Author: Molly Sheridan

James Lee III: Don’t Miss a Chance

When we arrive at James Lee III’s home in Baltimore, sounds of the composer at the piano leak through the front door, making it difficult to ring the bell and interrupt the music. He is gracious when he greets us, however, explaining that he’s trying to get his own piano music under his fingers again in advance of an upcoming trip to Brazil as a Fulbright Scholar.
Lee was a piano performance major as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, but these days practice often slips to the bottom of his to-do list. Since shifting his attention to composition for his graduate work, he is now generally focused on writing his own music and meeting his teaching obligations at Morgan State University, where he is associate professor of composition and theory.

Yet Lee traces his current career to his early experience at the piano. The lessons his father signed him up for at 12 turned into serious interest in high school. During his first years at Michigan, he wrote a lot of things “on the side,” but when Michael Daugherty and Gabriella Lena Frank pushed him towards pursuing a master’s degree in composition at Michigan over heading to the East Coast for more piano study, he realized what a better fit that would be.
Allegro from Piano Sonata No. 2 “The Remnant”

Available on Alkebulan’s Son: The Piano Works of James Lee III (Albany Records)

“I always liked the creative aspect a little bit more than the idea of playing the same program the whole year round,” Lee explains. “As I was thinking about playing the piano—Chopin etudes and Beethoven sonatas—I always wanted to write my own etudes and my own sonatas.”

A selection of works Lee has ultimately composed for the piano have been collected on the recent Albany release Alkebulan’s Son: The Piano Works of James Lee III, performed by Rochelle Sennet. Lee’s catalog, however, also contains a number of pieces for much larger forces, and his music has been premiered by orchestras in Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Conductor Leonard Slatkin, who Lee approached with the recommendation of his Michigan teacher William Bolcom, has been a particular champion of his work.

Lee’s writing for orchestra tends to open with percussive announcements and pack in a number of colorful flourishes and dense textures. He also has a notable affection for what he terms the “more soulful” instruments of the woodwind family, such as the oboe and English horn—a propensity he has noted among a number of African-American composers—and for the emotional force of Shostakovich’s writing, which “really gets in there and just goes over the top.”

Audio and score sample from Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula by James Lee III

Score sample from Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula by James Lee III

Score sample from Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula. Premiered by Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Orchestra on October 15, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Subito Music Corporation. Used with permission. (click image to enlarge)

Though Lee’s music is sometimes connected to particular topics or storylines, as was the case with his 2011 Baltimore Symphony commission for a work inspired by the life of Harriet Tubman, he doesn’t tend to write in an explicitly programmatic way. After a period of reading and study when a work is meant to be about a specific topic, he’ll sketch out graphs and timelines of possible events. Particularly for large-scale works, he tends to create a kind of self-drawn map to guide him. A Seventh-Day Adventist, Lee is also influenced by his religious faith. For works with a more spiritual grounding, he’ll pray about the piece before he begins composing. Then things tend to take a more technical turn, with more abstract musical ideas taking over.

“I have a big interest in the rhythmic aspects of the music, but I’m also really interested in having these evocative colors in the orchestra like Takemitsu or Adams in My Father Knew Charles Ives,” Lee clarifies. “But I also have a very strong interest in the Biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, and my first piece which was ever programmed publicly, Beyond Rivers of Vision, was something that was inspired by those prophetic books. So where I was interested in the rhythmic aspects, I was also interested in giving a musical commentary on the events spoken about in those texts.”

Night Visions of Kippur – II. A Narrow Pathway Traveled

Score sample from Night Visions of Kippur – II. A Narrow Pathway Traveled by James Lee III. Copyright © 2011 Subito Music Corporation. Used with permission. (click image to enlarge)

Lee is troubled by the lack of diversity associated with concert music—particularly in the orchestral field which he feels still has “a long way to go….I think there should be a little bit more openness and acceptance of really trying to promote good music by all composers, whether they’re women, African American, Latino, or Asian.”

Though he understands that members of under-represented groups who do hold positions in the field don’t want their background to take precedence and distract from their artistic work, he urges decision makers at all levels and areas to be proactive about seeking this work out and advocating for it, while being mindful of personally held stereotypes.
“It seems to me that there are certain roles that [administrators] see certain people fulfilling,” explains Lee. “Like, if I were a jazz pianist, then it would be cool if I’m composing jazz ballads. But if I’m writing Western classical music in a contemporary language, then they might think, ‘Well, I don’t know if he is really who we want.'”

When he runs into such prejudice in his own career, he’s careful not to let it distract from his larger goals despite the frustrations it can bring. “You just have to move on and do your best and get other opportunities,” he stresses. “Usually I don’t miss a chance. If there’s a person at an orchestra or a pianist I want to meet…I don’t waste any time.”

The Roar of the Crowd: Freelance Musicians Speak Out on Non-Payment

Last week, NewMusicBox Regional Editor Ellen McSweeney launched a discussion surrounding non-payment and musician vulnerability in Chicago (“The Deafening Silence of the Beethoven Festival Musicians,” 6/24/14).

Though the issue at the heart of her story related to the Beethoven Festival’s ongoing failure to fulfill its financial obligation to freelance musicians after the 2013 event (even while contracting for the 2014 festival), McSweeney’s nuanced post provoked an intelligent and lively debate about both the incident at hand and the broader problems faced by freelancers negotiating work without much of a safety net beyond trust. (As McSweeney noted in her article, “Much of the most artistically adventurous work in Chicago isn’t unionized, and we take a leap of faith every time we work for each other.”)

Commenter Ethan Wickman took the point further with this anecdote:

Several years ago I received a grant/commission from a prominent organization. Upon completing the piece, and hence fulfilling my contractual obligation to the commissioning organization, it seemed like I waited weeks to receive the final installment of my commission. I finally called the office and was greeted by a younger employee who, when I asked when the check was going to be sent, snarkily offered to airlift some food to my house, if necessary.
I think that as artists we sometimes have a kind of guilt about money–like we should be above wanting it, needing it, or feeling motivated by its acquisition. The fact is, money liberates us to be able to do our best work in the most unrestricted way. Intense financial pressures can absolutely crush a creative will–as lofty, artistic ambitions plummet into panicked survival mode.

The discussion also underscored that the Beethoven Festival situation was in no way an isolated incident and further illustrated how discomfort and unspoken ideas about what is “appropriate” when nailing down financial parameters set up additional roadblocks. The topic inspired additional posts and social media commentary around our corner of the internet.


Silent Chicago Musicians

The musicians of Chicago may have kept silent on this issue for nine months, but the community is definitely talking now! McSweeney’s post was NMBx’s most widely read and shared of the year so far.

And though this festival was not a union gig, the conversation reached such a pitch that the Chicago Federation of Musicians issued letters to both Festival President and Artistic Director George Lepauw and the Chicago Community of Musicians over the weekend, “urging all musicians to decline employment with the 2014 Festival, or, if they have already accepted employment, to withdraw. The CFM will also be calling for the public to boycott the Festival until last year’s musicians are paid.”
Beyond the serious financial plight of the unpaid 2013 Beethoven Festival musicians, the larger conversation drives home that both performing artists and their employers need to be educated and held accountable by the community at large, and there is some serious work to do on that score. Trust, care, and respect are vital to creative endeavors, but that stream of support must truly flow both ways. It doesn’t muddy the music to be clear about money matters upfront.

Readers Respond to Death of Klinghoffer Simulcast Cancellation

The Death of Klinghoffer
It came as no surprise that the cancellation of the scheduled simulcast of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, slated for production at the Metropolitan Opera this fall, has inspired some very active comment section action (both on this site and on the New York Times post about the issue), in addition to volleys lobbed via social media. Much of what we’re seeing here sits firmly on the side of disappointment that the Met would withdraw the opportunity to experience the work outside of Lincoln Center, and respondents question the validity of the charge that it could be used as a tool to encourage anti-Semitism. As a commenter posting as Jim notes on our initial news story, “There’s nothing anti-semitic about the piece, which flatly condemns violence. The only people who would come away with anti-semitic views would have to have come in with them.”

While most of the conversation since the news broke has centered around concern or outright annoyance that a piece of art could be challenged and removed in this manner, others spoke out in support of the position of the Anti-Defamation League and the Klinghoffer sisters, with Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun tweeting:

Of the many comments, however, Nancy Lederman, posting to the New York Times’ piece, pointed out that “I can’t comment on the underlying debate about the opera I’ve never seen or heard. But controversy breeds sales. I think I’ll buy a ticket so I can see for myself.”

And so on that note, we encourage those on all sides of this debate to listen to the piece! There is a recording, a DVD, a perusal score available (free with log-in) or buy the reduction and play through it at the piano. There’s even a Spotify stream of the recording available, so take your pick and a couple hours. Then let’s chat.

You Don’t Say! Quotable Quotes from NewMusicBox

Quotable quote
In its 15-year history, composers, musicians, and industry professionals have shared countless pearls of wisdom with NewMusicBox, but these are some that have become particularly quotable quotes around the office, starting with one I used to keep on a sticky note posted above my desk.

Tania Leon on composer camps:
Despite of our talking about Uptown, Downtown, Midtown, whatever town you’re talking about, the point is that there are some people who are completely out of town, even when they are in town.


Ornette Coleman on love, war, and music:
The sound is made from the instrument. The ideas are made from your brain. The ideas and the sound actually meet. They don’t necessarily meet to make love. Sometimes they’re meeting to make war.


Brian Ferneyhough on label avoidance:
No, I don’t put a label on it because when you put a label on something, you’ve canned it. I know that the present-day world of commerce cans things and I’m sure it’s very good that they can things for us. They radiate them and do various things to normalize them and make square tomatoes that fit more adequately in the boxes available to them. That’s not my concern. Art is about questioning how things fit together, it’s not about making them fit together better.


Nico Muhly on being a “classical” composer:
The best way to make there not be that much of a distinction, even if you feel there might be a teeny one, is to put your fingers in your ears and say, “La-la-la-la-lah.” I’m so uninterested. It’s essentially like being from somewhere. I feel like I’m very proudly from the classical tradition. It’s like being from Nebraska. Like you are from there if you’re from there. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a productive life somewhere else. The notion of your genre being something that you have to actively perform, I think is pretty vile.


Milton Babbitt on encounters with new genres:
I don’t even know what hip-hop is, to be honest with you. Do you understand hip-hop? What is all this scratching of records?


Elliott Carter on minimalism:
I have a feeling about it that is very strong and it’s probably not correct. And that is that we are surrounded by a world of minimalism. All that junk mail I get every single day repeats; when I look at television I see the same advertisement. I try to follow the movie that’s being shown, but I’m being told about cat food every five minutes. That is minimalism. I don’t want it and I don’t like it. And it’s a way of making an impression that doesn’t impress me. In fact, I do everything to avoid it. I turn off the television until it’s over. I refuse to be advertised to.


Philip Glass on success:
The main thing is to love the work that you do because you may get no other reward. And if you don’t need any other reward except the satisfaction of the music, then you’re always winning. And that was true for me when I was 30. I was out playing music and I thought I was successful when I was 30! I had an audience. I had an ensemble. I was going from city to city playing music. I couldn’t make a living, but that was not the issue for me. People always say, “Well, when were you successful?” and I say, “Well, I always thought I was!” They said, “No, no, when did you make money?” “Oh! Much later.”


Mario Davidovsky on popularity:
I think there is a certain danger when we say, “Did you write a book? How many books you sold? Two. Well, then the book stinks. How many books? Two million; yes, that’s a great book.” This is a completely zombie consumerism way of judging, which we are going to pay for.


John Luther Adams on career and creativity:
No one ever told me that I could have a career as a composer. No one ever told me I couldn’t. I just didn’t think in those terms, and I made all the wrong choices every step of the way. I made all the wrong career choices and I didn’t know what I was doing, but I think the music knew where it wanted me to go. By a series of happy accidents, and a few conscious choices and maybe the peculiarities of my own psyche, I kept making all the wrong choices, and that’s turned out to be the best possible thing that could have happened for the music and for the composer.


Charles Wuorinen on descriptive opinion:
There’s no embarrassment about using the most primitive forms of description and in committing every form of that basic fallacy which says, “My reaction to a composition, or any artwork, is a property of that work. So, if I think a piece is ugly—if my response to a piece is ‘It is ugly,’ then it is, objectively.” That’s an impossibility, it just is! I thought we had been through that many, many decades, not to say centuries, ago, but now it’s all back. And so, “If I think a piece is sad, then it has the property of sadness.” That’s asinine!


Glenn Branca on improvisation:
Would you want to read an improvised, collaborated novel? I mean, I don’t know if you read. I read a lot. And I can tell you right now, I would not want to read something that was written by five people improvising.


Willie Colón on where life meets the music:
[W]e get into a big bar fight. We’re out on the sidewalk. … By the end, me and Hector [LaVoe] are fighting in the middle of a circle. Long story short, everybody gets beat up pretty bad and I get thrown in the alley in the garbage. The union delegate is making his rounds and he says, “Hey, that’s Willie Colón there.” And they say, “I don’t give a hell if he’s Willie Shit.” Anyway, he cleans me up and takes me back to the hotel. The place where that happened was on Calle Luna. So that’s where “Calle Luna Calle Sol” came from. It was after a real good bucket of whoop ass we got. It made me think chromatically.


Sxip Shirey on effective experimentalism in music:
If you take a child from the city and show it a horse, that’s an experimental moment, but the child doesn’t go, “Hmm, let me think about the entire history of evolution and how horses came to…”—No. What they do is say, “Oh my God, that’s so huge and frightening and I want to get closer to it.” So I want to create music and art that is totally huge and frightening, but also so delicious and wonderful that it makes you want to be part of it.


Wendy Carlos on the fundamental role of music:
An essential part of music is to connect with our shared inner feelings, to recognize the connections and know that you’re not alone. We’re born alone; we die alone. In between we have music, and a great gift it is, too. It’s in there with our social structures: families and friends and loved ones, a shared humanity. I like to think of it as the old metaphor of two ships at sea. We flash our signal lights as we pass one another. It makes life less lonely. It’s wired into us. If music were taken away from us, I do believe we would invent it again. In a few generations, we would develop it all over again.

2008: NewMusicBox Snapshots—Nine Images for Nine Years

Radical Connections: Elliott Carter and Phil Lesh

Elliott Carter and Phil Lesh

Phil Lesh and Elliott Carter
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

Though you might not ordinarily connect these two composers, there are some surprising musical links between them, supported by a friendship of many years. This conversation between them originally aired on Counterstream Radio in 2008, but you can listen again now.
In The Cut: A Composer’s Guide To The Turntables

Erik Spangler and Du Yun

Erik Spangler and Du Yun
Photo by Molly Sheridan

The DJ may be the custodian of today’s aural history, according to DJ Spooky, but the turntables hadn’t been given much attention in the academy in 2008. Erik Spangler set out to correct that oversight.
A Subtle Analysis of Composer-Performer Resentment
In which Jeremy Denk, on the advice of his therapist, airs his serious grievances and irrational peeves with new music.
Dispatches From the End of the Jazz Wars
White flag behind barbed wire in smoke
Darcy James Argue suggests that perhaps the fissure between neoclassicists and progressives doesn’t seem as pressing when jazz itself is on the ropes—unity in the face of adversity.
Lend Me a Pick Ax: The Slow Dismantling of the Compositional Gender Divide
Women have made tremendous strides toward parity with their male colleagues in the field of composition, but we’re not all the way home just yet. In 2008, Lisa Hirsch took the field’s pulse on this issue.
Crash Course: American Serialism
12 for serialism
Matthew Guerrieri delved into American serialism, exploring the work of a host of composers—Babbitt, Wuorinen, Powell, and more—who set out, by the numbers, to make music modern.
Making an Asset Out of Your eSelf
The references to MySpace and Classical Lounge may now be obsolete, the power of social networks continues to grow and the concepts herein as outlined by composer Alex Shapiro remain relevant and useful.
Picturing Music: The Return of Graphic Notation

Section from Will Redman's Book

Section from Will Redman’s Book

An exploration of unconventional notation as presented in the anthology Notations 21, released in 2008.
Acoustic Ecology and the Experimental Music Tradition

path into the sunset

Photo by Molly Sheridan

Today’s acoustic ecology encompasses a much more expansive domain of intellectual activity than would have ever been claimed by its original practitioners. David Dunn tried to pin down some definitions.
Nine images for nine years, and a video to grow on, as we remember a remarkable colleague we interviewed in 2008 and lost this year.

Additional NewMusicBox @ 15 Posts

2007: Big Ideas In a 140-Character World

What big ideas will you bring to “The Box” over the next 15 years? NewMusicBox thrives because of your support. When you donate, you join many individuals who are committed to the future of composition, improvisation, and conversation about new American music and its creators. Join them and be heard.

NewMusicBox @ 15 logo
In 2007, Apple released the iPhone. Though not the first smartphone in the marketplace, it amplified the radical shift in how many Americans—at least those in certain economic brackets and data service areas—were communicating with one another. Our connection to one another was now so portable, it was effectively a 24/7 lifestyle accessory (or a punishing ankle monitor, depending on your perspective). Yet for all that potential interactivity perhaps no relationship was as strong as the one we each had with the phone itself, and with our own image glimpsed in its finger-smudged glass. Though #selfie was still on its rise to buzzword status, it was a reflective time.

Alongside this product development, there were new and shiny ways to share our inner monologue. Twitter had launched in 2006, but the popularity of sending out 140-character missives really began to build in 2007. So many thoughts, so little time to process them. In honor the information acceleration that marked the year, let’s take a deeper look at just a few mile markers.

NewMusicBox in 2007

NewMusicBox homepage in 2007

1. Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century pushed contemporary classical music into mainstream consciousness, picking up a 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, a New York Times Book Review Top Ten Book of the Year nod, and a spot on Time magazine’s Top Ten Nonfiction Book of 2007 in the process. Ross stopped by our office to chat about the book and let us in on some of the tidbits that ended up on the cutting room floor.

2. Our own Counterstream Radio launched on March 16 with an inaugural program featuring an illuminating conversation between Meredith Monk and Björk, two artists who had long admired each other’s music but had never previously met. The station has been broadcasting a deep catalog of music to an ever-growing audience of music fans ever since.

3. As the water rose on a global financial crisis and the wreckage of a burst housing bubble began floating our way, the economic challenges facing new music were, as per usual, ongoing. We focused in on some big issues: What is the industry cost of a free concert? Will the cost disease of live performance eventually kill it off? With budgets tightening, why rent new music when you can play the old stuff much more cheaply? This might sound like a fairly depressing read, and indeed the discussion does place some hard questions on the table, but the takeaway wasn’t so dark. As Matthew Guerrieri pointed out, “The fact that live performance persists in the face of market pressures speaks to a basic human need that even Adam Smith’s invisible hand can’t slap away.”

4. Our interviews often take “in-depth” to new levels, and in 2007 we dove into the catalogs and personal histories of a number of remarkable people. Wendy Carlos let us into her world for a lengthy and extremely moving conversation about her work, and it remains one of our most popular talks. We did our best to keep pace with the rapid-fire ideas of a then-25-year-old Nico Muhly (and the coffee and conversation kept flowing right through the photo shoot). A few months later, we sat down with Charles Wuorinen and were impressed by the passion and conviction that backed his arguments. Muhly was as well and posted about it. (Things got very meta.) Jennifer Higdon impressed us with her egoless, laid-back practicality, and Ornette Coleman kinda blew our minds with his poetic ideas (not to mention conversation style) as he discussed life, death, and music.

5. The 2007 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music focused on a group of American composers born in 1938 (more or less). In a three-part series (1, 2, 3), Judith Tick walked us through the ties that bind this unique cohort of artists together
Whew, talk about deep thoughts! In between these expansive intellectual excursions, however, we encouraged everyone to remember take care of themselves. Music making is challenging enough without it becoming physically painful. Doping allegations were a dark shadow looming over the athletic world, after all, and it would be a terrible thing if the headlines turned our way next.

2006: Walk Right In, Sit Right Down

NewMusicBox @ 15 logo
A chair is a terrible thing to waste, and in 2006 any and all vacancies were weighing heavily on our minds.

It’s not that we didn’t already know we had an audience problem, but we couldn’t fundamentally agree on what the root cause actually was. Could it be the Monty Python-worthy stagehand sketches being enacted in our concert halls? Would it be best to run away to a more relaxed outdoor venue?
Perhaps an outright ambush was in order.

Venue was a central variable in the new equations, that’s for sure, and long-term solutions meant more than just locating a cooler landlord with a liquor license. Yet setting aside the trappings left even more essential questions on the table. Perhaps we had gotten a little too friendly with our genre neighbors and were diluting the whiskey rather than expanding the guest list. Or maybe we were looking at the wrong urban role models and, with our eyes glued to the shoreline, were missing the inspiration to be found in the Heartland. It was time to play hardball. There were some tough truths to be spoken, but were we ready to hear them?
NewMusicBox homepage 2006
Or maybe this boat had already hit the iceberg and we should just make sure the monks had copies of our scores for safe keeping before our culture went up in flames. And for all those getting judge-y about Pops programs? “Thanks for sending us your fleeing concert hall patrons!” they shouted back. “Your close-mindedness will complete your downfall.”
Admittedly, all this handwringing over ticket sales was a convenient distraction from our more personal career frustrations in an industry where it’s too easy to be almost successful.

Sorry, sorry, I’m getting bleak—and we’re not even close to the economic challenges of 2008 yet! In many ways things were still the same as in years gone by. We were still exploring technology and getting giddy over the advancing opportunities for creative music making. We were still arguing over the continued existence of the Uptown/Downtown divide. We were still struggling to come up with the perfect title.

And on the up side, we were singing our own songs and singing them proudly! (But only once we had legally cleared permission to set the text, of course.) Big bands and small electronics were turning ears and inspiring composers. Keeping things fresh and optimistic, the whippersnappers were reporting in on their first experiences with major orchestras. Colin Holter began graduate school and took us along for the ride. He would write a weekly column for the next six years (right up to his doctoral dissertation defense) and poke sticks into a number of beehives during his tenure, but he would never miss a deadline.
Not. Once.

2005: The Friends and Family Plan

Welcome to day eight of our celebration of [email protected] If everyone who regularly reads NewMusicBox donated just $1 per month we could end this campaign today. Help support the future of in-depth new music journalism by donating today!

NewMusicBox @ 15 logo
If 2004 had a genre-busting vibe, by 2005 we were embracing friends old and new as barriers cleared. And we worked on our relationships: with our colleagues, with our kids. The problem was that the harder we hugged, the more ridiculous settling on a meaningful genre name became.

Not that it was all peace and love just yet. Judgments were made about music and meaning and history, and we questioned those doing the judging. And then we questioned those who questioned those doing the judging. It was a somewhat confusing time, but rather than take our concerns to a psychologist, we tried visiting a psychic.

We also questioned our elders with adolescent conviction. We wrestled with Cage like we wrestled with our dad. We questioned taking tuition from so many would-be composers if there would never be enough jobs for them. We looked at the music we studied in the academy and found that the frame needed some adjustment.

Not to be left out, Frank J. Oteri and I interrogated each other. Once we launched a redesigned version of the site on our 6th anniversary, we had a little fun publicly debating our previously in-house-only arguments. Like any family, we continue to have these perennial disagreements—over everything from the value of negative criticism to the necessity of the Oxford comma. But ultimately, we are a team—which has translated into countless moments of shared high comedy and nail-biting anxiety (often simultaneously). For instance, when Frank got stuck in some epic traffic that year while trying to get back from a sneak premiere of Joan Tower’s Made in America, I headed uptown to cover his interview with Brian Ferneyhough with zero preparation aside from the list of questions Frank had relayed over the phone. Mr. Ferneyhough was incredibly gracious and understanding of the situation, and I remain grateful for his patience and generosity that day. Despite my trepidation, we ended up having a really great conversation! An education about music from the creators themselves—there’s really not a more illuminating path to take.
NMBx redesign 2.0
For all I learned that day, there were actually quite a few bits of advice and guidance on offer that year. In a time before Kickstarter, you used to have to do all the heavy lifting on individual fundraising campaigns yourself. And if you didn’t have your own lawyer on retainer, sometimes you had to tighten your tie, lint-roll your jacket, and play that role as well.
But it wasn’t all about administration, of course. That was just to keep fuel in the artistic engine and the lights on in the studio where experiments with extended techniques and microtonality could happen. There was advice on how to work well with a record producer and a look inside how our ears were working with our brains. Honestly, though, I might have gotten the most caught up contemplating the accordion’s various reed ranks and tone colors—fascinating stuff and I do not even play the accordion…yet.
And though it might seem as if all that technological excitement of 2004 fell off the radar, the questions at the intersection of music and digital delivery were actually getting much more complex as the novelty of what we could do careened into what music was worth and how we were going to pay for it.
On a personal note, The Friday Informer, a column I wrote highlighting the best of the new music internet, kicked off on September 30 that year. I would regularly spend my Thursday evenings with 60-some browser tabs open until May 2008, by which point social media made my delayed weekly endcap obsolete.

Viewing Party: An Artist Profile Highlight Reel

With all the serious reflection that’s been going on around here of late, it seemed like it was time to pop some popcorn and re-watch a few of the mini artist documentaries NewMusicBox has produced. Since we started uploading to Vimeo in 2011, these have been some of your favorites.

Want to keep watching? Browse the full collection here.

Behind these videos are hours and hours of interview footage which was transcribed and published on the pages of NewMusicBox. Nowhere else on the internet will you find this level of in-depth journalism covering the field of new American music. Help us continue this work by making a gift to celebrate 15 years of NewMusicBox today!

2004: Keys to the Kingdom

NewMusicBox @ 15 logo
Sure, Mark Zuckerberg and pals launched Facebook in 2004, but NewMusicBox was already cruising into its 5th anniversary by that point. For the traditionalists in the house, the appropriate gift is wood, which we needed because the year was rife with arguments over fences. That’s right—I’m talking about of the blurring of genre lines.

The launch of New Amsterdam Records was still four years off, but the chatter surrounding this muddying of artistic indicators had already turned our heads. Of course this wasn’t exactly an original concept way back in 2004 either, but technology and easily accessible programs such as GarageBand were changing the landscape. With the broader availability of basic tools, gates were opening and an increasing number of music makers were walking through. Could the cost of and aptitude for lengthy training (which limited participation in certain kinds of music making) be circumvented, or at least mitigated, by software? This seemed to get everyone thinking.

NewMusicBox in 2004

NewMusicBox in 2004, back when we still posted “issues.” This one covered the ethics of borrowed materials.

We here at NewMusicBox were certainly thinking about the opportunities that rapidly developing tech and web interconnectivity offered. When the site launched in 1999, it was meant to serve as a national gathering place and resource for an industry often siloed in discrete geographic pockets. It might be difficult to rewind to a time when personal music blogs were still considered “experimental” now that we’re ankle deep into a discussion of their decline, but there was an energy and excitement to these new and strengthening virtual relationships. Though this was also the year that the performing arts pooled their knowledge under a single convention center roof in Pittsburgh for some real-world problem solving, music makers and fans were sharing their sounds and ideas with one another regardless of zip code in ever-growing numbers—fueled by passion and linked by an internet connection.

Paul Moravec and Fran Richard

2004 Pulizer Prize-winner Paul Moravec greets ASCAP’s Vice President & Director of Concert Music Fran Richard at the American Music Center’s annual meeting. The joy captured in this picture sticks with me even a decade later.

The field may have drawn some strength from this increasingly connected community of colleagues, but there were still lines in the sand—even if the winds of change were making them harder to see. There was an appreciation by an impressive list of thinkers for music that was personally important to them even though it remained professionally “other.” There were those ready to pull down the barriers between pop and classical, but there were still those defending the disappearing divider. For those so up-close-and-personal with the music that it was difficult to label anything accurately, there were guidelines for that. Still, whether we liked it or not, the music seemed to be telling us that the new common practice was no common practice at all. Even the Pulitzer Prize board admitted that it was time to make some adjustments. There were rules, and they were being torn up and rearranged in the quest for new music. But if we were expecting pop music to enter the new music arena and save our industry from obsolescence, we were strongly advised not to hold our breath.