Author: Rob Deemer

A Tool For Change: The Women Composers Database

PRELUDE

Sitting at her desk at the Stamford Symphony offices, Barbara Soroca is quiet, yet she is smiling as her eyes scroll down the page. A yellow legal pad of handwritten notes is tucked under her elbow.

[…]

The book she holds is Orchestral Music: A Handbook by David Daniels, a resource known to anyone who programs concerts, such as conductors, music directors, orchestra managers and music librarians. Soroca, CEO and president of the Stamford Symphony Orchestra, and her soon-to-be-successor, Russell Jones, have been using it to plan the orchestra’s 2018-19 season, hence the notes.

“I think it is important for American orchestras to play American music,” she says, placing the book off to one side. “We don’t do enough of that. At the Stamford Symphony, we certainly don’t do enough of that.”

[…]

A new endowed fund will help with that quest. The Soroca Fund for American Music, which has already raised about $150,000, will bring works by Leonard Bernstein, Copland, Charles Ives, and other contemporary composers to the stage.

—”Outgoing Stamford Symphony chief Barbara Soroca champions U.S. composers” by Christina Hennessy (Connecticut Post)

 

Beyond the leadership, Midwest Clinic’s programming is equally in need of modernization. After my second day at the conference, I realized that not a single one of the concerts I had attended included a female composer. Now, it would be impossible to see every concert at Midwest, and I had experienced just a handful of the performances. Was it a fluke that I had missed the pieces by women? To be certain, I pored through the festival program and found that of the 500 pieces performed at the Midwest Clinic by 51 different ensembles (including bands, orchestras, jazz bands, and chamber groups), only 23 pieces (4.6%) were composed by women, and just 71 (14.2%) were written by composers of color.

But what about the band concerts on their own? With such enthusiasm for new music, surely the wind ensemble programming would be more diverse than that of the orchestras, right? Alas, of the 212 pieces performed by bands during the Midwest Clinic, only seven (a measly 3.3%) were written by women, and 26 (12.3%) by people of color.

—“Stepping Forward at the Midwest Clinic” by Katherine Bergman (NewMusicBox)

The excerpts above are examples of how programming decisions are being made and the ramifications of not considering diversity throughout the programming process. Administrators such as Soroca and Jones are selecting their 2018-2019 season from a reference book that, while it is the best resource of its kind for traditional orchestral repertoire, is sorely lacking in its coverage of demographic diversity. It is unclear in this particular anecdote which hardcover edition they are perusing, but even if they were using the latest update of the online version of Daniels’s compendium, they would only be able to find 87 female composers out of 1,211 total names (only 16 of whom were born in 1960 or later) or 29 black composers (only four of whom were born in or after 1960).

On the bright side, they seem quite pleased with their “contemporary” programming of Ives, Copland, and Bernstein.

In the example of the Midwest Clinic, one’s disappointment with the lack of diversity is further enhanced by the fact that the Clinic has so many stringent limitations already in place for ensemble performances. In addition to mandates about the published status of the works in every program (each program is allowed only one self-published work), for example, the Clinic requires programs to balance their repertoire insofar as “for every grade 4, 5, or 6 an equal number of grade 1, 2, or 3 music must be played.” It would not be hard, therefore, to include a statement encouraging a demographically diverse program as well.

Over the years, there have been a great many calls for diversification within the concert music community, and one of the most prevalent responses from decision-makers is that they don’t know where to find under-represented composers. Inspired to address this issue and informed by the basic construct of Daniels’s book, I took the names that were included in the comments section of my NewMusicBox column “A Helpful List” and, in 2016, began to organize them. A few weeks ago, I announced that the Women Composers Database was fully operational and ready for public inspection. Using a simple Google Sheets spreadsheet, I and a team of students at the State University of New York at Fredonia had compiled a searchable and browsable database of more than 3,000 women composers that conductors, performers, educators, and researchers can use (along with a related “composers of color” database that is currently being built) to aid in their pursuit of more diverse performance programming and academic curricula.

WDP-Database

As this project has evolved, I’ve received quite a bit of feedback and questions concerning the database. A few of the more common replies to this project that I will address in this essay are as follows:

  • What are the best ways to use this database?
  • There are already so many works and composers that deserve attention. How do we make room for diverse programming?
  • If the existing repertoire is what puts butts in seats, why should any ensemble risk that for the sake of diversity?
  • It shouldn’t matter who the composer is. We just want to play good music.
  • You’re not a woman. Why are you doing this?

 

UTILIZATION

Most large lists of composers have little to no viability when it comes to programming; conductors, directors, and performers don’t want to have to spend a long time hunting through a large number of websites hoping to find a composer who has composed works appropriate for their ensemble. In order to make the database as useful as possible, I decided to create several data points within the spreadsheet so that anyone searching for composers could focus their searches. These data points include whether or not the composers are living, what musical genres they have composed for, their race or ethnicity, and their cities and countries of residence. Users can then create multiple temporary filters to narrow down the number of composers to investigate. By clicking on the “filter” button, arrows emerge under each column. One only need to click an arrow and select “Sort A-Z” to bring any composers who are included in that column to the top.

Database filter

For instance, if I first do an A-Z sort under Wind Band, that will bring all 422 of the composers who have been marked under that genre to the top. (They’ll already be listed in alphabetical order because the database is set to that by default.) If I do a second A-Z sort after that Wind Band sort—this time for black composers—now all of the black composers are up at the top, but at the very top are the black women composers who have written for wind band.

In this case, we have focused down our search from 3000+ to 400+ to nine composers who share both data points, and it wouldn’t take long for anyone to peruse that cohort for potential works. If the Brooklyn Wind Symphony, for example, did such a search, they might discover that four of those composers—Valerie Coleman, Tania Léon, Allison Loggins-Hull, and Shelley Washington—live in the New York City area, which might spark discussions for a series of featured works across a season or guest residencies or commissions over several seasons.

Once composers have been sorted into small enough groups to make research feasible, then it’s still up to the researcher to explore each of the hyperlinked websites. The primary database is, by its very nature, an omnibus document fashioned to collect as many active and notable composers as possible. From this database, we hope to create a number of secondary databases for each genre that will allow for numerous data points on each work within that genre.

A good example of this is Christian Michael Folk’s Women Composers of Wind Band Music database; this database breaks each work down by title, instrumentation (wind ensemble, brass ensemble, etc.), grade level (.5–6), duration, and date of composition, as well as links to audio or video performances available online. Christian’s database was so close to what I had envisioned that he and I have agreed to join forces and soon his entire database will be available as a separate page within the Women Composers Database spreadsheet.

 

MAKING ROOM

Easier access to diverse programming does not immediately solve the problem.

Easier access to diverse programming does not immediately solve the problem. Diversity and inclusion within musical programming and curriculum is almost always a zero-sum endeavor; seasons have a finite number of concerts, concerts have finite durations, and semesters last only so many weeks. Any serious diversification measures will inevitably mean that less of the traditional repertoire will be able to be performed or taught.

That necessary reduction brings with it some intriguing and obvious questions: Whose job is it to make such decisions? What are the factors that allow one to decide which pieces and composers are performed less? Are there some works or composers that are non-negotiable in terms of inclusion? The answers are, of course, different for everyone, but even bringing up the questions could be seen as controversial. As we have seen in sharp relief over the past year, the reaction to diversity initiatives is rarely calm and quiet, but the risk of confrontation should not preclude the necessary conversations and actions.

RISK

If music educators aren’t exposed to diverse composers when they’re in school, the chances of them incorporating a diverse range of repertoire into their own classrooms is probably not very high.

That risk of confrontation increases when the well-being of an individual or an organization is threatened; that well-being can be financial (as with non-profit ensembles) or in terms of time or reputation (as with educators and researchers). For orchestras, for example, the perceived connection between repertoire and ticket sales is acute, but there are a number of examples just this year of orchestras that have been willing to program female composers and composers of color as part of their mainstage season at a rate much higher than the average. Last spring I compiled the 2017-18 season programming of 45 major orchestras across the country and Albany (4 composers /11% of their season), Milwaukee (5/10%), Orlando (3/9%), and Colorado Symphony (6/8%) all programmed female composers at much higher than the 2% total average rate. And while the South Dakota Symphony only programmed four composers of color, those four composers comprised 17% of their entire season (vs. the 2% total average).

Cellist/composer Jon Silpayamanant makes this point even more clearly with data from Atlanta’s High Museum, where audience demographics have been intentionally targeted:

Which brings us to the High Museum in Atlanta and how it tripled their Nonwhite audience in two years. I mean, if even the Whitewashed Hollywood can learn the lesson that Diversity Pays at the Box Office, I think our Arts Institutions can learn a thing or two. How did the High Museum do it? The [article] gives us five points.

1. Content

Of the 15 shows the High presented this year, [Rand Suffolk, the museum’s director] says, five highlighted the work of artists of color, including the Atlanta-based muralist Hale Woodruff and the Kenyan-British potter Magdalene Odundo. “You can always do another white guy show,” Suffolk says, but that doesn’t mean you should.

2. Marketing Strategy

Before 2015, the High spent the vast majority of its marketing budget on the promotion of a few blockbuster exhibitions. The result, Suffolk says, was that most locals didn’t think of the museum as a place that fostered regular, repeat visits. If the blockbuster shows didn’t appeal, they had no reason to go. Now, the High spends 60 percent of its marketing budget to promote a cross-section of its exhibitions. (“There was a little bit of condescension in telling people come see this show but not invite you back for five other shows,” Suffolk notes.)

3. Admission Prices

Last year, however, the museum opted to overhaul its tiered structure and charge everyone the same price: $14.50. As Andrew Russeth has pointed out in ARTnews, the move was largely symbolic: Because it raised the price for children, it didn’t actually make the High much more affordable to families….[H]e believes the move has made potential visitors feel that the museum is making an effort to welcome them. “We’re telling people, ‘We’re listening to you, we hear we’ve gotten out of kilter with the marketplace,’” he says.

4. Diversify Docents

The High has also seen a radical change in the demographics of its docents—the people who guide students and visitors through the museum and may be the first faces they see when they enter. In 2014, the incoming class of docents was 11 percent people of color. By 2017, it was 33 percent.

5. Diversify Staff

In this area, Suffolk admits, the High still has a lot of work to do. Its staff has only become slightly less white over the past two years, from 69.6 percent in 2015 to 65.5 percent in 2017.

Repertoire-based demographic diversity issues are endemic in our educational and academic institutions, as well. If music educators aren’t exposed to diverse composers when they’re in school, the chances of them incorporating a diverse range of repertoire into their own classrooms is probably not very high. Their students will go out into the world perhaps with a love of what they think of as “good” music, but with a stunted sense of the breadth and depth of our musical universe in its totality.

 

GOOD MUSIC

That skewed sense of what is “good” is, of course, part of our human experience; we all have ideas about what is good and not-so-good based on layers and years of taste-modifying experiences. Those experiences will inevitably include being influenced by those whose opinions we respect—be they family or friends or teachers or critics or tastemakers of any sort.

Harvard musicologist Anne Shreffler recently penned a brilliant post on this concept through the lens of “masters” (a masculine title bequeathed to male composers by male conductors, historians, and critics) having transcended gender while women composers are just women who have composed. Two statements from her article make this point decisively:

Obvious reasons include institutional inertia, career ambitions, intellectual laziness, and individual bias. But there is another, less well understood reason why a virtually all-white, all-male repertory has been tolerated for so long: the widespread preconception that music has no gender, or much of anything else.

[…]

Feminists are often accused of “reducing” everything to gender. But we as a society have been judging music on the basis of gender all along, by privileging specific cultural notions of masculinity in the guise of gender neutrality.

Silpayamanant’s blog post responds to Shreffler’s essay with equally thoughtful ideas along these lines:

In “high art” we tend to hide behind the rubric that the quality matters more than the gender or color. We do that, however, without questioning the underlying assumptions of that contention. Namely, that so-called “quality” is highly subjective, culturally specific, and that systems of institutional power will favor the work of some populations over other populations and reinforce the norms that allow that privilege to exist.

[…]

When there are literally tens of thousands (likely more) of compositions in existence with no one having had the chance to listen to them all—much less do any sort of comparative analysis of them—we’re not in much of a position to even really address quality in anything other than culturally arbitrary terms.

It’s hard for us today to believe the stories we’ve read of Felix Mendelssohn’s advocacy of J.S. Bach or Leonard Bernstein’s advocacy of Gustav Mahler and their influence on the popularity of those “masters,” as both Bach and Mahler now seem to be so indelibly linked to our perceived collective musical experience.  And yet, just as there are millions upon millions who have never experienced Bach or Mahler, there are many other composers—both living and dead—who should be given the opportunity for advocacy and exposure to the ever-shifting concert audience.

 

PRIVILEGE

If there is a subset of composers today that could be said to be “most privileged,” it could be composers who are white, male, and with a tenured position within an academic institution. I will admit that, as I started this endeavor, I did not explicitly consider my own identity within that subset (with my beard and glasses, I could compete for Poster Child of Privileged Composers), but that identity has been brought up numerous times in discussions, usually in conjunction with either the need for the database or the attention I’ve received as the database has become more well-known.

Others can attest much better than I to the financial challenges and time constraints that so many women composers and composers of color face on a consistent basis—I wouldn’t presume to know. Those of us who do have time or resources or both, at least in my opinion, do have an unspoken obligation to do what we can in whatever way we can to make things better for our entire musical community, and I’m glad that I can use some of my time and resources to help move the needle for women composers in some small way.

I can say that one aspect of my position helped immensely with this project: access to talented and motivated students. I worked on this project by myself and with the help of retired composer Jane Frasier for months and only completed a fraction of what the total database currently comprises. It wasn’t until five of my students here at Fredonia—Emily Joy Sullivan, Sierra Wojczack, Samantha Giacoia, Immanuel Mellis, and Sean Penzo—expressed interest in helping with the project as part of an independent study project that it really gathered steam. They all got to dive headlong into so many composers’ websites and Google searches in order to find the pertinent information and got a spectacular education in the process (much better than if I had given a lecture on website design in class). I know they’re looking forward to continuing their work on the Women Composers Database this semester and, along with another Fredonia student, Mikayla Wadsworth, will begin to help me with a Composers of Color Database that will hopefully be ready for public use by the summer.

 

POSTLUDE

It’s one thing to talk and rant about the need for change, it’s another to make an attempt to do it. It is my sincerest hope that composers in this database receive more attention, advocacy, and performances as more programmers decide to make diversity a priority. Hopefully, they will find this tool useful to help make that priority a reality. If anyone has any suggestions as to how to improve the database (we’re looking at creating a more user-friendly interface later this spring), please feel free to leave them in the comments. And if you know anyone who is not yet in the database, you can use this link to fill out the information form. We update the database on a weekly basis.

Musings on the Media

Selfie w Canon

Photo by Daniel Dionne, via Flickr

I began to contemplate the relationship between composers and the media in the days and weeks after the New York Youth Symphony’s decision to pull one of their own commissioned works by New England Conservatory graduate student Jonas Tarm because of its use of the “Horst Wessel” anthem. The brouhaha that followed the decision demonstrated the specific nature of the controversy. Similar in tone, if not in scope, to the coverage of the protests against the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, the confluence of red-button topics—cultural sensitivity vs. censorship—ensured that the story would be noticed beyond the traditional contemporary concert music coverage and land Tarm and the NYYS on a broader stage that ultimately included Fox News, National Review, NPR, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. While events like these—and the more recent dustup around John Adams’s comments from the stage about Rush Limbaugh at the premiere of his new work for violin and orchestra—briefly garner attention on a large scale due to their contentious subject matter, they are outliers at best when it comes to coverage of new music, the composers who create it, and the performers who bring it to life.

Outliers aside, I was and am very interested in the perceptions and interactions between those who create and those who work to inform about, advocate for, and disseminate new work. Composers and performers today look to the media (whatever they think that might be) as a conduit between their art and the general public. As digital media and social networks continue to evolve, both the proximity and the fixed boundaries between creators and the media have been affected. Those who prepare composers and performers for their careers are continually faced with questions about how much attention should be given to such topics within the higher education curriculum. To these points, I asked a number of questions to several critics, composers, performers, and other professionals in order to “take the temperature,” so to speak, of the understanding and place of the media within the new music community.

ROLES AND EXPECTATIONS

My first question was asked in two different ways. To critics, I asked, “When you write about living composers, new works, or performance by ensembles who focus on new music, what role do you see yourself embracing?” To composers and performers, I asked, “When you read about living composers, new works, or performance by ensembles who focus on new music, what role do you hope to see the media take in their presentation?” You will notice that both questions were geared toward written media. While there are radio programs and podcasts about new music and its creators and performers, those are few in number and even fewer venture beyond basic presentation of the music.

Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette reflected the basic thread of her colleagues, stating,  “In general, I think my job as a critic is to tell people what happened, what was newsworthy about it, and help them think that they should care, with a larger goal of fostering discussion about the field and keeping the field visible to the general public, to some degree, by having it mentioned in a newspaper to begin with.” Besides educating readers, Chicago Reader‘s Peter Margasak doesn’t “set out to function as a consumer guide, but as a thinker who might provide some inroads into new or unfamiliar work—making connections, explaining, and setting aesthetic ideas within an accessible framework.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tim Page remembered being timid toward new works when he first heard them, providing a description and cursory judgment with such statements as “on a first hearing, it seemed…”—a technique he still teaches to his own journalism students at the University of Southern California. “Sometimes, something that you don’t respond to the first time, you may respond to differently” on future hearings, Page said. Allan Kozinn, critic for the Wall Street Journal and former critic for the New York Times, added that his descriptions “should give the reader a sense of what the piece sounds like, to the degree that language can capture that. At the very least, the reader should come away knowing what the instrumentation was, and how it was used, where the composer fits in the stylistic continuum, how long a piece it is, and what the major ‘events’ in the piece are.”

These initial statements coincide with the expectations of a number of composers and performers who, as Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon says, “hope the media will give me all the information that I need to know…the more in-depth, the better.” The desire for in-depth reporting on the performance of a new piece is a strong one, although not always feasible within the amount of space allotted to the critic. Depending on the context of the concert, I have seen examples of critics asking for scores from the composers ahead of time and incorporating interviews recorded before a premiere, but much too often such examples are seen as luxuries due to time and space. Composer Chris Cerrone hopes that this concept goes even further into the realm of “showing us the music. Technology has moved so quickly that it is not hard at all to get a document of a new work online just a few days after a performance. More than anything else, I think the media has the opportunity to give audiences direct access to the actual work and let us judge for ourselves.”

One aspect of music journalism that some composers don’t want to see is too little attention on the work. Composer Derek Bermel, for example, prefers it “when a journalist focuses on the work of art itself, rather than on the personality (or persona) of the artist,” while composer Greg Wanamaker asks that journalists “address the quality of composers’ works and ensembles’ performances over popularity and edgy concepts devoid of substance.”

That being said, quality criticism is seen as important for the status and sustainability of the music, as well as the career momentum of the creators and the performers. “I always hope that the media will play a role in broadening the conversation about new music,” pianist Michael Mizrahi says, “and of course media recognition still directly translates to further performances.” Composer and Naxos Vice President Sean Hickey brings up the topic of interviews in regard to recordings, saying they are “an important element if only for sharing via Vevo, and ultimately, YouTube in the case of video, and via any digital service provider for audio. That is to say, an interview can potentially find a larger audience outside print and diversifies the experience for those wishing to encounter one’s music for the first time.”

Beyond the descriptive and illustrative aspects of criticism, the topic of advocacy came up many times. When Midgette writes about new music, she does “feel I’m advocating in a certain sense, because most of my readers tend to be more familiar with Beethoven than, say, Missy Mazzoli. That doesn’t mean I feel I need to go easier on the performances—quite the contrary; I think overpraising performances is the opposite of real advocacy—but it does mean I’m aware of a certain need to contextualize, and also a certain eagerness on my part to get people enthusiastic about this area.”

Kozinn’s passion for new music is visceral. He explains that “when it comes to new music and new music groups, we’re in an area that means a lot to me. Critics, to the contrary of what is often said, do not have to be dispassionate, and any critic who claims to be is lying. We write about music because we love it, and like anyone, we have tastes and preferences, things we like best and things we like least or don’t like at all. For an actual, thinking human being, it simply cannot be otherwise, and there’s no use pretending it can be simply to pursue a claim of ‘critical objectivity’ that actually cannot and should not exist…when we’re writing about music, or performers, or composing styles—or anything—that we particularly like, we almost inevitably become advocates for it, even if that’s not how we perceive the job. I mean, think about it: if I love a composer’s work, to a certain degree, the basic subtext of any review or feature I write about it will be: ‘I think this is fantastic stuff, so if you haven’t heard it you should, and if you’re not sure what to make of it, perhaps I can guide you through the most compelling bits.’”

newspaper reading

Photo courtesy of Miguel Pires da Rosa on Flickr.

INTERACTIONS AND SOCIAL MEDIA

One notable comment that came from several composers and performers had to do with what I meant when I asked them about “media”—which media was I asking about?  As composer Ken Ueno posited, “In many areas, newspapers have gone out of business or no longer have a music critic. And when there is a review, it is nowadays likely to be a play-by-play of the surface form of pieces, or a cut-and-paste job from the composer’s own program notes.” This reduction in traditional media, however, has occurred alongside the influx of blogs, digital magazines (such as NewMusicBox and I CARE IF YOU LISTEN), and the granular interactions that occur constantly on Facebook and Twitter, which led me to my next path of inquiry.

The next two questions I posed were: “Have you noticed a shift in the past 5-10 years as far as the relationship that composers and performers have with members of the media?” and “How has social media changed the way composers, performers, and music journalists interact/work together?”. Unsurprisingly, many ended up unintentionally answering the second question within their answer to the first question—a fact that demonstrates how ingrained social media is within our own professional interactions today.

Historically, there were more professionals in the media whose job it was to keep tabs on the concert music scene, but along with those greater numbers there was an attendant bottleneck/gatekeeper mentality. Allan Kozinn, after reading reviews from 30 and 40 years ago, says, “I think there was an almost adversarial relationship that doesn’t exist in quite the same way today. That may be because of a generational shift of focus that began in the 1960s, and which bore fruit in the later 1980s, when the critics—and composers—shaped by the 1960s entered the professional world on either side of the (critical/compositional) divide.” Tim Page adds “Composers like Virgil Thomson and Morton Feldman made it very difficult to work with them while they were living, but their music has grown in prominence after their deaths. Some composers always had a better relationship with the media; they just had a certain charisma or made it easy to interview or made a good story…I stopped reviewing Philip Glass, for example, because I had formed a friendship with him and I found myself being too harsh in my reviews as a result.”

In addition to critics, publicity professionals have seen major changes in the way social media has shifted relationships with the media over the last decade. Steven Swartz, founder of DOTDOTDOTMUSIC, has seen the ability to gain media attention improve greatly, but that ease has brought with it challenges as well. “It’s certainly democratized things.” Swartz says, “At the same time, it’s led to a lot more ‘noise,’ as innumerable artists clamor for attention.” Anne Midgette is a bit more blunt: “…it’s a very individual thing; there’s no template for how people use social media, and different people have different comfort levels when it comes to interacting with artists/critics/’the other side.’ Social media makes it feel chummier in a way, for better or worse, and of course it isn’t. This illusion of chumminess has also meant some artists have managed to royally piss me off.”

Most performers and composers who I contacted seemed to have a mature concept of their interactions with those in the media. Most, such as violinist Miranda Cuckson, see the rich opportunities for interaction and collaboration: “It helps people support their colleagues or show their enthusiasm in a public way,” Cuckson says, “and it gives journalists quick access to info about events or things in the works. In some ways, having discussions among artists and press in a public way makes people demonstrate their integrity and both their conviction and their ability to adjust their viewpoints, in a healthy way.” Others see the increase of advocacy through social networks as a good thing, such as conductor and composer Brad Wells: “Reviews, listings, previews, etc. for new music are more commonly spilling over the gates of the ‘classical’ or ’new classical’ sites into more popular or less genre-defined arenas. So the audience broadens. I also experience many music journalists as advocates for performers and composers—as well as audiences.”

Such experiences can both promote a more realistic and natural perception of one’s place in the community and easily lead to interactions away from the printed or digital page. Composer Daniel Felsenfeld enjoys the fact that we can observe each other as we interact: “The composer-performer thing has, at least for me, been aided tremendously by social media—I can trace pretty much all that is happening for me professionally to Facebook or Twitter at this point, for better or for worse (almost always for better).” Composer Judah Adashi, no stranger to social media, finds that the “communal sensibility doesn’t eliminate the fear of a bad review, but it’s a healthy reminder that we are largely in this together. It’s a culture that fosters opportunities for collaboration: we’ve hosted Alex Ross twice on the Evolution Contemporary Music Series, and I just invited Will Robin to Skype with students in my contemporary music course at the Peabody Conservatory.”

Ultimately, each creative artist has to find what works for them and form their own concept of how they choose to interact with their colleagues, the media, and their audiences in this rapidly changing world, a fact driven home by composer Eve Beglarian: “Basically, all artists have to figure out their own way to market their work and their worldview. I can come up with my own ways to get my work out there that do not compromise my artistic standards, but are themselves an extension of my creative work. Promotion done right is then about generosity, curiosity, openness, curation, and collegiality, and not just about flogging one’s own ‘brand.'”

PREPARATIONS

So far, we haven’t run into too many conflicting voices, but when terms such as “brand,” “marketing,” and “entrepreneurship” come up in conversations about composers and performers, there tend to be a number of varying opinions. As an educator who works with young composers, I couldn’t help but add a fourth question: “There are some composers and performers who work very fluently with the media; is this a concept that should be discussed in the classroom before these artists begin their post-collegiate careers?” I came at this question with a fairly open mind; I myself make sure my students are aware of what’s out there and critically think about how professionals interact online, but I am well aware that they have bigger fish to fry career-wise than solidifying their online persona and therefore do not push them to venture too far into the digital landscape.

Derek Bermel, for one, is dubious about incorporating entrepreneurship into the classroom: “For my money, it’s most important to educate students to 1) think for themselves, 2) organize and process information, and 3) write and express themselves articulately. This means offering them a broad educational background, which—besides music—includes creative and analytical writing, mathematics, philosophy, and languages, as well as vocational and mechanical skills. These are the tools to succeed. The rest is noise, to quote one member of the media.”

“I’m not sure what that would look like!” says composer Alexandra Gardner. “At that stage in a composer’s development I think a slight reframing of the discussion would be better – to teach students the standard procedure for doing press for a performance or album release. As in, ‘One month before, send a press release, two weeks before do X, Y and Z…’ They could be taught how to write a good press release, etc. Regardless of social media, one still has to have the basic press-doing chops. THAT is important!”

Having recently discussed such things with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Melinda Wagner, I was glad to receive some thoughts from her on this topic. Stressing balance, she says, “I think it is important to be comfortable with the media and to know how to make it work for you.  In this regard, yes, a certain facility with the media should be discussed in the classroom – with one proviso:  it is relatively easy to come across as brilliant, amazing, and vastly successful on, say, Facebook—even if you are not particularly good at the actual composing! Sure, go ahead and talk about social media in the classroom—just make sure students spend at least as much time at their craft as they do looking brilliant, amazing and vastly successful online!”

Others are even more supportive of such curricular implementations. Composer and ASCAP Board of Directors member Alex Shapiro unabashedly states: “Abso-friggin’-lutely. Most artists have no idea just how much power they have to control the interpretation, reporting, and narrative of their own work. It’s vital for younger creators to understand how they can use their web presence—the publishing of their souls—to their advantage.” Jennifer Higdon demonstrates that such concepts are already in place at the Curtis Institute where she teaches: “This is a part of Curtis’ training with all of the artists. We have seminars and master classes on this very thing…for radio interviews, print interviews, and even in talking with audiences.” Allan Kozinn has been teaching similar classes for years at NYU: “Mostly, what I have them do is criticism of various kinds, so that they can see what’s required and how it’s done (and, for most of them, how it isn’t quite as easy as they think). But there is also a big component of the course devoted to explaining how the press works, what kinds of things interest us, how review schedules are planned, and how to reach us or get our attention.”

Composer Lisa Renée Coons believes that “we need to teach young artists sustainable career practices. Schools granting arts degrees should teach at least some professional development along side the other tools of technique, discipline, critical thinking, etc. The professional development tools are necessary to continue to make their unique work. We should empower them to facilitate their own work, build communities, and disseminate their art. Without these tools they may cease to participate at all in the artistic dialogue.” Composer Jennifer Jolley agrees: “Yes. Absolutely. I think we should all learn how to talk about our music, give presentations on our pieces, write copy, write press releases etc. Informing members of the media what your organization is about and what your concert or concept or piece is about will help them do their research and educate (and quite possibly excite) your audience. Anything that helps with communicating with an audience will also help communicate with the media.”

Finally, British-based composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad provides some perspective from the other side of the Atlantic: “I am glad that I wasn’t made aware of any of this stuff to be honest. I am glad that I left Uni with a relative degree of ignorance—if I had been fully made aware of just how difficult it was to make a career as a composer, I may have been discouraged! On the other hand, I think there are tried and tested ways of successful interaction on social media now, so, a few hints and tips would probably go a long way…Most opportunities I get seem to come from word of mouth recommendation, or relationships built up over a long period of time—I think social media can create a buzz around all the events/commissions/performances that result, but I’m not sure how much it can advance one’s career by itself. Although perhaps that’s because I’m not using it cleverly enough!”

tv cameras

Photo by Dan Marsh, via Flickr

FINAL THOUGHTS

As I mentioned at the beginning, the intersection of composers, performers, and the media is something that has interested me for years, and it has done so for two reasons. The first is pretty obvious—I have feet planted on both sides of that divide, and my own perceptions have been irrevocably changed because of that fact. I hope that my experiences as a composer help to bring insight to my writing and my work as a writer helps me to both be aware of the world around me and to critically understand the various connections that exist amongst us.

The second is because of my background—I knew absolutely nothing about the concert world growing up and had nary a dream that I would be able to not only be cognizant of the various artists and critics that I’ve quoted here, let alone have been able to foster a collegial relationship if not a close friendship with them. The world has absolutely changed for us in the new music community and the aforementioned musings may help to illustrate where we’re at today as a community.

These experiences have provided me the confidence to express concerns when it seemed appropriate—several of my past NewMusicBox columns bear that out. I would be remiss, therefore, if I did not use this opportunity to point out a couple of issues that have long since festered in my mind that pertain to the new music community and the media.

Here in America, we seem to have always had an environment whereby a select few writers and mavens had a disproportionate impact on the success (or failure) of living composers and their works. Those that were deemed worthy or provided a good story, controversial or otherwise, on a consistent basis became part of the “conversation.” The irony is that as technology has evolved over the past 20 years so that the ability to reach the general public has increased through decentralization, the number of professionals who choose to contribute criticism, discussion, and advocacy has steadily declined. From what I have found, those who write and produce within these organizations do not consider themselves “kingmakers,” but much more weight is placed on their efforts due to the dearth of thoughtful discussion and advocacy elsewhere.

The bottleneck effect that exists with a handful of conduits of quality criticism and informed exposure inevitably will have artistic ramifications far beyond the borders of any one city. A mention in any one major newspaper is cause for celebration for the individuals involved, but that mention usually won’t have any discernable impact on the career of a creator or the direction of an art form. What will have an impact is the sustained and consistent exposure of a work, a composer, a performer, an ensemble, or a musical concept so that those names or ideas become ensconced within the conversation-at-large. Just as actors seem to become famous overnight when they’ve really been surreptitiously ingraining themselves in the public eye through bit parts over several years, the same can be said for musicians as well.

But, one might argue, the basis by which composers become well known really should be about the strength and quality of their work, not about how prominently they are discussed in the media. I would agree, except for the fact that the concept of “strength and quality” is not only extremely subjective, but is one of a multitude of reasons why works manage to garner any amount of attention or exposure. At least one reason, as Allan Kozinn mentioned earlier, has to do with the taste and interests of the critics who are in the position of reaching a broad audience. It can and should be up to them as to where their focus is placed—that is their prerogative as critics.

Is it the fault of the critics, then, for the lack of coverage outside of their cities? Of course not. But we as a community can be proactive, encouraging musicologists and writers in locations outside of the traditional markets and specialists in genres that don’t get as much coverage to lend their talents to reviewing concerts, interviewing composers and performers, and educating the general public about the thriving culture that exists in their own neighborhoods and throughout the world. There are plenty of arguments why such a call-to-action would not be effective—trust me, I’ve heard them many times—but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Just ask Thomas Deneuville with I CARE IF YOU LISTEN or David MacDonald with SoundNotion or Dennis Bathory-Kitsz with Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar or radio hosts like John Nasukaluk Clare or Marvin Rosen or Daniel Gilliam…or even the folks here at NewMusicBox.

A related and oh-so-delicate subject is the increase of composers and performers who cross the divide to work as part of the media, a tradition that hearkens back to Berlioz’s reviews for Parisian newspapers and Robert Schumann’s founding of Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.  A performer who asked to remain anonymous brought up a perception that I’ve heard numerous times over the past few years: “I don’t know if this has always been the case but there seem to be quite a few performers and composers who have (or had) PR day jobs or other jobs in arts media (radio/blogs) these days. These folks seem to have an easier time getting reviews and media attention. They also get positive attention from other composers/performers who seek promotion. Those with PR/Media clout seem to hold a lot of power in the new music world.” In the same way that contests are rarely immune from criticism if the winner happens to study with one of the judges, the fact that such perceptions exist demonstrates the murky environment that exists when the delineations between composer/performer and journalist/publicist/presenter become less and less well defined…as a composer/educator/columnist/presenter, this is a situation I know all too well. There are no clear-cut solutions for such things—like-minded people will ultimately aggregate and support one another as best they can, but I for one hope that those who are in decision-making positions, whatever they may be, keep an open mind and as balanced an approach as possible.

In closing, I would like to present two statements that, together, seem to set the dichotomous aspects of the composer/performer/media relationship today:

Anne Midgette:

Not everyone is good with the media. Social media has fostered this illusion that people can do their own press, and that they can do it over Facebook and/or Twitter, and this is usually the biggest way that artists have managed to piss me off on social media—by viewing it as a way to reach me so you can make a pitch. Publicity is a brave new world these days, because traditional outlets are drying up, yet I think that’s all the more reason artists should think seriously about working with a professional. Artists and journalists are both way too quick to be glib about “media flaks,” and yet way too few artists appreciate what a professional can bring to the table in terms of strategizing a long-term approach that goes beyond scattershot mentions in whatever publications or websites one can engineer. I’ve known some big-name artists in the pre-internet age whose careers would have gone on a lot longer and more elegantly had they sprung for a publicist in their primes, and there are plenty of examples today of artists who would have benefited greatly from some professional advice—think of how many totally avoidable brouhahas we’ve seen in the last couple of years.

Alex Shapiro:

The entire concept of “The Media” has drastically shifted over the past fifteen years. It used to be something external that passively effected artists and their careers, and now it’s something that artists themselves can actively manipulate, thanks to the 24/7 global reach of the web and how any of us might choose to exploit this amazing tool. “The Media” used to be sheer luck: print journalists and radio broadcasters writing about or featuring our work, or television appearances, and even cameos in movies, for those of us also performing the work. Now, traditional media has been marginalized to a notable degree, as the free-for-all of the internet has allowed composers and performers to participate in and control the very media that used to dictate our fate. It’s the buzz on the blogs, e-zines and social media that have the most power to determine our success; we write about, discuss, and showcase our own work and our colleagues’ work, and we spread opinions through praise and snark through a highly effective and exponential filtering system of peer review. Thanks to YouTube, we get as much if not more exposure from a homemade video that goes viral than we might ever have had in sheer numbers with an appearance on a late night TV show. And a successful composer can go their entire career, earning a good living, without ever having had a review in The New York Times. The Media is not what The Media used to be. WE are The Media! Whatever the public chooses to pay attention to is The Media.

Noise Reduction

While I was working on my doctorate at the University of Texas, a fellow musicology student told me once that if anyone could make sense of the state of contemporary music, it would have to be composers. She was saying that, in effect, most theorists and musicologists didn’t even know where to begin because the field had become too large, too diverse, too diffuse. Since then, I’ve heard fellow academics state similar concerns along with the common disinclination to point to any specific name, work, or musical trend (better known as “let history sort it out”). Anne Midgette illustrates both concepts in her end-of-year Washington Post column “This year’s bounty of CD’s: a reader’s guide“; not only does she colorfully describe the challenge of navigating the onslaught of new recordings as “like trying to drink from a fire hose,” but she decided to forgo making her own “Top 10 (or 15 or 100) Recordings of 2013” list and instead crowdsourced her readers’ picks.

Of course, how we communicate today—either directly via email, indirectly via social media, or passively through websites—only amplifies this growth and diffusion. Concert announcements, event invitations, and collaboration shout-outs were already commonplace when Kickstarter and Indiegogo ratcheted up the chatter considerably. There is nothing wrong with any of these endeavors in and of themselves, but as more and more composers, performers, presenters, and managers clamor for attention, the overall result becomes as blended and indistinct as Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room.
While the echo chamber that I describe here is not the optimum, neither is an overly selective environment within which a privileged few who have a megaphone, be it through a newspaper, radio, website, or recording label, intentionally or unintentionally serve as tastemakers. Is it possible to find a balance between the two? I hope so.

Some might say that the new music community, even with all of its sub-groups, comprises such a thin slice of the overall “classical music” pie (much less the overall music pie) that there is little worth in trying to improve the situation—that one might as well let those in obscurity remain and work harder to intensify the spotlight on those who already reside in it. They very well may be right. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel the need to explore the possibilities, if for no other reason than to find a solid balance between a focused understanding of today’s new music and a broad accessibility to as many creative artists as possible, irrespective of style, locale, or pedigree.

Where could this exploration lead? I’m not sure yet, but it is what I shall be undertaking in the upcoming year. My weekly columns here at NewMusicBox over the past three years have been one of the richest and most unforeseen treasures of my career to date. I now look forward to delving into important issues within our art form and our community at a much greater depth and breadth than I’ve been able to do so far and to the vigorous and enlightening discussions that might result.

Out of Network

For composers and conductors who are involved in the wind band genre, there are few events like the Midwest Clinic. Occurring annually during the week before Christmas in Chicago, Midwest has been a staple destination for anyone interested in writing for wind band for the simple reason that there are so many conductors in one place at one time. Works that get performed there by public school and collegiate ensembles get heard by band directors from all over the country. There are hundreds of exhibit booths where all of the major publishers and retailers display their latest catalogs as well, chatting in the halls and trying to gauge where tastes are headed. All in all, thousands of pre-college and college students, educators, and professionals create a massive scrum of lanyards, tote bags, free CD’s, fried food, and—most importantly for composers—networking opportunities.
It’s been interesting over the years to witness a great many viewpoints on the idea of networking—some composers take to it like fish to water, while others see it as a necessary evil and others still cringe at the very mention of the word. Attitudes toward intentional social interaction between professional colleagues in order to create mutually beneficial opportunities to collaborate seem to be often based both on the individual’s comfort level with socializing and the perceived value of that interaction; if the composer doesn’t see any benefit from actively engaging with others, they probably won’t want to do so. In addition, there’s the thought that one’s music should speak for itself and the creator shouldn’t be required to actively pursue performances, commissions, or other collaborative activities.

While online communities such as Facebook and Twitter can be an aid in creating and fostering relationships, it is fascinating how those digital connections can become enhanced (or not, as the case may be) at events like the Midwest Clinic through face-to-face meetings. I’ve had many colleagues describe their experiences meeting people with whom they have interacted on a weekly or daily basis for years and finally get to meet in person; once that real connection is made, usually the chance for strong collaboration increases dramatically. For as much as we think we know one another via online profiles or personas, most of us tend to wait to begin to have close professional partnerships with people until after we’re able to meet and interact with them in the same room.

The thing about networking that needs to be pointed out is that it is but one ingredient in a composer’s career or life (the two are not necessarily the same thing). There are plenty—plenty!—of examples of composers who quietly write amazing works that may only get a few performances, but those works and performances are recognized and praised nonetheless. Neither a vast collegial network nor the creation of an incredible piece of music are in and of themselves guarantors of success, but finding one’s own place in the world and the right methods with which one interacts with that world should be a goal for us all.

To Jury or Not to Jury

jurors
For those of us who mark our days according to an academic calendar, activity is winding down–for a few weeks, at least. However, the end-of-term stresses that plague most subject areas are usually absent from music composition because, by the very nature of our medium, our work is front-loaded into the first half of the semester/term. By the time everyone else is cramming for final exams and performance juries, composers should have already completed an appropriate amount of music and either have it performed and recorded or at least have created a decent aural mock-up to present to others.

Music students are usually expected to take part in performance juries as the “final” aspect of their private lessons. These juries, for the uninitiated, are where performers are brought into a room to play through selected repertoire and, depending on their level, demonstrate various proficiencies on their instrument. By comparison, many composition studios do not have any end-of-term experience or expectations for their composition students; the last lesson comes and goes, and while the past semester’s work may be discussed informally, there is no comprehensive structure for assessing the students individually and the studio as a whole. This was my experience going into my doctoral studies at the University of Texas, and when I discovered that students there were expected to take part in composition juries at the end of each semester, I asked the same question that I’ve been fielding since I instituted them where I teach: What happens in a composition jury?

As I see it, composition juries serve several purposes for the student. First, they provide students with the opportunity to collect all that they have created during that term and reflect on what they have accomplished. The expectation for cleanly edited scores helps to ensure that that bit of drudgery is completed in a timely manner. The pressure to respond to criticism and critique by the entire composition faculty is probably the least enjoyable part of the jury, but it does help to prepare the student for the critiques to come post-graduation. Finally, the student is expected to “perform,” though not in the same way as in an instrumental or voice jury; it is very important for composers to be able to defend what they have created, concisely explain their process, and provide cogent proof that they are not only aware of their own artistic philosophies but that they are aware of how those philosophies are evolving over time.

I am aware that this end-of-term assessment concept is not universally held; many highly respected institutions forgo any such thing, and it took a bit of convincing to bring my own department around to the idea. If anything, the juries serve to emphasize how important it is for composers to both understand what they’re doing as they create and gain the proper skills to convey their ideas to the outside world. “Let the music speak for itself” is a noble concept, but in today’s age of pre-concert talks, grant proposals, and public interaction, running the gauntlet of a composition jury can help to prepare composers for what is to come.

Common Ground

Over the past year and a half, I’ve been chairing my institution’s University Senate. In addition to being able to help enact change at a high level there, it also gives me the opportunity to see the entire community from a vantage point that most faculty rarely experience. Recently we’ve been revising our general education curriculum, which has forced all the departments to compare and contrast their own ways of doing business both in their major and non-major courses. The result of this endeavor is that what one might perceive from the outside as a singular bloc of like-minded entities (all encapsulated under the moniker “academia”) is really an extremely rich and diverse confederation of factions, each having as many if not more differences than similarities. The commonalities that bind them—teaching and research are the two big ones—are geared with an inward focus such that it is easy for everyone within their own group to imagine that everyone else sees the world from their perspective, and it is only through exercises that force everyone’s views and procedures out into the open that the vast differences become apparent.

These ideas were echoed with immense resonance earlier this week when I brought the recent essay “Audience Cultivation in American New Music” by Sam Hillmer into my beginning composition course for an in-class discussion. Most of my students had not imagined that there could be interaction or an overlap between Hillmer’s worlds of “concerts” vs. “shows” and “bands” vs. “ensembles” (even though they all had experiences in both of those scenes), and the ensuing discussion explored what those various concepts entailed and what options they presented for themselves as burgeoning creators.

As we talked through the various issues, I began to think about how deeply this “same but different” phenomenon runs throughout the music industry as a whole and the new music community in particular. From a certain distance, an objective observer could see the entire world of those who create music as one interrelated bloc; from the other end of the spectrum, each creator can easily be distinguished from all others by the individuality of their work. It is between these two boundaries that our various and fluid musical factions begin and grow.

One prevalent trope from decades past suggests that musical factions within the new music community were in constant strife, while the current environment suggests a shift towards a more communal, “all styles are welcome” concept. Both of these ideas are, I imagine, a bit too simplistic, as things were not quite so black and white decades ago and the idea of today’s new music scene as being bereft of distinct factions is more than a little optimistic. Hillmer’s DIY genre, for instance, could be seen as a progenitor of the elusive “indie-” or “alt-” labels that get thrown about from time to time to describe a wide array of artists (very few of whom actually agree or appreciate the gesture), but one would have a very difficult time conflating the two completely.
Where the new music community and composers specifically do well these days, from my perspective, is in keeping an open line of communication and a relatively open mind to new ideas. Taste and individual interests will always drive us to those composers and performers that resonate with us, but I think we have found common ground from which to propel our artistic dialogue into the future.

A View Behind the Curtain

One of the really interesting opportunities that I’ve had over the past fifteen years or so is to peek behind the curtain, so to speak, into the worlds of both concert composers and film composers. There are many differences between the two career paths, but one striking similarity is how little those who aren’t intimately involved with the process know and understand about what actually happens as concert works or film scores are being created. In the realm of commercial composition (film, TV, video games, etc.), that lack of accurate insight into what really goes on during the pre-production, production, and post-production of a score can give those who yearn to pursue such a career path a very skewed sense of what it entails, and with so many composers looking to multimedia as a potential vocation, it is important to find ways to clarify the process.

I recently came across an interesting bit of insight into the inner sanctum of one of Hollywood’s most successful composers, Hans Zimmer, via violinist/composer Michael A. Levine, a long-time collaborator with Zimmer. Levine posted “Why Hans Zimmer Got The Job You Wanted (And You Didn’t)” a few months ago on the website Soundtracks and Trailer Music, and I found it to be a realistic window into that world, focusing on both the technical side of doing the work as well as the interpersonal aspects of collaborating with a multitude of people. Levine himself is a successful composer within that industry and his comments realistically reflect the various issues and challenges that one faces in that world.

In the essay, Levine touches on several different aspects of Zimmer’s work, including spotting (deciding with the director where and how music should be used in the film), work schedule, interaction with directors and film producers, and the difference between being a film music producer and being a film composer. Composers such as Bernard Herrmann and Henry Mancini were experimenting with alternative microphone placement and recording techniques to achieve effects that were considered acoustically impossible fifty years ago, and after digital technology came to prominence in the 1990s that concept of production has expanded to the point that for composers like Zimmer, the performance of the composed score has become only the first step in building the finished product. Whereas before composers would need to elicit the entirety of their score with the performers in a linear, analogue medium, today composers have the ability to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct the finished score in a non-linear fashion using whatever initial ingredients the composer decides to record. Here Levine describes one example of that process:

“Later, [Zimmer] asked me to double every ostinato (repeating phrase) pattern the violins and violas played. There were a LOT. And a great studio orchestra had already played them all! I spent a week on what I considered an eccentric fool’s errand, providing score mixer, Alan Meyerson, with single, double, and triple pass versions of huge swaths of the score. Months later, I joked with him about how “useful” my efforts had been. Alan told me that, actually, they had turned out to be a crucial element of the score, that he often pulled out the orchestra and went to my performances when something needed to be edgy or raw.”

Probably the most telling and potentially valuable point that Levine makes is during his recollection of getting fired (a lesson that could be easily mapped on to many concert music situations as well):

“…[Zimmer] is also very aware of what the power structure is–who really makes decisions. I was fired—or more accurately not hired after a trial period—from a film because I jumped through hoops for the director who brought me in while not spending enough time figuring out what the producer—the actual power—wanted. Rather than being sympathetic, Hans told me I had failed in a fundamental task: determining who was my boss. He was right, and I haven’t made that mistake again.”

These insights not only illustrate the pitfalls and challenges of a very competitive and stressful creative environment, but they serve as a reality check for those who dream of attaining such a position, as well as for those who have high hopes of reaching the pinnacle of any artistic endeavor.

A Chance to %@#$! Around

One of the most common myths about composing—and any creative medium, to be honest—is the assumption that the creator conceives of a new work in toto before they put real or digital pen to paper and that the creative process is simply a transcription method ensuring the most accurate manifestation of that initially conceived work. Does this happen on occasion? Of course it does—I haven’t met a composer yet who hasn’t had a piece introduce itself fully formed at least once, and there are many composers who enjoy planning a piece out to the nth degree before they begin putting notes to paper. The fallacy is that this is the way it always works for everyone, and it serves to create a mystification that (sadly) separates us from the general public; that most cannot imagine how our art is created (as opposed to a film or a poem or a painting) intensifies that sense of separation which, in turn, makes it that much harder for the general listener to connect with our work.

piano player

Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy on Flickr

All of this was on my mind recently during a conversation my students and I were having with Kevin Ernst, who we had invited down from Cornell for an evening of lectures and discussion. At one point the conversation veered off into the idea of allowing oneself to forget the training that can shackle us to what can or should be done and instead to tap into the sense of “play” that comes so naturally to us when we’re young and have no concept of boundaries or rules or expectations. One of the biggest challenges along these lines is that many of us don’t recognize when we’ve stopped “playing,” especially after so many years of accruing the necessary tools to perform/create at a high level. Yet there seems to be a marked difference in one’s creative output if you’re just working with your tools and not a youthful, explosive, illogical imagination.
This idea of playing with your creative “food,” so to speak, doesn’t have to happen just at the outset of the process either. During one of my interview trips to New York City, David T. Little told me about the three steps in his creative process. Basically it came down to 1) collect ideas for a piece, 2) build the “nice” version of the piece, and 3) mess it up. That third step—messing around with something you’ve just created—is just as important, if not more important, than the first two because it’s in that step that creative artists can truly instill their identity into the piece.

I’ve spoken to many classroom teachers who are interested in composing but who can’t get past the mental roadblock that is the fear of doing it “wrong.” At some point in our transition into adulthood, we all find ourselves adjusting to that fear, no matter what the context. It is only when we allow ourselves to make mistakes, to experiment—to %@#$! around, in the best comic book “grawlix” tradition—that we can tap into that creative pool from which the “good stuff” invariably comes.

Finally, Movement on the Notation Front

Back in July of 2012, many notation software users were shaken by the news that Sibelius’s parent company, Avid, was dissolving the program’s London-based office and its primary development team. My “Sharpen Your Quills” post demonstrated how the news resonated throughout the composer community; whether or not a composer used Sibelius or Finale (the two primary notation software options on the market today) or one of the several secondary software alternatives, it was apparent how deeply this structural change would impact the notation software industry. A year and a half later, there are finally signs of what effects that shakeup has had and what the future holds for those who see notation software as an irreplaceable tool.

Finale

Finale has weathered numerous complaints over the years regarding their policy of yearly updates (many of which seemed superficial at best), their reliance on an outdated programming infrastructure for Mac users, a reluctance or inability to match improvements brought forth by their competitors in a timely manner, and a business model that seemed geared toward the public school market while ignoring pleas from professional engravers asking for more functionality in working with complex musical notation. While Finale’s decision to forgo their yearly update model and allow their programmers more time to make extensive changes came a couple months before news broke of Avid’s adjustment to Sibelius, the timing was a lucky break nonetheless.
On November 4, Finale announced their newest version, Finale 2014. Once the announcement was made, the knee-jerk reaction for many users was to read the software’s overview by the widely respected Finale plug-in developer Jari Williamson (whose reviews are required reading for anyone interested in a new software update from Finale). The changes ranged from the technical (they were finally able to move from the depreciated Carbon programming interface to Cocoa, a boon for Mac users, but neglected to create a 64-bit version) to the practical (much-improved treatment of hairpins, cutting down on the need for time-intensive manual editing) to the good-god-why-did-this-take-so-long (the beginning of backwards capability—limited, but it’s a start). But what stuck out for me were the indications that their focus had grown to re-incorporate the needs of the professional contemporary composer/engraver.

Many of the changes addressed issues that the occasional user would probably never think about or require—merging rests across layers and cross-layer accidental changes being two of the biggest—and one of the most interesting changes, the acceptance and incorporation of “open” or non-traditional key signatures, point directly to contemporary compositional techniques that have become commonplace in the late 20th and early 21st century. The software still has much to address before it gets to where it should be—a user interface replete with interminable dialogue boxes, the lack of magnetic positioning that Sibelius has introduced, and the inability for intuitive copying of individual items with the selection tool are major sticking points—but the fact that Finale decided to focus on the issues it did rather than ancillary changes for general public usage demonstrates that Finale and their parent company, MakeMusic, may have become more serious about improving the power and depth of their software as well as its reach and breadth.

Sibelius

Since the major adjustments last year, there’s been little news on this front…the exception being a recent comment from Avid’s director of product management, Bobby Lombardi, who decided, in light of his competitor’s announcement, to let Sibelius Blog know that “Sibelius 7.5” is coming soon. In addition to a review of Finale 2014 as seen through the lens of Sibelius users, Sibelius Blog also mentions the fate of those programmers from Sibelius who were let go when Avid closed their London office; most were hired by a newcomer to the notation software marketplace—Steinberg.

Steinberg

From Steinberg’s blog page:

Steinberg set up a new London-based research and development centre in November 2012, and hired as many of the former Sibelius development team as possible to start work on a brand new scoring application for Windows and Mac. There are currently twelve of us in the team, and all of us were formerly part of the Sibelius development team.

This is one of the more interesting developments on the music notation front in a very long time. By releasing most of their A-Team developers, Avid unintentionally caused the creation of a new competitor (in a rapidly growing marketplace). What has been most fascinating about this new endeavor is the transparency with which the Steinberg team has chosen to build their new application…so new that it doesn’t even have a name yet. That transparency can be seen most clearly in the Steinberg “Making Notes” blog run by Product Marketing Manager Daniel Spreadbury (again, formerly of Sibelius). Taking a page from Hollywood, where production vignettes are now commonplace many months before a film is released, Steinberg is taking the unique step of discussing their creation process as they go.

Here Spreadbury discusses the nuts and bolts of putting together aspects of a notation system that would seem very simple but are both conceptually and logistically extremely complex:

Another important prototype is a means to visualise music on staves. Several months ago, a very simple visualiser was written that shows rhythms, but not pitches, of notes belonging to a single voice on a single-line staff. Since then, we’ve done work on determining staff position and stem direction for notes and chords, and also have the capability to assign multiple voices to the same staff, but we’ve had no way to visualise the result on a staff. Now our test application can optionally show music for multiple voices on a five-line staff, and can display multiple staves together.
It’s still very crude: notes are not beamed together, the spacing is pretty terrible, and things like ties are drawn very simplistically. This is not by any means the basis for how music will eventually appear in our application. But it is an important diagnostic tool as we continue to add more and more musical building blocks…
Our ethos is that our application will be most useful if it does automatically what an experienced engraver or copyist would do anyway. If an engraver and copyist can trust the musical intelligence built in to our application to make the right decisions, it will become a truly fast and efficient tool, and hopefully the one they will come to prefer over and above the others at their disposal.

Where this new software will end up is unclear—they’re still at the rough, early stages—but from what is currently available, this new addition to the pantheon of notation software applications has the potential to create a third-party platform that combines the best characteristics of both Finale and Sibelius. What this means for composers, and subsequently the entire new music community, is as varied as the number of ways in which these applications are used. Some composers use them exclusively as engraving tools, while others eschew paper and pencil altogether and compose directly into the application. Ultimately, if software developers are able to improve the ease of use and the quality of the finished product, then we all come out ahead.

Creative Partners in the Work of Life

For some, what makes the idea of composers interesting is the mystery surrounding the creative process as they sit in their monastic fortresses of solitude, locked in a bitter internal struggle with the musical maelstrom swirling inside their heads. What interests me, on the other hand, is how composers can do what they do while negotiating innumerable distractions, conflicts, and commitments, all while—most importantly—still being able to find time to have a real life. It may seem overly banal or simplistic, but this facet of the lives of those who create is important not because it demonstrates how different they are from the general public, but because it demonstrates how much they are the same.

One connection that I’ve found among almost every composer I’ve talked to—and here I’m just being safe, since I don’t actually remember anyone stating the opposite—is that they tend to have someone that they can call their partner in one way or another. Spouse, significant other, boyfriend/girlfriend, or just one or more close friends and confidants: No matter the title or level of intimacy involved, when all is said and done, these supporters play a unique role in the music by playing an important one in the life of its creator.

The position these partners take can vary wildly depending on many factors. Some will be involved in some way within the composer’s career. Examples abound of significant others working as the de facto business partner, acting as publisher, publicist, financial analyst, and manager. Others will interact artistically, either as collaborator or foil. There are many composers whose partners are not only performers, but who actively perform their works. Still other composers have partners who are composers themselves, creating a unique relational feedback loop that can be both artistically stimulating and challenging at the same time.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a partner or close friends whose careers and backgrounds have nothing to do with music or composing can allow composers to disconnect from their vocation for a time. It is all too easy for us to get lost in the minutiae of the music, so much so that we need someone to force us away from the page and pull us back into the world around us. In addition, they can give us not-so-subtle reminders of our humility; getting called to the stage to receive accolades for a newly premiered work can be exhilarating, but it won’t be long before someone provides a reminder that we’re not all that important…and that the garbage still needs to be taken out.

Whatever role these partners play, they cannot be thanked enough for it. The concert reviews won’t mention them, historians will only consider them if there is a scandal, and the audience won’t think twice about them, but it is often those who stand just offstage who provide a vital and necessary component to the birth and growth of much new music.