Category: Analysis

Artists in Occupation

Digital collage by Olson Olberburg created during occupation in Kherson

When I wrote about musicians living through the war in Ukraine for NewMusicBox and The Sampler in March, there were already fears that Russia would target artists and other intelligentsia in areas it occupies. There is a lot of historical precedent for Russia’s attempts to annihilate Ukrainian culture. Though I understood this possibility on an intellectual level, it was hard for me to truly embrace it emotionally at that time. The idea of artists being arrested and killed seemed firmly relegated to history books and dystopian fiction.

Though reports have been trickling in for months, this reality really hit home for me when I learned of the murder of Yurii Kerpatenko, the conductor of the Kherson Philharmonic Orchestra who refused to participate in a twisted propaganda concert meant to demonstrate that peaceful life had returned to the city the Russians were occupying. I was born in Kherson and I couldn’t help imagining myself in his place. Would I have fled, resisted or buckled under the pressure? Trying to learn more about Kerpatenko and Kherson’s cultural scene at large, I interviewed a number of artists who lived through months of occupation before finally fleeing. Though none of them were targeted for being artists, their stories weave a chilling narrative of survival and resistance in a region the Russians came to “liberate” from bogeymen of their own creation.

  • There is a lot of historical precedent for Russia’s attempts to annihilate Ukrainian culture.

    Anna Pidgorna
  • I couldn’t create music. I couldn’t even listen to it.

    Anton Kosiei, Ukrainian drummer in Russian-occupied Kherson
  • Before the war, I had my own studio where I worked on my art. I practically lived there day and night. It was a very cozy place right in the center.

    Marianna Tarish, Ukrainian digital artist
  • Culture is the thinnest layer of moss on the body of human existence; it was shaved off with a bulldozer; now there’s an enormous wound, blood, shit and urine.

    Constantine Tereshchenko, Ukrainian visual artist
  • The Russians also check for tattoos. Any Ukrainian symbolism can land you in a basement, from which you may never return.

    Anna Pidgorna
  • Yurii Kerpatenko was very independent. He was a well-mannered, but proud person. He never bent down before anyone.

    Roman Yusipey, Ukrainian accordionist now based in Germany
  • Putin will destroy you physically under the pretext that someone is forbidding you to speak Russian.

    Yurii Kerpatenko, murdered conductor of the Kherson Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Religious art is acceptable to the Russians since they are now claiming to be “de-satanizing” Ukraine in addition to “denazifying” it.

    Anna Pidgorna
  • There are days when I can’t keep myself together. On days like that I allow myself to be miserable, to cry a little, but not for too long because I have work to do. Everyone has their own front.

    Olson Olberburg, Ukrainian visual artist

Like virtually every person in Ukraine, the artists I spoke to woke up to sounds of explosions at 5:00 a.m. on February 24th. Southern Ukraine was occupied at lightning speed by Russian troops gathered in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014. Andrii, a musician from Nova Kakhovka who prefers not to share his last name to avoid endangering relatives still left in occupation, tells me that by noon the same day the occupiers were already moving through his city. There were endless columns of tanks and other army vehicles spilling across the nearby dam and onwards towards Kherson. Until his supply of food ran out, he stayed at home monitoring the situation through various news channels and chat groups. “In the first days I felt a total disorientation; it was hard to understand what was happening around me.” He heard explosions, sometimes on the outskirts of the city, sometimes in nearby neighborhoods. “At first I was comforted by illusions of a quick end to the war or at least a de-occupation of our region, in a few days, in a week, maybe in a month.” I’m reminded of the early days of the pandemic, when we all thought it would be over in a couple of weeks, except that the residents of this tiny city could not keep out the threat moving through their streets by observing responsible social distancing rules. The threat could drop from the sky or hurl from a tank’s gun at any moment.

Two of the artists I contacted, a young couple from Kherson, came dangerously close to experiencing a missile strike directly. “When the Russian troops entered the city, they randomly shelled residential buildings,” writes Anton Kosiei, a drummer and event presenter. “Our building was hit, the section next to ours. A fire started and almost the entire section burned out. A few people couldn’t be rescued because the building was surrounded and the Russians didn’t let fire trucks through while their equipment moved by. The residents themselves were battling the flames and rescuing people under the gaze of machine guns.” Luckily, Kosiei and his girlfriend, a visual artist who works under the pseudonym Olson Olberburg, were not home when this happened. They were hiding out in an athletics school on the outskirts of the city, an island on the Dnipro River, where they spent the first two months of the occupation.

The atmosphere around Kherson was chaotic in the first days of the full-scale invasion. The residents were hearing explosions, but the Russians hadn’t yet reached the city. On the first morning of the invasion, visual artist Constantine Tereshchenko rode out on his bicycle to stock up on bottled water. “The atmosphere in the city is incredible. People try not to panic, but I feel a colossal hype. There is a feeling of intense energy, a ringing clarity. The air raid siren turns on. It’s very loud. It’s the first time I’m hearing it. It is the exact representation of what is inside each of us. The siren fills the space with anxiety.”

A painting of trees by Constantine Tereshchenko

A painting by Constantine Tereshchenko.

Unlike some other parts of Ukraine, the Kherson region was utterly unprepared for battle, though the occupiers didn’t reach the city immediately. There was intense fighting on the main bridge linking it to the eastern bank of the Dnipro. Hearing about injured civilians brought to local schools from surrounding villages and towns, Olberburg temporarily left her hideout to join the volunteers spontaneously mobilizing to gather blood donations, clothing and supplies. Throughout Ukraine and beyond, Ukrainians have been volunteering to support the war effort with unprecedented zeal.

Kherson was fully occupied by the beginning of March. About thirty volunteer fighters in the woefully underprepared territorial defense squad were slaughtered in one of the city’s parks. Residents were not allowed to collect their bodies, many of them in pieces, for weeks. The local police and most elected officials fled before the invasion even started. Treason and active sabotage is suspected. The city descended into anarchy.  Marauding began, first by local thieves and later by Russian soldiers who didn’t bring enough supplies to feed themselves. Writing in a fragmented, manic stream-of-consciousness that attempts to capture the chaos of those first weeks, Tereshchenko concludes that “what is happening is such harsh surrealism that you lose all ability to act; there’s no point.”

Another Kherson-based artist, who works under the pseudonym Marianna Tarish, attempted to escape the chaos by moving in with her parents, who have a ninth floor apartment in the same island neighborhood where Olberburg and Kosiei were hiding out in the athletics school. “Before the war, I had my own studio where I worked on my art. I practically lived there day and night. It was a very cozy place right in the center,” writes Tarish. The center quickly filled up with Russian soldiers and their tricolor flags, which Kherson residents disdainfully nicknamed “Colgate” after the toothpaste.

Tarish thought the outskirts would be safer, but before long the Russians were everywhere. She remembers a lot of enemy planes flying over the city in the first weeks of the war. “One night a rocket flew very low right over our building. I’ll probably never forget the smell of gunpowder on the balcony and its horrific whistle.” Tarish made a bed for herself in the corridor, between two walls, which made her feel safer. Two walls or not, Soviet-era concrete block apartments have not fared well against direct rocket hits.

Back in Nova Kakhovka, Andrii had neither the desire nor the required state of mind to create or listen to music. ”Everything was too stressful. I wanted to turn off the music immediately so it wouldn’t get in the way of my stressing out, though obviously this didn’t help in any way. I couldn’t read books either; it was impossible to concentrate on the meaning.” Down the river in Kherson, the drummer Anton Kosiei was stuck in a similar state of anxious waiting. ”I hoped the occupation would not last. It was scary, because there were constant battles on the outskirts. There was a feeling of uncertainty, because you didn’t know if you’ll be shot at or taken to a basement or something else. I couldn’t create music. I couldn’t even listen to it.” Since the start of the invasion, the phrase “to be taken to a basement” refers to Russian occupiers abducting and torturing civilians in makeshift prisons.

The windows of the school where Olberburg and Kosiei hid out for the first two months look out onto the Kosheva River. What would normally be a peaceful sight of natural beauty was filled with rockets and artillery barrages, with smoke and fire, as the Russians bombarded the city of Mykolaiv fifty miles away. On February 28, Olberburg painted Night Over Kosheva. “After that I couldn’t paint for a long time because my hands shook and my eyes immediately filled with tears.”

Olson Olberburg’s painting “Night Over Kosheva”

Olson Olberburg’s “Night Over Kosheva” showing fire from Russian artillery over Kosheva River.

Tarish, on the other hand, found solace in her work. During the day, she would run around looking for supplies, stocking up on food and water, covering her windows with tape so glass shards wouldn’t fly into the apartment in case the windows blew out. In the evenings, she would draw and do yoga. No longer having access to her studio, she concentrated on digital art, drawing on her tablet which she picked up shortly before the war. “I got used to the explosions, but I started smoking. I would stand on the balcony as explosions screamed and windows shook. Somewhere on the horizon, rockets launched in balls of flame, and I lit my cigarette.” Tarish started putting all her feelings into her art and this is what saved her.

A cat on a table with a paw grabbing at a small digital monitor

Marianna Tarish working on digital art in occupied Kherson with the help of her cat.

The situation at Tereshchenko’s home had its own brand of terror in those first weeks. His wife Nastia was nine months pregnant, her due date looming. There was a curfew from 8 pm to 6 am; anyone out on the streets could be shot. The ambulance didn’t come at night. “Nastia prepares to give birth at home and asks me to prepare to assist her. We both understand that birthing is one of the most sacred processes in a woman’s life. She is in a bad state. She cries a lot,” remembers Tereshchenko. “Culture is the thinnest layer of moss on the body of human existence; it was shaved off with a bulldozer; now there’s an enormous wound, blood, shit and urine.”

A few days into the invasion, Tereshchenko snapped out of his initial stupor and concentrated on his wife, trying to maintain a state of calm inside the walls of their besieged apartment. He did household chores. He polished wood. He even started to draw, “at first mechanically, by inertia, without any meaning, but this habitual activity calmed my mind and I could keep myself from being consumed.” The war receded into the background as he contemplated the horror of having to assist the birth of his child alone. A few days later, the couple made it to a maternity ward. “Nastia is on the bed screaming from the contractions. Outside the window, through the evening sky, shells fly into the city. I dance a little and sing Hare Krishna. Nastia delivers a girl, Dusia, on the 18th day of the war.” Tereshchenko’s anxiety for his daughter is all over his drawings from this time period. There are babies everywhere.

Constantine Tereshchenko’s drawings .

Constantine Tereshchenko’s drawings and daughter Dusia born in occupied Kherson.

After a few weeks, Nova Kakhovka, which is located on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, ended up well behind enemy lines. Andrii could no longer hear explosions. “The streets were unusually quiet, there were few people and even less cars because of a deficit of fuel. At night the city plunged into total darkness and an even deeper silence through which you could occasionally hear the movement of [military] equipment. The atmosphere was tense and depressing.” He tried to leave the house as little as possible, moving by bicycle through backstreets to avoid encounters with Russian soldiers who had by this point thoroughly established themselves in his hometown.

Russian troops immediately started blocking supplies from Ukrainian controlled territory. There were even reports of them seizing Ukrainian humanitarian aid and distributing it to locals as their own to demonstrate their supposed benevolence. People didn’t want to take it. Grocery stores emptied out, but thankfully it was spring and the farmers markets were still supplied by the surrounding villages. Medication and cash, however, became scarce. Because of poor internet and mobile connection, Andrii’s freelance translation work dried up. Since most businesses and government institutions were forced to shut down, unemployment has been rampant throughout the region since the start of the invasion.

The situation in Kherson was similar. According to Olberburg, “when someone found out about potatoes in large bags, about pasta or onions, they immediately called everyone who needed these things, because there was a huge deficit.” Life in Kherson started to resemble the early ‘90s, the troubled years after the fall of the Soviet Union. People were selling smuggled goods from car trunks or blankets spread right on the pavement. “There were times when there wasn’t enough flour in the city and there was no bread for a week,” Olberburg continues. “I have never eaten as much bread as I did when living in occupation, and many people will tell you this.” I think about flour shortages as North Americans obsessively baked bread during the pandemic, but the intense desire for bread in occupied territories doesn’t have the same comedic ring as our collective sour dough mania. Bread has a particular cultural significance in a population partly wiped out by an artificially induced famine, holodomor, in the early 1930s.

As the weeks went by, Olberburg began to focus on the nature in front of her, to listen to birds, to meditate. “I found it very hard until I accepted death.” I feel a chill when I read this sentence, though I’ve heard this sentiment from other Ukrainians. Though this meditation on natural beauty seemed to help her mental state, the peaceful scenery rarely appears in the work she eventually started to produce. Because her hands still shook too much to hold a brush, she turned to digital collage. I scroll through her Instagram and see a radical shift in color palette; the lush greens of her fantastical pre-war landscapes are replaced by red and orange, the fluid lines by harsh juxtapositions of ruined buildings and local monuments caught in the gaze of large blue and yellow eyes. The series of digital collages titled “Look” (Podyvys’) bears witness to the destruction around her.


Olson Olberburg’s digital collages from the series Look created in occupied Kherson.

Tarish’s art went through a similar color transformation: nearly every piece created after February 24th is full of flames. The contrast between her first piece of digital art, posted to Instagram just two days before the full-scale invasion, and the first work created after is particularly striking. The pre-war Lovebirds is all blues, pinks and purples, with a warm yellow sun glowing between the two lovers. The Invaders Must Die!, appearing right beside it, shows snarling wolves wrapped in barbed wire (to represent their own slavery) snapping at a white stork that leads a sky full of souls out of the burning landscape. Tarish frequently uses symbols in her work and after the invasion, traditional Ukrainian symbols–like the stork or the red viburnum berry clusters–become especially prominent. It’s a trend I’ve observed amongst many Ukrainian artists working today, myself included. At times of existential threat, familiar symbols become important anchors not only to the past, but also to the future. They represent survival and continuity, and carry the collective feelings of the moment, just as they have for centuries.


Marianna Tarish’s digital art created in occupied Kherson.

Eventually, the musicians also returned to work, though in private. “I could practice music in my studio, but was only able to get back to it after about two months of occupation,” writes Kosiei. He didn’t create anything new, but practiced drums. “I had to force myself so I wouldn’t lose my form. I didn’t feel like it.” When asked if his experience in the war changed his relationship to music, he muses that his playing has become “more authentic, because the war exposes you; a person can’t be anything other than themselves. I hope to retain this feeling as long as possible.” Just months before the invasion, Kosiei and his colleagues opened a new cultural space in the center of the city. Linza, which hosted a hodgepodge of concerts, theater plays, lectures and dance parties, has been shuttered since February. Continuing any public cultural activities would have attracted life-threatening attention from the occupying authorities.

After the occupiers cut off most connection to the world, Andrii in Nova Kakhovka gradually started returning to art also, watching previously downloaded movies, listening to music and reading books, but this didn’t happen until May or June, not too long before he finally fled. “Because of an absence of distractions (I couldn’t work, most of my friends had left, the atmosphere in the city was not inviting), it became possible to work on music, to finish old projects and even to create a little new stuff. Most of the time it was relatively quiet, so nothing interrupted me. The hardest thing was to get over the initial stupor, to push myself out of catatonia.”

Together with another musician working under the pseudonym Starless, Andrii released a two-track EP, Dark Corner, which documents their internal state. “The concomitant initial physical and psychological shock and pressure alternately transformed into either despair and frustration or bursts of anger and rage,” reads the album description. Andrii’s track, released under the pseudonym Kojoohar, is a harsh and bleak electronic landscape rocked by uncomfortably slow bursts that disintegrate into digital debris. It feels like something terrible happening in slow motion.

The EP’s aesthetic is not far from Starless and Kojoohar’s usual projects such as Kadaitcha, which another musician, Edward Sol, described to me as “the most famous industrial band in Ukraine.” Still, amidst the apocalyptic walls of noise, Kadaitcha explores melody, as well as moments of brightness and near tenderness, elements entirely absent from Dark Corner. 

Throughout March the residents of Kherson came out to the street to protest against the invaders. The videos posted to social media are stunning. Months later, rewatching them still brings tears of pride and horror to my eyes. Unarmed civilians draped in Ukrainian flags face armed soldiers and heavy military equipment chanting “Kherson is Ukraine!” and “Go home! Go home!” They force armored cars to turn around. The Russians shoot into the air, but no one runs. A protester shouts “Stand your ground!” in Russian, clearly debunking the insane idea that Russian speakers in Ukraine wanted Russia to “save” them.

The occupiers expected to be welcomed as liberators in this predominantly Russian-speaking region. Contrary to oversimplified representations of Ukraine in Russia and in the West, language does not neatly correlate with political affiliation or cultural identity. “The eyeballs of these apes were popping out of their balaclavas when they heard our slogans,” writes Kosiei with many smiling emojis. Despite everything he endured, he seems to get much pleasure from the memory. “They were very confused by the fact that unarmed residents were bravely pushing against armored vehicles and soldiers with machine guns.” Similar protests happened in Nova Kakhovka and the surrounding towns and villages.

Before long, Russia brought in reinforcements to control the city. The contemporary versions of Soviet KGB, Rosgvardia and FSB are special forces designed to control civilian populations. They started dispersing protests with stun grenades and tear gas, and arrested people on mass. While the threat of bombing decreased, a largely silent terror began. The special forces began targeting activists, volunteers, cultural leaders, former Ukrainian military personnel and their families. They set up checkpoints throughout the cities and towns, where soldiers check documents and phones in search of any pro-Ukrainian leanings. Even private correspondence in Ukrainian, on any subject, is suspect. Some people started carrying decoy phones, because not having a phone is also suspect.

The Russians also check for tattoos. Any Ukrainian symbolism can land you in a basement, from which you may never return. One of Kosiei’s friends was beaten up at a checkpoint simply because he couldn’t satisfactorily explain the mere existence of his tattoos. “A lot of people were ending up in prison for their pro-Ukrainian positions, or just because they didn’t like you. A few of my friends ended up there, one for a month, another for two weeks. What was done to them there…I don’t even want to talk about it out loud,” writes Kosiei. Tarish also tells me of a young man she witnessed getting pulled off the bus at a Russian checkpoint. “I don’t know what they did to him. I hope he’s alive and healthy.” It’s been long understood by those of us watching the occupation from a distance that the horrors of Bucha will pale in comparison to what emerges when the Russians are fully pushed out of the Kherson region. They’ve had more than eight months to do what they did in Bucha for one month.

The occupiers eventually showed up at the school where Olberburg and Kosiei were hiding. “One of our mornings started with a search and this was terrifying,” writes Olberburg. “In front of you, there are seven men with pointed guns and you have no idea what they are thinking, but after Bucha and Mariupol you understand that there’s no humanity in these soldiers.” After this incident, Olberburg and Kosiei moved back to their own home in the damaged apartment building.

While terrorizing the local population into submission, the occupiers staged fake video shoots for Russian propaganda TV showing locals supposedly welcoming their presence and happily taking their humanitarian aid. “We saw the Russians filming their movies about peace,” Olberburg writes with apparent disgust. The occupiers also put on warped celebrations. It was precisely for such an occasion that they attempted to coerce the conductor Yurii Kerpatenko. In an interview with TV Rain (a Russian independent TV channel now operating out of Latvia), Terentii Shevchenko, Kerpatenko’s friend and former coworker from the Mykola Kulish Theater, said that the Russians wanted to mount a concert for Kherson’s annual Day of Music to show that peaceful life had supposedly returned to the city they were brutally occupying. They needed Kerpatenko to conduct and arrange the materials for this farcical charade. After he refused, armed men showed up at his home. When he didn’t open the door, they fired right through it with machine guns, killing him and injuring his romantic partner.

Trying to learn more about this tragic hero, a true dissident, I reached out to a Facebook acquaintance, accordionist Roman Yusipey who lives in Germany. They studied folk bayan (a type of accordion) at the same music institutions in Kherson. In the early ’90s, when Ukraine was just starting to open up to the world after the fall of the Soviet Union, Kerpatenko was already participating in international competitions. According to Yusipey, when a chandelier fell on the stage during Kerpatenko’s performance in Italy, he didn’t even stop playing. “He had a strong character.” He also took composition and theory lessons. His work for folk instrument orchestra, Autumn Poem, was often chosen by conducting students for their exams. They would ask him to get up on the podium to show them how to conduct his music properly. “I liked his manner of conducting,” remembers Yusipey. “His talent already started emerging in Kherson.” Yusipey also followed Kerpatenko to the Tchaikovsky Music Academy in Kyiv, where Kerpatenko focused on conducting and arranging after completing his performance diploma. Whenever the young conductor came back to Kherson, he would bring photocopies of new scores for his former teachers and their students, which must have been a lifeline in this small city still largely cut off from the world.


Yurii Kerpatenko conducting his own arrangements of Ukrainian folk songs with Gileya Chamber Orchestra

After graduating, Kerpatenko returned to his native Kherson. He spent a few years as music director at the drama theatre and occasionally conducted the Gileya Chamber Orchestra, a well-known ensemble in the Soviet era, which had fallen on hard times during Ukraine’s shaky transition to capitalism. Just months before the Russian invasion, Kerpatenko became the main conductor at the Kherson Philharmonic Orchestra. Though none of the other artists I interviewed knew him personally, they all knew who he was and were distressed by his death. Kosiei occasionally crossed paths with him on the stage. Tarish attended theatrical performances he conducted at the drama theater. As we look through YouTube videos of Kerpatenko’s concerts, both Yusipey and I mourn the lost potential he brought to the city. I get the sense that he was an important player in Kherson’s artistic revival.

According to Yusipey, even in their school days “Yurii was very independent. He was a well-mannered, but proud person. He never bent down before anyone.” Shevchenko also described him as “principled” in the TV Rain interview. These character traits did not help him survive the totalitarian regime the Russians attempted to set up in Kherson. According to Shevchenko, Kerpatenko was vocal about his views on the Russian occupation on social media. It was important to him to explain that Kherson residents thought of themselves as Ukrainian. It seems that Kerpatenko was always politically opinionated. Before the invasion, Yusipey “lazily” followed his Facebook debates from Germany, not getting into the details. They seemed like “storms in a puddle” to him then. I think about our own vicious controversies in the classical and new music community, and how insignificant they sometimes appear in the greater scheme of things. Now Yusipey regrets not paying more attention. One of Kerpatenko’s posts seems particularly prophetic: “Putin will destroy you physically under the pretext that someone is forbidding you to speak Russian.“ What troubling trends might I be missing in my own community or the world at large?


Yurii Kerpatenko conducting Oleksandr Gonobolin’s “Adagio and Allegro” with Gileya Chamber Orchestra

None of the artists I interviewed were targeted like Kerpatenko, though it may have just been a matter of time. A few weeks after the conductor’s murder, a well-known Kherson painter, Viacheslav Mashnytskyi, disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Friends and volunteers mounted a search after finding blood and other signs of struggle at his summer cottage. There is video evidence of his participation in the protests in March. The others fled Kherson some months earlier, when life in occupation became unbearable. Fleeing was also dangerous. There were never any green corridors out of Kherson or the surrounding region. Everyone left at their own risk. Sometimes the Russians wouldn’t let people through the countless checkpoints, keeping them on the side of the road for days or simply turning them around. People were searched and risked arrest. Some were robbed. Some died trying to reach freedom as Russians shot at civilian cars on a whim. Like my grandfather and his sister, many elderly people or those with serious health conditions couldn’t face the arduous journey. My grandfather worried that he would be shot if he needed to leave the car to relieve his bladder. Those without their own vehicles also faced prohibitive transportation costs as the trains and buses stopped running. I will never forget the agonizing weeks when my younger relatives weighed the decision to stay or go. Both options seemed horrible. My kidneys hurt from the fear I felt for them.

Tarish decided to flee after three months of occupation. The Russians had cut off Ukrainian internet and mobile service. “We ended up in an informational vacuum. We couldn’t reach each other or find out any news. To have no source of truth during the war is horrible.” Russian propaganda has worked aggressively to create the impression that Ukraine had abandoned the occupied territories, that their presence is forever. They replaced Ukrainian TV and radio with Russian propaganda channels that showed their own fantasy view of the war. They would even blast Soviet-era music on the streets and stage celebrations to film for their own TV.

For Tereshchenko and his wife, the deciding factor became their infant daughter. They didn’t want to leave, but the environment in Kherson was too dangerous for the baby. On the evening they made the decision to flee, they couldn’t stop sobbing. “We were about to rob our mothers and fathers of the happiness of being grandmothers and grandfathers.” They grieved depriving their daughter of the love of her grandparents. Olberburg and Kosiei left at the end of May. “I had a strong desire to meet victory at home,” writes Olberburg, “but with every month the situation in the city became more tense. People started disappearing. My friends ended up in the basements and were tortured.” Kosiei’s friend was beaten up at a checkpoint for his tattoos. The city became dirty and filled with Russian flags, billboards and military equipment. The atmosphere was too depressing.

A drawing by Constantine Tereshchenko.

Constantine Tereshchenko’s drawing of mother and baby floating in a sea of hostile forces, the Ukrainian trident hovering above.

Andrii fled Nova Kakhovka after five months of occupation. With the arrival of the long-awaited longer range artillery systems HIMARS, the Ukrainian army started hitting Russian military targets deep behind the front line. The situation in Nova Kakhovka became particularly tense after Ukrainians hit a big munitions storage facility in the city. The explosion was terrifyingly spectacular with ammunition exploding like fireworks through the billowing flames. Starless, Andrii’s musical collaborator, had his windows blown out by the force of that blast. Heavy curtains saved him and his partner from the shards. Ukrainians living in occupation have understood the necessity of these strikes and welcomed them, but the situation became more dangerous. “A lot of people left at this point. The city emptied out.” After much hesitation, Andrii finally agreed to leave when his friend suggested they travel together.

In the first couple of months of the invasion, it was still possible to flee to Ukrainian controlled territory, but towards late April, the Russians started blocking those pathways. My relatives fled towards Odesa on one of the last days it was possible to do so. After that, the only way out was through Russia. It’s unclear why Russians work that way; perhaps they want to maintain the farce that they are offering humanitarian aid to people they are supposedly liberating from Ukrainian aggression. Sometimes they also hold the local residents hostage because they know Ukrainians will not shell their own people.

Andrii and his friend traveled through Crimea, across the now partly blown up Kerch bridge and then north to Estonia. I was anxious about them because younger guys tend to be treated with more suspicion at the checkpoints. I worried they’d get sent to a filtration camp where Russia “processes” those they deem suspicious. “Troubles pursued us at every step of the way and it felt like everything that could go wrong did. There wasn’t a single day when something didn’t happen, starting with incorrectly filled out immigration papers at the Crimean border.” Their car broke down in some backwater town, which required more interaction with locals who had their own ideas about the war. The car had to be towed to the Estonian border. The journey took over a week.

Now Andrii is renting an apartment in a sleepy suburb in Tallinn, learning Estonian and trying to find work. “I am not drawn to music at the moment. I feel quite lost, even though I’m safer than back home.” He listens to very little music too. “I think I have not accepted the thought that I should start doing something. Perhaps because of the long period of inactivity in occupation, I remain in a state of waiting.” His traveling companion works long hours at a construction site. He didn’t even have the energy to answer my questions. I doubt he’s making much music.

The artists from Kherson also went through Crimea, but headed southeast towards Georgia. “I remember how nasty it was to travel through Russia. I saw a lot of cars with big Zs on the windows and trunks,” writes Tarish. “I was afraid that they would recognize a Ukrainian in me. On the way, we stopped at a roadside cafe and on their TV they showed total lies about how they were ‘rescuing’ us.” For Kosiei it was “unbearable to see the endless columns of equipment moving towards Ukraine.” Whenever he and Olberburg were stopped by police, the officers demanded bribes when they discovered the travelers were Ukrainian. At the Georgian border, Kosiei was held for five hours by Russian FSB agents after they discovered a photo from a pro-Ukrainian blog in some shadowy folder on his phone. “They interrogated me, yelled, threatened, pressured me psychologically.” Olberburg remembers how difficult it was to look young men in the eyes after they emerged from these interrogations. I imagine that waiting for her boyfriend was its own kind of torture.

Tereshchenko had an easier time at the checkpoints thanks to his infant. Men traveling with young children are generally treated with less suspicion. He managed to transport twelve of his paintings and two drawings by taking them off their frames and rolling them into plastic plumbing pipes, which he tied to his backpack. He was questioned about them at one checkpoint, but was allowed to keep them after explaining that they were icons he painted himself. I suppose religious art is acceptable to the Russians since they are now claiming to be “de-satanizing” Ukraine in addition to “denazifying” it.

Constantine Tereshchenko’s icons.

Constantine Tereshchenko’s icons, which he carried out of occupied Kherson in a plumbing pipe.

After spending a few weeks in Georgia, where they were warmly welcomed, the artists from Kherson ended up at SWAN, an artist residency in Sweden, pulling each other to this safe haven one by one. There’s a whole group of them there trying to process and communicate their experience of the war. “The occupation really affected my mental state,” admits Olberburg. “There are days when I can’t keep myself together. On days like that I allow myself to be miserable, to cry a little, but not for too long because I have work to do. Everyone has their own front.” She’s now drawing fantastical, alien landscapes full of symbols, in black, gray and red. Fire still features prominently.

A painting by Olson Olberburg depicting flames

A painting by Olson Olberburg.

Tarish is also back to drawing and painting on paper and canvas. When asked if the experience of the war has changed her relationship to art, she says that she’s “convinced yet again of the strength and influence that art has. It is the kind of language that is understood around the world, a language that needs no translation.” Kosiei is working on a new electronic music project, which he’s not yet ready to share.

The artists are also dreaming of home. Though Russian troops have recently retreated from the city, it will not be possible to return for some time. The occupiers destroyed a lot of infrastructure as they fled. As I write this, there is no electricity, water, internet or mobile connection through most of the city. A humanitarian disaster looms as temperatures drop. They also looted everything they could carry, including medical equipment from the hospitals, computers from administrative buildings and businesses, grain and farming equipment, and even animals from the zoo. It puzzles me why anyone would want to steal raccoons and squirrels, though I’m no longer surprised at such antics. They robbed and trashed many private homes and apartments, sometimes shitting on the floor where they lived. They also mined everything. It will be a while before the city is safe enough, let alone comfortable. Nova Kakhovka, on the other side of the Dnipro River, is still occupied, though Russian presence is decreasing. I hope they won’t be able to hold it much longer.

Though the atmosphere in Kherson is jubilant, there are fears that the Russians will start shelling the city, like they did Kharkiv, Mariupol and Mykolaiv. Still, I am convinced that before long, we will all meet in our native Kherson, eat watermelons, and after attending a lecture on local history “with cocktails in hand,” we will rage at a dance party at Linza, the cultural space Kosiei and his colleagues opened just months before the city was invaded. I hope the place hasn’t been trashed like everything Russian hands seem to touch, but if it has, we will rebuild. Dress code: glam/freak/fabulous/yellow/blue/free.

“The Reed Warrior” by Marianna Tarish

“The Reed Warrior” by Marianna Tarish, showing a soldier riding a zebra from the Askania-Nova nature reserve (Kherson region), carrying a watermelon shield and wielding a reed spear in the marshes surrounding Kherson.

Hearing Beyond The Categories of the 64th Annual Grammy Awards

Grammy Award

As per every year, the Grammy Awards, which more than two months after a pandemic-related postponement were presented yesterday in Las Vegas, are a mixed bag. It is tempting to think of these awards as the great equalizer, since there are awards presented to recordings of such a diverse range of music. There are prizes for everything from hip-hop and heavy metal to gospel, new age, Latin jazz, musical theater, global music (an equally meaningless term that now replaces “world music”) and contemporary classical music (an oxymoron that we’re unfortunately stuck with). But sadly, there is a clear pecking order to these accolades; some recordings have been deemed more important than others.

Of course, theoretically any album could win Album of the Year and any recording artist could win Best New Artist, which is how it should be. Back in 1963, The First Family, a spoken word comedy LP by JFK impersonator Vaughn Meader–who?–walked away with Album of the Year! In more recent times, with the rare exception of jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, who received the 2008 Album of the Year for a recording mostly of renditions of songs by Joni Mitchell, and Esperanza Spalding, a musician also primarily associated with jazz, fetching Best New Artist in 2011 (which shocked many viewers, most of all the hordes of fanatical “Beliebers”), only certain kinds of recording artists–inevitably those whose music is mainstream and commercial–typically receive one of the Grammy’s most visible accolades.

Even though a great deal of so-called “popular music” is worthy and deserving of praise, it is not the only music that is, but that’s how it usually goes. Thankfully, the 2022 Album of the Year was awarded to We Are, by the Juilliard-trained Jon Batiste, which is a remarkably fluid compendium of styles incorporating rap, R&B, jazz, and even New Orleans brass bands that is at times reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s evergreen polyglot masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life (which was awarded Best Album back in 1977). But don’t expect a specifically “contemporary classical” or “jazz”-oriented record to be designated as Album of the Year any time in the foreseeable future. Plus, to add insult to injury, for several years now, awards for categories deemed less consequential by the Recording Academy (including all those “classical” music awards) have no longer been doled out during the official televised ceremony, a tactic that the Academy Awards unfortunately emulated last month when it announced the award for composer of the best soundtrack off camera. (It would have been preferable to have seen this being announced live, even if it was for yet another award for Hans Zimmer.)

Still, there are many people to celebrate among the recipients of the 64th Annual Grammy Awards, and since several that we care about deeply were excluded from the TV show and, as a result, you might have missed them, we’re shining some light on them here.

The Grammy Award that is typically a headliner for NewMusicBox, that for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, this year did not disappoint as it was awarded to a composition by Caroline Shaw (who has previously been featured on these pages). Her winning work is a five-movement percussion quartet called Narrow Sea, which was recorded on Nonesuch in a performance by Sō Percussion who are also heroes in the new music community. (This recording also received a New Music USA Project Grant.) Of course, among the other nominees for that category this year are also folks we treasure: Andy Akiho (whom we’ve also featured in NewMusicBox), the late Louis Andriessen (who, in addition to being the most influential Dutch composer, was a beloved teacher of many Americans), and an album of works composed by prior New Music USA Project Grant recipient Clarice Assad, her father Sérgio Assad, and the four members of another maverick percussion quartet Third Coast Percussion (with whom we also spoke back in 2020).

We would have also been thrilled with a win by the remaining nominee, John Batiste, who to the chagrin of some “classical music purists” was under consideration for this award for a two-minute instrumental track from We Are called “Movement 11′.” It was exciting to see that it was nominated here, a step toward breaking down the obsessive categorization of music that winds up being so exclusionary, ironically mostly toward music that falls in categories that are so rigidly defined. The Recording Academy annually gives another award called Best Instrumental Composition, for which any music except that which is deemed “classical” seems to be eligible; this year it was awarded to the late Lyle Mays, a multi-Grammy-winning pianist and composer who had worked extensively with Pat Metheny. It’s interesting as well as encouraging that Batiste was nominated for the “classical” composition award rather than this one. But it might have been even more interesting and more encouraging if, say, Shaw or Akiho had been nominated for Best Instrumental Composition.

Another encouraging sign within the Classical Grammy Awards for several years now has been a preponderance of recordings devoted to new music among the nominees and this year was no exception. It was extremely gratifying to see Jennifer Koh be recognized with the Best Classical Instrumental Solo award for her performances of solo works that she commissioned from 20 different composers during the pandemic and has made available in performances online. Although I was disappointed that Christopher Cerrone‘s terrific album The Arching Path didn’t win Best Classical Compendium, awarding the prize to Women Warriors – The Voices of Change, a live to picture symphony orchestra soundtrack to a celebration of global social justice activists featuring arrangements of music by a group of Hollywood female composers and songwriters, was another notable genre bending moment. Plus the orchestrations were done by Catherine Joy, who is a grantee of New Music USA’s Reel Change Film Fund, a five-year grants and mentorship program for composers of diverse backgrounds who have been marginalized in film composition.

It was also nice to see the Metropolitan Opera receive the Best Opera Recording for its release of Akhnaten by Philip Glass, one of the few living composers whose works have been staged there and hopefully something that will encourage the Met to present works by more living composers. And although it is not the music of a living composer, giving Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra the Best Orchestral Performance Award for their Deutsche Grammophon CD devoted to two symphonies by Florence Price makes an important statement about the importance of this early 20th century African American female composer, the first black woman to have a composition of hers played by a major orchestra and whose output is finally getting recognition nearly 70 years after her death. For this same reason, though, it was disturbing that Yo Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, two undeniably significant musicians, received the Best Chamber Music Award for yet another recording of the Beethoven’s oeuvre for cello and piano when all the other nominated recordings were devoted to music by living composers. Maybe it’s the best recording eve made of these five sonatas and three sets of variations, but it has a lot of stiff historic competition whereas none of the music on any of the other nominated recordings in this category has ever been previously recorded.

As for jazz, the late Chick Corea received yet another posthumous Grammy for Best Improvised Jazz Solo, the second year in a row that he has gotten this accolade. While Chick Corea was unarguably one of the finest keyboard soloists, the other (still living) nominees–Jon Batiste (there he is again), Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Kenny Barron, and Terence Blanchard (another member of the exclusive club of living composers whose music has been presented by the Metropolitan Opera)–are equally worthy musicians. And so are countless others who were not even nominated for this category which this year, along with Best Jazz Instrumental Album (given to Skyline, a trio effort by Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette and Gonzalo Rubalcaba), seemed to be only eligible to male musicians. At least an album by 2015 Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition winner Jazzmeia Horn was among the nominees for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, though it lost out to For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver, an album by the Christian McBride Big Band, and Brazilian pianist/composer Elaine Elias captured Best Latin Jazz Album award for Mirror, Mirror, an album of duets with (again) Chick Corea and Chucho Valdéz (who completed the remaining tracks after Corea died). All the more reason why there need to be initiatives like Next Jazz Legacy, a national apprenticeship program for women and non-binary improvisers in jazz that was launched earlier this year by New Music USA the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.

The Grammys at least are aware that women are great jazz singers and this year’s award for Best Jazz Vocal Album was given to Songwrights Apothecary Lab, the eighth studio album by Esperanza Spalding, who plays bass and piano on this album in addition to singing. Again, though it’s wonderful to see Spalding repeatedly recognized for vital work (it’s her fifth Grammy), categorizing this music limits her identity and also pigeonholes this album (a collection of 12 pieces of music that Spalding calls “formwelas” rather than songs), ultimately diminishing the significance of her ongoing post-genre accomplishments.

Several other category-defying artists were also honored, albeit through awards in specific categories. Best Folk Album was awarded to They’re Calling Me Home, the latest recording by Rhiannon Giddens, who is equally versed in bluegrass, blues, R&B, gospel, and Celtic music, and co-composed an opera that will receive its world premiere in May at the Spoleto Festival. And Arooj Aftab, whose music is a fascinating amalgam of post-minimalist classical music, jazz, electronica, and traditional Sufi music, was awarded the amorphously worded Best Global Music Performance award for “Mohabbat,” a track from her New Amsterdam album Vulture Prince. (Note: Giddens serves on New Music USA’s Advisory Council while Aftab serves on the Program Council.) One final awardee also worth mentioning here is Béla Fleck who received an award for Best Bluegrass Album even though his stylistic proclivities are rarely straightjacketed into any single genre.

So a lot of recordings of great music did get recognized yesterday, but hopefully if more people hear them as a result of this attention they will realize that these recordings contain music that is so much more than the category names that have been placed on them in order to honor them.

 

Out of the Box: Plus C’est La Même Chose

Imani Mosley Out of the Box

[Ed. note: Last November, New Music USA marked its 10th anniversary. While we are continuing to celebrate all of the remarkable new music that has been created over the last ten years and our relationship to it throughout the coming months, we also want to start our second decade by imagining what the landscape for new music will be ten years from now. To that end, we are asking a group of deep musical thinkers to ponder this question. We aim for this series to spark important discussions in our community as well as to raise important journalistic voices from all around the country. Our first contributor is University of Florida-based musicologist and bassoonist Dr. Imani Mosley.-FJO]

Anthony Tommasini, in his final article as chief classical music critic for The New York Times, asks “so what things about classical music shouldn’t change?” It’s an interesting thought exercise that he unfurls throughout the article, reminding readers of things possibly slipping away: the sound of live acoustics, the exhilaration of risky playing, the generational work of artists and institutions. I don’t particularly have a qualm with the exercise or its examples — it’s a way, in a sense, of grounding classical music in a space and time that currently feels so unhinged, unembodied, unpracticed. But I am struck by the binary presented (even if it is to take apart a particular “problem”): that we in classical music-land are either asking what should change or what should remain the same. In approaching an essay such as this one that I was tasked with writing — what will new music look like ten years from now — I find myself running into that same binary. It is the idea that in order to assess or predict the new music landscape, one must be forced to face the conflict of change and stasis; not that things will change as most things inevitably do, but that change is not definite; stasis is.

This binary becomes murky both in theory and practice. One could say that art music throughout the twentieth century was based on change and the refutation of past practices. But as composers and performers shifted from style to style, medium to medium, our institutions became museumified, creating a dichotomy of either/or. The urge to be static rose concurrently with the urge to change. And so, in the twenty-first century, we’re presented with a choice: to look ahead or to look down. Not back or backwards, not into the past (because pastness cannot be and is not always equated with stasis), but down: down at our idle hands, down and away from our communities, down and buried in the sand. Had I been approached with discussing the future of new music two years ago, I probably would have answered differently; that our desire to look ahead would always be countered with our desire to look down. But as we enter the third year of a global pandemic, my view has shifted ever so slightly. Looking down is no longer a feasible or viable business model. It has become “look ahead or cease to exist.” And while I do not want to tie this piece so explicitly to current events, I don’t think it is possible for me to talk about the future without acknowledging what is happening in the here and now.

  • As composers and performers shifted from style to style, medium to medium, our institutions became museumified, creating a dichotomy of either/or.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • Looking down is no longer a feasible or viable business model.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • It has only been until very recently that the idea of space and place has been limited to the tangible.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • That shift away from liveness (something that I believe was on its way) is a huge step in the future of new music.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • As someone who is ensconced within the world of living composers, never have I felt as much access to them and their works as I have in the last few years.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • Looking ahead may be the only feasible way forward, the only way we will have created for ourselves.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley

Music is indelibly linked to space and place. Those elements can shape, structure, and define our listening and performance practices. The rigid acoustics of a European concert hall, the grand solemnity of a cathedral, the vast possibilities of a soundwalk—these are all ways in which music moves from the theoretical to the experiential. Music thrives on the performance of the experiential, on the real. The real, dependent upon physical space and presence, has been valorized above other kinds of performance often by listeners and performers. Whereas other types of music and performing media may thrive within recordings, art music relies upon the live. This is not disputing the long history of classical music recording, but rather positioning it within a synchronous history of live performance practice. Recording obfuscates authenticity because it has to be imbued in order to be believed, as explained by Philip Auslander: “[T]he music industry specifically sets out to endow its products with the necessary signs of authenticity.” Even Pierre Boulez expressed concern about the fidelity of recording, where “the so-called techniques of reproduction are acquiring an irrepressible tendency to become autonomous and to impress their own image of existing music, and less and less concerned to reproduce as faithfully as possible the conditions of direct audition.” For a genre that existed before recording technology, its authenticity lay within the visage of liveness (one only has to look to arguments around amplification to see this concept at work); liveness becomes the real. It has only been until very recently that the idea of space and place has been limited to the tangible. Philip Auslander and Jonathan Sterne discuss a shift that occurred in the 1990s, but the advance of the internet has accelerated that shift. Space and place could become virtual, mediated, otherworldly. The late 2000s saw Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir as well as the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, emphasizing that a virtual space could still be experiential, authentic, real.

So, what happens when physical space and place are no longer available to you? The COVID-19 pandemic posed this question to musicians, composers, and institutions. What about your precious real now? Many organizations opted to make already filmed material available to a wider public, following the already existing models created by the Berlin Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, and Glyndebourne. But others saw this as an untapped creative space: Opera Philadelphia created a streaming channel with new works by composers such as Caroline Shaw, Angélica Negrón, Tyshawn Sorey, and Melissa Dunphy. These composers created works within a virtual space, decidedly unreal in a sense, to make a multifaceted multimedia object, one that uses all available tools to build something unique. Like the television opera/opera on television divide, these works exist in this mediated way first, much like Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave or Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. Their authenticity is not predicated on some kind of prescribed and imagined liveness; they are not meant to be experienced in that way. And more than anything, that shift away from liveness (something that I believe was on its way) is a huge step in the future of new music. This is more than just using media, electronics, and technology as tools; this is about restructuring foundational elements of art music.

I am loathe to cite this pandemic as a breaking open of anything. Music’s relationship to this moment is varied and I find the “Newton’s Annus mirabilis” approach to these last few years as demoralizing and unapt. But decisions will be made and I wonder if in ten years hence, we’ll look back at now and see those decisions as being tectonic for new music. There is an immediacy that exists in a way that has seldom been seen and with that immediacy comes freedom: freedom to create new music without the shackles of place, space, and institution. The freedom that signifies the taking back of creative power and control. As someone who is ensconced within the world of living composers, never have I felt as much access to them and their works as I have in the last few years. And I cannot imagine anyone wanting to give that up. With the virtuality of space and place comes a kind of equalizing; yes, there will always be funders, donors, money, connection, and privilege. But virtual space is limitless. I’m reminded of composer Garrett Schumann’s “I’m a composer and I wrote this music” TikToks, maximizing the medium’s penchant for virality, its visibility and algorithmic pervasiveness to introduce his music, new music to the world. And as we’re forced to turn to those virtual spaces to have as close to real musical experiences as we can get, the more we reify that aforementioned power. I do not foresee a looking down after this moment ends.

So, what does that mean for the future of new music? What happens in that next decade? I personally can’t speak to musical and stylistic changes, that’s anyone’s guess. But as a musicologist and historian who specializes in how people have reacted to music in specific cultural moments, I can guess as to how the moment will be presented to us. In schools, in our major institutions, and with individuals, we will have assessed what to let go, what will change, and what will remain static. Looking ahead may be the only feasible way forward, the only way we will have created for ourselves. Tommasini ends his article noting that he wants to “protect it [classical music], as well as shake it up.” This reads as that forced binary appearing once again and this moment now suggests that that binary may no longer be viable. We may experience another moment when we will have to let things go because they have been taken from us. And instead of approaching that moment as a deficiency, let us approach it as an abundance, as so many composers and performers are doing now. Creation not in spite of but out of a desire to. A future where change is definite.

Native Experimentalists

I started writing this article in what is presently called La Villita in northern New Mexico. These are the lands of Puebloan people, more specifically Ohkay Owingeh, as well as Jicarilla Apache. I’m finishing the article in Muwekma Ohlone lands, presently called the San Francisco Bay Area.

Thanks to NewMusicBox for inviting me to write this article. It’s an honor for me to help bring attention to the vital and extremely varied work of Native artists and communities who are historically, and presently, otherwise too often under-known and overlooked. I’m not an authority on this extensive subject, and I identify as a musician first and foremost. All the same, I recognize that I have accrued some knowledge, personal experience and relationships over the years that I can draw upon. I’m deeply honored to have been entrusted with such a task.

It’s an honor for me to help bring attention to the vital and extremely varied work of Native artists and communities who are historically, and presently, otherwise too often under-known and overlooked.

For years now, I’ve been a regular contributor to First American Art Magazine (FAAM) which is devoted to the work of Native artists of this continent. I’ve also had writings published in Full Moon Magazine (Prague), an Anthology of Essays on Deep Listening for Pauline Oliveros’s 80th birthday and most recently Three Fold Press out of Detroit. I’ve learned so much through these processes and from the various editors! I never set out to be a published writer; it’s been a rewarding adventure for me in a lot of ways.

Here I’ll be focusing first and foremost on three Native experimental musicians (Raven Chacon, Nathan Young, and Laura Ortman) who I have had personal experiences with as well as the scenes and communities that they’ve cultivated over the years plus brief segments on three musicians whose work I have covered as a contributor to FAAM (Warren Realrider, Jacqueline Wilson, and Michael Begay).

I first met Raven Chacon (Diné) in 2010 while on a cross-country tour with my Italian band Tsigoti. Raven was involved in a loose knit organization called Coalmine Kollektiv that presented our show in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Since then, we’ve become good friends and collaborators. I’ve covered much of his work in reviews and profiles for FAAM, and we have published works together as a duo including a recent recording of our performance at Array Music in Toronto for my Astral Spirits Traveling Sessions series. As a presenter and space holder for artists, Raven’s been involved in many organizations over the years while maintaining his own community art and music spaces like Small Engine and Spirit Abuse as well as his record label Sicksicksick Distro. I played shows with Raven, John Dieterich, and Jeremy Barnes in both of these community centers and have been able to take in many shows at both that provide opportunities for musicians who have little or no available venues otherwise. On top of that he’s a remarkably prolific composer, working on commissions regularly for performers and performances around the world.

My initial exposure to Raven’s work came from his involvement in Postcommodity, which is a Native artists collective based in the Southwest. At that time the core members included Cristóbal Martínez (Chicano), Kade L. Twist (Cherokee), Steven Yazzie (Navajo/Laguna), and Nathan Young (Delaware Tribe of Indians/Pawnee/Kiowa). The work of Post-Commodity utilizes any and all artistic disciplines and mediums to articulate a myriad of viewpoints, perspectives and expressions. From their website: “Postcommodity’s art functions as a shared Indigenous lens and voice to engage the assaultive manifestations of the global market and its supporting institutions, public perceptions, beliefs, and individual actions that comprise the ever-expanding, multinational, multiracial and multiethnic colonizing force that is defining the 21st Century through ever-increasing velocities and complex forms of violence.”

The collective provided cover art for two albums from my Estamos Project; jimpani kustakwa ka jankwariteecherï by Estamos Ensemble on Edgetone Records and People’s Historia by Estamos Trio (Carmina Escobar and Milo Tamez) on Relative Pitch Records. jimpani kustakwa ka jankwariteecherï is a direct translation of “compositions and improvisations” in the P’urhépecha language which is mostly spoken in rural communities in the highlands of Michoacán, México, where our violinist Julián Martínez Vázquez was born and presently lives. Postcommodity provided a photo of a graphic score made from ground coal, salt, and rock from the dead Gila River which was part of a larger mixed-media installation called Worldview Manipulation Therapy. The piece was exhibited in 2009 at The Ice House in Phoenix. Worldview Manipulation Therapy “… draws upon the ephemeral, transformative and esoteric aspects of tribal ceremonies — central to the Indigenous worldview.” It’s a reexamination of the on-going postcolonial stress enforced by globalization and neoliberalism. The graphic score was the centerpiece of the overall installation incorporating traditional tribal geometries.

Drumhead from the installation Worldview Manipulation Therapy

Worldview Manipulation Therapy – 2009.
Multichannel video, sound and mixed-media installation. Duration: 12 Hours.
from the installation view at The Ice House, Phoenix, AZ.

A bladder of blood was placed inside the cavity of the gutted deer dripping blood periodically onto the drum that was then effected and amplified throughout the plaza. The piece was created in response to the 400th anniversary of Santa Fe from the Indigenous perspective.

The cover for Estamos Trio’s People’s Historia was a close up of a blood soaked Pueblo drum which was part of a public installation in the Santa Fe Plaza in 2010 titled “P’oe iwe naví ûnp’oe dînmuu/My Blood is in the Water” (mule deer taxidermy, wood poles, water, amplifier, drum). The collective hung a deer in the center of the plaza above a ceremonial drum fixed with contact mics. A bladder of blood was placed inside the cavity of the gutted deer dripping blood periodically onto the drum that was then effected and amplified throughout the plaza. The piece was created in response to the 400th anniversary of Santa Fe from the Indigenous perspective. It’s a tribute to the traditional relationship between people and food/nature in the region. “‘My Blood is in the Water’ is a counter-metaphor critiquing the dominant culture’s process of commoditization, demand/supply and convenience.” It is an expression of the continuity between the present Indigenous culture and the past.

A close-up of the drumhead from the installation My Blood is in the Water.

A close-up of the drumhead from the installation My Blood is in the Water.

Through Raven and Postcommodity I’ve developed a friendship and working relationship with Nathan Young (Delaware/Pawnee/Kiowa), and have been exposed to and written about the work of Jacqueline Wilson (Yakama), Michael Begay (Diné), and Warren Realrider (Pawnee/Crow) for FAAM.

Nathan Young is a Tulsa Arts Fellow and former member of Postcommodity. He’s presently enrolled in the Native American Art History Ph.D. program at the University of Oklahoma which is the first and only program that approaches the study of Native American Art from a critical perspective rather than within the field of anthropology. I’ve had the fortune to write about Nathan’s work a variety of times for FAAM as well to spend time in his community both participating in and witnessing his work as an artist and presenter. Since I’m on the road perpetually, I have the opportunity to experience the work of others as I travel. This is one of the reasons I’ve been such a regular contributor to FAAM, primarily when I was writing solely about visual art. Sometimes my touring is dense, moving from one city to the next night after night and sometimes it’s more relaxed and allows me the privilege to spend time within communities and scenes, to both collaborate with and document other artists. My partner ACVilla and I have a duo project, Silver Ochre, which is focused on the creation of video art and documentaries that are engaged in social justice issues and the needs of communities. So all of this lends itself naturally to writing about the work of others. That said, in 2018 I was invited by Nathan to perform a multimedia work of Silver Ochre’s as part of his Tulsa Noise programming which was facilitated by the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. I spent three days there getting to know fellows and faculty as well as Nathan and his work as an artist and presenter. (The fellowship has been in existence since 2015, prioritizing opportunities for Native American artists and artists of color.)

Everyone’s standing around a pickup truck they are using as a big drum. A certain kind of extended technique!

Following those few days in Tulsa, Nathan and I drove up to Kansas City for the opening of his art show “Night Music of the Southern Plains American Indian” at the Center for Contemporary Practice at KCAI Crossroads Gallery. (I wrote about this show in the Spring 2019 issue of FAAM.) Situated in two different rooms of the gallery, one room was dedicated entirely to a sacred experience of Peyote, the culture and the ceremony. The other, much larger room included an old pickup truck facing a projection on a screen. The projection was documentation from the opening concert that was held in the parking lot of the gallery. Nathan invited the Southern Thunder Singers to perform what is called 49 music. These are songs typically sung at after parties the nights following powwows, out on back roads or fields, with everyone standing around a pickup truck they are using as a big drum. A certain kind of extended technique! The truck was then brought into the gallery and placed with its headlights facing a screen on which was projected the documentation of the concert. The show ended a month later with students of Dwight Frizzell’s at KCAI performing a graphic score on the amplified truck. The idea was to perform the truck from a western perspective, with a score that the students interpreted with transducers, baseball bats, contact mics, and chalk while Nathan processed the Elton John song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” through his laptop.

Jacqueline Wilson is a bassoonist and serves on the faculty at Washington State University. She’s just begun recording an album of works for bassoon by Native composers including Raven Chacon, Juantio Becenti (Diné), Gillian Whitehead (Maori), and the late Louis W. Ballard (Cherokee/Quapaw), slated to be completed in late 2022. She also recently commissioned a work for bassoon and marimba called Nocturne by Connor Chee (Diné). With another bassoonist (Stephanie Willow Patterson, Columbus State University), she is preparing a work by Elizabeth A. Baker titled Collective Collaborative.

Performance of Bluebirds by Juantio Becenti in Montezuma Creek UT on the Navajo Nation
Jacqui Wilson – Bassoon
Yuko Kato – Piano

Michael Begay (Diné) is a tireless creative force playing in metal bands like Akklamation, which he and his brother started in 2005, as well as writing commissions and teaching in the Native American Composer Apprentice Project, which has been part of the Grand Canyon Music Festival since 2001.

In 2018-2019 Michael was the Composer-in-Residence with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra. Recent commissions include a work for Orchestra Northern Arizona, a solo composition for the Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli, a string quartet for Black Dog String Quartet, and a duo for violin and piano performed by Stefan Milenkovich and Renata Yazzie (Diné) at Northern Arizona University’s Native American Cultural Center. He was invited to study composition at the Peabody Institute beginning in the Fall 2021.

Premiere of Michael’s newest works as a commission by Shelter Music Boston: “Chiaroscuro”, “Hai (Winter)”, “Cloak of Autumn”

Warren Realrider performs under the moniker of Tick Suck and has been a regular contributor to Tulsa Noise. Warren Realrider (Pawnee/Crow) is a multidisciplinary sound artist based in Norman, Oklahoma. He created the Tick Suck noise performance project in 2016 and has since presented his solo works and sound performance collaborations in varied Tulsa and Oklahoma City settings. His piece IIII Kitapaatu, presented at the Tulsa Noise Fest in 2019, is featured in the forthcoming documentary Love and Fury by Sterlin Harjo. Realrider works within the liminal space between object, function, and ceremony to extract sound sources which are then processed and deconstructed utilizing contemporary music technology. Elements of harsh noise, sound art, and indigenous music are blended into compositions improvised in response to the location, context, and space of Tick Suck performances.

Video by Blackhorse Lowe (Diné) at the 2019 Tulsa Noisefest of Tick Suck (Warren Realrider) playing willow, imitation sinew, cymbal with a contact mic, distortion and feedback.

Warren Realrider’s Unassigned Data at the Oklahoma Contemporary Gallery

Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache) and I first met through filmmaker Martha Colburn who invited us to provide live musical accompaniment for a screening of her films at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2009. Laura and I had both worked with Martha for some time before meeting. I was so blown away the first time hearing her and my fascination with Laura as a musician continues to deepen every time I have the opportunity to hear and/or collaborate with her. Laura experiments with cross-disciplinary, genre-bending approaches to music and performance, drawing on both her classical violin training and Indigenous musical traditions. While she plays electric guitar, keyboards, pedal steel guitar, makes field recordings, and sings through a megaphone, her main instrument is her singular violin.

Laura Ortman experiments with cross-disciplinary, genre-bending approaches to music and performance, drawing on both her classical violin training and Indigenous musical traditions.

Six years ago, Laura was one of four Native artists who, through the Artist Leadership Program of the National Museum of the American Indian, the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe, was invited to create socially engaged art. In turn, she invited me to participate in her residency by sounding the magnificent Echo Amphitheater north of Abiquiú as well as record with her in the studio she was provided at MoCNA. Laura recorded with a handful of local musicians and blended it all together with field recordings she gathered of the city and region. She described this work as a customized soundtrack of Santa Fe. She also continued this approach to sonic engagement with her work commissioned by Issue Project Room she called Dust Dives Alive. The piece is part of the Isolated Field Recording Series which she published on her Bandcamp account Dust Dive Flash.

In 2016 we met up again at Park Church Co-op in Brooklyn. The evening of four sets was to raise funds and awareness in support of the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline #nodapl. Her solo performance of violin and effects was incredibly deep and soaring under the vaulted ceilings and the old hardwood. Not long after that I invited her to participate in my residency at Pioneer Works which culminated in a concert of me in trio with Nels Cline and Michael Wimberly as well as a quartet with Laura, Yuka C. Honda, and Ravish Momin. ACVilla provided visuals which she gathered and created during the residency.

Laura’s album My Soul Remainer came out in 2017 which I reviewed for FAAM. Two years later, as a 2019 Whitney Biennial artist, she delivered a  concert that incorporated all of her sonic abilities to an understandably great reception. In that same period, her video, under the same name, debuted at the museum.

Here’s footage of the concert:

Plus the multimedia piece with the great ballet dancer Jock Soto (Diné):

This article makes it clear that there’s a tremendous amount of exciting work being produced by Native musicians. And of course there’s much more to cover beyond what I have here and no doubt much more to come. I think it’s crucial that the perspective of Native America be witnessed through the work of artistic practices.

 

Diversity, Inclusion, and Funding New Music in the ’90s

In May 1989, the Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato took to the floor of the senate chambers to angrily denounce the artist Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ—which depicted a crucifix submerged in urine—as what he called a “deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity.” What made D’Amato particularly furious, and what led to his protests along with those of his fellow Senator Jesse Helms, was the fact that Serrano’s photograph had been touring as part of an exhibit indirectly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. “This is not a question of free speech,” D’Amato proclaimed, as he waved a reproduction of the exhibit’s catalog. “This is a question of abuse of taxpayers’ money.” And then, unceremoniously, he tore the catalog in half, threw it on the floor, and declared, “What a disgrace.”

Worried about similar controversies, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington preemptively cancelled a large-scale exhibit of photographs by artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who had died of AIDS earlier that year, which included several explicit depictions of gay sex acts as well as nude children. Serrano and Mapplethorpe became the scapegoats for an uproar among Republicans in Congress, who debated whether the Endowment should be defunded or significantly restricted, as well as a newly galvanized evangelical movement, who accused the Endowment of promoting profanity and pornography. Avant-garde art, and its government funding, was conscripted into the sweeping referendum on post-’60s society, waged between left and right, known as the Culture Wars.

American composers, however, seemed to have little to fear: the focus of right-wing anger was directed towards the radical photography of Serrano and Mapplethorpe, as well as the performance art of figures like Karen Finley. The music that became subject to Culture Wars controversy––such as the rock and hip-hop targeted by the PMRC and Christian fundamentalist organizations––seemed far from the world of contemporary composition. Indeed, in an October 1989 article, the young composer David Lang expounded on the apparent lack of significance of the so-called “Helms amendment”––an attempt by the right-wing senator Jesse Helms to restrict federal funding to art that was deemed obscene or indecent––for the world of new music. “Artists like to feel that their work is challenging enough to be controversial,” he wrote. “Photographers, painters, filmmakers and the like can imagine victimization at the hands of Congress as a badge of honor. They are Art-martyrs to the First Amendment.”

“With all of the excitement,” Lang fretted, “it is disturbing that so little of this controversy is aimed at composers. Are we not controversial? Why isn’t Congress rushing to censor the subversive power of modern music? It is possible that we are doing something wrong.” Later in the article, Lang ultimately singled out one central culprit, what he called “A colossal loss of nerve.” As the academic avant-garde faded, Lang wrote, composers were looking to work with mainstream institutions and reach large audiences, and thus “there are a lot of people we can’t afford to offend.” Lang’s principal scapegoat was “polite music,” music “designed to impress an audience, not to provoke it. “Congress says we are dangerous,” he concluded. “It is up to us to prove it.”

David Lang fretted, “Why isn’t Congress rushing to censor the subversive power of modern music?”

But in utilizing the Culture Wars as a backdrop for making a perennial argument––that composers needed to make their music more aesthetically adventurous, to re-embrace avant-garde impulses––Lang may have overlooked the very real consequences of the Culture Wars on contemporary music. New music was not only swept up in the decimated public funding landscape that Helms and the religious right set into motion. Its institutions were also the subject of their own specific controversy, within the press and among granting panels, that centered on attempts to enact multicultural arts policy and promote the work of women and composers of color.

This three-decade-old episode of an attempt to diversify the world of contemporary composition––amidst a landscape of increasing arts austerity, loud Congressional battles over avant-garde art, and public backlash from prominent composers––has much to offer today’s attempts at fostering inclusion. It is one of many stories from my recent book, Industry: Bang on a Can and New Music in the Marketplace, which draws on interviews and archival research to reconstruct a crucial, turbulent, and oft-overlooked moment in American music.

The cover for Will Robin's book Industry


In the late 1980s, “multiculturalism” was a buzzword in the American arts world: promoted by foundation and government administrators, detested by conservatives, and made an explicit if only partly realized goal for arts institutions. In these contexts, multiculturalism was typically understood to signify the advocacy for art created by minority groups as well as outreach programs by traditional institutions to minority communities.

Multiculturalism became a lightning rod for debates on how NYSCA should adjudicate its funding.

And multiculturalism became a lightning rod for debates on how the New York State Council on the Arts (hereafter NYSCA) should adjudicate its funding. Established in 1960 as a public funding body for the arts in New York State, NYSCA preceded the NEA and served as a model for some of its programs. Under the direction of James Jordan—the cousin and longtime manager of Ornette Coleman—NYSCA’s Music Program increasingly supported new music, including adding a priority for programming living composers to its guidelines in 1985, and running a statewide touring program intended to grow audiences for new work. Jordan maintained a strong commitment to funding experimental jazz and the work of Black composers, and also viewed public funding as a means for new music to reach new listeners. “Can you sell experimental music?” he asked in a 1991 interview with EAR Magazine. “I think you can. But you have to sell its humanity, its spirituality…It’s the marketing that sells, whether it’s experimental or not.”

In this period, NYSCA attempted to address the issue of multiculturalism, partly in response to political pressure. In 1987, it launched a program to diversify audiences for large cultural institutions like the New York Philharmonic via funding for outreach programs. But in a series of public hearings conducted by the New York State Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus, the “new audiences” programs were critiqued for subsidizing established institutions at the expense of smaller organizations within minority communities. The caucus organized a task force which produced a 1989 report, “Towards Cultural Democracy,” lambasting NYSCA for excluding people of color from its staff and panels, and for awarding grants primarily to “Eurocentric” institutions; its minority-aimed Special Arts Service Division, for example, was continuously underfunded and required lobbying simply to stay afloat. NYSCA’s panel review system was itself suspect, as its “experts” were typically only familiar with Eurocentric art forms and perspectives: “People of color are always outnumbered on panels and have little or no input in that decision-making process.”

“This is not a purely symbolic debate,” sociologist Samuel Gilmore wrote of multicultural arts funding in 1993. “Rather it is a battle over the current and future allocation of scarce artistic resources.” Public agencies were continually and rightfully pressured by their constituents to wrestle with how to allocate arts funding across different ethnic and racial demographics. As they attempted to do so—often poorly and unfairly, as the critics in “Towards Cultural Democracy” argued—they also faced critique from conservatives who felt that the organizations were abandoning the “permanent values” of the supposed canon of high art in favor of serving political interests.

The terms of this debate mirrored contemporaneous political battles over affirmative action, in which liberals argued for the necessity of acknowledging racial difference and conservatives instead made a case for purportedly “meritocratic” colorblindness. And what unfolded at NYSCA reflected national trends in arts funding; in the final years of the 1980s, as Gilmore points out, NEA programs in multiple categories steadily increased grants awarded to minority-based initiatives (though, in proportion to the agency’s total budget, such efforts still remained paltry). In 1990, President Bush’s NEA chairman described multiculturalism as an NEA priority, and language around it was incorporated into grant making guidelines.

Some of NYSCA’s new policies led to an uproar in the world of contemporary music, most vociferously voiced by the composer Charles Wuorinen. With the composer and flutist Harvey Sollberger, Wuorinen had co-founded the Group for Contemporary Music in 1962, among the earliest American ensembles specializing in contemporary composition. It was initially housed at Columbia University and received significant early funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, which had been seeding ensembles and electronic music studios at universities across the country. (Michael Uy’s fascinating new book Ask the Experts tells the full story of this moment.) The Group participated in a broader network of emergent Cold War institutions, including Princeton’s PhD program in composition, the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and the journal Perspectives of New Music, which codified a new support system for contemporary music, strongly underscored scientific expertise, and were backed by university and foundation patronage.

A paradigmatic modernist Cold Warrior, Wuorinen had a forbidding reputation as an advocate for serial composition. And through the 1980s, he increasingly articulated a pessimistic, neoconservative worldview, expressing concerns about populism, pluralism, and the decline of “serious culture.” In a 1988 profile in The New York Times, on the occasion of Wuorinen’s fiftieth birthday, writer Joan Peyser focused on the composer’s concerns that minimalism was overtaking twelve-tone music, driven by institutions such as NYSCA prioritizing audiences over art. Like the neocon art critics who filled the pages of The New Criterion such as Samuel Lipman and Hilton Kramer, Wuorinen traced the plight of the present moment to the late ’60s: “That was the turning point. Art became capitalized, a Good Thing, something to be brought to everyone. With that came the promoting, the merchandising, the marketing––the change from art to entertainment.”

And Wuorinen apparently told the Times that the Group for Contemporary Music’s next season might be scrapped in part because of NYSCA: the composer “says the council’s money is going to organizations specializing in Minimalist music and that members of its music committee have told him of their wish to help promote the work of women and blacks.” The composer attempted to resist such efforts, steadfastly refusing to take any such considerations into account when programming his ensemble’s repertoire.

Grant application materials, held in the New York State Archives, further clarify both NYSCA and the Group’s positions. Reviewing the ensemble’s 1986–87 NYSCA grant application, a Council administrator noted concerns about its failure to program women and minority composers. In the preceding years, the Group programmed no music by women composers, and only one work by a Black composer. Wuorinen and the Group’s staff met with James Jordan in fall 1986. In a response to NYSCA that November, the ensemble’s executive director wrote that the Group had received few scores by women or minority composers in the past, but it would issue a public call, emphasizing that women and minorities would be encouraged to apply. Still, he noted, “We will continue to select the most worthy ones for performance without respect to gender or ethnic background.”

Reviewing the ensemble’s 1986–87 NYSCA grant application, a Council administrator noted concerns about the Group for Contemporary Music’s failure to program women and minority composers.

NYSCA was set up in a similar fashion to the National Endowment for the Arts: an internal staff helped adjudicate grants, in dialogue with independent panels of peer artists. And the peer panel that voted on the Group’s funding application later that month was not convinced: “That the Group has received only one score from a woman and none from minorities in the past two seasons had more to do with the history of not performing the works of women and minorities, creating an unwelcome atmosphere.” Its annual funding was cut substantially, from $16,000 to $10,000. Other ensembles faced similar scrutiny: reviewing an application from another group, Speculum Musicae, panelists discussed the “insularity of its programming, and the lack of evidence of any real effort to include women and minorities,” and its funding was cut by $3,000. In a 1985 review meeting, administrators from the downtown venue Experimental Intermedia told a NYSCA officer that they would feature more women and minority composers going forward.

Still, the Group refused to play ball. In June 1987, the ensemble held a board meeting in which it decided that “affirmative action programs had no place in artistic endeavors,” and “agreed that The Group must continue to maintain the integrity of its programming, despite the consequences of NYSCA funding or lack of it.” Its NEA funding had been cut back, too, and its New York seasons shrunk; the Group did, however, program music by two women, Michelle Ekizian and Barbara Kolb, in 1987 and 1989.

Beginning with its 1990 handbook, NYSCA’s guidelines included a new section stating that “The Council is particularly interested in offering assistance to worthy artistic activities that serve traditionally underserved communities or populations.”  The policy advocated for applicants to increase the diversity of their staff and program for culturally diverse audiences. To evaluate these new criteria, NYSCA asked questions of applicants “relating to participation in and service to traditionally underserved populations.” There were no pre-determined answers it sought, but it wanted to see a given applicant demonstrate good-faith effort. “We don’t punish those who don’t program women, minority, and American composers,” Jordan told EAR in 1991. “We reward those who do.”

After skipping applying for NYSCA funding for two years, the Group applied again in 1990 for a modest $5,500 for a three-concert, free series comprising music by Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, Olivier Messiaen, and other composers––all of whom were white men. Responding to one of the new application questions––“Do you include artists who are representatives of minorities and special constituencies in your programming?”––the Group reiterated what had now become familiar rhetoric, that it was interested in programming minority composers “of merit” and that its artists “are selected on the basis of ability.” The peer panel reviewing the application debated whether to reduce requested funding based on its failure to address past concerns over diversity, and the state ultimately awarded $5,000. But the Group only presented one of its three proposed programs and in 1991–92, the ensemble’s thirtieth season, it ended its live concert series entirely, instead dedicating its resources exclusively to recording.

“The State Council of New York attempted to tell me what I should program,” Wuorinen told the scholar Richard Douglas Burbank around this time. “That’s why the Group for Contemporary Music doesn’t exist anymore, except on paper. The Arts Council wanted affirmative action.” He added that “They were taking artistic control from us and I wouldn’t have it.”


One peer organization in new music had no issues complying with NYSCA’s requests. Founded in 1987 by the composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, the freewheeling Bang on a Can festival brought together rock-inflected postminimalism, uptown serialism, downtown experimentalism, and world music. They had easy answers to the questions that the Group had protested. In a 1990 NYSCA application, Bang on a Can described in detail its marketing and publicity work to reach diverse audiences, and noted that “our commitment to women and minorities has been, and remains, very strong,” providing a list of more than twenty women and minority composers featured in the past four years.

Back in 1988, Lang had actually written a letter to the Times rebuking their profile of Wuorinen, in which he accused the composer and his uptown compatriots of “rooting out dissent with the ardor of holy warriors on a serial jihad.” He added, “Only by encouraging diversity can music hope to stay vital.”

These priorities also made Bang on a Can an appealing candidate to foundations that supported diversity-focused initiatives. In 1990, it successfully applied for funding from the Meet the Composer/Reader’s Digest Commissioning Program to commission three new string quartets written by women, which the organization pitched as helping rectify the fact that “women composers are under-represented” in standard repertoire. (In terms of gender, an average of around 22% of works presented on the Bang on a Can marathons between 1987 and 1993 were by women composers—not representative numbers, but better than many peer organizations.)

An average of around 22% of works presented on the Bang on a Can marathons between 1987 and 1993 were by women composers—not representative numbers, but better than many peer organizations.

In a 1991 funding request to the Jerome Foundation, Gordon wrote that “In the past five years we have presented on our marathon concerts works by 82 emerging composers, of which 34 were by women and composers of color,” and that all of its commissioned works for 1992 were by women and people of color. He further noted that during its process for evaluating works submitted for performance at its marathons, following an initial blind review to see if the music fit the “artistic vision of the Festival,” there was a second review with a number of considerations including “whether the composer is an emerging, woman, or minority composer.” This clear acknowledgement that the organization took gender, race, and ethnicity into account in its programming would have been anathema to Wuorinen, who saw such efforts as a form of social engineering that jeopardized his notions of a modernist, individualist meritocracy.

And NYSCA program reviews and panel comments on Bang on a Can applications were consistently positive. “It is rare to find an organization which programs the works of women and minorities in representative numbers in a way that is natural to the goals of the organization,” a NYSCA staffer wrote in his evaluation of a 1991 funding proposal. As NYSCA funding for the Group for Contemporary Music was cut, Bang on a Can’s increased.


Ultimately, though, state program reviews were not what jeopardized new music in the 1990s. The decade began with massive reductions to NYSCA’s allocations, in response to the 1990 economic recession, which caused a deficit crisis in New York State. In 1991, Governor Mario Cuomo requested a 56 percent cut in NYSCA’s budget, prompting outrage in the arts community. James Jordan told EAR Magazine that the proposed cuts were the “worst shape we’ve been in during the last 20 years.” The budget was ultimately cut by 44 percent and, by 1992–93, the state arts budget was at its lowest level since the early 1970s. And new-music organizations across the board faced major state cutbacks, to which Bang on a Can was not exempt.

But some prominent composers would remember the culprit of this moment not as the recession, or a state government that deployed arts cutbacks to balance its budget, or even the paleoconservatives like Jesse Helms fighting at the national level. Invited by The Musical Times in 1994 to respond to the question “Music: the next 150 years?” Milton Babbitt took a bleak outlook, lambasting “pervasive and invasive populism” that endangered the future of what he perennially called “serious music.”

According to Babbitt, the National Endowment for the Arts “has imposed through its appointed panels a censorship of egalitarianism, regionalism, sexism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse sexism’) and racism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse racism’) which has had far broader and harsher effect than the publicized attacks and threat of censorship by a yahoo legislator and his fellow protectors of the public morality.” (“Yahoo legislator” was a reference to Helms.)

Arguing that the “NEA’s ideological correctness has trickled down to other public and private benefactors”—likely referring to NYSCA, although Babbitt does not name the Council—the composer recapped the Group for Contemporary Music’s funding woes and its cessation of live performance. And he repeated Wuorinen’s claims that the ensemble’s funding had been threatened by its failure to program music by minority composers. Instead, Babbitt argued, “There is apparently little concern that the most threatened minority groups are the composers and performers who have been on the programs and on the stage.” New music itself, in other words—rather than new music by composers from underrepresented groups—deserved affirmative action.

Like Wuorinen, Babbitt wrongly believed that Helms and his yahoos were less of a threat to serious music than liberal multiculturalism. His claims of the NEA’s reverse racism and reverse sexism in panel adjudication echoed conservatism’s “colorblind” opposition to affirmative action and other social programs that attempted to address inequality. Babbitt and Wuorinen had both benefited from Cold War–era foundation and university patronage, and their approach towards modernist music’s individuality, and distaste for what they saw as a politically correct government bureaucracy that threatened it, was steeped in the rhetoric of that time. If they saw themselves as heroically embattled figures during the Cold War, they assumed an even more embattled position during the Culture Wars.

Like Wuorinen, Babbitt wrongly believed that Helms and his yahoos were less of a threat to serious music than liberal multiculturalism.

And by no means did Babbitt accurately capture the state of public funding. Conservatives inflated what they disliked about the arts bureaucracy into a grand critique that assumed that the NEA and NYSCA exclusively funded the multicultural, the populist, and the obscene. At the federal level, “multicultural” arts funding was more rhetoric than reality: federal support for minority artists was largely concentrated in NEA programs like Expansion Arts, which had a much smaller budget than the Music Program.

And NEA granting for composers was indeed sexist, but in the more conventional, non-reverse fashion. In 1987, for example, composers Sylvia Glickman and Tina Davidson launched an official complaint after their Endowment proposal for a consortium commission of all-female composers was denied funding; in researching their case, they found that women had received only 9% of Composer Fellowships over the past eleven years, and that in 1987 only 3.26% of Endowment funding for the consortium and fellowship categories was awarded to female composers (a total of two grants). They noted that very few peer panelists were women, and even fewer were women composers. “The Endowment, by ignoring women composers’ excellence, effectively bars them from other funding sources, performances and continued artistic growth,” they wrote.

By 1996, the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget shrunk drastically from $162 million to $99.5 million and it eliminated nearly all fellowships awarded to individual artists.

But the granting programs would not have much time to take these critiques into account––to become actually multicultural, as Babbitt and Wuorinen feared. The “yahoo legislators” soon had their say: a year after the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans won House and Senate majorities by campaigning on Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” Congress slashed NEA funding by 40%. By 1996, the Endowment’s budget shrunk drastically from $162 million to $99.5 million, it cut almost half of its staff, and it eliminated nearly all fellowships awarded to individual artists. By the early 2000s, public funding had been decimated at both state and federal levels.


What David Lang wrote in 1989 was not wrong: no senators took to the floor to tear up scores by Philip Glass or John Cage. New music was ultimately collateral damage in the Culture Wars, not directly targeted by congressional Republicans but still subject to the same devastating public funding cuts that the controversies over Serrano and Mapplethorpe inaugurated. But the controversies over NYSCA’s funding of new-music organizations—relatively tame in comparison to what unfolded on the floor of the senate—tapped into the same partisan rhetoric as the more famous ones that played out on the national stage, and did in fact conscript American composers into the battles of the Culture Wars.

Equally significant was what this tumultuous moment in culture indexed for American composition. When paleoconservative Pat Buchanan—who frequently railed against the NEA—ran against George H.W. Bush in the 1992 Republican primary, he declared in his convention speech that he was launching a “war for the soul of America,” one “as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” As the Cold War ended and the Culture Wars began, the world of scientific, university-based modernist composition that had flourished among institutions like the Group for Contemporary Music gave way to the market-friendly postmodern eclecticism of organizations like Bang on a Can—a transformation facilitated by the shifting priorities of funding agencies who reflected a new national climate.

As the Cold War ended and the Culture Wars began, the world of scientific, university-based modernist composition gave way to the market-friendly postmodern eclecticism of organizations like Bang on a Can.

This story is part of what I call new music’s “marketplace turn,” a period in the 1980s and ‘90s in which presenters, funders, advocacy organizations, record labels, and upstart festivals pushed for American new music to reach a broad, non-specialist audience. Bang on a Can is one of the most significant victors from this period: today, with its touring ensemble, record label, and summer festival, it commands significant influence in the world of contemporary music, not to mention a multi-million dollar budget.


In her book On Being Included, Sara Ahmed cogently identifies pernicious gaps between how diversity is advertised and promoted and how it is actually enacted and exercised in practice. Here we see the enaction of relatively tame state policies to promote a more diverse world of new music inciting vehement pushback. For those currently engaged in such efforts at their own universities or within their own ensembles, the fearmongering of Wuorinen and Babbitt may not be all that surprising. Even long after the Cold War, many musicians still perpetuate ideologies of autonomy that view even the mildest forms of affirmative action as a pernicious encroachment on artistic independence.

One of the principal problems that Ahmed and others have identified is that the work of diversity—and ultimately, and more importantly, the work of anti-racism and anti-sexism—is that it is continually under-resourced, often serving as tokenistic PR instead of actual redistributive justice. The story of NYSCA in the 1980s and ’90s is thus prescient, or at least unsurprising, in this regard. Just as public granting agencies began to enact multicultural arts policies, their funding was massively cut, and, as the Babbitt essay demonstrates, some even blamed the policies themselves for those cuts.

“If you’re giving an organization $10,000, you can say, ‘In return to that we expect you to have a social face,’” David Lang recalled in a conversation we had in 2019. “If you’re cutting them from $10,000 to $1,000, you can’t say, ‘Oh by the way for this $1,000 we’d like you to change your organization’ . . . That social action, at least from government organizations, was ascendant as the funding was ascendant, and when the funding got cut a lot of steam went out.”

Similarly, in a 1996 NYSCA grant application, when asked how its programming reflected “efforts to broaden and diversify its audience,” the venue Experimental Intermedia did not mince words: “Frankly, we have to state that continued federal, state, corporate and foundation arts funding cuts have stripped most organizations to the bone. We continue our open invitation to and interest in minority artists, but there are no funds with which to explicitly address these issues beyond what it possible in regular programming.” James Jordan had claimed that NYSCA would reward organizations that programmed women and minority composers, but they were left with few resources with which to undertake new projects. Budget cuts compromised transformative change.

Today, renewed and necessary advocacy for diversity and inclusion—whether in the petitioning of major institutions to program works by underrepresented composers, the crucial labor of organizations such as Castle of our Skins, or the proliferation of equity committees—can only go so far on the limited resources of our neoliberal landscape.

Instead of petitioning a robustly funded NEA to enact policy that advocates for BIPOC composers, we instead understandably find ourselves yelling at orchestras on Twitter.

In an era of public arts austerity, these diversity efforts often represent individual, entrepreneurial projects rather than broad social endeavors sustained by government support. Which is to say that, instead of petitioning a robustly funded National Endowment for the Arts to enact policy that advocates for BIPOC composers, we instead understandably find ourselves yelling at orchestras on Twitter. As we continue to talk about diversity, the American people need to put our money—and, especially and crucially, our public money—where our mouths are.

Livestream Community Survey: What We Learned from the Field

Three members of the [Switch ~ Ensemble] playing instruments and an additional person operating a laptop for a livestream


A January 2021 full broadcast performance from Switch~ in residence at UT Austin for 5 telematic world premieres: Nathan Nokes’s Co-Opt (2020); Ian Whillock’s void (2020); Geli Li’s Long Nights (2020); Monte Taylor’s Zoetrope (2020) and Lydia Wayne Chang’s Project Agree: Mission for the Internet Communities (2020) (All works performed by the [Switch~ Ensemble] telematically on December 1 & 2, 2020.)


In August 2020, the [Switch~ Ensemble] led a Community Survey about the habits, preferences, and interests of concert-goers for livestreams. We are pleased to provide a summary of the responses, as well as recommendations based on our analysis of the data.

We publicized the survey through direct email marketing and in our social media. Several organizations, including New Music USA, helped boost the reach of our announcements through their channels. In total we had 52 respondents. Responses were collected in a Google form.

The first section of the survey helped us have a baseline for who was responding. Respondents tended to reflect [Switch~]’s audience overall, including a significant number of other musicians and industry insiders. One-third of respondents indicated they are “very familiar” with [Switch~], and the average survey respondent had a relative fluency in music technology. One shortcoming in the breadth of responses was that none of the respondents identified as disabled/having a disability. So, for example, we do not have the perspective of anyone who is blind/low vision or deaf/hard-of-hearing and their experiences trying to navigate video livestream performances.

Two further sections asked detailed questions about past attendance and preferences for future engagement and opportunities.

In the months between survey and publication of this essay, vaccines raced from experimentation to delivery, indicating a return to concert halls may come in the next 6–9 months. Yet, livestreaming and virtual interaction have been around for some time and are undoubtedly here to stay. While there is no substitute for in-person interaction, livestreams do have significant benefits. They can allow us to reduce our carbon footprint, invest more in artists and less in plane tickets, and more equitably engage in collaborations with artists from across the country and around the world.

6 KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Livestreams are a lifeline for connecting with friends and/or artists you like. Strong results in this area is the most important predictor of success.
  • Improving the standard of production value and audio quality are critical for the ecosystem.
  • There is some skepticism of the value of livestreamed shows, which ensembles are inadvertently exacerbating through their marketing and messaging. Instead, we should be building trust in broadcast performances as a valuable way to experience music.
  • There is a growing divide between those in the habit of regularly attending livestream performances and those who are not. From initial marketing to concert time, each cohort has different needs when it comes to helping them feel welcome, supported, and engaged.
  • Repertoire choices matter a good deal, in complex ways. Respondents seem well-aware we are all in uncharted waters, and that the sky is the limit for imagination and innovation. There is great interest in new works, premieres, and using this opportunity to work on repairing longstanding issues around equity and the exclusion of talented artists.
  • People are not always forthright or self-aware in what drives their attendance or interest, and tastes can change quickly. Accordingly, some information is curious if not self-contradictory. This topic has a long history, notably: the Ford Edsel.

 

A FEW DEFINITIONS

Let us pause for a moment and define some terms. We’re defining a livestream as any way of sharing artistic content where the performers and audience aren’t in the same place, but the audience can watch/listen thanks to technology.

A situation where all the performers are in one place and sharing a video stream out to their audience is commonly referred to as a broadcast.

A situation where all the performers are in different places—coordinating by way of teleconferencing software, then sharing a video with their audience—is commonly referred to as a telematic performance. Musicians have been researching these topics for decades. For example, we encourage you to read about Pauline Oliveros and her research in this arena.

Many artists and ensembles are presenting livestreamed performances where the audience observes at the moment of performance. We could call this a synchronous livestream: the music is made and consumed at the same moment, with performers and audience together on a video conference like Zoom.

Others are opting to assemble performances/recordings that are then released on a streaming platform at a later date. We might call this an asynchronous livestream.

SOME BASIC LEARNINGS & DATA

For several questions, options ranged from “Really Negative” to “Very Positive” and/or from “Irrelevant” to “Very Important”. To help analyze data quantitatively, “Really Negative” and “Irrelevant” were both assigned a value of 1.0, and “Very Positive” or “Very Important” assigned a 5.0. For example, a quality score of 2.5 and an importance rating of 4.5 would suggest a given feature is of low quality and very important to the experience of a livestream.

A chart comparing responses to the question:

Reflecting on the decisions to attend past livestreams, the most important factor was “get to see friends/colleagues perform”. It scored an average importance 4.3/5.0, with 42% ranking it Important and 48% ranking it Very Important.

That livestreams “Feel like a return to normal” were largely irrelevant, scoring an average of 2.2. There appears to be a collective understanding that “normal” is not possible and that livestreams do not support a sense of normalcy.

Choice of platform was also rather insignificant: an average importance of 2.3, with only 2 Very Important and 14 Irrelevant. A wide range of platforms are popular, with 44 respondents indicating past attendance on YouTube/YouTube Premiere (36), Facebook Live (32), Zoom (25) and Twitch (15). (Respondents could check multiple entries). However, regardless of platform, qualitative comments suggest a strong preference for a flexible schedule of consumption rather than a limited release only at “concert time”.

Generally, when asked to name reasons they would attend a [Switch~] livestream, respondents favored innovative repertoire (40 votes) and to support members (35) above all. A sense of community, “repertoire I know and like”, and interesting ancillary content saw moderate support (15-18), and “feels like a return to normal” saw few (8).

A chart comparing the 3 reasons respondents gave for coming to a livestream event: Innovative repertoire (40); to support members (35); Familiar repertoire (18); Sense of community (17); interviews and presentations (15); feels like a return to normal (8)

These responses support earlier data on the importance of social connections, and elevate the importance of new and excellent repertoire.

GOING DEEPER

We took a deeper dive into consumer preferences with a closer analysis of four questions in particular. (Fair warning, the next few sections get a little wonky!)

  • How important were the following factors to your experience of past livestreams?
  • How did the following factors impact your choice to attend past events?
  • What are some reasons you would RECOMMEND a [Switch~] livestream to a friend
  • What are some reasons you would HESITATE to recommend a [Switch~] livestream to a friend?

The factors considered in each question fell in three analogous buckets:

  • Audio & production quality
  • Getting to see friends or artists you support
  • The content of the performance itself

Separately, all respondents were asked: “Would you recommend a [Switch~] livestream to a friend?” as a yes/no/maybe question. In the following sections, we’ll talk about two groups: those who answered this question yes (we’ll call them advocates) and those who answered maybe (we’ll call them fence sitters). The cohort of respondents that indicated they attended 4-or-more prior livestreams will also be frequently compared against the cohort that attended few-to-none.

 

FOUR QUESTIONS

A chart comparing responses to these 2 questions:

As mentioned above, audio quality had the greatest impact on experience but the lowest quality score. This is a problem, as it appears to be eroding trust that livestreams are worth going to.

Audio quality was nearly unanimous in importance but respondents were displeased with its success. The average importance was 4.4/5.0. However, most found the success rate poor (3.0). Production and technical skill, more broadly, were very important too (an average of, 4.1, with 14 Very Important, and 0 Irrelevant) but also saw a mediocre score for quality (3.3).

Scores around 3.0 may seem average, but, generally, consumers tend to be optimistic when filling out surveys like these. For example, the Net Promoter Score used by many Fortunate 500 corporations considers a score less than 7 on a 1-10 scale to be a “Detractor”. Accordingly, anything at or below 3.0 on our scale warrants some concern.

So, we’ll start with the bad news: the level of satisfaction with audio quality warrants some concern. The single-lowest quality score assessed by any group (2.7) was on audio quality, from those who attend few-to-no livestreams. 2.7 is even lower than the already troubling score to this question overall (3.0). This perceived lack of quality from the cohort of few-to-no show-goers is particularly significant as it suggests we are either losing audience members or that they don’t attend at all due to threshold fear of an undesirable experience.

Interestingly, our group of fence-sitters had more favorable views of the audio quality in livestreams they attended than just about any other cohort (!), with above average (3.2) sense of quality and equivalent sense of importance (4.3). A separate question on “Production/technical quality” saw similar results, with fence sitters holding slightly more favorable views on average.

So, why are they on the fence? Data suggest that, as a group, they report a significantly lower sense of quality experience getting to see friends or artists or they know.

“Got to see friends &a colleagues” was generally positive (4.2) and influential to the experience (4.2). This was most true for advocates (4.5 & 4.5, respectively), and for attendees of 4+ prior shows (4.3 & 4.2). But responses grew more tepid with those who had attended few-to-none (4.0 & 4.1) and most of all with the fence sitters (3.8 & 3.7)—i.e. those who hesitate to suggest a livestream show to a friend.

Taken all together, we see an important distinction: The most important reason people are not going to shows is because audio quality is important to them and it’s bad. The most important reason people are hesitating to recommend them to friends is because they have not felt good about getting to see friends and colleagues in a compelling performance.

A chart comparing the responses to the question:

To see friends and colleagues perform is once again the gold standard. It scored equally highly among survey respondents familiar with [Switch~] and unfamiliar with [Switch~]. In other words, this is a field-wide phenomenon, not a reflection of [Switch~]’s specific fans.

Those who attend livestreams regularly have stronger and more polarized feelings about new works designed for the medium. But, interestingly, the platform matters less to those in the habit of attending more livestreams. The latter were more than twice as likely to name it an Irrelevant feature.

While “Feels like a return to normal” scored badly across the board, it was most influential to those who had attended few to no prior livestreams.

“New works designed for the medium” scored highest among those who use music tech professionally, but a bit less strongly among others. It is logical that experts in the field want to see innovation.

  • Livestreaming and virtual interaction have been around for some time and are undoubtedly here to stay.

    Zach Sheets
  • Repertoire choices matter a good deal, in complex ways.

    Zach Sheets
  • The most important reason people are not going to shows is because audio quality is important to them and it’s bad.

    Zach Sheets
  • Experts in the field want to see innovation.

    Zach Sheets
  • Getting to see new works and premieres and a thoughtfulness about equity feature prominently.

    Zach Sheets
  • Ensembles have increasingly sophisticated capacity to pre-assemble recordings and release them as though they were live.

    Zach Sheets
  • We all know audiences are more than willing to support artists if they believe in the value of the experience.

    Zach Sheets
  • A new medium may open connections to brilliant artists who were pushed out of traditional contemporary western classical music channels.

    Zach Sheets

Advocates and fence sitters largely agreed about which features were irrelevant to their experience, but a few key issues separated what did matter to them. Advocates ranked getting to see friends and colleagues perform more highly. And where fence-sitters cared more about getting to see repertoire they know and like (3.5 vs 3.0) advocates had stronger feelings about seeing new works designed for the medium: 27% vs 5% who named it Very Important.

A chart comparing responses to the question: "What are some reasons you would recommend a livestream to a friend?" Answers (very important vs. irrelevant) were: Technical skill (23/0); New works & premieres (9/0); Thoughfulness about equity (18/-4); Interviews/info about the work (5/0); Connection to a member (9/-6); Familiar repertoire (6/-2); and Good marketing (3/-8)

Perhaps predictably, the fence sitters consistently gave more tepid responses to each of the 5-point scale questions compared to the advocates. The most noticeable divergence was with the importance of having a connection to a member (3.8 vs 2.8), with thoughtfulness about equity in programming a close second (4.3 vs 3.5).

But, advocates and fence sitters agreed that getting to see new works and premieres was an important factor. Not a single person deemed this feature irrelevant. The only attribute that fence sitters thought was more important to a recommendation than advocates was “It’s repertoire I know and like.” Perhaps those who are unsure about livestreams feel more comfortable with some familiarity with the repertoire.

Those who have been attending livestreams often were more likely to care about new works and premieres than those who had attended few to none (4.0 vs. 3.6), and less likely to be influenced by knowing a specific member (3.2 vs 3.5). Overall, the number of respondents who named “new works and premieres”, “thoughtfulness about equity”, and “technical skill/quality” as “Very Important” was about 10-15 percentage points higher among those regularly attending livestreams. These therefore seem like 3 key areas for capitalizing on most ardent supporters.

The group of respondents who had attended 4 or more previous livestreams gave relatively similar answers in this section than those who had attended few to none. The greatest average difference was in the importance of good marketing. Just 5% of people who had attended few-to-no livestreams said this feature was irrelevant, compared to 23% of those often attending livestreams. It stands to reason that those regularly in the habit of attending livestreams are less reliant on attractive marketing to get them “off the fence”.

In separate questions, the importance of “New works and premieres” tended to score less favorably than “new works designed for the medium”. At first, that seems a curious finding: the two are functionally synonymous. We believe it suggests some lingering hesitation about livestreams as a medium. The salient takeaway is likely that “come see a world premiere” is a more effective call to action than “come see a new work made for streaming.”

The difference between advocates and fence-sitters was most noticeable when considering the reasons to recommend a livestream. Their responses about reasons for hesitation were similar. In other words, the two groups shared hesitations but the advocates had significantly greater excitement. This suggests the problem is not one of “like and dislike” but rather of excitement versus apathy.

Chart comparing responses to the question: "What are some of the reasons you would hestitate to recommend a livestream to a friend?" Answers (very important vs. irrelevant) were: Ticket price (+12/-5); not enough thinking about equity (+12/-11); don't think livestreams are interesting (+7/-8); worried about technical difficulties (+7/-8); too much conventional repertoire (+5/-9); marketing not engaging (0/-8); and unfamiliar with repertoire (0/-22)

Overall, there is an uphill battle with livestreams: 42% of respondents said they “just don’t think livestreams are interesting” as an important or very important reason they would hesitate to recommend a show.

Those who had attended 4+ prior livestreams had fewer hesitations overall than those who had attended few to none. The greatest variances were around concerns of poor marketing, a lack of familiarity with the repertoire, and technical difficulties: Those who had attended few to no livestreams named them 10-20% more important, on average. While 53% of respondents who regularly attend livestreams said that unfamiliar repertoire was irrelevant in provoking hesitation, just 30% of those who rarely attend livestreams said the same.

What does stand out for the fence-sitting group? Getting to see new works and premieres and a thoughtfulness about equity feature prominently. But technical skill/quality tops the chart with an average of 4.1 and almost 30% of respondents rating it “Very Important” to recommend a show to a friend or colleague.

However, our fence sitters were less willing to admit that concerns about technical difficulties were a source of hesitation. You may also remember earlier data that the fence sitters felt audio & production quality of shows they attended was actually better than average.

In the words of Kenan Thompson, What’s up with that? While this at first seems contradictory, the wording of the questions provides two clues: 1) the concern is not discrete technical difficulties so much as an overall lack of enthusiasm about the quality of livestreams, and 2) the concern is not that something will be bad so much as a reluctance to suggest to someone else that it will be good.

Finally, fence-sitters appear among the most price-sensitive for ticket sales, ranking that more important than average as a source of hesitation. However, in a separate section about the financial impact of COVID, respondents in this group were less negatively impacted than respondents overall. In fact, nearly half of respondents in this group were making similar or more than what they used to, compared to pre-COVID times. Only 14% had lost more than half their income.

Taken together with above data about the poorer sense of connection to known and beloved artists, we believe these data suggest not an inevitable inability to afford shows, but rather a skepticism of their value.

Accordingly, we feel the solution is not ever-cheaper tickets and centering “free show!” in one’s marketing. Rather, the solution may be to earn trust by cultivating excellent content, and hone our skills at naming its value. Whether or not to actually charge for tickets will depend on each ensemble’s community and specific goals, but regardless we should be mindful not to perpetuate a lack of trust in the value of artistic work by centering how “cheap” they are to attend. That might well make it harder to attract audiences.

 

COMMUNICATION, IMPLEMENTATION, AND ATTENDANCE

Marketing and communication can likely play a key role in fostering greater confidence that livestreams will be a compelling concert experience. At the moment, respondents seem to be expressing a gap in trust that livestreamed shows will be a quality experience, which is hindering the sector’s overall ability to connect with audiences in this format.

We know that people are willing to watch performances and listen to music on a laptop or phone: we do it all day long. We would be best served to compete for attention on an axis where we see we have an advantage, like:

  • connect with artists you know and like despite quarantine
  • see friends and colleagues
  • see new musical works and premieres

On the latter point, new music ensembles tend to thrive in ordinary circumstances. However, the logistical constraints of quarantine have challenged many ensembles but empowered others. Improvisers, mixed media artists, and ensembles interested in multimedia have been able to produce new and significant bodies of work. Some groups may not be able to perform right now, and that’s okay too.

On the first two points, there is likely considerable room for growth. How to enhance the possibility for social connection in these events is a rich area for discussion and sharing ideas. When asked if they would want a chance to socialize in a livestream performance, 49% of respondents said yes, 43% said “maybe”, and just 8% said no. A prior familiarity with [Switch~] did not necessarily correspond to increased interest in socializing. The most likely groups to say yes were the “advocates” (those who said “yes” I would recommend a livestream to a friend) and those who had previously attended 4 or more livestreams. The least interested in socializing were the “fence sitters” and those who had attended few to no livestreams. This divide, mentioned elsewhere, suggests a fundamental split between those who have enthusiastically incorporated livestream events into their routine and others who are less skeptical of engaging in that way.

Our colleague Megan Ihnen asked a great question: How can we, the performers, help individuals further foster a sense that they are connecting to the artists they like? Something like a listening party, side-by-side with a pre-recording livestream release, has a lot of merit. Zoom breakout rooms—like cocktail tables at an album release party—could work too. Concerts can’t be everything for everybody all the time. Getting the fence sitters off the fence may require different work than further activating the advocates.

With tools like YouTube Premiere or StreamYard, ensembles have increasingly sophisticated capacity to pre-assemble recordings and release them as though they were live. Interweaving pre-recorded performances with interviews or live questions over Zoom can foster a sense of “liveness”. Specific tactics—like having performers wear the same clothes or film at the same camera angle as their original performance earlier in the week—can enhance it further.

There are a few important factors to note in the marketing and communications of livestreamed concerts that appear to impact attendance significantly.

About 80% of respondents said that at some point since March, they had been interested in a livestream but ultimately did not attend it. Given a list of possible reasons in a multi-choice poll:

  • 31% said they wound up missing the show because they didn’t get a reminder
  • 12% said because there were no tickets or reservations it was easy to skip
  • 22% had technical difficulties
  • 34% said the event was poorly marketed or communicated
  • 61% said they simply “forgot”, as opposed to 31% who “lost interest”

In other sections, respondents indicated they felt marketing had little impact on their choice to attend livestreams. However, given the above data, we believe they may be significantly underestimating its influence on their behavior. When over a third of respondents acknowledge they accidentally missed a show because it was poorly marketed or communicated, the conclusion seems self-evident.

Or, as our colleague Megan Ihnen put it: if a show doesn’t have effective marketing, how did you even know about it?

Some simple best practices could include:

  • Well timed reminders (including day-of) about the show
  • A registration system with personalized link & reminder (like house shows: “RSVP for address”)
  • Charging a small admission fee

The last point is rarely done, and was something respondents are sensitive to in their reasons for hesitating to recommend an event. However, we all know audiences are more than willing to support artists if they believe in the value of the experience. And, as anyone who’s ever worked a box office knows: pre-sales always have a low no-show rate.

A screenshot from a telematic performance by the [Switch~ Ensemble] showing members of the ensemble in separate locations and program notes.

A screenshot from a telematic performance by the [Switch~ Ensemble]

LOOKING TOWARD FUTURE

In the long term, being able to produce effective livestreamed and/or telematic performances can hold considerable value for the sector.

A vaccine may be on the horizon, but livestream performances are almost certainly here to stay. Grantors and arts services organizations could fulfill at least 2 key responsibilities:

  1. Grants for ensembles and musicians to acquire at least basic level professional audio equipment. Not only would these investments help enhance our capacity to produce higher-quality virtual events, but so too would they alleviate many longstanding inequitable access issues.
  2. Lead open workshops on technical questions and production/audio skills, and host convenings for ensembles to share best practices. There is no need for so many artists to have to stumble through the same questions in their own silos. Grantors like New Music USA could support trainings and workshops—even “office hours” style drop in sessions—with technical directors and marketing and communications staff of larger organizations who have already seen success in this medium.

Among the many benefits of livestream shows we might count limiting unnecessary travel. How often is the principal beneficiary of an artistic project an airline? It’s also terrible for the environment. While there is no substitute for in-person interaction, vast time, money, and environmental impact is spent flying new music ensembles throughout the country. If even a small share of that travel could be replaced by high quality virtual interaction, it would cut down our outsized carbon footprint and put more money in musicians’ pockets.

Telematic livestreams in particular are also an occasion to consider further experimentation with an innovative and rich medium. Many artists have made vivid work with digital software for a long time, so there is a fertile tradition on which to build.

Moreover, as many ensembles continue to reckon with the homogeneity of their social and professional networks—on lines of race, class, gender, and other aspects of identity—experimentation in a new medium may open connections to brilliant artists who were pushed out of traditional contemporary western classical music channels by its history of orthodoxy and oppressive gatekeeping. And more facile collaboration across physical distance would have democratizing impact by alleviating the advantage of living in high-rent urban areas to be near a “scene”.

So: how are you making livestreams work for you?

[Ed. Note: Switch~ Ensemble’s next livestream is on March 5, 2021. Learn more about the event and register for it on EventBrite.]

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.”

Black Mystery School Pianists

A close up of a piano keyboard with broken/warped keys going in various directions.

In viewing the history of jazz piano as it has influenced me, I find various tributaries and streams and ways of being that have contributed to my understanding of the jazz piano language and to finding my way through all of this. I have come to see a subgroup of jazz pianism that has influenced me as something I call the Black Mystery School of Pianists. Like all categories, there is an illusionary aspect of it and phenomena go in and out of each other, but the category does denote something. It’s a way I have viewed the work of certain practitioners of the art of jazz piano and I have followed offshoots of this branch. There are many pianists that might fall in and out of this category that are not mentioned here. The list is an outline that defines aspects of a certain attitude and is not meant as any type of dogmatic statement.

So what do I mean by a Black Mystery School pianist? Well, obviously the word “Black” is in here, so for the purposes of looking at this tree, all of the practitioners I will mention except for one will be Black. That is not to imply a non-black person cannot enter this realm. I am just outlining a code—that there is a definitive tree-like formation that has seemed more often than not to go down a certain path. The word “mystery” is here also which implies a secret code, passed through an underground way of passage, a language outside the mainstream and, yes, outside the mainstream of jazz, even though the father of this school Thelonious Monk’s image has been subsumed into the mainstream of jazz after a long period of incubation.

Mystery School posits an alternative touch—something that does not directly fall within the mainstream’s easily digestible paradigm of being able to play the instrument, even though the practitioners of the Mystery School are obviously highly skilled virtuosos whose touch, language, and articulation are extremely hard to copy. In some ways, in the subconscious of the jazz idiom, the Mystery School is a counter strike to the psychological space of any variant of an Art Tatum approach of playing, filtered down to Oscar Peterson, and then watered down to something like André Previn as a prevailing way of viewing piano playing. And I say that despite Monk’s roots in stride piano. Mystery School pianists have developed profound ways of generating sound out of the instrument grounded in a technique they invented and one that cannot be taught in school. It is a code that somehow gets passed down.

The Mystery School seems to have a subconscious urge to resist academic codification of any sort. Despite however great artists and jazz musicians they are, and this is not meant as a pejorative, jazz students can go to jazz schools and learn to play like Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Herbie Hancock, but there is something completely elusive in the sound world of Randy Weston, Mal Waldron, and the legendary Hasaan Ibn Ali that defies the jazz academy.

The other major aspect of the Mystery School is the iconoclastic nature of it. As in the ultimate example of Monk, the artist carves out a niche for themselves within the world of the jazz universe. That niche is a worldview or a planet. The artist in utmost stubbornness will stick to that vision with a fuck the world attitude—that the world will have to come to this vision of the piano and, if it doesn’t, then so be it. This vision is extreme in its iconoclastic nature, although some mystery school pianists, like Mal Waldron, have done gigs like backing singers (e.g. Billie Holiday, etc.). The phrasing and rhythm employed in the code that these players utilize is of such nature as to not be able to fall under the hands of a jazz student who is studying, say, Brad Mehldau.

Another aspect of the Mystery School is despite Monk being the spiritual father, the descendants tend not to play Monk tunes. They develop their own body of work. And I say this despite some great interpretations of Monk music by Mal Waldron through the years.

Next, let’s look at who is not in the Mystery School according to this very particular way of looking at things. This is important because this is such a specific delineation of a slice of something that it is not a platform to just throw a bunch of great jazz pianists in. It is very specific. So first, Ellington is not in, although he is a big influence on the pianism of Monk, Randy Weston, and Cecil Taylor. Also Ellington’s piano work on the album Money Jungle is on the level of the greatest piano playing ever. It is playing that could never be reached by someone with the mindset of a post-Tatum pianism, and no one who comes out of a bebop or post bebop mindset could ever get to the language there. Hank Jones, Wynton Kelly, or Tommy Flanagan—as great as they all are—could never generate the energy/sound fields that the piano work on Money Jungle does. So that is to say Ellington had a unique homemade style that is as idiosyncratic as any. But Ellington doesn’t fall into this school because there is a posture and an attitude inherent in the code that he does not quite embody and his relationship to the mainstream of his day does not exactly delve into the stance and attitude of the Mystery School.

Bud Powell does not make it in the school because he is too tied to the classic idea of the development of bebop. That might seem a paradox being that Monk is also considered a founding father of bebop—but isn’t that one of the main things that gives juice to Monk’s legacy, that he is a founding father of bebop but at the same time set up a parallel universe of his own music that in some ways seems like it is counter to some of the assumptions of bebop? There is that aspect of the Mystery School that sets itself up as counter to bebop. Of course, Bud Powell is one of the greatest pianists ever to sit at the keys. But that does not put him in this particular school, although Bud is transcendental.

I also do not include Mary Lou Williams. Bud and Monk used to go over her place–she helped them both with touch on the piano. She usually did not go for the oblique, though.  But she is a tremendous jazz pianist.

  • Mystery School posits an alternative touch.

    Matthew Shipp, composer and pianist
  • Ellington is not in, although he is a big influence on the pianism of Monk, Randy Weston, and Cecil Taylor.

    Matthew Shipp, composer and pianist
  • I also do not include Mary Lou Williams... but she is a tremendous jazz pianist.

    Matthew Shipp, composer and pianist
  • Being a Black Mystery School pianist does not necessary equal avant-garde.

    Matthew Shipp, composer and pianist
  • Classificatory schemes are illusionary and don’t always comport to reality.

    Matthew Shipp, composer and pianist

If you use the word “mystery,” and the math of the pyramids come to mind, then you could not think of a more profound player than Horace Silver, because his playing is undergirded by a code of this sort. But he does not make the school because he is in a different head-space. I look at him as a super gifted post-Bud Powell player who developed his own unique style and attack within those parameters and then went on to help invent hard bop. But his stance doesn’t have the punk attitude that the Mystery School can have, and I don’t think he would have ever been comfortable with the idea of being an underground language.

Erroll Garner could never be in this school, though strangely enough his playing could be very idiosyncratic at times, and is obviously homemade. But the areas of American culture that he was an actor in does not allow entry into this club. (I have an aunt who thought Erroll was the greatest pianist ever, but she went to her grave saying Monk could not play the piano.)

I have wrestled with whether Elmo Hope belongs in the group. I am not sure. I go back and forth for different reasons. If he is, a lot of it would be because of his influence on Hasaan Ibn Ali, who is another extreme of an ultimate example of this.

Most free jazz pianists do not make the list because the Mystery School is not about free jazz per se. And I say this despite the fact that most free jazz pianists feel a relationship with Monk, despite Monk’s problematic relationship with free jazz. But Cecil Taylor makes the list because he is a contemporary of Randy Weston and Mal Waldron and it is fascinating to see those three artists as branches off the Ellington/Monk piano branch. You could not find three artists as different as these three masters, yet they get their nourishment from some of the same sources.

McCoy Tyner does not make the school, because the Coltrane universe is a cosmology in and of itself and must be dealt with that way apart from everything else. I say that despite the fact that McCoy was influenced by Hasaan Ibn Ali and use to go over to his house in Philadelphia and soak in things.

So who is in the Black Mystery School of Piano?

Monk

Herbie Nichols

Mal Waldron / Randy Weston / Cecil Taylor / Andrew Hill

The legendary Hasaan Ibn Ali

Sun Ra / Horace Tapscott


A Spotify playlist of devoted to the 9 pianists cited above.
Some further words about a few of these artists and their praxis…

Herbie Nichols was a contemporary of Monk who also was a writer and one of the first people to write about Monk’s music. Nichols was tremendous, but his music never received the fame that Monk’s did. Nichols is every bit as much of a father of this school as Monk. There have been several revivals of Nichols’s music in recent years. Perhaps, when the history of this school is written, he will take his proper place.

Andrew Hill is as iconoclast as iconoclast can iconoclast. He seems to directly be in the Monk line of the pianist/improviser as composer and, in his way, has as unique and powerful an application of that archetype as Monk. He has some of the stance of Monk in attitude and was obviously liberated by Monk’s use of space, but Hill has his own language and way of doing it on the piano. His universe is his own planet—completely. Hill is in line with Waldron and Weston as far as taking up some aspect of a post-Monk mantle –but what makes Hill so interesting is he is a parallel universe to Cecil Taylor.

Of course being a Black Mystery School pianist does not necessary equal avant-garde. But Hill fits in both in the sense that his posture can be seen as a post-Monk conceptualist/iconoclast – but he also mollifies the Cecil Taylor monopoly on the perception of free-jazz piano in that if a free jazz pianist gets tired of getting compared to Cecil they can get inspiration from Hill and claim him as more of a direct influence. Andrew Hill’s elliptical phrasing seems like a direct extension of his elliptical mind. Hill is someone who managed to slip through all the cracks and defy any category though it is obvious what he comes out of. In some ways his playing is the ultimate fuck you to everything and everyone.

Hasaan Ibn Ali might be the most isolated of any one here. A Philadelphia-based pianist who never could get gigs even in his home town and who recorded only one album, which Max Roach brought him in the studio for. The album is this category in its purist form.

I include two big band leaders in this list: Sun Ra and Horace Tapscott. One is East Coast; the other West Coast. As far as their piano playing, both of their playing contains the geometry and the architecture that goes with this category. That is what puts them here, and that is something that is there or not; it cannot be faked.

As an aside, I also include Ran Blake in this school even though I use the word Black and Ran is a Caucasian. Ran is an offshoot of someone who is influenced by Monk and Ran is a spiritual brother to Mal Waldron. In another way, Dave Burrell can dip in and out of this school. I have heard Burrell approach one of the most organic synthesis of Monk tunes done in a free jazz way, not that that is what the Mystery School is about, because it is not about playing Monk tunes, but Burrell understands all of this.

The late Geri Allen also had a complete understanding of all of this and she was so gifted that she could embody aspects of this. Her relationship to the mainstream jazz audience of her time was a relationship that did not allow her to fully inhabit this space. But she was an offspring of the language and had a beautiful relationship with Mal Waldron. She once took me aside at a festival in France and told me I was one of the only pianists she had ever heard who could channel Mal Waldron. Even though I like to think of myself as a complete original, I took that as the highest compliment.

The pianist Rodney Kendrick had a close and direct relationship with Randy Weston and has spent time with Monk. His sound completely embodies this school. Rodney, who is a friend, completely disagrees with my way of looking at this in this piece. Maybe it takes someone who is contextualized within the avant-garde world like myself to see things this way. Maybe Rodney’s relationship with Barry Harris, who is the antithesis of this approach, taints his view. However Rodney comes out of this and no one like him exists at this time on the planet.

To end this, classificatory schemes are illusionary and don’t always comport to reality. But I have talked about this school before in interviews and people always get something out of it and ask me to go deeper. I am not trying to lay out any dogma, just talking about a way I saw some things that contributed to abstractions I made that enhanced my creative life. Even if you don’t buy into the complete format as presented, you should check out the work of all the artists discussed here.


A Spotify playlist of most of the other pianists cited in this article. Should they be included in the Black Mystery School of Pianists or not? You decide.
[Ed. note: We also invite you to further explore the extraordinary music of Matthew Shipp who turned 60 earlier this month and marked this milestone by remaining extraordinarily prolific despite the difficulties we have all faced in this pandemic year. Shipp’s discography is a treasure trove and this playlist only scratches the surface. We also encourage you to read and watch this 2005 conversation with him on NewMusicBox. – FJO]


A Spotify playlist highlighting some of the gems in Matthew Shipp’s extensive discography.

Unprecedented Time

A computer altered image of a Zoom recording session for Brian Baumbusch's music

There is no doubt that we are in unprecedented times. Living through a global pandemic has tested and revealed so much about who we are as a people and what we possess as a culture. From the social battles that we have all watched boil over and spill out onto the streets, to the emotional battles that we have all waged within ourselves over this past year, we are struggling to make sense of what the future holds. And through it all, I have learned what many already knew: that art is like a weed – stubborn and persistent. Art will push on regardless of the circumstances, and I find it to be a transcendent privilege as well as a dire responsibility to stay focused on ways to continue innovating the arts without hesitation or compromise.

My personal experience in 2020 has offered countless peaks and troughs on the emotional roller-coaster ride of life, though peppered within have been some welcomed serendipities. Dating back to the fall of 2019, I was gearing up to work on a commission for a large-scale multi-faceted project, TIDES, that had been several years in the making and involved video/media artist Ian Winters and co-composer Wayne Vitale, both long-term collaborators of mine. We laid a foundation with concrete artistic concepts and interlaced composing strategies, but due to last-minute circumstances beyond everyone’s control, that foundation cracked and we ended up dividing the musical component of the project into two separate compositions: a sound installation was to be composed by Vitale and I was to compose a live piece, and both would accompany video footage and media created by Winters. I then took on the responsibility during a five-week window to compose thirty minutes of music for TIDES to premiere in late March 2020. Indeed, this would be the first new composition that I had undertaken since the birth of my first child in May of 2019.

The piece that I composed as a result, named Tides after the larger project, is a quintet for clarinet, violin, vibraphone, harp, and piano, and as one might have guessed, the March premiere was never to take place. After completing the music in February and hosting some preliminary rehearsals with the players, our last round of rehearsals in March were cancelled one by one until ultimately the Minnesota Street Gallery in San Francisco, where the premiere was to be held, cancelled the late March performance.

As I witnessed all of this playing out, I started to glimpse the peculiar silver lining that was specific to my situation. Over the past five years, much of the music that I have composed involves the use of multiple simultaneously varying tempos, or polytempo. In order to perform this music accurately, I tell the musicians that they are required to use click tracks in performance, something that isn’t always met with open ears. Because of the fact that each click track carries its own independent tempo stream, players often express the frustration that hearing the other ensemble members adjacent to them playing in a different tempo can hinder their ability to accurately follow their own click track. In the case of Tides, I started to develop a new level of complexity in the polytempo structures that I was using, in part because I had assembled a crack ensemble of some of the Bay Area’s finest musicians, but also because the music was designed to accompany video footage created by the lead artist of the project, Ian Winters. Because of the fact that film and click-track-music are both real-time mediums, I wanted to take advantage of the potential for hyper-synchronicities between the two. All of this served to make a live ensemble performance of this piece that much more difficult.

After the Minnesota Street Gallery cancelled the premiere, they reached out about the possibility of reimagining the project so that it could be presented virtually on their website, and offered some additional funding en route to doing so. It occurred to me that not only could the project continue to move forward, albeit as a recording project rather than a performance project, but that it had the potential to be more successful this way. Since the players already had the click tracks and had been practicing along to them at home in preparation for the performance, I developed a concept that would allow for the players to record their parts directly from their own homes. I decided to break their parts up into “fragments” so that they wouldn’t have to record full takes of each movement. To do this, I snipped up each click track to the length of each predetermined fragment, and I added a “count-in” to each fragmented click track so the player could know when to enter; this was then reflected in their original part with new annotations.

Clarinet excerpt from the score of Brian Baumbusch's composition Tides.

Clarinet Excerpt from Tides, Movement 3

To produce the recording, we loaned hi-fi recording equipment to each player on a week-by-week basis so that each player would keep the equipment for a week, and then it would be wiped down, sanitized, and delivered to the next player. After finishing a recording session on a given day, the player would then upload the recordings to an online cloud drive that I had access to, and I would review them in the evening and send comments for adjustments that should be made in the next day’s recording session. Once the player had recorded all of their fragments to satisfaction, they were finished and their contribution to the project was then complete.

Unfortunately, our pianist had traveled to Indiana in the interim period after the premiere was to take place but before beginning the recording sessions. However, she had brought her electric keyboard with her which she used to maintain her remote teaching schedule. It occurred to me that if I could get her to record her part in MIDI using her electric keyboard, I could then reproduce that MIDI recording on an acoustic Disklavier and record the Disklavier playback for the final mix. I shipped a small audio interface and some MIDI cables to Indiana, and the pianist was able to use that in conjunction with her keyboard and laptop’s built-in recording software to produce the MIDI recording. Being a faculty member at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I was able to access one of the university’s Disklaviers to capture the final recording of her part.

As we underwent this unique recording process, I noticed some interesting parallels with film/moviemaking (we were in fact working together with a video artist). In film acting compared to stage acting, an actor can make use of subtle facial expressions and slight changes in their tone of voice to convey the nuances of their part. In addition, most actors who contribute to a large film project only get a small glimpse of the full production; their scenes will be shot in an order achronological to the film itself, and they likely will not interact with most of the other actors in the film and will have little sense of the overall concept or tone of the film aside from what they can gather from the script. All of this was true of our recording process. By recording their parts independently and at home, the players could record their part in whatever order they pleased, and they could narrow their dynamic range by close-miking their instruments and allowing for subtle dynamic changes to provide the necessary contours. Similarly, aside from the fact that we held some preliminary rehearsals of the piece before shelter-in-place restrictions were put into effect, there was no need for the musicians to be acquainted with one another or to have worked together before. Another similarity that I alluded to earlier is that both of these mediums are created along a careful timeline that, once completed, is fixed and exists in real-time, allowing for intricate synchronicities that are not so easily achieved in live performance.

  • Art is like a weed - stubborn and persistent.

    Brian Baumbusch, composer
  • There was no need for the musicians to be acquainted with one another or to have worked together before.

    Brian Baumbusch, composer
  • This new project provided supplementary work for me while allowing for the wind ensemble to avoid cancellation.

    Brian Baumbusch, composer
  • Almost all of our music history has been predicated on our ability to manifest a group feeling of musical time.

    Brian Baumbusch, composer

Some of the benefits that emerged out of working this way included the fact that since the players recorded their parts independently, those recordings were acoustically isolated from one another which offered advantages as to how they could be edited in post-production. Also, there was no need to coordinate and align the limited rental times of rehearsal space with the musicians already busy schedules, something that is difficult everywhere but can be an insurmountable task in the Bay Area. In essence, as technical complexities are added in the process of producing music this way, many logistical complexities, and the resources associated with them, are removed. These benefits notwithstanding, in order for musicians to work this way they need to accept the downsides which include the fact that they don’t get to play music “together;” more specifically, the social benefits of in-person music-making, both emotional and artistic, have been thrown aside and the cathartic culmination that comes during live performance has been lost. What has been gained, on the other hand, is the opportunity to produce idealized recordings that can make use of innovative compositional ideas that push past the limitations presented by in-person music-making.

Isotropes

I’d like to rewind back to mid-March of 2020. At that time, I had completed composing the music for Tides, learned that the premiere was to be cancelled, and developed some preliminary ideas for how to produce the remote-recording version of the piece without having yet done so (Tides was recorded in August). Realizing that I was well poised to make use of my skill set in composing with click tracks and eager to develop new and related compositional ideas, I was hungry to work on a new project. In a sleepless night, with infant yelps coming from the other room, I started to imagine the possibility of creating a modular open-instrumentation piece (think Terry Riley’s In C), in which a large group of musicians could record modules or “fragments” of their choosing. I imagined that a piece like this might be useful for lots of musicians, maybe even possible as an open-source project, as shelter-in-place orders were descending across the country and so many players were losing work. The next step was to find a group that was in need of such a project.

The U.C. Santa Cruz Wind Ensemble is an excellent group comprising students, community members, faculty members, and occasionally hired ringers, and happens to be directed by a close friend and collaborator of mine, Nat Berman. On March 15th, I texted Nat to ask him if he knew yet what the status of his ensemble was for the upcoming spring quarter, since it seemed likely at that moment that all of the university music ensembles would be cancelled. I myself am currently in my seventh year as the director of the Balinese gamelan ensembles at UCSC, and I was unsure then of the status of my own ensembles. Nat divined my underlying plan and responded to my text saying “Do you want to write us a click track piece that everyone can record individually?” As it turned out, both of my ensembles were indeed cancelled for that spring quarter, but this new project with Nat provided supplementary work for me while allowing for the wind ensemble to avoid cancellation.

The details of the commission were worked out in the following week after my initial text to Nat, and finalized around March 23. The piece would be called Isotropes, and the general concept was that it would be designed so that the players could record their parts remotely from home using whatever recording technology that was most readily available to them (generally cell phones and laptops, though various players had their own pro-audio recording gear that they used), and they would record along to click tracks that I would provide to accompany each part. The “premiere” would then be a virtual presentation of the final recording, mixing together all of the individual recordings made throughout the quarter. The first ensemble meeting was the very next week, on March 30, so I had about a week to compose some preliminary material for the piece and generate the parts and click tracks so that the musicians would have music to work on once the quarter started.

In that first week, as I further developed my concept for the piece and composed a collection of preliminary “fragments,” I continued to prioritize the need to create an open-instrumentation modular work. One of the reasons for this was that in the week before classes started, and even a week or two into the quarter, we were unsure of how many players would enroll in the ensemble and what the resulting instrumentation would be. Therefore, the piece needed to be flexible in regard to the number of players required and the instrumentation. As a result, I organized the score so that parts would be arranged first by instrument class (parts were either considered “sustaining” e.g. winds, strings, etc. or “non-sustaining” e.g. percussion, harp, piano, etc.) and then by register. In this way, the piece became “semi-open instrumentation” in that a given part must be played in the notated register and by an instrument in the same classification as the part, but within those restrictions the orchestration is flexible. Although this concept was tailored to some degree for the UCSC wind ensemble, the piece is designed to be for “adaptable orchestra” and playable by other types of orchestras such as string orchestras, symphony orchestras, etc.

An excerpt from the score of Brian Baumbusch's composition Isotropes

Excerpt from the score of Isotropes, Part I

Between March 23 and March 30, I wrote as much material as I could so as to keep the musicians busy once the quarter began and to give myself time to go back and write more of the piece as the musicians recorded the first section. Unlike most of the pieces that I compose in which I come up with a large formal structure for the entirety of the piece before composing various sections achronologically, in this case I composed from left to right, often feeling like I was composing one measure ahead of the musicians. And so it went for the ten weeks of the academic quarter: I would compose a movement of the piece, engrave the parts and click tracks and upload them onto a shared Google drive and as the musicians recorded each of the fragments from that movement, I would go back and compose the next movement. This happened in roughly two-week intervals so that over the course of about eight weeks, I had composed the four separate movements of the piece allowing for some final edits and re-records to take place during the final two weeks of the quarter.

Similar to the concept that I described for the piece Tides, Isotropes is designed to be recorded in fragments wherein each part contains between 5 and 15 fragments per movement. There is a total of about 1000 fragments in the whole piece split between 22 parts. Each fragment has its own unique click track, and the fragments are also assigned a difficult level (easy, medium, or difficult). I transposed each fragment in all of the relevant keys so that the players could choose which fragments they wished to record (often based on the difficulty level) as long as that fragment was written for their instrument class and fell within their instrument’s register. To keep track of who recorded what, we created a giant spreadsheet containing a box for each fragment, color-coded green (easy), yellow (medium), and orange (difficult), where the players would mark their initials in the boxes representing the fragments that they planned to record.

Spreadsheet listing the various components of Brian Baumbusch's composition Isotropes

The notated parts themselves referenced the accompanying click track, each of which contained a count-in and was composed of different pitched clicks to indicate the meter of the given fragment.

A notated example of a polytempo

Rhythmically, the piece makes use of many instances of polytempo in which multiple simultaneously varying tempo streams occur between the parts. In these cases, the rhythmic notation that I chose to display for the various parts is simplified to only contain note-heads without stems, and those note-heads are roughly spatially oriented within the score. In looking at the part above, you can count 12 notes in the first measure and 8 notes in the last measure, which is evidence that this fragment is undergoing a gradual ritardando, even though that ritardando is not reflected in the global score but is only localized to this specific part. At this point in the piece, simultaneous with this part is another part that is undergoing a gradual accelerando; this occurs during the third movement in which these two discrete tempo streams begin with a relationship of 3/1 in that the faster tempo is three times as fast as the slower tempo, and over the course of about a minute they converge on one another.

This is just one of many instances of polytempo used in the piece. Other sections of the piece contain three or more simultaneous tempo streams, some of which may be changing while others remain static. Sometimes, the tempo will vary drastically between two adjacent fragments within a single part. From the perspective of the musicians, this is a non-issue because adjacent fragments are not recorded in a single take and might not even be recorded by the same player. The players’ perspective is always localized to the tempo of the fragment that they are recording at a given time, and the rhythmic complexity of the music only comes together as multiple recordings are mixed together in post-production.

In this way, Isotropes demonstrates some of the possibilities presented by the remote recording paradigm. Although it is a piece that could be performed live (while still using click-tracks), it is actually much easier to create through remote collaboration. It also justifies the use of technology, particularly click tracks, in composing and recording music. For me, the process of attempting to innovate musical time through my work with click tracks has often felt like more of a necessity than anything else. Once I decided that I was going to ask performers to use click tracks in live performance starting back in 2015, I had to justify that decision by creating music that couldn’t be made any other way. In the same way now, I hope that composers and ensembles who turn to click tracks for their remote collaborations can justify the use of that technology for reasons other than convenience or compromise.

Over the past 8 months, many ensembles have been forced to compromise their plans because of the limitations that they see resulting from the prohibition of in-person rehearsal and performance. Many have struggled as they’ve tried to adapt existing musical traditions to meet the current predicament, finding that much of these adaptations introduce difficulties and degradations to something that we are much better suited to do in person. Indeed, almost all of our music history has been predicated on our ability to manifest a group feeling of musical time, either through a unified pulse or as indicated by a conductor, while playing our instruments together in-person. This is something that we are very good at as a species and has been evidenced across the globe for millennia. However, this is not the only way to manifest musical time. As more and more musicians and ensembles are turning to recording technologies and click tracks to create music, we have a responsibility to use this technology to innovate music in ways that will expand our musical language even after a return to normalcy arrives. If for no other reason, we need to do this now because we CAN do this now. Right now is an incredible time to explore the possibilities of remote collaboration and innovative approaches to musical time, precisely because of the fact that so many musicians are at home and looking for work. In that way, the unprecedented time that we are in offers an unprecedented opportunity. We have no justification for blaming the current moment for curtailing our artistic potential. We need to start adopting new performance practices, rather than adapting or compromising existing ones.

[Ed. note: Other Minds has released a digital album of Brian Baumbusch’s music featuring both Isotropes and Tides which is available to download via Bandcamp as of December 18, 2020. – FJO]

I Can’t Breathe:  A Virtual Dialogue

A protester carrying a banner stating "I CAN'T BREATHE." Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

In 2016 I first heard I Can’t Breathe, Georg Friedrich Haas’s haunting work for solo trumpet, performed by Marco Blaauw at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.  Haas’s work, written just after the birth of the Black Lives Matter organization, and well before the concept of Black Lives Matter came to international prominence, raises a number of important questions about the response of the international new music community to the increasingly multicultural and multiracial, i.e., creolized, societies in which its performances, curatorial directions, and critical and philosophical inquiries are being presented.

I Can’t Breathe was conceived and written in 2014 as a response to the police execution of an African American citizen, Eric Garner, on a New York City street. Garner’s “crime” was selling “loosies,” single cigarettes from a pack. This was said to be technically a form of tax evasion, which is not a capital crime in the statute books. However, a bystander filmed a police officer restraining Garner bodily with an illegal chokehold. On the video, Garner was heard to repeat the words “I can’t breathe” eleven times, before passing out and lying on the ground for seven minutes. While the authorities waited for an ambulance, Garner passed away; the autopsy cited “[compression] of neck, compression of chest and prone position during physical restraint by police” as cause of death. Despite nationwide protests, charges were never brought against the officers involved, although one of them was eventually terminated in 2019.


Georg Friedrich Haas: I can’t breathe (2014) for trumpet solo
Marco Blaauw, trumpet; Janet Sinica, video
(Lockdown Tape #66 in Ensemble Musikfabrik’s series of live to tape recordings of solo pieces in times of Corona lockdown by ensemble members.)

It seemed clear that Haas’s piece took on renewed relevance with the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd, who before passing away, interspersed urgent pleas to be allowed to breathe with plaintive calls to his deceased mother. In the wake of the much larger, worldwide protests over Floyd’s killing, the widest range of individuals and institutions, including those in the field of new music, are being called to account for their actions regarding race.

I have always been intrigued with the questions raised by I Can’t Breathe, so I decided to talk to both Marco and Georg about the piece. The method I am using here to combine our respective dialogues is similar to the penultimate chapter in my 2008 book, A Power Stronger Than Itself:  The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), in which I selected quotes from nearly one hundred interviews with AACM members to fashion an imagined intergenerational dialogue about overarching social, cultural, and aesthetic issues that the organization and its individual members faced over the decades. I blend this new imagined dialogue with critiques of scholarly writing about the piece.

I begin with Georg’s understanding of the motivation for the work.

GFH:  Well, it was a spontaneous activity. It happened when we looked out of the window at our house and we saw some demonstrations, Black Lives Matter, below us, and I said, OK, we have to go down there to join this. And suddenly this anecdote popped up about Chopin, when he heard about the revolution in Russia and decided, instead of going to Paris, to fight in this revolution. But he changed again and decided to go to Paris and work for the idea. And it is clear that this actually helped the revolution in Poland much more than he could have done by being part of the military activity. In the same way, I decided it’s not my job to protest in the streets. It’s my job to protest in the arts. And this is maybe one of of a few pieces [of mine] which had some nonmusical connotation.

At the time, Georg was already quite late with another, much larger commission, but as he recalled, “Because it was such a spontaneous idea, there was no time for me to make a large, huge internal discussion about what is the right way to discuss this. Just do it. Do it now. And I think this idea is one of the possibilities to go to work as an artist.”

  • It seemed clear that Haas’s 2014 piece took on renewed relevance with the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd.

    George Lewis, composer & musicologist
  • I decided it's not my job to protest in the streets. It’s my job to protest in the arts.

    Georg Friedrich Haas, composer
  • I feel that sometimes in the audience, people do not dare to breathe anymore.

    Georg Friedrich Haas, composer
  • Anybody doing political stuff is told to just shut up. But as I see it, you're bringing a needed message to this public.

    Georg Friedrich Haas, composer

The present essay was prompted by a discussion I had with Marco Blaauw this past summer about the frequent negative responses to a Facebook announcement that his new-music group, Ensemble Musikfabrik, posted about this forthcoming release. Indeed, a number of the comments around the Facebook posting indicated that white new music people really had no business even speaking about the topic. One commenter suggested that Haas had “appropriated the words of a dying black man to become his anodyne aesthetic plaything.”

That such an apparently non-confrontational work could generate such heated debate seems ironic at first hearing. However, I read a number of these responses as exemplifying the growing pains that the field of new music is undergoing as its composers, performers, listeners, curators, scholars, critics, and educational institutions gradually awaken, now certainly fitfully, to the need to develop a far more refined and trenchant discourse around the location of the field in a creolized creative environment.

Marco_Blaauw playing his specially desined microtonal trumpet (Photo © Astrid Ackermann, courtesy MusikFabrik)

Marco_Blaauw (Photo © Astrid Ackermann, courtesy MusikFabrik)

Despite the shocking nature of its subject matter, I Can’t Breathe is anything but sensationalistic. Rather than a wailing lament, Haas produces a restrained elegy.

GFH: The piece starts like a sentimental twelve-tone Kaddish. What I do technically, the process is, that this Kaddish is taking away the space to breathe. You are singing freely and the space gets closer and closer. And what I did technically is just to transcribe and transform the melodic elements into smaller intervals. As I reduce it, the melody is squeezed into 16th tones. The music is really very difficult, and Marco in this performance really is able to sing emotionally within these small intervals. There exists a cantabile in these 16th tones. And I still have this very traditional translation of a huge range of intervals describing the entity of the free world, and therefore it starts with the spaces between the lowest pitches of the trumpet and the highest, soft.

Marco Blaauw’s perspective on Georg’s technique evokes the blues:

MB: A blues player colors the notes, so to notate that, Haas uses what he has always been using, microtonal intonations. In the beginning, it’s like more and more colors to the melody, and then it becomes more and more strict as the melody goes from the big trumpet range to the tiniest interval, interrupted all the time by these single notes that are held for a very long time and pull you in.

GL:  I feel that the piece as a whole can be usefully contextualized as a form of pranayama, the study of the breath: a meditation on breath and life. We are asked to feel ourselves inside the breath, following its every nuance. The piece has a timeless quality about it, although it’s only thirteen minutes long.

MB: I do think it’s very, very meditative. And in that way, I think the brain starts listening more and more for details so that when you come towards the middle of the piece, you actually hear all the microtonality, the tiniest steps. You can actually listen to them because you’ve been trained during this short duration of the piece to all these little things [sings], this blues melody, like a variation on two notes.

GL: I’d also say that with its emphasis on depiction, I Can’t Breathe is very much in the American tradition expressed in Duke Ellington’s concept of the “tone parallel,” which includes Charles Ives, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins. The use of the harmon mute is of course related to the African American tradition, very effectively through Miles Davis. And then there are those super-high “squeeze” notes, an innovation in technique that is closely associated with the Ellington Orchestra’s altissimo specialist, trumpeter Cat Anderson.

GFH: And it was you who said to me that this is a specific technique of jazz, these very high pitches. It’s very rarely used in new music. For me the association is more to Luigi Nono, for whom high melodic gestures are a symbol of utopia—for example, the beginning of his string quartet, Fragmente-Stille.

GL: The piece is about aspiration in the literal sense, and with regard to the conceptual context, for me the squeeze notes depict severe restrictions on the breath, while the hesitations in the tone production refer to the fragility of life as the breath is strangled. The breath becomes rougher and more fragile as the life force goes out.

MB: The association with suffocation comes in when that becomes softer and softer and longer and longer and you get literally out of breath. But I don’t think it’s really meant that way. And then the piece falls apart after that. It loses structure also by the use of softer and softer mutes. And then, in the end, it’s just the silences and the single notes which are, as in the beginning, very, very long. Don’t you think that when you listen to a piece and you see somebody play a very long phrase, it’s almost like you stop breathing? I think when you have long silences, the same thing can happen. I feel that sometimes in the audience, people do not dare to breathe anymore.

GL: It’s like the audience can’t breathe. And you, the trumpeter, evoke a sense of empathy via a kind of transubstantiation.

In a 2016 essay, musicologist Max Erwin positions I Can’t Breathe as program music, which from the foregoing conversation seems evident enough; indeed, Haas appears to find no substantive moral imperative on either side of classical music’s traditional debate over programmatic versus absolute music. However, the author provocatively characterizes the nature of the program as “more accurately, western art music snuff” (Erwin 2016, 10). However, rather than a criminal’s recording of an actual murder for macabre or prurient interest, one can summarize Haas’s origin narrative for I Can’t Breathe as a determined response to an atrocity (in this case, musically) by a concerned citizen.

However, when the deformation of race becomes involved, an atrocity is no longer just an atrocity, and music becomes more than just music. Erwin sees Haas’s approach as exemplifying “a pervasive self-satisfied attitude and concomitant mode of production within the New Music apparatus. Under these auspices, the ‘politically engaged’ composer writes ‘protest music’ which laments the fate of this or that marginalised group” (Erwin 2016, 9). Thus portraying Haas’s move to assert humanistic values as simple political posturing, Erwin maintains that the statement in Haas’s program note—“I leave no notes to the perpetrators” identifies an object of political critique—’the perpetrators’, whilst simultaneously extricating the subject (composer/artwork/audience) from the object of critique… The object of critique is exactly that; it remains fundamentally over there, safely removed from composer and audience to observe and lament (Erwin, 10).

Erwin’s critique would have greater currency and credibility if new music as a field could demonstrate an ongoing concern with black lives, including those of its own Afrodiasporic composers and performers. However, this lack of engagement with issues of race is precisely what Haas is pointing to with his program note. Bringing this level of engagement from “over there” to “right here”–to himself as composer, to his audience, to the performer, and to the historians, critics, and institutions of new music–was exactly the goal of the piece.

In an influential essay, theorist Sylvia Wynter pointed out the consequences of the routine use of the acronym N.H.I. (No Humans Involved) by Los Angeles juridical and enforcement institutions “to refer to any case involving a breach of the rights of young Black males who belong to the jobless category of the inner city ghettoes” (Wynter 1994, 42).

By classifying this category as N.H.I. these public officials would have given the police of Los Angeles the green light to deal with its members in any way they pleased. You may remember too that in the earlier case of the numerous deaths of young Black males caused by a specific chokehold used by Los Angeles police officers to arrest young Black males, the police chief Darryl Gates explained away these judicial murders by arguing that Black males had something abnormal with their windpipes.

Indeed, this image of the deformation of the Black windpipe is central to the iconography of I Can’t Breathe. The remainder of Wynter’s “open letter to my colleagues” attempts to answer her own pointed question:  Where did this classification come from?

GL: In both the title and the content of the piece, there’s a conceptual aspect which is very important. It’s not just an exercise. It’s designed to make people think. And I was telling Marco that for this sort of white audience for new music, it should make these people think.

GFH: Thank you. That’s very good. And in the end, in fact, this is what I also can prove. In interviews, I’m very often asked about this. And of course, this gives us a chance to speak about this, within surroundings in which, additionally, nobody is speaking about it. This is a way in which, in my opinion, political music does work.

Mostly staying in the softer and more difficult-to-sustain regions of the trumpet, I Can’t Breathe is zurückhaltend (reserved), and not only by the composer’s choice. Rather, the situation forces the composer’s writerly hand. Here, I find that the piece’s intensity depicts both a fragility and a Stoic nobility, where Eric Garner, George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Rayshard Brooks, and thousands of other black citizens are literally trying to draw upon their reserves of breath in a life-or-death struggle with forces who, backed by a culture in which black lives and liveness do not matter, take no significant notice of the humanity of those lives, while negating their own humanity in the process.

While Erwin’s thesis concludes that “Haas’s piece is at least five degrees removed from even the most rudimentary criteria of effective political protest” (Erwin 10, n16), in this thirteen-minute lament, political protest seems to be no concern whatsoever–unless protesting racialized injustice is now to become merely a political matter. Rather than a reductive rerouting of human values to questions of political efficacy, I Can’t Breathe is simply about black subjectivity, and what it means to be human.

Even so, our virtual conversation took on an ominous tone:

GL: The piece doesn’t have a happy ending; one could play it again and again, and a Sisyphean hell would be evoked. That accounts for what I find to be the work’s pessimistic quality– in the sense of Afro-pessimism, or how to function in the face of the possibility that Western society might prove permanently unable to shed its preoccupation with anti-blackness as a central part of its identity.

Indeed, it could be that at this late date, a reserved, conceptualist approach may not be enough. To begin with, Marco Blaauw was concerned about the ethical dimension of this kind of work and these kinds of issues being presented by white institutions, composers, and performers, in the white-majoritarian new music context:

MB: You don’t think that when I go to that festival and I ask my fee and I play that piece, that is somebody profiting from the situation?

GL: I feel that when you play this piece, and other people play it too, it brings those issues to an audience that isn’t often exposed to them, or maybe doesn’t think that those issues are relevant to their lives, or feel that what you are performing is totally antithetical to pure musical expression–what are you doing with this political stuff? Frederic Rzewski went through the same thing, John Coltrane, Bruce Springsteen–anybody doing political stuff is told to just shut up. But as I see it, you’re bringing a needed message to this public. And if you don’t do it, who’s going to do it?

Sylvia Wynter saw the disclosure of the category of N.H.I. as an opening from which to spearhead the speech of a new frontier of knowledge able to move us toward a new, correlated human species, and eco-systemic, ethic. Such a new horizon, I propose, will also find itself convergent with other horizons being opened up, at all levels of learning… It is only by this mutation of knowledge that we shall be able to secure, as a species, the full dimensions of our human autonomy with respect to the systemic and always narratively instituted purposes that have hitherto governed us–hitherto outside of our conscious awareness and consensual intentionality (Wynter 1994, 70).

This new awareness bears strong resonances, not only for the understanding of I Can’t Breathe, but for the future of new music itself. In the end, a creolized work like I Can’t Breathe represents a move toward a new identity for new music. No longer framing itself as a globalized, pan-European sonic diaspora, the goal of a creolized new music field is less about pursuing diversity than achieving a new complexity that promises far greater creative depth by recognizing the widest range of historical, geographical, political and cultural cross-connections. As the philosopher Arnold I. Davidson has noted, “Multiplication of perspectives means multiplication of possibilities.”

As Georg Friedrich Haas has declared, “With this piece, I declare my solidarity with the protesters” (Haas 2014). Indeed, each performance of I Can’t Breathe demands from  contemporary music a further solidarity: an affirmation that black lives and black liveness do matter, to its history and to its future.

The first page of the musical score of Georg Friedrich Haas “I can’t breathe” Copyright © 2015 Universal Edition Vienna.

The first page of the score for Georg Friedrich Haas “I can’t breathe”
Copyright © 2015 Universal Edition Vienna. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of European American Music Distributors Company, U.S. and Canadian agent for Universal Edition Vienna, publisher and copyright owner. This license is valid for distribution and usage in the territory of the world.


References

https://www.facebook.com/Musikfabrik/ 10 June 2020

Erwin, Max. 2016. “Here Comes Newer Despair: An Aesthetic Primer for the New Conceptualism of Johannes Kreidler.” Tempo 70, No. 278: 5–15.

Haas, Georg Friedrich. 2014. “I Give No Sound To The Perpetrators: Ein Kommentar.” https://www.musikfabrik.eu/de/blog/georg-friedrich-haas-i-give-no-sound-perpetrators-ein-kommentar

Lewis, George E. Unpublished videoconferencing interview with Georg Friedrich Haas, 14 June 2020.

Lewis, George E. Unpublished videoconferencing interview with Marco Blaauw, 14 June 2020.

Wynter, Sylvia. 1994. “’No Humans Involved’: An Open Letter to my Colleagues.” Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall): 42-73.