Category: Analysis

Clouds and Clouds: Composing through the Fog of Depression

A photo of a large body of water meeting a cloudy sky at the horizon.

I remember what first made me want to compose: the incredible power of music to transmute experience into sound, to bypass rational thought and trigger an emotional response. So what happens when that reliable reaction starts to malfunction, when once-vivid sensations start to seem increasingly distant and more difficult to recall? When daily existence becomes dull and flat, exactly what experience is there left to channel? How does your perception change when your memory doesn’t process new events in a normal way? What do you do when your primary emotional state is something you might prefer to evade rather than encode?

I suffered a mild breakdown at age 20 (the average age of onset, I’d later discover) that first landed me in psychiatric care. The diagnosis was confirmed soon after: major depression. This means I’ve been clinically depressed for roughly as long as I’ve been writing music. Later slides were brought on by breakups, a hurricane, the sudden death of a close friend; each seemed to pull me down to a new low. The standard prescription for anyone with a history of two or more episodes of major depression is a lifetime of treatment and medication—which has helped, but not without introducing new complications and adjustments.

I’ve been clinically depressed for roughly as long as I’ve been writing music.

Depression is an illness that remains vastly underreported and widely misunderstood. The “who wants to hear about it?” mentality reigns, and that same question could be asked in the new music circuit. So much of depression is interiorized, directed inward, that it seems hard to conceive of how to convey that cloaked experience to a broader audience—if the motivation can even be mustered. The author William Styron, in Darkness Visible, his memoir of his own battles with depression, puts it this way: “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description. It remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.”

There are any number of ways that depression interferes with the diverse tasks that a composer faces in the course of a career.

Needless to say, there are any number of ways that depression interferes with the diverse tasks that a composer faces in the course of a career. Introversion and anxiety can seriously hamper the capacity for self-promotion. Brooding introspection gets misread as aloof disinterest. It can be dauntingly difficult to shake off a dark mood and summon up some enthusiasm out of thin air, or to hold a frozen smile over the course of a conversation. Social and professional relationships often suffer as a result. Setbacks, which any artist is bound to face to some degree, can be debilitating (“rejection sensitivity” is the clinical term), provoking crises of confidence that get amplified out of all proportion. The resulting sense of pervasive loneliness feeds itself, rooted in a phenomenon psychologists call “hypervigilance for social threat” that Olivia Laing describes in The Lonely City:

In this state, which is entered into unknowingly, the individual tends to experience the world in increasingly negative terms, and to both expect and remember instances of rudeness, rejection and abrasion, giving them greater weight and prominence than other, more benign or friendly interactions. This creates, of course, a vicious circle, in which the lonely person grows increasingly more isolated, suspicious and withdrawn…. What this means is that the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mold or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. Loneliness is accretive, extending and perpetuating itself.

The focus of this article however is the musical expression of depression. With this “storm of murk” (Styron’s term) brewing in my head for years, it has naturally been a constant question as to how it would manifest itself in my music; over time, a set of approaches has emerged, ways to address the illness to varying degrees. Not wanting to presume the state of mind of any other composer (even the well-known melancholic ones), I refer to examples only from my own work, asking in what ways living in a prolonged depressive mindset has shaped my creative output.

Color Wheel

The act of composing, for those with dwindling motivation, can loom like an unmanageable ordeal.

The act of composing, for those with dwindling motivation, can loom like an unmanageable ordeal. In the lucky moments when the weight of depression lifts, that burden tends to be the last thing you want to bring consciously back into focus. Consequently, and perhaps paradoxically, one prominent way that depression has influenced my work is by opposition, in a strategy of evasiveness that I’ve come to think of as the Graceland approach. Think of Paul Simon, singing about heartbreak and calamity over catchy riffs and drum patterns: an outwardly vibrant demeanor that dances around the gloom that it’s actively obscuring.

Here was a way to compose around the issue, addressing it obliquely. Defying a pervasively grey interior life, I’ve immersed myself in composing pieces about color (Spinning in Infinity) and light (PolychROME). To combat disillusionment, I’ve written about the sensation of prolonged wonder (Writing Against Time), an invocation to resist slipping out of the spellbound present. There’s also the fantasy of getting away: travel (The Geography of Cities on Water), encounters with new cultures (Üsküdar, Tesserae), and romanticized adventure (Isolario, Anyplace Else) have fueled my work.

My affinity for this fast, busy, colorful mode of composing is rooted in the same reason why I love clashing patterns, rich food, bright colors, chaotic cities: you crave an overabundance of stimulation because only a fraction of it gets through the haze. It reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s explanation for why her characters are so grotesque: “You have to make your vision apparent by shock: to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Composing the blues away has been therapeutic, but…

Composing the blues away has been therapeutic, and has allowed me to step out of myself and cultivate an aesthetic of lightness, in the sense that Italo Calvino describes in Six Memos for the Next Millennium: “My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities…” But the subtext of that carnival atmosphere is always the same: it is all ultimately distraction, divertimento, escapism. And after a while, like some medications, it stops being an effective antidote and the charm wears thin.

Sparrow Episodes (2006) starts in that vibrant world and moves on to a contrasting mode of experience. The piece opens with a cinematic sequence of about six minutes; technicolor episodes unfold like a comic book, with strong lines and bright colors. Ideas appear, get briefly developed, then cast away for something new. Experience flashes by so quickly that there’s barely time to decipher motifs, only to revel in the sensory excess.

The source that underpins these vignettes is a four-chord song from my high school days written by Myshkin, a singer-songwriter then living in New Orleans. Weighted with memories and personal connection, hearing that song transports me right back to a tangibly vivid time before my own first episode (a word used in the song, which itself talks about a breakdown and mental health). I wouldn’t expect any other listener to hear the same association of course, but I can depict the reeling sensation it brings back.

Writing from the distance of ten years, after my first breakdown, I could remember the vibrancy of that earlier time, yet felt entirely divorced and distanced from that feeling. “Depression makes us see life differently; it changes how we think,” notes psychotherapist Richard O’Connor in Undoing Depression. “Only rarely, if at all, do we remember that at one time we were happy, confident, active.”

The final two minutes slip into another world. Suddenly, we’re no longer participants but observers, watching with faces pressed against the glass, now one measure removed from the action. Recall, avoided for most of the piece, is now forcibly imposed: a delay pedal on the electric guitar churns patterns in an eight-second loop. Blank repetition replaces those earlier transient flashes, as if the saturated world of the opening is viewed in distant retrospect. The chord changes continue but disintegrate into a wash of diatonic echoes, somewhere between neutral and nostalgic.

Circular Thinking

The empty repetition of the loop pedal mirrors another thought pattern familiar to the depressive mind: rumination. Thoughts circle in a generally murky, low-energy swarm, simmering on a low flame and only occasionally bubbling to the surface with some degree of clarity. Escaping this obsessive but aimless way of thinking seems to be just another impossible task.

Recession (2009) recreates this aimless atmosphere in its opening bars. The piece was written in the midst of a relatively severe spell of depression, during my time studying at IRCAM. (“Paris in the winter is for connoisseurs of melancholy,” Irwin Shaw wrote.) Yes, there had just been a global downturn, but I meant the title to refer to the astronomical definition of the recession: “the act of receding or withdrawing.” Spatial distance becomes a parallel for emotional distance, and I certainly felt myself drifting farther from the familiar that winter, withdrawing into an introspective gloom.

Spatial distance becomes a parallel for emotional distance.

The piece opens with several layers of circling chords at different speeds, a texture of expanded microtonal accordion fragments that move in a ring of eight speakers surrounding the audience. Using pre-recorded and retuned melodies, I create a sort of reverse delay effect: loops that begin before the live instrumentalist plays a phrase. These fragments start at a great distance and work their way to the center, then move outward again in a fading loop, whose contour and pitch content are deformed as it moves in space. Against those melodic gestures, we hear a continuous layer of four-note chords spanning all registers, and a third layer: chains of triads that move at a faster speed, like a condensed version of these widely-spaced chords. The overall effect, to borrow William Styron’s phrase, is a “murky storm,” a slow churning of multiple ideas, constantly in motion but without clear direction.

Loops stand in for this kind of stuck thought process in several of my works: the opening of Blues Wrapped Around My Head (2004), the final movement of Waterlines (2005-2012). They work well for portraying a sense of being lost or stuck, and resigned to it.

At other times though, rumination becomes infuriating. Involuntary slides into cacophonous internal disputes seem impossible to control and grow increasingly disheartening. This frustration led me to think about what it would mean for repetition, which we normally think of as a key parameter for parsing music, to become intrusive. Rather than triggering a spark of recognition, what if repetition became grating and unwelcome?

Rather than triggering a spark of recognition, what if repetition became grating and unwelcome?

There is a climactic passage in Visions and Revisions (2013) that dramatizes this thought process. We begin in a dreamy atmosphere. Over a soft and resonant pizzicato cello ostinato, framing a IV-I progression, fragments and motifs heard throughout the first two-thirds of the piece float into view. But these pleasant recollections soon transform into unwanted intrusions. Over the span of about 45 seconds, the ostinato itself becomes harsher, moving into snap pizzicati and scratch tones. The upper strings start to get agitated, as their lyrical recollections begin to abrupt crescendi. The tempo accelerates, giving the music an increasingly anxious edge. The passage is also inspired by the fifth verse of Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna,” where the form of previous verses is extended by several lines (on Blonde on Blonde you can hear the session musicians struggling to follow), spilling over its frame in a way that sounds to me like obsession pushed past established boundaries, emotional forces redirecting the form.

Muted Greys

There is a function in IRCAM’s Audiosculpt that removes all sinusoidal components from a sound, leaving only the residual noise — a skeletal, greyed-out version of the sonority. That transformation sparked an immediate emotional association: This spectrum of gradations between consonance and noise feels to me like the spectrum between vivid and colorless experience. Spectral music has made a habit of classifying timbre on a sliding scale from white noise at one end to a pure harmonic relationship at the other — a distinction that made instinctual sense as a powerful sonic metaphor for a familiar emotional state.

The spectrum of gradations between consonance and noise feels to me like the spectrum between vivid and colorless experience.

As early as the prelude of Sunflower Suite (2003), and as recently as PolychROME (2017), I have explored the use of noise sounds to signify greyness, or a lack of color. Leaving Lute (2011), my piece about moving back from Paris, is another strong example. I arrived in Paris wide-eyed and enthralled, but got progressively disenchanted with the city. I let that trajectory dictate a simple form: seven minutes of music, a minute for each year between 2003 and 2010 (with an interlude in Istanbul). Instrumental timbre follows the same emotional curve, gradually being drained of color and vitality.

The opening of each of these sections is punctuated by a five-note chord whose orchestration gets “greyer” with each appearance. At the opening of the piece, it is full of detail, shaped with crescendi that enliven the sound, doubled timbres that propel forward through an accelerando:

The opening 4 measures from the score of Christopher Trapani's Leaving Lute for flute, viola and harp trio.

By its final appearance, the instrumentation has been thinned to a single high attack on the harp with a fingernail, while a scraping on low strings continues underneath. Flute and viola fill out the chord one or two pitches at a time, with pale, feeble entrances that trail off in downward glissandi. They join the noise texture, closing the piece with intermittent crescendi, the last sparks of a dying flame.

Four measures from a passage in the middle of the score of Christopher Trapani's Leaving Lute for flute, viola and harp trio.

The final seven measures of the score of Christopher Trapani's Leaving Lute for flute, viola and harp trio.


NOTE: To hear the last two pages of the score, cue to 6’26”.

This palette of grey, noisy sonorities comes up against a lot of misconceptions. In my work, these extended techniques that veer from pitch towards noise are not rebellious gestures, but are instead used as expressive colorings for the crevices of memory. What feels like a very personal expression to me paradoxically fits with many listeners’ preconceptions of a generic trend: noise in new music. My use of noise and extended techniques has nothing to do with subverting convention or an interest in physicality: it is simply a poetic expression of a lack of color. Still, I am far from the only composer to explore the expressive use of noise sounds; listen to Claude Vivier’s Wo Bist du Licht?, the opening of Julian Anderson’s Symphony, or many masterful pieces by Gerard Pesson, including Nebenstück or La lumière n’a pas de bras pour nous porter.

What feels like a very personal expression to me paradoxically fits with many listeners’ preconceptions of a generic trend: noise in new music.

Another way of “greying” pitches is through the use of mutes and preparations. I continue to experiment with ways of polluting pure timbres by adding an inharmonic buzz: thimbles inside tuned cowbells, foil rattling on strings, antique kazoo mutes on brass—multiple shades of noise coloring these timbres..

Other mutes contribute a sense of both distance and strain, of struggling to emerge from under substantial weight. In The Silence of a Falling Star Lights Up a Purple Sky, an elegy for Hank Williams, mid-register strings prepared with blu-tack sound a distant duet that mimics the clunky resonance of a palm-muted guitar, making this reinterpretation of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” sound even more lost and lonely.

The fifth movement of Sunflower Suite (2003) gives an early example of expressive muting. It’s a melancholy end to a suite of exuberant pieces about the color yellow: a wordless setting of William Blake’s “Ah, Sunflower!” The cellist carries the melody with a practice mute, while the piano plays mid-register chords that have been dampened with a scarf. The violin plays the lowest part, having dropped its G-string to an F. The result is a trio playing a familiar texture through a timbral filter, now distant and struggling to balance, straining to be heard through a curtain of fog.

Low end

One of the most memorable descriptions of a depressed mode of existence can be found in John Barth’s novel The End of the Road. The depressive narrator has a dream about a weather report that concludes with the meteorologist announcing, in lieu of a forecast: “There isn’t going to be any weather tomorrow.” William Styron uses a similar metaphor: “The weather of depression is unmodulated, its light a brownout.”

That flat mood, combined with a lack of energy and motivation, is one of the most pervasive experiences for sufferers of depression. Antidepressants can also interfere with emotional vitality; even as they alleviate the urgency and precarity of the condition, they may blunt empathy, leaving this sense of emotional numbness intact. “We are emotionally frozen,” says Dr. Richard O’Connor. “Instead of the normal fluctuations of happiness, sadness, disappointment, joy, desire, and anger that most people cycle through many times a day, depressed people feel a kind of gray neutrality that translates into subterranean tectonic shifts in mood.”

My most extensive foray into portraying the quagmire of depression is probably Creux (2018), a word that in French means “hollow,” or can be used to describe the trough of a wave, flattened between crests. Several of my pieces (Convergence Lines, Isolario, don’t know what alright even means) start at a “low point”— usually depicted as a grainy thud in the bass — but only Creux wallows around on the same static plane for its entire length, unable to jump out of its rut. Several of the instruments — Fender Rhodes, melodica, mbira, and multiple strings on the cimbalom, harp, electric guitar, mandolin, cello, and bass — have been retuned to a meandering microtonal mode which never settles on a central pitch.

In my sketchbook, one early idea for Creux was to create “music that tries to get going but never manages.” The entire drama of the piece unfolds in a limited register, with a restrained gestural vocabulary. There are no melodic lines, no real development, only glimpses of harmony. Single attacks can spread out into polyphonic textures, so the density of the music can momentarily increase, but it is always pulled back at the moment where this density might spill over into something new, thwarting a build-up and remaining stuck.

Ruts and Fugues

Depression has been shown to interfere with the mechanisms of memory.

Amongst its most pernicious effects, depression has been shown to interfere with the mechanisms of memory. Confusion and distraction are common symptoms; concentration gets shattered. While obsessive thinking replays past disappointments, sufferers remain effectively blind to the present. The hippocampus shrinks, impairing the formation and storage of new memories.

Rust and Stardust (2015) is a piece about these distortions of memory, a large-canvas work for orchestra that synthesizes all of the approaches mentioned above—defiant color, ruminative loops, grey noise, and restrained movement. The title is a shorthand for two possible ways that the mind can process a memory: corrosion or romanticization. Its form dramatizes the sudden drop of a breakdown and the non-linear path to recovery, complete with several detours that portray dysfunctional thought patterns associated with depression.

A page from Chris Trapani's sketchbook

A page from Christopher Trapani’s sketchbook.

The piece opens with a crescendo on a still string chord under twinkling percussion that accelerates into a brief glimpse of excitement; harmonic interjections and sparks of color build up to a mock romantic line with a swooping horn and cellos—until, at [0:44], the bottom drops out. That exuberant richness is no longer accessible, supplanted by a grey wash of noise and aimless patterns that turn in place.

What follows is an attempt to recover that initial vitality, to reinvigorate and string together fragments of the cordoned-off past. The moment of collapse is replayed repeatedly with minute variations, like a traumatic memory being relived and distorted as it is imprinted in the brain; only after many iterations does that fixation begin to lose its jagged edges and loosen its grip, allowing new lines and shapes to emerge [2:03].

The recovery is anything but steady: There are ruts, like scratches in vinyl, that skip back to moments heard seconds before [2:17-2:28]. There are sudden slips into fugue states, blank spaces where all motion and development momentarily cease [2:28-2:45, and again at 3:42-4:01]. A trumpet flourish eventually emerges [6:05, 6:12] that will play the role of the intractable obsessive memory.

These insistent loops build up until a second crash lands us in another whirl of white noise—a steeper, more debilitating slide [7:38]. This time, the mechanisms of memory and development are entirely broken. Recollected fragments keep intruding, but now the wrong details, the insignificant background elements, are the ones that stick, magnified out of all reasonable proportion. The stuck trumpet loop gets discarded for an even more banal figure [8:15]. Repetition becomes rote and pointless, and the frustration mounts towards a monolithic burst of noise [9:46].

But the piece ends with a silver lining: those blocks of noise lift to reveal a delicate texture of string harmonics and high metallic percussion. For once, the memory is processed in a “healthy” manner: each intrusion gets lighter and softer, shedding its weight as it recedes and fades from consciousness.

Postlude

It’s easy enough to tack on an optimistic stroke to the end of a piece, but far harder, of course, to maintain that kind of emotional upswing in reality. Depression is an illness that is always liable to resurface: About half of those with major depression will experience at least one relapse. Worse, the threshold for triggering new episodes seems to get lower, leaving sufferers increasingly susceptible. Antidepressants can help to sustain a level mood, but it can take time to work out a proper regimen of medication; even then, the effectiveness of a given drug may wear off as resistance builds.

I resisted medication for a long time, out of a fear that I think many artists share: namely, that the drugs might interfere with my creative work. Would there be a tradeoff for a moderated mood? If antidepressants blunted my emotional responses, would I lose touch with the extreme highs and lows that inspired me to write in the first place? If my personality were to be chemically altered, would I still be writing my music? Those are legitimate concerns, but ultimately—for me, at least—not a powerful enough counterargument to seeking help.

To argue that the act of creating alleviates the burden of depression would be far too simplistic.

It would be tempting to argue that the act of creating alleviates the burden of depression, that art spins gold out of grief—but that would be far too simplistic. For many, composing just may not provide a sufficient outlet or distraction, and for any given composer, it may not even always be reliably therapeutic. Furthermore, it would be wrong to advocate that every artist with a mental health disorder should confront the issue overtly in his or her work. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to handling depression; neither is there one prescribed way to address depression in art. Like any other aspect of identity, the degree to which personal experience speaks through one’s music is a choice that each artist has to make.

But for composers who embed and listeners who decode these intimate messages, there is concrete value in shared experience. It can increase awareness, fight isolation, chip away at a stigma. In the best of cases, it can make you feel less alone. And in the wake of the upheaval we’re all currently living through, with the incidence of depression and anxiety likely to skyrocket, that may count for a lot.

One perennial reminder arrives whenever I fill out a new job application. I’m confronted with an opportunity to disclose an impairment: “Federal law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities,” says the form, followed by a list of afflictions that I am somehow still surprised to see includes my own. But unlike with physical impairments, it might not be immediately obvious what kinds of accommodation could be offered to sufferers of major depression. So I’d like to suggest a few possibilities: Be mindful of what others might be going through. Dig beneath their closed, cool veneer by showing earnest interest. Exercise patience and empathy. Understand that not everyone has the same degree of resilience. Listen with attuned ears for contours that resonate with your own experience, but dig deeper to decipher unfamiliar emotional undercurrents embedded in other people’s music. That may just be a way of reaching out.

Online Score Sales for Self-Published Composers

Empty Staff Paper with staple

“No one’s going to buy your music if it’s sitting on the shelf at your house.” So says Kurt Knecht, composer and co-founder of MusicSpoke, a sheet music distributor focusing on choral music. And it’s true! So, composers: how can you get your music in front of the right musicians in a format that makes it easy for them to purchase, download, and start practicing your pieces right away?

This article will provide an overview of options for self-published composers to sell their PDF (and sometimes, physical) scores and describe the typical audience for each of these methods so composers can evaluate which option might be the best for you and your music. It will also discuss methods for selling your music on your own website, via Bandcamp, or by creating a composer’s collective. Finally, it will explore an alternative path: not selling your music. All of the distributors in this article share two similarities, with a few exceptions for special series or publishing arrangements you can opt-in to. First, composers retain the copyright to their work. Second, these distributors are non-exclusive: composers can sell on other sites.

All of the distributors in this article share two similarities, with a few exceptions: composers retain their copyright; these distributors are non-exclusive

And, a note as we get going: the legacy of systemic racism and sexism is apparent when one browses the distributors in this article. Many of the owners and operators of music distribution services are white men and the catalogs represented on these services often have a large proportion of white male composers. The work to amplify the voices of women, LGBTQ, and BIPOC composers must continue.

Let’s talk about two large distributors first: J.W. Pepper and Sheet Music Plus (SMP) Press. These distributors have name recognition, come in high on internet search results for sheet music, and serve large numbers of customers. However, they offer smaller payments per score (45-50% of list price) to composers, and do not share information about who purchased your music (name, contact info, etc.) with you.

J.W. Pepper’s My Score

Logo for My Score

Audience:

J.W. Pepper is one of the largest distributors of educational music in the United States, selling everything from method and solo books to ensemble works. K-12 music educators are familiar with the website and often have purchasing accounts already set up and ready to go. My Score is J.W. Pepper’s distribution service for self-published composers. “People know the J.W. Pepper name,” says Isaac Brooks, who heads up My Score. “The My Score composer can be found in results along with traditionally published pieces.” Composer Karlyne Félix works as a music educator and first encountered My Score when she was looking for music for her students. Now she uses it as the sole music distributor for her own works. “It’s very easy to use, accessible, and well-known among the music education community,” she says. The audience of educators also attracted composer Garrett Hope to the service. “I’m focusing my efforts on educational music,” Hope explains. “A big part of marketing is knowing your audience and knowing where they go.”

“A big part of marketing is knowing your audience and knowing where they go.”

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

Signing up for My Score costs a one-time $99 fee. Composers receive 50% of the list price for every digital copy and 25% for every printed copy sold, paid quarterly. There are minimum prices for your sheet music starting at $2 for choral works up to $45 for a full orchestral work. For choral works, a minimum of 5 copies must be purchased, to avoid illegal copying. There is no evaluation process for composers, no quality standards, and no guidelines on notation to follow.

PDF or Print Scores?
Works sold on My Score can be purchases as PDFs or printed scores.

Security:

“All digital copies sold by jwpepper.com are watermarked and made available for print through a customer portal called My Library,” Brooks says. “The product can also be viewed through our on a mobile device. The end-user has 3 attempts to successfully print the product, after that it will only be viewable electronically through their account.”

Isaac Brooks in a tie and jacket playing a cello outdoors.

Isaac Brooks, who heads up J. W. Pepper’s My Score

Additional Benefits:

J.W. Pepper has a presence at music conferences, and often offers My Score composers the opportunity to stand at a booth. They offer Webinar training for their composers. One benefit that makes My Score stand out: every work is available as a digital score or a physical score through their print-on-demand service. Professionally printed and bound scores will be fulfilled within 3 days.

Tips:

“Neutral themes and music of hope are very good to have at any performance.”
Karlyne Félix holding a glass globe

Karlyne Félix

Félix suggests that composers considering My Score keep in mind who they are selling to: music educators and their (often young) musicians. “Neutral themes and music of hope are very good to have at any performance,” she explains.  She says it took a little work to get the hang of uploading music, but that My Score’s team was helpful. “I have been contacted by their support team, at the beginning of my journey with them, to clarify a few edits before the site made my music public,” she says. “I appreciate that, especially being new to the system.” Hope wishes that the editing process for scores was less cumbersome. After scores are added, any changes must be requested via email. “I would love to be able to login and see my catalog and make edits,” he says. However, Hope agrees that the customer service team is responsive, usually making changes within 24 hours. Brooks explains that one reason composers must submit edits through email is that My Score prepares a printable file for every score submitted. “One difference between My Score and SMP Press is that we are preparing the item for physical distribution,” he says. Brooks says that a portal for composers to edit their current catalog is “in the works.”

Sheet Music Plus (SMP) Press

Audience:

Sheet Music Plus calls itself “the world’s largest sheet music store.” SMP Press is their distribution arm for self-published composers to sell PDF scores. The site caters to K-12 music educators and ensemble directors, private music teachers and their students and individual hobbyist musicians. Composer Juhi Bansal (https://juhibansal.com/) appreciates the popularity of Sheet Music Plus’s site. “It’s a place people are already going and looking for music, so you are exposed to a much larger audience,” she says.

Composer Juhi Bansal

Composer Juhi Bansal

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

SMP Press is free to join. Composers earn 45% of the list price for original compositions and public domain arrangements and 10% on arrangements of their copyrighted song catalog. Commissions are paid monthly once you hit the $20 minimum for payment via Paypal or $40 minimum for check payments. SMP Offers guidelines (not requirements) for how much to charge for scores. They provide guidelines for scores, such as margin sizes and reducing ink on the cover (since customers are printing these out at home).

“I don’t know too many orchestral institutions willing to print and bind the conductor’s score and parts, with their numerous varying page sizes.”

PDF or Print Scores?

SMP Press sells only PDF scores at this time.

Security:

Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs.

Tips:

Bansal finds SMP Press easy to use. “If you’re just starting out and you want to put music up, it’s a good platform to do it. You can have one place where you sell your scores, and direct people to it.” Composer Arthur Breur agrees. “You create your company name, upload PDFs, you can include preview pages, a video or recording, description, select your price, and 24-48 hours later, your piece is approved and ready to sell,” he explains. “Making changes are easy and then it will take 24-48 hours to update.” “SMP Press is a great option for artists who enjoy a ‘set it and forget it’ method to distributing their music,” says composer Brian Nabors. “It definitely gets the music into the hands of the musicians instantly.” He does wish that SMP had an option to sell physical scores and parts, especially for large ensemble works. “I don’t know too many orchestral institutions willing to print and bind the conductor’s score and parts, with their numerous varying page sizes.” Because of this, he binds and ships his orchestral music himself, often using another music distributor, Subito Music Distribution. To enhance search on the Sheet Music Plus website, Breur suggests including the instrument or performing forces in the title field of your piece when you add it to your catalog. For example: “Dance – Piano Solo” rather than just “Dance.” In his experience, this helps customers find your piece when they search the site.

Composer Brian Nabors

Composer Brian Nabors


Next, let’s talk about four smaller, composer-run distributors: MusicSpoke, NewMusicShelf, Graphite, and Murphy Music Press. These distributors offer a higher payment to composers (50-70% of list price), and share information about who bought your music with you, so that you can get in touch with musicians and ensemble directors.

MusicSpoke

The Logo for Music Spoke

Audience:

MusicSpoke is a marketplace for music by living composers, with a strong emphasis on choral music. “Our primary customers, in this order, are K-12 choral, university choral, and churches,” says Kurt Knecht, co-founder. Composers are welcome to sell other genres of concert music on the site as well. Juhi Bansal sells her vocal music on MusicSpoke, in addition to selling her music on Sheet Music Plus. “It is more specialized,” she says of MusicSpoke, “mostly choral, a few piano works, and art song. I don’t think it’s a great place to sell string quartets, opera, etc.”

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join MusicSpoke. Composers receive 70% of the list price, with some slight variations for rare physical copy sales or promotional offers. The vast majority of MusicSpoke’s sales are PDF scores. When MusicSpoke works are chosen for state repertoire lists requiring physical scores, MusicSpoke works with Black Ribbon Printing to print and bind hard copies.

Kurt Knecht in front of an organ.

Kurt Knecht

The process to join MusicSpoke is unique. “We evaluate composers, not pieces,” says Knecht. MusicSpoke has a one-on-one dialogue with each composer to see if they are a good match for distribution on their site. They do not evaluate individual pieces (as a traditional publisher might), but rather add composers to their service and let composers list as many or as few pieces as they want. Knecht says that they do prefer that you have a recording available for any piece you want to sell.

PDF or Print Scores?

Music Spoke primarily sells PDF scores, with the rare option to print scores when works are chosen for state repertoire lists.

Security:

Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs, or (rarely) physical scores printed through Black Ribbon Publishing.

Additional Benefits:

Bansal appreciates the reputation that MusicSpoke has built among conductors. “People know it’s a good place to look for contemporary choral scores,” she says. She also like that they don’t have a minimum purchase requirement. “If you want to check out a copy of a score, if you want to teach from it or share it in class, there are no minimums,” she says. That can be an advantage if your goal is getting your music in front of a conductor. MusicSpoke maintains a presence at national conferences, with options for composers to join them at their booth. They are continuously developing a network of composers and conductors to promote the music of MusicSpoke composers. In addition, they curate several series with renowned conductors such as the Charles Bruffy, Derrick Fox, and Joseph Ohrt, and MusicSpoke composers are eligible for these. One note: these special series have an additional three-year exclusivity contract with MusicSpoke due to the special promotional services they receive.

NewMusicShelf

New Music Shelf logo

Audience:

NewMusicShelf sells and distributes PDFs of concert music by living composers, with a particular emphasis on music for collegiate and professional performers, ensembles, and chamber groups. “I believe chamber, vocal, and choral music work best on this platform,” says composer Jennifer Jolley, who sells her music on NewMusicShelf as well as through Murphy Music Press and ADJ•ective New Music. Composers are welcome to sell educational music, but that is not its primary market. Of the composer-run distributors discussed in this article, NewMusicShelf is unique in the breadth of its catalog across instrumental and vocal ensembles.

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join NewMusicShelf. For scores sold, there are 2 fees per transaction: a payment processing fee from Paypal or Stripe, which is typically 2.9% plus $0.30 per transaction, and NMS’s 30% distribution fee. This leaves the composer with slightly under 70% of the list price. Composers set their prices, with a minimum of $2 per score. Digital scores sold through NewMusicShelf must be priced less than physical scores sold elsewhere and identically to digital scores sold elsewhere.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for a gatekeeper to talk about ‘quality’ because that is very subjective.”

Of the composer-run distributors, NewMusicShelf is the most inclusive. Founder Dennis Tobenski does not curate based on style or perceived quality. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a gatekeeper to talk about ‘quality’ because that is very subjective,” he says. The most important criteria for acceptance is the engraving quality of your scores and parts. Tobenski suggests comparing your scores to professionally engraved music or seeking advice from a composer whose scores you admire before submitting. That said, he will provide feedback if your scores are not up to his standards—it is not just a blanket rejection.

Dennis Tobenski

Dennis Tobenski

PDF or Print Scores?
NewMusicShelf sells only PDF scores at this time.

Security:

Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs.

Additional Benefits:

“There is a guide to help us figure out how much we should charge per copy of our music. That is a game changer right there,” says Jolley. She appreciates the service because it helps composers sell their music online even if they “have no idea how to implement this on their own website.” NewMusicShelf is Tobenski’s self-described “one man operation,” but he still makes sure to have a presence at conferences, particularly in conjunction with the publication of their print anthologies of music. His mission is to build a community of composers and new music performers.

Jennifer Jolley standing near a lake

Jennifer Jolley (Liz Glen Photography)

Tips:

Tobenski recommends that composers provide a lot of information to potential customers when they upload their scores to the catalog, including a perusal score or sample pages, program notes, links to recordings, and information on who commissioned the work. “Give people too much information,” he suggests. “That’s what people are buying the score based on.” Jolley hopes to see more options for educational music on the platform in the future. “Once they expand, they can make it so their musical offerings are sorted by grade level,” she suggests.

Murphy Music Press

Murphy Music logo

Audience:

Murphy Music Press is a distributor of composer-owned music for saxophones and wind ensembles, run by composer and saxophonist Sean Murphy.  The site sells everything from solos to chamber music to large ensemble works, at all difficulty levels. Composer Evan Williams distributes his work through Murphy Music Press and ADJ•ective New Music (more on ADJ•ective later). “Both Murphy and ADJ•ective have wide markets,” he says. “Some works are educational and some are collegiate/professional.” Murphy aims to sell to customers seeking a curated catalog. “We sell to the kind of person who buys an espresso coffee versus Folgers,” he explains.

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join and composers selling through Murphy Music Press set their own prices and earn 50% of the list price. Murphy Music Press pays for printing and binding out of its half of the sales. Composers are paid twice a year. The site includes around 200 composers at present and Murphy is always looking for new members. Composers interested in selling their music on Murphy Music Press can contact Murphy through the web form on the website, and when invited, submit a piece. “I listen to the piece and follow my heart,” he says. “If I think there’s potential I say yes, and if not, I say no.”

Sean Murphy

Sean Murphy

PDF or Print Scores?
Murphy Music Press sells primarily print scores but can also sell PDF scores. The choice is left up to the composer.

Security:

PDF scores are watermarked.

Additional Benefits:

Twice a year, Murphy Music Press provides composers with a record of who purchased their music so that composers can follow up about performances, etc. However, they sell a large number of scores to large distributors like J.W. Pepper, and from there, they cannot track sales for composers. Murphy Music Press maintains a presence at conferences such as the Midwest Clinic. Williams appreciates the time Murphy Music Press and ADJ-ective put into marketing. “The biggest benefit for me is not having to dedicate time, effort, and money toward printing, binding, and shipping scores and parts,” he says. “Distributors can also market your music online and at conferences, reaching a wider audience than you could yourself.”

Evan Williams standing near a wall

Evan Williams (Photo by Eric Snoza, SnoStudios Photography)

Tips:

“Composers can be so bad at communicating. Answer your emails!”

Murphy vets potential composers by researching their presence online. “Be nice!” he urges. He also pays attention to how easy it is to stay in touch with composers. “Composers can be so bad at communicating,” he warns. “Answer your emails!”  Murphy prefers submissions with a score and a performance recording. “It’s hard to market something without a recording,” he says, but acknowledges that with the pandemic, a MIDI rendition may suffice on occasion. He advises that it is easier to sell a piece if it has already been performed, because it adds legitimacy to the piece and creates interest from buyers.

Graphite Publishing

Graphite logo

Audience:

Graphite Publishing, run by composers Timothy Takach and Jocelyn Hagen, is a considerably more discriminating option for established composers of primarily choral music as well as art song. There are two arms of Graphite: a tightly curated distribution catalog of composer-owned works and an even more select publishing house. They sell primarily secular choral works of all levels, particularly for high school, collegiate, and advanced amateur choirs. While they do distribute some music that is suitable for a church choir, it is not their primary market.

Timothy Takach

Timothy Takach

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join.  Composers receive 60% of sales for composer-owned scores distributed on Graphite Publishing and 40% of sales for Graphite-published works. To keep overhead low, they sell only PDF scores. There is an open submission process on their website, and scores are reviewed 1-2 times a year. Graphite curates with a philosophy of finding what Takach calls “a balance between excellent craft and innovation of scores and the accessibility of the scores. We’re looking for things that are different, things that enhance the choral experience and our catalog.” So a piece setting the same Sara Teasdale or Emily Dickinson poem that everyone at your graduate program set is likely not be what Graphite is looking for. There is a high bar, and those who are chosen are typically composers who have an established catalog that is already selling. “The gate is open,” Takach explains, “but it’s open just a crack.” “I really appreciate their quick and helpful responses to any questions I have,” says composer Dale Trumbore, who distributes her music through Graphite. “Setting up with any new distributor takes time…but overall it’s a pretty straightforward process.”

Dale Trumbore standing outside near a tree

Dale Trumbore (photo by Lucas Hausrath)

PDF or Print Scores?
Graphite sells only PDF scores at this time.

Security:

Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs that include their name, organization, and the number of copies that they are allowed to make.

Additional Benefits:

“I appreciate how Graphite Marketplace has composers rate their pieces in difficulty level on a 1-5 scale, so choral conductors can use that plus the perusal scores to assess whether a piece will be a good fit for their ensemble,” says Trumbore. “There’s a wide variety of music within Graphite, ranging from simpler pieces for children’s chorus to challenging works for advanced choirs.” Graphite maintains a presence at ACDA and NATS conventions and periodically organizes consortiums for groups of their composers. Their model is to “build trust through adjacency,” says Takach. Trust in one composer’s excellence leads conductors to trust the music of other Graphite composers. Trumbore is grateful for this presence at conferences. “That can lead not only to them promoting your work there [at conferences], but to them potentially sponsoring all or part of your registration fee and/or offering times for you to meet conductors and performers face-to-face at their booth,” she explains.


What if you want to be fully in charge of your catalog and sell and distribute yourself? Bandcamp is one way, and selling your scores directly on your website is another. These methods require the composer to take on the work of building and maintain an online store and getting PDF or print scores to their customers.

Bandcamp

Bandcamp logo

Audience:

While many of us think of Bandcamp as a way to listen to and purchase music albums, composers like Sean McFarland use it to sell their scores. “It’s an excellent place to pair your audio work and physical work together,” he says, “and for me, the communities that I’m most interested in connecting with are doing a lot of their listening in Bandcamp already.”

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

McFarland appreciates how easy it is to get set up with Bandcamp, and the fact that there are no gatekeepers evaluating you or your music and deciding if it is worthy. “All you need is an email, and that’s it!” he says. Composers can sell their sheet music in the “merch” section of their Bandcamp page. Bandcamp is free to set up, and charges a 10% fee for all merchandise sales plus transaction fees of 1.9% + $0.30 for Paypal or 2.2% + $0.30 for credit card payments  (https://get.bandcamp.help/hc/en-us/articles/360007802394-How-much-are-transaction-fees-for-digital-sales-).

PDF or Print Scores?
It’s up to you. If you sell print scores, you will have to print, bind, and ship them yourself.

Security:

Bandcamp is not set up for automatic downloads, which McFarland views is a plus: “It is more personal and connective anyway,” he says. He emails scores to customers after they have made a purchase.

Challenges:

McFarland find the organization of information a little “clunky.” “The platform is not exactly meant to sell scores, so you have to get creative with the track organization to make it look reasonable,” he explains.

Selling Scores on your Own Website

There are as many ways to sell your music on your own website as there are composers.

There are as many ways to sell your music on your own website as there are composers. To give perspective on ways this can work, I spoke to Reena Esmail through her assistant Melanie Eveland, Jennifer Wagner, Alex Shapiro, Stephanie Ann Boyd, and self-described New Renaissance Artist Elizabeth A. Baker about how they each approach selling their scores and other materials and services.

Why sell your music yourself?

A major reason to sell your music on your own site is to earn your full sales commission. “I like to keep my money,” says Baker, who sells her compositions, recordings, books, and consulting services through her website. She also emphasized the importance of retaining creative control of your work. “We live in a time when you can self-publish your albums; you can self-publish your own work. You don’t need other humans to put your stuff in a warehouse and take a big percentage of the pot.”

Elizabeth A. Baker holding a small object in front of her face.

Elizabeth A. Baker

Another aspect that came up with every composer I spoke to was the ability to build relationships with customers.  “A significant benefit for composers handling their own score sales is the direct contact they will have with the people who purchase the materials,” says Shapiro. This often leads to future collaborations, commissions, and residencies. Boyd adds, “If they are exploring contemporary music, they are probably someone who wants to ask questions of a composer.”

Logistics, Fees:

Esmail and Wagner design their websites on WordPress and use the WooCommerce plug-in for sales. WordPress’s ecommerce sites begin at $45/month, with no additional cost to add WooCommerce. WooCommerce charges 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction for U.S. credit and debit cards, and an additional 1% for non-U.S. cards. They both do their score delivery and licensing individually, separately from the website transaction. “We like to see the orders that come in and provide a personal level of service to musicians,” says Eveland, Esmail’s assistant. Wagner sells both PDF and print scores, and works with a reliable printer with a fast turnaround time for physical scores. In some ways, she wishes customers could automatically download scores, but on balance, she likes the connection made by sending the email. “It allows me to personally thank them for their purchase and wish them a lovely season with their students,” she explains. She uses MailChimp “sparingly” to let past customers know of new works of music or particularly special opportunities.

Reena Esmail

Reena Esmail (photo by Rachel Garcia)

Shapiro sells physical and PDF scores. She uses a PayPal shopping cart on her website and charges one set shipping and handling fee for print and digital scores. PayPal charges a 5.4% + $0.30 transaction per transaction, but there are no monthly fees or set up costs. Shapiro’s customers receive a custom email with a private web link to download their PDFs. She prints chamber music in house and outsources larger ensemble works to be printed. Shapiro’s works are also available through many distributors and retailers, giving her publishing company a far larger domestic and international footprint than it might otherwise have were her scores only available through her website.

Boyd designs her composer website and store, Femoire, on Squarespace and uses their built-in ecommerce functionality, which includes a score preview function and the option to sell downloadable PDFs. Squarespace’s Business plan costs $18/month plus a 3% fee per transaction. For users selling more than $3200 annually, they offer Commerce Plans starting at $26/month with no transaction fees. After customers purchase music on Boyd’s site, they can automatically download their music.

Stephanie Ann Boyd

Stephanie Ann Boyd

Baker uses Square and appreciates the business management tools the platform offers. “Square is like accounting software,” she explains. “It offers scheduling, it offers online booking, inventory management, and it helps me with invoicing. I can print out very coherent reports which allow me to work with my financial planner.” Square stores begin with their Free option which has no monthly fee and charges 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction and offers additional features at Professional ($12/month), Performance ($26/month) and Premium ($72/month) options.

Security:

To reduce illegal file sharing, Shapiro embeds metadata into every digital audio file, always watermarks her digital perusal scores, and often watermarks her PDFs to reflect who purchased them. Boyd and Wagner watermark the score previews on their sites but not the purchased copies. Baker takes a different view on preview scores altogether. “All these quick view perusal scores nonsense is giving too much away,” she says. “I am heavily against it. I know a lot of specifically white male conductors and composers are going to say, ‘No, we need this, because I need to know your stuff.’ No. I have a website, you can clearly get a better picture of someone through a walk through their website than a single score.” Baker’s music is not notated in standard notation so she does not watermark purchases. “I make things that are unstealable because people stole my stuff in the past,” she explains.

Challenges:

Of course, if you are selling yourself, you really are going at it alone. Shapiro warns, you’ll be administering your catalog, hold your engraving to a high standard for print and digital scores, deal with printing and binding, purchase materials, and process and ship orders—all by yourself. She suggests hiring others to help you with some of these tasks so that you still have time to compose.

Alex Shapiro in front of a collection of computer terminals and electronic keyboard instruments

Alex Shapiro

Tips:

Esmail has found that score sales are only one, smaller part of her income streams. “We have noticed that score sales are a lagging indicator—not a leading one,” says Eveland, Esmail’s assistant. “It has not been our experience that a concert composer can set up an online store and hope to build an income that way without already being known through other sources.”

Shapiro suggests setting up Google Alerts for your name (in quotes) and each piece in your catalog (the title in quotes as well). This allows you to track performances you might not be notified about otherwise. Boyd’s emphasis is on reducing what she calls “consumer friction.” “Think about how you shop online, pay attention to the brands whose shopping experience you enjoy, and try to re-create that,” she says.

“If you don’t have an organized way of managing inventory and shipping, you won’t be productive.”

Baker advises composers to choose a method that helps you stay organized on your end as a seller. “It’s not about having the most sleek website, it’s about what’s going to work on the back end: delivery of content. If you don’t have an organized way of managing inventory and shipping, you won’t be productive.” She also urges composers to get set up like a business: create articles of incorporation, assign successors (especially now, during a pandemic), and work with a lawyer and a tax professional who is also a certified financial planner. “Set up everything the right way and put in the initial investment,” she says.

Wagner reminds composers to keep their customers in mind as they write, especially for those writing educational music. “If you are going to self-publish, you need to be on the cutting edge of what teachers need,” she explains. “If you supply teachers with the tools to be successful, then profit will come organically.”

Jennifer Wagner outside

Jennifer Wagner

A hybrid model that combines aspects of a small music distributor with selling your music yourself is to create a composer collective such as ADJ•ective New Music.

Composer Collectives: ADJ•ective New Music

ADJective New Music logo

Composers can band together and create a collective of like-minded colleagues to sell and cross-promote one another’s music. This is the model of ADJ•ective New Music, a publishing and distributing company begun by composer-performers Jamie Leigh Sampson and Andrew Martin Smith. “The idea from the beginning was that a rising tide raises all boats,” says Sampson. “If one composer does well, then people will come to our website and see the works of others.”

Composers should create their own collectives.

ADJ•ective’s roster currently includes 14 composers and has a model in which they expand every other year and only with a few composers, by invitation, at a time. “We don’t have the capacity to have an open call for new members,” Sampson explains. Rather than wait for their next period of expansion, Sampson suggests composers create their own collectives. She shared how ADJ•ective works to supply a potential model for other composers.

Jamie Leigh Sampson

Jamie Leigh Sampson

Logistics

The ADJ•ective website features a store for score purchases and rentals. ADJ•ective composers retain their copyright, can choose to sell or rent physical and/or digital scores, and receive 50% of the net profits of sales and rentals. Sampson and Smith invested the profits from the first several years of the business into purchasing printing and binding equipment and industry-standard paper at various weights. They print and bind physical scores in house. ADJ•ective shares information about who purchased works with composers.

Security

At this time, ADJ•ective does not watermark PDFs, partly because their volume of PDF sales is fairly low.

Benefits

“ADJ•ective is special because we are a composer’s collective, so we advocate for each other and are often involved in group commissions, projects, or festival appearances,” says composer Evan Williams, who sells his scores through ADJ•ective and Murphy Music Press. ADJ•ective composers have pooled resources to share booths at conferences such as the Midwest Clinic and ADJ•ective has a podcast, Lexical Tones, which is hosted by collective member Robert McClure and which features guest musicians involved in contemporary music. “Collectives help bring legitimacy,” says Sampson. “We have the old guard thinking if you’re not published, you aren’t legit.” A composer’s collective, she says, offers the best of both worlds: artistic ownership and control with the power of a group advocating for your music. They are planning to expand this partnership to include performers in the future.


One Final idea…What about NOT selling your music (most of the time)?

Because I love to rock the boat, I asked composer Melissa Dunphy to share her “radical” (as she puts it) approach to score distribution with me. Dunphy, best known for her social justice-inspired choral music, makes all of her self-published scores free to download on her website. Trusting in an honor system, she asks anyone charging admission to their concert to get in touch with her for an invoice and she charges them $1.50 per digital copy. For free recitals and church service performances, her music is free, provided she is informed of performances so that she can list them on her website and online and report them to ASCAP.

“It makes no sense for me to create ‘artificial scarcity’ by placing a barrier on the distribution of my sheet music.”

“The vast bulk of my income comes not from sales of scores, but from commissions and performance royalties,” Dunphy explains. “Given this situation, it makes no sense for me to create ‘artificial scarcity’ by placing a barrier on the distribution of my sheet music, such as a price or copy protection. Rather, I should want my music to be distributed as widely and easily as possible, to create more opportunities for performances and commissions. I should especially want music students, many of whom will become music professionals and educators (and many of whom don’t have a lot of money, as I know from experience), to have free and easy access to my sheet music.” She feels her career has benefited from this model and that it is “particularly well-suited to choral music because choral directors on the whole are social creatures and born networkers and very game to try new music from living composers.”

Melissa Dunphy

Melissa Dunphy

While she does feel that instrumental music has to be approached a bit differently: “more direct marketing, more specific networking to individual performers,” she also points out that “for solo or chamber works, you’re only selling a single copy or a few parts, so the potential revenue to be gained from putting a price on your sheet music would be even smaller.”

Dunphy’s sacred choral music is not available for free. It is published with a traditional publisher because of their connections to churches and religious communities that aren’t in her network, and she feels that her publisher works hard to market her music, which she appreciates.


Even More Options:

Score Exchange is an online music distributor with no fee to sign up, and no editorial criteria to pass to be accepted. Composers retain their copyright, and Sibelius users can take advantage of their built-in “publish on Score Exchange” function. Composers earn a percentage of the list price, beginning at 45% and increasing as your monthly sales exceed $200.

Black Tea Music describes itself as a “boutique music promotion, publishing, and management representative for composers and new music-inclined artists.”

Subito Music Distribution is a service that allows you to sell or rent your works while retaining copyright of your music. One benefit is that they will print and bind parts at industry-standard sizes. There is a $50 fee to join and $50 annual fee subsequently. Composers begin with 5 titles in their catalog and may add 10 more during the year. Composers receive 55% of retail sales.

Other options to take payments online include Stripe which charges no set up or monthly fees and a 2.9 % + $0.30 per transaction fee, Sellfy, which charges $19/month and no transaction fees for up to $10,000 in sales per year, and Shopify which combines website creation and ecommerce and begins at $29/month plus 2.9% + $0.30 per transactions online.


Empty Staff Paper with staple

Conclusion

“Working with distributors rather than publishers has allowed me so much more freedom for future projects.”

So composers, is your music sitting on a shelf at your home? Are you ready to change that? As you evaluate options, Tobenski suggests, “Composers should genuinely ask themselves, what do I do, and where does it fit? Don’t try to shoehorn yourself into some place.” And you can take advantage of the non-exclusivity of many of these distributors. “I like using several methods because the audience for the different genres of music varies greatly,” says Jolley, who distributes music through NewMusicShelf, Murphy Music Press, and ADJ•ective New Music. “Working with distributors rather than publishers has allowed me so much more freedom for future projects,” says Trumbore. “Freedom to make arrangements of existing works or even withdraw works from my catalogue if I feel they aren’t representing my best work anymore. The tipping point in deciding to use a distributor came when I started to resent that score sales were pulling time away from my creative work. Freeing that time back up is well-worth the cut that a distributor receives from my sales royalties.” And of course, choosing a distribution or sales method is only the beginning. Arthur Breur reminds readers:  “You have to market to let people know about your music.”

My hearty thanks to everyone who contributed their voices for this article: Kurt Knecht, Isaac Brooks, Karlyne Félix, Garrett Hope, Juhi Bansal, Brian Nabors, Arthur Breur, Dennis Tobenski, Jennifer Jolley, Sean Murphy, Evan Williams, Timothy Takach, Dale Trumbore, Sean McFarland, Reena Esmail, Melanie Eveland, Alex Shapiro, Stephanie Ann Boyd, Jennifer Wagner, Elizabeth A. Baker, Jamie Leigh Sampson, and Melissa Dunphy.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.

ASCAP Foundation Logo

Innovations and Experimentations in Distanced Choral Singing

A screen capture from one of C4's Remote Livestreams

While the entire music sector has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, the choral community has been hit especially hard. Singers have been deemed “super spreaders” of the virus, by a study commissioned by a coalition of performing arts organizations. The study has let the national community know they don’t believe there will be a safe way for choirs to safely rehearse until there is widespread testing and/or a vaccine, potentially an entire year or more in the future. Like other musicians, this bleak forecast has prompted panic for professional choristers who rely on group singing for their income, but it has also affected some 40 million people in the United States who rely on choirs for the social community, mental health, and emotional well-being.

My spouse Cynthia Siadat, a licensed psycho-therapist, recently wrote an article about how choir helps alleviate mental health distress. She writes, “73% of singers report that choral singing helps them to feel less lonely…A 2015 study, found that loneliness has been proven to be just as detrimental to one’s longevity as obesity and smoking 15 cigarettes a day”. My takeaway is that choral singing might not just be benefiting people’s mental health but is also indirectly saving lives. It is no wonder that so many church goers, one of the largest demographics of choral singers in the U.S.A., are banging at the doors to return to their weekly gatherings.

Over the last few months, over 270,000 choirs nationwide have been trying to figure out how to move forward. While making a high quality musical product is the common call for any music ensemble, the pandemic has made it clear that it is just as much the MEANS rather as it is the ENDS that is the raison d’être for many choirs that makes the choral experience so widely popular. The question becomes not only, ‘how do we make a quality musical product?’ But, ‘how can we continue to have meaningful musical and social experiences?’. For music educators, there are existential questions about what the intended learning outcomes are for the choral classroom and if they can be achieved without singing in the same room at all.

For the groups I am part of, this question comes with an examination of our values and goals as a choral community. I believe this new medium requires a deep look at our assumptions and expectations about the choral experience and how we may have to reassess or establish anew what we consider to be a ‘good’ choral experience and how we can satisfy what both audiences and singers are missing most from choral music.

I have the good fortune of making my living as a chorister in a particular subset of the community deeply interested and invested in innovating and experimenting with choral music, and because of this involvement have had the opportunity to participate first hand in how different groups are handling the crisis and trying to move forward. No one group has ‘solved’ the issue of not being able to sing and rehearse together, but all of them have found unique ways forward and are experimenting wildly. I’d like to share with you some of the varied experiences I’ve had as a singer, conductor, and composer in community, professional, and liturgical choirs and examine some of the pros and cons of these approaches in the hopes that other enterprising leaders will be inspired to add their own experiments as we collectively try to move forward during the next year.

Asynchronous Music Making (Virtual Choirs)

It’s pretty ironic that the pandemic hit full swing almost exactly on the 10 year anniversary of Eric Whitacre’s first virtual choir. Building a virtual choir, once considered a technological marvel, has become astonishingly commonplace in the last few months. The professional choir at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles (led by my long time colleague David Harris), for instance, has recorded 3-4 virtual choir pieces every week since March.

A screenshot from an online performance of The FCCLA Virtual Choir

The FCCLA Virtual Choir

There are many resources for those interested in getting involved with virtual choirs. I’ve even put my own document of step by step instructions for composers, conductors, and singers.

(Virtual Choir ProTip: Recording the audio and video separately allows a great deal of editing and ‘punching’ in while recording. It goes much faster than trying to get a single perfect take.)

(Additional ProTip: Conductor tracks aren’t all that helpful for the singers, use a click instead. Also consider using a “section leader” to create a guide track for each part so the rest of the choir has a voice to follow along with for style and phrasing.)

For choirs concerned primarily with making a familiar musical product, virtual choirs fit the bill. Audiences appreciate the regular output of music, the result can be quite high quality, and the experience can feel close to watching a live performance. Composers who are interested in having their new choral work premiered and workshopped, will also appreciate virtual choirs as a way to both have their work brought to the public, but also have a close equivalent of a studio recording to boot.

There are some unexpected perks to virtual choirs, namely in terms of how it makes certain kinds of repertoire more accessible than ever before. Newly composed music works particularly well for this medium because 21st Century engraving technology makes MIDI guides and click tracks readily available, which minimizes the amount of time needed to rehearse and prepare one’s part for a virtual choir. Even without such guide tracks, the ability to learn and record a piece phrase by phrase allows for the ‘performance’ of music that might have otherwise been out of reach of an ensemble.

In May, for instance, the FCCLA professional ensemble performed Stravinsky’s 12-tone anthem The Dove Descending, an emotional and mystical work rarely performed by choirs today, especially church choirs, perhaps in-part due to the amount of rehearsal time required. In the virtual choir setting, however, we were able to effectively record the piece in a matter of a few hours. It would be quite an phenomenon if one of the results of our current circumstances was a revival of mid-century atonal choral literature!

While the end product of virtual choirs can be satisfying, the means by which that product is made can be sorely lacking. The great communal spirit of singing together is completely lost, and the pandemic has shown with painful clarity the aching social importance of group singing. I cannot point to a more clear example of how music is greater than the sum of its parts than when an ensemble performs together. Virtual choirs reduce the experience of making music to its component parts and only reveal that ineffable sum once the engineers have done their editing magic. This urgent need to reclaim that in-person experience has led to some fascinating explorations of…

Remote Choirs and re-creating the community experience

Though Zoom has become one of the primary means of communication during the pandemic, desperate musicians are learning that it’s a subpar platform for music making. The sound algorithms cause voices to cut in and out, and the latency, or lag, between singers makes any kind of meaningful rehearsal or performance of traditional choral music tenuous at best. Luckily, there are some low-latency audio options specifically designed for musicians to re-create some semblance of in-person music making. (Soundjack and Jamulus are two that my community uses, but there are others.) C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective, a maverick choral ensemble in New York dedicated to performing new and innovative music from the last 25 years (and with whom I’ve been working since 2011), did not wait long before becoming one of the only choral groups to experiment with this software and start giving truly live choral performances streamed over the internet. You can read about how they created the technical set-up for these performances with these detailed instructions.

It didn’t take long working with this medium to realize that remote choirs are entirely new kinds of ensembles that need to be approached with a different set of values as well as repertoire idiomatic for what is essentially a new instrument. For those that had hoped to recreate the traditional choral experience, this was a disappointment. Typical choral values like blend, balance, and uniformity are made that much trickier by every singer’s individual mic set up. Rehearsals started with about an hour of tech adjustments, setting levels, and troubleshooting, not exactly the most enlivening rehearsal experience, and the singing itself still felt like a group of individuals rather than a unified choir.

And yet, once we finally waded through the tech set up and arrived at our first moment of singing together, just a simple C Major chord, I felt a flood of emotion. After long weeks of isolation, I was finally singing with my friends. It wasn’t the choral experience I was used to, but it was unmistakably live music making, and that taste was enough to keep me coming back every week.

The results have been a series of pretty astounding and ever improving online performances with a great collection of experimental repertoire.

Similar to the virtual choir experience, there are some unexpected perks to this new medium, especially when it comes to repertoire. One great opportunity is for the incorporation of live-electronic elements. There isn’t a lot of work for choral ensembles that utilize live sound processing, partly because it is not usually feasible to individually mic each singer in the choir. With the remote choir format, however, such micing is an intrinsic part of the medium and opens up the door to a whole new world of expressive devices. C4’s online performance of The Last Transmission of Amelia Earhart, by composer Robbie LaBanca is a prime example of how the choir can take advantage of this inherently electronic medium. Distortion, reverb, mic noise, and spatialization are all employed to bring the piece further to life in a way that would be impossible for an acoustic concert experience.

Because the software being used for remote choirs is LOW-latency, not NO-latency, perfect rhythmic unity is nearly impossible. Similarly, the unified choral sound typically asked for in traditional rep is also difficult to achieve. These two factors inspired C4 to curate, solicit, and create repertoire that embraces timbre, improvisation, and asynchronous performing, sometimes juxtaposing such sections with moments of metric unity in rhythmically simple and homophonic textures that don’t sound out of place with a little lag.

As I’ve written about previously, such aleatoric writing where individual performers have some creative control over their parts is not new to the music world, but it is uncommon in much of the choral world. Ensembles interested in shifting to a remote choir format, however, seem to show a surge of interest in pieces that allow for dense textures outside of the stereotypical four-part polyphony. Some well-established composers, like Kile Smith and Dale Trumbore, have quickly responded to the changing needs of the field by writing new works and making them freely available to the public, though there is already an abundance of pieces that utilize graphic notation, minimalist textures, and other aleatoric elements that fit well with the remote choir format. My own publishing company has curated a list of pieces from our catalog that are particularly appropriate for virtual and remote choirs.

The aleatoric musical score for Sarah Rimkus's 2020 choral composition O God, Thy Sea

The score for Sarah Rimkus’s 2020 choral composition O God, Thy Sea, published by See-A-Dot and reprinted with permission.

Choral Karaoke

Remote choirs aren’t going to be for every ensemble. The tech requirements, both in terms of necessary hardware and techie know-how, will likely be a barrier for many avocational community choirs to jump into this format. The volunteer choir at FCCLA is one such example. Group video chats during a weekly “choir happy hour” did a lot in terms of keeping the social aspects of the group alive, especially in the early days of the pandemic, but without the ensemble’s focal point of making music on a weekly basis, enthusiasm and participation started dropping off.

To bring back some semblance of community singing, we started experimenting with what I call Choral Karaoke. The concept is simple, the meeting host takes a previous recording of the choir performing a song they know well (for our church ensemble we have a lot since we’ve been doing so many virtual choir performances), shares their audio for everyone to hear, and participants put on headphones, mute themselves, and sing along.

I know this might seem hokey, I myself was extremely skeptical when the suggestion to try this was made, but I only made it halfway through the first piece before emotion overtook me and kept me from singing any further. I was watching my friends sing, and I was hearing their voices wrapped up in that perfect choral sound we achieve on stage as a group. It didn’t matter that in reality what I was seeing and hearing weren’t the same thing, it was close enough that my brain was convinced I was singing in a choir again. Once the song was over, I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes. The singers shared how much they had missed making music together and how this bittersweet experience simultaneously revealed and brought home for them a piece of what had been absent. If you are struggling to find meaningful ways to connect with your choir, and you have some decent recordings of familiar work, you might find choral karaoke a satisfying stop-gap. This is a great method for learning new rep too, as you can show a score and sing one part at a time with a guide voice while others sing along on mute.

Harnessing Technology and Creating Hybrid Live / Pre-recorded Music

Perhaps the most innovative and technology-heavy approach to choral singing I’ve seen during the pandemic comes from The Contemporary Choral Collective of Los Angeles (C3LA). Hungry to keep making music together, and looking for alternatives to the more “traditional” virtual choir,  David Garcia Saldaña, a tech-savvy members of the ensemble took the lead on organizing a hybrid project that combined pre-recorded ‘virtual choir’ like elements, live electronics, visual art, improvised vocals, and audience participation to create an astonishing multimedia concert experience.

Check out the “fridge magnet concert.”

What I love about this approach is how eagerly it embraces distance and recording technology as a creative opportunity, and how the process itself was a collaborative opportunity for artists to get creative and make music together, even if it’s in a different manner than they were used to. Each aspect of the project required a combination of collaboration juxtaposed with individual writing and recording. Teams of musicians selected word banks and parameters for composing musical cells and images for each word in the composition, which were then written and recorded by individuals and programmed into a playback device that can be performed live by another musician. You can read a full write up of the process here.

As an audience member, I found the concert immensely satisfying. It was unmistakably a live event, replete with the awkward introductions, delays, and delightful mishaps of live performance, but with an excellent audio quality coming from the pre-recorded tracks. While the performance experience is singular, there is only one person triggering samples, what was presented was visually and audibly choral. One of the electronic performers, Molly Pease, added another element to the performance by layering live vocals on top of the pre-recorded samples. Taking it a step further by adding visual elements, the concert went beyond the normal choral boundaries into a full-on interdisciplinary feast for the senses.

For performers, this project was more satisfying than the lonely and isolating experience of recording for a virtual choir. The collaborative elements that involved meeting with fellow artists, planning what would be created, and allowing room for interpretation, especially with the visual element, brought life, direction, and purpose to the project as a whole. Such a template has great possibilities for the future of remote collaboration and made a clear statement that choral music is an important part of the experimental new music landscape. I hope it’s an approach other choirs look at as they find ways to continue performing live.

screen capture from "fridge magnet" concert showing faces of individual choristers and the words: breathe, absorb, silence, witness, our, love, flow, hold human, love, safe, do

A screen capture from C3LA’s Fridge Magnet concert.

Re-examining Goals and Values in an Educational Setting

For ensembles that are part of a learning institution, additional questions about what the ensemble experience is supposed to teach are also present. Have we been using choirs as an opportunity to practice ear training and sight-singing skills, vocal technique, or ensemble skills? If so, are there meaningful ways to continue this education in a remote environment, and what about the artistic/social/musical experience is lost if pedagogy becomes the focal point. Is there a way to maintain both? This is an especially urgent question since so many schools are committed to distance learning for at least the coming fall semester.

The National Collegiate Choral Organization recently released a position paper about choirs in an educational setting during the pandemic. Much of it is an argument for maintaining choral programs at risk of getting cut while simultaneously reading as a lament for what we lose with the remote experience that is only achievable when we are together. I think, however, there are a number of educational opportunities that present themselves through these current circumstances.

While planning an entirely remote education semester at Chaffey College, where I co-direct choirs, my collaborator (the inimitable David Rentz) and I decided to reexamine our learning outcome goals to better fit this new online format. Certainly singing is at the heart of all we do as choirs, and that can be maintained even if our energy is not on the performing ensemble skills (blend, balance, uniformity, etc.) we might typically focus on during a traditional rehearsal. Instead, by examining our usual values and amplifying pedagogical subjects that permeate the background of a choral rehearsal, we can embrace the individual singers and how they each contribute to a larger work.

One of the primary goals I am interested in cultivating among students is audio recording skills. There is an assumption that young people are more comfortable with technology than the older generation. While that may be true in terms of creating a new TikTok video, many (young) singers have never had to concern themselves with learning the basics of recording and editing an audio track. For community choirs where the emphasis is on the experience of singing together, taking the time to learn audio engineering skills might be a low priority, but for aspiring artists such skills are an intrinsic part of sharing your work with a modern audience. I see this as an opportunity to fill a gap in traditional classical music education that tends to focus on live acoustic performance, and yank both educators and students into the 21st Century by getting them comfortable with using recording technology. Virtual choirs are excellent culminating projects that utilize such skills in a way that results in a satisfying product.

Another area of focus that usually takes up background space in the choral rehearsal is vocal pedagogy. Building muscle coordination, tone, and breath support by working on scales and exercises helps build the individual voice and lays the foundation for stronger singing in solo and ensemble situations alike. Focusing on pedagogy is also an opportunity to share technical information about vocal anatomy and acoustics. Screen sharing in the remote format allows me to use tools like VoceVista to teach about the overtone series, vowel, and timbre, and I often share the colorful and illustrative resources on VoiceScienceWorks to show students how the voice does what it does.

Improvisation is another skill that can be achieved using a combination of virtual choir and choral karaoke methods. Establishing basic harmonic progressions, like a 12-bar blues (even building them with your ensemble through a virtual choir!), and teaching students how to solo over them idiomatically is a great opportunity to develop ear-training, creativity, and music literacy. Ear training and sight-singing in general are core musicianship skills in the western music curriculum that are often integrated into the choral classroom and can translate decently to a virtual environment. On the more avant-garde side, there are opportunities to engage with graphic scores, drone based music, and other methods of music making that aren’t as common in the usual choral curriculum.

Conductor David Harris argues “the individual’s vocal and emotional experience are the core building blocks of the ensemble.” During this time when singers have to be isolated, ensembles have an opportunity to build on those individual skills and experiences, thereby making their group dynamic stronger when they are allowed to sing together in the future.

A Final Thought

All of the above methods and considerations of how to keep choral singing live scratch some part of the itch for some of the participants, but nothing can re-create the mystical experience of sharing the space and air of our fellow musicians when we make music together. Perhaps some enterprising ensemble will organize a concert in a parking garage or individually mic every singer in the choir and spread them across a football field, but until then exploring how to find the opportunities in the current situation is the way forward. There are silver linings that come from having to innovate and experiment, and I hope some of those changes, especially the new repertoire and examination of values in the choral world, stick around and lead us into a new and exciting era when we sing together once more.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.

ASCAP Foundation Logo

Reflections on Segregation and Representation in Choral Music

choral hymnal

In the wake of global demonstrations and protests against police brutality and racial discrimination, I have been reflecting on how unconscious bias effects the music field. It’s no shock to state that classical music in the United States is an overwhelmingly white activity, even as America is increasingly diverse. Recent research by The League of American Orchestras has shown the wide disconnect between the demographics of America as a nation and who finds representation in classical music. As a musician who predominantly works with vocal music and spends a good percentage of my time as a chorister and choral conductor, I’d like to use this opportunity to take a broad look at the choral landscape in terms of gender and ethnic diversity, confront what questions the existing research present, and share some resources and recommendations for potential ways to create space in choral music so that it might more accurately reflect the world we live in.

Choral music has unique diversity issues that are more subtle than those in the instrumental world. Because of my work as a publisher and composer, I am particularly interested in the representation of our programming as well as in leadership and overall participation. Unlike orchestral programming, many choral music programs consist of music by living composers. In fact, over 80% of the recommended repertoire from the ACDA National Repertoire and Standards lists were by living composers. Choral singing has fewer barriers for participation and the approach taken by any given choir can range from an egalitarian activity with which nearly anyone can participate to an elite one available only to the highly trained and educated.

My intention here is to offer a researched approach to representation as a call to action for equity and diversity in overall participation, representation in positions of leadership, and among composers.

Women in Choral Music

Gender equity in choral music is an easier and more accessible topic than ethnicity as female singers are in greater numbers than their male counterparts throughout the choral community. Since historically voice parts have been seen as synonymous with gender, and choirs are split evenly by voice part, choirs are generally evenly divided along gender lines. This relative parity is decently reflected among the aggregate of conductors across the nation. This survey of conductors from Chorus America shows that women lead nearly half of the choirs in the country, though the number is skewed towards youth choirs and K-12 school directors and dramatically diminishes when looking at community, college, and professional choirs. A survey of collegiate conductors in Wisconsin, for instance, shows that gender parity is lopsided in higher education, but still much closer in choral music than for instrumental conductors of orchestras and wind bands. 

Among composers, however, women are still quite underrepresented. I recently surveyed the music curated by the ACDA National Repertoire and Standards committees that were presented during reading sessions at the 2019 national convention, and women composers made up 21% of the composers on the suggested lists. That percentage rose to 26% when considering only living composers.

My non-rigorous look at composers on MusicSpoke (a marketplace where composers may sell their self-published music) shows only 20% of the composers are women, a percentage roughly matched in the representation of composers in the catalog for my own company. My guess is that these numbers generally represent the percentage of women composers in the American choral scene, an obvious disproportion to the percentage of women in both the choral community and the nation at large.

Ethnicity and Segregation in Choral Music

Ethnicity, however, is a much trickier topic to parse. First, there seems to be less overall research about ethnicity in choral music. Chorus America’s conductor survey notes, “Only 5 percent [of respondents] were African-American, Hispanic, or Asian/Pacific, less than the proportion of minorities in the U.S. population; we don’t know how accurately these percentages reflect the population of choral conductors.” They add “fewer [respondents] are from the South as compared with the population as a whole,” which might indicate why there were so few black conductors in the survey in particular.

Second, there is an ethnic segregation of participation, leadership, and programming, between ‘non-genre specific choirs’ (usually referred to simply as ‘choirs’) and ensembles that predominantly perform music of a specific idiom, especially one outside of the European classical tradition, for instance, ‘Gospel Choir.’ A great deal of ensemble singing is done in Churches, which also tend to be segregated along ethnic lines. 

Social and creative solidarity among a like-minded community is totally understandable. I see no issue with those who care to focus on or specialize in a specific type of music, nor do I think there’s any problem with gathering among those who share cultural experiences and values. What I am interested in looking at is how this segregation affects non-genre specific choirs. This could, perhaps, be a problem of terminology. Perhaps most ‘regular choirs’ are actually ‘European Classical Choirs’, or ‘American Classical Choirs.’ However, it’s been my experience that most ‘regular choirs’ are interested in exploring a wide breadth of repertoire including pop music, gospel, folk-song arrangements, as well as music from the classical tradition.

As an example: New York City, like many of America’s large urban areas, is a ‘minority-majority’ population. White people make up only about 40% of the city’s residents. That number rises to 50% if only considering Manhattan. Looking at this photo of the Oratorio Society of New York it is clear such demographics are not proportionally represented. This ensemble’s demographics aren’t unique in New York among non-genre specific groups, but I mention them specifically because of a major recent project: performing and recording a new oratorio written by Pulitzer prize winning composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell (both white) based on the writings of William Still (a black abolitionist). For this project, the soloists were all black performers, an appropriate choice for a work about the underground railroad. This choice, as can be seen from this photo of the performance, created a dramatic demographic shift among the performers, at least doubling the singers of color in the performance.

But where do they go when the performance is over? Participation by singers of color, but especially black singers in non-genre specific choirs, is low in and often leads to tokenizing of those members, especially when black music is being performed (or in this case, music on black themes). Such othering is a big part of choral segregation and is not unique to black musicians. We separate and essentialize ‘ethnic’ music and look to composers of color, even those born and raised in the US, to provide that work. Non-idiomatic pieces are often overlooked in favor of music with a more ‘world music’ flair, pushing composers of color to write music that matches their ethnic backgrounds, whether it’s their preference or not.

I’ve experienced this myself. As a first-generation American of Middle Eastern ethnicity, I find this experience particularly frustrating. I can count on one hand the number of other Middle Eastern choral directors and composers I have met. I am frequently asked by strangers about choral music on Middle Eastern themes or that utilize Middle Eastern idioms, asked to pronounce or translate Arabic and Farsi, and have even been told that when I sing minor seconds, they exhibit a low, eastern tuning. (To set the record straight, I know almost nothing about Middle Eastern music theory and speak neither language of my parents, but I am decently conversational in Brazilian Portuguese.) Is my music influenced by my experience as a first-generation American and person of color who finds themselves between cultures? Absolutely. My takeaway from these type of interactions, however, is that my music training in the western classical tradition, especially the avant-garde and experimental music on which I focus, isn’t of value or interest and that I would be better served to pursue the music of ‘my culture’ than the music in which I actually specialize.

While composers of color are dominant in genre-specific groups (black composers in gospel choirs, for instance), they are disproportionately represented in concert programs of non-genre specific choirs. Referring back to the survey of Repertoire and Standards from the 2019 ACDA National Conference, composers of color only make up 14% of the total curated pieces. This includes a category called Ethnic and Multicultural music, a broad and ill-defined category that seems to include folk songs, Jewish sacred music, and gospel, among other music by people of color. This category is, I believe, an intentional outlier, and 60% of the chosen rep is from composers of color. Removing the Ethnic and Multicultural category as an outlier, only 8% of selected repertoire in all other categories was from composers of color (10% if only considering living composers). There were no recommended pieces by composers of color in both the youth and middle school choir categories.

Among visible leaders on the national choral scene, approximately 45% were women, and 25% were people of color. This number is considerably higher than the representation of women composers and composers of color in the Repertoire and Standards, but, particularly considering people of color, is markedly lower than the 40% of the national population who are people of color. It’s hard to say how this might or might not reflect the demographics of the choral field on the national level. 

Considering the intersection of ethnicity and gender only compounds the lack of representation. Looking again at the ACDA Repertoire and Standards, women of color make up only about 25% of all composers of color, making them 10% of the total composers. Among the MusicSpoke composers, there are only two women of color and none in my own company’s catalog.

Asking questions

Looking at the above information, I start to have some questions:

Why does this cultural segregation occur? Are there factors, like the tokenization mentioned above of minorities, that leave people of color discouraged from what is perceived as a white activity or push them to form choral communities of their own that feel more welcoming? Is that lack of diversity in the visible leadership of classical music part of a self-perpetuating cycle that reinforces to potential musicians of color that this genre isn’t for them?

Is such segregation even sustainable? The American League of Orchestras points out “With more than one-third of all Americans belonging to a ‘minority’ group, it is increasingly difficult to be successful without incorporating diversity in your overall organization.” Who we have in the audience will reflect who we are onstage, especially for avocational groups where the majority of the audience are the friends and family of performers. Ticket sales are a big part of supporting our ensembles, as is public funding, both of which are in jeopardy if the performing group does not engage with the population the public funding supports. 

Another, perhaps more contentious question: is the representation of women and people of color a problem in choral music? As it is now, it seems the representation of leaders in the choral world and its programming isn’t that far off from the demographics of the field as a whole. If, for instance, the percentage of composition students is accurately reflected in the professional world, then perhaps the issue to focus on is education. According to DataUSA, only a little more 50% of students to receive an undergraduate degree in composition are white. Sound and Music (a British organization) shares that the percentage of women composers is over 50% for those with the General Certificate of Secondary Education and steadily decreases the further along in education one goes. 

In terms of composer representation, it’s worth looking at our past programming, dissecting the demographics of those composers, and asking ourselves why we have programmed the way we have. Are there creative perspectives that are missing? Where are we looking for repertoire? Why have the curators picked the music that ultimately becomes available, and where else might we search? 

The data I’ve shared might not be enough to draw the definitive conclusion of systemic discrimination or pervasive unconscious bias, but it points in that direction. This series of asking ‘why’ isn’t endlessly recursive, resulting in a “turtles all the way down” situation. When I ask myself these questions, I inevitably come to the systemic racism that has structured the world of concert music that more highly values musical characteristics from the European Classical tradition. 

If the majority of choirs are truly ‘non-genre specific,’ then what happens if we re-examine our inherited values of music from the European classical tradition. How have those values defined for us what ‘good’ music is? What doors might such a re-examination open? 

Most choirs I have participated in audition for very specific kinds of skills that align with repertoire descended from the European classical tradition. Sight-singing is often highest on the list, a skill favoring those with a formal education in western classical music. Why have we selected certain musical abilities and neglected others? Do we audition a person’s ability to learn by ear? For their versatility of sound? The ability to improvise? Having such skills in our ensembles might open up new performative opportunities. 

Finally, what creative opportunities have been missed because of the influence of these unexamined values? From my perspective as a performer and composer of new and experimental music, it’s worth noting that such a reconsideration of values has been a huge part of innovation in music in the past (Cage, minimalism, etc.) and might be worth considering for our own creative evolution.

If our goal is to have the various levels of representation (particularly gender and ethnicity)  in the choral world match those of the nation, then we’ll need to look at why there are so many fewer women and people of color being represented in ‘mainstream’ choral music. Overall involvement, for instance, does not necessarily address the issue of segregation. Would a greater degree of visibility at the professional level make a difference in young musicians receiving the encouragement and mentorship they need to pursue careers in classical music? There is a question of where the responsibility lies in feeding the populations of future musicians and looking at strategies for how that can be accomplished. Education and mentorship are certainly an essential part of this equation, as are removing socio-economic barriers that disproportionately affect people of color.

Resources and suggestions for getting started

The Institute of Composer Diversity shares these guidelines for incorporating a more extensive range of representation in concert programming. What stands out to me is their suggestion to “Program to your potential audience as well as to your usual attendees,” which aligns with the previous question about audience sustainability. Their guidelines also suggest a kind of aspirational programming: it might not reflect the current state of the choral field, but by programming how we want our field to look, that is to say, if we want the creative voices in the choral world to reflect the country we live in, we can guide the evolution of our ensembles to include everyone in our community. As ensemble leaders, we decide whose music is visible, we decide which of our audience members will look at our programs and see themselves reflected in the names of the composers and the faces of those on stage.

Considering that the choral world has such an emphasis on the music of living composers, it’s interesting to note that the Institute of Composer Diversity suggests nearly 50% women composers and 50% people of color for groups that perform mostly new music. If you’re like me, your first reaction to those numbers might be deep resistance. It’s helpful to remember that the math here does not add up to 100%. Gender is not an ethnicity, and vice-versa; this is a suggestion that asks for an intersection of demographics. When I saw this suggestion from a colleague, I thought, “This seems unrealistic and looks like SO much work,” a task compounded by our national curators not yet following these recommendations. 

Outside of programming, these numbers could also be applied to the visible leadership of our ensembles, looking beyond conductors to our board members and other officers. Especially at the national level, there is a logic in having those who represent the most popular extra-curricular activity in the country look like the people they represent. There is evidence to support the idea that increased representation of minorities in leadership increases engagement of minorities in the community. It seems reasonable to me that the more one can ‘see’ themselves doing a thing by having it modeled for them, the more one feels encouraged to participate themselves. In short, representation leads to participation.

Here are some other resources for those interested in researching repertoire they might not have looked into before:

The choral world has worked hard over the last several years to address issues of inequality and disadvantage for women and people of color, and it shows. There’s a lot to be proud of in terms of how much progress has been made in the choral world during the last century. In many parts of the field, there is gender parity, and people of color are finding more representation, on the whole, than in the instrumental world. We still fall short of accurately representing who we are as a nation within the choral world, but the progress thus far has made choral music one of the more inclusive fields in classical music. Our work is not yet done. My hope is that, by looking inward at these unique aspects of diversity, by examining issues of segregation and inclusion, and by shaping our ensembles to reflect the world around us, choral music can be a model for the rest of the classical music world as we move towards a creative world that is as diverse as the population that potentially feeds its future.

How Can Artists Respond to Injustice? Thoughts from Seven Musicians

Protesters waving banners directly in front of police covered with shields.

We know that music is not enough. No artistic response to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor can adequately address the capaciousness of these injustices. But what does “more than music” mean? Is it the non-musical activities that many are engaged in right now – donating to bail funds, protesting in the streets, raising awareness that black lives matter, fighting to defund the police? Or is it about attempting to uncoil the racism that is tightly wound into our musical institutions, whether that be petitioning symphony orchestras to program African-American composers, calling on conservatories to center black music in their curricula, or diversifying the personnel and repertoire of new-music ensembles? It certainly can’t just be posting black images to Instagram. As I absorbed the constant proliferation of information and advice on social media, I knew I wanted to hear from artists I believed in, who have been thinking deeply, and for many years, about the role of musicians in enacting social change. Here are some of their thoughts.

Marcos Balter, Eun Lee, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Pamela Z, George E. Lewis, Courtney Bryan, Nathalie Joachim

Top row: Marcos Balter, Eun Lee, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Pamela Z;
Bottom row: George E. Lewis, Courtney Bryan (photo by Arielle Pentes), Nathalie Joachim (photo by Eric Patrice O’Brien)

Marcos Balter, composer

I am still being paid my full salary as a tenured professor, and none of my commissions have been canceled. So, I have made a commitment to spend as much of my income as possible on donations to worthwhile causes, especially bail funds and organizations that push for legislative changes regarding police brutality against black individuals. I have also been donating my time advising several music organizations on initiatives that not only show solidarity but also promote concrete change while examining their own culpability.

You cannot fix a problem if you don’t understand your part in it and publicly acknowledge it.

Accountability is key right now. You cannot fix a problem if you don’t understand your part in it and publicly acknowledge it. And, I’ve been mentoring and teaching black composers, and fundraising for initiatives that combat the innate racism in classical music for a long time now. As a black composer, none of this is charitable for me: it’s a duty and a matter of survival. This is not a movement, and we should not conflate what is in the news with what is new. It’s old, very old, and it needs to end.

Eun Lee, clarinetist and founder of the activist orchestra The Dream Unfinished

The Dream Unfinished theme this year is “Red, White, and Blues,” and it’s all about civic engagement and voting rights. If anything, all of this is just creating a doubling down, because voting is one of the few tangible things that people can be doing, either making sure that they themselves are voting, or making sure that other people are registered. Also, the census is huge right now, particularly for communities of color. What’s really important is to take a step back and look at the macro picture, and think through, how did we get here? What are the underlying causes? There’s this phrase flying around a lot for coronavirus, that the disproportionate impact on black or minority communities is due to “underlying health conditions.” Well, what were the conditions that created the underlying health conditions, and what can we do to start picking away at that? And it’s so unsexy, but the census helps a lot.

How did we get here? What are the underlying causes?

There’s this analogy that I’ve used, of a car, to represent different levels of music engaging with social justice. Level 1 is the hood ornament, and that’s a lot of what people are responding to, when there have been deservedly negative reactions to Blackout Tuesday, and these large organizations all of a sudden assuming these stances and posting these things. Because it feels like that hood ornament, where it’s superficial, you don’t really know what’s behind it or what’s going to come out of it. Level 2 is the engine in the car. The car is still parked, but there’s actually some undergirding of it that is the ethos of whatever work that you’re trying to engage in. By and large, The Dream Unfinished has been at the engine stage: our board is incredibly diverse, our staff is incredibly diverse, all the musicians that we contract, all the composers that we feature. So in that sense, everything that it’s made up of is reflecting it, but it’s still not actually doing the work. Level 3 is when the car goes into gear and you’re moving things. It’s only really been recently that, as an organization, we’ve found ways where we can get to moving the car. One of the hopes that we had for this season was, when we were planning on doing live chamber concerts, program them all in communities that have had historically low voter turnout and having voter registration available at each of these events. So that it’s not just a concert about something, but you can actually do the something at the concert.

 

Jonathan Bailey Holland, composer

I have been trying to remember to exist as who I am and not what others see.  I have been trying to not get Covid19.  I have been trying to figure out how to parent/work from home/stay healthy/make money/make art. I have been trying to temper my personal devastation of watching the insanity of a reality show that our country’s non-leadership currently embodies as it quite literally tramples on the freedoms, liberties, and beliefs that founded this country, and that attracted the immigrant ancestors of those non-leaders here in the first place.  And I am understanding more clearly the idea that fundamental change means exactly what we are seeing happen – everything must be upended because it is all designed to perpetuate the things that we are once again reacting to, and will continue to do so for another 400 years, if we are fortunate enough to not destroy our species and planet in the meantime.

I have been trying to remember to exist as who I am and not what others see.

In terms of supportive actions within the music world, I think we need to stand back and have a more thorough conversation on all sides of the issue.  Classical music, as an art form, is rooted in western European traditions.  I think it is fair to say that most of the institutions that brought the art form to this country were primarily interested in simply bringing the work closer to American audiences.  That is not a fault, just a reality.  So to suddenly be asking for more representation is skipping a few steps.  Shouldn’t we be asking for more of a connection to the country/city/community in which these institutions are based first, assuming that is what is wanted from patrons (i.e. all of us) who have been happily partaking of what these institutions have offered thus far anyway? Perhaps, once the particular institutions that want to make those connections have done so, then we can have the conversation about who is being heard or presented.

IMO, a better way to deal with the question of representation is to remember that art is about communication, and specifically about an individual artist communicating through their art.  What and how they choose to communicate should matter most.  And institutions should stand firmly behind their choices of whomever they invite to the table, and patrons can then decide with their wallets.  After all, art is also not free, regardless of who is making it.

 

Pamela Z, composer/performer and media artist

I’ve been feeling saddened, overwhelmed, and frankly exhausted by the news of late–especially in light of the situation we’re all already bearing. But I don’t think I have anything constructive to offer outside my heartfelt appreciation for those who have had the courage and initiative to take some kind of action or speak out against injustice.

I don’t know that new music composers and performers are any more or less equipped to respond to social injustice than members of any other field.

I don’t know that new music composers and performers—or even artists in general—are any more or less equipped to respond to social injustice than members of any other field. I suppose there are people in every field who are stronger than others on that count. And, it’s also true that the same racial and gender imbalances that exist throughout our society are clearly present in “the world of new/classical music,” even though I think a lot of presenters and organizations have been making efforts to change that.

But I’d be hard-pressed to come up with any solutions or advice to offer here. Other than, I guess, keep working at making those changes. Keep aware of those issues and keep trying to think of ways to counter them.

 

George E. Lewis, composer and musicologist

I cannot profess surprise at any of the revelations that have been dominating the media lately. A few years ago at the University of Minnesota, I was on a public panel with a close relative of Philando Castile. For me, that earlier murder, George Floyd’s murder, and those of so many other black people, all simply fold into the daily litany of anti-black, internationally instantiated micro- and macro-aggressions from state-sponsored and privatized vectors of white supremacy that I have experienced at least from the age of nine, and with which I, and now my teenaged son, need to contend.  Perhaps this accounts for my impatience with naïve class-trumps-race denials. However, there is no number to call, no app to download, to express solidarity—not even a single “protest movement.”

So, even in the face of a growing Afro-pessimism, what people might want to do is to fight to transform their own communities where they can, with a sense of vigilance against anti-blackness, and a militant incredulity at those who would deny black subjectivity and humanity.

In opposition to an influential view that polices the borders of music to deny its crucial implication in urgently needed political and social change, we have philosopher Arnold I. Davidson’s quote from AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie: “Artists teach people how to live.” So how do we do that? To fulfill that mission, scholars, critics, curators, teachers, composers, performers, and other musical people might start by teaching themselves, retooling for a new reality, with the help of Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, Sara Ahmed, Tim Wise, Joe Feagin, Sylvia Wynter, and Frank Wilderson.

A creolization of the field is needed.

I am quite gratified to see, among so many people, mostly much younger than myself, the same kind of creolizing identity dynamic I have suggested for contemporary classical music, where the myth of black absence retains its death-grip. In response, a creolization of the field is needed, one that recognizes that its current identity issues amount to a kind of addiction—one that, like other addictions, you have to overcome to survive.

Courtney Bryan, composer/pianist

Being on the street is very, very important: people are standing up for our rights, it’s a super vulnerable moment in our country right now. But I’m also thinking about the different roles everybody can take on, whether it’s a role as a healer, or a role as an organizer, or someone who can share information.

I’m working on an opera with the International Contemporary Ensemble. Other collaborators are Charlotte Brathwaite, Cauleen Smith, Helga Davis, Sharan Strange, Sunder Ganglani, and Matthew Morrison. It draws from histories of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, and a black Shaker eldress from the 19th century named Rebecca Cox Jackson. Now that we’re resuming the project, we’re also processing what’s happening right now, what happened to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, all these recent killings from police or vigilantes. The themes behind the opera are freedom, spirit, love, home, and sanctuary. But we’re also trying to figure out what the process is. There’s the end goal of writing an opera, but we are also all discussing as a group how this process can also be something where we can directly help people.

The curtain’s been pulled back and it’s survival mode right now.

People need to eat and they need somewhere to live. There’s the illness. Our country is on the brink of fascism, people are trying to fight for the survival of the country itself, and people are trying to survive from this virus that, had the government taken the precautions, didn’t have to get to the point it is at now. The curtain’s been pulled back and it’s survival mode right now. My way is always through music: what is it through music that can be done? Or among artists: where we can look out for each other and make sure that people have what they need to survive?

 

Nathalie Joachim, flutist, composer, and vocalist

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the families who have lost someone. Not just the most recent families, but also the families that have to relive their own trauma every time something like this happens. As a society, especially in this moment of constantly sharing these videos over and over, we forget that these are families that have lost someone. Not enough time is being spent honoring the fact that they are people who have been lost. Not enough time is being spent creating beautiful space and open space.

This moment, in every sense — not just this racial moment, this economic moment, this health crisis moment — all of the things that are happening to all of us in this time are about revealing who we actually are. In a way I feel like it’s a blessing because you cannot change until you have a reckoning with yourself. You can’t. Anybody who’s deep into therapy knows that that work is really hard and ongoing and it’s not, “I went to therapy for four months and now I’m cured!” It’s an ongoing, lifelong commitment to continually reckoning with who you are. And not shaming yourself for who you are, but seeing yourself for who you are, and seeing what you can do to better manage being a person walking through this world. What can you do to be better?

I don’t need to hear about your solidarity. I need you to acknowledge where your faults are.

Honestly, I don’t need to hear about your solidarity. I need you to acknowledge where your faults are, and to make a commitment, in this moment, as Americans, to come together and continually, day after day, week after week, reckon with who we are. It’s not about shaming you for your past or all of the things that you should have done. It’s about seeing what you haven’t done and to take whatever the steps are for you to make a change for yourself.

We have been here before, and the only thing that hasn’t happened is a complete and utter reckoning with ourselves: who we are as a country, how we got here, why we are like we are, why we keep coming to this place. People don’t want to do the work, because it’s hard. But  when it becomes a way of life, it becomes less hard. It becomes less hard constantly. For a while, it’ll be hard, constantly. And it’s going to hurt.  But radical change, that’s it: you have to just accept where you’re at and figure out something to do to move forward that is more than lip service, that is more than likes and clicks, that is about you reaching deep into yourself and saying, “You know, we haven’t been doing the work. We say we’re about diversity and equity, but we haven’t really done anything. And our leadership doesn’t reflect that, and our actions don’t reflect that, and our programing doesn’t reflect that.” That’s just a reality that needs to be contended with. And honestly, when it comes to the arts, it’s just not that hard. It’s not that hard to hire black people. It’s not that hard to commission black artists. It’s not that hard to create space.

I hope that everybody in our industry is really thinking about how to come out of this changed for the better.  Not in this every-man-for-himself hustle, but in a way that allows us to create an infrastructure that supports all of us. We have to care about one another, we have to see one another, we have to embrace everybody that is a part of this community.

If you look through time, almost every major artistic movement that has happened in every field has coincided with some major change or event that has happened in the world. We have always been called to respond, to be first responders for our communities; it is so important for us to see ourselves as that now. To lean into it, and to lean into one another.

The Artful Toy: Toy Piano Influencers and The Making of an Album

A performer at a toy piano with chopsticks

The Accidental Instrument

I did not come to the toy piano deliberately. Instead, while doing research on John Cage, I went down a rather strange rabbit hole, where I stumbled across a wonderful instrument.

The toy piano is an avant-garde musician’s dream.

The toy piano is an avant-garde musician’s dream. It’s the accidental instrument that was never meant to see anything but oncoming erratic toddler movements; it was never meant to feel anything but the thumping of tiny fists and grubby fingers. It has no musical baggage, no weighty historical performance practice, no standard repertoire. It has nothing to hold you back, to tell you you’re doing it wrong; it exists only in the present and looks to the future. Even now, 70+ years since John Cage’s seminal Suite for Toy Piano from 1948, the toy piano still feels like Duchamp’s upside-down urinal (Fountain): out of place on stage, it elicits giggles and scoffs, is the star of the show, and at least promises a memorable experience, musical and otherwise.

I bought a small Schoenhut 25-key spinet and performed Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano in 2010 in Lancaster, PA, where I had moved from New York City. It was my first time playing the instrument. In a way, the newness of the experience helped me transition from a city that I loved and had been reluctant to leave, to one I thought was quaint but wouldn’t hold me for long. I subsequently became involved in more Cage events at home and abroad, performing Music for Amplified Toy Pianos, Sonatas and Interludes, and many other works. I thought the mahogany and black toy piano wouldn’t look too out of place as a piece of decoration in my apartment after I was finished with it. I hadn’t planned on using it much after the engagements were over.

Connecting the Dots

Nine years and ten pianos later, I’m preparing a CD release show for Toy, NakedEye Ensemble’s latest album on New Focus Recordings (2019), with music focused on – yes – the toy piano. What’s fascinating to me looking back at the slow, meandering making of this album, is how tenuous yet persistent my interactions with the instrument were. Those years were an on-and-off relationship, with the toy pulling me back each time I thought I was done with it. Like an annoyingly cloying ex, it refused to let me go, coming up with new tricks and shiny things that reeled me back in. At some point, I just had to admit that I was hooked. Not only by the instrument itself, but by the limitless creativity it promised, the untethered freedom of experimentation it allowed, the audience response to it, and a community the toy had woven around itself, ever tighter and wider and richer every year.

Like an annoyingly cloying ex, the toy piano refused to let me go, coming up with new tricks and shiny things that reeled me back in.

The making of this album owes much to that community, to the people and experiences I encountered along the way. This narrative is about exploring those relationships and connecting the dots in this maximalist miniaturist’s field. So here we are.

The “Outside World”

On November 5, 2005, Kyle Gann gave a keynote address at The Extensible Toy Piano Project at Clark University, Worcester, MA. The rather serious, somber tone of the address makes me uneasy.  It’s a puzzling read. His concluding lines, especially, sound almost like an admonition:

After a century of expanding possibilities, we find ourselves in a world of limitations – some of them self-imposed, others imposed against our will. We have more reasons than ever to use the toy piano. We use it because we can … and thanks to Cage, there is precedence for taking it seriously. What we can’t seem to do with it, though, is communicate to the outside world, the world outside our composing circles, that there’s been a repertoire of toy piano music now for 57+ years.

Since Cage’s Suite, repertoire for the instrument has grown tremendously, thanks in large part to festivals like The Annual Toy Piano Festival at UC San Diego (2000-present), UnCaged Toy Piano in NYC (2008-2017), The Florida International Toy Piano Festival (2015-2018), Non-Piano/Toy Piano Weekend in Hamburg, Germany (2014-present), and the recent 100-Note Toy Piano Project (2018-19) that have at their core a call for scores. I think Gann would agree that the little instrument has come a long way in the fourteen years since his address. But have we been able to reach “the outside world,” as he puts it? Or is the community still as insular as it was in 2005? And does it matter?

The Influencers

In the toy’s short history, you don’t have to look far to find inspiration and a way forward. Margaret Leng Tan and Wendy Mae Chambers both have a direct line to John Cage. Both are still active performers, leading by example and, it seems, channeling the creative spirit of Cage. That is uniquely valuable.

Wendy Chambers appeared on national TV networks with her toy piano…

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Chambers appeared on national TV networks (CNN, PBS, Nickelodeon, BBC, CBS) with her toy piano and whimsical creations, and performed extensively in the U.S. In 1984, Alex Ross wrote in a New York Times review, that “Ms. Chambers is not only a composer, but also possibly the world’s foremost virtuoso on the toy piano.” On that program, Chambers performed works by William Schimmel, Jerome Kitzke, Daria Semegen, and Jed Distler, all of whom are still active in New York City. I heard Jerome perform The Animist Child, which he wrote for Chambers, at The DiMenna Center in 2015 on the occasion of his 60th birthday celebration. He is currently writing a new work for NakedEye Ensemble to be premiered in the Spring of 2020. Although I’ve never met Chambers, I feel a connection with her through Jerome and the toy piano.

Jay Leno standing next to Wendy Mae Chambers and her Car Horn Organ

Chambers and her Car Horn Organ on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Aug 2, 2000

I met Margaret at a Bang on a Can Festival early on when I was still a student. I found myself backstage waiting to turn pages for Tony DeMare, and she was waiting as well. We struck up a conversation, which led to her telling me about her toy pianos and then guiding me to a room where she kept her instruments and the custom-made boxes they traveled in. I was amused, amazed, and profoundly intrigued, both by her stories and her vivacity in telling them. There were boxes of many shapes and sizes, beautifully lined with plush, shiny material, and little pianos that lay in them like precious jewels. I couldn’t imagine anyone playing those diminutive instruments, but her enthusiasm was contagious, and I was captivated, at least for the duration of our conversation. I have to admit I didn’t rush out to find a toy piano or look for toy music. I wish I had. Who knows where that journey would have led me then!

I couldn’t imagine anyone playing those diminutive instruments, but Margaret Leng Tan’s enthusiasm was contagious.

However, the encounter stayed with me, and I recall it now with some amusement when students and audience members come up to me after performances to ask questions and touch the pianos. I, too, travel with a case. It is not hand-made, or beautiful like Margaret’s cases, but it is a solid metal box lined with dense foam (originally meant to house a Brompton bicycle) that can be thrown into the cargo of a plane and come out the other side with my instrument intact.

Margaret Leng Tan sitting outside with a toy grand piano.

Margaret Leng Tan

The oldest piece on NakedEye’s Toy album is Chinese composer Ge Ganru’s Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!, finished the year after Gann’s keynote, and the rest of the pieces span a decade from there. Ge Ganru—described in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians as “China’s first avant-garde composer”—wrote it for Margaret, “whose creative contributions,” he writes in the dedication, “made this piece possible.” It’s hard not to come across Margaret Leng Tan’s name when looking through the toy piano repertoire. As the first “professional toy pianist,” she has been crucial to the instrument’s repertoire, and NakedEye’s album recognizes her contributions by including two pieces originally written for her.

Margaret recorded Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! for a CD of the composer’s work titled Gan-ru: Lost Style (New Albion, 2009). My recording of it on Toy is the second for this piece, a decade later. Our versions are quite different. But great works accommodate the individuality of performers, and Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! has been adaptable to mine. I was fortunate to have her interpretation from which to deviate in order to find my own.

An array of toy keyboards, a toy zither, and a toy mallet instrument in a circle on the floor.

Ju-Ping Song’s instrument set-up for her performance of Ge Gan-ru’s composition Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!

Classical and Pop Toy Piano

Before embarking on its illustrious solo journey, the toy piano was a quirky color instrument in both classical and pop music.

Before embarking on its illustrious solo journey with Chambers and Tan, the toy piano was a quirky color instrument in both classical and pop music. In the sixties and seventies, musicians across styles found interesting ways to include the toy’s idiosyncratic sound in their songs and scores. In recent years, the list of NakedEye instruments available for commissions has included the toy piano, along with any and all toy instruments composers may want to experiment with. It’s been a fun and engaging process. Composers Monica Pearce, Stefanie Lubkowski, Randall Woolf, Richard Belcastro, and Rusty Banks have added toy sounds to their NakedEye commissions. Composer/performers like Moritz Eggert have also explored the theatricality the toy can bring to a pianist’s performance. Eggert, in his One-Man Band 2, does so in a refreshing and hilariously over-the-top manner.

Ju-Ping Song about to sit on the keys of a grand piano with a toy piano positioned 90 degrees away.

Me playing One-Man Band (Photo by Scott Bookman.)

Perhaps the most well-known classical example is George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children (1970), where he calls for amplified piano and toy piano. In his latest cycle of works for piano, Metamorphoses Book 1 (2015-17), Crumb makes extensive use of the toy piano as well.

Neil Diamond’s “Shilo,” a song about his childhood written and recorded in 1967, is arguably the first recorded pop song to use the toy piano (toy piano in the bridge at 2m30s).

And a fun example of, perhaps, the first toy piano solo in pop music is Richard Carpenter’s instrumental version of Edward Elzear “Zez” Confrey’s Dizzy Fingers. In the song, Carpenter features the toy piano in a full 10-second solo as one of five keyboard instruments he can be seen flitting to (toy piano at 1.29s).

An Unlikely Chamber Instrument

In spite of its high-profile cameos, the toy piano was never given equal partnership in an ensemble or chamber setting – until recently.

In spite of its high-profile cameos, the toy piano was never given equal partnership in an ensemble or chamber setting – until recently. Perhaps because of its oddity, its diminutive size, or the soloistic nature of its practitioners, it seemed to be more at home going it alone, developing a repertoire to fit itself and all that was part of its tiny world. However, in the last decade or so, the miniature piano has been involved in large scale outdoor events and paired with its bigger counterpart and other “grown-up” instruments.

Wendy Mae Chambers has a reputation for taking the listening experience outdoors, and her composition/happening Kun is a perfect example of that. Written for 64 toy grand pianos and structured on I-Ching, it was performed in NYC on June 21, 2012 with 64 toy pianists and 64 toy pianos dispersed in pairs along The East River Waterfront Esplanade between Piers 15 and 16, from 4:30 pm until sunset at 8:31pm.

Margaret Leng Tan explored a more concert stage approach to the repertoire. As I researched chamber music that included toy piano, I came across Erik Griswold’s Gossamer Wings (2013), written for Margaret on toy piano, alongside a small chamber group. The three-movement piece captivated me. It was charming and quirky, but most of all, the writing balanced the chamber group against toy piano perfectly. The “tanginess” of the toy sound gives the piece an unexpected but seductive flavor, in the way a skilled bartender will mix your favorite drink but manage to surprise you with a twist. And in true NakedEye fashion, we added a little twist of our own to the piece. The original instrumentation didn’t quite fit ours, so I suggested to Erik that we substitute the violin and clarinet with electric guitar and saxophone. He immediately took to the idea. The result is a subtle electric jazz vibe married with toy piano and toy drum set for a pretty unique listening experience.

Similar chamber works for toy piano are relatively hard to find. Frank J. Oteri’s wonderfully expressive The Other Side of the Window (1995), based on seven poems by Margaret Atwood (think The Handmaids Tale and its sequel The Testaments), and scored for female voice, two flutes, toy piano, guitar, and cello, comes to mind. Richard Belcastro’s Inner Strife (2016), written for NakedEye Ensemble and scored for clarinet, electric guitar, piano, toy piano, and percussion, is another piece in which the toy plays a central ensemble role.

Organizations like The Toy Piano Composers (2008-2018), based in Toronto, with a core group of instrumentalists, curated programs that included the toy as a key ensemble instrument. Among these are works by Elisha Denburg (Rondo and Street Noise) and Chris Thornborrow (This Changing View, which has a similar instrumentation to the original version of Gossamer Wings, without percussion) that are worth exploring.

Phyllis Chen, a Taiwanese-American toy pianist and composer, has written several amazing chamber works for the small instrument. What distinguishes her from Chambers and Tan is the way she seeks both innovative and traditional collaborations with classical and non-classical instruments. I think that’s the real test of the toy piano’s future. Can it exist within the broader environment of instrumental/electronic/collaborative music?

Chen’s Lullabies (2014), for string orchestra and toy piano with music box is a good example of the instrument inserted in a classical chamber setting. Like Griswold’s Gossamer Wings, the balance in this context is critical, and the result here is mesmerizing. Glass Clouds We Have Known (2011), written for ICE, is a more contemporary setting, and includes bowls, bass clarinet, flute, electronics, and video. But the piece that I absolutely love is The Matter Within (2016), written for deconstructed toy piano and the JACK Quartet. Chen writes,

The toy piano was never presented to me as a musical instrument. Instead I stumbled upon it as an unassuming object.  For The Matter Within, I decided to return to this original place of entry to examine and distill the toy piano as a found object. By exploring its elements, hearing its raw essences and noises, the bare materials of the toy piano are exposed and brought to light.

Beyond her contributions to new classical music, Phyllis has also explored using the toy piano and toy instruments in a pop/indie context through her collaboration with Cuddle Magic. In the album they made together (Cuddle Magic & Phyllis Chen, FYO Records, 2014), the toy piano imbues the material with sounds of futuristic nostalgia – an oxymoronic dance that is both mesmerizing and disquieting. It’s a departure that is perhaps an opening to other new exciting possibilities for the toy piano.

Experimenting with toy piano, electronics, and ensemble, Austrian composer Karlheinz Essl was one of the first composers I came across in my early days of touring solo with the instrument. Kalimba (2005), his first piece for toy piano and soundtrack, has been played all over the world by many, including myself. Since then, Essl has broadened his output and added works pairing the toy piano with harpsichord, computer, live electronics, ensemble, other toys, and ring modulator.

A natural extension of the toy piano as a solo and chamber instrument is the concerto form. Phyllis Chen’s Lullabies isn’t without precedent: Aaron Jay Kernis’s’ Toy Piano Concerto (2002), Matthew McConnell’s Concerto for Toy Piano (2008), and David Smooke’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death Vol. I (2012) for toy piano and chamber orchestra, and a Vol. II (2014) for toy piano and wind ensemble, all put the toy at the center of a very large, very traditional setting where it is customary to see a full-size concert grand: a Steinway, a Yamaha, or a Bösendörfer, perhaps. But a Schönhut?

Feeding the Toy Piano

Personal development as a toy pianist is a self-propelled adventure. There’s no book, or school, or how-to manual one can follow to “learn one’s craft.” We’re all, to a certain extent, self-taught experimenters. We learn from our peers, our colleagues, other toy pianists, in person, in collaboration, and by observation. That’s what’s exciting in this field, what makes possible an album that was really never meant to be made.

There’s no book, or school, or how-to manual one can follow to “learn one’s craft” on the toy piano.

I met toy pianist and composer David Smooke at the New Music Gathering in Baltimore in January 2016. I heard him use the toy piano in a way I’d never seen before, and knew right away that I wanted to collaborate with him. In September of that year, NakedEye organized its first (of two) toy piano events in Lancaster, PA, and I invited David to be our guest. Not only did he come up to do a set, but he pulled NakedEye guitarist Chad Kinsey and me into doing free improv with him. It was a fun, eye-opening afternoon. That encounter with David opened up a new avenue to “inside toy tinkering” and gave me the tools to experiment with modifications that I would later use in future commissions.

David Smooke leaning down toward a toy piano and Chad Kinsey sitting and playing electric guitar/

David and Chad rehearsing (photo by Ju-Ping Song).

The toy piano is a visually fascinating instrument best viewed from a distance but hard to resist getting close enough to poke. Like a carnivorous flower, it draws in its prey with unassuming charm; once hooked, composer and performer have no choice but to feed it the notes it craves. Or so I like to imagine.

In 2016, Richard Belcastro wrote not one, but two toy piano-focused pieces for NakedEye: Inner Strife, for four instruments, and Knock ‘Em Back, recorded on this album, for electric guitar and modified toy piano.

Knock Em Back grew out of Ricky’s desire to write something for electric guitar that wasn’t rock-inspired or loud (like his Smoke N Wid and Nepetalactone). Enter the toy piano. The thing about the instrument is, its sonic footprint needs to be respected. It’s actually not as quiet as one would think, and, with generous acoustics, can carry far. It can also be mic’ed or amplified. But its sounds need space to resolve and dissolve, otherwise they can end up like woodpecker drill over radio static. Basically, a bombastic blur. So pairing toy piano with electric guitar was a delicate but exciting dance we were eager to try. Ricky wrote the piece and we experimented with guitar pedals and toy piano hacks to find the sounds he wanted. I think we also found a few sounds he didn’t know he wanted.

Whatever model toy one uses for this piece, the tines (the metal bars that are struck by plastic hammers to produce sound) need to be fully accessible and labeled with stickers or chalk. I’ve used alternately Schoenhut’s Model 3798, a 37-key upright with the front panel removed, or Model 379, the 37-key concert grand with the top music rack and the protective board removed.

Ju-Ping Song sitting at a toy piano and Chad Kinsey standing playing electric guitar on a stage.

Ju-Ping Song and Chad Kinsey performing Belcastro’s Knock ‘Em Back at Klub Katarakt Experimental Music Festival in Hamburg, Germany on January 16, 2019 (photo by Jann Wilken).

The first thing that comes to people’s minds when they see a toy piano is that it’s a tiny acoustic piano. But when they hear it, they realize very quickly, the similarities are only plywood deep. The diminutive instrument has more in common with the celesta or xylophone than its larger older sibling and has been humorously described as “the poor man’s celesta.” But the celesta’s rich, round bell tones are still a far cry from the diminutive toy’s (comparatively) clangy sounds. If you sped up a recording of a celesta, would it sound like a toy piano?

When I asked my friend Jan Feddersen in 2011 if he would write a piece for me on toy piano, he happily agreed and wrote Ujoforyt, which, interestingly enough, he left open “for toy piano or celeste”. It’s a virtuoso perpetual motion in the vein of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee but with the grit and rhythmic energy of György Ligeti’s harpsichord piece Hungarian Rock.

Although they aren’t exactly comparable pieces in scope, Hungarian Rock and Ujoforyt are similar in their use of the instruments’ “secondary sounds.” Both works exploit the mechanical actions of their respective instruments, adding a layer of noise on top of the overtone buzzing created by fast, rhythmic articulations. I wasn’t able to play Jan’s piece on celesta until January 2019 at Klub Katarakt. For the celesta to speak, I had to slow down the notes quite a bit. The result was a beautiful tapestry of gentle pearl-like cascades of sounds—quite a different experience.

Su-Ping Song performing on celesta photographed from the back with a log for Klub Katarakt over her head.

Me on celesta at Klub Katarakt, January 16, 2019 (Photo by Jann Wilken).

—Are your cell phones plugged into the speakers?
—Ok, now let’s call each other. Make sure your ringer is on and loud.
—No, really, don’t worry about it; it’s part of the piece.

That’s typically how rehearsals for Rusty Banks’s Babbling Tower to Tower begin. Cell phones are used as transmitters, relayers, and lo-fi sound distortion devices amplified through small, portable speakers disseminated via “stations” throughout the audience. I’ve found the ideal setup to be two or three stations, but I’ve also done it successfully with only one when cell connection was tenuous. In the score’s notes, Rusty writes,

For this piece I decided to eschew the many capabilities of the cel phone and use what might be the most neglected feature or “app” available on these devices – the actual ‘phone’ part of the cell phone. Actually, I am making use some of the limitations of cell phones, namely their low fidelity and that amount of delay it takes for sound to enter the phone, be transmitted to a tower, relayed to another tower, then back to another phone. While this low sound quality and lack of immediacy are probably things phone makers and service providers are working to remedy, there are some lovely sonic possibilities in these defects.

During the writing of Babbling, we tested all the different ways one could make cell phone calls, including over cellular data, WiFi, and via apps like Skype, looking for the least efficient calling method – the most buggy, delayed, and distorted. Basically the opposite of what you’d want in a phone. We found that calls over WiFi were too clean and didn’t have enough delay to suit our needs, whereas calls over cellular were less reliable and had distinctive sound distortion and delay we could work with. Back in 2010, we were still on 3G networks. With the introduction of 5G and faster, more efficient connections coming soon, we may need to go back and “update” (or downgrade?) Babbling.

Ju-Ping Song and two students in a reheasal room standing around a toy piano positioned on the floor. (In the background are timpani and stacked chairs.)

Rehearsing Babbling Tower to Tower with students at National Taiwan Normal University, 2012.

In 2011, Babbling Tower to Tower won the UnCaged Toy Piano Composition Competition with the theme “Music for Toy Piano and Toy Instrument(s)”.  Cell phones fit perfectly in the “toy” category. Recognition at UnCaged gave Babbling a good platform from which, for the next few years, it launched itself through people’s cell phones in many different countries.

Both Ujoforyt and Babbling Tower to Tower have had performances by other toy pianists all over the world. I’ve performed them in Germany, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the U.S. They’ve also reached audiences in Canada, Amsterdam, Croatia, and France, thanks to toy pianists Terizija Cukrov, Justin Badgerow, Adam Marks, Phyllis Chen, Jennifer Hymer, Bernhard Fograscher, Ninon Gloger, and others. The toy piano community is global, and it’s gratifying to see new work travel and reach people far and wide.

Lineage

In an interview with Nick Galvin for The Sydney Morning Herald on August 27, 2019, Margaret Leng Tan acknowledges that “everything goes back to John Cage,” and affirms that “we are all spiritual children of John Cage, whether we know it or not.”

Who are the “spiritual children” of Cage’s toy piano legacy after Chambers and Tan?

Several younger toy pianists/composers, having dedicated most of their creativity to the toy piano, are performing/composing really exciting works for the instrument, developing the field in interesting directions. Among them, Xenia Pestova, Isabel Ettenauer, Alexa Dexa, Scott Paulson (Toy Piano Festival at UCSD, the longest-running of its kind, organized each year since 2000 around John Cage’s birthday), Elizabeth Baker (Florida International Toy Piano Festival), Jennifer Hymer (Toy Piano/Non-Piano), and Phyllis Chen (UnCaged Toy Piano) help establish a regenerative environment through organizations, festivals, events, and performances aimed at expanding the toy repertoire and reaching a wider audience.

There are now far too many toy pianists and pianists who play toy piano and composers who write for toy piano to list here. And that’s a good problem to have, I think.

In fact, everyone contributing to the field is in some significant way part of the lineage and I’m of course leaving out many names that deserve to be mentioned here. But there are now far too many toy pianists and pianists who play toy piano and composers who write for toy piano to list here. And that’s a good problem to have, I think.

Inside the Rabbit Hole

I didn’t come to the toy piano deliberately, but it’s become an important instrument in my repertoire. It’s part of the family now. Through it, I feel connected to a small but global community. The quality of the compositions is astounding and matched only by their inventiveness. The toy piano, unlike most other instruments, is not an end in itself, but an invitation to something else. And that something else is anything you want to happen. Cage wrote his Suite for Toy Piano during a period when he was writing quieter music – works for muted string piano (a.k.a. prepared piano) and his notoriously silent/unsilent 4’33”, for example. He went small, he says in Lecture on Nothing, because “when the war came along, I decided to use only quiet sounds. There seemed to me to be no truth, no good, in anything big in society.”

For Cage, finding the toy piano was a protest against world events and a turning inward. But he unwittingly (or did he know all along?) started a movement that has grown and matured, reaching far across the globe (Tokyo held its first toy piano concert in 2007, featuring Cage, Tan, Arai, Nakamizo, Amemiya, and Kawai). It is responsible for some of the most visually and sonically beautiful music ever created.  I don’t know if, fourteen years after Kyle Gann’s address, the toy music community has been able to “communicate to the outside world” in the way he seemed to think it should. The number of festivals, events, organizations, and performances devoted worldwide to the toy piano since then make me think that it has. But to me, it doesn’t matter.

I became, unwittingly, part of a make-believe world that is in truth real.

What I know is this: I went down a rabbit hole ten years ago and accidentally discovered a surprising instrument. I encountered strange and amazing people who taught me things I needed to learn, toy-related and otherwise. I became, unwittingly, part of a make-believe world that is in truth real. This album holds the story of my unexpected evolution as a toy pianist. The collection of recorded pieces in Toy exists because of some mysterious alchemy that brought them all together. Who knows where the toy piano will lead me next? I’m excited to find out. If I stay in this rabbit hole long enough, I’ll be ready for it.

The Cover for the NakedEye ensemble's CD Toy.

The Curious Case of Keiko Yamada

A Japanese face mask on a shelf

The evening of August 31 began like most Saturday nights at the start of the fall semester. I was reviewing course plans and readings for the upcoming week, while I casually scrolled through my email. It was late, and I had long since lost whatever drive had propelled me earlier when I received an email from David Biedenbender, a friend and colleague at Blue Dot Collective, with the subject line “Larry Clark.” Curious, I clicked on the message and was presented with a top-line that read, “This is SO NOT OKAY…” above two screenshots. The first was an image from jwpepper.com of a Grade 1/2 string orchestra piece entitled Kon’nichiwa by a composer named Keiko Yamada with the description: “This piece is ‘hello,’ with a smile on your face.”

I was confused. The title and description were, at worst, innocuous, maybe trite, but they certainly didn’t warrant an all caps critique. It wasn’t until I scrolled down further to the second screenshot that I began to understand. There I found a copied message from Owen Davis, a composer/percussionist/music teacher from Flagstaff, AZ that outlined the controversy signaled in the email’s subject line. It read in part[1]:

*PSA* to all of my friends in music education and specifically the band world: Prominent composer/Arranger Larry Clark made a pen name “Keiko Yamada” to pretend to be a Japanese Female composer in order to profit from calls for diversity in music education! […] To make things worse, after being pulled from some prominent music publishers after being publicly outed for this, some publishers decided to put his real name on the score. This winter [he] is an invited presenter at the prestigious Midwest Band Clinic leading a talk on “Selecting Quality Literature” for band.

Despite the anger expressed in Davis’s account and his speculated motives, my initial reaction was disbelief. The idea that a white male composer decided to use a pseudonym that did not conform to his race or gender read almost like a bad joke—who could possibly think this was a good idea? Moreover, I thought, who needs a pen name in twenty-first-century American music publishing? Women and people of color aren’t overtly banned from publishing or self-publishing their music, and white men are especially not prevented from getting their works performed. There’s no reason to have a pen name today. And while cultural appropriation has become a topic of discussion recently, there are no prohibitions that would necessitate a fake Asian identity to write a piece like Kon’nichiwa. White male composers have been doing it for centuries and continue to do so.[2]

The idea that a white male composer decided to use a pseudonym that did not conform to his race or gender read almost like a bad joke—who could possibly think this was a good idea?

I logged onto Facebook to see if the story had developed. It had, but like most social media discussion, it was more emotionally enlightening than factually informative. Comments were flooding in, some expressing confusion, but mostly anger. While monitoring the conversations, I decided to verify the charges against Clark as best I could. I checked the Midwest Band Clinic schedule, and Clark’s clinic “In the Eyes of the Beholder: Selecting Quality Literature” was indeed happening. Then I went to the JW Pepper site. I saw more Japanese-themed titles and pieces with duel compositional credit given to Larry Clark and Keiko Yamada.[3]

At this moment, my disbelief became resentment. The thought that Clark, a former Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Carl Fischer Music, one of most prominent publishing companies for educational music in the country, had used his position to publish and promote works under his Keiko Yamada pseudonym was enraging. Because it was late and no additional information was forthcoming, I grew irritable. I told my friends and colleagues I would certainly be there at Clark’s Midwest presentation to ask him what it meant to program “quality” literature. Like many commentators, I fantasized about a confrontation, the chance to be seen and be heard. But this online back-and-forth quickly exhausted its potential, and failed to provide any release. We needed and deserved to know more.

The next day, Clark issued a statement of apology on his Facebook page.

To my friends and colleagues in the music community, I offer my heartfelt apology. Several years ago, I wrote music using the pen name Keiko Yamada. I sincerely meant no harm in doing so. It has been common for composers and authors to use pen names for centuries. Times have obviously changed, and I realized that the use of this pen name was uninformed, insensitive, and out of touch with the need for cultural appropriation and diversity in music.

In 2016, together with my publisher at the time, we decided to eliminate the use of pen names altogether. I chose to have all of these pieces changed to reflect my name as a composer. Old inventory was removed and recalled from music retailers. New versions with my name as the composer were reprinted, at my personal expense.

I accept the responsibility for my uninformed decision to use this pen name. I believe in the music as I do all of the music I write, but what I did was wrong and needs to be corrected.

I can’t change the past and am trying to make things right through my own company Excelcia Music Publishing. Cultural authenticity is paramount, and I will strive to put the composer first by seeking out composers of diverse backgrounds that better reflect the students that will perform the music. I hope that my actions going forward will demonstrate my desire to learn from my mistake.

I am sincerely sorry and will continue to be better informed and sensitive to these important issues.

When I read this, I felt deflated. What should have provided the information crucial to making sense of the emotions riled up the night before was missing. Clark’s apology failed to explain why he decided to use a pseudonym. Its absence only aggravated my frustrations. I took to social media and again found comfort in peers who felt similarly disappointed in Clark’s statement. Unfortunately, by this time, the Internet had produced its inevitable backlash. And we were confronted by Clark’s defenders who posted hurtful remarks like “I’m sorry this was a problem for you ppl [sic] are so triggered and emotional these days I don’t think you need to apologise [sic]” and “Seriously? I see no need to apologize. This world is getting way too sensitive!” Needless to say, but this didn’t help.

As the debates around Clark grew increasingly acrimonious, a series of dramatic actions took place. The Midwest Clinic canceled the Clark presentation. Music by Keiko Yamada was quickly removed from Internet shelves. Webpages disappeared. Carl Fischer issued a statement to their orchestra directors about the controversy saying, “We now realize we should have gone further by taking these publications out of circulation, an action we have since taken.” Clark reiterated his apology online. Everything regarding Larry Clark and Keiko Yamada was shut down in a mere matter of days.

The disappearing of Clark and Yamada felt vaguely like a cover-up, a way to cut debate off before more significant questions could be asked.

The responses to these actions were mixed. Some friends and colleagues were jubilant. For them, the offender had been punished, and the offending material erased. But their numbers were small, and their satisfaction generally waned in the wake of the Midwest Clinic talk cancellation, and the removal of Clark’s music from available outlets. Others, myself included, were more ambivalent. The disappearing of Clark and Yamada didn’t feel like a resolution. It felt vaguely like a cover-up, a way to cut debate off before more significant questions could be asked. Like questions that extend beyond Clark about his enablers at Carl Fisher, about the people who knew about Keiko Yamada and remained silent, and about the other potential pen names that did or may even still exist in company catalogs.

Most of all, the actions still didn’t answer the question of why Larry Clark had done what he had done. What was Clark’s rationale? What possible circumstances allowed him to think Keiko Yamada was a good idea? My initial research only produced more questions, like if Keiko Yamada’s name was used specifically for originally composed Asian-styled pedagogical orchestral music, why did Clark/Yamada arrange Albert Ellmenreich’s Spinning Song? I realized I needed to talk to Clark. Fortunately, Clark was also eager to talk, and a month after the scandal broke,[4] we were able to sit for an interview.

What follows is a transcript of our conversation I produced in the hours following our meeting. (Clark did not want a recording and has approved the text below.) Our time was limited, which prevented some follow up questions that I wanted to ask. Overall, the exchange was frank, and I appreciated his readiness to respond to all queries that I posed.


Fortunately, Clark was eager to talk, and a month after the scandal broke, we were able to sit for an interview.

Jennifer Jolley: In your initial apology you claimed that using a pen name “has been common for composers and authors…for centuries,” but that “[t]imes obviously have changed.” Looking over the pieces under the name Yamada it seems that you adopted this name in 2009, am I correct?

Larry Clark: I wrote the first piece (Hotaka Sunset) in 2004 and it was published in 2005.

JJ: Okay, you created this persona in 2004. So, then you believed it was appropriate to create the persona of an Asian woman in 2004. I guess my question is: what events or developments in the past decade caused you to reassess the decision you made in 2004?

LC: I wasn’t thinking that it was a good idea in 2004; it was flawed thinking on my part anyway. I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought. When I started writing in the publishing business, I was mentored by a lot by older composers in publishing. It was really common that most of them had pseudonyms. This is not an excuse, just how it was when I started getting pieces published.

JJ: How many of these composers had pseudonyms? How many did they have?

LC: I can’t really even tell you that because I don’t know. All of the composers that I had worked with at least had one. Sometimes it had to do with market proliferation; sometimes it had to do with that you’re known as a person who writes at a certain grade level, and sometimes to be taken seriously at a different grade level you needed to use a different name.

“When I started writing, I was mentored by a lot by older composers. It was really common that most of them had pseudonyms.”

I don’t have any excuse for doing this at all. I didn’t give it a lot of thought. I realize it was super insensitive, not a really well-thought out idea. I wish I could take it back, honestly. Going forward, I realize there was no excuse. I was being ignorant and it’s appropriation. Back in 2005, no one really thought about it like they do now. Again, not an excuse.

JJ: So now I’m curious as to when you decided not to use the Yamada pseudonym anymore. What prompted you to do this? You wrote that you and your publisher worked to eliminate pen names and sought to recall inventory that didn’t list you as the composer. Why didn’t you or Carl Fisher Music make a public statement on this? The recalling of music at your own expense suggests that you thought it was at least problematic, why did you remain silent?

LC: It started to feel like it was a bad idea when things started to change culturally, and with more awareness, and political correctness. I’m super apologetic to you; I understand how this could be interpreted.

My feelings about using the pen name started to change when the pieces began to have success. People wanted to meet Keiko Yamada and possibly commission works. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do. I felt really uncomfortable about that. At first, I was not trying to keep it a secret. Musicians in the recording session were aware it was my pen name. When we started receiving requests for information I tried to be more elusive about it, which I regret greatly. I guess I just got scared, which is not a good excuse, but the truth. As the political climate changed and the country became more divided, that is when the topic came up at Carl Fischer. And that is when I began to think about the opportunities this could be taking away from real composers of diversity, and how hurtful that could be.

“People wanted to meet Keiko Yamada and possibly commission works. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do.”

We got into discussions at Carl Fischer about this, so we decided to stop. At first, we thought it would be best to get rid of all the music. That did not sit well with me, because I believed in the music. I thought it was some of my best work, and wanted it to continue, so I made the choice personally to take whatever ramifications came my way and have the pieces changed to my name. The problem is, we didn’t do a good job expressing all of that to the public, because we feared what the ramifications would be. We had concern that what has been happening would happen. I was willing to at that time take it; I wanted to have the music continued. The problem was with the execution of what was done. I was on the team; it was a company decision and that’s how it was handled. [Ed. Note: Sonya Kim has been president of Carl Fischer since 2008.] I think we would all agree that we didn’t handle it well and we didn’t handle it thoroughly and I regret that too.

In retrospect, I, together with Carl Fischer, could have been more transparent and thorough in handling the situation.

JJ: So the orchestra people/directors knew about the pseudonym?

LC: Many of the orchestra people were very upset when that happened.

JJ: Why?

LC: Because of the same reason as the band people. On Facebook there is a String Orchestra Directors Page and that information blew up then. It was split: they took sides. At the time, I asked Sonya Kim, president of Carl Fischer what are we were going to do.

JJ: I want to pinpoint something you said earlier. When exactly did Keiko’s music become successful? Can you pinpoint a year or piece?

LC: People wanted to meet me/her in either 2006 or 2007? Yes, it is Japanese Lullaby that became successful. It was selected for a lot of festival lists and was performed at Midwest, etc.

JJ: Following up on this, Keiko Yamada is a composer listed on a few Prescribed Music Lists, and I believe one of Yamada’s works was performed at the Midwest Clinic. Did you alert anyone involved that you were the composer of the works selected? Do you remember which state lists Keiko Yamada was on?

LC: Which state lists…this is very challenging to determine…

JJ: That is what I’ve been discovering.

LC: I know they were on Florida, Texas, maybe Maryland? There are a lot of states that don’t have a state list. Many of the pieces were performed at Midwest. This happened multiple times, and almost every year.

This is how we tried to alert people in 2016. The intention was not successfully executed. Carl Fischer was to alert the dealers that the names were changing to mine. The Letter asked music dealers to alert the music committees for state lists. This was sent out after these pieces were selected. Carl Fischer sent this to their dealer network, the sheet music dealers.

JJ: While the use of a pen name does date back centuries, this doesn’t satisfactorily explain your motive for using one. A pen name is a strategy employed in response to exigent circumstances such as the protection of an individual’s physical safety (dissents in unfree societies), the preemption of discrimination (Jewish actors that Anglicize their stage names), or to allow individuals access (women authors seeking the consideration of male dominated publishing houses). Given that you were a successful American composer working in a publishing house what were the circumstances that necessitated and/or motivated your creation of Keiko Yamada?

LC: Well, it was not well thought out, I had written a piece that was Japanese in style; I was having difficulty with sales in orchestra music, because I was considered more of a band composer. When they see my name they think, “Oh well, he’s a band music guy. He’s just writing band music and then writing and arranging it for strings.” I was not taken as seriously at that point as an orchestra composer.

JJ: So to clarify, this piece you’re talking about was initially a string piece, not a band piece that was later transcribed to strings?

LC: This was initially a string piece. Clarification: there are no Keiko Yamada band pieces.

JJ: I find it fascinating that publishing educational band and orchestral music was so segregated and isolated. That just boggles my mind.

“Funny story: I was chatting with Michael Colgrass once. He asked me, ‘Why don’t you write college level music?’ and I replied, ‘I’m known as the middle school band guy!’”

LC: Funny story: I was chatting with Michael Colgrass once. He asked me, “Why don’t you write college level music?” and I replied, “I’m known as the middle school band guy!”

JJ: That’s nuts because you have band pieces for higher levels.

LC: I think it’s easier to go top-down; I started writing music for lower levels first, so it’s harder to go up. There was a time at Carl Fischer where they wanted to label music as “serious vs. educational music.” I was against that.

JJ: That’s so wrong. Anyway, how did you invent the name Keiko Yamada?

LC: The name was not well thought out, not sensitive, not all those things. I thought, Yamada is a common Japanese surname. Keiko…I don’t remember. I didn’t want anything gender specific. I didn’t do enough research.

JJ: I have to say, I’m not of Japanese descent, but I’ve known a few Japanese people in my life, and “Keiko” is very much a feminine name.

LC: I realize that now; I didn’t do a lot of research. Honestly, I don’t really have a good answer for you, because it was not well thought out.

JJ: Next question. Colleagues of mine have noted that when they researched Keiko Yamada, they were confused by her online biography. Several publishers and even a young student presenting on Yamada used the birth date of another musician of the same name—it’s the first Keiko Yamada musician when you Google the name. You also contributed to this effect by having most of Yamada’s work be Asian themed (Kazoku, Kabosu, Yuki Matsuri, Rickshaw, Japanese Hoedown etc.), and then when you had Keiko Yamada arrange Albert Ellmenreich’s Spinning Song. So I guess my question is if Yamada is an innocuous pen name, why did you develop such a distinct body of work for her? Was it because these pieces are strictly orchestral in nature?

“The interesting thing is that—no excuses—I found a different voice to write in, which I enjoyed.”

LC: With regard to the birthdate and the bio, I have no idea where any of that came from. There was never a bio or birthdate sent out. Regarding a body of work, yes, the interesting thing is that—no excuses—I found a different voice to write in, which I enjoyed. I was trying not to be disrespectful or cliché to the music to Japan, I creatively sounded like a different composer I thought. Again, it doesn’t change the fact that we’re here.

Spinning Song…That was the only one that was not of Japanese influence…I don’t remember why. I don’t know.

JJ: Is it because Spinning Song fell under the purview of “orchestra music” and Keiko was strictly an “orchestra composer”?

LC: I wasn’t doing as much orchestra music under my own name because it wasn’t doing as well.

JJ: Following up on this, do you have records of how many other composers in 2016 in the Carl Fisher Music catalog were writing under their own name and an additional pen name? If so, did any of those composers use a pen name that didn’t conform to their gender or race?

LC: Actually, not with Carl Fischer. My first job in publishing was with Warner Bros. Publications in Miami in 1995. [Pen names were] used often for grade level and used often for a lot of arrangements. If someone did use pen names, it would be for Grade 2 marching band arrangements, for example if they were known more for say more difficult arrangements.

JJ: Does this still go on?

LC: I think so. I was working at Warner Bros. until 1999. I still believe some are still out there.

Actually, I have a funny story about this. I started out as a marching band arranger, and a friend of my boss Jack Bullock, who was a middle school band director, said, “I like this guy Larry Clark’s arrangements; is that a pseudonym for you?”

JJ: That’s wild.

LC: My name is so simple, it probably sounded like a pseudonym to her.

JJ: Did anyone know about some specific pseudonyms? I mean, there seemed to be a reputation that everybody was using them.

LC: There was a reputation of pseudonyms, but no one knew who they were. This was more so in the “pop” arranging scene at WB. We were doing so much so quickly. We had a couple of days or a weekend to turn around these arrangements.

JJ: Did anyone switch their gender or race with these pseudonyms?

LC: Gender or race? YES. Race, but not gender.

JJ: And this had to do with style?

LC: Did this have to do with style? It was similar to what I did, but I took it one step too far. There is one case I remember off the top of my head; it was used to be a specific style of music.

By the way my official title at Warner Bros. was Marching Band and Jazz Ensemble Instrumental Editor from 1995–1999. I worked at Carl Fischer from 1999–2018, and I started my own company in 2018.

JJ: Why did you start your own company?

“I left Carl Fischer on good terms in 2018, and will always be proud of the company and the work I did there.”

LC: I worked remotely (from my Florida home) for Carl Fischer starting in 2003. It is challenging to keep a connection with a company over a long period of time as employees come and go, and so in the last few years I felt more disconnected to the company, despite the ongoing collaboration, conference calls, trips to the headquarters, etc. It was no one’s fault, just happened, and I left Carl Fischer on good terms in 2018, and will always be proud of the company and the work I did there. With my new company I had some ideas on how I wanted to do some things differently.  Self-publishing has become more of the thing. I think it’s because composers don’t feel serviced. We’re trying to help with that.

JJ: So, speaking of Carl Fischer, your position at Carl Fisher Music from 1999–2018 was Vice President and Editor-in-Chief and an archived bio from Midwest describes part of your duties as reviewing thousands of works for publication. Between 2005–2016 did you ever promote Yamada works in your official capacities?

LC: I don’t understand your question. What do you mean by promoting works in official capacities?

JJ: Let me clarify. For example, I believe if you register as a publisher at the Midwest Clinic, you’re allowed to submit some pieces for reading sessions?

LC: The Keiko pieces were already being selected for performances, so there was no need for reading sessions. Midwest has very strict restrictions for what can be programmed on concerts. You have to have one of each grade level from a different publisher on your concert…

JJ: You have to have a march…

LC: You have to have a march, etc. for band. Midwest provides the list of performing ensembles to the publishers once they are selected.

JJ: Did you have a say as to which pieces were on which list?

LC: Yes, but we would send them a CD sampler/MP3 list that also included scores. We would send everything; including Christmas music, because some groups wanted to play those, since the convention is close to Christmas.

JJ: Because that was a good time of year to buy Christmas music, I’m assuming.

LC: Yes.

JJ: Did you ever promote Keiko Yamada’s music over others?

LC: No, we did not promote some pieces over others. We promoted the new pieces in our catalog. We would usually send out separate band and orchestra lists. We would send out CDs for all the new orchestra music and all new band music. If any of these were of interest, we would send you a full score or even a set. We would bend over backwards to get music performed as often as we could. Now it’s all in Dropbox; we have available non-printable scores. We organize it more by grade level.

And again, everything we were sending out was new. We’d send it out in the late spring/early summer for the new school year. Also, Carl Fischer would send out a cover letter on behalf of the composers. I’ve been encouraging composers in my new company to write an additional personalized cover letter in addition if they have time; most composers take me up on that and it has been very successful.

JJ: I’ve spoken with a lot of composers and music colleagues in the run-up to our discussion and there is a lot of frustration, and even anger from their points of view. In their perspectives, your apologies for your actions ignore the real-world consequences of your actions. You were already an established composer; you held a position of power in a prominent publishing company, and yet you decided to compose under the name of an Asian woman. Given the concerted push to diversify music that is occurring when you’re writing as Keiko Yamada, do you understand why many people feel you likely stole opportunities from them?

“All I can do going forward is to try to make a difference for women and composers of color.”

LC: One hundred percent. Of course, I didn’t think about this when I created the name in 2004. Again, this is not something you can take back. All I can do going forward is to try to make a difference for women and composers of color. I’ve already agreed to give every penny I’ve made from these pieces over to help underrepresented composers. I’m still waiting for Carl Fischer to give me a full accounting of how much I made with these pieces. But I also don’t want to do any of this with any fanfare, and I am not looking for any accolades. I know how upset people are, and I know how ridiculously ignorant and insensitive this was.

This is not in line with who I am. I did a very insensitive and uniformed thing; I regret doing this. I understand people may never play my music again. However, I have five boys, and they have to see me handle this the right way. A lot of people said horrible things without knowing me. I have a multicultural family. I adopted two boys from Haiti. I’m disappointed in myself; I’m embarrassed. It’s been tough.

JJ: What do you think you can offer the current conversation about diversity in music given your actions?

LC: Certainly, I’ve been trying to do this throughout my career. There are a lack of women and people of color that are composing. Today it’s even more difficult because there is even more self-publishing. It’s very difficult to find people. It’s a challenge. I’m continuing to do that. We have women and people of color in my company. You know, some people said I didn’t have enough women and people of color, but I just started my company in July of 2018, and it takes time, but I feel I can also help with this. I will have one conversation at a time and work to regain trust.

JJ: Individually?

LC: Yes. There are some people who said I did nothing wrong, but that’s not true. I did do something wrong. I want to talk to those people too. If other composers use pseudonyms, I hope they reconsider using them. I hope I can be a beacon as to what not to do.

JJ: Are there any specific people you want to talk to?

“I hope I can be a beacon as to what not to do.”

LC: Anyone who wants to listen? I would love to hear your feedback. I will be at Midwest, so if anyone wants to talk to me, they can find me.

JJ: How will they find you? Can I tell people how to find you at Midwest?

LC: Excelcia will have a booth, and I will be there, because the most important thing to me is that I don’t want my actions to hurt my fifty composers. They just had their first release. We just started.

JJ: You know, admittedly, I was a little disappointed that your Midwest session got canceled because I thought this would have given you the perfect opportunity to answer the questions we all had personally. Hopefully, by December our deep frustration and anger would be lessened a bit so we can have a constructive conversation with you.

LC: And my topic at Midwest was not to tell people which pieces they should be programming. It was how to pick literature that’s of quality, how to identify pieces with good counterpoint, good harmony and melody, which pieces used good ranges for their specific ensemble, etc.

JJ: And I get what you’re saying here; unfortunately, the word “quality” now is code for “music that has been written by cisgender white males” because “quality” has been used as a knee-jerk response to why it’s still okay to ignore and disregard music written by women and people of color. And then when people like me hear the word “quality” being used in association with programming, I instantly believe those who refuse to diversify programming state that music by others cannot be as good.

LC: I agree that the same people who tried to say I did nothing wrong were also throwing around things like “I only play quality music.” That is wrong, too, and the point of my clinic at Midwest was not to tell anyone what quality music is, but to give conductors tools to look for pieces with good craft. I understand what you are saying about the term “quality” and its implications—I will be more sensitive to that.

JJ: Here’s a question: is your new publishing company more of a distributor than a traditional publisher?

LC: It’s a regular publishing company; it is similarly done like Carl Fisher and others. We do professional recordings and distribution with all the major sheet music dealers of the world. We do a lot more on social media.

JJ: I’m thinking aloud here…is there an “in between” way in which composers who are skeptical about having you publish their works could have some sort of trial period? Admittedly, considering how I identify, I would not want you to publish my music. But let’s say, maybe over quite a few years from now, you can use your publishing company to get a person of color’s music on a Midwest reading session without having them officially sign up with your company?

LC: Midwest has strict rules: they have all these rules on how you have to have certain representation of grade levels, different publishers…it’s challenging. I recently reached out to Kaitlin Bove [the founder of the organization …And We Were Heard] to inquire how I might be able to assist the organization. I think her idea of the recordings is awesome. Here’s the interesting thing. They are finding bands to record Grade 3 and 4 pieces, but they can’t get anyone to record the Grade 1 and 2 pieces, and I said, “I’m your guy!” I’ll record those pieces—even for orchestra.

JJ: That is a great idea. I love this. We composers are so dependent on these recordings, and they’re hard to obtain.

“I was also thinking about starting a scholarship with the money I earned to help fund a composer who is a woman or a person of color going to college to study composition. And I don’t want credit for this.”

LC: Yes, I’m hopeful that she will be interested in me doing that, and I’d pay for it personally; I won’t have my publishing company pay for those recordings. I was also thinking about starting a scholarship with the money I earned to help fund a composer who is a woman or a person of color going to college to study composition. And I don’t want credit for this.

JJ: Those are all my questions, and I want to thank you for taking the time to chat with me and answer my questions. Is there anything else you would like to add?

LC: I just appreciate the tone and the tenor of this interview. And I want to apologize to you personally, and I’ll personally apologize to anyone, because I know what I did hurt others and I am truly sorry for that. I also have apologized to my kids too, because I want them to see that we are all flawed beings, and we sometimes make poor decisions in life. We have to own up to those mistakes, accept the consequences, try to make amends to the people we hurt, and learn and grow in the process.  I also want them to learn from me so that they think very carefully about everything they do, and how their actions affect others.


As the conversation fades and the transcript becomes my primary reference, things are both clearer and more complex. My first imaginings of confronting Clark the night the story broke bore little resemblance to the encounter. After talking one-on-one, I have to admit, I have more empathy for Larry Clark. I relate to him as a composer and as an imperfect human being. Yet even in retrospect, the experience poses some difficulties for me.

It’s hard to stay angry with Clark, but not because his explanations of Keiko Yamada are particularly good.

On the one hand it’s hard to stay angry with Clark, but not because his explanations of Keiko Yamada are particularly good. I believe he’s deeply sorry, and his desire to learn seems genuine. On the other hand, it’s still frustrating and disappointing to read his evasions like “political correctness” or his self-presentation as a victim (“that band guy in the eyes of the orchestra world”). I find myself wanting to yell that white men impersonating Asian women didn’t just become wrong in the twenty-first century. But to be compelled to forcefully say something so obvious is exhausting and worse, it puts the responsibility on me.

And it’s here where I find some clarity to the source of conflict I feel about Clark and Yamada. Powerful people have the luxury of evolving to a point where they might consider the benefits their person and positions have accrued. But this process takes place in real time, time that is experienced very differently by people outside the establishment. How many composers during Keiko Yamada’s “career” lost opportunities because a rental or a place on a state list went to “her”? How many of those selections were motivated by a music director’s desire to diversify their concerts? How many times did a young woman or person of color feel that powerful sense of possibility in imagining someone like them writing the work they were about to play? Moreover, how do we take stock of the reverberations extending from the fact that Clark didn’t confess but rather was caught.

It’s a certain way the open booth at Midwest (which I genuinely recommend) is the perfect encapsulation of the problems and contradictions that I’m feeling: it is laudable but insufficient. The booth will likely be more therapeutic than transformative because it keeps Clark at the center and does little to address the systemic corruption of the larger music world. Indeed, the paradox of the entire Clark/Yamada affair is that Clark does deserve harsh judgment, but focusing too much on him dilutes the ability to see the broader problems. Systems are difficult things to imagine, understand, and transform. Clark’s actions warrant condemnation, but he was aided and abetted throughout Yamada’s fictitious career. A culture of silence and selfishness of vision in the highest reaches of the publishing world permitted Clark to act as he did. For the Clark/Yamada affair to be useful, there needs to be a much more comprehensive and transparent examination of catalogs in the band and orchestra world. If Clark’s claims about the pervasiveness of pen names are correct, we need an account and not just of the composers, but of the administrators and executives who facilitated this.

Composing music is hard, but being a composer is harder.

Composing music is hard, but being a composer is harder. It’s financially precarious, filled with rejection, and driven by a sense of self that is constantly under siege. To be a composer of color or a woman (or both) is beyond difficult. They are profoundly absent in concert halls today, and the situation is not much better when you look at the state lists.[5] The lingering effects of Clark/Yamada are to magnify the paranoia and cynicism too often experienced by underrepresented composers. It confirms the most extreme sense that the music world is an unfair system rigged in favor of the privileged. I guess this is why I can’t offer a succinct summation or tidy lesson learned from this mess. So in place of a conclusion I want to offer thoughts. I hope Larry Clark will continue to work for change. I also hope he knows how much work needs to be done and that there’s a real chance he’ll never balance his ledger. I want him to get to that place, but I also know that I can’t speak for anyone else. Above all, to the women and people of color, I hope you keep writing.


Notes:

1. Full Text of Davis’s message:

*PSA* to all of my friends in music education and specifically the band world: Prominent composer/Arranger Larry Clark made a pen name “Keiko Yamada” to pretend to be a Japanese Female composer in order to profit from calls for diversity in music education! This is disgusting, misleading, and just awful that we have students being subjected to not even appropriated music, but a fantasy of appropriated music. What does this accomplish? What goals of diversity and growth does this further?

To make things worse, after being pulled from some prominent music publishers after being publicly outed for this, some publishers decided to put his real name on the score. This winter he is an invited presenter at the prestigious Midwest Band Clinic leading a talk on “Selecting Quality Literature” for band. There is so much music that exists in the world of band by diverse voices – why does this still need to be published?

I don’t know what needs to happen and can’t individually leverage against this. I am not a band director, but if I was I probably wouldn’t support his work any longer. As a music educator, however, I am just really frustrated and saddened by this news.


2. For example, John Barnes Chance wrote Variations on a Korean Folk Song for concert band in 1965; this piece is standard wind ensemble repertoire and is still being performed.


3. Besides Kon’nichiwa, other titles include Tsumasaki, Koneko, Sunayama, Mystic Fawn, and Japanese Hoedown.


4. This interview took place on Monday, September 30, 2019.


5. Average Representation of Diverse Composers (Women, People of Color, Women of Color) across state lists: 6.37%; Average Representation of Women Composers of Color on sampled state lists: 0.03%. Statistics compiled by Cory Meals, Assistant Professor of Music Education at the University of Houston.

Creating and Listening in Alaska: My experience with Composing in the Wilderness

Hikers in a foggy mountain range

I moved to Phoenix in 2008 to start my master’s degree in music composition. Almost every year since then, I have made it a mission to escape the heat at least once during the summer. I have made these efforts in spite of my financial situation and—although I am ashamed to admit it—in spite of my relationships. This year, 2019, has been my “year of doing less”—so far a grand and failed effort to take stock of what I have, get to know my Phoenix-based friends and musical companions better, and dig a little deeper into what it means for me to have a very full day job and do music “on the side.” To alleviate my annual wanderlust, I applied to Composing in the Wilderness, a program founded, built, and coordinated by composer/adventurer Stephen Lias. CiTW takes composers out into the rugged expanse of Alaska to find inspiration, connect with nature on an intimate level, and bring a new piece of music from idea to performance all within a few weeks.

I was woefully unprepared.

Map of Alaska

Navigation

Before I left, I described Composing in the Wilderness as this:

It’s a program where you hike during the day in Denali National Park in Alaska, then after a few days of outdoor observation, you are thrown into a cabin to write some music, then you get a performance. Pretty cool, right?

I knew we would be interacting with scientists and park rangers, but I had no concept of the scope of that interaction. It is a similar situation to people who come to Phoenix and decide to hike Camelback Mountain in the summer, thinking it will be an easy climb. From a distance, it looks like a good day hike, but if you are not familiar with your new relationship with the sun here, it is a far different experience than expected.

“Composing in the Wilderness is not a class or a workshop, but a shared wilderness experience.” – Stephen Lias

While my casual summary is technically correct—the CiTW experience is hiking in Denali for four days, composing in cabins for four days, then rehearsals and performances in Fairbanks and Denali with Corvus, the new music ensemble in residence at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival—it is not what I expected. When I arrived at our campsite and saw the diversity of our group and the intense knowledge of our leader Christina Rusnak and Alaska Geographic educator Suan Adams, I knew that my usual trajectory and internal compass for being in a group of composers for an extended period of time would no longer work.

Q: What are the things that still “stick” with you after the experience?

A: “The creativity of exploration and motion. The incredible calm and sharpness found in wilderness. The fuzzy joy feels of humans.” – Andy Israelsen

Observation and Reevaluation

“I feel more focused in my life. My experience with CiTW has given me a confidence and sense of determination/ direction that I haven’t had before.” – Jordan Stevenson

I have been to a number of summer music festivals and experiences. My plan was to keep my engagement to a minimum so I could have my quiet and my solitude. My much deserved respite in nature from screen time and nonprofit administration. How I thought this would be feasible with nine other composers (eight participants plus our Christina Rusnak) is a mystery in hindsight. I came with prejudgements about the loose factions that would form based on who took what too seriously.

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At first, I tried to experience Alaska in the way that I thought I had earned. I was quickly plucked from my ego and reminded that the earth does not belong to me, it is not here for my pleasure or artistic exploitation, and taking joy in discovery is far more fun than worrying about my musical knowledge and professional trajectory seeming more noble or interesting than another’s.

When I challenge why I would come in with such childish assumptions, I know it was out of fear that I would not belong or be taken seriously. I am now on the older side of the typical summer music experience participant and I want to say it doesn’t affect me, but that would not be the truth. As the group skirted around icebreakers and “where are you from?”-s, the flow of my attitude began to echo that of Anchorage-based composer Andy Israelsen, who on our last night claimed “I came for solitude, but instead I found family.”

Listening at the river

Photo by Christina Rusnak

Q: What are the things that still “stick” with you after the experience?

A: “Value of unplugged time, connection with the real—people, community, people, what lies under the superficial.” —Margery Smith

Connection to the Landscape

Regardless of the connotations “landscape” holds for you, it is a larger picture or format that has the potential to reveal multitudes if you take the time to observe. The scientists, Alaska Geographic employees, and park interpreters—who very literally led us into the wilderness and peeled back the layers—allowed us to make connections to scale, sound, and history outside of the scope of music. It was entirely up to us to make our own, very personal connections to the stream of information given to our group.

Most of us honed in on the scale of the landscape (be it cricket-sized or Denali-sized) and the visual and physical limitations the wildfire smoke had on our relationship to the wilderness. I realized that I was doing myself yet another disservice by not appreciating the bug flying past my ears and the grass tickling my wrists. Every small moving part is more essential to the whole than I ever knew. Davyd Bechtkal, a leading soundscape specialist for the National Park Service, opened our ears to the physical limitations scale and landscapes place on natural sounds and the way we experience them. Listening intently to the landscape around me gave me a better understanding of how small my role in the world is, but also how to find empowerment and joy in that role, regardless of scale.

Huddle

Photo by Christina Rusnak

“NYC is a place where you don’t hang out so much. You just go and do stuff, then go and do different stuff with different people, or just hang out at home waiting for the next ‘go and do stuff’ moment. CiTW was a small compact society. We were thrust onto each other but united in orientation—we’ve all had fairly deep relationships to making music. It was fun to share the personal aspects of that to see where it matched others.” – Skip LaPlante

Natural Resources

At the end of a 24-hour Alaskan summer day, the people I met and the friendships that were forged were the most impressive resources I found. If you look back on the history of Composing in the Wilderness, you will notice a significant age range in the participants. I could have simply watched Skip LaPlante give a lecture on his repurposed musical instruments crafted in a loft in the Bowery or read an article by Christina Rusnak in an IAWM publication, but the knowledge gained would be superficial compared to having these individuals and eight other composers from separate walks of life in a space together, not distracted by technology or schedules, swapping stories.

Without this specific wilderness/composer experience, I know I would have remained very unaware of the life and career opportunities that lay bubbling in our national and state park systems. Although I’m a good 30 years younger than Skip, I fully agree with his sentiment: “I didn’t know there was such a webwork of composer residencies in wild places. … I think I’ve discovered a new society to be part of and have to work out how deeply to participate.”

Hiking

Photo by Angus Davison

Continuing the Climb

“[H]aving the experience of being out in the field as we were, with such expert guidance interpreting what we encountered, and—more importantly—contextualizing them within the larger picture of the landscape of Alaska raised my consciousness of the interdependence of natural life, from very small to very large scale, to a level which I have never before had.” —Andrew Simpson

“I haven’t traveled much, and only within Europe, so I was shocked by how different both the wildlife in Denali and the culture in Fairbanks were to what I’m used to. It really was a little like walking on another planet when all the grass was different, all the trees were different, and the Sun was a different color in the smoke.” – Luciano Williamson

Without a doubt, the experience transformed me personally and will have lasting impact on my personal life and career. And I can only assume that when founder Stephen Lias came to Denali for the first time and began to formulate what would become Composing in the Wilderness, he knew exactly how transformative such and experience would be.

Before leaving for Alaska, I kept insisting to my co-workers that I was not going on vacation. Again, a true statement, but one that turned false after my experience. My sentiment was “I am not going to have time to relax, I am going to be working very hard while I’m gone. I am not going on a cruise.” Yes, I worked hard, we all did. But I found the things that a vacation allegedly brings: mental relaxation, reflection, and unforgettable new experiences. I came back refreshed. I came back not bugged by small things. The world is so big and people are so different, it doesn’t make sense to get caught up in the minutiae. We are human and it will still happen, but I find it easier to pull back and see the true scale of something. I feel more satisfied with what I have and am more ready to allow events to happen in their own time.

Composing in the Wilderness

Photo by Angus Davison

A Guide to Composing in Your Wilderness

  1. Minimize your interaction with technology.
  2. Find a friend to adventure with you.
  3. Select at least two new places in nature (as your available time frame and resources allow) to visit. A public park, a plant nursery, a different neighborhood, a botanical garden, etc.).
  4. If you have a question, talk about it, don’t look up the answer on your phone.
  5. Set a schedule, but do not feel bad if you do not adhere to it strictly.
  6. Eat a hearty breakfast and pack your lunch.
  7. If you are tired, take a nap!
  8. Take a deep breath, enjoy yourself no matter where you are on your journey.

Reading List

Andrew Simpson: Silence by John Cage

Particularly on that first full day in the field, as we were taking our meditative time, I kept coming back to his essay on silence, and how he says that you can never find true silence anywhere in the world: there is always sound of some kind.  In a place which is so quiet, I found myself thinking about that boundary between sound and silence, and becoming more attuned to the sounds which were there—the wind traveling through the spruces (coming from a long way off somewhere to my left, then crossing the place where I sat, and then continuing onward and out of hearing to my right)—the occasional bird, and such.  That wind moment eventually made its way into my piece, but the experience of being in such a quiet place and feeling its weight, punctuated by sound, made each sound more special and noticeable.

Christina Rusnak: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

[A book] that has to do with a way of “seeing” is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. As we spoke about the indigenous Alaskans’ tie to the landscape, this one kept coming up in my mind.

Jason Gibson: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

It’s a concentration camp survival story that focuses on the psychology of those in the [Nazi] camps. It sticks out to me because I found myself searching for meaning and legitimacy during the entire experience.

Margery Smith: The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise by Garret Keizer

This was one of Davyd Bechtkal’s books that I found very interesting and made me think [I can] still hear those crunchy chips from Denali lunch breaks!

Andrew Israelsen: Silence and Walking by Erlin Klagge

Silence was written after a solo walking trek to the South pole. The book is hardly about Antarctica, rather it is a winding journey on mindfulness and a wide variety of ruminations on silence. Walking has a fantastic narrative arc as Kagge explores poetry, philosophy, and personal experiences.

Skip LaPlante: The Tuning of the World by R. Murray Schaefer and Walden by Henry David Thoreau

The first is about the sonic environment in general, really understanding what you are hearing and the second is about observing and drinking in detail.

Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is a sci-fi novel that addresses how language and views of the land and gender affect culture. It focuses on a visitor to a cold, ice-filled planet who is unable to grasp the slow pace of the people and lack of technological advancement. The visitor misses the technology they do have because it does not look like the technology he is used to. This scenario echoed with me as we learned more about how Western cultures have viewed and related to the Athabaskan, the indigenous people of Alaska.

Luciano Williamson: Musicage by Joan Retallack

It’s a collection of interviews with John Cage at the very end of his life, talking about words, art, and music, after being John Cage for a lifetime.

Jordan Stevenson: Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss

“…to get you in the spirit of adventure.”

This is the Album of the Future

record collection

I am a composer, performer, music producer, and avid record collector, and I am currently in a complicated relationship with physical media. Like many others, I love the tangible process of opening up a CD or LP, playing it through my home system, and studying the artwork and liner notes as I listen. I hold my own albums to this standard as I release them into the world. I pore over the details of the physical package, driving my collaborators crazy as I attempt to perfect every aspect of its design. After spending several maddening months—and often years—to make an album, the moment of finally holding the object itself is a satisfying final seal, assuring me that I’ve created something permanent.

Yet the age of streaming rages on, my closets are filled with boxes of overstock, and even my mother is more likely to listen to my music online than she is to put on a CD or LP. As much as we like to think of these discs as the sacred vessels of our musical concepts, many of us are questioning whether it is worth the time, money, space, and materials to produce the physical object.

What makes an album such a powerful statement is that the artists and producers craft a complete experience for the listener, not only through a cohesive musical idea but through its presentation: artwork, information, liner notes, and now virtually any form of media. Currently, digital platforms do not allow much room for this, confining albums to tracklists and an album cover: a thumbnail representation of something that could be physical. This has had financial repercussions—by reducing an album’s worth to the play count of its individual tracks, huge corporations have gotten away with paying artists fractions of pennies for their work.

In response to these changing tides, some of us have chosen to dig deeper into the classic formats, releasing our albums on limited edition vinyl and cassette tapes. Others search for new objects to represent their album (beer koozie with download code anyone?). Look no further than Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Music (2005), a self-contained electronic music circuit and playback device within a CD case, for an eloquent example of physicality as the concept of the album itself.

There have been many creative approaches to releasing albums as physical objects in today’s world, but that’s not what this article is about. I’m tossing any purity I have left aside, and I am wondering: What can an album be now that it no longer needs to be an object?

Florent Ghys’s “This is the album of the future” from his video album Télévision

The album has always been and continues to be a malleable form, having adapted to over 100 years of changes in technology, business, and pop culture. The very first albums were, literally, albums: bound books manufactured to contain several 78 RPM phonograph records, examples of which can be found as far back as 1908. When Columbia Records began releasing 12-inch discs in 1948, the term had already been extended past its original meaning to refer to any collection of musical tracks. Since then, our albums have contorted through a variety of formats, shapes, and sizes and now, residing on the internet, they no longer require a physical container. Artists can release albums at a faster rate and with more ease than before, and the possibilities seem to be endless for the integration of multimedia and interactive elements.

Some are skeptical as to whether some of the newer formats should be identified as true “albums.” To decide for myself, I apply a very simple litmus test: Does the artist call their work an album? If yes, then it is so. I see the changes in how music creators conceive and present this music as the indication of its evolution as a term.

I have been searching for compelling examples of albums that have extended this form within the digital world and collected them here. Some big-budget and mainstream offerings need to be mentioned, but I have chosen to focus on a few specimens from independent artists and labels, and have given them a close and thoughtful listen.

This is by no means a comprehensive survey. I invite anyone with examples of albums that should be included in this discussion to post in the comments below.

Notes from Sub-Underground

Object Collection’s Notes from Sub-Underground (2017)

One of the immediate parameters that is lifted for albums in the digital age is that of length. At one end of the spectrum, an artist can release a shorter offering and present it as a complete concept without feeling the need to fill the entirety of a CD, tape, or LP. On the other end, albums can be very long indeed. Notes from Sub-Underground, a 2016 collection of experimental music put out in the wake of the Trump election, is an awesome example of this. Produced by the music theater group Object Collection, this five-hour-plus compilation is comprised of 62 tracks representing somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 artists. The line-up includes influential experimentalists from across generations including Richard Foreman, Cat Lamb, Phill Niblock, Michael Pisaro, and Matana Roberts, as well as performing groups String Noise, Ensemble Pamplemouse, and my own group Dither.

Beginning with a call for submissions in December, the compilation was assembled in less than two months and released on Inauguration Day, 2017. Object Collection compiled the tracks, did some basic post-production work, and produced a cover and liner notes for digital distribution. Upon its release, in order to download a copy of the album, listeners would contribute an amount of their choosing through an Indiegogo campaign, all proceeds of which were donated to the ACLU. (You can now access the compilation through Object Collection’s website.) While only some of the tracks are overtly political, the collective album effort is what makes this an effective statement.

And it’s a great record. I committed to a complete listen, toggling between sessions on my home computer and on my headphones while on New Jersey Transit. Although the sequence of the tracks is not curated (the song titles are placed in alphabetical order), there is a satisfying flow to the album in its consistent inconsistency. One of my listening sessions began with Mellissa Hughes and Philip White’s “Clinging to a Cloud, an abstracted pop song comprised of autotuned melismas intertwined with synth tones and computer voices. This track flows beautifully into an excerpt from Suzanne Thorpe’s vocal collage “Constituting States,” constructed of recordings of the U.S. national anthem as sung in different languages. The voices swirl around each other and finally resolve, to be interrupted by Jonathan Marmor’s clangorous electronic piece “Easter Helicopter”. Listening to the entire project is a cathartic experience that holds true to Object Collection’s maximalist and DIY ethos.

OneBeat Mixtape 18

OneBeat Mixtape 18: Vols 1-6 (Found Sound Records, 2019)

A collective musical endeavor that approaches the album format as a series of shorter offerings comes from the Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization Found Sound Nation. To document the output from their OneBeat program in 2018, for which they enlisted 24 international artists to create collaborative works, they have produced and released a series of digital “mixtapes,” each averaging around 20 minutes in length. Their concept is to provide an extension (“B-sides”) to the golden record that was included aboard the two Voyager spacecrafts in 1971. They staggered the release of the six volumes, each referencing a stop as the ships traveled deeper into space. The entire project can be found on Bandcamp.

While the eclecticism of the tracks on each volume holds true to the idea of a mixtape, the concept and production of the recordings create a unified offering. (All tracks were produced by OneBeat and recorded during the same sessions.) “Sorabe,” the opening track of Vol 1: Earth composed by Tsanta Randriamihajasoa, groups the Malagasy pianist with Indian vocalist Pavithra Chari, Hungarian clarinetist Zolt Bartek, and Algerian drummer Younés Kati. The track is a jazz-infused tour of each artist’s musical language, emulating the idea of the earth’s bustling “acoustic and organic sounds.”

Skipping ahead, Vol 6: Heliopause is described by OneBeat as a collection of “abstract pieces perhaps only understandable by the most adventurous human ears.” While I don’t find this material to be inaccessible (especially after listening to 5.5 hours of Object Collection) this volume certainly conjures an otherworldly sonic palette that one might equate with the edge of our solar system. Beginning with the more tangible songlike opening of “Outer Space,” each track of the album continues a trajectory deeper into textural and droney soundscapes.

Florent Ghys: Télévision

Florent Ghys: Télévision (Cantaloupe Music, 2014)

There are many notable examples throughout recorded music history of a film being produced in conjunction with an album. The Beatles’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) are two of many landmark works which were released separately as film and soundtrack. As home video systems became increasingly popular in the 1980s, artists began to regularly distribute video compilations, live concerts, and documentaries as part of their output. I fondly remember the comedic band Green Jellö (popular on MTV for their heavy metal claymation video “Three Little Pigs”), who claimed in the opening credits of their Cereal Killer VHS (1993) to be the “world’s first video-only band.” (They did in fact release a soundtrack album separately from the video.)

Billing an audiovisual work as the album itself is still a relatively new phenomenon which is quickly being embraced by the mainstream, encapsulated by the success of Beyoncé’s “visual album” Lemonade (2016). Although one might question how these offerings differ from the films and videos made by their predecessors, I see this as a natural arrival point, enabled by current digital platforms: the audio and visual elements of the album are both readily available on the same interface and can be easily conceived, created, marketed, and distributed together as a unified concept.

Bassist/composer Florent Ghys dubs his most recent solo release Télévision (2014) a “video album,” and it is indeed a high-level integration of musical and visual concepts. In this case, the two elements are so intrinsically connected that it’s hard to imagine experiencing the music alone. Working in sync with both audio and video software, Ghys composed the two entities in tandem, providing a direct video corollary to virtually every musical event.

In the opening track “Beauté Plastique,” each new instrumental layer enters with a corresponding visual element, creating a complex tapestry of hockets and contrapuntal lines. The final track, “This is the Album of the Future,” features a tongue-in-cheek video collage of dated advertisements for compact disc players. (Télévision is in fact also available as a CD from Cantaloupe records.) The entire video is an absorbing and effective visual experience which kept me engaged in a way that felt more akin to binge watching a TV series or going down a YouTube rabbit hole than listening to an album of the past.

Rabbit Rabbit: Rabbit Rabbit Radio, Vols 1-3

Confronting the issue of digital distribution, another creative video-based offering comes from Rabbit Rabbit (Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi). Frustrated with online services, in 2012 the duo began a long-term project in which they released a song and video per month on their own subscription-based site, rabbitrabbitradio.com. Although they have now chosen to end their monthly output and focus on larger-scale works, they compiled their three years of work into three albums which can be listened to and watched on Bandcamp.

While maintaining high production values, these videos are intimate and homegrown, often using footage from the recording studio or home performances. They incorporate several candid and personal moments, including a living room session in which their young daughter throws a minor tantrum during the song. Family and friends feature prominently throughout the three volumes. “Paper Prison” is a documentary portrait of Bossi’s father as he discusses his rare book collection. The final track, “Merci Vielmal,” was recorded on a train while on the road with their group Cosa Brava (performed with bandmates Fred Frith, Shahzad Ismaily, and Zeena Parkins). Not only is this music captivating, but you come out of the experience feeling as if you have had a window into the artists’ everyday lives.

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition (Microfest records, 2013)

In the ‘90s, artists such as Peter Gabriel, Primus, and The Residents released CD-ROMs with game-like applications along with their albums, providing an interface for listeners to explore the songs, art, and other elements. Today, our touch-screen devices offer even more potential for interactive music applications. Bjork’s Biophilia (2011) was released as an “app album,” featuring artwork, extensive liner notes, videos, and games associated with each track. Other artists take the interactive model further by allowing the music to be generated in real time. Brian Eno’s most recent release Reflection (2017) exists both in fixed media and as an application that creates a unique and endless version of his composition.

An interesting example of a generative album experience comes from Microfest Records’s release of John Cage’s The Ten Thousand Things (2015). In the 1950s, Cage composed this set of pieces to be played independently, in any combination, or reconfigured in a variety of ways. Microfest produced The I-Ching Edition of the album which consists of a fixed version of the piece, accompanied by an application (delivered via thumb drive) that allows you to generate unique versions the composition. Each rendering is constructed from performances by pianists Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay, bassist Tom Peters, percussionist William Winant, and an archival recording of Cage himself reading his lecture “‘45 for a Speaker.” Each new version of the piece uses the same recordings, but is unique in its organization.

One of the most satisfying things about this piece is that the spoken material in Cage’s fragmented lecture describes the same compositional techniques that you are hearing in real time. The chance aspect of the application itself adds yet another layer. The creativity of this format, the top-notch performances, and the charm of hearing Cage masterfully read his lecture make for an enthralling aleatoric experience.

Ironically, many of these innovative application-based albums have fallen victim to operating system upgrades. We can still get Bjork’s album through Apple’s app store, but similar offerings from Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, and Philip Glass seem to have become obsolete in less than ten years. These apps were either never updated, or they were seen by the record companies merely as short-term marketing tools. There also just haven’t been a huge quantity of app albums made, as the financial overhead required to create these programs is still prohibitive for most independent artists.

With so much trial and error required, it is not a surprise that album formats have needed to pass a high threshold of popularity and mass consumption in order to achieve longevity. This is one reason that physical albums are still relevant today—they survive as permanent objects on the sidelines of a constantly changing and merciless digital landscape.

What is the album of the future? I hope for an interface that is as accessible and navigable as the current streaming platforms, one that allows artists to configure a unique experience for their listeners, and one that empowers us to control its monetization. (Bandcamp is well ahead of the pack in this regard.) The ideal platform would not only provide easy access to music, art, text, and all types of media, but be malleable so that new elements can be integrated as they arise. The next sea change in business and technology will surely provide new and unforeseen formats for our music, and within it artists will continue to innovate, adapt, and respond.

Artist Financial Profile: loadbang

An instrumental ensemble of 4 Caucasian men
A discussion with Executive Director Andy Kozar

In 2007, four friends at Manhattan School of Music—Andrew Kozar, Jeffery Gavett, Philip Everall*, and William Lang—were spending significant amounts of time together talking about new music at school, and also at the bar. Realizing they could be performing new music with each other instead of just talking, they began rehearsals for what would become a concert series in an abandoned library at MSM called “Will and Andy’s Power Concerts.” These concerts were only 20-minutes long and, “just like a power nap,” they were all you needed to freshen up your day. Since these friends represented trumpet, baritone voice, clarinet, and trombone, repertoire was lacking. Their first concert program included performances of an Earl Brown graphic notation score, a few barbershop quartets (yes, they sung them), and a piece Jeff wrote for the group.

Fast forward 12 years and these four friends had become loadbang, a “formidable new music force” in the new music scene. I had the pleasure of speaking with their executive director and trumpet player, Andy Kozar, over the phone. Andy was gracious enough to tell me more about how the ensemble started, the history of their finances, a bit about their individual lifestyles, and the ins and outs of how loadbang operates as an integral piece of each members’ musical and financial activity. If you are looking to start an ensemble, I hope this article will offer you a sample working model for best practices.

Non-profit financials

Before we dig into loadbang’s financials, it’s important to note that the financials of any nonprofit are accessible to the public. Every non-profit is required to annually file a Form 990 and many can be accessed through Guidestar.org. The IRS website states:

Forms 990 and 990-EZ are used by tax-exempt organizations, nonexempt charitable trusts, and section 527 political organizations to provide the IRS with the information required by section 6033.

and continues with:

Some members of the public rely on Form 990 or Form 990-EZ as their primary or sole source of information about a particular organization. How the public perceives an organization in such cases can be determined by information presented on its return.

In short, a 990 does not always provide a clear picture, but the form can give the overall details of the financial health of an organization, primary activities and how much was spent on them, the names of the board of directors, and the compensation of the highest-paid officials in the organization. For the real tax nerds wondering what section 6033 is, here you go.

Before I called Andy, I pulled loadbang’s most recent 990 filed in 2018, from the 2017/2018 concert season (their fiscal year runs July to the end of June).

Andy Kozar

Andy Kozar

Revenue

With all the success that loadbang has achieved, some may be surprised that this ensemble is only a portion of each of the members’ incomes. This is why many musicians belong to several performing groups, in addition to their own freelance and teaching or composing work. Looking at the Form 990, the 2018 revenue amounted to $66,319.94 for the season. Expenses totaled $68,958.12, resulting in an organizational deficit of ($2,638.18) for the year. The revenue alone is not enough for any one of the loadbang members to comfortably live in New York City, yet loadbang is a very well managed organization and has set a great trajectory.

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Their 990 reveals that $47,233.33 of the revenue is from “program service revenue.” Essentially this is ticket sales and artist fees, making up 71% of the gross revenue. The other 29% is from “contributions, gifts, and grants” and “gross profit (or loss) from sales of inventory”. This information reveals that loadbang is funded primarily through performance activity. Andy mentioned that loadbang had 38 performances during the 2017/2018 concert season.

The other significant part of loadbang’s revenue is in the “contributions, gifts, grants, and similar amounts received.” This amount adds up to $18,750, approximately 28% of the organization’s total revenue. This money was most likely from received grants for concert and recording projects from organizations listed in the support section of their website. For those who noticed, the missing 1%, or $337, was profit from CD sales.

Talking with Andy, over the years that loadbang has been an ensemble, revenue has grown every year through increases in activity, and the ensemble developed a simple way to put money back into the business: since there are four members, loadbang divides the revenue—after deducting travel expenses—into five parts: a piece for each member to sustain their living, with the fifth part going back into the organization. They did this from the very beginning, allowing their nonprofit to grow the money they need to develop projects and offset occasional deficits like they saw in 2018. Even nonprofits have to put money back into the business to maximize potential and fund their own growth.

Expenses

Some readers may be wondering, “If they had an overall deficit in 2018, how did they make any money?” The members of loadbang paid themselves first. This is represented in line 13 of the 990 “Professional fees and other payments to independent contractors” of $50,047.15. A couple things to unpack here: this amount was probably not just paid to the quartet, as there could be other composers, sound engineers, and artists at large who are part of the loadbang economic activity. The other thing to note is that loadbang has decided to pay themselves as independent contractors, which is a non-employee status that allows organizations to pay performers and other contractual employees without paying payroll taxes or being responsible for their contractors’ owed income taxes. This is the most common way for musicians, composers, and other creatives to be paid. It is also reflective of the way the members and collaborators of loadbang make their other incomes—through gigging.

Other expenses listed on the 990 are printing, publication, postage, shipping ($987), occupancy—rent for concert space rental for self-produced concerts ($1,683), and “other expenses” of $16,000 that ends up being “travel expenses” as outlined by Schedule O. All of these expenses result in a deficit for the year of $2,638. Because loadbang reliably allocates funds as part of its annual budget to build the organization, a net loss for the 2018 year is not a big deal.

I asked Andy about recordings, because everyone wonders: do you make any money from the CD sales?

His response:

No, not at all. It’s a huge money pit. We don’t look at the records as a money-making thing. They are kind of the business card—you show people what you can do at the highest level—and it sets loadbang apart from new music organizations because all of the rep exists only for us. We have a responsibility to record the pieces. As long as the record is good, it can raise our profile in interesting ways.

Loadbang’s discography is impressive. With 12 albums to their name, they are cementing their impact on new music into history, while simultaneously making it easy for booking agents and institutions to hear examples of their programming. So like many arts projects, the CDs aim to pay for themselves but aren’t necessarily an important part of their profit creation, though Andy did say they occasionally get small royalty checks.

Lifestyle

With any talk about income, lifestyle discussions are often omitted but are very important to understand the nature of the business and how that plays out in the day-to-day existence of a performer. Andy was very candid during our discussions about lifestyle and was willing to share a bit about his own life, his other places of work, and the general performing activity of the other loadbang members. The intention of loadbang was never to go full time, as the loadbang members enjoy the variety of activities they participate in across different groups or solo performing, teaching, composing, and general freelancing. As Andy said about his work with loadbang, “It’s a piece of the puzzle—at this point I like all of the pieces of my puzzle… they all bring different benefits”

Andy is both the executive director of loadbang and their trumpet player. Looking at page two of their Form 990, it looks like Andy makes a little bit more than his ensemble members due to his leadership position, but he is not pulling a sizeable income from that activity. Andy also teaches at Longy School of Music at Bard College, in Cambridge, Boston. There, he is the chair of the Winds and Brass Department, co-director of Ensemble Uncaged, and the co-director of the Divergent Studio at Longy. Andy also freelances regularly in New York City, and composes and records quite often. To throw another complication into the mix, Andy’s wife, Corrine, is a tenure-track professor of voice at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. They have a townhome in Pennsylvania, but he spends part of the week in Boston and New York City. His schedule for a “normal” week looks like this:

Sunday-Tuesday:       Longy School of Music, Boston
Tuesday-Saturday:     Go back to NYC or Pennsylvania, or back and forth

But normal weeks are actually not the norm. Andy explains, “Normal is usually getting on a plane and going somewhere. Somehow it feels that’s impossible to be normal.” For now, the thriving music careers of Andy and his wife work well. They have to spend regular time coordinating schedules so they can be in the same places at the same time, but so far, their 2.5 years of marriage has been working out great.

For the rest of loadbang, the guys are more or less in New York City freelancing or on faculty at the Longy School of Music. I asked how they all ended up as faculty at Longy, and Andy told a quick story of how he started there four years ago and all of a sudden there were faculty openings for voice, clarinet, and trombone. His supervisor bounced the idea of the rest of loadbang coming on board, especially for their summer contemporary music program, Divergent Studio. It seemed to just work out from there!

So you want to start an ensemble?

Imagine you have a few friends who want to start a chamber group and have visions of becoming the next Kronos Quartet, Eight Blackbird, or Imani Winds. Although it is an excellent goal, be realistic about how an ensemble fits into your financial picture. Many ensembles start with nothing and have to put money back into their ensemble just to get it off the ground. Sometimes artistic fees barely cover travel and rehearsal costs, but you do the gig anyway to start to make a name for yourself (something you may do in your own career, but which can carry extra challenges in a group context). Realize that even the most successful ensembles are often just a piece of their founders’ incomes. As Andy put it:

I don’t mean to sound like a grumpy old man (I’m only 34), but sometimes there’s an expectation that comes from naiveté, that if you finish school and start a group and you’re doing cool things then you should be getting cool gigs….No one owes you anything—you don’t deserve a gig necessarily.

The best groups put the insane hours in following other ensembles, tracking down opportunities, and cold calling for the next gig. After speaking with Andy, I combined some of his sage advice into a shortlist of tips to get your ensemble going:

1. Play the gigs!

Don’t be too proud to take a gig. Gigs come from the hard work of networking, building relationships, and mimicking the groups you want to be like. If you can be willing to work, you will be more receptive to opportunities.

2. Send proposals out like your batting average relies on it.

It’s rare that someone will hand you a great gig. The more proposals you send out, the higher your chances of getting a contract. Your batting average increases. In our conversations, Andy said that 85-90% of the work loadbang gets is from reaching out to people and sending them proposals. The longer you do something in new music, the larger your network becomes. Only recently has loadbang seen an uptick in times they are approached to do a gig. For reference, early on, when loadbang would send out 100 proposals, they would only get seven to eight responses.

3. You may as well ask.

Even if you think a project or an idea is a long shot, it never hurts to ask—the worst someone can say is “no.” Early on loadbang thought it would be cool to get a commissioned piece from a skilled composer who they really loved, who just happened to be Charles Wuorinen. So they asked Wuorinen, thinking it would be a long shot. Apparently it wasn’t, and Wuorinen’s piece is featured on this CD.

4. Believe in your project.

Performers don’t start ensembles to become rich. They start groups out of passion and creative desire. This passion is also observed by your audience, collaborators, and funders, etc. As Andy put it:

If you’re really excited and believe in the project you’re doing, that reads. And if the product you have is good, you’re more likely to, over time, have some sort of modicum of success (however you define it)—it can be infectious.

Having passion from all members of your performing group so important. It communicates to your followers. It motivates you when keeping the ensemble going is a struggle. It keeps you honest about why you are pursuing the work.

5. Align your goals with your finances.

As an observer, I added this myself, after poring over my notes from my conversation with Andy. When anyone is seriously pursuing a project, they align their finances with their goals. Early on, loadbang put money back into the organization. This is the same for any small business. Sometimes you have to put more dollars in than you want to, but if you are serious about longevity and financial stability, it is important to organize your finances from the very beginning.

For performers and composers looking to start an ensemble, I hope this article was insightful. Do not forget that you have a plethora of amazing examples in the new music industry from which to draw knowledge. Success is not always left to the fates—you can steer your own ship in the direction of your choosing. Andrew Kozar also told me that you are welcome to reach out to him if our NewMusicBox readers have any questions, by emailing him at loadbang @ loadbangmusic.com.


*The bass clarinet position at loadbang has switched a few times, from Philip to Carlos Cordeiro, and since interviewing Andy, loadbang recently announced that Adrian Sandi is now on the roster.