Category: Analysis

The Internet is a Strange Place for Music

A computer keyboard with an iPhone on top of it streaming a music video

I: Time is Different on the Internet

Time is different on the internet. We spend time differently in that realm, often more frenetically. While our time in the “real world” is spent in hourly chunks—an hour at lunch, eight hours at work, an evening out with friends—we enter and exit the internet in many short bursts. Our sessions may span from minutes to mere seconds, but they pile up to hours per day. Time passes by differently across the internet. Our capacity to focus while on it both widens and narrows, whether it is spending an entire evening on Netflix, or skirting across dozens of different webpages in a single hour. These differences, in how time is spent and felt in its passing, derive from our control of it. (This is the strangest of relationships we have to time and space.) Online information is easier and quicker to access. It is also easier to produce. Therefore, we don’t invest much time in any single piece of content. It becomes disposable. Ultimately, online content has little control over how much time we spend on it.

In music, this control over time is significant. Consider scrubber bars, the progress bars on digital media players that allow the user to jump to any given moment in a clip. These tools provide a kind of time-travel ability for a listener. It’s not a completely new ability; one can drop a needle anywhere on the side of an LP. Fast-forward and rewind functions are also possible on CDs and cassettes. But scrubbing on these mediums carries a level of randomness to it. On the internet, a media clip can be scrubbed through with maximum specificity and efficiency. The YouTube and Vimeo scrubber bars not only indicate how much time has elapsed in the clip, they also flash a thumbnail of whatever moment you place your cursor over. Scrubber bars on SoundCloud achieve a similar task for audio, as they embody an image of the clip’s waveform. These tools not only enable easy movement through musical time, they also quickly summarize information about the media clip, revealing to a user its contents before they are even experienced aurally.

The scrubber bar alters the agency of a listener. In turn, visuals, developmental structure, and interactivity relate differently on the internet than they do in live spaces.

Now, most music is meant to be listened to straight through. A listener isn’t required to utilize the scrubber bar. In fact, to do so can be a deadly temptation, especially in classical and contemporary concert music. Pausing, skipping, or taking a peek at the timecode, these can spoil hard-earned accumulations of musical tension and long-form development. But staying on a single webpage for more than just a few minutes, this is not natural behavior on the internet. The scrubber bar, like all the other tools built into a digital interface, is designed to eliminate wait time and get a user to a particular moment as fast as possible. Such goals are not often pertinent to a musical experience, yet they carry a significant effect on the aesthetics of listening to music online. The scrubber bar alters the agency of a listener. In turn, visuals, developmental structure, and interactivity relate differently on the internet than they do in live spaces. Before diving further into these particularities though, we must understand first how time in music is related to space, both physical and digital.

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Spending time and experiencing the passing of time are both about personal expectations. They are also about choice. Liza Lim’s opera The Navigator is 90 minutes long without intermission. Is this too long? Not at all, certainly not for the concert hall. Audience members are expecting this length. They know when they buy their tickets and when they settle into their seats that they are going to be there for about an hour. Performance spaces govern the length of musical time. For example, classical music concerts are often one to three hours long. They usually begin with one, two, or three shorter works (five to twenty minutes), and then one long work (between an hour and ninety minutes). Artistically, there is no reason concert music cannot be made for much shorter or much longer lengths. However, such instances are often statements about length, a purposeful deviation from the normal. While a piece of concert music may be within or outside of the standard length of a concert, there is no denying that a standard length for music in the concert hall exists.

This principle is true for all performance spaces. Think about a dance club. The social function of that space, just like the concert hall, begets a standard length of time for the music it houses. A DJ set is usually one or two hours, but each song will never be more than a few minutes. In a dance club, the energy must be high and constant. Songs are best kept short and impactful, allowing for the flow of energy to be tightly controlled by the DJ. The way people enter and exit the dance club, this also begets a standard for how the music develops over time. Back at the concert hall, audience members enter before the beginning and are expected to remain in their seats until the end of the performance. Therefore, this space, with its captive audience, is well suited to have music that makes long-form motivic connections (such as the kind in a Beethoven symphony). In the dance club, development becomes less about motives and more about the flow of energy and mood. With people entering and exiting at different moments, motivic connections will not necessarily be perceived by a listener. However, many people come to the club for a dance experience with a dynamic flow of energy. Therefore, the DJ focuses less on musical motives in their set, and more on a visceral, physical continuity. This way in which performance spaces influence development illustrates how these standards around time are not arbitrary. The social context, that communal ritual that takes place in the hall, club, temple, mall, and coffee shop, carves acoustic peculiarities into the walls and ceiling of the space, reinforcing and encouraging music inside it to behave a certain way in time.

II: Time is Hard Won on the Internet

Compared to performance spaces in the “real world,” the internet is not a normal place for music.

Compared to performance spaces in the “real world,” the internet is not a normal place for music. The scrubber bar in digital media players gives listeners a particular control over their listening experience, making it markedly different from any live circumstance. On one hand, some music made for live performance becomes more difficult to listen to on the internet. It can feel unnatural to listen to a piece without pause, to not click away before the end. On the other hand, this new relationship between listener and music opens the door to aesthetic avenues rarely exploited in the corporeal realm. The visuals, development, and interactivity of music are three components drastically redefined online.

The visuals of a musical performance are straightforward in most circumstances. In a concert hall, we see the musicians performing when we listen to the music. In a temple, we often are faced with religious iconography during a liturgy. Digital standards for the visual elements in a piece of music are much broader. On YouTube or Vimeo, it’s plausible that you would see either of those two things. However, it’s just as plausible that the music would be accompanied by a produced music video, some album artwork, GoPro footage, or any number of other things. Online, where depth perception, peripheral vision, and audio playback are completely different from a “real world” viewing experience, performing musicians are not necessarily the most logical visual material to pair with a piece of music.

Sheet music is a popular visual for contemporary music online. Conduct a YouTube search of the composer “Brian Ferneyhough,” and you’ll see that a majority of recordings are paired with images of the score, rather than the live musicians. This makes sense. Through a camera lens, often much is lost from a visual of the live musicians. To look from one musician to another, or to notice different aspects of the stage and lighting, this ability is given away to the videographer. On the other hand, with a still image of sheet music, where the visual plane is two-dimensional, the agency to focus on different regions of the picture is returned to the listener. Today, there is a whole network of synchronized score-to-video creators on YouTube, such as the Score Follower channels, George N. Gianopoulos, Mexican Scores, gerubach, and many others.

Of course, it is still possible for live musicians to be engaging on video. After all, the ability to shift perspective and attention around a visual is not removed. Rather, it’s merely transferred from the listener to the videographer. Four/Ten Media invests great attention into the visual design of their videos. Consider their production of Argus Quartet performing Andrew Norman’s Peculiar Strokes. The cutting of the camera angles aligns with the momentum and focus of the music. The lighting and set design is sleek and playful, much like the aesthetic of the work. And, rather than having the traditional silent pause between movements, the camera cuts to headshots of the musicians verbally signaling each movement. These visuals are amplifying and elevating the music. In his film of Vicky Chow performing Andy Akiho’s Vick(i/y), Gabriel Gomez skirts the line between performance and music video. Over a performance by Chow on an upright piano in a Brooklyn apartment building, Gomez inserts footage of other locations and people. This material is not functional to performing the music. Rather, it adds metaphorical energy to Chow’s playing and Akiho’s composition. Like Four/Ten Media, Gomez is outfitting a live performance for a digital medium, only with an added layer of visual poetry. Videography can also take a less straightforward relationship with the music. In Angela Guyton’s video of Kate Ledger performing Ray Evanoff’s A Series of Postures (Piano), the close, hand-held, continuous shot from the camera provides a fluid visual counterpoint to the piece’s pointillistic, angular articulations.

In all of these examples, the visual component is outfitted to make each moment of the music is more stimulating, engaging, and full of information. With an increased level of interest in each moment, the listener might forgo any desire to operate the scrubber bar on the YouTube or Vimeo player. That surrender of control, which a listener voluntarily gives at the beginning of any performance in a concert hall, is now even surrendered in the digital space. Even an hour-long piece without break can retain viewership over the entire performance if the video is produced just right. However, this is only part of the picture. Just as there is music that is designed to erase the scrubber bar, there are internet-born aesthetics that acknowledge, even exploit, this tool’s function.

III: Control Varies on the Internet

The hard-won item that the scrubber bar gives to the listener is control of time, the ability to move to any moment of a piece at will. However, such tight control is not always a necessary asset to a piece of music. For the likes of Radigue, Czernowin, or Beethoven, control of time is important. These composers take large amounts of it in order to express unique, long-form ideas. They paint narrative, trigger tension and release, and accumulate powerful physical sensation. Development is the concept that requires control over time. But long-form development, at least in this conventional sense of the idea, is not always a primary component in a piece of music. Conceptual music, as well as music from meme culture, has become highly disseminated online. These types of music are not without development. Rather they structure musical time in a way that does not rely on the listener’s full experience of it.

Conceptual music like this takes up time, but it does not need to control much time.

Conceptual music from both a pre- and post-internet age has an immediacy to its temporal structure that sits easily in the space of a digital media player. Consider Patrick Liddell’s I Am Sitting In A Video Room. Following a similar structure to Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room, this piece is a sequence of the same 41-second video of Liddell, uploaded, downloaded, and re-uploaded to YouTube many, many times. Specifically, he does this 1,000 times, causing a slow incremental degradation of picture quality over time. This degradation is a type of long-form development. However, that development is present to serve the concept of the piece, not the listener’s experience of the concept. The piece is centered around the conceptual idea of quality and degradation on the internet. Such a concept is immediately clear from the start of the piece. It doesn’t matter whether the viewer watches every single moment of the 1,000 re-uploaded videos or not. The concept is expressed regardless of whether the viewer watches the whole video, skips over the middle, or never gets to the end. Conceptual music like this takes up time, but it does not need to control much time. The viewer may move around in the scrubber bar as they wish, or they may even sit and listen to every single moment of the work. Either way, the piece still effectively conveys itself, and the listener is able to receive it adequately.

This release of control is present even in pre-internet-age conceptual music. In György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique (1962), 100 mechanical metronomes are triggered all at once. The performance ends when the last metronome ceases motion. Additionally, Erik Satie’s piano piece Vexations (1893) is a single page of piano music played 840 times very slowly. Performances of this piece range from as short as eight hours to as long as 35. Like I Am Sitting In A Video Room, these pieces don’t require the audience to listen to the piece in its entirety. It doesn’t even require them to listen at the same pace as the piece’s form. One aspect of these pieces, when performed live, is that an audience may enter and exit as they wish, like a sound installation. Now, in online settings of these pieces, the scrubber bar provides an augmented version of this enter/exit freedom an audience had in live performances. Online, the ability to skip and rewind is added to this set of listener freedoms, providing a contemporary analogue for an agency that already existed in the live performance space of sound installations.

IV: Development Through Time vs. Through Network

Music from meme culture also carries an immediacy that sits well in the online space. Like conceptual music, it does not require a tight control of time in the listener’s experience. Unlike conceptual music though, which still needs time to actualize a concept, meme music relies on social networks, rather than time, to express itself. Consider the meme, “All Star” by Smash Mouth, which is slightly different from the song that isAll Star.” The song “All Star” is a standard three-and-a-half-minute radio hit from 1999, and that is all it is. However, the meme that is “All Star” is an open-ended collection of different homemade treatments of the song by the same title. Here is a treatment of “All Star” where the song’s lyrics are replaced entirely by the single phrase from the pre-chorus “and they don’t stop coming.” Here is another where the vocal line has been pitch corrected into a four-part chorale in style of J. S. Bach. Here’s even another where a man named Jon Sudano uploads dozens of vocal covers to pop songs, where he will only sing the melody of “All Star” over the given pop song. When it comes to time and development, the duration of each of these meme-pieces is ultimately inconsequential. The expression of the meme-piece does not come from time, but from the cultural baggage accumulated via the meme’s dissemination and connection to other memes. Therefore, as long as the cultural reference is communicated, the role of time in the meme is irrelevant. What is significant about a version of “All Star” that is performed on an old cell phone has nothing to do with compositional technique, harmonic content, or performance practice. Rather, such a piece prompts a listener to recall an earlier time (early 2000s pop-rock, Shrek, dial-up tones) in an absurd and emotional way.

As more iterations of the “All Star” format are created, the internet-native humor and disjointed coherence of the viral process take over the original aesthetics of the band’s song. To invoke the song “All Star” today is to reference a meme, not a mere song. This is a form of development, of evolution, that occurs outside of the individual meme-piece. It’s a form of development defined by its networked connection to other meme-pieces of similar format. It doesn’t happen over the course of any single iteration of the meme. The development is the change between iterations, between meme creators, over the course of its viral lifespan.

Self-awareness is characteristic of meme culture that has created a sort of musical catalog of its trends and moments. Adam Emond created 225 YouTube videos of pop songs where every other beat is removed. Whereas reordering the beats of a song is usually one of many treatments that are applied to a meme-song, Emond has taken an inverse approach and applied the same treatment to many different songs. ZimoNitrome has done a catalogue-work in the piece april.meme, where 24 memes trending in April 2018 were used as material to create a single two-minute video piece.

V: Surrendering Control and Opening the Door

A recording, as it exists on YouTube, is less of a performance to sit through, and more of a landscape to explore.

There is one last posture towards time that the internet encourages music to take: interactivity. Through intentionally massive lengths of time, listeners are prompted to actively use the scrubber bar as a means of exploring at their own pace. Johannes Kreidler’s piece Audioguide is a seven-hour long, non-stop theater work that exhibits this. It’s comprised of many smaller conceptual pieces, sequenced together one after another without break. While certain moments of the seven-hour work are uploaded as excerpts, the piece also exists in its entirety as a single video. This length, which is nearly indigestible in a single sitting on the internet, inevitably prompts the listener to “search around” the piece using the scrubber bar. A recording, as it exists on YouTube, is less of a performance to sit through, and more of a landscape to explore. Through incorporating massive durations, music on the internet can take on an interactive component, where the timing of the listening experience is reliant on the viewer.

Now, achieving a sense of “landscape” via extreme length is not an internet-native aesthetic. Rather, these lengthy online pieces can also be seen as a sub-category to the sound installation. In 2001, St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany began a performance of John Cage’s ORGAN2/ASLSP for organ (a piece composed in 1987). The piece is comprised of extremely long durations, and this particular performance, live-streamed 24/7, will last until the year 2640 (639 years). In the early 2000s Lief Inge began time stretching recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony so that they were each 24 hours in length. Inge has been producing live installations of these time-stretches around the world ever since, as well as maintaining a constant live stream on his website. Like Audioguide, these pieces exist on a magnitude of duration beyond the average person’s attention span. However, in physical spaces, as well as live streams (where scrubber bars are not present), there is only an intention for the listener to experience a single portion of the piece. The composer still controls time as it runs through the music. The key difference between these live performances/streams and video pieces like Audioguide (as well as these next examples) is that the scrubber bar allows for the piece to be digested in a way that is more cursory, exploratory, and non-linear. Time and form there is determined by the listener rather than the composer.

Stretch videos, in the likes of Inge’s, have become an entire category of this interactivity in themselves. Hundreds of these videos exist online, time stretching the music of Brian Eno, Radiohead, Beethoven, John Williams, even computer sound effects such as the Windows startup sound. Unlike a live stream, these take the form of multi-hour videos in which a listener may move from moment to moment at their preferred pace. Though music will always be moving transiently through time, these stretch videos are the closest thing there is to exploring a piece as a static object, something to touch, observe, and walk through.

These super-long pieces of music have a second posture towards control of time: if a listener is not scrubbing through the piece, it is most likely that they are playing it as background music while they study, read, or sleep. This more passive form of interactivity imports easily into the internet space, where performing music (i.e. vibrating speaker cones) requires a near-to-nothing expense of energy. Currently on Spotify, Sleep by Max Richter is a piece designed around this very idea. The eight-hour-long ensemble piece is meant to play while a listener sleeps. Additionally, Jack Stratton of the band Vulfpeck released Sleepify in 2014, a ten-track album comprised of silence. A pun of the streaming platform Spotify, the album is meant to be played on repeat during sleep so that streaming royalties can be farmed while people’s devices are not in use. “Sleep music” like this actually has a rich history, one full of live spaces, not just online. R.I.P. Hayman was presenting sleep concerts as early as 1977, and many more artists have come since then. So while the concept of sleep music is not native to the internet, the low amount of mechanical work needed for sound to be digitally produced illustrates how sleep music fits easily into the internet space.

All in all, we’ve looked at three different postures towards the control of time on the internet. Through examining visuals, we have seen how control of time can be aggressively won over from the listener. When development becomes centered around concept and cultural reference more than around time, control of time becomes less relevant to the piece. And finally, in creating massive, interactive terrains of sound through extremely long pieces, control is given over to the listener. In surveying these aesthetics, it is also clear that music on the internet carries an extremely broad spectrum in how much effort and resources are needed to create it. The Four/Ten Media video of Argus Quartet was likely the fruit of a team of artists, editors, and technicians, as well as several thousand dollars. That piece rests on the same viewing platform as the time-stretched video of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a piece that requires only a laptop, free software, and an internet connection to create. The internet is a strange place for time. It is in this strangeness that a door is opened up to the parameter of resources.

At the beginning of this piece, the scrubber bar was presented as an anomaly to the musical experience. Like nearly all online tools, it functions to increase efficiency and deliver information faster, two imperatives that seem unrelated to the priorities of experiencing music. But beneath the goal to maximize efficiency is a deeper one to democratize resources and equalize different voices in a conversation. It is an ethic and virtue of the internet, open source and public domain. If this is true, then listening to music on the internet is not an anomaly at all. The concert hall, a dance club, and a religious temple all have social and physical peculiarities that carve and mold music to fit easily into the space’s original design. The internet is no exception to this fact. Its virtues for democratization, and its digital peculiarities such as the scrubber bar, shape and mold music. It touches music’s visuals, developmental structures, and interactivity in a way that ultimately makes composing possible for more people. More and more, the internet is being considered as a primary space for music performance and dissemination. While the initial effects of this trend are aesthetic, shaping the way time is controlled and utilized by the artist, music on the internet inevitably influences every aspect of creating music. For many, this makes the internet a strange place for music. But given just how pervasive the digital space is becoming each day, such a place may not remain strange much longer at all.

Yiddish Classical Music in America

A Yiddish passport

There is a saying that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Yiddish, the historic language of Central and East European Jewry, never had either and suffered miscategorization as a jargon and corruption of German. On the contrary, Yiddish is an extraordinarily rich language with a remarkable literary and folk culture. It is a fusion of medieval Germanic dialects with Hebrew and Aramaic, and components drawn from other language families as well. It is written with the Hebrew Alphabet (from right to left), has its own grammar, and a variety of regional dialects.

Despite the incredible richness of this language, for most of its 1,000 year history, it was not a language of high literary or artistic output. Until the late 19th century, most upwardly mobile Jews writing secular poetry and novels did so in the majority languages of the co-territorial cultures within which they lived, like German, Polish, Russian, and English. However, in the late 19th century there was a decisive turn with the intention of elevating Yiddish language and culture, led by writers like Mendele Moykher-Sforim (pen name of Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh), Sholem Aleichem (pen name of Shalom Rabinovitz), and Y. L. Peretz, by actively creating literary works in Yiddish, which was the language that the majority of world Jewry spoke at the time.

In 1908, Jewish students of the St. Petersburg conservatory banded together to create what became known as the The Society for Jewish Folk Music.

In 1908 a musical organization was founded in St. Petersburg with a similar impetus. Students at the conservatory in St. Petersburg were learning about the national Russian music of composers like Glinka, Mussorgsky, and their teachers who included Rimsky-Korsakov, as well as the national music of other countries. Motivated by a mixture of philosemitic encouragement to explore their Jewish identity, as well as antisemitic discouragement that kept them from feeling fully Russian, Jewish students of the St. Petersburg conservatory banded together to create what became known as the The Society for Jewish Folk Music.

The organization was committed to fostering a new national Jewish school of composers. Just as Béla Bartók worked as both an ethnomusicologist and a composer, collecting folksongs and then infusing his music with them, so too did the composers of this organization and a wider community around it. They supported the collection and study of Jewish folksongs and wrote, published, and performed classical music which sought to craft a new style drawing inspiration from Jewish folk melodies, the music of klezmer musicians, nigunim, and Jewish liturgical music. While engaging with Jewish folk music was at the core of their organizational activity, some of their songs and compositions endeavored to be Jewish by telling stories taken from Jewish religious texts, history, and secular literature, or by turning to poems in Jewish languages such as Hebrew and Yiddish.

Lazar Saminsky

Lazar Saminsky

The Society and the international network of sister organizations and publishing houses it created nurtured a group of fascinating composers, some of whom stayed in Russia and elsewhere in Europe, like Mikhail Gnessin (1883-1957), Alexander Krein (1883-1951), Moses Milner (1886-1953), and Alexander Veprik (1899-1958), and many of whom emigrated, primarily to British mandate Palestine, like Joel Engel (1868-1927) and Joachim Stutschewsky (1891-1982), and to the United States, like Solomon Rosowsky (1878-1962), Jacob Weinberg (1879-1956), Joseph Achron (1886-1943), Lazare Saminsky (1882-1959), and Leo Zeitlin (1884-1930).

In Russia, which became the Soviet Union, support for Jewish art briefly flourished but then fell precipitously, and many composers involved in explicitly Jewish work were suppressed and at times persecuted. In Palestine conditions were difficult, and many composers who spent time there–including Achron, Saminsky, Rosowky, and Weinberg–eventually made their way to the U.S.A. The composers who stayed in Palestine primarily (though not entirely) shifted to Hebrew as a language for Jewish culture, contributing to the strand of Jewish national renewal that led to the State of Israel and its musical traditions. More recently Yiddish has enjoyed renewed interest in Israel.

In the U.S. these emigre composers integrated into American musical culture with some notable successes.

In the U.S. these emigre composers integrated into American musical culture with some notable successes. Saminsky co-founded the League of Composers, Mailamm, and the Jewish Music Forum, and was the music director of Temple Emanu-El from 1924-1958. Rosowsky taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary and published a major work on biblical cantillation. Zeitlin arranged compositions for NBC Radio Network’s flagship station. Weinberg produced performances of his Hebrew language opera Hechalutz at Carnegie Hall in 1946 and 1949. Achron, whom Arnold Schoenberg called “one of the most underrated modern composers,” enjoyed career successes including premiering his first violin concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1927 under the baton of Serge Koussevitsky, premiering his second and third violin concertos–the third commissioned by Jascha Heifetz–under the baton of Otto Klemperer conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Joseph Achron

Joseph Achron

Despite all of these successes, the process of immigration and adaptation to the shifting circumstances of the interwar and postwar periods ultimately ruptured the movement that the Society began. There was never again such a centralized and robust support for Jewish art music, and along with it Yiddish song. However, the St. Petersburg Society composers and those of its network were not the only composers who became interested in setting Jewish language poetry to music. Independently of the society, Lazar Weiner (1897-1982, the father of composer and pianist Yehudi Wyner), became interested in Yiddish poetry, writing over 100 Yiddish art songs–all in the United States, after his emigration at age 17. While the Society composers often looked towards folk texts and texts of the early poets of modern Hebrew poetry and Yiddish’s golden age, Weiner set a wide array of the next generation of great Yiddish poets from Yehoash, Joseph Rolnick, Mani Leib, and Moshe Leib Halpern to Jacob Glatstein, Aaron Glanz-Leyeles, and more.

Lazar Weiner wrote over 100 Yiddish art songs–all in the United States.

Though Weiner started in isolation from the Society, he encountered their music when the Zimro ensemble toured the U.S. with works by the Society’s composers in 1919. Weiner subsequently sent songs to Joel Engel for advice and became acquainted with many of those composers. One of the major differences in Weiner’s compositional approach is that he was adamantly not interested in quoting folk music. Engel noted that Weiner’s early songs had little “Jewish” content outside of their Yiddish texts, and though Weiner did incorporate some influences of Jewish traditions in his songs, it was never through quotation. More than Jewish folk music, his style brings to mind classic lieder writing and, as Yehudi Wyner has noted, a style similar to Mussorgsky and Debussy in how closely it cleaves to the inflections, stresses, and durations of the texts he set.

Lazar Weiner

Lazar Weiner

Many other emigre composers unaffiliated with the Society also wrote Yiddish songs including lesser known composers such as Janot Roskin (1884-1946), Solomon Golub (1887-1952), Henech Kon (1890-1970), and Maurice Rauch (1910-1994), writing in a range of musical styles that included quasifolk and musical theater, at times blurring the line between popular song genres and lieder. Beyond the world of “Yiddish composers,” many well known American composers dabbled in Yiddish song from Leonard Bernstein to Stefan Wolpe, and Yehudi Wyner to Ofer Ben-Amots. Most recently Bang on a Can composers David Lang and Julia Wolfe have been turning to Yiddish: Lang in two choral works i lie (2001), a re-setting of a folklorized Joseph Rolnick poem, and a girl (2017), a setting of a folksong text; and Wolfe in a movement of her epic chorus and orchestra work for the New York Philharmonic Fire in her mouth (2019), which includes an inventive and gripping fantasy on a Yiddish folksong about sewing.

Most recently Bang on a Can composers David Lang and Julia Wolfe have been turning to Yiddish.

One of the common threads in all of these composers is that like the writers who kicked off the golden age of Yiddish literature, writing in Yiddish–whether primarily, or occasionally–was for all of them a choice, not a necessity, as every single one of these composers knew/knows a language other than Yiddish, and in most cases numerous other languages. The fact that writing in Yiddish was not a necessity for any of these composers adds a special quality to this body of work. In all of these pieces, the choice of language itself is a compositional one which says something about what the composers were trying to do with their music: connect with Yiddish folk culture, open a window into the Jewish past, or engage with the Jewish literary canon.

Julia Wolfe (photo by Peter Serling, courtesy G. Schirmer, Music Sales)

Julia Wolfe (photo by Peter Serling, courtesy G. Schirmer, Music Sales)

A personal note: I decided to use Yiddish in my song cycle and all the days were purple (which became the centerpiece of my debut album of the same name released by Cantaloupe Music in April) as a way to connect with my heritage and contemplate what it means to me. I found in setting Yiddish poetry to music a variety of ways that history, language, and culture can provide access to a rich lineage of which I’m proud to be a part, and a particularly personal way to contribute to the art song genre.

A page from the sheet music for Lazar Saminsky's song "Under Little Sarahs Cradle," opus 12 no.2, published in 1914.

A page from the sheet music for Lazar Saminsky’s song “Under Little Sarahs Cradle,” opus 12 no.2, published in 1914.


Learn More

Spotify Playlist:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/2jdNcMsoQHfZ32mzVzLw4F

 

Online Resources:

https://www.milkenarchive.org

http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org

http://www.musica-judaica.com/musica_judaica_e.htm

 

Books:

Loeffler, James: The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire

Weisser, Albert: The Modern Renaissance of Jewish Music : Events and Figures, Eastern Europe and America

 

Song Books:

Heskes, Irene: Society for Jewish Music in St. Petersburg: for voice and piano

Weiner, Lazar: The Lazar Weiner Collection. Book 1, Yiddish Art Songs, 1918-1970

 

Recordings:

Schneiderman, Helene / Nemtsov, Jascha: On Wings of Jewish Songs

Leo Zeitlin: Yiddish Songs, Chamber Music, and Declamations

Joel Engel: Chamber Music and Folksongs

Solomon Rosowsky: Chamber Music and Yiddish Songs

Milken Archive: Weiner: The Art of Yiddish Song

Milken Archive Digital Volume 9, Album 1: The Art of Jewish Song – Yiddish and Hebrew

Milken Archive Digital Volume 9, Album 2: The Art of Jewish Song – Yiddish and Hebrew

Milken Archive: Leonard Bernstein – A Jewish Legacy

The Yiddish Art Song

The Yiddish Art Song. Vol. II

Wolpe: Songs (1920-1954)

Programming for Justice

A photo of a microphone with a dark background

The disparity in representation within new music is a longstanding and well-documented problem. We know this. Actively promoting art and artists with a clear focus on equity can help to cultivate justice in our new music communities. This too, we know. What then holds us back? Why does disparity in representation remain such a problem?

To move towards a more just society, we must look beyond the individual to the systemic level to better understand how to improve efforts to promote equity within new music. People make programming decisions based on numerous factors. While these can differ significantly from case to case, the cumulative effect, whatever the individual intentions might be, is the continued privileging of white males. In other words, the status quo remains unchallenged. This is systemic injustice.

The commonly cited explanations for monochromatic programming all contain problematic assumptions, and critiquing these will help us overcome them. For some people, the stigma that comes with accusations of “having an agenda” is enough to prevent them from doing this work. Others argue that they focus solely on programming “good” music, that they aren’t to blame for the inequality even as they absolve themselves of any responsibility for fixing it. Still others depend either on largely homogenous peer networks or on choosing already established composers when programming, both of which fail to combat this injustice. Each scenario appears neutral and yet contributes to the ongoing inequality, with white males accruing the benefit.

Advocating for issues of social justice in spaces where these conversations aren’t normally seen to belong inevitably triggers accusations of having an agenda. Outrage over the actual details of the agenda appears secondary to outrage at the introduction of the agenda and at the one who introduces it. Invoking this charged word shifts the focus from the underlying issue to the act of labeling the issue. The reframing reverses the intended condemnation—she who points out the problem now becomes the problem.

This rhetorical maneuver has very real consequences. Fear of backlash can have a chilling effect on otherwise sympathetic people, one that limits or even eliminates their willingness to engage. Those who benefit under the current systems already have little incentive to understand, much less to challenge these systems. Absorbing the constant din of “America the meritocracy,” we turn a blind eye towards inequality, instead attributing one’s situation to one’s character in a perpetual cycle of blaming the victim. The resulting inaction, whether through apathy or ambivalence, enables the structural injustice to continue.

As activist programmers, we must reject the framework that makes agenda into a term of censure and instead embrace it as a potent tool for justice.

As activist programmers, we must reject the framework that makes agenda into a term of censure and instead embrace it as a potent tool for justice. Conversations rooted in social justice aren’t normally seen to belong in areas where they are most needed. Accepting the idea that having an agenda is inherently problematic places us already on the defensive. Such arguments are disingenuous, meant to deflect critique, to divert attention, and, above all, to perpetuate the status quo.

Furthermore, the programming of (nearly) exclusively white men is likewise following an agenda. That we rarely name this as such indicates just how normalized this inequality is. Power differentials existing off-stage are reproduced onstage, and this is subsequently used to justify the offstage power differentials once again. Our social hierarchy is thus reinscribed in a vicious feedback cycle, one where white men hold the power and set the standards. When we speak about the systemic prioritization of white men, this is what we mean.

Systemic inequality persists because it is so thoroughly entrenched in our society. Their ubiquity renders these systems invisible and bestows upon them a sense of inevitability. Although we can hope that the increasing number of calls for justice in terms of race, gender, sexuality, immigration status, class, and the innumerable intersections of these and other identities signals a sincere and sustained effort to challenge discrimination, we must recognize the sheer magnitude of the uphill struggle. To challenge the hegemony of the white male within our society, we need to push. Complacency begets continuity.

Invoking “good music” as the principle factor driving decisions on what to include, even as one continues to program monochromatic music, upholds structural inequality while proclaiming an innocence about doing so. This is an attempt at absolution by those who could leverage their privileges in support of efforts to promote equity and who instead choose not to. Although “good” appears neutral on its face, an open possibility that all music can aspire to, it is used in these instances to deflect efforts to advance more inclusive programming. “I only care about the music” closes conversations. The subtext that music by composers from marginalized communities couldn’t possibly qualify as “good,” or it would already be programmed, once again blames the victim for the situation. Deny and deflect.

Too often, “good” means already established, with no critical examination of the process through which it became established. Our canons depend on an assumption of meritocracy in whose flattened narrative the survival of this music testifies to its unimpeachable quality. The forces that shape music as a social and cultural product also shape our reception of it. Institutionalization is not a politically neutral process, but is instead inexorably tied to the unequal distribution of power. “Good music” is a construct of subjective preferences, not an objective truth. “Good music” is a dodge.

It is important that we are honest with each other and with ourselves about where our choices in programming come from. Given the numerous commitments we all juggle, we collectively default to the path of least resistance, provided that the perceived repercussions appear minor. This often means programming the work of composers we’re already familiar with. Those in a position to program a concert series tend to be white men whose composer acquaintances are, likewise, white men. This setup leads to more exposure and more repeated exposure, helping these white male composers become established names in the new music scene. As a result of these feedback cycles, most of the music programmed, while undeniably good music, nevertheless remains familiar music. What is expected becomes what we get, and this becomes what is expected.

The conscious decision to program something “different” provides us with the opportunity to reflect more deliberately on what exactly constitutes “normal” and how this situation came into being. We who are white men might ask ourselves why we don’t challenge this universalization of the white experience. We might ask why the current disparities in programming are “the way things are.” We might ask what identities we expect to find on our concert programs, and why we expect these and not others. We might ask what metrics are used to determine “good music,” and why they seem to produce diversity of style but singularity of racial and gender identity. We might look outward from our new music community and see how each of these questions also applies to all other aspects of our lives as social beings. We might think more critically about how these issues intersect with our new music community in the hope that witnessing widespread injustice might galvanize us to take action in multiple areas of our lives.

Indeed, we must. Pointing out a particular instance of injustice forces people to deal with it. Once ignorance, whether real or feigned, is no longer on the table, continued inaction in the face of a known social problem becomes a conscious choice. Our naming these problems also acknowledges the real harm suffered by those directly impacted, disarming attempts to blame the victim. This is a starting point. This affects us all.

What else can we do?

If we want to see actual change in concert programs, we need to program change. Making space for music from underrepresented communities on the same platforms that dominant voices occupy declares that these marginalized voices likewise merit space, energy, and resources. These structural changes will not come from a single concert or a single season of activist programming, yet these efforts, no matter the level of their discernible impact, are important. The fumbling and faltering that comprises incremental change is still critical change. These efforts accumulate.

Although few of us are positioned to program concert seasons, we can all work within the spaces we have available to advocate for positive change.

Certainly, concert programming is subject to numerous constraints. Although few of us are positioned to program concert seasons, we can all work within the spaces we have available to advocate for positive change. We should support the organizations within the new music community that are already working to promote equity, diversity, and inclusivity. Meaningful actions include showing up to events, helping to publicize them by sharing throughout your networks, volunteering, donating, and finding still other ways to support these initiatives.

For instance, the Institute for Composer Diversity, in addition to making it easier than ever to find amazing music to program and composers to commission, has developed an equitable programming model we can use as a starting point for these important conversations. Activist orchestra The Dream Unfinished focuses attention on social justice issues at the national level, including police brutality, #SayHerName, the school-to-prison pipeline, and immigration. Several organizations promote the work of specific composer identities, including: the Boulanger Initiative, focused on music by women and women-identifying composers; Castle of Our Skins, dedicated to promoting black artistry; Quinteto Latino, whose repertoire features compositions exclusively by Latinx composers; and Imani Winds, who has a long history of expanding what we consider to be the canonic norms. Other organizations, such as Forward Music Project or New Works for Percussion Project, use commissions to promote equity within the new music community.

The injustices I’ve written about are not unique to new music, nor to music generally. Instead, they replicate recursively, touching every other aspect of our lives. To deny their presence is to perpetuate the imbalance of power. We must all be responsible curators for each community we inhabit. To overcome systemic inequality will require a sustained effort on multiple fronts. We must call attention to situations where voices are not being heard: question who is included in the program, on the stage, and in the audience—as performers, as composers, as producers, and as audience members. Ask these questions publicly. Ask them of the other spaces in our lives. Let us yearn for flourishing communities with the same fervor that we yearn for individual success. Let us #HearAllComposers.

Music Unbound

ripples of influence

From the time I began playing music, there was a clear line defined by almost every institution, private teacher, scholarship, competition, music festival, mouthpiece option, etude book, sound concept, etc. that let me know there was such a thing as jazz music and such a thing as classical music. And while they might rub elbows at moments in history, with outliers aplenty, they were always treated as two distinctly different art forms meant for two different audiences, two different history books, two different schools of music, two different grant applications, and two different concert venues. The rules were set, the groundwork laid. Pick a side and begin. It only occurred to me much later that in order to grow artistically, one needed to shed the dogma that brainwashed not only me, but many on both sides of the field.

As a musician, composer, and listener, I have been increasingly interested in music that has blurred these lines. Jazz composers have been fearless in their willingness to draw from outside sources. Whether it’s West African music, 20th-century classical music, Indian music, or American pop music, jazz music has always had an inclination to thwart traditions in favor of moving the music forward. This element excites me, in that it consistently connects to music of our time. I still marvel at the many phases of Miles and Coltrane, who in many ways set the high watermark for jazz artists to constantly search inward and discover what is new in music within themselves. They not only pushed the genre forward but set examples for jazz musicians after them to continue to change and evolve the music that reflects the world around them. Building upon this idea, jazz musicians and composers (two titles that interestingly enough are always linked) have steadily moved this music to what it is today. I am thinking of artists such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Maria Schneider, Ornette Colman, Jimmy Guiffre, Carla Bley, and many others. With that said, listening to many modern classical composers today is as exhilarating as anything in the jazz realm. Upon hearing certain strains of modern classical composers, I often find myself with the same feeling of excitement as when listening to a modern jazz luminary, in part because I feel the creators are relating to the modern world in the way that it actually is rather than the way that it theoretically exists. They are often drawing from many other sources of music in the world that reflect who they are. This, to me, feels much in line with how jazz has forged ahead for the past 100 years.

Recently I had the great pleasure to speak with three leading voices in modern classical and jazz composition: Judd Greenstein, Amir ElSaffar, and John Hollenbeck. They had many fascinating ideas, but one thing that struck me right away was their willingness to speak about their music in broad terms—cognizant that the language that we use to speak about music often fails us but is necessary for us to move forward. No one, including myself, likes their music to be summed up in a quick two-word label, and I was hyper-aware of this when speaking with them. I would like to say that, before going forward, when I use broad terms like “modern classical” and “modern jazz” to describe music, it is only because they are the words I have, and hopefully you can be forgiving of the shortcomings these words offer.

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To me, it appears that the landscape of modern classical and modern jazz music in many ways is the result of decades of drilling from opposite sides of a mountain and now, more than ever, we are meeting in an aesthetic middle. Within the past five or ten years, modern classical and modern jazz seem to not just be sharing a communion of styles, but also bridging this gap socially as well.

As Greenstein mentioned to me:

Going to a contemporary jazz concert or a contemporary classical music concert, you will see lots of people who you wouldn’t necessarily consider part of that “scene,” but everyone is listening to everyone now. The idea that you only go to the Village Vanguard if you are a “jazz” person doesn’t really apply anymore, because the kind of music that you hear there is extremely open and part of a bigger conversation about music that we are all having as a broader community of music.

You see that there is very little distinction between the way that jazz musicians operate now and the way that contemporary “classical” musicians and composers operate now. It’s not as simple today to say that there are the “jazz” fans and there are the “contemporary classical” fans. It’s much more messy today, and, I think much more interesting.

Considering this, the question I ask myself is: How are they connecting? What specifically about the actual music is being shared? In talking with Greenstein, he used the word “groove” to discuss his music. It’s a word that I wouldn’t normally associate with a classical composer, but then again, Judd is composing from a place of the here-and-now, and his music is a reflection of this. Before I go on, I want to mention that not everything Judd writes has the element of groove. He composes a vast amount of music that is quite varied and uses many techniques to convey emotion. I am only going to focus in on this one element for a minute because it speaks directly to my point. However, I was actually relieved to hear him use the word “groove,” because when I listen to pieces such as Greenstein’s Folk Music or Clearing, Dawn, Dance, what strikes me is that the way in which groove happens in the music is similar to what I hear in many modern jazz compositions. The composer notes:

[What] I am interested in is finding a groove that could almost go on forever, where the rhythm keeps revealing something new about itself and there is a sense of surprise when it starts over. And it is not just rhythmic, but usually a rhythmic element combined with a harmonic oscillation.

He went on to add:

Rhythm is one of the more memorable elements of music. It is viscerally felt in the body and that makes it something that we remember. And when you combine that with melodic and harmonic gesture, you have a building block to the piece. These pieces can imply a lot of other directions and give you a solid footing on which to come back to, which is very important for me.

Here is an example that demonstrates how Greenstein makes use of a repeating ostinato figure that gives the piece a sense of “groove.”

Clearing, Dawn, Dance, Judd Greenstein

From the beginning of the piece, a repeating ostinato figure creates the groove over a mixed meter, inciting rhythmic interest and allowing for melodious elements to float over the top. Notice at the 1:43 mark how the initial ostinato drops out but the groove continues in the flute’s new pattern and is later expanded upon in several ways. When the original ostinato figure does return at about 7:03, there is a sense that the original groove has returned with greater significance. I could make a correlation to the “hero’s journey” here, but I’ll save that for another time. A second noteworthy element is the slower-moving harmonic motion compared to the complex rhythmic ideas which will be discussed later in this article.

Many jazz composers use a combination of mixed meter and repeating ostinato figures to toy with groove in a way that adds playfulness, a sometimes unsettled feel, and often gives momentum to the music’s expression. Two examples of this are seen in works by Amir ElSaffar and John Hollenbeck that, while they are different in material ways, use a rhythmic language that, to my ears, shares a similarity in creating groove.

Hijaz 21-8, Amir ElSaffar

This piece, like Clearing, Dawn, Dance, has many layers of repeating ostinato figures playing with and against each other, as well as shifting meter ideas that allow for greater rhythmic expression. Listen for the way in which the dotted quarter notes in the bass plays against the quarter notes in the melody to briefly give an unsettled feeling, only to ground us a few beats later when the bass and the melodies line up.

Arabic, John Hollenbeck

This example by John Hollenbeck uses repeating ostinato figures layered on top of one other. Take note of how the overlapping meters add complexity and interest yet also are not overly crowded; we feel at the same time a sense of security and grounding. Lastly take note of the harmonic movement as only one modality is used throughout.

The Moire Effect is a visual phenomenon that produces a sensation of movement by overlapping patterns. This phenomenon was used by minimalist composer Steve Reich in many of his pieces such as Clapping Music (1972) and It’s Gonna Rain (1965). The phasing effect was adapted in sound by taking unison rhythms, overlapping them, and then slightly shifting one or more rhythmic elements to produce a sensation of movement or change to the listener. Much more could be said about this effect, but the point that I want to make is that one can see the similarities in the ideas of the rhythmic concept behind all three of the above pieces that are rooted in 20th-century minimalist composition techniques.

It should not come as a surprise that modern jazz music has commonality with modern classical music. As Hollenbeck states:

From the very beginning, jazz was a mixture of African music and European music, so the influence on one another was happening at the beginning. Jazz musicians were open – and are still open – to everything, and one of those things was contemporary music.

Jazz composers have always been knowledgeable about European music and have really checked it out. It makes sense that this influence would affect the music they are creating.

Not all jazz musicians would agree with this, but one could say that a major component in jazz would be innovation, or this idea of looking forward trying to get at this thing that one can’t touch.

As previously alluded to, a closer look at many modern jazz and classical compositions will illuminate similarities in the way composers use harmony. This is an observation about a subset of music, and I know I am painting with a big brush here, however I would like to point to three more examples in which the rhythmic motion of the piece is complex but the harmonic movement is intentionally slow, which allows for the rhythmic statement to be more direct and prominent. I have included an arrangement of Hollenbeck’s rather than an original, primarily because of how much I love this arrangement and its direct relationship to my points. Hollenbeck’s arrangement is so much his own that I don’t see how you could listen to it and not hear his compositional fingerprints all over it.

The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress, Jimmy Webb (arr. John Hollenbeck)

Listen to how the slow movement of the chords in the beginning of the piece acts as a grounding element while a growing complexity of rhythm begins to occur—first in the flutes, guitar, mallets, drums, and bass, and evolves into the full ensemble. The slow and consistent harmonic movement keeps the listener tied to the earth while the rhythmic action is continuously surprising. It is only later in the piece when the rhythmic action is withdrawn that harmony evolves, becoming increasingly dense, creating a symphonic texture.

Folk Music, Judd Greenstein

One can hear many of the same techniques in regard to use of rhythmic complexity and harmonic efficiency in this wonderful piece by Judd Greenstein that we found in The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress. Again, there is a complexity in the rhythm that sustains us throughout the piece against a comforting, slower movement of the harmony.

As Greenstein puts it:

When one is trying to be clear about rhythm, it can be hard if too many things are happening at once.

The reason I am drawn to simpler harmonic structures at times is because I am trying to not let the complication ruin the complexity of the piece. Doing so makes it so that one cannot draw connections and creates barriers to hearing different aspects of the pitch or rhythmic relationships that could be there if you chose a simpler harmonic structure. It’s kind of a funny thing that happens, that if you limit your pitch options, your rhythmic relations become more apparent.

I want to take a moment and single out Amir ElSaffar’s music and how unique and yet relevant it is to what I am talking about. ElSaffar has been exploring the traditions of Iraqi classical music and jazz for more than a decade. His approach to harmony has been informed by his years of study of not only jazz music, but also Arabic music and the maqam, which is a system of modes that has twenty-four notes per octave instead of the twelve notes in Western music. ElSaffar states:

There is this whole wide-open world that the maqam allows for that hasn’t really been explored. In traditional Arabic music, there is no harmonic movement that happens, which on one hand is kind of freeing because the melody takes on so much weight where you might be implying a certain tonic for a beat and half and then moving on to imply a different tonic just by the phrasing of the principle notes of the melody. So in that sense it does have the feeling that there is harmonic movement, and in one way it is, but it is due to the movement of the melody not the maqam.

What I have been interested in is how to extract chords from this phenomenon. What happens, for instance, when you are in the mode of D minor with a half flat second and the melody rests on the note F for a while? For a brief moment, this F feels tonicized. What happens if I build a chord around it? These harmonies that I have been experimenting with are actually reminiscent of modal harmonies in jazz, which is actually similar to the way maqams are built.

I am also trying to honor the integrity of the melody – creating the right texture that moves around it and is supportive, and not somehow taking away from it.

Jourjina over Three, Amir ElSaffar

I hope after listening that you can hear what I would call a conversation among styles regarding groove and harmonic movement between these pieces and these composers.

Lastly, another aspect I find interesting is that modern classical music has moved to an ensemble model that resembles many contemporary jazz ensembles. They are small groups of musicians, often unusual in instrumentation, independently funded, performing pieces that are composed by primarily living composers, many of whom are either part of the ensemble or somehow connected to the group, performing at venues that are eclectic in nature, often outside of the typical “jazz club” or “classical concert hall” to include art spaces and listening rooms.

I have a theory (that I can only back up with anecdotal evidence) that the model for a working classical musician has been slowly deteriorating for years. The odds of winning a tenured position in an orchestra are small, with many major and regional orchestras struggling to stay solvent. Fewer living wage job opportunities are available for classical musicians and yet the pool of highly skilled musicians is ever-growing as music schools around the county crank out more performers every year. It would only seem logical that musicians would form their own groups and begin writing and promoting their own music. It just so happens that jazz musicians have been doing this for many years. At some point when jazz music became more of an art music rather than functional music for dancing, musicians starting writing and performing for music’s sake, which is where I think many classical groups and musicians are finding themselves. More and more, they are making music that is independent, personal, and without regard for assimilating to a style or genre. It will be very exciting to see how these two styles of music continue to blur the lines and possibly eliminate any and all boundaries of style currently known. I asked Greenstein if he ever thought of using improvisation as an element in his music.

I haven’t found the space for it my own practice yet, but that doesn’t mean that I am averse to it. I became a composer because in this way I am a control freak and I have ideas about how things should be structured, which usually doesn’t leave a lot of room. What I think might happen is sometime within the next ten years, I will find a different way of practicing that involves more openness in this regard.

With so many composers blurring the lines of genre, a question arises regarding the implications of not only how we perceive but also teach music. Is the logic we have used to set up our music education system still viable and flexible enough to support where the evolution of music is taking us? I suspect the musicians, the composers, and the music they create will lead the way to providing answers.

Artist Financial Profile: Dr. Lisa Neher, Composer & Performer

Lisa Neher

Preface

Since my first Artist Financial Profile featuring Tony Manfredonia, I have been receiving some wonderful messages via Twitter and Facebook responding to the article. Many people seemed relieved and/or encouraged to see a case study of a specific musician’s income—a small chapter in an evolving theoretical Guide to Musician Finances. Some people also mentioned that they have been questioning their own rat-race struggle to achieve financial security in the arts and that the first article helped them start to consider next steps.

Whatever your takeaway, these articles are meant to be helpful. As an author and interviewer, I am trying to display the incomes of these fearless people without emotion or criticism, so that we may all simply look at how they have used money to live and as nothing more than the tool it is.

Let’s break down the taboo some more. Here is Dr. Lisa Neher:

Introductions

Lisa Neher is a composer and mezzo-soprano currently based out of Portland, Oregon. She received her DMA in vocal performance and pedagogy from the University of Iowa in 2016 and has been working as an adjunct professor of voice, a private voice teacher, a composer, a performer, and a composer-performer. Originally from South Seattle, Lisa moved to Iowa City for her DMA and then to Cedar Rapids to live with her partner, prior to her most recent move to Portland.

Lisa and I spoke over a slightly troubled Skype connection and probably raised more questions than we answered about the money taboo, positioning, realistically “making it,” adjunct teaching, and the ins and outs of working with your PRO. As a “continually emerging” composer myself, I think Lisa speaks for many of us when she wonders how feasible a life as a composer-performer really is.

Lisa, like my other interviewees, has agreed to share her finances with our NewMusicBox readers. We hope that this uncommon practice is informative and valuable to the new music community as we all navigate these mysterious seas together. When I asked her how she felt about sharing her finances, Lisa was honest with her reply:

It makes me feel nervous about having a conversation in an article…but also I’m mad about that nervousness…so I’m like, “Let’s talk about it. This is dumb. It’s hurting all of us.”

The Problems of Moving

For 2018, Lisa’s income as a composer/performer/teacher was affected by her move to a new city. The move was purposeful: Lisa wanted to be in a larger music scene for her own career advancement. Her partner was the first one to get a job that initiated the move. Being a freelancer, Lisa spoke about the difficulty in making connections in a new town, without prior contacts and established support systems. As a private voice teacher, it is almost impossible to build a studio of students from the ground up without being there. Some work was done in advance, like sending introductory emails to local high school and middle school conductors at the start of the school year, but it was easier to reconstruct her private student base by actually being in Portland. Lisa felt fortunate to be sharing fiscal responsibilities with her partner, which allowed her more transition time. She explains that she “would have handled the lead up to the move differently” if she had been on her own.

As a freelancer, much of Lisa’s work and income are built from personal connections and networking face-to-face. Maintaining the normal day-to-day hustle while moving home bases is ultimately problematic. Where do you find the time to network in your new city while you finish up your work in your old town? Moving in June left the summer pretty barren. Adjunct positions for the fall had been filled, and many people do not seek out private lessons until the school year starts up again. Once the fall came around, Lisa was able to start up her studio and get on the radar of professors at Lewis & Clark College to do some temporary adjuncting and subbing for music history courses.

Lisa’s Income

Lisa’s made about $25,560 in 2018 and it breaks down like this:

$12,200 Collegiate adjunct teaching (mostly private voice, some coursework) at three different colleges and universities

$6,500 Teaching private voice lessons (only $500 of that income total was earned in the fall)

$2,160 Composing income (which includes commissioning fees, plus about $120 in ASCAP royalties and $30 from the sale of a score)

$4,700 Performance income (as a mezzo-soprano soloist or ensemble member)

The median household income for Portland is $71,931. During our discussions, Lisa suggested that $60-70k a year is her personal income goal to live comfortably. Keep in mind that Portland, Oregon, is on the high end of the national average (the median income in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is $54,465), and this income is household, which 50% of the time indicates two earners.

It is important to note that Lisa’s 2018 income could have looked much different if she had stayed in Cedar Rapids. Understanding that the bulk of her work was between January and June of 2018, with a bit of extrapolating, it is possible that Lisa’s yearly income could have been closer to $45k – $55k with the same sort of work. Moving to Portland mid-year drastically affected her teaching studio and her potential adjunct income. (She also notes that the adjunct teaching schedule in Iowa, though a great opportunity, was not sustainable for her well-being.)

This is a lesson for freelancers thinking of moving: consider the costs of starting over again. As Lisa expressed in her interview, if it were just her as a single person, she would have had to network in the new city (Portland) far more intensely and have secured an adjunct or arts administration job prior to the move to make moving fiscally possible.

Concerns of Sustainability

Lisa had a lot of concerns about the musician’s eternal hustle. Discussions in new music circles seem to focus on the abundance mindset, networking, creative productivity, and other entrepreneurial tactics. Thought leaders like Garrett Hope (Portfolio Composer), Jennifer Rosenfeld (iCadenza), Dale Trumbore, and Angela Myles Beeching paint an optimistic picture full of ways to advance one’s career. Sometimes this information can be overwhelming, and we start wondering how much one can do in a single day. Lisa is concerned about burn out and for good reason. Is this lifestyle sustainable? Can one meet their income goals without having to become famous, or without having to develop a high-end teaching system or coaching business? We want to believe it’s true, but the sheer amount of things one must do to succeed seems daunting, especially when stacked against actual income.

Freelancing as a composer and a vocalist also has its particular challenges. Lisa expressed a certain “fixed” cost for much of the work she does. Small to medium-sized choirs and ensembles that hire her as a performer only have so much wiggle room for negotiating her artist fee. When teaching private voice lessons, she can only flex rates so much depending on the going rate of the area. Many times, for gigs, she has to either accept the fee at the rate the organization offers it, or not take the gig. Lisa also found that her peers don’t like talking about those fees, maybe because they are lower than where they should be.

“With gig work, there seems to be a specialized kind of not talking about [money].”

ASCAP and Performance Royalties

For each of these financial profile articles, I am trying to find a small focus area within what are pretty natural conversations during the interviews. With Lisa, there was a lot of mystery surrounding performance royalties. As I have been writing this piece, Lisa started to get more sizeable royalty checks from her PRO. I felt that readers would benefit from learning about her experience with increased performances of her works and submitting performances to ASCAP.

As Lisa was discussing the mound of performance documentation she submits, and all of its tediousness, she was ultimately wondering if the work put into claiming performances was worth it. She speaks for us all when she says: “ASCAP royalties… I can’t predict what will get royalties and what won’t.” No matter which PRO organization we are personally affiliated with, I am sure many of us feel this way.

I myself recently submitted a ticket to ASCAP asking about how payouts worked, specifically for educational concerts, and what I learned was (quoting from the email I received): “Performances given under Educational licenses are credited or not credited according to a random sample by date used only in the Educational field. Only performances that take place on sample dates will be credited.“ Luckily, we were also able to get some clarification from ASCAP thanks to a phone call with Cia Toscanini, vice president of concert music. Here is a summary of our conversation about performance royalties for both education and professional concerts.

The email I received above is accurate. Concert programs from educational performances (at colleges, universities, schools, etc.) are collected from licensees and ASCAP members and compiled in a year-long survey. Then a sample survey is done of all concerts within a specific time range and performance royalties are paid out from those performances that fall within the sample. ASCAP samples October 1 through September 30; publisher royalties are paid out in the following March, and writer/composer royalties are paid out in April. In Lisa’s case, some of the publisher royalties were not paid because the performance was not claimed as a publisher. Don’t worry, she still has time to correct that. Toscanini stressed that everyone should register as both a writer and a publisher, and claim performances as both, to receive maximum benefit.

The census for professional concerts (non-educational) is different in that every performance is collected and paid, so long as they are claimed by an ASCAP member or submitted by a licensee and the licensee is up to date on their payments. ASCAP has primers for members that are basically an extremely thorough checklist for concert music performance claims. They can be found here. BMI offers similar resources.

Lisa was generous enough to share her ASCAP royalty activity, especially upon the good news that she received more this year. Here’s the breakdown, for those wondering how it might work out:

In 2018, I was paid $64.03 as a publisher and $64.03 as a composer = $128.08 for 1 performance of my large mixed chamber ensemble piece Twister by Durward Ensemble at Kirkwood Community College in August 2017.

Note that these payments came about three-quarters of a year later. Lisa also registered as a composer ($50 one time fee) and a publisher (another $50 one time fee), so that she received 100% of the royalties for her activity, instead of just 50%. For those wondering, Lisa only gave her publishing company a name for ASCAP (D.C. Al Platypus) and has not set up a truly separate business.

As I was writing this article, Lisa was excited to do even better this past year (2018) with her ASCAP royalties. She also was willing to share these figures:

I just got payment, in April of 2019, for two other 2017 performances, but this will go into tax year 2019 (which begs the question, what took them 18 months?)

October 2017, my marimba solo Icy Celestial Bodies was performed at Cedar Rock House in Quasqueton, Iowa; November 2017, Icy Celestial Bodies was performed at University of Northern Iowa in a faculty concert; November 2017, my marimba duo Thaw was performed at the Sacramento State Festival of New Music in California.

For these performances, I was paid $506 as a composer and $391.26 as a publisher. No idea why those numbers are different.

After speaking with Cia Toscanini, we figured out that a few things affected Lisa’s ASCAP income. First, some of the performances were not claimed as both a writer and a publisher. It is important to do both to receive 100% of the royalties. Delayed payment from the yearly schedule as previously described, usually comes from licensees not paying their fees on time, delaying the payout for the creators.

Lisa also claimed six other performances in 2017 with no royalty payouts. It is possible that these payments are still in the queue somewhere, waiting fee collection, or that they were not part of the sample survey. Only two of those were performed in an educational setting, unless the libraries and museums that were performance spaces were part of an educational institution.

ASCAP does have a messaging system built in to the member section of their website (as I am sure does BMI), and they will get back to you via email when you ask questions. It is worth asking, as performance royalties can be a great side income early on, and as your performances increase, have the potential to become a substantial part.

Continue the Discussion

If this article series speaks to you, I urge you to begin building your network of financial confidantes. Before you have to invoice someone, before you negotiate commissioning fees, before you set your rates, talk with your colleagues and mentors, if they are willing. Find like-minded individuals in similar situations and talk actual dollars. You may be surprised. You may find reassurance. Hopefully you will both be encouraged to protect your worth.

Financial knowledge and literacy doesn’t happen overnight. Tackle one thing at a time, when you can. I know my interview with Lisa has encouraged me to register with ASCAP as a publisher—I’m not sure why I was holding back! But I will save figuring out the royalty distribution formulas for another day.

Stay informed, and be an advocate for your artistic and financial worth. The next article in the series will feature the ensemble loadbang, to give us some financial insight into the nonprofit ensemble world. For all of those interested in freelance life with a performing ensemble, it should be a very interesting interview and a fun article!

Teaching the Music of Now: A Mission, a Project, and a Conference

Research on Contemporary Composition Conference

Most of us who teach music history at the college level want to develop a curriculum that brings students right up to the present day. We know that the story of Western art music doesn’t end with the last chapter of the textbook, and we worry about accidentally teaching students that innovation and creativity in the field of composition are things of the past.

Many of us also seek to resist the canon. As historians, we are aware that the “important” composers enshrined in our textbooks are less significant than the diverse and complex musical landscapes in which they flourished. We are also increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that those “important” composers are almost all white men whose work was facilitated by their ability to take advantage of socioeconomic structures (and, in many cases, the invisible labor of their wives).

Finally, some of us are actively committed to introducing our students to the work of living composers. We are interested in expanding and challenging our students’ tastes, bringing new audiences to contemporary music, and helping students to understand how the art music economy works today.

The last chapter of the textbook was no particular help. I concluded the semester with the nagging concern that I had just taught my students about the end of art music.

These goals and concerns certainly occupied my thoughts the first time that I taught 20th- and 21st-century music history. It was 2013, and I was in my first semester as an instructor at the University of North Georgia. I taught a fairly conventional class that traced the emergence of major stylistic movements and focused on new ideas about how and why to write music. When I arrived at the end of the 20th century, however, I faltered. Where was this story going? The last chapter of the textbook—a scattershot survey of composers and works up to the early 2000s—was no particular help. I concluded the semester with the nagging concern that I had just taught my students about the end of art music.

In 2014, I set out to remedy this error. I designed a new research project for my students to complete over the course of the semester. Instead of asking students to research and write about music from the past, I paired each with a living composer. (I started with a roster of my own friends and acquaintances, although this project has since grown to incorporate a large number of composers whom I have never met.) Each student interviewed their composer and studied one of their compositions. At the end of the semester, students gave in-class presentations in which they introduced their colleagues to the composer and work, examined the economic and creative contexts of the composer’s labor, and positioned the work within the current musical landscape.

I was very pleased with the initial round of presentations. I saw my students doing their best work and making deep personal connections with the music they had studied. The next year produced similar outcomes. In 2016, therefore, I scheduled a Saturday symposium, put up posters, and invited the entire department to come see the talks. Although attendance was hardly overwhelming, the event sparked the imagination of my colleague, composer Dr. David Peoples. Why not develop a real conference around the topic of research on living composers and their work?

In November of 2017, the first annual Research on Contemporary Composition Conference (ROCC) took place on our Dahlonega campus. The one-day event brought scholars and composers from across the country and from abroad to present their work alongside my students. In addition, afternoon and evening concerts featured new compositions by members of the NACUSA Southeast chapter. In 2018, ROCC was expanded to two days and the event included an invitation for composers to submit electronic compositions or scores for performance. Participants enjoyed hearing about each other’s work and discussing their research, but they were particularly enthusiastic about the conference’s pedagogical component.

In 2019, therefore, we hope to include presentations by undergraduate students from other institutions, and I would like to strongly encourage music history educators to become involved with this endeavor. If you want to assign my research project in class, you can access the assignment here. However, we welcome undergraduate submissions on any topic related to contemporary composition, whether the work is completed independently, as a summer project, or as a senior thesis. We also continue to welcome submissions from scholars and composers. This year, ROCC will take place on October 26 and 27. The call for submissions can be found here.

Pursuing undergraduate research is a recognized High-Impact Practice—a pedagogical approach that has been proven to boost graduation rates and increase student success. I have demonstrated that this particular project has a positive impact on students’ knowledge of and personal investment in the work of living composers. Yet perhaps most importantly, my students tell me that participating in ROCC is a transformative experience. It changes the way that they think about themselves as musicians and scholars.

By completing original research and sharing it with the broader community, students don’t just learn music history—they help to write it.

By completing original research and sharing it with the broader community, students don’t just learn music history—they help to write it. Each develops a unique perspective and knowledge base that empowers them to shape the conversation taking place around contemporary composition. This is a thrilling experience. Too often, music history students are expected to memorize and regurgitate narratives that have been uncovered and enshrined by “real” scholars. When they become scholars themselves, they don’t just learn about the subject under investigation. They learn about the role of the historian and analyst. They learn that scholarship is subjective, contentious, slippery, and incomplete.

Researching contemporary music also teaches students something important about history. A survey course can easily convey the impression that “great” music is a finite resource generated by a handful of genius composers, each of whom built upon the achievements of the last, and that the composers who have been forgotten failed to earn a place in the repertoire due to their own shortcomings. Concert programming, performance curricula, and popular discourse all serve to reinforce this message. When students become researchers, however, the picture changes.

First, they encounter the extraordinary diversity of ideas, styles, values, objectives, and careers pursued by composers. If there is so much variety today, how can the past have been as monotonous as they are led to believe? They immediately understand that music has always been created from diverse perspectives.

Second, they gain first-hand experience with the vagaries of permanence. They see how a lucky break can thrust one artist into the limelight, while others of equal merit continue to work in the shadows. Where is the guarantee that the “great” composers of today will be remembered? The notion that permanence must be equated with genius becomes ludicrous.

Finally, by leading students to engage with contemporary music, educators can easily begin to address the diversity problems that plague the music history curriculum. There are plenty of non-male and non-white composers creating all kinds of music today, and it is not difficult to bring their voices and sounds into the classroom. Of course, this does not free us from our responsibility to address historical inequalities and to incorporate the contributions of sidelined composers from all eras. It is, however, an excellent place to start.

How to Exist: 20 Years of NewMusicBox

An interview takes place in a study-type room, with a man sitting on a couch, another man with his back to us sitting in a chair, and a woman in a blue dress behind the camera filming

Forgive me if I begin this look back at twenty years of NewMusicBox and its times by opening a different, older, but resolutely print magazine. In October 2000, about 18 months after NMBx’s founding, The Wire, the UK-based magazine for new and exploratory music, reached a milestone of its own: issue number 200. It marked the occasion with a directory of 200 “essential websites”: sites for record labels, venues, artists, discussion groups, and more. Nearly two decades later, the idea of trying to write down any sort of meaningful index to the web seems extraordinarily quaint; but at the start of the century, before Google transformed how we think about information, such things were not uncommon. Back then—and I’m just about old enough to remember this—it still felt as though if you put in a few days’ work, you could pretty much get a complete grasp of the web (or at least of that slice of it that met your interests).

Within The Wire’s directory, among a collection of links to 18 “zines,” sits NewMusicBox. Here’s Christoph Cox’s blurb:

Run by the American Music Center, an institution founded in 1942 [sic] “to foster and encourage the composition of contemporary music and to promote its production, publication, distribution and performance in every way possible,” NewMusicBox’s monthly bulletins do this admirably, and, with recent issues exploring topics as various as the relationship between alternative rock and contemporary classical, the funding of new composition, and the world of microtonality, regular visits are worthwhile.

NMBx’s presence on this list isn’t surprising. (Although I hadn’t looked at this issue of The Wire for many years myself, I was confident the site would be in there.) The online magazine of the AMC (and later New Music USA) has always been close to the forefront in online publishing. What is surprising—and just as telling—is that aside from a few websites devoted to individual composers (Chris Villars’ outstanding Morton Feldman resource; Eddie Kohler’s hyperlinked collection of John Cage stories, Indeterminacy; Karlheinz Stockhausen’s homepage-slash-CD store-slash-narrative control center stockhausen.org), almost no other sites in The Wire’s catalogue are devoted to contemporary classical music or modern composition. The sole major exception is IRCAM, whose pioneering, well-funded, and monumental presence (especially through its ever-expanding BRAHMS resource for new music documentation) gives an indication of the level NMBx was working at to have achieved so much so early on.

[banneradvert]

Although NMBx was at the forefront of online resources in 1999, the idea of an online publication for contemporary American music had been circulating at the AMC for some time. A long time, in fact. In 1984—just two years after the standardization of the TCP/IP protocol on which the internet is built, and when the web was still called ARPANET—the AMC’s long-range planning committee wrote, “The American Music Center will make every effort to become fully computerized and to develop a computer network among organizations concerned with contemporary music nationwide.”[i] This seems like an almost supernatural level of foresight for an organization that was still at that time based around its library of paper scores. That is, until one recalls the number of composers, especially of electronic music, who were themselves at the forefront of computer technology. One of these was Morton Subotnick, a member of the AMC board and one of new music’s earliest of early adopters. Deborah Steinglass, currently New Music USA’s interim CEO, but back then AMC’s Director of American Music Week (and soon to become its Development Director), recalls a meeting in 1989—the same year that Tim Berners-Lee published his proposal for a world wide web—in which Subotnick introduced the potential of computer networks for documenting and sharing information to the board, whose members were astonished and incredulous.[ii]

From its beginnings, NMBx was about making composers heard.

Yet they were moved to take it seriously. Carl Stone, another composer-board member who was involved from an early stage, reports that early models were an ASCII-based Usenet or bulletin board-type system that would allow users to exchange and distribute information nationwide.[iii] This idea evolved quickly, and ambitiously. A strategic plan drawn up in 1992 and submitted in January 1993 states that during 1994, the Center would “create an online magazine with new music essays, articles, editorials, reviews, and discussion areas for professionals and the general public.” Alongside Stone and Subotnick, the early drivers of this interest in technological innovation included fellow board members John Luther Adams, Randall Davidson, Ray Gallon, Eleanor Hovda, Larry Larson, and Pauline Oliveros.

This is not to say that everyone at the AMC was an early adopter; Stone says that one of his main tasks was “to keep driving the idea of an online service forward. While it might seem obvious today, there was significant resistance to an online service in some quarters. Some people felt it would be dehumanizing, expensive. They couldn’t see the coming ubiquity of computers in our daily life.” A key role in maintaining this drive, Steinglass tells me, was played by the AMC’s Executive Director Nancy Clarke. Clarke, a music graduate from Brown University, had worked as a music program specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts before coming to the AMC in 1983. According to Steinglass, Clarke was very interested in technology and was sympathetic to the predictions of Subotnick and others. It was she as much as anyone who pushed for and implemented an online presence for the AMC.

The fruit of these discussions (and several successful funding bids written by Steinglass) was the launch of amc.net in the first half of 1995: the same year as online game-changers such as eBay and Amazon, but months before either. In fact, the AMC’s website (designed by Jeff Harrington) proved to be one of the world’s first for a non-profit service organization, a testament to the vision and ambition of Clarke, Stone, Subotnick, and the rest of the AMC board. By June 12, according to a letter from Clarke to the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust (one of the site’s funders), it was already receiving a respectable 20,000 hits a month.

Yet the goal of a web magazine devoted to contemporary American music—meaning all sorts of non-commercial music, from jazz to experimental, as well as concert music—remained incomplete. In that same June letter, Clarke lists the services amc.net was providing: they include a catalogue of scores held in the AMC’s library; a compendium of creative opportunities (updated daily); listings of jazz managers and record companies; a forthcoming database of composers, scores, performers, and organizations; and that mid-’90s online ubiquity, the guestbook. But no mention of a magazine.

The idea was reinvigorated in 1997. Richard Kessler arrived as the AMC’s new executive director and amplified the need for the AMC—and indeed other music information centers like it—to do more than offer library catalogs and opportunity listings. “We’re supposed to be about advocacy,” is how he describes his thoughts at that time. “And not just [for] composers, but also performers and publishers and the affiliated industry.”[iv] To achieve this, Kessler reasoned, the AMC needed to switch its attention away from its score library and towards ways to give a voice to composers across the spectrum, particularly those working at the margins of the established scene. “There are composers out there who, if they’re not published, people don’t know who they are or what they’re doing,” he says.

Planning documents and funding applications produced shortly after Kessler’s arrival in July 1997 discuss the development of “a twice-monthly web column” that would provide “first person” perspectives on American music by experts and practitioners within the field.[v] At this stage an online magazine does not seem to have been in anyone’s mind, although it was suggested that these columns would be supported by chat forums, links, and other materials. Kessler was clear about what he wanted this publication to do, whatever form it might finally take: it should give “a palpable, well-known voice to the American concert composer, broadly writ. I also wanted it to affirm the existence of those artists. Can you play a part in ensuring that those artists will exist in that [online] space? Not only for people to discover them, but also for the artists themselves to feel like they do exist.”[vi]

By late spring 1998, the “American Music: In the First Person” proposal had evolved into an idea for a multi-part online newsletter. Planning documents from May of that year introduce the idea of a monthly internet-based publication “serving as a communications and media vehicle for new American music.”[vii] These documents are aimed more generally at creating an “information and support center for the 21st century,” but the presence of the magazine is regarded as the “linchpin” in that new program.

After this, things moved quickly. On July 1, a conversation between Kessler and Steve Reich was published on the AMC’s website. This was the first of a series of interviews entitled “Music in the First Person” (and which still continue under the title of “Cover”): it is interesting to note how the “first person” of the title shifted from the author of a critical essay or column, as proposed in May, to the (almost always a composer) subject of an interview. In the same month, Frank J. Oteri was approached—and interviewed—for the job of editor and publisher of the planned magazine, a position he took up in November. NewMusicBox published for the first time the following year, on May 1, 1999, featuring an extended interview with Bang on a Can, an extensive history of composer-led ensembles in America written by Ken Smith, “interactive forums,” news round-ups, and information on recent CD releases.

NMBx has grown up alongside the internet itself, and often been close to its newest developments.

NMBx has grown up alongside the internet itself, and often been close to its newest developments. The original “Music in the First Person” interviews that began in 1998 were published with audio excerpts as well as text—a heavy load for dial-up era online access. A year later, the April 1, 2000, interview with Meredith Monk introduced video for the first time. And on November 22, 2000, NMBx released its first concert webcast(!). This was a recording, made by then-Associate Editor Jenny Undercofler a week before, but the first live webcast came only a little later, on January 26, 2001—almost eight years before the Berlin Philharmonic’s pioneering Digital Concert Hall. The innovations continued: with its regularly updated content, comments boxes, and obsessive (and often self-referential) hyperlinking, NMBx was a blog almost before such things existed, and certainly long before anyone else was blogging about contemporary concert music. Composer and journalist Kyle Gann and I started our respective blogs in August 2003, although it was a little while before I wrote my first post about new music; Robert Gable beat us both by a month with his aworks blog. In fact, Gable introduced our particular blogospheric niche to the wider world in a post he wrote for NMBx in October, 2004; within weeks, Alex Ross had joined the fun, and the rest is …

Many early innovations were brought to the table by Kessler, who saw potential in webcasts, discussion groups, and more, but this is not to say that the early plans for NMBx didn’t also feature some cute throwbacks. Among them, plans for link exchanges (links to your work having a great deal of currency back then), and elaborate content-sharing schemes with external providers before YouTube, Spotify, and Soundcloud embedding made such things meaningless.

From its beginnings, NMBx (and the wider organization of AMC) was about making composers heard. In the late 1990s what this meant and how it might be achieved was still seen through a relatively traditional lens. One funding application mentions that in spite of recent advances in technology and society, “many of the challenges that faced the field decades ago remain more or less unchanged.” It goes on to list them:

  • the need for composers to identify and secure steady employment
  • the need to educate audiences and counter narrow or negative perceptions of new music
  • the need to instill institutional confidence about the importance of new music—whether from orchestras, opera companies, publishers, media, or record companies
  • the need to encourage repeat performances of new music
  • the need to secure media coverage of new music[viii]
At this stage, the internet was still regarded by many as a tool for amplifying or augmenting existing models of publication. The editors had to field questions about whether the magazine would ever be “successful” enough to launch a paper version.

At this stage, the internet was still regarded by many as a tool for amplifying or augmenting existing models of publication and information sharing. In the same year as NMBx was launched, I joined the New Grove Dictionary of Music as a junior editor and ended up part of the team that oversaw Grove’s transition from 30-volume book to what was then one of the world’s largest online reference works. For several years after 1999, we were focused on making a website that was as much like the book as possible. (This was harder than you would imagine: Grove’s exhaustive use of diacriticals, for example, made even a basic search engine a far from simple task.) As far as maximizing the opportunities of the web went, this extended largely to adding sound files (that were directly analogous to the existing, printed music examples) and hyperlinks (analogous to the existing, printed bibliographies), along with editing and adding to the existing content on a quarterly basis.[ix] My experiences at Grove were echoed in NMBx’s office. The editors had to field questions about whether the magazine would ever be “successful” enough to launch a paper version; one planning document (perhaps trying to assuage the fears of the screen-wary) reassures that “anyone who wishes to download a copy of the magazine for printing and reading at a later date will be able to do so free of charge.”[x]

Clip from Billboard, 2001

Just a few years into the new century, however, things began to change in ways that hadn’t been anticipated, even by those at the forefront of technological application. Blogging in particular had revealed two powerful and unexpected abilities of the web: to complicate our understanding of truth and to amplify the functions of style, personality, and connections within the new media economy. In the second half of the decade, these were supercharged by the arrival of social media.

This changed what it meant to be heard. Continuing to exist as a composer was no longer about accessing authorial gatekeepers—becoming audible through major performances, broadcasts, and publishing contracts—but about telling personal stories of identity and representation, and about shining a light outside of the mainstream. These changes were anticipated early on at NMBx—the forum discussions from that very first “Bang on a Can” issue centered on the subject of audience engagement—and continue to be reflected in its features.

Continuing to exist as a composer was no longer about accessing authorial gatekeepers but about telling personal stories of identity and representation.

Oteri and Molly Sheridan, who replaced Undercofler as associate editor in 2001, have guided NMBx to its 20th birthday—a remarkable continuity of leadership for any publication, online or off! Along the way, they have directed many stages in its evolution—including several site redesigns—and launched many innovations. The major facelift came in 2006, and with it a move from monthly “issues” to a rolling schedule of articles and blog posts that was more in line with the stream-based style of the growing web. By now, NMBx was essential online reading for anyone interested in contemporary American music, and hot on the heels of this redesign came another enduring innovation: the launch of Counterstream Radio in March 2007. Advertised on its press release as “Broadcasting the Music Commercial Radio Tried to Hide from You,” Counterstream caught a mid-noughties trend for online radio stations, but has endured better than some others.

Sheridan at work on Counterstream Radio

Sheridan at work on Counterstream Radio

Yet although Frank (currently composer advocate for New Music USA, in addition to his NMBx work) and Molly (now director of content for the organization more broadly) have always had a strong idea of the best direction for NMBx, the debates in its pages are often sparked by practitioners themselves. (From the beginning, readers were invited to participate in forum discussions around a wide range of field issues or tied directly to individual posts; some of my strongest early memories of NMBx are of the lively conversations that would take place below the line.) To that extent, the site remains focused on what composers want to read; and judging by some of the recurring themes in NMBx’s 20-year archive of articles and blog posts, what composers want to read seems to be: how to get your work heard; how to create (even write for!) an audience; and how to engage with modernity and/or technology.

Even more importantly, there have also been, from the start, debates about representation. Concert music has been slow to confront its problem with race, for example, but it has been part of the conversation at NMBx for years: perhaps appropriately, since as changes in representation have come, one must hope that new music will lead them. Musicologist Douglas Shadle’s recent article on “Florence B. Price in the #Blacklivesmatter Era” is a valuable contribution, but even more pertinent has been the voice NMBx has given to living composers of color—from the early interview with Tania Léon in August 1999 through to the most recent of all featuring Hannibal Lokumbe, with many opinion pieces like Anthony Greene’s “What the Optics of New Music Say to Black Composers” along the way.

NMBx has been led by the compositional community, but it has been able to reflect that community’s concerns as they have played out in the wider world as well.

In areas like these, NMBx has been led by the compositional community, but it has been able to reflect that community’s concerns as they have played out in the wider world as well. As someone involved in the world of new music not as a creator but as a critic, observer, and occasional programmer, features like these are immensely valuable to keeping an eye on my own privilege, and to pushing me to open up the margins of my own understanding. Greene’s observation that “new music has done very little to change the expected optics of classical music, which is why new music’s identity problem is what it is today” is a powerful caution against complacency.

To take another example of those optics, the subject of gender representation and the problems faced by women in the contemporary music world were first addressed pre-NMBx, beginning with Richard Kessler’s February 1999 interview with Libby Larsen. They have remained in the foreground ever since, suggesting that the question remains current, but very much unresolved. A search for “gender” in the NMBx archive brings up almost 200 items, yet this isn’t even everything—it leaves out Rob Deemer’s widely read 2012 list of women composers, for example. (Forty-one items have also been tagged with the word “diversity,” though this list is not a free-text search, and only goes back to 2012.) The debates at NMBx wove in and out of conversations in the wider world. In 2002, guest editor Lara Pellegrinelli—who had recently written for the Village Voice about the lack of women musicians involved in Jazz at Lincoln Center—published a series of posts by women musicians, each headed “How does gender affect your music?” (Jamie Baum’s response: “When asked if gender has had an influence on my compositions, my reaction was of surprise—surprise that I hadn’t been asked that question before, not in 20 years of performing.”) Blogger Lisa Hirsch’s extended article of 2008, “Lend Me a Pick Ax: The Slow Dismantling of the Compositional Gender Divide,” added essential concert and interview data to the debate, highlighting the difference between post-feminist fantasy and harsh reality; and composer Emily Doolittle, with Neil Banas, offered an interactive model to highlight “The Long-term Effects of Gender Discriminatory Programming.” A widely derided column in the conservative British magazine The Spectator of 2015 (“There’s a Good Reason Why There Are No Great Female Composers”) prompted a suitably damning response from blogger Emily E. Hogstad (“Five Takeways from the Conversation on Female Composers”) that deftly drew together several moments across both new and historical music, and in the wake of 2012’s International Women’s Day composer Amy Beth Kirsten enriched the discussion with a call for the death of the “woman composer.” This last article attracted more than 100 comments and extensive debate, but the one that attracted so much interest it briefly crashed NMBx was Ellen McSweeney’s “The Power List: Why Women Aren’t Equals in New Music Leadership and Innovation,” a nuanced response to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and its applicability to the world of new music. Tying questions of both race and gender together was Elizabeth A. Baker’s remarkable intersectional cry, “Ain’t I a Woman Too,” from August last year.

Perhaps most indicative of all was Alex Temple’s 2013 piece, “I’m a Trans Composer. What the Hell Does That Mean?” Temple’s article (originally published on her own website) is explicitly a follow-up to other NMBx contributions on gender, two of which are mentioned in its opening paragraph. It adds layers of nuance to the debate, both around the question of male/female binarism, as well as the question of whether compositional style can be gendered. No, says Temple to this latter, but:

I have noticed that certain specific attitudes toward music seem to correlate with gender … While I don’t think of my work as specifically female, I do think of it as specifically genderqueer. Just as I often feel like I’m standing outside the world of gendered meanings, aware of them but never seeing them as inevitable natural facts like so many humans seem to do, I also tend to feel like I’m standing outside the world of artistic meanings.

In its combination of raw experience and careful self-reflection, Temple’s article is exemplary but not unique to NMBx; an equally honest and unmissable piece, this time on musico-racial identity, is Eugene Holley, Jr’s “My Bill Evans Problem.” For those of us—including me, I confess—who have found ourselves under-informed about trans issues, Temple’s article provided a welcome introduction: not only to the terms of that discussion, but also for its possible ramifications for artistic creativity and self-expression (articles published since, including Cas Martin’s “An Ode to Pride Month,” have added layers of their own).

The continuing presence of articles like these brings us back to the core purpose of NMBx as the AMC envisioned it back in 1997: to allow composers to feel like they exist. In 2019 that is not only a question of allowing composers to feel like they exist as composers, within the framework of institutional support and recognition, but as people, within the framework of a more humane, more complete understanding of what we are as a society. In recent years, one or two online publications have found ways to discuss difficult social questions within the context of contemporary music; it’s rarer still to see it done with the same level of peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge and experience. NMBx, built in the best days of the web, was there before them all.


In the twenty or so years since we started to pay attention to it, the internet has concatenated every part of our private and public lives. Art, culture, sport, business, and gossip no longer appear separately, like supplements in our weekend newspapers, but together, on the same screen as dinner plans, memes, and conversations with our friends. Since the advent of Twitter, different things have become even more closely braided within the same scroll-stream, units differentiated only by the volume at which they declare themselves from our screens: #ClimateCatastrophe, #FiveJobsIHaveHad, #WorldPenguinDay read three hashtags in close proximity on my TweetDeck right now.

This is not altogether a bad thing. In the 1980s and ’90s, before this whole online thing really took off, musicologists and critics would fret about the disassociation of classical “art” music from life, and of musicology from society. Popular music was better at inserting itself into and complementing people’s lives. Film, literature, and theater were also good at it. Yet music, it was argued, was somehow still regarded in the abstract. It was partly in response to this that the scholarly movement that came to be known as New Musicology was born, having as its aim the study of music within its social context, music as a social creation. Today, music inhabits very much the same space as everything else in our lives (just as music is increasingly made out of the components of those lives). NMBx’s blogs and features, which place the day-to-day stories of actual new music composers at the center of the discussion, are a perfect reflection of this. The internet, with its indifferent reframing of everything as #content, has played no small role in this change in how we see the world. Few people talk of New Musicology now. Not because its premises were wrong, but because they have become standard practice. In this, as in so much else, NewMusicBox has long been ahead of the curve. Here’s to existing, always.


Thanks to Jeff Harrington, Richard Kessler, Debbie Steinglass, and Carl Stone for sharing with me their recollections and documentation of the early days of NMBx and amc.net.

[i] Quoted in American Music Center, 1992: “The Arts Forward Fund: Request for Proposal,” n.p. (“Proposal Summary”).

[ii] Deborah Steinglass, email to the author, April 5, 2019. According to Steinglass, Subotnick “also talked about the future of transportation, and how the US would have highways filled with electric vehicles none of us would actually have to drive.”

[iii] Carl Stone, email to the author, April 10, 2019.

[iv] Richard Kessler, Skype interview with the author, April 5, 2019.

[v] I am grateful to Richard Kessler for sharing these and other documents with me, and for permission to quote from them.

[vi] Kessler, Skype interview.

[vii] American Music Center, 1998: “An Information & Support Center for the 21st Century: An Action Plan.”

[viii] American Music Center, 2000: “A Proposal to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to Support an Online Information and Communications Infrastructure for New American Music,” page 10.

[ix] I am happy to report that since my time at Grove – or Oxford Music Online as it is now known – these ambitions have expanded greatly.

[x] American Music Center, “An Information & Support Center for the 21st Century,” page 5.

In Search of Robert Palmer

A black and white photo of a Caucasian man with his left arm bent beside his head

It was after midnight, the recording session was in two days, and the AirBnB I had booked wasn’t nearly as close to downtown as it had promised. The last time I came to Ithaca, New York, to look through Robert Palmer’s archive—months ago, just before my first Palmer recording session—I stayed in a nondescript house just next to the Cornell campus, its walls breathing generations of college students. I had easily grabbed my key out of an unlocked mailbox in the entryway.

AirBnB KEY

This place, however, was somewhere in the fields surrounding Ithaca, farm country that betrays nothing of the fabled town just a few miles down the road. I stumbled in the dark trying to find the host’s key using my iPhone flashlight. It wasn’t the first time I wondered what the hell I was doing out here, hours from New York City, upsetting my schedule, eating Burger King and keeping the receipts—for what? To see if such-and-such note had a sharp next to it? Well, yes. And to snoop through his letters.

By 1 a.m. I was in bed, absorbing the soft intrusiveness I always feel when staying in an AirBnB, when I heard a pounding at the door. I thought it might be my imagination until it came again. Pounding. This is how I die, I thought. For Robert Palmer. The pounding came again. I crept to the door. “Yes?” Am I ready to die in Ithaca? A man’s voice answered, saying I had left my rental car’s lights on. I went outside to meet him. He held a can of Bud Light Lime-A-Rita. The car was dark. “I guess they go off automatic,” he said.

Perpetually an underdog, most biographical summaries written during his lifetime acknowledge how seldom Palmer’s music ever saw performance even then, and yet I’m one of a motley crew of artists who have been drawn to his work.

Robert Palmer lived between 1915-2010, mostly in upstate New York. He produced more than 90 works, was a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fulbright Scholar, a National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient, and the first American composer published by Edition Peters, the publisher later associated with John Cage and the most experimental of modernists. His star rose in the 1940s and ’50s after a string of energetic, introspective, “metaphysical” works, as Aaron Copland called them, driven by a strong emotional current and built with complex counterpoint and layers of tight rhythmic structures. Hindemith meets Bartók meets Brahms meets Lou Harrison meets…

The relative obscurity that followed his promising debut is as puzzling as one wishes to make it. It could be as simple as his reputation soaring just as the focus of contemporary music shifted toward the seductions of serialism, chance, and minimalism, with Palmer eclipsed and his listeners fractured amidst a world of new curiosities. He might never have been as famous as mid-century tonalists such as William Schuman, David Diamond, or Roy Harris (a brief teacher of his), but they all suffered relatively the same fate.

Perpetually an underdog, most biographical summaries written during his lifetime acknowledge how seldom Palmer’s music ever saw performance even then, and yet I’m one of a motley crew of artists who, since the late 1930s, have been drawn to his work. Pianist John Kirkpatrick, himself skyrocketing to fame after premiering Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, became a kind of pen pal, coach, and the first real ambassador of Palmer’s music, to whom the earliest scores are all dedicated. Palmer, at the time, was an Eastman School of Music graduate and grocery store clerk.  Copland included him on his famed 1948 list of seven composers who were “the best we have to offer,” which also included Cage, Lukas Foss, and Leonard Bernstein. Elliott Carter called Palmer’s music “firm and definite; its dissonance resembles that of younger Europeans whom we never hear in this country,” while describing its “impressive seriousness and great musicality.” Yvar Mikhashoff, a pianist equally at home with the pioneers of American music as he was with David Lang, recorded and commissioned Palmer, while Palmer’s piano music was also performed by classically-bent virtuosos like William Kapell and Claudio Arrau. Julius Eastman played Palmer’s Three Epigrams on his Town Hall debut (the piece was mentioned in the resulting New York Times review) and later approached pianist Joseph Kubera to play his Sonata for Two Pianos. “Robert Palmer’s the man,” Joe remembers him saying. Kyle Gann blogged about him in 2014, and one year later Steven Stucky wrote a memorial in his honor on this very website.

I first heard Robert Palmer’s music as a teenager on a scratchy live recording … I would dance to this piece in front of the mirror as if singing into a hairbrush.

I first heard Robert Palmer’s music as a teenager on a scratchy live recording by the aforementioned William Kapell, the first pianist I ever fell in love with, playing the Toccata Ostinato (1945). I would dance to this piece in front of the mirror as if singing into a hairbrush. Despite the poor sound quality, the subdued applause, and an electrifying but imperfect performance that ended with an exasperated cluster across the keys—and how I hoped that the score called for such an ending (it doesn’t)—I was hooked. Long before finding a score required but a few clicks, I hunted for months, and when the music finally appeared in the mail, I already felt like a detective discovering clues. It turns out that Palmer had dedicated the piece to Kapell before the pianist’s tragic death in a plane crash. I later discovered that he played it perhaps only twice, including that recorded performance. It looked fiendish to play. I didn’t touch it for years.

When I decided to finally hunker down and learn the Toccata, it was to serve as an encore for an otherwise meditative recital program. People would approach me after the concert wanting to know nothing about the proper program, but only about Palmer, my encore. Realizing I had nothing to tell them, I started to scratch around for even the most basic information. So began the trip down the rabbit hole that found me, years later, in a bed somewhere outside Ithaca as a stranger pounded on the front door with a Lime-a-Rita.

I scoured the internet for Palmer paraphernalia. He wasn’t unpublished, after all, and several scores remain in print by Presser, Peer, and Peters. But many scores—including some of the most interesting—are out of print or were never published at all. I later discovered in his letters that Palmer attempted to publish his sublime Second Piano Sonata, composed in the mid-1940s, as late as the 1980s, with no luck. It’s a masterpiece, and as of this writing remains in his own hand in the Cornell manuscripts archive.

I ordered whatever works I could find online and began having others scanned from Cornell. Each one seemed like a revelation, some incredible secret that I had personally discovered (of course I hadn’t) and was eager to share. These pieces, as I saw it, should have been part of the core American piano repertory. The music was as difficult as it was exhilarating to play. I would fall back from the piano after certain pieces laughing, sweating and exhausted, like stumbling off of a roller coaster. After others I’d sit in stunned silence, my eyes welling and my heart aching. I could already tell that the payoff in learning this music would be worth the work, and started programming Palmer’s music whenever I could. Realizing that so little had been recorded, I also started thinking about making an album, though like most of my big ideas, I didn’t know how or where to start.

In 2015 I visited Yale to sift through Palmer’s materials in John Kirkpatrick’s archive. In his letters to Kirkpatrick, I met a man who, sentence to sentence, swung from insecure to confident, pious to prideful, who would confess his demons as much as guard them. He scorned allies, Copland and Carter in particular, for their so-called “decadent” tastes, all too ready to burn important bridges on artistic principle. He casually mentioned in one letter that the military had permanently disqualified him from service “for psychological reasons,” and in the same breath reported that this would free him up creatively for the coming year. That, along with his vague, coded language about intimacy and a kind of crippling shyness has led at least one researcher (in a book about Kirkpatrick, as it were) to queer Palmer. Looking through the same letters and many more, and being quite familiar with the closet myself, I’m not totally convinced. Still, it came as a relief when Palmer’s stoic facade, which seemed so unlike his heart-on-his-sleeve, red-blooded music, began to melt. Suddenly the music, and my attraction to it (and to him), made a little more sense.

But I still couldn’t figure him out nor ascertain why his work vanished from concert halls. Should Palmer have better networked his way into history? Is that a thing? Or was he just happy enough teaching at Cornell, in the country’s first PhD composition program, which he indeed had created? It’s a life that satisfied him, after all—“I liked teaching!” he said in a late interview—even if it was a life that may not have satisfied others. Copland wrote, “Too much of [Palmer’s] energy has gone into his teaching… but teaching is a familiar disease of the American composer.”

Or perhaps he was just too scattered and immature for the limelight, destined “to be permanently a child,” as he phrased it in one anguished letter. (This, too, has been read as a code for queer.) Kirkpatrick, in a conspicuously missing letter, had apparently challenged him on his decision to marry so young. Palmer wrote back, “I hope you will be more specific in exactly how… I am young for 24. It will help me to help myself, and I am the only one who can help.” For Palmer, self-betterment and musical perfection seemed to go hand in hand. He did mature and did change, at least stylistically, perhaps to the disappointment of others. Many, including myself, have sensed that the breathless momentum and passion of his music, the quality that attracted such early attention, began to cool as he, well… grew up. I read several letters in which performers pined for the old days when Palmer’s music came out as a flood of notes, impulsive and intense, with hardly a rest. Did he feel like he “overshared” in his earlier works, and thus distanced himself in later ones? Did he feel the intellectual heat from his contemporaries, a self-imposed pressure to “smarten up” music that, I assure you, was already tied in intellectual pretzels? Or did his style… simply change? We all change! And sometimes audiences drift.

Eventually I approached a record label about Robert Palmer. There was no strategy to my label choice; I simply knew the name. They said yes, and I was elated. I filled out a grant application and the label applied for it on our behalf. We got the grant, and I was elated again. The label, however, also required a “sponsorship fee”—not unusual in classical music. I’d heard about this from other artists but naively thought it couldn’t possibly apply to my Palmer project. It did, and the grant funds didn’t even cover that cost, leaving me with less-than-zero to pay for the actual recording. Whenever anyone asked, I’d say the Palmer album was stalled. In truth, I considered it dead.

A couple years went by when one Sunday evening I volunteered to turn pages for Joseph Kubera, now a friend, at a private New World Records pre-recording concert. Paul Tai, the director of the label, asked about the state of the Palmer project, which I had told him about in its earliest days. I explained the situation, knowing by now that New World would have been the perfect home for the album. “Ask them to release the project,” he suggested, regarding the original label. I laughed at the idea. They’d never go for that, I argued, and besides, the grant funds had surely expired. “Ask your granter to extend the deadline,” he suggested again. He made no promises, and it all seemed quite crazy, but also I had nothing to lose. I reached out and, to my astonishment, both the label and granter agreed to my requests. Once the coast was clear, New World took over. Legendary producer Judith Sherman signed on, and we would record at the American Academy of Arts and Letters with Steinway providing the pianos. My brilliant friend Daniel Johnson would write the liner notes, and in a perfect full-circle moment, Kubera agreed to play the Sonata for Two Pianos that Julius Eastman had once asked to play with him. He used Eastman’s score, his fingerings still penciled in. The album went from doomed to best-case scenario.

By summer 2018, I had the program learned for what would be the first of two recording sessions—the second taking place in the fall—and went to Ithaca to finally visit the Palmer archive.

Palmer materials

I hadn’t sat with Palmer’s actual papers since my visit to Yale three years earlier. It was worth the drive, the overnight stay, the upturned schedule, and the loss of practice time, because where else could I see that he wanted me to “slam [the] hell out of” that one chord in the First Piano Sonata (1939/40)?

slam the hell out of it

Where else could I see Ned Rorem’s West Village address scrawled on a program at the Tanglewood premiere of Peter Grimes?

Ned Rorem notes

Where else could I feverishly snap pictures of scores that exist, as of this writing, only in that archive, or see Palmer’s self-penned autobiography?

Palmer's self-penned autobiography

I slowly drove by what was once his humble home, where he had lived since moving to Ithaca in the early 1940s. I wondered if the people inside knew a composer once lived there, one of Copland’s “best we have to offer.”

Palmer's house

I met his old friends, folks who still called him Bob. “This guy’s recording Bob’s music!” said one of them to a co-worker. I met his daughter and son-in-law, and listened to their stories—like the time Palmer accidentally received a royalty check for the other, “Addicted to Love” Robert Palmer. He was furious, they said, but couldn’t have been surprised to see the royalties this other Palmer earned. Despite apparent urgings, the composer Robert Palmer resisted adding his middle name to separate himself from the pop star. “He hated his middle name,” his daughter told me, and I recalled seeing in the archive that Palmer had crossed a line through his middle name when editing an encyclopedia entry that included it, just as his Wikipedia entry currently does.

Palmer has remained to me throughout this process a kind of mystery, and I’ve tried to strike a balance between respectful and nosey when it comes to fleshing out the man.

A week later I was sitting at a grand piano on the darkened stage at the American Academy of Arts and Letters on the first morning of the first recording session of the first-ever album devoted solely to Palmer’s piano works. Judy’s voice came through a speaker a few feet from the piano. “Ready when you are!” It was a long way from dancing in front of the mirror to Toccata Ostinato.

RECORDING right here

Palmer has remained to me throughout this process a kind of mystery, and I’ve tried to strike a balance between respectful and nosey when it comes to fleshing out the man. When his daughter and son-in-law met me for smoothies after my first Cornell visit, I confessed that it felt funny talking to her after having spent the afternoon reading the passionate letters her father wrote her mother during their courtship, often marked by his paralyzing loneliness. When she alluded to her father being complicated, I didn’t ask for details, though I recently asked her over email about his favorite Christmas traditions, his favorite restaurant, his politics, his religious beliefs. Did he teach her piano?

But considering the many people I’ve prodded for memories, few say very much, maybe because Palmer himself didn’t say very much. “He was quiet till he got going,” clarified his son-in-law, “Then watch out.”

I regret not putting a few follow-up questions to composer Steve Stucky when we met one morning for breakfast to talk about Palmer, about a year before Stucky’s own untimely passing. I wish, just a couple of times, I’d asked, “What do you mean by that?”

I wish when I first heard Palmer’s music as a teenager that I had reached out, instead of functioning under the assumption that all composers were famous and needed no advocates, let alone fan mail. And I’d already learned Toccata Ostinato in 2010, the year Palmer passed away. He had suffered a stroke and couldn’t speak, “but he could still play the piano,” I was told. In my imagination I might have found a way to tell him, in those last years, that I loved his music and would find a way to share it. He might have liked that.

Palmer’s last big project was a Concerto for Two Pianos, Double Strings, Double Percussion and Symphonic Brass. Despite National Endowment for the Arts funding and dreams of a Pulitzer, the project was abandoned in a stack of sketches. But I remember staring at those numbered pages, black with pencil—even a stage scheme—thinking: He’s the only one who knew what this all sounded like.

Palmer Concerto

Part of my impulse to record Palmer’s work, particularly as the new music community challenges itself, rightly, to gaze beyond the white male composer archetype (of which Palmer certainly qualifies) is because the life of Palmer, and fate of Palmer, and the puzzling, inscrutable, what-happened-ness of Palmer, is something every creative person I know wrestles with every day. We rage against our work vanishing in the face of indifference, but mostly feel our way in the dark, finding our AirBnB keys with an iPhone flashlight in the middle of nowhere. Palmer’s story would be a cautionary tale if only we knew what we were cautioning against. Meanwhile, I’m hard-pressed to think of a composer who lived as strongly by his own creative convictions.

The life of Palmer, and fate of Palmer, and the puzzling, inscrutable, what-happened-ness of Palmer, is something every creative person I know wrestles with every day. We rage against our work vanishing in the face of indifference.

Whether our work is well established, gaining attention, facing oblivion, or long forgotten, we in the new music community find ourselves adrift in the same capricious tide of history. Part of our shared role in this community is to show up however we can for each other—to listen, perform, share—even as we all see and do things so differently. I look at Palmer’s life and work and am reminded that an artist’s greatest, and maybe only, power comes in giving shape to the fire inside them and tossing that work, over and over, into the void of the future. Maybe someone will someday be perfectly positioned to catch it. Or maybe not. Maybe the work will spin into the orbit of concert programming, or land on a recording for posterity, or wait for discovery in an archive. Or maybe not. People may listen to my Palmer album—perhaps some teenager will dance to it in front of their mirror like I once did to Kapell—and maybe some of the pieces, still in manuscript, will finally be published. Or maybe not. It could all—even this article—sail completely under the radar, as his work has for so long.

But just as Palmer created work nevertheless, we create work nevertheless—all of us giving shape to that fire inside us. And this act of creation, this calling, this need that exists in the present, far outweighs the promise of our work’s hypothetical future. Showing up, listening, connecting and realizing how alike and fragile we all are, is at least one way we can honor our shared humanity as artists, especially when our lives can feel so isolated, and like one unreasonable creative act after another. I spent more than a decade searching for Robert Palmer and made an album of his music when no one asked for it. But in my mind, I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t imagine being the only one who knew what this all sounded like.


Robert Palmer: Piano Music is available now on New World Records.

What kind of music do you write?

A still shot of a selection of records in a store

What kind of music do you write? Composers all get this question. All the time. I was at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago this past December where I spent a lot of time with composers, conductors, and band directors, and you can imagine how many times it came up. As composers, we even ask other composers this question knowing full well that the answer can often times be quite complicated.

While at Midwest, I finally had the opportunity to meet Libby Larson. (And if you have not met her, I highly recommend figuring out a way to do so because she is an absolutely wonderful person.) Even someone of her esteem asks me this question. What kind of music do you write? I rummage through all the different answers I have prepared for this precise situation depending on the audience. From one composer to another composer is a much different answer than to a potential commissioner, or to a family member, or to a random stranger I am sharing a car ride with. I begin to tell her that “my music is an amalgamation of my lived experiences represented in music,” while I am careful not to indicate an aesthetic to her. I then go on to explain that “my music recently has strayed away from a specific style or medium and that I have recently written pieces for live electronics, a semi-classical sounding woodwind quintet, and a percussion piece using found objects, all while in the process of developing a new work for wind band.” She then tells me that I’m doing the right things, by keeping my options open. Coming from her, this was like being told I had made all the right choices in life.

A year ago, I interviewed 20 composers asking them to describe their music and discuss if aesthetic was important to their work. After each conversation, I realized more and more that I was not ready to write about the subject matter. My perspective shifted from one where I thought aesthetic did not matter at all, to one where it really just depends. I was oversimplifying the topic.

Language matters, and quite often the words that describe us are the first things that our audience or performers know about us.

I was quite surprised to see that there were generally only three types of responses to the question, “What kind of music do you write?” There were the responses that used some sort of musical language or referenced an aesthetic—“I write tonal music” or “I write groove-based music.” There were the responses that noted some sort of ensemble—“I write opera” or “I write band music.” Finally, there were the more philosophical or non-musical answers—“I tell stories through music” or (as in my example to Libby Larson) “I write music that is an amalgamation of my lived experiences.” This is all composer to composer, of course. I personally do a little bit of the medium/philosophical approach more so than the others, but I definitely air quote and wince and say classical from time to time. After interviewing so many colleagues, the only thing I discovered was that I had no idea how to answer the questions about aesthetic I had at the time, and every person I spoke with seemed to have a different opinion.

So where does that leave us composers who may or may not fit in an arbitrary box? Shortly after I completed all of these interviews, I came across Hannah Schiller’s article on post-genre context here on NewMusicBox. We are definitely on the same page. She quotes Missy Mazzoli, who accurately says what I’ve been thinking for the past few years now: that the word composer is a good description, but the word classical is not. Every composer that I spoke to said that they would never self-impose a box on themselves. Annika Socolofsky wishes that we would just erase classical music genre boundaries: “It’s a narrow-minded viewpoint that is keeping us stale and super white.”

When I asked if they fit in a specific style camp, almost everyone said no. Aaron Garcia described their style camp as somewhere between “nerdy composer music and punk,” and Jay Derderian said, “I’m not sure if I qualify, but I gravitate towards romanticism.” Alex Temple said “poly-stylist,” which I appreciated because it acknowledges the fact that many of us are writing in more than one specific aesthetic. Tina Tallon said that she “often gets lumped into the experimental avant-garde,” but it isn’t what she is necessarily going for. Everyone else felt pretty strongly that putting a name on what they do limits their ability to create great art. Something that really stuck with me that a few people said was that “they strive for artistic honesty,” owning artistic choices as a means of expression.

The language that composers use to describe their music is incredibly interesting and should not be ignored. Shelley Washington, for example, suggested that her work was “a frankencake of sound, one forkful at a time.” What an incredibly unique thing to say! More recently Shelley has said, “I have heard others describe my voice as unique, but I feel like I haven’t ingested enough of other people’s music to be able to make that sort of comparison about myself.” She then went on to say that the concept of unique is “very weighted.” I single out Shelley here, because when I asked her about the composers who she admires and considers influences, her response was everyone—especially her teachers and colleagues—and that her musical community was just as important to her as her own art-making process.

One area that people seemed to all agree on was that labeling style is for the audience and musicologists. Tina Tallon made a great point that “style can be helpful for performance techniques, such as referring to a work by someone else as a way of conveying the sound the composer is going for more effectively.” The overall consensus is that composers just want to make their art and not be boxed in, though Marcos Balter does say that “people tend to be tribalists.” He also pointed out that “so much of these divisions exist because many composers believe there is power in numbers.” Almost everyone understood why these boxes exist, but most seemed to wish that they didn’t. Garrett Schumann made the point that “millennials are more inwardly focused,” which would explain much of the direction music has taken in this demographic area. Much of the music being created has become more about self-expression, as opposed to fitting into a specific mold. The idea that there is a wrong way to write music did not come across.

We have worked so hard to musically get ourselves out of arbitrary boxes, so we should take care to avoid putting ourselves back in them when we talk to each other about our music.

Overall what I learned was that today, a composer’s style is specific to them. Kevin Clark described it as “style as people,” and Alex Temple concluded that “music is written by people, and people have personalities.” Judah Adashi said something similar, explaining that he writes music that is “personal, rather than unique.”

I think it is important for composers to think about how we describe ourselves to others. Language matters, and quite often the words that describe us are the first things that our audience or performers know about us. These words are all triggers that, through centuries of performance practice, may dictate to performers how to play the music. The biggest thing I found is that knowing your audience is important. When you describe your music to someone who knows nothing about music, giving them anything but the most important tidbits of information about the inner workings of your process can create an artificial barrier to entry. Use language that they understand. My music comes from my lived experiences as a way to express my thought process in that moment or over time. If composers do their job well and communicate effectively what they want played to the performer in the score, anything more specifically categorically aligned risks indicating a performance practice that might influence interpretation. We have worked so hard to musically get ourselves out of arbitrary boxes, so we should take care to avoid putting ourselves back in them when we talk to each other about our music.


Much appreciation to all of those involved:

Garrett Schumman
Gemma Peacocke
Kevin Clark
Jay Derderian
Monte Weber
Alex Temple
Aaron Garcia
Dennis Tobinski
Griffin Candey
Ed Windels
Marcos Balter
Paul Frucht
Ben Salman
Annika Socolofsky
Shelley Washington
Will Stackpole
Tina Tallon
Judah Adashi
David Biedenbender
Lyn Goeringer
Garrett Hope

In A Novel About New Music, Do Re Mi Meets DNA

A paperback copy of an English translation of Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus resting atop the keys of a piano.

It’s no wonder that some composers of new music feel neglected. Not only do they have trouble finding an audience for their music, but they, unlike writers and detectives, are rarely portrayed in novels. One notable exception is the 2014 novel Orfeo, by Richard Powers, whose protagonist is a contemporary composer who inadvertently demonstrates how avant-garde music can reach “hundreds of thousands of listeners.” Just set up a home laboratory to insert musical patterns into the genome of a common bacterium; go fugitive when your lab is raided by Homeland Security fearing a public health threat; and become so notorious for messing with DNA that an investigative reporter unearths one of two recordings of your old experimental opera, an excerpt of which is aired on radio news.

A contemporary composer who inadvertently demonstrates how avant-garde music can reach “hundreds of thousands of listeners”…

Understandably, some contemporary composers and musicians may prefer to have a less ambitious main character represent new music. Perhaps one who would rather build a recording studio in his home than a biochemical lab.

However, readers of Orfeo will discover that composer Peter Els’s attempt to have self-replicating cells broadcast his tunes into the future and the flight from the law of this “Bioterroist Bach,” as he is branded by the press, are hooks for those keen on plot. But music lovers will delight in the long passages in which Els is stock-still, listening and responding to very familiar 20th-century compositions.

The cover of Richard Powers's novel Orfeo.

Could there be any other novel that devotes so many pages to analyzing such music? Powers educates his readers about this subject the way that Melville informs us about whales in Moby Dick. He doesn’t just tell us that Els’s high school girlfriend turns him on to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, but rather gives us a song-by-song recap—from “The orchestration, the nostalgic harmonies: everything wrapped in the familiar late nineteenth century, but laced with the coming fever dream,” to “The full orchestra, at last—the wrenched strings, the plummeting winds—pumps out a tempest.”

While attending the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (“that little Darmstadt in the prairies”), Els goes to the 1967 premiere of John Cage’s Musicircus, held in the school’s Stock Pavilion, emptied of the animals that usually provide the sounds. In the thick of the “Happening,” he spots Cage himself: “Smiling he slips through the crowd and back up on a performance platform, where he joins a quintet pouring water into different-sized bowls and tapping them, taking their time cues from an elaborate piano roll…. For a moment, in some America deep in his neocortex, [Els] can hear every ringing pitch the mute bowls make.”

Music lovers will delight in the long passages in which Els is listening and responding to very familiar 20th-century compositions.

Decades later, when the retired professor is teaching a class at a facility for the elderly, he tells his students the inspiring story of the German camp where, in 1941, Olivier Messiaen wrote Quartet for the End of Time, then rehearsed and performed it with three other prisoners. Els’s introduction to the piece before playing it in class concludes with “the end of the End”:

The violin rises, the piano climbs along toward some final immobility beyond human patience and hearing. The praise wanders higher, into C minor, through a frozen infield of ambiguous diminished and augmented chords….From out at the edge of the key and fingerboards, the line glances back at a lost Earth on a cold night, when there is time no longer.

But the book’s bravura act of listening takes place after Els quits his teaching job because he has to go on the lamb. It’s serendipitous, as so often happens these days in buildings with piped-in music. And since the scene takes place in the coffee house where 70-year-old Els used to hang out in college, it illustrates that where we listen to a piece of music, and at what point in our lives, strongly affects how we hear it.

When Els first takes a table amid the ambient cafe conversations, he sees that the couple next to him are poring over a score that he can read from his table. The piece for chamber orchestra is “lush with melodies everyone in the audience would leave the hall humming,” Els suspects, then admits that at twenty-five he “would have thought the thing insipid and reactionary. At seventy he wished he’d written it at twenty-five.”

Where we listen to a piece of music, and at what point in our lives, strongly affects how we hear it.

Then from the cafe’s speakers he hears a soprano very slowly sing, “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life.” The familiar piece jolts him out of his regrets, and when the woman at the next table points up and asks her boyfriend, “What is this?” he doesn’t know, but Professor Els responds, “Reich. Wittgenstein. Proverb.”

He does indeed know Steve Reich’s beautiful, 14-minute composition well. For over eight pages, Els’s thoughts provide a close commentary that even clocks the piece the way long-distance runners monitor themselves. “Pitches cluster above the throbbing vibes” at the point when “[t]he piece has lasted twice as long as any self-respecting song and shows no signs of stopping.” At the six-minute mark, after Els points out the use of early music polyphony, he notes that “the parallel tenors rush back in. Twelfth and twenty-first centuries alternate, competing with each other. Those two broad streams flow together into a further sea.” Eleven minutes in, Reich is still in full stride, “the endless dominant pedal point in the organ, the scraping seconds in the tenors—and the piece breaks through into a clearing.”

The contrast between Els’s reaction to Proverb and that of the young people around him makes it seem like he’s the only one in the room with his ears open. (Since so many of them are wearing earbuds, that’s close to the truth.) As he looks around at the all the students staring at their laptop screens or lost in equations on yellow legal paper, he thinks, “The music might be cha-cha, for all anyone hears.” Whereas when he hears two tenors bob in parallel above an organ sustain, “Els’s lips twist in unwilling joy” (an oblique way of saying it’s the first time he’s smiled in dozens of pages) and “the ancient harmonies spread through his bloodstream like an opiate.” Later on in the piece he feels “these spinning, condensed ecstasies, this cascade of echoes, these abstract patterns without significance, this seamless breathing leaves him sure, one more time, of some lush design waiting for him.” When “choirboy clarity thickens, then smears out thin as gold leaf,” and Els is so moved that “his surroundings turn to wet crepe,” he can finally sense a response in his neighboring couple: “The woman’s soul is all up in her ears. The boy leans forward in a frightened crouch; someone is doing a thing better than he ever will.”

In this analysis of Proverb, the one sentence of lyrics is repeated five times in the book’s text, the last time printed vertically on the page with spaces between the letters to indicate how slowly the sopranos are singing them. But what do Wittgenstein’s words really mean? That’s a loaded question, for as Guy Davenport points out in his essay “Wittgenstein,” the philosopher questioned the meaning of every bit of language. “The world to him was an absolute puzzle,” Davenport writes, “a great lump of opaque pig iron.”

Yet characteristically, Els relates the lyrics to his own music, thinking how he has “banged on that smallest thought for his whole life without ever getting in,” and later while reflecting on the people closest to him, realizes that “all I ever wanted was to make one slight noise that might delight you all. How small a thought it took.”

But it seems like Els is confusing a thought with a project or an obsession. In a program note on Proverb in his book Writings on Music (1965-2000), Reich himself discusses the line from Wittgenstein. He writes that the philosopher’s “close, subtle examination of everyday speech had a strong appeal to me. As to his text that I used in Proverb, I was trying to embody it in the piece. That is, the ‘small thought’ is the idea of canon or round.”

Any novel about a contemporary composer calls for comparison with Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus.

Any novel about a contemporary composer, especially one as overreaching as Els, calls for comparison with the most famous fictional account of a maestro in the 20th century, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Based on the German Faust legend, Mann’s hero Adrian Leverkühn makes a pact with a Mephistophelean figure to sacrifice his soul for musical inspiration and fame. Even before he starts tinkering in his lab, Els recognizes his affinity with Leverkühn, calling his striving to launch his career “the full Faustian ride.” After having a brain scan at age 65 and looking at the results with his doctor, “he pictured Faust looking at his own neurons on a monitor—his bottomless hunger laid bare, his desire for mastery swirling through his brain like cigarette smoke curling in the air.”

Proving that Faust has achieved a kind of immortality in the English language, his name comes up again in two reviews of the contemporary, multimedia opera Three Tales, also by Steve Reich, along with video artist Beryl Korot. The work explores three historical uses of technology: the flight of the Hindenberg, the Bikini Atoll atom bomb tests, and the cloning of Dolly the sheep—that nonfiction meddling with DNA. In his review in The New Yorker, Alex Ross called the opera “a surprisingly fervent morality play, pointing a minatory finger not so much at technology itself as at the Faustian hubris that drives it forward.” Having shown himself to be such a fan of Reich’s, if Peter Els saw Three Tales, could it have tempered his tampering in the lab?