Author: Kristin Kuster

Speak Now: Turning Around, Turning Away, and Turning Over

looking ahead


 “…when love stirs
it asks for nothing—but a world made safe
for truth, for beauty, for this tense blooming.”
— from Megan Levad’s “Volta”

We were generously gifted a bottle of Dom Perignon. My husband Bill and I saved it for something special and chilled it on November 8, to share with our friend Matt as we watched the election results roll in. Some time before midnight that night I posted a picture on social media with Matt holding out his hands as if to say “WHAT IS HAPPENING” and Bill giving our TV a middle finger. Our fancy champagne remains unopened, still waiting for something special.

I will turn 44 in June 2017.

And, I am worried.

In the last month, I’ve been turning around and looking back at some of my earliest social media posts to check in with my past worry levels. What an odd trip—a living memory lane sky-written on the internet, where we can watch ourselves stirring and seeking public feedback, placation, or applause, for the images and versions of ourselves we project online.

As a mom, composer, professor, and professional fun-haver, I reflect on the years before the prevalence of social media with some regret: I spent a significant amount of time torqued up and spazzing and saying not-nice things and cultivating a bubble of snark and worry around my being. I can also hear a spiky unsureness in the music I wrote in those days. It took me a handful of jangled years to choose to resign from my self-elected positions as Mayor, Treasurer, and Secretary of Worry Town. I was totally winning at leading Worry Town, because I could worry more and more awesomely than anyone else.

Here’s the thing about Worry Town: it is a reliable, comfortable, and seductive zip code in which to reside. Also, we are super great at inhabiting Worry Town. Staying in a place of worry is reliable because it feels real, it comes naturally, it’s not something we have to work at; Worry Town is reliable because there is an endless abundance of stuff to worry about, isn’t there?

Or is there?

A while back, I was both deep in the throes of a divorce and overworking myself in an effort to pile up tenure-worthy lines for my C.V. Those years were screamingly intense. The dopamine hits I got from posting silly, positive stuff online felt useful, but it was more probably a perceived protection from presenting myself online as being vulnerable in any way.

During the divorce we transitioned our son into spending nights at his dad’s new apartment slowly. We started with Wednesday nights. Our son did great, but the first night he spent across town I sat lumped on my kitchen floor for a good, long, bewildered sob-fest in Worry Town. The next Wednesday I cried again, watched a movie, ate my feelings via a giant pizza, and cried myself to sleep. The third Wednesday I enlisted help. I called my dear friend Cynthia and asked if I could come to her house and cry there; at least I’d be around other humans.

After she put her two young boys to bed, Cynthia brought out a bottle of bubbly and calmly gave me an amazing string of sentences: “Look, these Wednesdays are forever now. They just are. They feel like a shitty kind of special. Drink your champagne. These Wednesdays can also be a time for you to re-group, to make plans, to relax, to sleep, to do whatever you need for yourself so that you can be better for your boy. You can make these nights a good kind of special. They can be your special time to have and shape any way you want, or to get done what needs getting done, or to figure out what are the right things to do. You got this. Cheers.”

By simply being a kind, thoughtful, reasonable, and supportive ally, this gift from a trusted friend changed my life. That Wednesday night was a magical turning point; it helped me flip over, turn around, and turn away from Worry Town. It was also the birth of #ChampagneWednesday on my social media posts, and a cherished time I continue to preserve for specialness every week.

Now, in this new 2017, as our highly politicized climate is doing its thing, my worry muscles are re-strengthening. I am not sleeping well. I am sort-of, kind-of, almost writing music. November and December were a blur and if I don’t back the hell out of Worry Town soon, I run the risk of morphing into full-throttled Angry Kristy. Not only does no one want to be around Angry Kristy, she is blindingly not useful to anyone. Besides, the music Angry Kristy writes is stale and grey and over-tries to sound interesting.

#ChampagneWednesdays remain a vital part of my weeks, yet since November 9 I’ve not known what to do with my online presence. I have loved social media, but it’s a funky house of dissonance for me: this house is too big for its tiny plot of land within the vast expanse of Complain County. Throughout this last election season, social media sounded like metal-on-metal bending, growling, screaming through a vat of bloody bile. I felt I was watching our collective ego over-functioning so much that it was eating itself.

Using social media to initiate and cultivate conversations about the gender gap in the contemporary composition world felt productive and useful to me, and I hope it was useful for our artistic culture at large. Observing others’ successes and joys online is like a lovely, cool glass of water when pitted-out on a sticky Midwestern summer afternoon. When studies began appearing with data tracking people’s “happiness levels” in relation to their social media usage, I made a decision to be as positive as possible in my online posts. Great! Awesome? That made me feel better about what I was throwing online, but so what?

As I read this article on November 19, I felt buckets of tension release from my neck and shoulders. Consider these sentences: “(Social media) diverts your time and attention away from producing work that matters and toward convincing the world that you matter. The latter activity is seductive … but it can be disastrously counterproductive.” Yup, that resonates with me.

Things (seeds, herbs, trees, vegetables, clouds, babies), cannot grow if they are not given the proper environment in which they can thrive. This includes the delicious all-you-can-eat buffet of worry choices we cook up for ourselves; lay out a pretty menu and pick from it any time. In this new season we will undoubtedly have to turn and shift and adjust, and possibly relinquish, the current lives that we know for lives we don’t yet know. This has always been reality—the possibility our lives will be upended, uprooted, or undone at any moment or given time. What comes with this reality is a natural fear of the unknown. However, what we DO with that fear and worry is wholly up to us.

We may or may not see upending change with our country’s new leadership, and I’ve been sautéing some fresh daily specials for my worry buffet: I worry that it will be increasingly difficult for our young composers to make a living doing their art; I worry that our entire education system may be gutted; I worry that our society will, in fact, over-function so disastrously out of fear and division that we will be set back decades from our best social progresses into a total implosion of any modicum of civility; and I worry that our future may be a shitty kind of special.

When the worry creeps in, its antidote is patience.

Patience, I’ve found, is both a most difficult behavior to learn and sustain, as well as one of the most helpful behaviors we have. And social media teaches us, and fosters in us, the precise opposite of patience. Things take time. The best things—joy, love, music that moves people, social change, equality for all humans, getting one’s self out of a self-made snarkbubble—take careful, slow, meanderingly focused, craggy time.

To what must we devote our time in order to cultivate the environment in which goodness, justice, love, and gratitude can pervade our society? How can we, through our art and our interfacing with actual humans in person, be useful to these fellow humans and our culture of the arts?

I don’t yet know. I’m still working out ways I can be useful. But I do know that the time has arrived for me to turn away from the worry and turn over my social media presences to better uses of my time. Also, I believe that no matter the platform or interaction, by merely being allies—with patience, kindness, thoughtfulness, reasonableness, and support—for one another, and surrounding ourselves with other allies, we can change lives and change our culture.

Our time ahead may be an extremely tense blooming. It can also be an exciting and good kind of special if we commit to making it so. It can be our special time to figure out what it means to do what’s right for the world.

And we must answer the stirring of Love, by doing everything we can to turn ours into a world that is safe for truth and beauty to survive and thrive.

We’ve got this.


Kristin Kuster

Kristin Kuster

Coming and recent performances of Kristin Kuster’s music include works for the Baltimore and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestras, Colorado Music Festival Orchestra, Lisbon Summerfest Chamber Choir, Network for New Music, and multi-percussionist Joseph Gramley. Her chamber opera KEPT: a ghost story with a libretto by Megan Levad will premiere at the Virginia Arts Festival, in conjunction with the John Duffy Institute for New Opera, in May 2017. When Kristin is not working, you can find her on her deck with coffee. An associate professor of composition at the University of Michigan, Kristin lives in Ann Arbor with her awesome son and her badass husband.

Richard Toensing (1940-2014)—“The Oak Doesn’t Grow as Fast as the Squash”

Richard Toensing

Richard Toensing, photo courtesy Bella Voce Communications

Richard Toensing (March 11, 1940 – July 2, 2014) started teaching composition at age 26 at Upsala College, and at age 33 began a storied career on faculty at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU). He continued teaching privately a bit after he retired from CU in 2005, and he passed away last month at age 74. After over forty years of teaching, Dick was well known as a pedagogue for his integrity, his delightful wit, and his zero-tolerance policy for what he called “that bull-hooey ego nonsense that gets in the way of hard work and real life.”

Composer Greg Simon, a former student of Dick’s currently completing his DMA at the University of Michigan, wrote a beautiful memorial blog post in which he wrote:

No one would ever accuse Dick of coddling his students. True to his upbringing, he demanded work, dedication, and a bit of a thick skin. If you came to a lesson without the work done, he sent you away to do it. He was quick to tell you if he disliked something, and slow to spell out the solution – he believed you should find it. But Dick loved his students, and he cared for them. He would lend students hours of extra time to help them make decisions about music or life.

Dick was also a wonderful composer. The writer of an obituary published in the Boulder Daily Camera the day after he died remarked: “Reviewers of Toensing’s works, sacred and otherwise, have said that the listener is struck by a transparency of sound, a simplicity that exists inside complexity, and a sparkling clarity of parts.” After being raised a Lutheran in Minnesota, in the ’90s Dick converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. If you’ve not yet heard his music, a great window in would be to start with his Responsoria, his Flute Concerto, and/or his Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ.

Mere weeks before he passed away, Dick wrote an e-mail to a group of former students, telling us of his terminal cancer and how proud he was to have been able to teach us. Since his death last month, I’ve re-read the full contents of my “RT” e-mail folder. We began e-mailing in the fall of 1998, after my three years of master’s degree study with Dick ended and I had moved to Ann Arbor for the downbeat of my DMA at U-M. RT’s folder spans 16 years of correspondence, and I share his words in excerpts from his e-mails (I’m sure he wouldn’t mind), to best illuminate how he was as a teacher.

As in his music, Dick embraced the challenges of teaching with his simplicity inside complexity. He had an indelible ability to be engaging, stringent, rigorous, and nurturing all at once.

Congrats on your entrance exams – that’s no mean feat, and you should be proud of what you did. But don’t overload yourself – save plenty of time to think and to write. Just remember that the first two bars always have to be something folks would go across the street twice to hear! I’m sure that once you find your sea-legs you’ll do splendidly.

Dick taught like he wrote music, with a stunning patience. Lessons were calm, slow. He looked only at the score and never touched the piano. With his patience and diligence he heard every note he saw.

Glad to hear that things are going well with you and Albright – but again, remember; take your time, the oak doesn’t grow as fast as the squash.
I’ve learned the absolute necessity of taking time thru the composing of Orthodox liturgical music – since everything one writes in that genre is intended to be sung forever (well, at least for a millennium or so) the music has to absolutely sound well and wear like iron – a far cry from the Western idea of “write it, perform it, and if it’s no good, throw it away.” I just revised the second half of my Cherubic Hymn this a.m., and now am letting it sit and cook for at least a year (with numerous revisitings, tinkerings, tweakings, etc. along the way.)

Dick had a staggeringly dry wit. He often imparted compositional wisdom via exaggerated impersonations of his own U-M mentors Ross Lee Finney and Leslie Bassett, and/or his tried-and-true Minnesotan Ole & Lena jokes. In re-reading his e-mails I was reminded, too, of how often he’d dapple in delicious nuggets like so:

Did you read that Frankie Yankovic died? He, along with Whoopee John, was the King of the Polka Bands. If you can find a Yankovic record, get it – it’s SO bad that it’s actually good – the ultimate low-brow high camp – and makes Lauren Swelk* look like the Hollywood cheese that he really was.

(* A pun or a dig or a ridiculous misspelling was RT’s way.)
In his diligence and dedication to his art, Dick believed all one needs is faith in one’s process and faith in one’s self – simply stay at it, it’ll come. He signed off most emails with a variance of “just keep writing beautiful notes, and you’ll be just fine – RT” or, my favorite, “write thousands of good notes – RT.”

Sounds like you’ve got a full plate, all right. Well, welcome to graduate skule, Michigan-style. Not only will you survive, you’ll thrive, if I know you. A propos of your pno. piece – just keep slugging away, and remember to compose every day, even if only for a little while.

Expect that your first effort there, in a new and demanding environment, will be like your first effort here (remember how long it took to do that little piece for clarinet, vibe, and bass, and how dissatisfied you were by the end of the year when you heard it?). But that was an important first step – what you are writing now is likewise. So keep your powder dry and keep on firing.

One thing you might try to maintain is continuity: at the end of each composing session write out in longhand for yourself exactly where you are in the piece, what you need to do next, what problems you need to solve, etc., etc. Then when you next get back to your work, read what you had written – it’ll help focus your mind. Another trick that I often use when I get stuck is to “unravel” a bit of the piece – i.e. to take a clean piece of paper and simply re-write the last phrase or so as a way to get the wheels rolling; usually you can move forward then.

Dick spoke of feeling musically rejuvenated when he converted to the Orthodox Church. This faith and its community seemed perfectly suited to his mind and musical aesthetic. He didn’t over-speak about how his church informed his life; yet it was clear his was a deep, poignant faith with which he engaged passionately.

The Orthodox are strict about what they will allow to be sung in the Liturgy – it has to be “orthodox music” (which is one of those things that no-one can quite define, but, as Fr. S. says, “I know it when I hear it.” Quite different from my good ol’ lax Lutheran days, when anything I wrote “went.” But in Orthodoxy one is writing music that the church will use potentially from now unto ages of ages, amen, so one has to take time and really do it right. It’s a good spiritual discipline – keeps one humble.)

Dick really knew repertoire. He believed in and demanded exacting, hard-core score study. He also loved to lunch and rep-talk. He adored melody; his own music is plushly drenched in it. At the same time, Dick was also all about harmony, harmony, harmony, in every sense of the word.

I finally got this new piece off the ground (barely) this a.m. – I’ve decided to do it the old-fashioned way – lots of hard work, hand-crafting each spectacular sound (and all that jazz).

About the (two pieces) you sent: I was very impressed and pleased by the increasing sophistication of texture and gesture in both pieces – they mark a huge step forward for you in that regard (remember the piece for clarinet, vibraphone, and double bass only a few years ago?); I’ll be eager to hear where you go next, and most interested to see where it all ends up. The only thing that gave me pause a little was what I heard as a kind of static harmonic rhythm which seems at odds with the sophistication in other areas. I’m certainly no foe of slow harmonic rhythm (as you know), but I had the sense that harmonic movement was something which wasn’t a principal concern in either piece. As you continue, you may want to try working out a tentative harmonic rhythm plan beforehand, so that the piece has a harmonic shape which is totally under your control; I’ve found that harmonic movement (or the lack of it) is such a powerful expressive tool; I think you will too.

Re-reading his e-mails has been like patching together a massive memories-montage of my formative years in Dick’s studio, even before we wrote to one another. He is responsible for my love of Stravinsky’s music. When he heard I was to play Piano IV in Les Noces at CU, Dick said, “Goodness. Well. Excellent! We must take time in your lessons this term to analyze that one to death.” He frequently pointed to Stravinsky’s scores as good go-to’s for help, particularly with proportioning contrasting sections and economy of musical materials.

I was surprised (and pleased) to find you writing in as diatonic an idiom as you did; somehow I had expected something more chromatic. A couple of points to ponder: 1. Do you need the winds? In the main, they didn’t seem to be doing that much that was significant. 2. You need to have some larger sections of the work that are simpler, more melodic, and more transparently scored to balance the sections that are more dense – it seems to me that your writing is generated more harmonically than melodically, and you may want to re-consider that for future works. But these are small cavils in what is a huge achievement – buy yourself some roses!

Dick’s manner was like a perfectly constructed song about being comfortable in one’s skin. He wrote a large collection of solo and choral vocal music; it all sings exquisitely. He talked about “screaming quietly,” or “loudly whispering” – which is how he taught. As in his music, Dick taught steadily, steadfastly, unwavering, with kindness and precision. He believed that our lives sing. That our music is not simply a 19th-century romantic notion in which the notes are “tied to life”; rather, our music is life, and that tones are “simply beautiful in themselves.”

Finney once said to me, “You don’t like melody much, do you?” (Obviously that’s not true now.) In the piece you sent most recently, melodies, when they occur, are some of the most fetching and expressive parts of the music – make more of them! They’re what connect with a general audience, and show that you have a heart, as well as technique.

As the years drew on, our correspondence became less about the nuts and bolts of composing, and more about our general lives. Dick shared updates about his kids and his cats, he spoke of his beloved wife Carol’s goings-on, his students, etc. His obituary states his fondness for gardening, “with a special weakness for irises.” From the last e-mail I received before his death, which was so sweetly him:

To contemplate the end of one’s life is quite an experience! But I’m thankful, at least, that I have both the time and (still) the mental capacity to actually do that contemplation, and my Orthodox faith makes it both a time of sadness for what will soon be lost, and joy, for what will soon be gained. I look forward to the future (for myself) with hope and confidence, though I will miss Carol more than I can possibly ever say. But some day even that pain will be erased. So – we go forward.

Dick Toensing gave us some of the most gorgeous music on this earth. Equally important, the distinguishedness of the sheer volume of wisdom he imparted to his students is immeasurable. He was an ever-optimist, an ever-realist, and never a downer. Yes, he could see through the bull-hooey quicker than most and didn’t hesitate to politely call it out. His career was like the slow-growing oak, and as an artist, teacher, and human he expressed himself clearly, gently, with respect and compassion. Then, for example, when a former student sent a quick note from NYC saying she had a job offer from his shared alma mater, his words sang:

WUNNERFUL! WUNNERFUL! HIGH CONGRATULATIONS – THAT’S ABSOLUTELY GREAT! BRAVO FOR YOU! (I assume you’ll take it….) It’s 10:20 in the evening out there, or I’d call you and gush all over the place, but I will save that for another day and time. I can’t tell you how proud of you I am, and how pleased for you. I know that you’ll make the most of it.
One word of advice: don’t bring out that little piece for vibraphone, etc.

As always, for the loving advice Dick, thank you.

Notes From the Other Side of the Desk

University of Michigan Music Building

University of Michigan Music building, by Brian Wolfe on Flickr

The teaching artist faced a serious problem. He had to do what he could to develop the traditional craft that might in the future be important for the young artist, but at the same time not stifle the artist’s struggle to find his own individuality.

—Ross Lee Finney

My first knock on the door of room 2243 in the Earl V. Moore School of Music, Theatre, and Dance building at the University of Michigan (UM) Ann Arbor was in February 1998. I began the day in William Albright’s office, among a group of prospective doctoral composers. Albright spoke about the composition department’s curriculum, its extensive history of educating top-notch composers within an enriching artistic and intellectual environment, and gave an impassioned description of the wide aesthetic variety of current students and alumni.

The second time I entered 2243 Moore was the following September for my first composition lesson with Albright. We listened to some of my music, and in each piece he pointed out specific moments: “That! There! That’s a Kristyness I hear. Embrace it, hone into that!” Four years later in Spring 2002, I expressed concerns about my writing to William Bolcom as I finished up my dissertation. Bill said, “You’ve tried new things for yourself in this piece, and you’ll hear what works and what doesn’t work for you. You are doing a good job being Kristy. Keep writing.” These were the last words I heard as a student in a composition lesson. We were in 2243 Moore, which Bolcom took over after Albright passed away in September 1998.
Office doorway
There is a deep, reverberating echo of history in composer higher education, and a palpable unspoken dialogue between current and past students, faculty, and guest artists. Composer Betsy Jolas gives a lovely introduction at her guest seminars, in which she hands out a sheet tracing her musical lineage. It begins with the first sounds of her mother’s voice singing, and webs wide through those with whom she studied, and those she has taught. While I am saddened to have had only a few lessons with Albright in the weeks before his death, he is present, along with each of my mentors, in every lesson I now teach.
In August 2008, I re-entered the Moore building after nearly a decade away. Its familiar air triggered a memories montage of my time here as a student. I felt a heavy sense of responsibility, an amped charge emanating from this room where I was to begin again, on the other side of the desk in 2243 Moore.

I have always taught on the basis of what I hear in a student’s work and not on the basis of a predetermined theory that I wish to impose. It is not an easy way to teach, because it demands an open-minded concentration on what the composer is trying to accomplish and a ruthless attempt to develop a student’s self-criticism, without belittling his effort.

—Ross Lee Finney

A friend once told me having a child is like throwing a giant mirror right up one inch from one’s face—it feels true for me as a parent—and I’m finding that teaching composition has a similar texture. It is hilariously unnerving to hear students repeat the same excitements, concerns, ideas, frustrations, and questions I rattled out during my student days.

The list of composers influenced by Finney both directly as his students, and indirectly as his students’ students, is staggeringly extensive (click here for a comprehensive list of UM composition department alumni, past faculty, guests, and see where they are now). I first came to know the ethos of Ross Lee Finney’s pedagogy while completing my master’s degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU). I studied primarily with Richard Toensing, who had studied at UM with Finney and Leslie Bassett in the 1960s. Lessons with Toensing were often dappled with endearing Finney impressions and anecdotes; yet more importantly, gems of both his and Finney’s compositional wisdom.

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Throughout my time at CU myriad guest composers visited and gave lessons, held master classes, and had works performed. It was during these residencies that I first met Leslie Bassett, Roger Reynolds, and George Crumb—all of whom studied with Finney at UM—among others. While my time with these composers, like Albright, was brief, specific sentences I heard from them have stayed with me, sentences that left me breathless and invigorated to keep working at bettering my writing. My lessons with them, and all of my teachers, were transformative.

One of my favorite activities to come with this teaching gig is our annual prospective students’ portfolios review. My colleagues—Evan Chambers, Michael Daugherty, Erik Santos, Paul Schoenfield, Bright Sheng—and I pile into a room and go through a mountain of scores. We get a steady groove going and as the day progresses, quotes from former teachers inevitably come out: “so-and-so used to say, about counterpoint…” or “once, I showed so-and-so a piece for this ensemble, and he quipped…” The collective voices of our mentors—among them Albright, Bassett, Bernstein, Bolcom, Boulez, Davidovsky, Druckman, Jolas, Ligeti, Perle, Reynolds, and one another (I studied with both Evan and Michael during my D.M.A.)—are with us in that room.

During the summer of 1960 … there was a special conference of avant-garde composers in Stratford, Ontario, which Robert Ashley, Roger Reynolds, Goerge Cacioppo and Gordon Mumma decided to attend. On returning from the conference, … (they) organized what they called the ONCE Group, which would present annual festivals not only of their own music but also of avant-garde composers such as Cage and Berio, whom they would bring to Ann Arbor.

—Ross Lee Finney

Michael Daugherty has a deep love of history and often speaks of feeling profoundly grateful to his teachers, one of whom was Roger Reynolds. In 2010 Michael spearheaded, in conjunction with the UMSMTD’s Center for Performing Arts Technology and UM’s Institute for the Humanities, the ONCE.MORE. festival in honor of the 50th anniversary of the first ONCE Festival in Ann Arbor.
Pioneering composers Ashley, Mumma, Reynolds, and Donald Scavarda reunited in Ann Arbor for the first time since the 1960s (Cacioppo passed away in 1984 and was lauded by his comrades throughout the festival). There were concerts of historic and more recent works, an exhibition of artifacts from the initial ONCE Festivals, and a day-long symposium. In a nod to the past, the concerts featured 1961 ticket prices: $2. I popped into the artifacts exhibition early one morning and found Gordon Mumma there, alone. As he described some of the program booklets and pointed out friends in photos he said, “This wall, with these objects, it speaks to how we all came together in this magical place to try something new.”

The Rackham Graduate School furnished funds to equip an electronic music studio … I appointed George Wilson to head the studio but also persuaded the dean to appoint Mario Davidovsky as visiting professor for a semester to teach the faculty. Mario made a great contribution … and (gave) great encouragement to both Wilson and Bassett … It was our conviction that emphasis should first be put on the student’s being a composer, treating the electronic medium as one of many devices he could use in producing music.

—Ross Lee Finney

When I met Mario Davidovsky at the Wellesley Composers Conference in summer 2003, he immediately spoke with excitement and fondness of his time at UM. I asked if he would give me a lesson and he said, “You don’t need my opinions on your music now. How can I be useful to you in thinking about your future as a composer?” My time with Mario was a mere two weeks, yet I think of his advice often. “How can I be useful to you?” is my most frequently repeated sentence in 2243 Moore.

Mario also said, “Ah, that magical town Ann Arbor! Always so much happening there!” Indeed, in the years since Finney set up the composition department in 1949, along with the growth of the University Musical Society into the longest-running performing arts series in the country, much has happened and continues to happen here. In a brief interview for UM American Music Institute’s “Living Music” collection of first-person commentaries on music today, George Wilson recalls calling on Motown for help with the first-ever presentation in the U.S. of the four-track version of Stockhausen’s Kontakte. From the original ONCE Festivals, to the legendary 1984 premiere of the third scene from Stockhausen’s Samstag, Lucifer’s Dance—commissioned and premiered by the UM Symphony Band and H. Robert Reynolds—in Hill Auditorium, to Bolcom’s epic Songs of Innocence and Experience on the same stage in 2004, the list of Ann Arbor’s happenings is massive and continues to grow.

Students have often made remarks about me as a teacher which are apocryphal. No teacher should be a psychiatrist, but there are times when it is hard to know what is the best critical approach to take.

—Ross Lee Finney

Tacked onto a cork board on the wall in 2243 Moore is a note that reads: Albright, Chichester Mass. Upon hearing this piece for the first time, I knew Albright was a composer with whom I wanted to study. The note is a warm reminder for me, of how I initially got here, and am back again. It is stunning for me to consider how much talent has, and continues to, pass through this office—Moore legend has it Ligeti wrote some of his piano etudes in this room during his 1993 residency. In a recent semester, as I showed a student a cool-sounding way to voice a chord in the brass, I remembered Bill Bolcom showing me that exact voicing, at this very Steinway, in this very room. Not so long ago I was on the student side of this desk. Today I continue to look for new ways to engage with our students, all the while drawing upon the words and wisdom of those who laid the foundation for my own pedagogy.

A composer doesn’t retire. I knew the Composition Department would continue to grow with Leslie Bassett as the new head and with William Bolcom recently appointed to the faculty.

—Ross Lee Finney

In a tribute to Albright’s music on NewMusicBox in 2004, Evan Chambers wrote: “We fall so often into the trap of listing awards and commissions as the primary evidence of our accomplishment and relative worth that we can easily forget what really matters once a person, an artist, a teacher, has left us.” Even when I feel grumpy about our economy and the state of the arts in this country, the admissions season at UM jolts me into a state of optimism. The music we receive in applications is interesting, thought-provoking, and viscerally exciting to see and hear. These young composers are just getting going, and I sleep better at night knowing they will be making music in the years to come. When the academic year winds down, I am tempted to send a mass email to all composers who teach; a note congratulating them, giving them a virtual high-five, for the work they are doing nurturing young composers. There is another note I would like to send, to a composer I never met in person:

Dear Mr. Finney,
Thank you. Thank you for establishing this magical place and guiding those who have guided me. It is an honor and a privilege to teach for you, with you, in room 2243 of the Earl V. Moore building in Ann Arbor.

Why Do We Write Where & When We Write?

Sometimes, I envy my composition students. I loved being a student. I remember sleeping in until noon. That was awesome. I remember the excitement of learning new things about new music things, and writing new things at all hours of the day and night. I remember we ticked away on malleable composer-clocks. That was fabulous. Time felt easily scheduled and free. In 2002, I left school and somehow continued to write things; yet I wrote under a new umbrella of anxiety and discomfort. I did not have a hold on how I could control and shape my writing time.

Over the course of the last decade—a path that runs through a handful of adjunct teaching jobs, having a kid, living and freelancing in New York City, and now nearing my fifth year on the other side of the desk as a full-time faculty composer—it became necessary to snap my Dali-glob of a composer-clock into a strictly delineated circular grid. Apart from the time we take for performances, networking, promoting our work, etc., I am fascinated by how we composers inhabit our composer-clocks. Writing time: where is it, when is it, how is it.

In 2004, I had a late-night drink with composer Betsy Jolas after we had gone to hear the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir present Rachmaninov’s Vespers. Betsy spoke of the first time she met Stravinsky, her summers at Tanglewood, and her children. I asked her, “How did you find time to write while caring for young kids?” She explained: First, one makes time to write; second, she had a special attic, all her own. She would sneak upstairs at 3 a.m. and write until the children awoke. She called it “my precious, protected, space and time with my music.”

I grew up in beautiful Boulder, Colorado, in a house built into a hill nestled beneath the Flatirons. Along with a perfect view of the south side of I.M. Pei’s stunning National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) building, our house had a funky, small, modernist layout. The “yard” consisted of multiple levels with rock steps leading to little curious outside-spaces to explore. I often awoke at night to one cricket singing, deer rustling, aspen leaves twinkling in the breeze. It was quiet.

The most dazzling place I knew as a kid was my mom’s parents’ house in Northern Indiana’s Dune Acres, on the shore of Lake Michigan. With architectural characteristics of Bauhaus and the International Style, its layout was supreme funkytown: cool angles everywhere, half-walls, a bewindowed breakfast nook that jetted out over trees, a “yard” of multiple levels with rock steps leading to secret, small, side patios. I often awoke at night to the steady waves whispering on the beach. It was quiet.

I love visiting friends’ and colleagues’ “places of work.” The way we as individuals shape the environments devoted to our creativity is telling. Our spaces are windows into who we are as creative thinkers: precisely where the piano or keyboard is placed; if there is a writing table, its size, shape, and location; what, if anything, one chooses to hang on walls. Compelling among these spaces are those in New York City—workspace design gets mighty quirky in minimal square-footage. (Mine was seven-feet by three-feet when I lived there.) There is also a fun-ness in our dealing with our “stuff”: some studios are so pristinely organized they verge on being hermetically sealed; some have scores of scores, books, sticky notes, instruments, electronic gear, piles of paper seemingly strewn haphazardly. We all have our ways of organization, organized chaos, or preferred chaos here.

Throughout the apartment-hopping days of college to today, I have meticulously laid out my writing spaces. I also obsessively studied the history of architecture. I wrote, and still write, music inspired by buildings. I now understand the symbiosis of all of this: a thirty-eight-year evolution of a cognitive comfort zone, deeply rooted in, and informed by, the architecture of the spaces I inhabit. To ease the struggles of writing, I devote varied compositional activities to specific locations. These days, the writing time I have in my office at school, or in a coffee shop, is devoted to proofreading, editing, and making to-do lists. Large- and small-scale imagining, choosing notes, pacing while considering what comes next, I do best in my tiny home studio. It is a nook; it looks west over the Ann Arbor treeline, and its walls form a funky-angled trapezoid. The space feels easy.

In 2007, I caught up with composer Chen Yi over lunch. She was immersed in a busy season full of travel. I asked her how she manages to keep up her writing with her packed schedule. She told me she often writes on planes, and lit up at the possibility of the middle seat being empty, allowing her to spread out her work.

Whatever we have, whatever we choose to do, fills our lives. Composers with kids are no more busy than those without, composers who teach are no more busy than those who do not, and composers with multiple converging deadlines are no more busy than those with lengthy stretches of time between. Each of us is simply different-busy. The obesity of to-do lists ebbs and flows in seasons of varied intensities for everyone.

Student composers are a particular sort of different-busy, in part because they are still gaining a multi-textured self-awareness, one not limited to their evolving creative capacities, but also including the development of time-management skills. When a student opens a lesson with, “I didn’t have time to write much this week,” we talk about what that means: Are they scheduling writing time? Are they able to stick with that schedule? Do they protect their writing time from external interruptions (e.g., turn the phone off)? How are they using that time?

I believe it is important, particularly for young composers, to commit to a diligent habit of writing every day. Seth Godin has a great blog post about every-day writing, and what applies to writers of words is also relevant to writers of music. Godin’s blog is primarily focused on small-business marketing strategies. I like his posts because they are short, interesting, and frequently contain little gems of creative wisdom that resonate with an artist’s life. I often check @ThisIsSethsBlog on Twitter first thing in the morning, which one day revealed this delicious irony.

Over the last few years, my primary writing time has settled into fairly consistent spans of late night or early morning hours, which was not merely born out of a necessity from “much else to do” during the day. Although managing my own different-busy—I parent, I compose, I teach—my choice of these wee hours for creative focus is also informed by the sonic spaces and thinking-time of my youth; a propensity as a kid to enjoy awake-time when everyone else was asleep, and possibly most importantly, my efforts to carve out a specific space with a veil of silence: I need silence to write. Within the mountains of emailing, meetings, proofreading, editing, phone-calling, and even fun-having, I am comfortable allowing for interruptions. Given that which fills my life, my wee hours are best suited for the kind of writing that warrants its own, protected, space and time.

The term “writer’s block” should be stricken from the universe as a term. Composing is a multifaceted activity, one which requires the use of thinking-muscles, and one must figure out how to use those muscles in comfortable, useful ways. It troubles me to hear young composers express fear that creative thinking-muscles might atrophy. They get this notion from someone somewhere, and it can be paralyzing. In addition, telling a young composer they should write every day for at least an hour, and leaving it at that, can be equally paralyzing.

What is writing time, and how does one fill it? If not feeling particularly note-y or conceptual-y, take a walk for twenty minutes and think about titles. This is writing. Have a pile of empty bars waiting to become a contrasting section? Hit a coffee shop for an hour and make a list of adjectives describing how it can, or cannot, sound. This is writing. If staring at the blank page when starting a piece, unsure of what to do: relax, settle in some place comfortable, and simply imagine what it can be, how it can sound. Over and over, imagine it, without putting anything on a page. This is writing. An afternoon roaming a museum pondering visual likes and dislikes: this is writing. Spending fifteen minutes on a bus considering what piece one would write if one could write anything for any forces: writing.

Mentors, friends, and books suggested some of the above to me when I was a student, yet none put it like so: Make time for your writing; vehemently protect it; set a timer if it helps; find or create spaces solely devoted to writing; pay attention to how your writing sensibilities change, and respond to them; during your writing time you are available only to your creativity. P.S. Turn off your phone.

Holy smokes the world provides a lot of input. In some ways it is super cool. Our ability to rapidly disseminate information is mind-blowing, and can be useful. I love reading composers’ blogs, many of which explore our efforts to “filter out the noise” as we navigate the layers filling our different-busy schedules. The most poignant shift in my daily composer-clock ticked into place in 2005 with the birth of my son. Turn-on-a-dime time, people. Baby asleep = hurry up and write / Baby awake = stop writing. While I have little memory of choosing the notes I chose for the first two years of my son’s life, it was a tremendously informative time in shaping how I write now. Time to write = writing time. Period. I am still working on filtering out the noise during non-writing times; yet I am grateful that at least I am aware when the noise is fading in.

I wrote my first music at my grandparents’ Dune Acres house. We visited there most summers of my childhood. When the weather held, we spent long lazy mornings at the lake. After lunch, while others napped, I would sneak outside to my secret side patio. I made up songs, sang with the crickets, waves, and trees. It was the beginnings of my precious, protected, space and time with my music. Sometimes, I went out alone in the rain.

Kristin Kuster

Composer Kristin Kuster “writes commandingly for the orchestra,” and her music “has an invitingly tart edge” (The New York Times). Kuster’s music takes inspiration from architectural space, the weather, and mythology. Recent CD releases include Two Jades with violinist Xiang Gao and the UM Symphony Band, and the title work on the PRISM Saxophone Quartet’s New Dynamic Records CD Breath Beneath. Kuster’s music has received support from such organizations as the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Sons of Norway, American Composers Orchestra, the League of American Orchestras, Meet The Composer, the Jerome Foundation, the American Composers Forum, American Opera Projects, the National Flute Association, and the Argosy Foundation. Born in 1973, Kuster grew up in Boulder, Colorado. She earned her Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Michigan, where she now serves as Assistant Professor of Composition.