn’t help.

As the debates around Clark grew increasingly acrimonious, a series of dramatic actions took place. The Midwest Clinic canceled the Clark presentation. Music by Keiko Yamada was quickly removed from Internet shelves. Webpages disappeared. Carl Fischer issued a statement to their orchestra directors about the controversy saying, “We now realize we should have gone further by taking these publications out of circulation, an action we have since taken.” Clark reiterated his apology online. Everything regarding Larry Clark and Keiko Yamada was shut down in a mere matter of days.

The disappearing of Clark and Yamada felt vaguely like a cover-up, a way to cut debate off before more significant questions could be asked.

The responses to these actions were mixed. Some friends and colleagues were jubilant. For them, the offender had been punished, and the offending material erased. But their numbers were small, and their satisfaction generally waned in the wake of the Midwest Clinic talk cancellation, and the removal of Clark’s music from available outlets. Others, myself included, were more ambivalent. The disappearing of Clark and Yamada didn’t feel like a resolution. It felt vaguely like a cover-up, a way to cut debate off before more significant questions could be asked. Like questions that extend beyond Clark about his enablers at Carl Fisher, about the people who knew about Keiko Yamada and remained silent, and about the other potential pen names that did or may even still exist in company catalogs.

Most of all, the actions still didn’t answer the question of why Larry Clark had done what he had done. What was Clark’s rationale? What possible circumstances allowed him to think Keiko Yamada was a good idea? My initial research only produced more questions, like if Keiko Yamada’s name was used specifically for originally composed Asian-styled pedagogical orchestral music, why did Clark/Yamada arrange Albert Ellmenreich’s Spinning Song? I realized I needed to talk to Clark. Fortunately, Clark was also eager to talk, and a month after the scandal broke,[4] we were able to sit for an interview.

What follows is a transcript of our conversation I produced in the hours following our meeting. (Clark did not want a recording and has approved the text below.) Our time was limited, which prevented some follow up questions that I wanted to ask. Overall, the exchange was frank, and I appreciated his readiness to respond to all queries that I posed.


Fortunately, Clark was eager to talk, and a month after the scandal broke, we were able to sit for an interview.

Jennifer Jolley: In your initial apology you claimed that using a pen name “has been common for composers and authors…for centuries,” but that “[t]imes obviously have changed.” Looking over the pieces under the name Yamada it seems that you adopted this name in 2009, am I correct?

Larry Clark: I wrote the first piece (Hotaka Sunset) in 2004 and it was published in 2005.

JJ: Okay, you created this persona in 2004. So, then you believed it was appropriate to create the persona of an Asian woman in 2004. I guess my question is: what events or developments in the past decade caused you to reassess the decision you made in 2004?

LC: I wasn’t thinking that it was a good idea in 2004; it was flawed thinking on my part anyway. I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought. When I started writing in the publishing business, I was mentored by a lot by older composers in publishing. It was really common that most of them had pseudonyms. This is not an excuse, just how it was when I started getting pieces published.

JJ: How many of these composers had pseudonyms? How many did they have?

LC: I can’t really even tell you that because I don’t know. All of the composers that I had worked with at least had one. Sometimes it had to do with market proliferation; sometimes it had to do with that you’re known as a person who writes at a certain grade level, and sometimes to be taken seriously at a different grade level you needed to use a different name.

“When I started writing, I was mentored by a lot by older composers. It was really common that most of them had pseudonyms.”

I don’t have any excuse for doing this at all. I didn’t give it a lot of thought. I realize it was super insensitive, not a really well-thought out idea. I wish I could take it back, honestly. Going forward, I realize there was no excuse. I was being ignorant and it’s appropriation. Back in 2005, no one really thought about it like they do now. Again, not an excuse.

JJ: So now I’m curious as to when you decided not to use the Yamada pseudonym anymore. What prompted you to do this? You wrote that you and your publisher worked to eliminate pen names and sought to recall inventory that didn’t list you as the composer. Why didn’t you or Carl Fisher Music make a public statement on this? The recalling of music at your own expense suggests that you thought it was at least problematic, why did you remain silent?

LC: It started to feel like it was a bad idea when things started to change culturally, and with more awareness, and political correctness. I’m super apologetic to you; I understand how this could be interpreted.

My feelings about using the pen name started to change when the pieces began to have success. People wanted to meet Keiko Yamada and possibly commission works. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do. I felt really uncomfortable about that. At first, I was not trying to keep it a secret. Musicians in the recording session were aware it was my pen name. When we started receiving requests for information I tried to be more elusive about it, which I regret greatly. I guess I just got scared, which is not a good excuse, but the truth. As the political climate changed and the country became more divided, that is when the topic came up at Carl Fischer. And that is when I began to think about the opportunities this could be taking away from real composers of diversity, and how hurtful that could be.

“People wanted to meet Keiko Yamada and possibly commission works. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do.”

We got into discussions at Carl Fischer about this, so we decided to stop. At first, we thought it would be best to get rid of all the music. That did not sit well with me, because I believed in the music. I thought it was some of my best work, and wanted it to continue, so I made the choice personally to take whatever ramifications came my way and have the pieces changed to my name. The problem is, we didn’t do a good job expressing all of that to the public, because we feared what the ramifications would be. We had concern that what has been happening would happen. I was willing to at that time take it; I wanted to have the music continued. The problem was with the execution of what was done. I was on the team; it was a company decision and that’s how it was handled. [Ed. Note: Sonya Kim has been president of Carl Fischer since 2008.] I think we would all agree that we didn’t handle it well and we didn’t handle it thoroughly and I regret that too.

In retrospect, I, together with Carl Fischer, could have been more transparent and thorough in handling the situation.

JJ: So the orchestra people/directors knew about the pseudonym?

LC: Many of the orchestra people were very upset when that happened.

JJ: Why?

LC: Because of the same reason as the band people. On Facebook there is a String Orchestra Directors Page and that information blew up then. It was split: they took sides. At the time, I asked Sonya Kim, president of Carl Fischer what are we were going to do.

JJ: I want to pinpoint something you said earlier. When exactly did Keiko’s music become successful? Can you pinpoint a year or piece?

LC: People wanted to meet me/her in either 2006 or 2007? Yes, it is Japanese Lullaby that became successful. It was selected for a lot of festival lists and was performed at Midwest, etc.

JJ: Following up on this, Keiko Yamada is a composer listed on a few Prescribed Music Lists, and I believe one of Yamada’s works was performed at the Midwest Clinic. Did you alert anyone involved that you were the composer of the works selected? Do you remember which state lists Keiko Yamada was on?

LC: Which state lists…this is very challenging to determine…

JJ: That is what I’ve been discovering.

LC: I know they were on Florida, Texas, maybe Maryland? There are a lot of states that don’t have a state list. Many of the pieces were performed at Midwest. This happened multiple times, and almost every year.

This is how we tried to alert people in 2016. The intention was not successfully executed. Carl Fischer was to alert the dealers that the names were changing to mine. The Letter asked music dealers to alert the music committees for state lists. This was sent out after these pieces were selected. Carl Fischer sent this to their dealer network, the sheet music dealers.

JJ: While the use of a pen name does date back centuries, this doesn’t satisfactorily explain your motive for using one. A pen name is a strategy employed in response to exigent circumstances such as the protection of an individual’s physical safety (dissents in unfree societies), the preemption of discrimination (Jewish actors that Anglicize their stage names), or to allow individuals access (women authors seeking the consideration of male dominated publishing houses). Given that you were a successful American composer working in a publishing house what were the circumstances that necessitated and/or motivated your creation of Keiko Yamada?

LC: Well, it was not well thought out, I had written a piece that was Japanese in style; I was having difficulty with sales in orchestra music, because I was considered more of a band composer. When they see my name they think, “Oh well, he’s a band music guy. He’s just writing band music and then writing and arranging it for strings.” I was not taken as seriously at that point as an orchestra composer.

JJ: So to clarify, this piece you’re talking about was initially a string piece, not a band piece that was later transcribed to strings?

LC: This was initially a string piece. Clarification: there are no Keiko Yamada band pieces.

JJ: I find it fascinating that publishing educational band and orchestral music was so segregated and isolated. That just boggles my mind.

“Funny story: I was chatting with Michael Colgrass once. He asked me, ‘Why don’t you write college level music?’ and I replied, ‘I’m known as the middle school band guy!’”

LC: Funny story: I was chatting with Michael Colgrass once. He asked me, “Why don’t you write college level music?” and I replied, “I’m known as the middle school band guy!”

JJ: That’s nuts because you have band pieces for higher levels.

LC: I think it’s easier to go top-down; I started writing music for lower levels first, so it’s harder to go up. There was a time at Carl Fischer where they wanted to label music as “serious vs. educational music.” I was against that.

JJ: That’s so wrong. Anyway, how did you invent the name Keiko Yamada?

LC: The name was not well thought out, not sensitive, not all those things. I thought, Yamada is a common Japanese surname. Keiko…I don’t remember. I didn’t want anything gender specific. I didn’t do enough research.

JJ: I have to say, I’m not of Japanese descent, but I’ve known a few Japanese people in my life, and “Keiko” is very much a feminine name.

LC: I realize that now; I didn’t do a lot of research. Honestly, I don’t really have a good answer for you, because it was not well thought out.

JJ: Next question. Colleagues of mine have noted that when they researched Keiko Yamada, they were confused by her online biography. Several publishers and even a young student presenting on Yamada used the birth date of another musician of the same name—it’s the first Keiko Yamada musician when you Google the name. You also contributed to this effect by having most of Yamada’s work be Asian themed (Kazoku, Kabosu, Yuki Matsuri, Rickshaw, Japanese Hoedown etc.), and then when you had Keiko Yamada arrange Albert Ellmenreich’s Spinning Song. So I guess my question is if Yamada is an innocuous pen name, why did you develop such a distinct body of work for her? Was it because these pieces are strictly orchestral in nature?

“The interesting thing is that—no excuses—I found a different voice to write in, which I enjoyed.”

LC: With regard to the birthdate and the bio, I have no idea where any of that came from. There was never a bio or birthdate sent out. Regarding a body of work, yes, the interesting thing is that—no excuses—I found a different voice to write in, which I enjoyed. I was trying not to be disrespectful or cliché to the music to Japan, I creatively sounded like a different composer I thought. Again, it doesn’t change the fact that we’re here.

Spinning Song…That was the only one that was not of Japanese influence…I don’t remember why. I don’t know.

JJ: Is it because Spinning Song fell under the purview of “orchestra music” and Keiko was strictly an “orchestra composer”?

LC: I wasn’t doing as much orchestra music under my own name because it wasn’t doing as well.

JJ: Following up on this, do you have records of how many other composers in 2016 in the Carl Fisher Music catalog were writing under their own name and an additional pen name? If so, did any of those composers use a pen name that didn’t conform to their gender or race?

LC: Actually, not with Carl Fischer. My first job in publishing was with Warner Bros. Publications in Miami in 1995. [Pen names were] used often for grade level and used often for a lot of arrangements. If someone did use pen names, it would be for Grade 2 marching band arrangements, for example if they were known more for say more difficult arrangements.

JJ: Does this still go on?

LC: I think so. I was working at Warner Bros. until 1999. I still believe some are still out there.

Actually, I have a funny story about this. I started out as a marching band arranger, and a friend of my boss Jack Bullock, who was a middle school band director, said, “I like this guy Larry Clark’s arrangements; is that a pseudonym for you?”

JJ: That’s wild.

LC: My name is so simple, it probably sounded like a pseudonym to her.

JJ: Did anyone know about some specific pseudonyms? I mean, there seemed to be a reputation that everybody was using them.

LC: There was a reputation of pseudonyms, but no one knew who they were. This was more so in the “pop” arranging scene at WB. We were doing so much so quickly. We had a couple of days or a weekend to turn around these arrangements.

JJ: Did anyone switch their gender or race with these pseudonyms?

LC: Gender or race? YES. Race, but not gender.

JJ: And this had to do with style?

LC: Did this have to do with style? It was similar to what I did, but I took it one step too far. There is one case I remember off the top of my head; it was used to be a specific style of music.

By the way my official title at Warner Bros. was Marching Band and Jazz Ensemble Instrumental Editor from 1995–1999. I worked at Carl Fischer from 1999–2018, and I started my own company in 2018.

JJ: Why did you start your own company?

“I left Carl Fischer on good terms in 2018, and will always be proud of the company and the work I did there.”

LC: I worked remotely (from my Florida home) for Carl Fischer starting in 2003. It is challenging to keep a connection with a company over a long period of time as employees come and go, and so in the last few years I felt more disconnected to the company, despite the ongoing collaboration, conference calls, trips to the headquarters, etc. It was no one’s fault, just happened, and I left Carl Fischer on good terms in 2018, and will always be proud of the company and the work I did there. With my new company I had some ideas on how I wanted to do some things differently.  Self-publishing has become more of the thing. I think it’s because composers don’t feel serviced. We’re trying to help with that.

JJ: So, speaking of Carl Fischer, your position at Carl Fisher Music from 1999–2018 was Vice President and Editor-in-Chief and an archived bio from Midwest describes part of your duties as reviewing thousands of works for publication. Between 2005–2016 did you ever promote Yamada works in your official capacities?

LC: I don’t understand your question. What do you mean by promoting works in official capacities?

JJ: Let me clarify. For example, I believe if you register as a publisher at the Midwest Clinic, you’re allowed to submit some pieces for reading sessions?

LC: The Keiko pieces were already being selected for performances, so there was no need for reading sessions. Midwest has very strict restrictions for what can be programmed on concerts. You have to have one of each grade level from a different publisher on your concert…

JJ: You have to have a march…

LC: You have to have a march, etc. for band. Midwest provides the list of performing ensembles to the publishers once they are selected.

JJ: Did you have a say as to which pieces were on which list?

LC: Yes, but we would send them a CD sampler/MP3 list that also included scores. We would send everything; including Christmas music, because some groups wanted to play those, since the convention is close to Christmas.

JJ: Because that was a good time of year to buy Christmas music, I’m assuming.

LC: Yes.

JJ: Did you ever promote Keiko Yamada’s music over others?

LC: No, we did not promote some pieces over others. We promoted the new pieces in our catalog. We would usually send out separate band and orchestra lists. We would send out CDs for all the new orchestra music and all new band music. If any of these were of interest, we would send you a full score or even a set. We would bend over backwards to get music performed as often as we could. Now it’s all in Dropbox; we have available non-printable scores. We organize it more by grade level.

And again, everything we were sending out was new. We’d send it out in the late spring/early summer for the new school year. Also, Carl Fischer would send out a cover letter on behalf of the composers. I’ve been encouraging composers in my new company to write an additional personalized cover letter in addition if they have time; most composers take me up on that and it has been very successful.

JJ: I’ve spoken with a lot of composers and music colleagues in the run-up to our discussion and there is a lot of frustration, and even anger from their points of view. In their perspectives, your apologies for your actions ignore the real-world consequences of your actions. You were already an established composer; you held a position of power in a prominent publishing company, and yet you decided to compose under the name of an Asian woman. Given the concerted push to diversify music that is occurring when you’re writing as Keiko Yamada, do you understand why many people feel you likely stole opportunities from them?

“All I can do going forward is to try to make a difference for women and composers of color.”

LC: One hundred percent. Of course, I didn’t think about this when I created the name in 2004. Again, this is not something you can take back. All I can do going forward is to try to make a difference for women and composers of color. I’ve already agreed to give every penny I’ve made from these pieces over to help underrepresented composers. I’m still waiting for Carl Fischer to give me a full accounting of how much I made with these pieces. But I also don’t want to do any of this with any fanfare, and I am not looking for any accolades. I know how upset people are, and I know how ridiculously ignorant and insensitive this was.

This is not in line with who I am. I did a very insensitive and uniformed thing; I regret doing this. I understand people may never play my music again. However, I have five boys, and they have to see me handle this the right way. A lot of people said horrible things without knowing me. I have a multicultural family. I adopted two boys from Haiti. I’m disappointed in myself; I’m embarrassed. It’s been tough.

JJ: What do you think you can offer the current conversation about diversity in music given your actions?

LC: Certainly, I’ve been trying to do this throughout my career. There are a lack of women and people of color that are composing. Today it’s even more difficult because there is even more self-publishing. It’s very difficult to find people. It’s a challenge. I’m continuing to do that. We have women and people of color in my company. You know, some people said I didn’t have enough women and people of color, but I just started my company in July of 2018, and it takes time, but I feel I can also help with this. I will have one conversation at a time and work to regain trust.

JJ: Individually?

LC: Yes. There are some people who said I did nothing wrong, but that’s not true. I did do something wrong. I want to talk to those people too. If other composers use pseudonyms, I hope they reconsider using them. I hope I can be a beacon as to what not to do.

JJ: Are there any specific people you want to talk to?

“I hope I can be a beacon as to what not to do.”

LC: Anyone who wants to listen? I would love to hear your feedback. I will be at Midwest, so if anyone wants to talk to me, they can find me.

JJ: How will they find you? Can I tell people how to find you at Midwest?

LC: Excelcia will have a booth, and I will be there, because the most important thing to me is that I don’t want my actions to hurt my fifty composers. They just had their first release. We just started.

JJ: You know, admittedly, I was a little disappointed that your Midwest session got canceled because I thought this would have given you the perfect opportunity to answer the questions we all had personally. Hopefully, by December our deep frustration and anger would be lessened a bit so we can have a constructive conversation with you.

LC: And my topic at Midwest was not to tell people which pieces they should be programming. It was how to pick literature that’s of quality, how to identify pieces with good counterpoint, good harmony and melody, which pieces used good ranges for their specific ensemble, etc.

JJ: And I get what you’re saying here; unfortunately, the word “quality” now is code for “music that has been written by cisgender white males” because “quality” has been used as a knee-jerk response to why it’s still okay to ignore and disregard music written by women and people of color. And then when people like me hear the word “quality” being used in association with programming, I instantly believe those who refuse to diversify programming state that music by others cannot be as good.

LC: I agree that the same people who tried to say I did nothing wrong were also throwing around things like “I only play quality music.” That is wrong, too, and the point of my clinic at Midwest was not to tell anyone what quality music is, but to give conductors tools to look for pieces with good craft. I understand what you are saying about the term “quality” and its implications—I will be more sensitive to that.

JJ: Here’s a question: is your new publishing company more of a distributor than a traditional publisher?

LC: It’s a regular publishing company; it is similarly done like Carl Fisher and others. We do professional recordings and distribution with all the major sheet music dealers of the world. We do a lot more on social media.

JJ: I’m thinking aloud here…is there an “in between” way in which composers who are skeptical about having you publish their works could have some sort of trial period? Admittedly, considering how I identify, I would not want you to publish my music. But let’s say, maybe over quite a few years from now, you can use your publishing company to get a person of color’s music on a Midwest reading session without having them officially sign up with your company?

LC: Midwest has strict rules: they have all these rules on how you have to have certain representation of grade levels, different publishers…it’s challenging. I recently reached out to Kaitlin Bove [the founder of the organization …And We Were Heard] to inquire how I might be able to assist the organization. I think her idea of the recordings is awesome. Here’s the interesting thing. They are finding bands to record Grade 3 and 4 pieces, but they can’t get anyone to record the Grade 1 and 2 pieces, and I said, “I’m your guy!” I’ll record those pieces—even for orchestra.

JJ: That is a great idea. I love this. We composers are so dependent on these recordings, and they’re hard to obtain.

“I was also thinking about starting a scholarship with the money I earned to help fund a composer who is a woman or a person of color going to college to study composition. And I don’t want credit for this.”

LC: Yes, I’m hopeful that she will be interested in me doing that, and I’d pay for it personally; I won’t have my publishing company pay for those recordings. I was also thinking about starting a scholarship with the money I earned to help fund a composer who is a woman or a person of color going to college to study composition. And I don’t want credit for this.

JJ: Those are all my questions, and I want to thank you for taking the time to chat with me and answer my questions. Is there anything else you would like to add?

LC: I just appreciate the tone and the tenor of this interview. And I want to apologize to you personally, and I’ll personally apologize to anyone, because I know what I did hurt others and I am truly sorry for that. I also have apologized to my kids too, because I want them to see that we are all flawed beings, and we sometimes make poor decisions in life. We have to own up to those mistakes, accept the consequences, try to make amends to the people we hurt, and learn and grow in the process.  I also want them to learn from me so that they think very carefully about everything they do, and how their actions affect others.


As the conversation fades and the transcript becomes my primary reference, things are both clearer and more complex. My first imaginings of confronting Clark the night the story broke bore little resemblance to the encounter. After talking one-on-one, I have to admit, I have more empathy for Larry Clark. I relate to him as a composer and as an imperfect human being. Yet even in retrospect, the experience poses some difficulties for me.

It’s hard to stay angry with Clark, but not because his explanations of Keiko Yamada are particularly good.

On the one hand it’s hard to stay angry with Clark, but not because his explanations of Keiko Yamada are particularly good. I believe he’s deeply sorry, and his desire to learn seems genuine. On the other hand, it’s still frustrating and disappointing to read his evasions like “political correctness” or his self-presentation as a victim (“that band guy in the eyes of the orchestra world”). I find myself wanting to yell that white men impersonating Asian women didn’t just become wrong in the twenty-first century. But to be compelled to forcefully say something so obvious is exhausting and worse, it puts the responsibility on me.

And it’s here where I find some clarity to the source of conflict I feel about Clark and Yamada. Powerful people have the luxury of evolving to a point where they might consider the benefits their person and positions have accrued. But this process takes place in real time, time that is experienced very differently by people outside the establishment. How many composers during Keiko Yamada’s “career” lost opportunities because a rental or a place on a state list went to “her”? How many of those selections were motivated by a music director’s desire to diversify their concerts? How many times did a young woman or person of color feel that powerful sense of possibility in imagining someone like them writing the work they were about to play? Moreover, how do we take stock of the reverberations extending from the fact that Clark didn’t confess but rather was caught.

It’s a certain way the open booth at Midwest (which I genuinely recommend) is the perfect encapsulation of the problems and contradictions that I’m feeling: it is laudable but insufficient. The booth will likely be more therapeutic than transformative because it keeps Clark at the center and does little to address the systemic corruption of the larger music world. Indeed, the paradox of the entire Clark/Yamada affair is that Clark does deserve harsh judgment, but focusing too much on him dilutes the ability to see the broader problems. Systems are difficult things to imagine, understand, and transform. Clark’s actions warrant condemnation, but he was aided and abetted throughout Yamada’s fictitious career. A culture of silence and selfishness of vision in the highest reaches of the publishing world permitted Clark to act as he did. For the Clark/Yamada affair to be useful, there needs to be a much more comprehensive and transparent examination of catalogs in the band and orchestra world. If Clark’s claims about the pervasiveness of pen names are correct, we need an account and not just of the composers, but of the administrators and executives who facilitated this.

Composing music is hard, but being a composer is harder.

Composing music is hard, but being a composer is harder. It’s financially precarious, filled with rejection, and driven by a sense of self that is constantly under siege. To be a composer of color or a woman (or both) is beyond difficult. They are profoundly absent in concert halls today, and the situation is not much better when you look at the state lists.[5] The lingering effects of Clark/Yamada are to magnify the paranoia and cynicism too often experienced by underrepresented composers. It confirms the most extreme sense that the music world is an unfair system rigged in favor of the privileged. I guess this is why I can’t offer a succinct summation or tidy lesson learned from this mess. So in place of a conclusion I want to offer thoughts. I hope Larry Clark will continue to work for change. I also hope he knows how much work needs to be done and that there’s a real chance he’ll never balance his ledger. I want him to get to that place, but I also know that I can’t speak for anyone else. Above all, to the women and people of color, I hope you keep writing.


Notes:

1. Full Text of Davis’s message:

*PSA* to all of my friends in music education and specifically the band world: Prominent composer/Arranger Larry Clark made a pen name “Keiko Yamada” to pretend to be a Japanese Female composer in order to profit from calls for diversity in music education! This is disgusting, misleading, and just awful that we have students being subjected to not even appropriated music, but a fantasy of appropriated music. What does this accomplish? What goals of diversity and growth does this further?

To make things worse, after being pulled from some prominent music publishers after being publicly outed for this, some publishers decided to put his real name on the score. This winter he is an invited presenter at the prestigious Midwest Band Clinic leading a talk on “Selecting Quality Literature” for band. There is so much music that exists in the world of band by diverse voices – why does this still need to be published?

I don’t know what needs to happen and can’t individually leverage against this. I am not a band director, but if I was I probably wouldn’t support his work any longer. As a music educator, however, I am just really frustrated and saddened by this news.


2. For example, John Barnes Chance wrote Variations on a Korean Folk Song for concert band in 1965; this piece is standard wind ensemble repertoire and is still being performed.


3. Besides Kon’nichiwa, other titles include Tsumasaki, Koneko, Sunayama, Mystic Fawn, and Japanese Hoedown.


4. This interview took place on Monday, September 30, 2019.


5. Average Representation of Diverse Composers (Women, People of Color, Women of Color) across state lists: 6.37%; Average Representation of Women Composers of Color on sampled state lists: 0.03%. Statistics compiled by Cory Meals, Assistant Professor of Music Education at the University of Houston.

(Okay Ladies Now Let’s Get) In Formation

Three years after the events in question, I wrote a song cycle about the arrest and trial of members of Pussy Riot. Even as I did so, it seemed both ill-timed and too late. It had been two years since I had written my opera about the housing bubble crisis, however, and I felt like my overall output (especially my political output) had been pathetic. Plus, I wanted to write something cool and distantly relevant for the Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, a female a cappella quartet that commissions new music.

My introduction to Quince came through soprano Liz Pearce. I met Liz at the 2012 Bowling Green New Music & Art Festival thanks to my friend Jonn Sokol, who had recently written a piece for Kayleigh Butcher, another member of the group. He mentioned that Liz liked singing contemporary works, and since I liked writing vocal works, maybe some kind of collaboration would hopefully work out. (Actually I was hoping something would work out, too.)

Later on Liz asked if she could stage my Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens during the 2014 BGSU MicrOpera show. I enthusiastically said yes, and she staged a brilliant show. I loved working with her, and she loved working with me, and I told her that I would love to work with her again, and that maybe I could write something for Quince. (More like, I strongly hinted that I would like to write something for Quince.)

It was good timing—they were looking for new repertoire at that time, so I quickly texted my librettist Kendall A and asked if she would be interested in a project. She responded with “Pussy Riot song cycle” and I instantly Facebook-messaged Liz.

Me: HOLY S***. Librettist is leaning toward basing a piece off the Pussy Riot story in Russia.

Liz: Hyperventilation commence AWESOME

So we began work on this piece in 2015. Granted, I thought maybe my librettist and I were three years too late: three years after Vladimir Putin was re-elected despite widespread accusations of vote-rigging; three years after Pussy Riot released “Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away”; and three years after Pussy Riot was put on trial, deemed “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International, and sentenced to serve two years in a penal colony. A year later, Vladimir Putin signed a bill imposing jail terms and fines for—get this—insulting people’s religious feelings.

But I still wrote the piece. My librettist wrote eight poems, and I told her how cool I thought it would be to juxtapose songs influenced by punk music (since Pussy Riot is a punk-rock band) and those influenced by church motets (since Pussy Riot was arrested in a church). She tinkered with her words. I listened to The Clash and Hildegard for inspiration. And so, the song cycle Prisoner of Conscience was born.

I’m proud of this work, despite its lateness. It was one of those pieces that needed to be written, even if Pussy Riot had started to fade in our political memories. I didn’t care, and I was able to get funding from my institution to record this song cycle. But Quince was told by a record label that the song cycle was no longer relevant; nobody cared about Pussy Riot anymore. Ultimately Quince found a record label, and fortunately the album will be released on April 6 of this year.

In the back of my mind, I couldn’t quite fathom how Kendall was able to come up with the idea of the Pussy Riot Song Cycle so quickly, especially since this idea came about two years after they were front and center in our political consciousness, so I asked her. It turns out she had been following the punk band for years, way before they were arrested and put on trial. She was fascinated with the elaborate stagings of their anti-Putin protests and how they were drawing huge attention with these performances. And Kendall thought that’s what both art and punk should be about—if your surrounding overarching hierarchy is so corrupt, your art should find a way to cut through that. So when members of Pussy Riot were brought to trial, Kendall wanted to create art in honor of the spirit of the punk group, especially since they went as far as to sacrifice their own freedoms to expose the degradation of freedoms around them. She was thinking about writing an opera libretto about this and producing this show with NANOWorks Opera, but she felt that the timing wasn’t right and was waiting for an opportunity to share this work at the national level. It needed to be done right.

Now that we live in a time where there are rumors of Russia meddling with U.S. elections and the White House is doling out Fake News Awards, the piece is surprisingly relevant again. (I never thought it would be, nor did I want it to be.) Maybe my initial timing was off in creating this piece, but what I do know is this—we creators have been tasked with creating art. And if we creators are present and attuned to what is happening, we as global citizens will speak up via our music for what is right and just. If you are waiting for the right moment, the right moment is now.

I was going to give a few examples of what performers and composers have been creating in the past year, politically speaking. I was going to mention how Laura Dixon Strickling has been raising money via her recitals to support hurricane recovery awareness, since the government hasn’t helped out much. I was going to point out the Thompson Street Opera company’s production of Joshua Bornfield and Catlin Vincent’s Uncle Alex, an opera about immigrants coming to America, and note a performance of John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit along the US-Mexico Border. But when I asked my friends via social media what music they have been creating since the 2016 November election, the response was overwhelming—it looks like you guys have been creating art this entire time.

You all have been so enthusiastic and forthcoming about your current projects that I thought the best place for this forum (outside of my Facebook wall) is via this database. Here is a public forum where we can share our works, and share with performers who also want to express how they are feeling during this time. Through our works and performances, we can be aware of what is going on around us, breathe, and collectively create something beautiful.

How It Happened (said John Cage): A Moment of Silence

A couple of years ago as a New Year’s resolution I decided to take the plunge and start meditating. I’ve heard it’s healthy. I’ve heard it makes you sleep better. I’ve heard it can keep you calm. Highly productive people do it. Artists do it. Therefore I decided I’d give it a try with the hope that one day I would learn to completely clear my mind and find my bliss.

What I actually learned about meditation is that its purpose is not to clear my mind and help me find my bliss—it’s to allow me to become the almighty observer, one who lives in the present moment and merely observes their present moment thoughts and feelings. If you’re happy, it’s okay to be happy. If you’re sad, it’s okay to be sad. If you’re depressed or angry because the president’s FY 2019 budget eliminates the National Endowment for the Arts, it’s okay to feel this way too. Meditation advises us not to dwell on emotions or feelings, but rather to acknowledge them. And as your artistic guru, I would advise you to not only acknowledge your feelings, but also artistically express yourself and channel your emotions and thoughts into something creative. Just write. Just create. Be in the present moment. (Also breathe. Breathing is good.)

Just write. Just create. Be in the present moment. (Also breathe. Breathing is good.)

I look to John Cage when I feel like I should be creating mindful art. Granted, I was not introduced to Cage as a mindful composer. I was introduced to John Cage in the same way many generations of music students are taught about him: he’s the dude who created a piece about silence. We were taught that 4’33” is “the silent piece,” and we were asked (as part of an exercise) to discuss this question: is this a piece of music or not? Cage argued that there is no such thing as silence. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

I know why this is the quintessential John Cage piece: it is easy to teach. More importantly, it’s convenient. There are other pieces that John Cage wrote that experimented with silence (Sonatas and Interludes, Music of Changes, etc.), but 4’33” has made the most obvious use of silence as a piece of music.

I know that Cage was experimenting with silence in his pieces decades before the premiere of this work, but I do believe that because Cage was a mindful composer and was aware of the politics around him, there is an ounce of political protest that surfaced during its conception and performance.

A few years prior to the premiere of 4’33”, John Cage toyed with the fantasy that canned music would no longer plague the ears of a captive audience. (There was a general resentment growing against the Muzak in public spaces at the time.) Cage said during his lecture at Vassar College that he wanted “to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to Muzak Co. It will be three or four-and-a-half minutes long—those being the standard lengths of ‘canned’ music and its title will be Silent Prayer.” In his 2010 book about 4’33”, No Such Thing as Silence, Kyle Gann implied that maybe Cage wanted to give listeners a “four-and-a-half minute respite from forced listening.”

Wistful thinking aside, it wasn’t until 1952 that I believe Cage lost it. The Supreme Court, in its case Public Utilities Commission of the District of Columbia v. Pollak, decided that piping musical radio programming into streetcars and busses did not interfere with communication between passengers, and therefore didn’t violate their first or fifth amendment rights.

I know that 4’33” is a piece about silence, or how there is never silence all around us, but now I’m more focused on why he wrote this piece. Yes, this piece culminated his experiments in silence (in which he finally goes for it unabashedly), but I believe he (and others at the time) were just flat-out angry and frustrated that people’s right to hear and not hear music was being infringed.

Is 4’33” a protest piece?

Is 4’33” a protest piece? Yes, I believe so. This is his most controversial and hostile piece, a piece that is neither transcendent nor sacred. It resonated with him and others at the time. It lived in the present. It was mindful of the Supreme Court ruling that was issued a few months before its premiere. Cage was echoing both his and the general public’s resentment over not having agency in their musical listening, and this surfaced in his music.

So, here’s a thought: are all of our artistic offerings political in nature? When a composer writes a piece that is of its time and moment, is it a commentary on the current state of affairs? Does it reflect our thoughts and emotions? Do we want our audience to feel what we’re feeling, or to help them see how we’re seeing things? I will say this—no matter what you think or feel, write music. Create music. Be aware of the world around you. Read more. Write more, whether you are feeling angry and frustrated about an injustice in the world or if you’re feeling loved by the tiny cat curled up next to you. Do all these things, then start the creative cycle again. Be in the present moment, write in the present moment, and breathe.

A Thousand Thoughts

A few weeks ago, I saw an advert online that mentioned the Kronos Quartet was going to be in town to accompany a documentary at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. After writing an email to my students more-or-less stating, “You need to go to this—please GO!” (and hyperlinking their infamous stint on Sesame Street), I excitedly purchased a ticket myself and offered to drive any student who needed a ride.

The documentary was about the Kronos Quartet members themselves. After a consortium of arts organizations (including the Wexner Center) commissioned filmmaker Sam Green to create one of his “live documentaries” (which pair film footage with the live performance of the soundtrack and narration from the stage), he approached the Kronos Quartet and asked if he could not only make a live documentary about them, but also if they would perform a compilation of their greatest hits while the film about them was playing in real time.

How meta.

Kronos thought this was a brilliant idea.

A Thousand Thoughts chronicles the Kronos Quartet’s 45-year history through Green’s live narration, archival footage, and interviews with various (now) well-known composers and musicians. It tells the story of their early days in San Francisco and all their efforts to transform the stodgy string quartet into something hip and cool. David Harrington, the co-founder of the Kronos Quartet, sums up both the quartet’s mission statement and the thesis of the film in this way:

I’ve always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to kick ass and be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be. But it has to be expressive of life. To tell the story with grace and humor and depth. And to tell the whole story, if possible.

While I was watching this live documentary, I realized that the Kronos Quartet was not only hip and cool, but also absolutely relevant and meaningful.

How did they do this?

While watching the film and being completely captivated by the wonderfully interwoven live narration, music, and interactions with the audience, there came a point in the story during which the quartet was hit with a slew of devastating tragedies. Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, who had been with the core quartet for a good 20 years, left the ensemble in 1999 when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Violist Hank Dutt lost his partner to the AIDS epidemic in 1993. And in 1995, David Harrington, the fearless leader of the group, suddenly lost his son during a hiking trip with his family. If the 1990s weren’t bad enough for the quartet personally, they too experienced the tumultuous 2000 presidential election, the 9/11 attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, after the devastation of the losses Harrington and his quartet weathered, and with another controversial war brewing (one that had similarities to the Vietnam War, a war that he protested in his youth), he wondered why he was playing in a string quartet and if making music was worth it.

At that moment in the documentary, I wanted to shout to both the on-screen David Harrington and the on-stage David Harrington, “This is how I felt about the Iraq war too! This is how I feel now! We’re still supposed to make music, right? Please say yes?” And it was at this point that I paid very close attention to the film because I was hoping to discover what I needed to do as a composer when things got rough, depressing, or downright heartbreaking.

I was hoping to discover what I needed to do as a composer when things got rough, depressing, or downright heartbreaking.

In his search, Harrington had an opportunity to chat with Howard Zinn, historian and civil rights activist, about his true purpose in life. He asked, what was his role? What can a normal person (or even an artist person) do in this time to fulfill the needs of other people?

Zinn simply advised Harrington to create something beautiful.

Now, you may have heard something similar to this before. I’m certain that unavoidable Leonard Bernstein quote has resurfaced 11 times in this year alone, the one where Bernstein responds to the assassination of John F. Kennedy by stating, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

However, I’m not only talking about violence or politics here, per se. We should create beautiful and ugly music no matter what—that is our mandate. In fact, we composers and performers have always been commenting on everything and anything that inspires and influences us. Granted, we’ve been indirectly commenting on political things, too. And whether you know it or not, we are always creating a reflection and reaction to the political environment around us.

I just want us all to be aware of it. I want us to be more woke.

All the Rage: When Is Music a Political Action

There was a brief time in my life when I no longer wanted to be a composer.

This wasn’t because I thought writing music was difficult and laborious (it still is) or because my music wasn’t being performed at the time (it wasn’t); it was because I briefly believed that writing and creating my music was absolutely pointless and worthless. My insecurities may have ignited a quarter-life or existential crisis at the time, but I truly believed that writing and performing concert music was absolutely self-serving.

Yes, I felt selfish.

I bet you’re wondering what life-changing event made me suddenly question my supposed vocation.

When I went to college at the turn of the 21st century, I was thrilled to learn all things musical, but I didn’t know this would include so many things experiential. I was 19 when I was able to vote in my first presidential election and watched with naive bewilderment the news of Florida’s voting booth irregularities and recounts. I was 20 when I woke up on a Tuesday morning and witnessed on television the South Tower collapse in real time. I was 22 when the Iraq War began. I was incensed. I questioned everything. I donated to Greenpeace. I went to my first anti-Bush protest. I wasn’t an activist per se, but I thought I was being active while continuing on my quest to become a composer.

It wasn’t until I saw a documentary about the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and the policies that followed that I questioned my future career.

It was 2004, one year after I graduated from college. I decided to take a few years off and move way across the country to Vermont (much to the chagrin and bewilderment of my parents), a place that is both literally green and Green Party-leaning.

One of my favorite pastimes during my post-college self-deemed “study abroad” was going to the Merrill’s Roxy Cinemas on Church Street in Burlington and seeing independent films with my then-partner. When the newest Michael Moore film was released, we didn’t hesitate to see it.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is a film that covers a slew of monumental events that marked the turn of the century. It covers the 2000 presidential election (suggesting that George W. Bush’s election was won due to voter fraud), the September 11 attacks, the corruption associated with trying to construct a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean (which may have been a contributing factor to the war in Afghanistan), the spread of fear-mongering post-September 11 and the creation of the USA PATRIOT Act, and how the Iraq War upended and devastated Iraqis and young American veterans alike.

I wanted to set something on fire.

I wanted to do something.

I no longer wanted to be a composer.

I thought:

Is producing music pointless? Is writing concert music selfish? What does writing and performing concert music do anyway? How does it help people? How does it feed them? How does it fix greed and corruption? How does it prevent an unnecessary war? How does it stop teenagers from fighting in combat and dying?

After the last incendiary and helpless thought left my brain, I decided to write music again, but what was the point? Composing does not bring virtue nor ethics to our corrupted society, right? It does not make me or others more noble, so why do it? I accepted that I wrote music because I like manipulating time and evoking feelings, but I decided that my music would not in itself fix anything. I thought maybe my singular role in the universe would be to someday earn enough money to donate to organizations, to maybe volunteer to work at a voting booth, or to attend a good protest here and there. These are active ways to make the world a better place, I thought, and writing my music would be my way to exist and self-indulge.

I could teach a future generation of students how to write and analyze music, and while music doesn’t literally prevent wars and killings, I would be helping young adults form opinions and think for themselves.

I eventually took a steady job in Ohio in 2012 where I thought I was getting closer to my goal of being political in a more active way. I finally had a steady income stream, so I could donate to other causes. I could attend localized marches in Delaware or Columbus. I could even be on stage with Michelle Obama during a political rally. But most importantly, I could teach a future generation of students how to write and analyze music, and while music doesn’t literally prevent wars and killings, I would be helping young adults form opinions and think for themselves. This was my accepted activist role: I wouldn’t be an official activist, but I could be politically active while still indulging myself by writing my music.

It wasn’t until I met a colleague (The Chaplain) at my institution that I started to question my initial assumption that music isn’t important.

Here is what you need to know about The Chaplain: he is the most affirming person on this planet. He is genuinely thrilled to see you. After meeting him, I would run into him on campus and he would thank me profusely for writing music and sharing it with others. He would say that my music was a great service to the community. I would sheepishly say thanks, but I thought he was merely doing his job by helping me feel good about myself. Doesn’t he realize that I write concert music? That I’m not a singer-songwriter who writes protest songs?

And yet, maybe he was onto something. I merely wrote music about how I was feeling at the time, but maybe I had lots to say? Was I saying what needed to be said through my music? Does writing an opera about Paula Deen choking on a donut and dragging two angels to hell with her make a statement about our socio-political problems? Probably not. But maybe writing a couple of satires about the housing bubble and Big Oil does? Or how about writing about the importance of the Cincinnati Streetcar and the future of the Brent Spence Bridge? Maybe I had something to say and I am saying it. Maybe through my actions and music, I was being politically active in ways I couldn’t fully see. And maybe because we composers reflect on our surroundings, we often (directly or indirectly) make commentary about the political environment around us.

So You Want To Start An Opera Company…

So to recap, let’s say you were all excited that you and your librettist had the most awesome idea for a miniature chamber opera about the housing bubble, and you had hoped a big opera house might potentially fund a workshop of said opera, and you were then rejected from this amazing opportunity. It happens.

And you realize that maybe you should stop waiting around for a big opera company to produce your opera, and so you take fate into your own hands, curating your own future as a composer. Because, dangit, you are going to write the bloody opera, and if you want the opera to be performed, you are going to have to produce the dang opera yourself.

Opera Rehearsal

NANOWorks rehearsal, May 2013. With Stacey Erin Sands, Liz Remizowski, Tyler Catlin, and Adrienne Sereta.
Photo by Brendan Jeffrey.

You and your librettist (and co-collaborator for most artistic things in your life) decide that the way around the non-performances and non-workshops of your work is to create a small opera company. This totally can be done, you think. You got this.

And then you do it. Mostly. In an amazing, inspirational, haphazard way that makes you wonder how on earth this new opera company didn’t kill you first.
I want to say I am quite thankful for the many conversations I had with my librettist (over delicious Reuben sandwiches and quite possibly later over Cincinnati chili) since it helped us deal with brutal rejection and heal our artistic wounds. We discussed the lack of opportunities for libretto readings and for workshopping new operas, and ultimately that inspired us to found an opera company. (If there is one piece of advice I can bequeath to you delightful readers, it’s that yes, risks are scary, but you have to be a bit foolhardy to make your art happen.)
The new opera company (North American New Opera Workshop, or NANOWorks) has been going decently so far. Our first teaser season in 2012–2013 had four performances, which included a performance at the Classical Revolution Cincinnati Constella Festival (thank you, thank you, Laura Sabo) and a stint at the 2013 Cincinnati Fringe Festival, a world premiere of my rejected opera…

Fringe performance

Christopher Brandon Morales and Karen Wissel Shiota performing THE BUBBLE at the 2013 Cincinnati Fringe Festival.
Photo by Brendan Jeffrey.

…and holy cow, an article about us in Opera News. For our next performance, we are producing a world premiere of Eric Knechtges’s opera Last Call, an opera loosely based on the gay bar scene in Cincinnati, and Marie Incontrera’s At the Other Side of the Earth, a dystopian punk lesbian coming of age opera. (If we align our ducks right, it will be performed at Below Zero Lounge in downtown Cincinnati preceding the drag show, which would be quite awesome in its own right.) And guess what folks, we now officially have our first call for scores, so you have until June 1 to submit something for our 2014–2015 season. Ironically—and this I dread—I may have to dole out rejection letters. Because of this, I’m sorry in advance. (This turn of events will possibly be discussed in a future blog post.)


Considering my opera company has barely existed for more than a year, we are obviously not doing so badly. However, I must admit, running this opera company has been the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Why?
I don’t have enough money to independently fund my own opera company.
I’m what financial guru Suze Orman calls “young, fabulous, and broke.” Sure, I’m young and fabulous, but I would love to pay my singers. And my music director. And my wonderful piano maven. And maybe also pay for some costumes and sets, or quite possibly a venue. And, here’s a thought—maybe I should pay my composers. That would be lovely.

NANOWorks Opera Rehearsal 2

NANOWorks rehearsal wiith Melissa Harvey and Adrienne Sereta.
Photo by Brendan Jeffrey.

Without funding, I have to pay for venues and licensing fees completely out-of-pocket. I rely on eager singers who are happy to create new operatic roles, but they may have to suddenly drop out because a better-paying gig was offered to them. (Did I mention we had to double cast our Fringe show because Cincinnati Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier took out all the good baritones in town?) I have to rely on free or cheap rehearsal space, and sometimes that means I have to hold rehearsals at my house and hope my singers aren’t allergic to my cats. Did I mention I don’t have a real piano at my place? Did I also mention that I only have so much space for “staging” at my house? Ultimately without funding, I have to forgo certain props, venues, or talent that I would love to work with to create a good production. And I pride myself in producing good work.


At this point, you are probably asking why I decided to start my own opera company, especially because it continues to be a money loser for me and my co-founder. However, I tell my students (and possibly because I need to believe this myself) that it’s important to invest in yourself and nurture your art. And I see NANOWorks as a vehicle for which I will sacrifice profitability and sleep to enjoy the notoriety the company provides, to create the possibility of future commissions, and to be able to produce my own art. Hopefully this makes up for the cost.

Will this strategy work for everyone? I honestly can’t guarantee that, and I am still waiting to find out what happens myself. However, I know there are better things to do than to sit around all dressed up with no place to go, waiting for a grand opera company to call.

So You Want To Write An Opera….

So, like I was saying, after some time in the city I began to understand that Cincinnati had always been culturally relevant and continues to be culturally relevant due to its history and resources. And fortunately I was quite lucky to have moved to Cincinnati at a time when the city was (and still is) making a comeback.

What I didn’t know at first was that much of Cincinnati’s musical history was vocal: Cincinnati is home to the Cincinnati May Festival, which dates back to the 1840s when Saengerfests were held in the city. And, like I’ve mentioned, it is home to the second-oldest opera company in the states. Even though I decided to attend the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music because of its composition program, conveniently it has one of the top opera programs in the country. This inspired me to pick up my previous try at opera writing.

I admit I attempted composing for opera long ago as an undergraduate. I remember seeing the Los Angeles Opera’s production of Billy Budd in the late ’90s and then seeing their production of Peter Grimes in the early 2000s, and I was convinced I absolutely had to write an opera. My sophomore self strutted into Stephen Hartke’s office (he was my composition professor then) and told him I was going to write an opera.
“So. You want to write an opera.”
“Yes.”
“Have you thought about staging?”
“No.”
“Have you thought about characterization?”
“No?”
[slight pause]”I just…want to write an opera…?”

Apparently I didn’t know what I was doing, and neither did my librettist at the time. She adapted a short story of hers into singable prose about a college student who brought home a fish that looked like a naked man. (Just so we’re clear, it is questionable when your roommate brings home a naked man-fish and puts him in your apartment’s bathtub, and it is equally questionable when singable prose is converted into an opera.)

Anyway, my first opera was to be a surreal comic opera, except that there were four potential endings, no exit strategy, and I quickly realized the project was way over my head, so I hurriedly and awkwardly finished only the first scene (and the piece remains unfinished to this day). However, as Hartke pointed out via email a very long time ago, sometimes pushing yourself and working on projects that are completely over your head help you grow as an artist.

Anyway, as I have mentioned before, school wore me out (or maybe my first opera attempt did!) and so I took a break from school (or quite possibly the opera). And when I arrived in Cincinnati, I was greeted by graduate singers who could actually act on stage.
Therefore, the idea of writing contemporary opera was rekindled like you would not believe. I actually thought this could happen. I told a few people at the MusicX Festival in 2010—inadvertently including Hartke himself—that I wanted my future dissertation to be an opera. During one of our meals, someone asked what my dissertation would be. I attempted to answer.
Me: “Well…”
Hartke (staring at me directly): “I know that look.”
Me: “What look.”
Hartke: “The last time you had that look, you wanted to write an opera.”
Guilty as charged.
Back in Cincinnati, my professors told me I needed to contact the school’s music director to let her know I was interested in starting an operatic project. The worry was that my future work would conflict with the school’s complex opera season. So, I met with her (after a ridiculous number of email attempts) and she actually seemed somewhat excited that a couple of graduate students wanted to write operas. She told me to send her a synopsis, a cast list, a libretto, and my sketches. I did.
And then nothing happened.
I decided to contact her again, and after even more email

attempts, we finally met. This time she encouraged me to apply to Opera Fusion: New Works, a program in which both the Cincinnati Opera and the College-Conservatory of Music collaborate to workshop exciting new operas. Except I knew they were never going to select me: the last few featured operas included composers such as Douglas Cuomo, Terence Blanchard, and Ricky Ian Gordon and librettists such as John Patrick Shanley. Because this girl has not won a Pulitzer Prize, I knew my chance for getting my opera read through this program was slim.

Cincinnati Opera and University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music rehearsal of “Doubt” with (l-r) Douglas Cuomo, composer, CCM student Jonathan Stinson, Robin Guarino, stage director, John Patrick Shanley, librettist, Gary Wedon, conductor, Marcus Küchle, co-artistic director of Opera Fusion: New Works, with accompanists Carol Walker and Elena Kholodova. Photo by Philip Groshong.

Cincinnati Opera and University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music rehearsal of Doubt with (l-r) Douglas Cuomo, composer, CCM student Jonathan Stinson, Robin Guarino, stage director, John Patrick Shanley, librettist, Gary Wedon, conductor, Marcus Küchle, co-artistic director of Opera Fusion: New Works, with accompanists Carol Walker and Elena Kholodova. Photo by Philip Groshong.

So then, when I was asked along with a handful of other student composers to create a short American opera for Washington National Opera’s inaugural American Opera Initiative, I jumped on the opportunity. My librettist (the same one from my undergraduate days!) almost instantaneously invented what I believe (and still believe) was an ingenious topic—an opera about the housing bubble. We submitted our proposal and thought we totally had this.

And oh yes, we were totally rejected.
I believe there comes a time when you become so completely haggard and worn from rejection that you may take a good look at your life and realize that maybe you’re going to write the dang opera anyway. And that maybe you live in a town that has an abundance of good singers who act, and that maybe they can perform this future opera. And maybe you and your librettist from your undergrad days think it’s not a bad idea to found a starter opera company in your backyard, especially when your backyard has this wonderful vocal tradition ingrained in its soil. And maybe you and your librettist are crazy enough to actually do it.

When Life Throws You Cincinnati, Redefine Chili

In the spirit of creating my own artistic future, I may have decided to move to Vermont from Los Angeles immediately after graduating from college. (Yes, Vermont, the Green Mountain State, not Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles, the place where my parents thought I was moving.) Random? Yes. Crazy? Most certainly. But here is what happened.

After the supposed devastation that was “failing at composing” while an undergrad (that is, not winning young composer awards, not obtaining good recordings of my work, and not applying to good graduate programs), I decided to take a break from school. Admittedly, this was quite a bit scary: all of my other composer friends were going off to prospective graduate schools (and good ones, might I add), and most importantly, it was my lifelong goal to complete my education. What was most scary about this romantic notion of leaving Los Angeles was that I wasn’t exactly sure what to do when I arrived in New England. In fact, when I suggest to undergrads that they should take what is now called a “gap year,” the first question they blurt out is, “What will I do?”
“Get a job,” I say.

I know this sounds scary, but it’s the logical thing to do. I ended up living in Vermont for four years, and honestly, it was the best thing I did for my career. Even though I didn’t write much music, I stayed active: I conducted a church choir, accompanied and taught students at a Waldorf school, and helped produce concerts for the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble. And after four years, the beckoning from my past became too strong to avoid any longer.

Overture and Prolog to the opera Erzsébet by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz. Premiere performance run, October 2011. Lisa Jablow as Erzsébet. Directed by Ann Harvey, conducted by Anne Decker with the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble.

And so I started the dreary process of applying to graduate schools. I was hoping the recordings from my undergraduate recital of four years ago would still be relevant. I was also hoping that the two pieces I had written in the course of my four years in Vermont would be substantial enough for a portfolio. So, fingers crossed, I applied.

And then I was rejected from most of my graduate school choices.

Fortunately that school in Cincinnati decided to take a chance on me. Ultimately I decided to enroll since they gave me a good scholarship, and I thought the campus was not that bad.

In hindsight, I’m quite thankful the other graduate programs rejected me since living in Cincinnati has helped me as a composer far more than winning any composition competitions. I didn’t know it at the time, but living and composing and staying musically active in a major American city (possibly outside of New York or Los Angeles!) can do wonders for a composer.

MusicNow Festival

MusicNow festival at Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio, March 2014.

When I first moved to Cincinnati in 2007, I was a little underwhelmed. The town was slightly run-down (the 2001 race riots are partially to blame for that) and dreary (the 181 overcast days don’t help either). This city also had a small-town feel to it, which was something I wasn’t used to as an Angelino. And it seemed my only connection to the Queen City was that Carson Palmer, then quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals, was quarterback of the USC football team during my undergraduate tenure.

However downtown Cincinnati—or Over-the-Rhine as the neighborhood is called—was making a little bit of a comeback. By 2012 (five years after I settled), the neighborhood was home to an influx of young professionals, and hip restaurants and shops were popping up on Vine Street. And with this revitalization, I concurrently learned that Cincinnati has a rich musical and cultural history.

As a Californian, I had no idea that the Cincinnati Symphony premiered Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Or that the Cincinnati Opera is the second oldest opera company in the nation, or that the Contemporary Arts Center is one of the first contemporary art institutions in the country. Furthermore, the city has made a vested effort to provide the public with new music. Most recently we had premieres as part of the MusicNOW Festival by Nico Muhly and David Lang; Lang in his piece mountain was actually inspired by Cincinnati’s commissioning of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.

concert:nova percussionists perform Musique de Table by Thierry de May
How is this relevant? The combination of a revitalized downtown, the ample cultural history and resources, and the small-town feel of the city (in other words: talented performers are nice here and are willing to talk to you) makes for a fertile creative ground for us composers. My composer friends and I know performers in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and sometimes we chat with them after a concert. Some of us composers know chorus members of the Cincinnati Opera since many of our singer friends are hired by that institution. Some of us know Drew Klein, performance curator for the Contemporary Arts Center, who recently had TRANSIT and Roomful of Teeth stop by the Queen City. And on a micro level, Ixi Chen of concert:nova and Laura Sabo of Classical Revolution Cincinnati have been doing a fantastic job with their contemporary programming and have reached out to local composers.

In other words, if curating your own musical future supposedly takes you away from your original plans, don’t fret: it all works out in the end, especially if you make the most of where life takes you.

A performance of my Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens opera at Classical Revolutions Cincinnati.

Cataloging the Fail: A Cathartic Scrapbook

Composer Fail Example
The other day a young composer friend of mine was eagerly awaiting a letter of acceptance or rejection from a prestigious summer program. Alas, this person was rejected. I instantly received text messages sharing the sour news.

“Well, I didn’t get in.”
“Screw them.”
“I guess. I’m really bad with rejection.”
“Um, so was I. Trust me. Rejection ruined me in my early twenties.”
“I’m worried that might happen to me.”
“Dude, you’ll be fine.”

Ultimately this person will be fine. We all will be fine. However, while I easily emit an air of aplomb, I was recently reminded of how crushing these rejections were a short decade ago.

Lately I’ve been reflecting more and more on how I’ve dealt with rejections and supposed failure as a young composer. Because I now teach at a small liberal arts college, I constantly see and interact with a sea of undergrads. Their habitat involves Instagram and Snapchat, dorm rooms and drama, and this younger generation is still bright and bubbly and young and vulnerable as I was. And because of their presence, I am reminded of how I dealt with what I perceived as devastating defeat upon experiencing rejection.

I first experienced composer rejection as an undergrad, which is where I believe all of us composers experience our first twinge of adulthood angst. I was attending one of those undergrad composer recitals; I believe I was actually performing piano for one of the pieces. I remember hearing during the concert that one of my young composer colleagues received the BMI Student Composer Award that year. We were all happy for him. We all thought we had a chance of writing a good chamber piece and winning this award. We modified and edited our music and eagerly submitted our scores.

And then nothing happened.
And then I was rejected.

I wouldn’t say my first rejection was crushing—it merely materialized. I was disappointed. But I was young and resilient, and I thought I had plenty of time to submit a winning piece.
The next year I realized I hadn’t written many pieces and so therefore I had an abysmal selection from which to submit something. However, I found something to submit, and submit I did.
And I was rejected again.

This was starting to disturb and discomfit me, especially because I was nearing upperclassman status and also because other upperclassmen in my program had started to win these young composer awards. And these upperclassmen were in the process of obtaining good recordings of their work and applying to good graduate programs. I truly felt I was not only failing at composer competitions but also failing at writing music, meeting a recital requirement, fulfilling graduate school admission criteria, and therefore failing at life. (Such is the thought process of an angsty young adult.)

If I were failing at life, I might as well make the best of my situation. I certainly received another BMI rejection letter, and this time I decided to get crafty since apparently my music wasn’t as artful as it should be. My hornist roommate gave me a sheet of acid-free paper imprinted with soccer balls and I clumsily cut-and-pasted my rejection letter onto this sports-themed paper.
And this is when I realized that my roommate was far better at scrapbooking than I was (the resultant project wasn’t that great, if you’re curious) and that maybe I should stick to writing music instead. Except that I felt like I was failing at that, too. And admittedly the whole point of scrapbooking my rejection letter was to prove to people, including myself, that this rejection letter did not deflate me. Except it did.

At this point in my life I knew that my original pristine plan of applying to grad school and becoming a successful composer was absolutely not going to work out. Or so I thought.

And here’s where I want to step in and point out that there is no perfect plan or perfect system that allows for guaranteed success. As an adolescent, I thought the composer comp way was the only way to become a successful composer. I had no idea different routes were available to me, and furthermore I had no idea that I had to create them myself.

The good news is I eventually realized that I’m a composer. We’re all composers. We’re creative beings. We’re destined to construct musical worlds and trajectories and ultimately scenarios of our own composer existence. And, maybe the younger we are, the more we need to be reminded of this—that we must take charge of our creative selves and curate our own artistic future.
*Jennifer Jolley
Jennifer Jolley teaches music composition at Ohio Wesleyan University and co-founded the North American New Opera Workshop (NANOWorks Opera). In her spare time, she procrastinates by blogging about writing music.