Author: Multiple Authors

The Art of Being True: Remembering Philly Joe & Your Backstory Is the Real Story

[Ed. Note: Beginning on April 30 and continuing on consecutive Fridays until the next round of concerts of M³ (Mutual Mentorship for Musicians) taking place on June 12 and 13, 2021 under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum (and which have received funding from New Music USA), NewMusicBox is publishing excerpts from each of the 12 M³ participants’ contributions to a debut anthology of writings (poetry, essays, and more) edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth, entitled The Art of Being True, which are published in their entirety on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. Back in December, in support of M³’s debut concerts, which were also presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. The first set of excerpts published on April 30 are available are still available, as are the second set published on May 7 and the third installment published last week, but to read all these writings in their entirety, please visit the dedicated portal for the anthology on Publik/Private. – FJO]


Sumi Tonooka holding her left hand above her left eye in a salute or viewing pose and holding her right hand in front of her chin.

Sumi Tonooka

From Sumi Tonooka’s essay “Remembering Philly Joe”

My first road trip with Philly Joe Jones was a weekend gig in Washington DC. It was 1975. I was nineteen years old and he was in his mid-fifties. My mother was not happy about my taking this gig and very wary of him, and that’s putting it politely. Philly Joe Jones was the last band leader that any parent would want to see their teenage daughter go out on the road with! My mother did not trust him. She was aware of his drug use and the many notorious stories, some of which are legend. During this period, he was not at his peak of hard drug usage, thanks to the influence of his wife, Eloise, who helped him transition off of heroin. He was still a heavy drinker though and a user of multiple substances at once.


en Shyu (Photo by Wolf Daniel, courtesy of Roulette Intermedium)

Jen Shyu playing a moon lute (Photo by Wolf Daniel, courtesy of Roulette Intermedium)

From Jen Shyu’s essay “Zero Grasses and Fertility: Your Backstory Is the Real Story”

Don’t wait for your “clock” to start ticking. You might not hear it. From ages 33 to 37, I lived in Indonesia, Korea, and Timor-Leste, also traveling to Malaysia and Vietnam, except for three or four short visits to see my parents in Texas and to see my then-partner in NYC. People would always ask me in the places I lived whether I was married and had kids. My parents also wondered if I’d ever “settle down,” but I assured them that my partner and I would eventually marry. When I returned to NYC, I reunited with my partner, and though we lived separately, we readjusted to life after a bumpy long-distance road. I was waiting for my biological clock to kick in and tell me that I was ready to have kids. Perhaps because I had been putting so much creative energy into birthing my artistic work and research projects, I never felt this physical “urge” for kids. I wish I hadn’t waited for this “feeling” to just appear in my body.

The Art of Being True: Aretes of the New Cyrene & Reminder to Self

[Ed. Note: Beginning on April 30 and continuing on consecutive Fridays until the next round of concerts of M³ (Mutual Mentorship for Musicians) taking place on June 12 and 13, 2021 under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum (and which have received funding from New Music USA), NewMusicBox is publishing excerpts from each of the 12 M³ participants’ contributions to a debut anthology of writings (poetry, essays, and more) edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth, entitled The Art of Being True, which are published in their entirety on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. Back in December, in support of M³’s debut concerts, which were also presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. The first set of excerpts published on April 30 are available here and the second set published last Friday are available here, but to read all these writings in their entirety, please visit the dedicated portal for the anthology on Publik/Private. – FJO]


Abstract image made from various fragments of altered photographs

Photo Courtesy of Caroline Davis

From Caroline Davis’s poem ‘Aretes of the New Cyrene’

Eyes open / examining phonics, texture, phraseology of binding wounds.
Do we heal the injuries / is ours an iterative loop / or are we.
I / your lack of femininity might be addressed with a dress.
And I / you will have few roadblocks in your career due to re:dress.
And so I / I took the liberty of shaping your hips in the final edits.
Oh.


Maya Keren standing outside in front of various buildings holding a cellphone (Photo by Zora Arum)

Maya Keren (Photo by Zora Arum)

From Maya Keren’s essay ‘Reminder to Self’

In what I imagine is a common experience for many throughout this pandemic, I feel I have lost sight of my power: my sense of inner assurance; my direction; my fire. These past couple months have felt especially hard. Maybe it’s that I’m only socializing with the few people I live with in my Covid bubble as I finish up a semester of Zoom classes. Maybe it’s that I haven’t felt that rush that comes with playing and listening to live music in too many months. I’m realizing my well-being relies on a communal web far more expansive than I ever imagined. I’m familiar with the amounts of time I need with close friends and by myself, but maybe I need the embarrassed thrill of meeting new people; the same conversation with that one friend I had class with every Wednesday; the hellos and nods and gossip and flirtation and animosity. All these invisible threads holding us in silent trembling equilibrium.

The Art of Being True: Sonic Creation & Motherhood in Music

[Ed. Note: Last week, the debut anthology of writings (poetry, essays, and more) by the 12 participants in M³ (Mutual Mentorship for Musicians), edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth, entitled The Art of Being True, was published on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. Back in December, in support of M³’s debut concerts, which were presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. Beginning last week and continuing until M³’s next round of concerts on June 12 and 13, 2021 (again under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum), which has received funding from New Music USA, we are publishing excerpts from each of the 12 participants’ contributions to the anthology, 2 per week, on Fridays. Last week’s excerpts are available here, but to read all these writings in their entirety, please visit the dedicated portal for the anthology on Publik/Private. – FJO]


Erica Lindsay holding her saxophone (Photo by Jean M. Laffitau)

Erica Lindsay (Photo by Jean M. Laffitau)

From Erica Lindsay’s essay Sonic Creation

To express what is beyond your own understanding, or your control, is the destination. To achieve the heights of thought-free expression, to trust in something beyond – to be concerned only with staying in vibration with a higher frequency that speaks a truth inside you personally and viscerally – that is your only responsibility. Having ideas about yourself, or concepts about your musical expression has its place, but the “I” that thinks these ideas will not tune you into the vibration of Source that you are seeking.


Sara Serpa photo with an overlay of a patch of green (Photo by Carolina Saez)

Sara Serpa (Photo by Carolina Saez)

From Sara Serpa’s essay Motherhood in Music in 10 Steps

Most of the music clubs, venues and concert halls don’t allow children. I once had a musician telling me that I couldn’t bring my baby to a concert because “this scene is not for babies”. I absorbed that quietly, feeling embarrassed for even asking. Most artistic residencies for musicians refuse families and children, with only 10% of artistic residencies in the US being family-friendly. Most grants for musicians do not consider or offer childcare support. I have never seen a children’s room in a performing space. Very few music festivals, studios, or educational institutions have childcare facilities. In general, it is the mother musician who is expected to be flexible and accommodating and not the institutions.

The Art of Being True: To Speak in Memory & The Sun Itself

[Ed. Note: Back in December, in support of their debut concerts of Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (a.k.a. M³), which were presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. The next round of M³ collaborations, which has received funding from New Music USA, will take place June 12 and 13, 2021 (again under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum). In addition, today, M³ has released an anthology of writings (poetry, essays, and more) by each of the participants, edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth, entitled The Art of Being True, on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. To celebrate this publication and in anticipation of the upcoming concerts, we will be publishing excerpts from each of the 12 participants’ contributions to the anthology, 2 per week, every Friday between now and June 12. To read these writings in their entirety, please visit the dedicated portal for the anthology on Publik/Private. – FJO]


A few of water to the horizon and an overcast sky.

Photo by Eden Girma (courtesy Eden Girma)

From Eden Girma’s poem “To speak in memory”

I call upon an ancient conversation, of blues in the horizon,
sacred arcs that line an engine’s shape
with dew, with moving water,
to lift us beyond joy or sorrow.

In life, in death,
reality, imagination.
In tapestries that float above

as knitted by our fathers – fathers, known by quiet names,
loving through a softer power,
strings of heaven woven into brutal, mortal earth.


Anjna Swaminatha walking in the water on a beach.

Anjna_Swaminatha (photo courtesy Anjna_Swaminatha)

From Anjna Swaminathan’s essay, “The Sun Itself: Expanding my Horizons as a Queer Multidisciplinary Being”

My abundance lives in intergalactic melodies sung into a frying pan sizzling with shallots, cumin seeds, cloves and bay leaves. It lives in the precarious watering schedule of my 27 plants and their alliterating names (Parachute, Parvati, Pankajam, Pita and so on). It lives in the laughter that echoes through the walls of my fiancée’s and my rainbow-colored apartment. My abundance cannot live on a page (or worse on computer software with poorly produced midi) because it was born from something far less tangible, yet far more intrinsic. It was born in the whisper of crisp winter winds coming into one ear and endless poems and songs flowing out of the other. How can I possibly bastardize this oh so divine and human abundance by fixing it onto a page?

Composer Commission Pay in the United States

A chart showing the range of composer commissioning fees.

By David E. Farrell and Loretta K. Notareschi

This article is an introduction to a research report on the Composer Commission Pay Survey conducted in Fall 2019 by David E. Farrell and Loretta K. Notareschi. To read the complete report, visit www.composerpaysurvey.com.

How much should composers get paid for commissions?

This is a question most composers have. As composers ourselves, we recently set out to find the answer. We were motivated not only by our curiosity, but also by our desire to know what is fair and equitable. When approached by an individual or ensemble for a commission, we have had a perplexing variety of experiences. Everything from being told, “I will pay whatever you charge” to “We know this isn’t enough, but here’s what’s possible in our budget.” We have been paid on occasion what seemed like a generous amount; we have also done work for no financial compensation at all.

Informal discussions about commission fees with fellow composers did not help broaden our understanding. These conversations were frequently beset with embarrassment, defensiveness, and long-winded explanations of why the composers accepted fees that did not match their expectations. This kind of dialogue was, however, preferable to another common response: silence and unwillingness to mention numbers. Different as they may be, both reactions gave the same impression: composers were unsure what a fair commission fee would be. They didn’t know how much to ask for.

Some composers wonder why they’re not being paid more. Some are surprised by the amounts they have been paid.

The reality is that many questions surround composer pay. Some people wonder why they’re not being paid more. Some people are surprised by the amounts they have been paid. Some people worry they should have gotten more, but weren’t bold enough to ask for it. Some composers get asked to name their number. Others are told, “this is the budget.” Some of us are making a living from our commissions. Some of us have other jobs that help pay the bills. Many of us are jealous of people who do something different than we do and whom, we suspect, are getting paid more. The questions, to put it bluntly, are fraught.

How do people in other professions deal with such consternation? They look to labor statistics. We consulted several resources in our research looking for such statistics. The “Commissioning Fees Calculator” on NewMusicBox is a well-known resource that suggests fees for composers. But the origin of these numbers is unclear, and anecdotal experience points to them being higher than what many people actually encounter. The American Composers Forum gives some numbers in their “Commissioning by Individuals” guide, but the numbers vary widely and are again not sourced. The US government collects pay data for many professions, but the category in which composers are included also includes many other kinds of musicians, making the data not helpful in answering our question. Joan Jeffri’s Taking Note: A Study of Composers and New Music Activity in the U.S. is a 2008 study including data on  composer income. While it gives good numbers about overall income, its broad numbers didn’t give us the answers we wanted about individual commission fees. Sound and Music in the United Kingdom in collaboration with the Australian Music Centre presented a model we found most useful–their 2015 Composer Commissioning Survey Report asked about individual commission fees and primarily reported on those in the U.K. and Australia. Finally, in late 2020, we learned about another U.S. commission pay survey, conducted by Fahad Siadat. Dr. Siadat’s report is forthcoming, and we are interested to see its results.

Considering how much composers should be paid is even more difficult if we don’t know what composers are being paid.

After considering this existing body of work, we found ourselves with more questions. Considering how much composers should be paid is even more difficult if we don’t know what composers are being paid. Thus, we decided to create a survey to ask composers to name their commission fees.  We focused on what we most wanted to know: How much do composers get paid for commissions? What are the musical characteristics, including instrumentation, genre, and duration, of commissions of different amounts? What are the demographic characteristics, such as career stage, gender, race/ethnicity, religion, etc., of highly-paid, modestly-paid, and unpaid composers? Then we developed a series of detailed questions for the survey regarding these topics and others. We chose to survey composers whose commissions resulted in concert performances of live music, and we also chose to focus on commission income only. In fall 2019, we launched the survey and received data from over 200 composers, reflecting information on 871 commissions from 2017 and 2018.

  • Some composers wonder why they’re not being paid more. Some are surprised by the amounts they have been paid.

    David E. Farrell & Loretta K. Notareschi
  • Considering how much composers should be paid is even more difficult if we don’t know what composers are being paid.

    David E. Farrell & Loretta K. Notareschi
  • In general, larger ensembles paid at a higher rate than solo works or small ensembles

    David E. Farrell & Loretta K. Notareschi
  • Greater experience was generally reflected in higher commission fees.

    David E. Farrell & Loretta K. Notareschi
  • The results and conclusions of the Composer Commission Pay Survey should not be considered comprehensive nor final.

    David E. Farrell & Loretta K. Notareschi
  • Many professional composers, at all levels of experience, take a mix of paid and unpaid commissions.

    David E. Farrell & Loretta K. Notareschi
  • We look forward to a time when discussions about money among new music constituents are not beset with shame, fear, or silence.

    David E. Farrell & Loretta K. Notareschi

Commission Pay, Genre, and Instrumentation

Our first question was the simplest–how much did composers get paid for commissions in 2017-2018? The range of responses went from nothing–37% of the 871 commissions reported on were done for no fee–to an opera commission for $300,000, an impressive outlier from our dataset. The median commission fee of $1,500 ($150 per minute) best represents “central tendency” (a statistics term meaning the center of a dataset) from the data collected. The chart in Figure 1 excludes the $300,000 outlier and the unpaid commissions to show how fees were spread across various commissions.

Fig. 1

A chart showing the range of composer commissioning fees.

While commission activity was clustered below $5,000, there were a good number of fees above that. A similar diagram (Fig. 2) shows commission fees at and below $9,000, excluding a large number of outliers (as defined by the interquartile method) and focusing on the area where most fees exist.

Fig. 2

A chart showing commissioning fees at or below $9000.

While the overall median gives a good sense of the big picture, we can look at instrumentation and genre to get a sense of how these affect commission fees as well. As can be seen in Figure 3 our responses were heavily weighted towards classical works, but the instrumentations varied widely.

Fig. 3

Figure 4 shows a comparative chart of median fees, both per commission and per minute of music, along with the percentage of paid commissions for each instrumentation type. The “n” value is the number of components in a dataset. In this chart and others shown below, the per-commission and per-minute medians leave out unpaid commissions, thus the “n” values are different there than for the percentage of paid commissions.

Fig. 4 Median Fees and Percentage of Paid Commissions by Instrumentation

Soloist with Large Ensemble$2,750.00$171.81493%15

Per Commission Fee Per Minute Fee N Percentage Paid N
Full Data Set Medians $1,500 $150 533 63% 871
Instrumentations
Solo $1,000.00 $100.00 128 52% 254
Trio/Quartet $1,000.00 $100.00 65 53% 125
Ensemble of 5-9 $1,500.00 $133.33 82 58% 141
Chamber Chorus (10-22) $500.00 $125.00 31 76% 41
Small Wind or Jazz Band (10-22) $375.00 $73.80 10 56% 18
Chamber Orchestra (10-22) $2,500.00 $142.86 17 50% 34
Chorus (over 22) $3,100.00 $612.50 80 87% 92
String Orchestra (over 22) $300.00 $75.00 5 86% 7
Wind Band (over 22) $3,500.00 $427.50 30 77% 39
Full Orchestra (over 22) $5,000.00 $375.00 31 74% 46
Full Orchestra with Chorus $7,000.00 $424.84 10 80% 15
Other $2,000.00 $147.45 30 73% 44

In general, larger ensembles received paid commissions at a higher rate than solo works or small ensembles, and those commissions tended to be for larger amounts. Interestingly, the highest paid instrumentation per minute of music was large chorus. Large choruses were also the second most likely to pay their composers, with a paid rate of 87% (higher than large chorus was the instrumentation of soloist + large ensemble, at 93%).

In general, larger ensembles paid at a higher rate than solo works or small ensembles

.

Composer Characteristics

Besides information on their compositions, we also queried the composers in our study about their personal characteristics, such as career stage, gender, race/ethnicity, religion, etc. We used a range of questions to ascertain the career stage of our respondents (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5

We can see the correlation of career stage and commission income data in Figure 6. The n values here are the number of people in each category.

Fig. 6 Career Stage and Commission Income

Total Fees Per Commission Fee Per Minute Fee N Number of Commissions Percentage Commissions Paid N
Full Data Set Medians $3,000 $1,500 $150 179 4 66% 240
Most advanced music degree
None $19,200.00 $2,284.44 $341.54 6 3 66% 9
Associate’s $1,100.00 $550.00 $15.88 1 5 40% 1
Bachelor’s $1,070.00 $750.00 $83.33 17 2 66% 23
Master’s $2,000.00 $587.50 $75.83 41 3 70% 47
Artist’s Diploma $14,000.00 $2,500.00 $226.90 2 8 65% 2
Doctoral $4,000.00 $1,708.33 $200.00 105 3 66% 127
Date of most recent music degree
2010-19 $2,500.00 $925.00 $100.00 87 4 66% 103
2000-2009 $2,550.00 $1,500.00 $102.98 32 2 75% 35
1990-1999 $4,500.00 $2,125.00 $190.28 23 3 50% 31
1980-1989 $9,500.00 $3,000.00 $242.13 17 2 50% 25
pre 1980 $4,250.00 $1,541.67 $369.05 8 2 100% 10
Date of first commission income
2010-19 $1,900.00 $750.00 $83.33 71 4 56% 84
2000-2009 $3,700.00 $1,500.00 $226.43 45 3 80% 49
1990-1999 $3,250.00 $1,604.17 $193.75 28 3 66% 38
1980-1989 $7,750.00 $2,958.33 $204.47 18 2 50% 21
pre 1980 $30,250.00 $5,756.94 $572.92 10 3.5 100% 11
Percentage of successive years with commission income
0 – 25 percent $1,000.00 $500.00 $65.70 49 2 40% 77
25 – 50 percent $2,500.00 $1,250.00 $118.16 39 2 65% 44
50 – 75 percent $3,350.00 $1,500.00 $127.78 29 3 66% 31
75 – 100 percent $12,750.00 $2,916.67 $264.14 55 5 100% 57

 

Across measurements, greater experience was generally reflected in higher commission fees.

Greater experience was generally reflected in higher commission fees.

We also asked our survey respondents for data about their demographic identities. The pie charts in Figure 7 show the breakdowns in gender, sexual orientation, age, region, population, religion, and race/ethnicity. The regional areas are defined by the U.S. Census.

Fig. 7

The respondents to our survey tended to be white, heterosexual males from large home communities. Age, religion, and region of residence varied more widely among our respondents. We considered fee information from all these demographic categories; selected results are presented in Figures 8 and 9. The n values are, again, the number of people in each category.

 

Fig. 8 Selected Demographic Data and Commission Income

Total Fees Per Commission Fee Per Minute Fee N Number of Commissions Percentage of Commissions Paid N
Full Data Set Medians $3,000 $1,500 $150 179 4 66% 240
Gender
Male $2,900 $1,300.00 $113.64 115 3 65% 142
Female $3,700 $1,500.00 $170.83 53 4 78% 60
Sexual Orientation
Heterosexual $3,350 $1,460.00 $139.27 129 3 66% 159
Non-Heterosexual $2,700 $1,200.00 $100.00 41 4 66% 46
Age
18 – 29 $1,200 $470.08 $63.15 28 3 54% 32
30 – 39 $3,850 $1,460.00 $139.27 53 4 80% 61
40 – 49 $1,500 $1,000.00 $105.95 37 3 66% 41
50 -59 $3,750 $1,854.17 $195.14 24 3 50% 32
60+ $7,000 $2,916.67 $303.03 29 2 58% 40
Religion
Agnostic/Atheist/
Non-Religious
$4,500 $2,062.50 $192.55 94 3 80% 109
Bahai $666 $333.00 $30.27 1 3 66% 1
Buddhist $2,850 $1,200.00 $102.98 4 2 100% 5
Catholic $2,385 $764.29 $144.67 8 2 45% 12
Christian (not catholic) $1,500 $690.00 $78.33 38 3 55% 47
Jewish $3,000 $1,500.00 $190.28 17 4 80% 21
Other $16,450 $1,916.67 $431.02 2 5.5 75% 2
Prefer not to answer $2,000 $1,000.00 $96.43 19 3 66% 23
Race / ethnicity
White Non Hispanic $3,000 $1,300.00 $121.62 151 3 66% 182
Non-White $3,000 $900.00 $105.95 23 3.5 66% 28

 

Fig. 9 Selected Geographical Data and Commission Income

Total Fees Per Commission Fee Per Minute Fee N Number of Commissions Percentage of Commissions Paid N
Full Data Set Medians $3,000 $1,500 $150 179 4 66% 240
Size of home community
More than 50000 $3,450 $1,500.00 $128.46 126 3 66% 155
2500 – 50000 $1,330 $1,000.00 $107.14 43 3 66% 49
Region
Pacific West $5,750 $2,583.33 $217.11 26 4 67% 32
Mountain West $2,550 $725.00 $75.00 22 3 70% 24
West North Central $2,850 $1,350.00 $127.78 13 3 65% 15
West South Central $1,350 $875.00 $79.17 12 2 68% 15
East North Central $2,500 $1,250.00 $100.00 29 3 59% 34
East South Central $8,650 $2,912.50 $318.40 2 4 83% 2
South Atlantic $2,150 $879.17 $97.40 20 4 49% 27
Middle Atlantic $3,500 $1,500.00 $196.21 34 3 72% 38
New England $3,500 $1,250.00 $198.41 17 3 45% 24

 

Who gets paid the most?

We wanted to know more about our outliers–the composers who received the largest commissions. We used a common test–the interquartile range method–to determine what commissions were outliers, and then we looked at the demographic information of the 30 composers who received these commissions. In many ways they were similar to our entire dataset, but some qualities stood out. “High earners” are more likely to have composition agents representing them. They were more likely to be over 60 years of age, or to be in their 30s. They were more likely to live in the Pacific West region. And they were much more likely to be regularly commissioned. Figure 10 shows data from the group of high earners.

Fig. 10 High Earner Characteristics

Conclusions

The major conclusions we were able to draw from our study are as follows:

  • The median commission fee for all compositions was $1500, or $150 per minute.
  • While commission fees were generally under $10,000, there was a sizable portion of outliers – around 11 percent of works – whose fees were between $10,000 and $50,000, or sometimes even greater.
  • Commissions for small groups or soloists were more likely to be unpaid, or for small fees. Commissions for large ensembles were more likely to be paid, and to command larger fees. Most outlier fees were for large ensemble commissions. The best paying large ensemble was the large choir.
  • Composers with more experience tended to receive higher fees.
  • Without taking into consideration factors such as experience level, female composers had a higher per-minute pay rate than males, and white composers had a higher per minute pay than non-white composers (as a group).

 

More data is needed.

The results and conclusions of the Composer Commission Pay Survey should not be considered comprehensive nor final.

The results and conclusions of the Composer Commission Pay Survey should not be considered comprehensive nor final. While over 400 composers began our survey, just over 200 completed it, and they presented information on 871 commissions that occurred within 2017-2018. This is just a snapshot of data over a limited period of time. Regular surveys of commission pay would provide a clearer picture of the economic situation for today’s composer. Further research, supported by composer advocacy groups and professional organizations, is necessary to obtain data that will empower composers in making informed professional decisions.

 

More sophisticated analysis of data is needed.

Beyond more data collection, we would also like to invite future researchers to collaborate with us to conduct more sophisticated statistical analyses of the data from this study. It is important to note that when looking at the “conclusions” that women are paid more than men and whites more than non-whites, we have not yet answered questions that would consider data variables in combination and find out what the factors are that may contribute to these pay anomalies. For example, we don’t know if the women or white people in our sample were more likely to have higher degrees, or more years of experience, or some combination of factors that would have made their higher pay unexceptional; or, controlling for all these factors, whether their higher pay was indeed unaccounted for by anything other than gender or race.

 

More research on unpaid commissions is needed.

After launching our survey, we heard from one successful composer who refused to participate because we decided to include unpaid commissions. This composer insisted that “in the real world,” professional composers never take unpaid commissions. We disagree, having found in our survey (and in our own lived experiences), that many professional composers, at all levels of experience, take a mix of paid and unpaid commissions. We should not ignore this reality of many in our field.

Many professional composers, at all levels of experience, take a mix of paid and unpaid commissions.

37% of the 871 commissions in our survey were unpaid. Around half of all chamber music was unpaid. These are significant numbers. What factors influence this reality? How can the new music community do better in compensating all composers? These are important questions.

 

Conversation about pay should be normalized.

Finally, our call for action is for members of our profession–composers, performers, and commissioners–to talk about the economic issues raised by our study. The recent trend toward open discussion of pay needs to come to the field of composition, too. We look forward to a time when discussions about money among new music constituents are not beset with shame, fear, or silence. We want to empower composers and commissioners to have frank conversations about what pay is fair. To do so would shed light on a difficult topic and free us all to work toward improving the new music economy.

We look forward to a time when discussions about money among new music constituents are not beset with shame, fear, or silence.

For a more comprehensive look at the Composer Commission Pay Survey, its methods, limitations, results, and conclusions, we invite readers to visit www.composerpaysurvey.com to read our complete research report (complete with footnotes!). We also welcome correspondence at [email protected] and [email protected]

The Composer Commission Pay Survey was planned, created, and reported on with the help of many individuals, whose assistance we gratefully acknowledge here. For help in envisioning and designing the survey, we thank Ed Harsh, Frank J. Oteri, Scott Winship, Alex Shapiro, Jazmin Muro, Christopher Roberts, Kala Pierson, and Iddo Aharony. For help with analysis, we thank Tim Trenary, Kristofor Voss, and Kris Nadler Dean. For help with editing the final report, we thank Natalie Kirschstein, Carla Aguilar, Kevin Garlow, and John Pippen. Finally, we thank all of the respondents to the survey for their generous time in recording responses.”

Remember the Uncomplicated Joy

A fisheye lens photo of Methods Body (John Niekrasz on drumset and Luke Wyland on electric keyboard) performing in a cabin.

By John Niekrasz & Luke Wyland (a.k.a. Methods Body)

This is a weird year to drop a debut record. We live in Portland, Oregon, a city that has seen more than its share of upheaval lately. In January, after three years of composing and recording, we’d found great label support, honed our live set, ordered vinyl, and booked tours. Then, our record announcement fell on the same day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Two months later, the record was released just days before George Floyd’s murder. We wept for the world as we went through the motions working on promo and music videos, and the world showed us growing fascism, worst-ever wildfires, and forced sterilizations of the most vulnerable people. Every week of 2020 has shown us something far more important, far more worthy of attention than a record of new music by two white men.

We’ve had the rare fortune of being able to put our most precious energies into our art for decades. We’re lifers. We always thought this in itself was a radical practice: fighting for a life outside of the accumulation of capital, spending our efforts building a community for the arts, and trying to share with our friends and audiences a sense of hope, joy, and inspiration, or offering a new definition of beauty that’s lightyears away from the Gucci-Kardashian-Bugatti-sphere.

But it’s not enough. The same hard questions we asked ourselves after the 2016 election have come roaring back with renewed relevance and force. Are we doing any good? Why should niche art music based on microtones and polyrhythms be important? Should we be taking up any space at all?

  • Why should niche art music based on microtones and polyrhythms be important? Should we be taking up any space at all?

    Methods Body (John Niekrasz & Luke Wyland)
  • Our entire “industry” has essentially disappeared.

    Methods Body (John Niekrasz & Luke Wyland)
  • Art will adapt and go on in new and unpredictable ways.

    Methods Body (John Niekrasz & Luke Wyland)

This year, Portland has been locked down with protest curfews and insane wildfire smoke. One of our housemates was injured by illegally deployed police impact munitions. We had friends of Color buying bulletproof armor or not leaving their homes out of fear of attacks by Proud Boys. And these immediate threats piled on top of our perennial concern: will the American West, and, really, much of the world, continue to be habitable under this kind of worsening climate damage?

We’re learning a lot from our partners and friends. We have it pretty good and so we have a responsibility to re-educate ourselves around justice, mutual aid, and proper communication. We’re supporting our friends in the streets, we’re giving money to liberatory causes, trying to center others’ voices. And, of course, we’re heartbroken. We’ve lost our own lifeblood. We’re not doing the thing we love and have built our lives around: we’re not performing.

Methods Body (Luke Wyland on electric keyboard, left, and John Niekrasz on drumset, right) performing in front of rows of ceiling to floor bookshelves

Methods Body performing in a bookstore (Photo by Jacob Heule)

Our entire “industry” has essentially disappeared. The downtown venue where we first met and played together in 2007 announced it will not reopen. The same goes for our favorite DIY neighborhood spot that has been hosting challenging music for years. How many brilliant ensembles will fold? How many artists are giving up on their dreams this very moment?

The impetus to get to work on our next record is still here, if muddied. We’re both noticing that our expectations for our music have changed drastically. The music we were making even eight months ago feels suspect. Something different is required now. We’ve had the privilege of being together, taking refuge in our instruments, playing and chasing our weaknesses. Trying to remember the uncomplicated joy of just spending time at an instrument. Fighting to feel like it can matter. We find solace in hearing from other musicians who are forging ahead with hope: Ed Rodriguez, Amirtha Kidambi, Holland Andrews, Chris Williams, and many others.

After the last inauguration, John did some speculative fiction about a future in which we might need to assemble resistance cells to oppose fascism. The music in Claimed Events Pt. 2, Overheard is built upon a bit of that writing:

My friends, however, claimed events would identify them, but to
overhear and accept only one month to prepare us in a very
small room with rubble in one corner

John plays the rhythm and melody of this phrase in a drum ostinato that is eventually taken up by the vocals of Holland Andrews. Luke and Holland improvise over this structure.

One of our collaborators, UVA art professor Lydia Moyer, shot some tests for a dance-theater project inspired by images of Civil War battle smoke. Moyer sent us some complex, smoke-choked imagery and the resonances with our present reality were breathtaking—civil war seems, again, a distinct and terrifying possibility; the US has deployed more toxic gas against its own citizens during a respiratory pandemic than in all the years since Vietnam; COVID is out of control. When Moyer and Leeri synched their imagery to a track on our debut, Claimed Events Pt. 2, Overheard, the result was harrowing and beautiful.

Of course, art will adapt and go on in new and unpredictable ways. Poets and musicians here have been supporting the Black Lives Matter protests by performing in the streets. The Fixin’ To, a local venue that’s been shuttered for months, is experimenting with limited capacity patio shows, so we gave an outdoor performance for a few physically distanced (and chilly!) friends this month. We’re starting work on our next record. And we will rise up with others to ensure the voice of the compassionate majority is heard.

Methods Body (Luke Wyland on electric keyboard, left, and John Niekrasz on drumset, right) performing in a dimly lit club

Photo by Taylor Ross

The Big Pivot: Moving Urban Birds from the Park to the Internet

Two little girls seated at an outside table watching someone play cello on a smartphone.

By Jennifer Bewerse & Cassia Streb

The story is one we all know. In March of 2020 Synchromy was busy planning their Urban Birds concert when safer-at-home ordinances shut down all public events in Los Angeles. Urban Birds faced either cancellation or becoming one of the hundreds of livestream concerts flooding the internet. Synchromy had partnered with concert design team Middle Ear Project, and together, they were inspired to rethink the Urban Birds concert so that it could still be an original and engaging experience. Necessity led to inspiration.

The term “concert design” is fairly new to the classical music scene, but many of us might recognize it at work in our favorite concerts. At its core, concert design is the craft of unifying the elements of a concert into a meaningful whole. Venue, repertoire, dress, lights, all of these choices are musical choices in concert design by approaching the entire concert framework as an artistic medium.

Back to Urban Birds… When we (Middle Ear Project) began working with Synchromy in early March, they had already commissioned composers, hired performers, partnered with an outdoor venue (Debs Park, LA’s Audubon Center), and had crafted a theme of musically representing the park’s native birds. Even with all of these elements in place, they still had some specific concerns: How could they motivate people to move around the space? Why should audiences listen to short bird pieces? How could they make the event family friendly, but also enjoyable for experienced concertgoers? Middle Ear Project set out to connect the dots.

We would design the audience’s movement as musical bird watching, which would give listeners a frame of reference for moving around the space and a drive to hear as many of the short pieces as possible. We created a field guide that would act as a program, showing audience members which bird compositions they could look for. The guide would also have space for drawing or writing reflections on each piece, an especially helpful feature for young listeners with short attention spans. To make the event even more immersive for our youngest listeners, we would have a craft station styled as an outpost, where kids could make bird watching tools like toilet paper roll binoculars and a clothespin quail call.

We envisioned kids exploring the park and finding performances hidden among the plants and boulders, while contemporary music fans hiked around hoping to hear compositions by local composers and performers. All of this while the regular avian tenants of the park contributed their authentic bird calls to the scene.

Then, on April 10th, Synchromy sent out an email to tell performers and composers that because of the pandemic, Urban Birds could not move forward as planned. They were, however, committed to keeping the event alive in some capacity and, importantly, paying their artists.

Rather than create a compromised version of the live event, we were determined to create a distinct online experience.

The obvious option was to move Urban Birds online, but rather than create a compromised version of the live event, we were determined to create a distinct online experience. We went back to the conceptual framework of the concert—bird watching—and asked ourselves how we could create a virtual experience with some of the essential features of bird watching. We proposed an interactive website with features that would allow the audience to experience Urban Birds in their homes. Synchromy put their production team into action and the Urban Birds web experience launched a few weeks later.

The map of the park used for the Urban Birds project showing where each bird is located.

The performances became video recordings, which allowed the solo performers to safely present their music. The outdoor musical bird hunt became an interactive map of Debs Park and (for families looking for more of an adventure) a printable QR Code scavenger hunt. The Outpost became an activity web page with instructions for how to make binoculars and a quail call at home.

“This website version is a great idea even without a pandemic.”

Once the website was underway, Synchromy realized that Urban Birds could have an even larger scope than they first imagined. Since the launch, they’ve added more video performances to the website, and, because the online experience of Urban Birds is different enough from the live version, Synchrony still plans to present the original concert sometime in the future. In a time where the music performance industry is massively contracting, it’s exciting to have a project with so much potential for growth. As Jason Barabba, Synchromy’s Director of Artistic Planning, said, “What I found most interesting is I asked myself ‘why weren’t we planning to do this already?’ This website version is a great idea even without a pandemic. I believe this will change the way we think about everything going forward.”

Side by side images of a tree with an info marker and a girl walking holding a map and looking through a pair of binoculars.

It’s clear that social distancing will be the new normal for the foreseeable future, so arts presenters of all types are looking for ways to safely share their work. In contemporary music, we’re already familiar with creating within constraints, whether they be limited resources, shoestring budgets, unconventional venues, or skeptical audiences. We have it in us to apply our resourcefulness and imagination to this new landscape of performing.

Work from a place of making meaning, not making compromises.

While it’s true that some concerts are inextricably linked to a physical space, concerts that are built with strong conceptual purpose can be reimagined in different mediums. We need to ask ourselves not “what can we move online” but “how can a virtual presentation serve this music more fully?” Let’s keep our message, meaning, purpose, and truth at the center of our choices; work from a place of making meaning, not making compromises. The format will follow.

Visit Urban Birds at www.synchromy.org/urban-birds


Jennifer Bewerse and Cassia Streb standing in front of a tree holding a rotary telephone and an XLR cable

Middle Ear Project (Los Angeles) was founded by Jennifer Bewerse and Cassia Streb, a concert design team who has been performing, curating, and producing concerts together since 2014. They use the entire concert framework as a medium to explore ideas, share musical perspectives, and process the world around us. Learn more at middleearproject.com

Bringing Artistic Communities Together for Black Lives 

A collage of photographs of people involved in the virtual fundraising concert for Black Lives Matter on Friday July 31, 2020.

By Felix Reyes & Roya Marsh

When everyone saw the disgusting, undeniable murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police, we both took immediate action and joined the protests out in the streets. While the Black community has been dealing with these acts of injustice for generations, seeing the awful video of Floyd being murdered made us personally realize just how numb and conditioned we as a society have become to seeing these types of crimes happen on a daily basis by cops. For many around the country and around the world, witnessing Floyd’s tragic death was the breaking point when people finally stood up and began saying “enough is enough.” What follows here are our individual accounts of how we came to work together to organize an online benefit concert for Black Lives Matter this Friday, July 31 at 7-10pm EDT.

Roya Marsh: It is impossible to ignore cries for help as a Black butch woman and educator. I look at my students and wonder what world will be left for them and quickly I’m reminded that they are living right now. Blk Joy began, for me, as a poem–a concept that I had conceived in therapy and wanted to translate into written and spoken words. I had never imagined the impact it would have on my life and others, but had hoped that it would serve as a constant reminder of the joy Black people possess and deserve. I’ve been protesting the murders of Black people for over a decade and am constantly exploring new ways to effect change. This virtual fundraiser is just one way that we can perpetuate joy while simultaneously raising funds to support those that are constantly on the front lines.

Felix Reyes: During those first few weeks of protests, I reached out to Roya to see how she was doing in coping with all of this. At that point in late May we hadn’t seen each other in over two years, where she came out to my Lincoln Center debut concert in May 2018. Since we’ve reconnected it’s been great to really grow close with her these past couple of weeks. Coming from the classical/chamber music world I already knew of certain artists like Nathalie Joachim, Allison Loggins-Hull, and Shelley Washington, but I’d never actually had black musical friends to talk to on a regular basis. Now having been involved in these protests, educating myself, and reflecting on the current structure of musical institutions, both at the collegiate and professional level, it’s become very clear how disproportionate representation in programming and opportunities are between artists of color and their counterparts. From being able to afford private lessons growing up, to going to private music school/pre-college programs, we consider these things to be critical periods of time where students fully develop themselves as musicians, yet most Black and Brown families cannot afford the luxury of providing these educational opportunities for their children.

In hindsight I think this raises a broader concern about the flaws in our institutions to provide adequate access to proper music education in communities of color, which then leads to a severe lack of diversity in different musical perspectives, thus leading to fewer black musicians going to/pursuing careers in music. To be able to have various representations in outlooks, views, and culture I feel should be considered essential in our field, in order to push music to progressively evolve with the times, be relevant, and best represent the voices of all artists that currently contribute to that musical landscape. There are so few Black classical/chamber musicians in our field, and so Roya immediately was the first person that came to mind when these protests started, and since then we’ve been working as a team to build this fundraiser together.

  • This virtual fundraiser is just one way that we can perpetuate joy while simultaneously raising funds to support those that are constantly on the front lines.

    Roya March, poet and performer
  • To be able to have various representations in outlooks, views, and culture I feel should be considered essential in our field.

    Felix Reyes, percussionist
  • This event is meant to amplify all the black voices involved, as so Pathos Trio’s role in all of this would be to simply facilitate the broadcast.

    Felix Reyes, percussionist
  • The hope isn’t just to raise awareness, but to enact change and demand visibility and respect for our Black lives.

    Roya March, poet and performer

Roya Marsh: When conceptualizing what artists would be amazing additions to this event I knew exactly who to reach out to. There’s an incredible amount of talent in New York City and I am honored to call many of these artists my friends. Mahogany L. Browne, Whitney Greenaway, Jennifer Falú, Elliot Bless, and Elena Pinderhughes are all fantastic artists that use their platforms to promote the fight for Black lives on a consistent basis. Their work takes place both on the ground and behind the scenes, so it will be amazing to showcase their talents for our audience!

Felix Reyes: When I started getting involved with these protests I began to follow organizations like Warriors In The Garden, Freedom March NYC, Strategy For Black Lives, and BLM Greater NY. From the beginning I’ve been able to see firsthand all of the amazing work these young groups of activists have been doing in swaying the narrative and leading the charge here in New York City on Black Lives Matter (BLM), while also pushing for legislative change. I knew that once Roya and I started playing around with the idea of this fundraiser event that we had to reach out to each of these organizations, in order to have them be involved in some kind of way.

We both feel that especially in this moment there’s a real need for an event like this, where if we could bring in these organizations to talk to the various communities within the arts world, groups of people, that we could create a real special experience that can provide a space to educate people about current initiatives, legislation, and other important events coming up relating to BLM. As artists now more than ever it’s essential for us to use our platforms to elevate those who need to be heard, and in understanding that this was the precipice to the idea for this fundraiser.

Roya Marsh: As an educator, I transitioned to a virtual workspace back in March and have been exploring new and improved ways to interact with the world online. The world is learning that activism looks different for everyone. There are tons of ways to assist in the movement and financial help is a major component. Blk Joy has been an excellent vehicle for giving in this time; we were able to fundraise and give a scholarship to a young Black scholar for her first year of undergrad. Although there is a distance that exists between us, the poetry community has committed to holding space and so many wondrous events have been birthed to assure the work continues. The artists can perform from the safety of their homes and still be doing the necessary work of using their platforms to stand firm in solidarity with the movements for Black lives. We’ll get to pop in and out of folks’ respective spaces while the viewing world can be comfortably seated on their couches!

Felix Reyes: It’s hard to believe that we’ve been able to organize such a huge event like this in a matter of 3 weeks. It was only in mid June where we both had talked about the idea of this fundraiser, and now that we’re actually putting it on it’s been a bit overwhelming all of the work that’s needed to go into an event like this.

It wasn’t too long after that I had also received news from New Music USA that Pathos Trio, an ensemble I manage and co-founded, was going to be awarded a New Music USA project grant. For us the timing couldn’t have been better, and so once we found out this great news I began brainstorming the logistics of how we could utilize our new platform with New Music USA and immediately approached Vanessa Reed (New Music USA’s President and CEO) with the idea for the event. She immediately loved it and jumped on board in having New Music USA support and help promote this event to their fullest capability. I had then reached out to Alan Hankers and Marcelina Suchocka (the rest of Pathos Trio) with the idea for the fundraiser, and they agreed to let myself and Roya use our trio’s platform to co-host this event and provide additional technical support if needed. I made it clear with both Alan and Marcelina that this event is meant to amplify all the black voices involved, and so Pathos Trio’s role in all of this would be to simply facilitate the broadcast of their messages and education about BLM to as many people as we possibly can.

Roya, coming from the world of poetry, also started to think about other spoken word poets who she personally knew that could potentially say poetry for the event. In finalizing her thoughts she reached out to some of her closest allies: Mahogany L. Browne, Jennifer Falu, Whitney Greenaway, and Elliot Bliss, all of whom are award winning speakers, writers and some have been featured on NBC, PBS News, BET, and more for their amazing poetry work.

Thinking about musicians of color who have been actively vocal on the issue of BLM, Nathalie Joachim, Allison Loggins-Hull, Jessie Montgomery, Darian Donovan Thomas, and Kendall Williams all immediately came to mind. Whether it’s performing electronic music centered around ACAB, to performing flute duos on Freedom Schools of the 1960s, or performing steel pan tunes related to black struggle, each of these amazing artists have had something to say. We wanted to give them, along with these other great speakers and organizations, the dedicated space for them to do just that – express themselves and educate those watching about what they can do to help within the broader BLM movement.

Roya Marsh: The hope isn’t just to raise awareness, but to enact change and demand visibility and respect for our Black lives. It isn’t enough to just repeat a phrase over and over as we have seen the numbers of lives lost grow exponentially. We must commit to doing all that we can to promote the survival and prosperity of ALL Black lives. After our event, proceeds will be donated to groups of activists that continue to risk their lives and their safety to assure that the ills of white supremacy, including racism, state sanctioned violence and murder against Black lives comes to a halt.

For those of you reading we hope you can join us on Friday, 7/31 from 7pm-10pm EST on either Pathos Trio’s/New Music USA’s Facebook page, or on New Music USA’s YouTube channel to catch this amazing live-stream event and consider making a donation towards our campaign to raise $10,000 for these amazing activist organizations!

Facebook Event Page:
https://www.facebook.com/events/209625513684273/

Donation Page:
https://www.blkjoy.com/blmevent

Promoting Equity: Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom

Photo by Sam Balye via Unsplash of a crowded classroom from the back of the room showing a diverse group of students

By Dave Molk & Michelle Ohnona

Making Whiteness Visible in the (Music) Classroom

Teaching Inequality: Problems with Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy” described how the near exclusive and yet unnecessary reliance on Western art music, institutionalized as white and as male, upholds white supremacy within the music theory classroom. In “Promoting Equity,” we present strategies on how to begin disrupting this normalization of whiteness, starting with making it visible. We should think of this disruption as a process rather than a product—antiracist describes actions, not states of being. To supplement the ideas presented here, we’ll also suggest additional resources in the conclusion that might help you in your own practice.

Naming: A Way to Begin (some reflections from Dave Molk)

As a white man, speaking of whiteness in the effort to de-center it runs the seemingly paradoxical risk of re-centering whiteness. Even in the midst of calling out unearned privilege, I reap its benefits—the presumed authority associated with this aspect of my identity ensures that my voice sounds louder and carries further than the majority of those who do not share it.

And yet, the problem of not speaking up is a form of complicity in the face of ongoing oppression. Calling attention to an injustice forces a decision from those who practice willful ignorance: a decision between confrontation and conscious evasion. Naming is a way to begin, a way to make perceptible something that so often goes unrecognized. As whiteness becomes noticeable, it becomes noteworthy, and we can recognize its ubiquity as unnatural and intentional.

The problem of not speaking up is a form of complicity in the face of ongoing oppression.

White people are overrepresented as faculty in the college classroom. The belief that race is a non-white problem, something that affects “others,” is itself a white problem with a disproportionate and negative impact on people of color. Whites are responsible both for this ignorance and for redressing it—claimed neutrality only masks our ongoing racism. There is no opt-out.

An antiracist approach must be intersectional—meaning that race, gender, class, sexuality, and other aspects of one’s identity where oppression exists are inextricable from one another. An antiracist approach names these forms of oppression and their manifestations inside and outside the classroom.

When I talk with my students about white supremacy in higher education, I name my whiteness. When I talk with my students about sexism in higher education, I name my gender. I acknowledge that I receive unearned privileges because I am an able cisgendered white heterosexual man and I name some of these privileges. I name the pressures I feel to stay silent and the perils in doing so. If I’m not willing to do this in front of my students, I can’t expect them to be willing to do it during the course of their lives, either.

Questioning the Curriculum

The process of developing an antiracist music theory classroom begins with reflecting critically on what we are doing in the classroom and why. What exactly are we teaching, both in terms of the immediate material and the underlying messages? Why are we including this particular material on the syllabus and why are we teaching it in this particular way? Whose goals does this actually serve, and what exactly are those goals? What disciplinary habits are we unquestioningly reproducing in our syllabi, teaching, and assessment methods? What role does whiteness play in our pedagogy? What role does sexism play? Who and what is missing, and why? Ask these and similar questions at the start of each semester and continue to revisit them as the semester unfolds.

What role does whiteness play in our pedagogy? What role does sexism play? Who and what is missing, and why?

Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom

I. Centering the Student

To develop an antiracist music theory classroom, we should begin by acknowledging that the classroom is not a neutral space and that each of our students is a complex individual whose background knowledge, social identity, and relationship to music and music education is unique. Being able to connect with students from different backgrounds requires a flexibility in approach, an awareness of privilege and of power dynamics, and the understanding that these things matter. We can empower our students and encourage them to be active participants in their own education when we validate their musical experiences.

During our first meeting, I explain to students that I am not the sole source of knowledge for the course and that our work together will be more successful once we all realize that everyone has something valuable to contribute to our learning community. I state that there are no guilty pleasures in the classroom and that we will not self-deprecate. Hearing these messages said aloud helps students to understand that different musical backgrounds are a source of strength and that our class will work best when everyone feels comfortable contributing.

Questions to ask:

  •   Why do we presuppose that challenging our students is mutually exclusive with validating and empowering them?
  •   What is the relationship between the work we do in the classroom and the lives that our students and we lead outside it?
  •   What is actually necessary in what we teach? How are we defining necessary and who are we considering when we do this? What do our students actually do with this knowledge?

Strategies to incorporate:

  •   Create the syllabus with intention and invite feedback from a trusted colleague. Discuss pedagogical choices with students.
  •   Continue to ask who is included and who is not.
  •   Invite students to situate themselves in relation to the course material. Create opportunities for them to tell us what they need. Listen. Respond.
  •   Build trust and community by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. We can’t expect students to be open if we are not open ourselves. Acknowledge the hard conversations. Empathize.

In Practice: Big-picture conversations

The classroom is not a neutral space.

To help students recognize that music is, in addition to “the notes,” a social and cultural product, I devote the majority of three classes each semester to a round-table discussion of big-picture ideas. I explain that, while I will facilitate as necessary, students should engage in dialogue with each other and not with me. These topics become reference points as we continue through the semester, and we keep these conversations going via online postings and explicit connections during lectures. The final paper asks students to continue realizing the political in the personal by situating themselves more deeply within these big-picture issues.

These discussions provide a way to begin uncovering pervasive biases and various forms of systemic oppression that influence our ways of thinking and modes of interaction. Even when I provide readings ahead of time to help students begin to think about these issues, I deliberately leave space in how to interpret the prompts. This allows students to approach the material from their own experiences and allows the class to learn how these big-picture issues can manifest in different ways. My role is to push us below surface-level engagement, to make visible the underlying assumptions. Teaching only the notes is a political decision with real consequences—in the absence of interruption, injustice replicates. The following are prompts that I use:

  • What makes music good?
  • What exactly is “the music itself”?
  • What is authenticity in music?
  • Disparities faced by women in music.
  • Connections between music, race, and racism.
  • The efficacy of protest music.

II. The Polystylistic Approach

A polystylistic approach uses the particular strengths of many different styles of music to create a sophisticated working knowledge of how music can be put together. Through a polystylistic approach, we also gain ways to talk about the social and cultural issues that are inseparable from music. Using examples from other genres within a pedagogic framework that still prioritizes Western art music is not the answer—inclusivity becomes tokenism when we reinforce a stylistic hierarchy. While including “everything” is neither possible nor productive, we must be clear that the decision not to include a particular style is not a dismissal of that style.

Inclusivity becomes tokenism when we reinforce a stylistic hierarchy.

If we restrict ourselves to a single genre, then we develop a monochromatic music theory. We forsake the opportunity to speak well about some musical phenomena and the ability to speak at all about others. Our understanding of what music is and what music can be will necessarily be limited by the aesthetics of the single style that we study, and we miss our chance to make music theory more relevant to more students.

Questions to ask:

  •   What is truly foundational knowledge and what is style-specific? How do we justify the inclusion of style-specific material in a basic theory curriculum? What is the explicit purpose of this style-specific material, is it warranted, and are we going about teaching it in the best way?
  •   If our students turned on the radio to a random station, could they engage with the music as a result of our pedagogy? Would they, as a result of our pedagogy, be dismissive of certain styles? Does our pedagogy disrupt such dismissive attitudes or reinforce them?
  •   If we require most/all majors and minors to take music theory, how can we convince them that music theory has value for what they do and who they are?

Strategies to incorporate:

  •   Be explicit about why we are teaching a polystylistic curriculum. Explain to students the traditional model and name its problems.
  •   Solicit suggestions from students for material to incorporate. Get to know what they’re into and help them to articulate reasons why they like it. Use the familiar to open doors to the new.
  •   Use moments when theory terminology breaks down to point out the shortcomings of theory, then work with students to create better ways to talk about the musical phenomena in question.
  •   Attend to inclusivity both in terms of genre and practitioners within genre.

In Practice: Sampling

To create the two-semester basic theory sequence I used at Georgetown University, I drew primarily from electronic dance music, hip-hop, jazz, pop, rock, and Western art music. These were styles I had formal training in or had devoted significant time and effort to research. When developing a polystylistic approach, the point isn’t to arrive at the optimum mix of styles, but to use a plurality of style to decenter whiteness, to make the material more relevant to more students, to give students a more realistic idea of how music works, what music is, and what music can be, and to provide an entry point for talking about the social and cultural issues imbedded in the music.

To make space in the syllabus to include a segment on sampling, during which I recreate Daft Punk’s “One More Time” from Eddie Johns’s “More Spell on You,” I don’t teach voice leading of the classical style. Sampling lets us talk about a number of important musical topics that don’t come up in traditional pedagogy, including studio production techniques, sequencing, DAWs, riddims, breaks, royalties, and questions of legality, authorship, and ethics. These are more immediate and meaningful to my students than the voice leading norms of a particular style. They’re also more applicable to their careers, and are therefore more important for me to teach.

To make space in the syllabus to include a segment on sampling, I don’t teach voice leading of the classical style.

I use the following guiding principles to contextualize our theory classroom, stating them during our first class and returning to them throughout the semester in order to emphasize their importance. Although we may find these truths obvious, we should still name them for our students—actually saying these out loud underscores the degree to which these points matter.

  • Music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive.
  • The tools we use guide our interactions and shape our interpretations.
  • We don’t have a sophisticated way to talk about a lot of musical phenomena. These shortcomings belong to the tools we use and not to the material.

Putting It Together: The Blues

Willie Dixon’s composition, “Spoonful,” offers a number of intellectually rigorous ways to engage with both the musical elements that work within it and the social and cultural forces that work upon it. What musical elements tend to be foregrounded in “Spoonful,” and how do they function? How about a tune like “Blues for Alice”—what elements tend to be foregrounded and how do they function? What are the advantages to calling both “Spoonful” and “Blues for Alice” a blues? Is it possible to identify a prevailing blues aesthetic? How might we describe it? Define it? What do we learn about the blues specifically and about the concept of genre generally as a result of this process?

We might compare and contrast Howlin’ Wolf’s rendition of “Spoonful” with Cream’s. We might talk about differences in instrumentation, in the use of space, in guitar technique and tone, in the timbres of the drums, the organization, the energy, and eventually realize we’re not even beginning to scratch the surface of the musically important material presented in these two versions of the tune. We might wonder why this type of deep and engaged critical listening isn’t what we talk about when we talk about ear training. We might wonder about biases in traditional ear training and about ways to overhaul that component of traditional music theory pedagogy.

The blues lets us engage with issues of appropriation in ways more immediate and more relevant to students than would be possible using Western art music. In light of these two versions of “Spoonful,” we might ask our students, who can sing the blues, and why? Who should sing the blues, and why? Who gets to determine this? Again, why? What does it mean that Eric Clapton built his career on the back of black music even as he espoused racist vitriol? Is this something we can reconcile? Something we should? What does it mean to separate the art from the artist? Is it actually possible to do so? By allotting time and space within the classroom for students to wrestle with these issues in a musical context, we prepare them to recognize how these issues can manifest more generally.

Talking about the blues in the music theory classroom provides an organic way to bring big-picture ideas into the conversation. Angela Davis develops a constructive framework for thinking about classism, sexism, and racism in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism as she traces the development of black social protest through the music of the classic blues era and into jazz. Sharing with students the lyrics to “Prove It On Me Blues,” “Poor Man’s Blues,” and “Strange Fruit,” encourages them to understand the work of Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday as simultaneously musical, social, and cultural. An introduction to this history lets students re-contextualize social protest as it manifests in other, more recent styles of music in the United States, both inside and outside black communities. We can, of course, talk about form, chords, scales, improvisation, and other elements that we tend to find in a music theory classroom when we talk about the blues. Indeed, we must—but we must also push these conversations further.

Concluding Thoughts

As educators, our failure to engage the potential of our classrooms to be sites of antiracist learning and practice is not only a question of social injustice. When we omit, overlook, or unknowingly disregard the work of musicians of color, we commit disciplinary injustice, and do a disservice not only to the students in our classroom, but to our discipline writ large. It isn’t enough to study how music is put together—we should also study why it is put together in the way that it is.

It isn’t enough to study how music is put together—we should also study why it is put together in the way that it is.

We should ask how our pedagogy supports the development of critical thinking and engaging with difference, and how we might better incorporate this into our coursework. We should ask how social and cultural forces shape what we study in the classroom, how we study it, and how these forces impact our lives. We should ask how our coursework aligns with the goals of higher education, and why we remain complacent when it doesn’t.

We are all racialized within this society—conservatory and non-conservatory alike. When we abdicate our responsibility as educators to do this work in these spaces, in spite of significant institutional barriers, we ensure the ascendancy of injustice. The ability to step away is itself a mark of privilege that should be brought to bear on fixing the problem, not perpetuating it. We can all advocate within our spheres of influence to advance the cause of justice. The suggestions offered here are possible starting points for critical reflection about the work we do in the classroom and the reasons we do it. All work must have a beginning—may this be yours.


Suggested Resources

Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.

Sara Ahmed’s “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism.”

James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers,” The Fire Next Time.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists.

The Combahee River Collective Statement (see also Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book, How We Get Free).

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.”

Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday.

Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (original article)

Engaging Students
Philip Ewell’s “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame.”

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Ethan Hein’s work on pedagogy, including “Toward a Better Music Theory” and “Teaching Whiteness in Music Class.”

bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.

Lauren Michelle Jackson’s “What’s Missing From ‘White Fragility’” and everything she links to.

Adrienne Keene’s Introduction to Critical Race Theory course page.

Ibram Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist.

Gloria Ladson-Billings’ contributions to the concept of culturally relevant pedagogy.

Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider.

MayDay Group.

Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race?

The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education is a valuable starting point for finding important conversations, contributors, and resources for bringing social justice into the classroom.

Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

Truly a Wenren—Remembering Chou Wen-chung (1923-2019)

Three people posing together for a photo

Some reflections by Chen Yi

We still don’t want to believe that Professor Chou has passed away. Tears are not enough to express our profound sadness and grief over this tremendous loss. He is a music giant who brought us to and taught us at Columbia University, and mentored us in our creative lives for decades. He has made a huge contribution to the music of our time, yet he is a father-like figure to us. He will be missed by all of us tremendously, and his legacy will live with us forever. Our heavy hearts brought us back to countless memories of his vivid voice and energetic gestures.

Chou Wen-chung has made a huge contribution to the music of our time, yet he is a father-like figure to us.

Remembering when I studied composition at the Central Conservatory in Beijing in the early 80s, once in a lecture given at the library, to introduce newly imported music recordings, I surprisingly heard a recording of Prof. Chou Wen-chung’s Soliloquy of a Bhiksuni for trumpet and wind ensemble. I just jumped up! Even though it wasn’t in Chinese folk-music style, it struck me as so Chinese! I was deeply impressed by the Chinese spirits hidden behind the striking sonorities. At that time, most Chinese compositions used pentatonic scales in melodic writing while using Western harmony and formal designs, but this piece was not based on pure pentatonic scales. I ran and got the LP recording and I saw his photograph. I realized then that he must have been born in China, and I was very excited by this Chinese-American composer’s music. This is the first time I heard the name — Chou Wen-chung! I discovered that Prof. Chou was involved as a US delegate to China in the late 1970s. He donated many scores, recordings, books, and other materials to Chinese conservatories. After the librarians had catalogued all of these materials, they were made available to students for study from a series of new imported record broadcasting sessions. It was at that point we were introduced to Chou Wen-chung’s music.

I was also lucky enough to have attended his lecture when he visited the Central Conservatory. His public lecture was hosted by the Musicology Department, and attended by many professors and some students in the Musicology and Composition Departments. Besides introducing contemporary American composers and their music, Prof. Chou also answered many questions about music education in American universities. We then learned that he taught at Columbia University in New York City.

It was my privilege to have the opportunity to join my husband Zhou Long to study with Prof. Chou at Columbia in 1986. After graduating with our Bachelor’s degrees in 1983, Zhou Long became the resident composer of the China National Broadcasting Symphony, and I became a graduate student at the Central Conservatory. I needed another three years of study to obtain my Master’s degree, so I came to New York one year later. When I got to know Prof. Chou more closely for the first time in 1986, which was several years after we had attended his lecture at the Central Conservatory and right before I came to the US, it was during the First Contemporary Chinese Composers Festival held in Hong Kong. Prof. Chou took all of our young composers from Mainland China to a delicious Chinese banquet at which we talked about Chinese culture, Chinese music, and its future. This also became a regular event after I arrived at Columbia. Every month, Prof. Chou would host a meeting at the US-China Arts Exchange to discuss Chinese music tradition and heritage, and our responsibility and effort in carrying it on in our culture and society. After each meeting, Prof. Chou took us to a fancy Chinese restaurant on Broadway. We all greatly looked forward to this gathering every month. However, when Zhou Long and I graduated from Columbia in 1993, Prof. Chou and his wife Yi-An treated us to a fancy dinner at a great French restaurant in Greenwich Village. We will never forget the taste and the beautiful mood of that evening. Prof. Chou became our great mentor and we had a close relationship throughout the years since then.

The most important impact of Prof. Chou’s influence on me was not only to use basic composition techniques to write music, but the in-depth study of both Chinese and Western cultures, which would provide inspiration for getting creative concepts and methods for controlling and developing musical elements. The outcome would be unique, in our own language. Prof. Chou inspired me a lot with compositional concepts that unite Eastern and Western styles and techniques. In our early years at Columbia, I also translated many program notes of Prof. Chou’s compositions into Chinese, when his works were being played in Mainland China and Taiwan. I enjoyed doing that because Prof. Chou’s notes are so poetic and beautifully written in English that you have to concentrate hard to find how to say these things correctly in Chinese, in a way that will keep their beautiful literary character and not make them just a frank, straight reciting of facts.

Zhou Long and I also produced a series of programs for Shanghai Dong Fang Radio to introduce 20th-century music. We had one and a half hours in three half-hour segments devoted to the music of Prof. Chou. I compiled all of the materials about his music, wrote the texts for the programs, and discussed his creations in various periods and styles: The first was about the early works of the late ‘40s and ‘50s, like Landscapes (1949) and And the Fallen Petals (1954), which are important orchestral pieces that have been played by many of the major orchestras. Then in the second program came the more abstract style of writing heard in Cursive (1963) and even more so in a very complex score like Yun (1969), which is extremely sophisticated. The third program was devoted to his later works. These three radio programs were widely heard in China and musicians continue to talk about them.

These experiences opened up my view and helped me to break boundaries and find my own voice – as, for example, writing in the style of Chinese musical storytelling, and the reciting tunes in Beijing Opera. I consider this my turning point in terms of new compositional language, concept, and technique. In the technical aspects of composition, Prof. Chou was very precise. He would look at any score carefully first, and he would recommend improvements; then, if I would come back the next week, he would look at it again, then circle a note and say: “Look at that note! You did not fix it. Can you tell me a reason?”

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung at the piano.

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung at the piano.

Prof. Chou was very precise. He would look at any score carefully first, and he would recommend improvements; then, if I would come back the next week, he would look at it again, then circle a note and say: “Look at that note! You did not fix it. Can you tell me a reason?”

He also showed us paintings and calligraphy, and he would tell us how he thought of these as counterpoint. He would look at brush strokes on the page and he would see the space between the inner and outer edges of the stroke and the way that it changed as a sort of counterpoint. My pipa solo piece The Points uses an idea like this. In calligraphy, every stroke begins with a point. After you set down the first dot, you turn the brush to make the different strokes that you want; so, the point, the beginning of each stroke, is very important in drawing Chinese calligraphy. Prof. Chou asked me and inspired me to write this piece, which was premiered at the New Music Consort’s season concert devoted to Chinese composers’ music, as part of the NEWworksOCTOBER concert series at Columbia University in 1991, and it won me a reputation because it has been widely performed. In China, it has been the subject of a thesis and it is now a required piece for musicians who study pipa performance at the conservatory as well as in many competitions.

When I was a DMA student at Columbia, Prof. Chou recommended me to become a part of an ISCM film production called Sound and Silence (which was co-produced by Polish National Television and French Adamov Films) and this series introduced my new chamber works to international audiences through European TV networks in 1989. This is a ten-film series dedicated to contemporary music, featuring 20 composers from 19 countries (including 2 from China: I was the one from the Mainland, and the other one was from Hong Kong). Each composer had a half-hour program with his/her music performed, with the composer as one of the performers; there was also an interview by the host, Polish composer Zygmunt Krauze, then the president of ISCM. I played the violin in my own sextet, Near Distance, and sang in my own trio, As in a Dream for soprano, violin and cello. My Woodwind Quintet was also presented in the program. The other half-hour segment along with my program in the hour was Luciano Berio representing Italy. I played two movements in his violin duet collections. Before I left for Poland, Prof. Chou’s wife, Yi-An gave me a lot of clothes – many dresses! “This one could be suitable… That one… Here, try this one…” She took me into her walk-in closet, and looked through all dresses in shelves up to the celling… You could see the dress in the film.

I also sat in on my classmate David Tsang’s private lessons, invited by Prof. Chou. Prof. Chou analyzed his own concerto for cello and orchestra and other works for us, showing us how he designed his pieces with charts. There are different colors assigned to particular aspects or music elements in the structure. One color would represent pitch material, another dynamics, some others would control tension and density, part distribution, timbre, sonority, orchestration, and so on. It was very inspiring to me because I used to write music without a detailed plan covering many aspects. This is a very different and practical method in composition experience. He encouraged us to study Western contemporary music in-depth and gave me his former teaching syllabus in new music analysis, and introduced analysis of music by Varèse, Schoenberg, Webern, Ives, and others. You can’t compose in a unique style until you really learn all cultures well and then can create your own work as a hybrid and speak in your own language.

I studied with Prof. Chou for three years, and one of those years overlapped with my work with Prof. Mario Davidovsky for electronic music composition. When Prof. Chou retired, I worked with Mario for five years until I finished the DMA program, as he supervised my dissertation work. Zhou Long’s dissertation was supervised by Prof. George Edwards, after years of study with Prof. Chou and Prof. Davidovsky. We remained very close to our professors from Columbia University. During the past three decades, Prof. Chou attended almost all concerts with my new works premiered in New York City, including my octet Sparkle and mixed quartet Qi performed by New Music Consort, my China West Suite for two pianos performed by Dennis Russell Davies and Maki Namekawa at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival in 2007, my string quartet At the Kansas City Chinese New Year Concert by the Ying Quartet, and my Si Ji (Four Seasons) performed by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Most at Carnegie Hall in 2005. My Si Ji was dedicated to Professor Chou and was selected as one of the Pulitzer Prize Finalists in 2006. Prof. Chou called me to send his congratulations when he learned the good news.

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung during a reception at Carnegie Hall

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung during a reception at Carnegie Hall following the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of Chen Yi’s composition Si Ji on October 17, 2005. The piece, which was dedicated to Prof. Chou, was later selected as one of the finalists for 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Music.

During the past three decades, Prof. Chou attended almost all concerts with my new works premiered in New York City.

During the time I studied at Columbia University, I also worked as an administrative assistant at his Center for US-China Arts Exchange for three years, and closely witnessed his hard work, which made a huge contribution to the US-China music education and arts exchange. He was busy teaching at Columbia, but he had to raise money, write many reports for the Center and take care of administrative work. Prof. Chou never used the Center’s facilities or equipment for himself. He was very clear that every cent raised should go directly to the projects that the Center was working on. When I was working there, people would come and ask for a sample of his music. I asked him, “Can I just make one copy here?” but he said, “No. Make a copy outside and give me the receipt.” He never even made a copy of his own music with the Center’s copy machine.

During my work at the Center, we participated in two important composers’ conferences organized by the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange and led by Prof. Chou. One was the Conference on Tradition and the Future of Chinese Music held in New York in 1988. It’s the first time since 1949 that distinguished composers from Mainland China and Taiwan, separated by the sea, each had ten representatives who sat down together at Columbia University to have artistic discussions and a cultural exchange. They found so much in common in tradition and creation! The other was the Pacific Composers’ Conference, part of the Pacific Music Festival held in Sapporo, Japan in 1990, which gathered established composers and dozens of excellent young composers from many countries and areas in the Pacific Rim. Their ages ranged from early 20s to late 70s. The festival included concerts, seminars, lectures, and exhibitions for cultural exchange. He enthusiastically supported many young artists around the world.

20 composers from Mainland China and Taiwan walking down the steps of City Hall in new York City.

Chinese Composers Conference with 10 composers from Mainland China and 10 composers from Taiwan for the first time since 1949, in front of NY City Hall on August 8,1988 following a meeting with then NYC Mayor Edward I. Koch. Prof. Wu Zuqiang is in the front row and Prof. Chou is on the right. The Center for US-China Arts Exchange organized the conference. (Chen Yi, who was one of the 10 composers from Mainland China chosen to participate, is in the middle.)

Prof. Chou Wen-chung was truly a wenren (artist-scholar, Renaissance Man). He was a great creative artist and mentor who combined literature, music, and art, all in one.

When I first came to the States, the Central Philharmonic Orchestra from China premiered my Duo Ye No. 2 at Lincoln Center in 1987, but Prof. Chou had to attend another concert with his own work premiered in New Jersey. Nevertheless, he arranged for a huge bunch of beautiful flowers made by his wife Yi-An to be given to me on stage!  He also invited us to enjoy Thanksgiving holiday and learn American culture in his country house. Years later, when he visited UMKC Conservatory where we teach, he brought me a meaningful and beautiful gift: a fancy, richly illustrated volume (12” x 10”, 4 lbs), The Path of Beauty: A Study of Chinese Aesthetics by Li Zehou, translated by Gong Lizeng, and published in Beijing by Morning Glory Publishers in 1988. He said, “I think that you would love it and need it especially for your teaching in English.” I was deeply touched when he handed the book to me. Prof. Chou Wen-chung was truly a wenren (artist-scholar, Renaissance Man). He was a great creative artist and mentor who combined literature, music, and art, all in one. He wanted to be a person who gave as much as possible to the whole world. He is my role model and has encouraged me to keep working harder in music creation and teaching for our society.


Zhou Long, Chang Yi-An and Chou Wen-chung

Zhou Long (left) with Chou Wen-chung and his wife Chang Yi-An.

Additional reflections by Zhou Long

Professor Chou Wen-chung was among the first overseas composers to visit the Central Conservatory in Beijing and it made a deep impression on a group of young composers there.

In the late 1970s, Professor Chou Wen-chung was among the first overseas composers to visit the Central Conservatory in Beijing and it made a deep impression on a group of young composers there. His music immediately attracted me, such as his Yu Ko and other orchestral works. His aesthetic concept is based on the philosophy of the intellectuals from older times who played the qin, and on the ancient poetry of China. I composed Song of the Ch’in for string quartet and Su for flute and qin (ch’in) before I came to study overseas, both of which were very strongly influenced by Prof. Chou’s introduction of Chinese scholarly music to us.

After graduation from the Central Conservatory in 1983, I was assigned as the Composer-in-Residence for the China National Broadcasting Corporation. In 1985, I became the first composition student from Beijing admitted to Columbia University in New York City to study with Prof. Chou through the introduction of Mr. Li Ling, a family friend who was the vice president of the Chinese Musicians Association. On one of Prof. Chou’s visits to China, Mr. Li passed along some of my compositions including my first recordings of my orchestral works and Chinese instrumental compositions along with a broadcasting concert recording to Prof. Chou, who took them back to the composition admission committee at Columbia. There, the professors on the committee included Prof. Chou as the head, along with Profs. Mario Davidovsky, and Jack Beeson. They reviewed my scores and awarded me a full scholarship.

While I took some courses and composition lessons with Prof. Chou, he realized that I was very lonely, and he wanted to help bring my wife Chen Yi to study at Columbia University with me. He knew that she was an excellent student.

I had a cultural shock when I first arrived New York, and I encountered many ideas that were new to me. For two years, from 1985 until 1987, I didn’t compose anything. While I took some courses and composition lessons with Prof. Chou, he realized that I was very lonely, and he wanted to help bring my wife Chen Yi to study at Columbia University with me. He knew that she was an excellent student of Prof. Wu Zuqiang, who was the president of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and a close friend of Prof. Chou’s, who helped leading the US-China arts exchange activities in China. Chen Yi arrived in New York in 1986. Prof. Chou then guided me to learn not only from traditional Chinese music, but also to explore wider traditions such as East Asian cultures, including music from Japan and Korea. He also gave me concert tickets to attend the opera Einstein on the Beach and the Netherland’s ballet with Bolero during the first two years of my study in the US. He encouraged me to study with his colleagues, Professors George Edwards and Mario Davidovsky. In 1987, I started to compose again, with Wu Ji for piano and electronic sound, and a mixed quintet, Dhyana for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. The score of Dhyana is dedicated to Prof. Chou since he gave me so much inspiration and input when I composed the piece, from the concept and the philosophy, to textures and structures. After eight years at Columbia, I received my Doctoral of Musical Arts degree in 1993. When I was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for my first opera Madame White Snake in 2011, Prof. Chou called me on the phone to congratulate me warmly. I feel deeply grateful for his mentorship and support.

You must believe in your artistic vision, then your compositions can stand out.

I think the most important aspect of my work with Prof. Chou involved his theories of composition and creation. Prof. Chou’s educational philosophy is culturally oriented. Today people can accept a wider range of styles, but that’s not the issue. You must believe in your artistic vision, then your compositions can stand out. Prof. Chou Wen-chung’s vision and effort established the international status of our generation of Chinese composers.

Chen Yi, Zhou Long. Chou Wen-chung, Paul Rudy, Kihei Mukai, and James Mobberley

Chen Yi, Zhou Long. Chou Wen-chung, Paul Rudy, Mukai Kohei (then a DMA student of Chen Yi and Zhou Long’s at UMKC), and James Mobberley following a newEar ensemble concert in Kansas City featuring music by Professor Chou and his teacher Edgard Varèse in 2001.


[Ed. Note: Back in January 2013, we recorded an extensive interview with Chou Wen-chung for NewMusicBox. His “vivid voice,” as Chen Yi so aptly described in, comes across in the video presentation from that talk. You can read a transcript of that entire conversation elsewhere on this site.—FJO]