Category: Analysis

“This event is probably not unique”: On communication and metaphor in Robert Ashley’s Improvement

Stage performance with teal backdrop

Editorial note: The text of this article has been corrected. Though the Varispeed Collective (Gelsey Bell, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons) has worked deeply with the music of Robert Ashley previously, this production was performed by a larger vocal ensemble which also includes Amirtha Kidambi. Mimi Johnson, through Performing Artservices, produced the opera, and Tom Hamilton served as music director.

The opening words of Robert Ashley’s Improvement are a bit of a head-scratcher: “To continue, I must explain an idea that I am inadequate to communicate in the music.”

Continue what? It’s the first line of the opera. And communicate what? If he didn’t think himself capable of communicating via music, why write an opera, of all things?

Over the course of the next 88 minutes, seven voices attempt to communicate this unexplainable idea alongside an orchestral accompaniment consisting of a MIDI-controlled synthesized harmonic environment. The issue of communication was a concern for the composer throughout his life. Ashley, who was born in 1930 and died in 2014, composed “television operas” and other experimental theatrical works employing a vocabulary of ordinary folks mumbling, humming, chanting, and occasionally singing. Ashley conveyed quotidian experiences, such as getting old or getting divorced, in a United States vernacular woven through with grandiose metaphors and allegories: at the end of his prerecorded opening narration to Improvement, he intones, “For the sake of argument, Don is Spain in 1492 and Linda is the Jews.”

Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) is Ashley’s first in a series of four operas exploring the experiences and consciousnesses of a collection of ordinary Americans: Don, Linda, Now Eleanor, and Junior Junior. The tetralogy is “based on the notion of a sequence of events seen from different points of view.” In Improvement, the seven vocalists converse with each other in question-and-answer sessions (“Do you have a ticket?” “Yes.” “Do you have baggage?” “Yes.”), interrogating each other Inquisition-style, and adopting different identities when the narrative demands it. The vocalists shift seamlessly from their roles as named individuals to Greek-chorus-style delivery, whispering and echoing underneath. The result is at times laugh-out-loud funny, as when Linda gets a ride from the “Unimportant Family” (“my name is unimportant, and this is my wife, whose name is unimportant, and our two lovely children, whose names are unimportant.”) Other moments are eerie, and still others are imbued with a profound sense of loss and isolation. But the opera never loses its sense of momentum, of getting the listener from one place to another.

Ashley’s works sometimes have the feel of a code waiting to be cracked….An entire article could be written about a deceptively throwaway line.

Ashley’s works sometimes have the feel of a code waiting to be cracked. Even though the texts burble along in a seemingly haphazard fashion, they are arranged according to Ashley’s careful cosmology. An entire article could be written about a deceptively throwaway line such as Mr. Payne’s comments in Improvement that “still words would be useless, if the sound were not the meaning” or “The world moves on the air of music. There’s nothing like it. It’s the only thing we had before automobiles as four-dimensional.” Mr. Payne represents Ashley’s philosopher muse Giordano Bruno (who was burned at the stake by the Roman Inquisition in 1600), and his character betrays much of Ashley’s complicated approach to language and communication. Words can be helpful, but are most helpful when they are sounded out loud; music can convey the meaning of words while also transporting you from point A to point B.

Which is ultimately what Ashley’s music does so effectively. Ashley was more interested in the process of musical communication than in its end product. His metaphors and allegories aren’t nonsensical or tongue-in-cheek operatic devices; they illustrate the interconnectedness of human experience across geographies and temporalities and encapsulate human sensation on a much broader scale than a story concerned only with individuals locked into a specific place and time. For these reasons, I must disagree with Ashley: he is possibly one of the only composers who is adequate to communicate “in the music.” Ashley’s operas remind us that sound is metaphor—they make us hear what music really is: sounds that are meant to communicate something beyond themselves.

Improvement, which Ashley wrote in 1985, was first recorded in 1991. The first version existed only as a recording, with the vocalists doubling their own voices in live performance. The most recent production of the opera (presented to sold-out houses February 7–16, 2019, at The Kitchen in New York City) was reconstructed over a period of two years by producer Mimi Johnson (Ashley’s widow) and music director Tom Hamilton (Ashley’s longtime collaborator). (Production information and libretto available here.) Although the subsequent operas in the tetralogy were first performed live, Improvement first existed as a recording (upon which live productions had to be based) for almost 30 years. The assumption being that “this piece was not going to be performed live in concert,” Hamilton told me—ostensibly because it was the first in a tetralogy that its creators suspected would not be of interest to venues or live music programmers. Although some of the original tracks were found for the 2019 performance, some of them weren’t, which meant that the opera essentially was reconstructed from scratch.

Johnson, as producer, was involved in the process from start to finish. She told me that “the orchestra and voices had been mingled irrevocably,” and so both components of the opera had to be recreated. In the first version, the singers were doubling their own voices—which meant they could occasionally take a breath during a live performance, knowing their own voice would be doubled. But according to Johnson, “the new version is 100% live,” with only a click track in the vocalists’ ears to keep the beat. This presentation maintains the sound world of the original, but also imbues Ashley’s opera with a new sense of expressiveness: unexpected sighs or syllabic emphases or vocal inflections resulting in twists of humor or jolts of sadness.

Ashley’s libretto does not specify these sorts of things. His timings are exact down to the second —Improvement runs precisely eighty-eight minutes: no more, no less—but he granted musicians the freedom to interpret the stories and conversations and ramblings however they chose. Ashley’s textual narratives are inextricable from his musical scores: typically, there is one row for each line of the libretto, with columns indicating extratextual information, such as which vocalist should be speaking, a tonality on which the vocalist should be centering their speech, and how many beats per line and beats per minute. In the case of Improvement, the chorus is presented in all caps, solo voices are lower case, and Ashley indicated that “all lines for chorus begin on the first beat” and “underlined syllables fall on the beat and are somewhat accented.”

The team rehearsed the opera five days a month for roughly two years. The cast members—Gelsey Bell, Amirtha Kidambi, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons—were not strangers to Ashley’s oeuvre, having performed in the 2011 remounting of That Morning Thing and in Ashley’s last opera, Crash. Gelsey Bell, who was tasked with reincarnating the role of Linda (originally played by Jacqueline Humbert), explained in the New York Times: “There’s been a moment in this process where I stopped listening to the recording and just saw what came out of me. My voice is different from [Humbert’s] in many ways, and so there are certain things that sound more natural and sincere coming from me: a slight change in the way I’m handling timbre, a slight change in the way I handle ornamentation in certain scenes.”

Gelsey Bell in Robert Ashley's Improvement (Don Leaves Linda)

Gelsey Bell in Robert Ashley’s Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) at The Kitchen, February 2019. © Al Foote III

When I sat in on a rehearsal in January, the performers seemed equally as concerned about doing justice to Ashley’s work as they were about adhering to their own personal sense of creativity and musicality. After Hamilton brought their attention to a problematic moment (line 614, in which Linda sings “right at the airline ticket counter” with chorus) the group hashed it out, with Bell ultimately deciding to “just do it the way I’ve been doing it” and the others making slight rhythmic modifications so as not to throw off the overall flow of beats and syllables and sentiments. Simons then began sifting through a box labeled “Bob’s ties,” selecting shirt and tie combos for McCorkle, Pinto, and Ruder before the three male cast members went out to get haircuts together. The cozy rehearsal space reverberated with warm excitement, mingled with a touch of silliness and a touch of reverence.

The performers did not need to attempt to communicate Ashley’s presence from beyond the grave; he could do that for himself. The only voice that was carried over from the first version was Ashley’s own: at three different moments in the opera, Ashley’s narration crackled through the air, slamming our ears and hearts with the weight of something that seemed much more solid than invisible sound waves. “I am inadequate to communicate in the music,” the voice ironically claims, but Ashley’s operas are so much more adept at communicating than “traditional” opera. The conversations, mumbled soliloquies, and half-remembered songs within Ashley’s operas refuse to objectify the sung voice. Instead they allow the spoken or sung voice to communicate universal concerns and human experiences within the immediacy of the sound waves themselves.

Ashley’s cosmology always concerned itself more with communicating big ideas through a focus on particular microcosms of American life. Ashley’s musical language reflects this interest in escaping traditional conceptions of time. As he himself put it in an interview with Kyle Gann:

The only thing that’s interesting to me right now is that, up to me and a couple other guys, music had always been about eventfulness. And I was never interested in eventfulness. I was only interested in sound. … There’s a quality in music that is outside of time, that is not related to time. And that has always fascinated me. … That’s sort of what I’m all about, from the first until the most recent. A lot of people are back into eventfulness. But it’s very boring. Eventfulness is really boring.

In focusing on the sound rather than the event, Ashley’s music communicates events and entities and ideas beyond the sound. Ashley’s resistance to musical “events” imbues the entirety of Improvement, in which Don and Linda’s breakup (and their subsequent airport mishaps) represent suffering on a much larger scale and across a much grander scale of time.

Ultimately Don and Linda’s breakup is irrelevant. It’s not about Don leaving Linda; it’s about violence and persecution as central themes to human existence. Through repetition of words and sounds, Ashley makes us hear how Linda’s situation—even while isolating and alienating for her—is just another variation on the repetitive nature of human experience. When the “Unimportant Family” picks up Linda after she gets left by her husband, she is reminded that her discomfort—in the van, in her new life circumstances—does not make her special, no matter how lonely or isolated she might feel:

This ride is uncomfortable, I know.
…there is a certain wornness about it,
and this wornness makes the
passenger uncomfortable,
reminding him or her that this
event is probably not unique.

Bell’s rendering of Linda’s suffering was so apt, managing to capture the sadness of Linda as an individual as well as the sadness one goes through even while realizing that others have gone through it too. She is able to express this while also conveying the allegory of Linda’s role as a metaphor for much “bigger” and more abstract ideas.

And so Improvement, as an eighty-eight minute “event,” does not exist for the sake of sounds becoming ideas or vehicles for linguistic communication. As Ashley himself stated in the libretto for Improvement, “music has no calories.” Instead, the sounds become communication itself as they direct our ears to what exists beyond these sounds happening in this moment in time. They help us to see and hear and think beyond ourselves. Improvement is not “about” Linda and it’s not even really “about” the persecution of the Jews by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. It’s about how the event of heartbreak ultimately can be kind of funny and mundane—because there’s a certain wornness about it, because it’s probably not unique. It’s about how the universal can exist within the particular. It’s about the conveyance of human suffering with musicalized sound.

Artist Financial Profile: Tony Manfredonia, Game Music and Orchestral Composer

A black-and-white photo of a man with a teal tie

Let’s Talk About Money, an Introduction

You can learn just about anything on the internet. For musicians, there’s a trend in talking about, teaching, and practicing entrepreneurship—an essential skill for anyone who wants to make a life in the arts. To clarify, entrepreneurship, in the artistic sense, has evolved to encompass everything from the hard and soft business skills needed to run your career to starting your own business.

People like Angela Myles Beeching, Mark Rabideau and 21CM, Garrett Hope, David Cutler, and Andrew Hitz realized that students and professionals needed tools and discussions centered around anything but practicing for the next audition. These resources are now great and many, but they all side-step one thing: the money.

As musicians, how much are we making? How do we negotiate for more? How do we create and advocate for sustainable, liveable wages when we are confronted by the biggest taboo of the 20th century: talking about how much you make is rude.

At some point we need to know what is reasonable, what are the lows and highs in our region, and whether or not we can live off of it. If you avoid talking about the financials of being an artist, you do a disservice to anyone who wants to come up into the trade. Falling in line with the status quo leaves the younger generations of artists clueless, all the while perpetuating the position of power held by those who control the money. The taboo of money talk stems from a complicated history, but sits with corporations trying to get the best bang for their buck out of employees, so profits can soar and owners can become rich. Yes, it’s a dramatic generalization but let’s go with it so we can inspire change.

There is no one way to make a living in music. There really are too many paths to talk about. But knowledge is power, so I have recruited three amazing musicians and one ensemble who have generously agreed to openly discuss their finances and how they make it all work. This is not intended as an instruction manual but as a way for you to learn, compare, and set your own goals—and hopefully develop your own ways of finding financial success through your art with more perspective and clarity.

For this series of articles, I will interview Tony Manfredonia, game and orchestral composer; Lisa Neher, composer and mezzo-soprano performer; Loadbang, the new music ensemble; and Pamela Z, an electronic music composer and performer.

For this installment, meet Tony!

Tony Manfredonia Talks Money & Lifestyle

Tony is two years out of his bachelor’s program at Temple University, married with no kids (at the moment), living in Petoskey, Michigan, (despite hosting the Bayview Music Festival, it’s not generally a music mecca), has no plans to pursue a graduate degree, and is making a living primarily from being a church music director and a concert and game music composer. Tony and I had a wonderful talk via Skype, and it is highlights from that discussion that will be laid out here. Tony has also allowed me to share some personal financial data with you all, so let’s all take a moment to appreciate his openness and bravery.

Last year [2018] Tony made approximately $50,000 pre-tax. For Petoskey, Michigan, this is good! The median household income is $39,690. It’s also slightly above the average male wage for the Northwest Michigan region. But dear readers: although comparing numbers is helpful to know where one sits, it doesn’t define your experience. Tony’s wonderful wife, Maria, has been working through some medical problems and many of their “extra” resources have gone to appointments with specialists and a long list of medical expenses. Thankfully, with Tony’s income, and Maria’s work (when her health allows), they get by just fine and hope to start saving for a house once the medical bills lighten up.

Here’s the breakdown of Tony’s 2018 income. Again, thank you to Tony for sharing and breaking down the taboo:

$35,000 Music directing at a Catholic church, full-time (organ, choir, planning mass)
$13,600 Game, film score, and concert music commissions
$1,400+ Composition lessons, weddings, funerals (the numbers are still coming in)

It’s also helpful to have a general idea of what Tony’s workweek is like. It is interesting and inspiring to see how he maximizes his time blocks to do various things by focusing them together. However, he only has one day off a week.

Monday:          Compose 7 a.m.-3 p.m., Lessons approx. 3-5 p.m.
Tuesday:         Compose 5-7 a.m., Church music 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
Wednesday:    Repeat Tuesday
Thursday:        Composing all day
Friday:          DAY OFF – focused time with his wife Maria
Saturday:        Compose in the morning, Church (mass) in the evening
Sunday:          Church services all day

Tony hustles. Sometimes his days are long, and his “weekend” is only one day NOT on the weekend. In between all of this, he still finds time to work out and cook—two things that are very important to his and his family’s well being.

Tony's home studio setup

Tony’s home studio setup

What I also find to be inspiring is that Tony shows up to compose every day he can, regardless of the fact that composing currently holds the title of “secondary income.” However, his commitment to his long-term goal of being a full-time composer has paid out. From 2017 to 2018, his composing income has doubled. Also observe that Tony’s primary income is condensed into four days, leaving room for his craft and saving some commuting miles. His primary income also offers opportunities to increase his pay through extra wedding or funeral planning and performing. These types of situations are perfect for a music portfolio career.

Most all music careers require you to maintain a “gig mentality”: keeping your brain creatively thinking about and pursuing the next gig. It can be difficult to find the energy for this while working a full-time position, so for artists, it’s important to find work scenarios that allow a little freedom, flexibility, and autonomy. To keep the side income growing, it’s also important to be in a continuous state of networking.

Networking Strategies

These “composing” timeblocks that Tony adheres to are also peppered with very important tasks, including targeted networking. Since Tony lives in a more rural area, far from busy music scenes, he relies heavily on active networking and leveraging his contacts. During our conversation, he frequently spoke about keeping up with his contacts by scheduling time to respond to emails and keep discussions going with past and future collaborators. (Tony prefers to use Workflowy to keep his to-do list organized. I have found Google Keep to be another effective digital list-making tool.)

In my own interactions with Tony, I have always felt very comfortable communicating with him, whether it be via email, Twitter direct messages, or phone/Skype. One of the reasons I feel Tony is a strong communicator is his ability to take interest in others, and to have a great exchange. The conversation is never one-sided. Tony has taken the natural, positive approach to networking (vs. the infamous “schmoozing”) by being deeply interested in others first, and finding connection points second. This type of networking is easier on the psyche and can lead to easy collaborations. You also can realize quickly when your activities/styles/projects don’t align.

Through scheduling a to-do list of keeping up with contacts, Tony keeps himself in the forefront of his collaborators, and potential collaborators, minds. More importantly, Tony also constantly meets new members of various music communities which keeps his network fresh. This is why attending concerts and meeting people is high on Tony’s to-do list. He currently dispels the myth of the late-night composer by composing early in the day and leaving his evenings open for family, friends, and concerts. Tony makes sure to introduce himself to performers and conductors wherever he goes, keeping his ears open for potential collaborations, and following through to keep the conversations going.

At some magical point in the networking timeline, conversations turn into projects, and projects turn into viable income. But instead of an employer offering a salary up front, we composers and performers are asked to quote our rates. This causes anxiety for many, but the funny thing is, this practice is no different from any other service industry. However, most people don’t wonder why they are paying a plumber so much.

Self Worth & Fee Negotiation

Artist contracts, fees, and rates will likely always be something of a Wild West: a land full of no rules and shady propositions. But to be financially viable, everyone has to cross this territory. When speaking about fees, Tony said that he starts with the New Music USA rate calculator, but immediately noted that those rates are the ideal, and often the reality is lower. And this is the guiding principle: quote higher and negotiate to a reasonable fee.

We also spoke about the battle of having the lowest fees. To that, Tony said, “People try to grab gigs by lowering their rates” but continued with an alternative idea: “You’re going to find more gigs by raising your value.” This value isn’t about money grubbing; it’s about being an advocate for liveable wages and quoting the client your worth.

Your Worth is a culmination of what you need to live, and the time and money you have already invested into your craft and equipment. Many musicians spend 12 years studying an instrument, 4-8 more years in schooling for a degree in their craft, and countless hours practicing their craft – all for no pay. The investment is huge so you should always quote your worth to potential clients.

Tony’s approach to fees allows him to be more selective with the projects he takes on, without joining the rat race of fee lowering to get the next gig. This allows him to position himself as a serious professional, receive fees that allow him to create a liveable, and growing wage, and decide when he wants to take on a project for a friend, or for a value that is not in dollars.

To receive appropriately sized fees, it takes some negotiation skills and finesse. There’s no magic formula, but Tony has a few tips that keeps him happy with the fees he receives. 1.) Quote higher than you think, so you can be happy with a negotiated price; 2.) understand what your peers charge for like-projects, and; 3.) have a benchmark for what you want to make per hour for the project. My favorite thing that Tony said regarding fee negotiation:

There should be a part of you that feels a little uncomfortable…maybe it should feel uncomfortable because it helps you grow.

I asked Tony if he ever wrote commissioned pieces “for free.” He said he gives himself “1-2 projects a year.” He doesn’t take these pieces lightly. They are typically for friends/colleagues, fit his overall goals (concert music or game music), and have guaranteed performances, or in the case of a game, great distribution and publicity. These pieces also help Tony build his portfolio of work.

Let’s Talk More

Tony invests a lot in his self-worth—perceived and realized—and it shows with his increase in activity between 2017 and 2018. At the time of our interview, it appears that Tony is taking charge of his career path and finances through consistent networking, strategic acceptance of projects, and an already well developed and growing financial literacy.

The confidence to hold your rates at a standard, and negotiate as necessary, takes a certain comfortability with talking about money. Setting financial goals and seeing the paths to get there takes an honest awareness of your financial situation—how money comes in and how it goes out. Income generation is always important, but budgeting can help you gain control of the money flow early on. It is hard to do both of these things in a vacuum. Although society thinks talking about money is rude, being more open about our cash flows allows us to take ownership of our financial futures, see what’s ahead of us, and find ways to leverage the tool of money for our use. This is especially important for musicians in career paths that are complicated, non-linear, and have no consistent expectations.

For your financial success, here are a few tools to start budgeting:

For those who are more DIY, here’s a budget template of my own design, using Google Sheets, for personal or for business use: Make your own copy here.

You Need a Budget. Loved by many, this is an affordable budgeting software. At $83.99 a year, it’s cheaper than Netflix and pretty sophisticated.

Mint. A free app, this connects to your bank and cards and helps you track your expenses when they happen.

Personal Capital. Like Mint, but with investing options!

At the Intersection of Digital Audible Histories and Experimental Music Practice

large spacial cube

So much of Seth Cluett’s concert music and installation practice deals with memory and embodied experience. Cluett, who grew up in rural upstate New York, recalls the experience of standing on the porch and hearing the wind come through the trees before he could feel it on his body. “There’s always been this haptic connection between being present in a space that makes sound and feeling the source of that sound.” That is what draws me to Cluett’s music—the way it evokes memories and his attention to how the listener interacts with the sound in space.

I recently met up with Cluett, acting director of the Computer Music Center at Columbia University and artist-in-residence at Nokia Bell Labs, to discuss his current exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, “Sounding Circuits: Audible Histories” (January 15 – March 23, 2019). The exhibition adopts the concept of the circuit to rethink the histories that are told about electronic and computer music. Equally significant is how the exhibit sits at the intersection of research on digital audible histories and experimental music practice’s treatment of historical objects and past technologies.

In the process of walking through Cluett’s exhibition, I had a strong sense of the personal relationships that existed between artists and researchers working at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (CPEMC) and Bell Labs. Bell Labs, which has been a key site for research and development in technology during the 20th century, regularly engaged artists and composers to work on projects relating to sound and recording technologies.

Two letters documenting Edgard Varèse's connection to Bell Labs

Two letters documenting Edgard Varèse’s connection to Bell Labs and the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center; (left) letter from Varèse to Vladimir Ussachevsky, dated March 11, 1960; (right) letter from Ussachevsky, dated May 11, 1972. Photo: Molly Sheridan

I asked Cluett about the circuit between Columbia, Princeton, and Bell Labs, and how it encourages us to think about the history of electronic music in new ways. He illustrated the connections, explaining:

The traditional histories that you read of electronic music often involve a positivist, teleologic unfolding that is tied to available technologies. There’s the classic triumvirate of musique concrète, elektronische Musik, and music for magnetic tape in the United States—all of these things leading to the next step down the chain. Often the histories of electronic music and computer music are even told separately. In my current roles as acting director of the Columbia Computer Music Center and artist-in-residence at Nokia Bell Labs, I started to see evidence of a blurring of those traditional historical boundaries. I read accounts of people like Charles Dodge, who was a graduate student at Columbia and was working on the code at Princeton and then going on to Bell Labs to have the sound rendered on their digital-to-analog converter. The idea of a circuit of these relationships, interconnections between people who would go back and forth between two of the three poles—or would pop out to Brooklyn College and back—seemed to suggest a non-linear, constellation history that was more generous to the real human relationships that existed between people.

This non-linear history is evident in the exhibition’s juxtaposition of eclectic historical artifacts such as oscillators, an enlarged color photograph of the CPEMC’s RCA Mark II Synthesizer, a loudspeaker from the 1919 Victory Liberty Loan Rally in New York, Pauline Oliveros’s Apple Box, and sketches of Varèse’s Déserts—just to name some of the highlights. I asked Cluett how his knowledge of electronic circuits shaped his understanding of the circuit as a metaphor for networks of people. “As an undergraduate at New England Conservatory in the mid-1990s, I was working in an electronic music studio that didn’t have a single computer in it. Because the circuits in that studio consisted of things like patch chords, oscillators, filters, and ring modulators, I started to get a real appreciation for electricity as a living thing. But even earlier than that, because I grew up around a dad who was a machinist—a sort of self-taught engineer, who builds things and tinkers—and a mom who is a craft jeweler, I’ve always thought of things connecting to other things.” He later went on to add that “circuits are a great metaphor for history. Things come full circle constantly, but they still do new work each pass. I think the circuit is a great metaphor for new music… you have moments where, like a capacitor, something stores up energy and then when it’s time, it releases the energy. There are moments where things slow down because either the culture or the community is resistant to that change. You have composers who are pushing current through in a way that is relentless and non-stop, and when these things interact, you get some magic.”

Cluett’s collaborative project with the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts began last year when he was asked by the International Contemporary Ensemble to participate in its OpenICE program at the library. Several months prior to Cluett’s concert in November, he began a research residency at the NYPL and the library commissioned him to compose a series of works in response to their collections of electronic music. However, Cluett noted that his work at the NYPL actually started much earlier. While he was in graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the early 2000s, he was the processing archivist, digitizing the collections of Pauline Oliveros, Eric Siday, and helping with Charles Dodge. The majority of the Sounding Circuits exhibition consists of materials Cluett selected from the NYPL, though a few items are on loan from Columbia’s Computer Music Center and Bell Labs. Ted Gordon, Mellon post-doctoral fellow at Columbia, wrote the prose for the contextualization of the historical materials.

What particularly fascinated me about Sounding Circuits is how it provides a fresh perspective on audible histories. (For another important example of audible history, see Emily Thompson’s project The Roaring ‘Twenties: An Interactive Exploration of the Historical Soundscape of New York City.) As scholar Rebecca Dowd Geoffroy-Schwinden writes, audible history is not just the recovery of past sounds—whether through sound recordings, historical artifacts, or models of acoustic space—but also the reanimation of past ways of listening. Similarly, Cluett’s exhibition sheds new light on the history of early electronic music by reanimating the experience and feelings that listeners had when encountering this music in its original historical context. Cluett reproduces a similar experience by means of an ambisonic cube: an 8-channel loudspeaker system that creates the effect of 360-degree sound.

Ambisonic cube

Ambisonic cube, an 8-channel loudspeaker system that creates the effect of 360-degree sound. Photo Molly Sheridan

Cluett described how his exhibition works to reanimate the history of early electronic music:

I think so much of the history of electronic music now, the early history that is, is replayed on YouTube or Spotify playlists, or people going to the library and digging through the archives and putting on a pair of headphones and listening to it in isolation. There’s something much different about standing inside an ambisonic cube of speakers. In this environment, you’re sitting in the middle of a voice; you’re embodied in sounds that are creating air pressure around you. By doing things like repositioning these works not as a frontal presentation in a proscenium or in a headphone presentation in isolation, but putting people right in the middle of the sound, you get a remarkable new life to these pieces. That’s been a comment that comes up over and over, as people have gotten back to me about their experience in the exhibition.

Similarly, Cluett explained, the exhibition’s photos and historical artifacts bring new life to the hopes and aspirations that inspired early electronic music composers:

Then there’s reanimating the history by putting the color back into black-and-white photographs. We have a custom green mixer that in the photos looks black-and-white, and it’s kind of boring and scientific. But [in the exhibit] you see this absurd green that could be nothing else but the 1960s, and it breathes new life into these artifacts—in a way that when people see them, they see the sci-fi, the futurism, and the lofty goals of a bunch of people that were really optimistic about the future of electronic music.

Custom Green Mixer from Otto Luening's studio at Columbia

Custom Green Mixer from Otto Luening’s studio at Columbia. Image courtesy: Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

What makes the audible history of the Sounding Circuits exhibition so different from other projects is the way that it incorporates Cluett’s own personal history. A highlight was learning about his relationship with Pauline Oliveros. The collaboration began with a commission for poet and accordion sent via a postcard from Trudy Morse, who never said Oliveros would be the accordionist. After performing the piece with Oliveros, their work together continued, including making field recordings in Italy and performing her Apple Box Double, a piece that involved contact microphones placed on an apple box and improvised sounds that she had first developed with David Tudor in the 1960s.

A crucial aspect of the exhibition, however, is how Cluett uses sound recordings, historical artifacts, and past technologies as a reference point in his own experimental music practice—in particular the works that he was commissioned to compose for the NYPL. (For more on composers and sound artists who make use of historical objects and past technologies, see the scholarship of Jennie Gottschalk.) These newly composed works are responses to classic works from the history of electronic music, many of which had an impact on him as a composer. They do not attempt to imitate their models stylistically, but rather respond to the experimental mode that the composers were working in. For example, Cluett’s Affordances responds to Laurie Spiegel by being algorithmically generated, but it is in his own vocabulary. Cluett nevertheless acknowledged that his vocabulary “has a lot of Laurie Spiegel and Oliveros in its practice.” In the exhibition, these new compositions are played alongside the classics that inspired them. “The ambisonic cube has a playlist that rotates around the room like a clock face, consisting of Cage, Varèse, Pril Smiley, Laurie Spiegel, Charles Dodge, Paul Lansky, Jean-Claude Risset, and Pauline Oliveros. And as it does that, each of those works has a piece between them that I composed that mitigates the experimental difference between the poles of pieces adjacent to my work.” Cluett aimed to highlight how “audible histories are an attempt to think about how earlier generations of sound practice influenced current practice, and how current practice recontextualizes history—both in a personal way for me, but in a real way for the objects on their own, for everyone who comes to the exhibit to see and hear them.”

Seth Cluett’s Accordion Alone

The exhibition Sounding Circuits: Audible Histories is on display at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts until March 23, 2019.

Plus Ça Change: Florence B. Price in the #BlackLivesMatter Era

A black and white photo of a mother and daughter

“While more and more blacks are being driven into homelessness,” a classical music fan fumed, “Mostly Mozart is rewarded with government, corporate, and media support.” The problem? No black composers on the program—not even Mozart’s great contemporary, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

We can easily imagine this critique as a sick Twitter burn from last summer, or last week. Calls to diversify classical music programs intensify regularly. But the sad truth is that many organizations are reluctant to pursue any path other than business as usual. (Others certainly aren’t.) Perhaps sadder still, the comment above dates from 1987. Mike Snell, a reader of Raoul Abdul’s music column in the New York-based Amsterdam News, wrote Abdul to eviscerate the media for not highlighting the systemic racism underpinning the lack of black representation on the concert stage.

Plus ça change.

Returning to the present: the music of one black composer, Florence B. Price, has experienced an extraordinary surge of public interest over the past year, mainly on the heels of extensive coverage of violinist Er-Gene Kahng’s world premiere recording of her two violin concertos in The New Yorker and The New York Times. Prominent U.S. orchestras, including the New Jersey Symphony, North Carolina Symphony, and Minnesota Orchestra, programmed Price’s music during their 2018–19 seasons. The Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra recently released the world premiere recording of her Fourth Symphony on Naxos Records. And more ensembles will likely take up the mantle, both in the United States and around the globe. The Chicago Symphony, for example, recently announced that it would perform Price’s Third Symphony in the 2019–20 season.

Given the longstanding historical exclusion of African American composers, Price’s sudden rise to stardom might raise a few eyebrows. Is the sudden widespread interest in Price’s music a convenient fad? Are predominantly white institutions exploiting her legacy for short-term gain—what Nancy Leong has called “racial capitalism”? These are the right questions to ask. Their skeptical slant is justified when a major trade publication can obliviously describe women composers as “in vogue.” And it would be far from the first time that white musicians bolstered their careers on the musical labor of black women, or that black women’s musical accomplishments have faced unfair scrutiny upon entering white public consciousness.

We can only speculate about how Price’s resurgent presence on the concert stage might bring about deeper structural changes over the long term. But, if we listen carefully, her unique experiences as a composer and as a black woman present us with a more immediate opportunity to name and fight racial injustice today. Mike Snell’s complaints—and those of concerned musicians before and after him—show that time has refracted these injustices to the present.

Plus ça change, indeed.

Open Our Ears

The persistence of anti-black racism in classical music spaces stems largely from the white majority’s refusal to engage meaningfully with black voices—or even to listen. In a detailed critique of the new music communities in which he has participated, composer Anthony R. Green encourages us to “trust these voices. Be critical, but respectful. Engage in exchange. Be patient. When our work is blatantly ignored, disrespected, not studied, and not programmed, our voice is all we have.” White people, even those with anti-racist sympathies, often recoil at the suggestion that they have harmed people of color and shift the discussion to defend their motivations—a phenomenon multicultural education expert Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.” But the fact that Green’s observations are not new simply proves the point.

Green’s critiques revolve around the classical music industry’s propensity to pigeonhole black composers as “one-trick ponies.” This dehumanization, he argues, occurs when concert organizers think about music by black composers only during Black History Month or, in more recent years, for concerts with a social justice theme. “While this is not necessarily negative,” he adds, “the injustice arises when absolute music or music with non-social themes by black composers is overlooked.” Florence Price’s daughter, Florence Robinson, expressed similar frustrations after Price died in 1953. Artists were happy to perform Price’s arrangements of Negro spirituals, but she found no advocates for her mother’s symphonic compositions.

Once a black composer finds an advocate, however, another problem is that concert organizers do not always think through the implications of poor framing. Price’s Symphony in E Minor, which Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra famously premiered in June 1933, appeared on a program ostensibly devoted to celebrating black musical achievement.

CSO program, June 1933

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 15 June 1933

It featured tenor Roland Hayes and pianist Margaret Bonds as soloists in addition to pieces by Price and Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. But the opening number was an overture by John Powell, an avowed anti-black eugenicist. Powell’s presence was an acute indignity for Price and the other black performers, especially since Chicago’s black newspaper, the Defender, had publicly criticized Powell earlier that year.

To make matters worse, the event occurred the night after a concert celebrating American music, which had not only neglected to include any black musicians, but highlighted George Gershwin’s symphonic jazz compositions—pieces epitomizing white appropriation and presumed “elevation” of a fundamentally black style. Were African American musicians not American? The juxtaposition is startling.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 14 June 1933

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 14 June 1933

Critical comparisons between the two shows were inevitable. One critic wrote about both as a unit. “Gershwin,” she observed, “looks like his music,” while John Alden Carpenter (whose Concertino had appeared on the second program with Margaret Bonds as soloist) “took up the white man’s burden” for the evening. Price, in contrast, “was given to little communicative inspiration.” By what standard we’ll never know. And black musicians of the era were painfully aware of these racist gaffes and slights, as William Grant Still, a composer who had grown up with Price in Arkansas, demonstrated in scathing commentary published in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1950.

Fifty Years of Progress in Music

“Fifty Years of Progress in Music,” Pittsburgh Courier, 11 Nov. 1950

But what choice do black composers have in the matter given the racist status quo? Is saying no to a major opportunity a viable option, especially if it puts food on the table? In September 1940, a conductor in Detroit approached Price about setting up a performance of her orchestral music. He was “quite anxious to do something from your pen,” he told her, and asked for information about her orchestrations of black folk dances. Sensing the urgency of the situation, she sent him her abstract Third Symphony instead, along with a letter that has since become one her best-known artistic manifestos. Making sure he knew the character of the piece was unlike what he had requested, she added, “The other two movements—the first and the last—were meant to follow conventional lines of form and development.” The conductor had no choice but to program the piece, given few ready alternatives. But Price took a significant professional risk by not conceding to his original demands.

Price to Frederick Schwass

Price to Frederick Schwass, Florence Price Papers, Special Collections Division, University of Arkansas Mullins Library

As these episodes show, ignorant, racist framing of black music prevents black composers from fully expressing their artistic visions and hampers listeners from approaching a piece on its own terms. Unilateral concert planning carries the risk of reifying racist norms. Creating a just environment means working with composers to find a frame that shows their music at its best. And here we can take a cue from history as well—from a 1935 performance of Price’s Piano Concerto given by the Bronx Symphony Orchestra in which the evening’s featured black musicians had taken an integral role in planning.

New York Times, 30 Aug. 1935

New York Times, 30 Aug. 1935

#BlackLivesMatter and Classical Music

Following Trayvon Martin’s brutal murder in 2012, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tomeli inaugurated the Black Lives Matter movement to publicize the precariousness of life itself for black Americans in a violently racist society—and, of course, to rectify the injustices underpinning it.[1] The halls of classical music may seem far removed from these issues, but only because they have remained predominantly white spaces. Indeed, as historian Kira Thurman has shown, classical music (even whistling it) could not protect Draylen Mason, a young bassist from Austin, Texas, from the bomber who targeted African American homes and ultimately killed him. White people must confront this stark reality, despite the luxury of being able to avoid it.

In her reflections on Mason’s death, Kira Thurman has explained that “we don’t know how to talk about” black classical musicians because “to be black and a classical musician is to be considered a contradiction.” This insight suggests that conventional writing about classical music and musicians tends to emphasize white (male) lineage and benevolence, usually at the expense of people of color. Stating one’s position in a prominent network, for example, is meant to be a signal that talent and grit, rather than race, gender, or status, led to success. Doing the work of justice will therefore entail developing a language that breaks reliance on white patriarchal norms and captures the nuance of an individual’s full humanity.

The experience of blackness cannot be reduced to violence, but I emphasize violence here since it has experienced its own series of refractions over the past several centuries—from family separation and horrific physical abuse under slavery, to lynching under Jim Crow and decades of unchecked police brutality. The pall of violence is so pervasive that many African American parents pass strategies for navigating it to their children in a family ritual known as “the talk.” And, as black feminist theorists such as Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks have argued, black women are uniquely vulnerable.

Price was no exception, since violence had dramatically shaped both of her parents’ lives. A group of Irish bullies, for example, nearly assaulted Price’s father when he was a young man living in New York City simply for “wearing a tall silk hat” on the sidewalk. In a draft of his memoirs, Price annotated this moment as “the lynching.” Price’s mother, meanwhile, was abducted and nearly raped as a teenager in Indianapolis. Both were squarely middle-class, indicating that a relatively high socioeconomic status could not mitigate their victimization.

Conventional biographical writing about classical musicians leaves virtually no room for examining race-based experiences like these that might shape a musical career. The official biography of Price featured on the website of her current publisher, G. Schirmer, emphasizes her relationships to white institutions and teachers but elides the circumstances that brought her into contact with these individuals in the first place.

Price studied at the New England Conservatory, for example, but not because it welcomed her as an African American. Instead, her mother insisted that she take advantage of her racially ambiguous skin color to pass as a woman from Mexico and avoid unnecessary scrutiny of her African ancestry. This decision was not only a safety measure, but as historian Allyson Hobbs has shown, carried the potential to destroy families separated by the artificial color line. Likewise, though Price continued to study with prominent teachers in Chicago, as the biography states, she went to Chicago to flee from racist violence in Arkansas that culminated in an especially grisly lynching.

"Mob spokesmen asked Carter if he had any last requests. He asked for a cup of water and a cigarette, and these were granted, as was his request to say a final prayer. Members of the mob then put a rope around his neck, threw the noose end over a utility pole, and forced him onto the top of a car. One of them drove the car away, leaving Carter hanging from the pole. The mob then pumped more than 200 shots into the dangling corpse."

Description of a lynching

Further, musicologist Rae Linda Brown has shown that domestic violence caused Price’s marriage to fall apart shortly after the move, leaving her to raise her two young daughters with the assistance of a community of black women on the city’s South Side that included dear friend Estelle Bonds and her daughter, Margaret Bonds. That Price thrived in these environments says far more about her and the racist and misogynist circumstances she faced than the prestige that might have accrued from any institutional affiliations.

Justice, then, includes allowing a musician’s true self to be fully present when facing the public—to appear “at our best,” as Kira Thurman has called it. She explains that black classical musicians “embody the Brechtian concept of Verfremdung, making the familiar strange and uncanny. Our performances and our musical experiences challenge the bounds of blackness and whiteness and the histories of racial oppression that have tried to culturally and musically determine both.” Like Anthony Green, she insists that denunciations of racial profiling and critiquing structural inequality don’t have to come at the expense of aesthetic enjoyment—that violence and beauty are equally powerful. Papering over one or the other merely reifies centuries of structural inequality by sweeping it under the rug.

A Renaissance

Historical erasure is perhaps the most acute consequence of the institutional oppression and misunderstanding that Green and Thurman highlight. And here Price’s story offers another cautionary tale.

In 2009, a pair of renovators, Darrell and Vicki Gatwood, found a substantial cache of Price’s manuscripts —roughly thirty large archival boxes—at Price’s abandoned summer home near St. Anne, Illinois. These materials eventually moved to the Special Collections division at the University of Arkansas Mullins Library. This discovery and acquisition marked a true watershed for Price scholarship and advocacy, which had grown slowly but steadily with the limited materials Price’s daughter had already sent the university shortly before her death in 1975.

Florence Price’s summer home, 2009

Florence Price’s summer home, 2009 Photo: Timothy Nutt

Price’s daughter, in fact, had struggled to find performances and publication outlets after her mother died in 1953. Some people tried to help but couldn’t, and she was occasionally suspicious of opportunists seeking to capitalize unfairly on her mother’s dwindling legacy. Things took a turn for the worse in 1974 when she became too ill to manage her mother’s affairs any longer. Barbara Garvey Jackson, a musicologist at the University of Arkansas, had been in touch her and finally convinced her to send a few manuscript scores to the university, including the famous symphony premiered by Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933.

With these slivers in hand, Jackson planted the seeds for a Florence Price revival by publishing a major biographical article in The Black Perspective in Music. Rae Linda Brown, a graduate student at Yale who had stumbled upon a manuscript of Price’s Third Symphony in an archival collection, soon joined her and became a new leading voice in the revival as she published numerous articles on Price’s life and music.

Over time, Jackson and Brown worked with several distinguished musicians and scholars, including Helen Walker-Hill, Mildred Denby Green, Althea Waites, Linda Holzer, Calvert Johnson, Trevor Weston, Karen Walwyn, and the Women’s Philharmonic to bring Price’s music to the public. This work culminated in Brown’s editions of Price’s Piano Sonata and First and Third Symphonies (co-edited with Wayne Shirley for the series Music of the United States of America published by A-R Editions), Jackson’s series of publications for ClarNan Editions, Weston’s reconstruction Price’s Piano Concerto, and several ensuing recordings. This extensive labor extends beyond the fact that Price’s vocal music has been a staple on vocal recitals, especially those given by African American performers, since the 1930s. Richard Heard collected many of these songs in his edition called 44 Art Songs and Spirituals.

After the St. Anne discovery, several new individuals became involved in this ongoing Price revival, most notably Arkansas-based composer James Greeson. He used materials from the new collection to form the basis for a 2015 documentary, The Caged Bird, which has screened at venues across the United States and has become a staple of educational initiatives around the country.

While researching black composers of the early 20th century, I visited the University of Arkansas in May 2016 to peruse the original Price archival collection but ended up using the entire new collection since it had opened to the public the previous year. A report on my work was broadcast over WUOL 90.5 in Louisville, Kentucky, a few weeks later. I collaborated with the station again in the summer of 2017 to host an all-Price concert at the city’s annual Muhammad Ali Festival, which featured members of the Louisville Orchestra giving a contemporary premiere of one of Price’s “lost” string quartets. The quartet segment was later rebroadcast nationally on the syndicated show “Performance Today.”

Meanwhile, other performing groups such as the Apollo Chamber Players, The Dream Unfinished, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the BBC Orchestra explored new areas of Price’s life and work.

Together, this collective but dispersed grassroots effort drew substantial new attention to Price’s life and music, which crested in the New Yorker and New York Times pieces mentioned earlier.

A White Savior?

If efforts to reinscribe Florence Price into the historical record were reaching new heights by the middle of 2018, what might the reification of structural inequality look like?

Publisher G. Schirmer announced last November that it had acquired worldwide rights to Price’s compositional catalog. In other words, the firm would serve as a clearinghouse for the publication, distribution, and licensing of Price’s scores. Previously, interested scholars or performers would have to visit the University of Arkansas to take photographs of the archival material (or pay the library for photographic reproductions) before engraving the music or performing from the manuscripts themselves.

Explaining the rationale behind the firm’s decision, promotional director Rachel Sokolow stated, “As more orchestras and presenters recognize the need to address diversity in classical music programming, we hope that Price’s oeuvre can be a valuable resource.” Citing the interest in Price that seemed to bloom after the extensive media coverage, G. Schirmer president Robert Thompson explained that it’s “important to insure that past composers like Julius Eastman and Florence Price are not forgotten, and that their legacies are living ones, celebrated through live performances and new recordings.”

On the surface, this may sound like a great idea with an ethical underpinning. Black composers like Price have obviously gone underserved for far too long. And the G. Schirmer website is far more convenient to access than a dusty archive. But, as musicologist Matthew Morrison’s work suggests, the firm risks joining the long line of predominantly white for-profit corporations hoping to circumscribe an equally white marketplace for black musical production if it overlooks the vibrant work that expanded the audience for Price in the first place.

At a glance, G. Schirmer’s official statements may seem reminiscent of what writer Teju Cole has called the “White-Savior Industrial Complex,” in which “the world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.” Perhaps many organizations rushing to program Price’s music are riding an enthusiastic wave rather than redressing injustice. But Cole’s formulation also illustrates the sharp differences between how an organization perceives itself and what the historical record shows. “All [the White Savior] sees is need,” Cole writes, and “he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.” In Price’s case, performing organizations neglected her music, but even G. Schirmer itself owns a small share of the responsibility for narrowing the marketplace and creating the lack of diverse programming we face today.

To wit: Marian Anderson premiered Price’s Songs to the Dark Virgin in November 1939 at a Carnegie Hall recital, with a repeat in January. A representative from Theodore Presser jumped on the opportunity, but Price had so much leverage that she ended up going with G. Schirmer over an offer from the equally prominent Presser. In other words, G. Schirmer knew about Price and her music but offered to publish only a tiny fraction during her lifetime.

Songs to the Dark Virgin

Cover of Songs to the Dark Virgin, G. Schirmer, 1941

“When you [Anderson] introduce a song,” Price’s daughter once explained, “that is a signal for the publishers to try to persuade the composer to sign a contract for publication.” Price and Anderson worked together to capitalize on this knowledge of the system’s inner workings because Price occasionally had trouble finding publishers on her own. Ethnomusicologist Alisha Lola Jones has argued that this synergistic collaboration was a channel through which “black women empowered themselves to sound the (un)quieted, undisputed dignity of womanhood on the world’s stage” without the involvement of white benefactors.

Florence Robinson to Marian Anderson, Dec. 1966

Florence Robinson to Marian Anderson, Dec. 1966, Marian Anderson Papers, University of Pennsylvania

But Price could not rely solely on a community of women to bring her orchestral music before the public, and therefore to have any hope of publishing it.[2] This institutional neglect of her music during her lifetime explains why so many manuscripts were awaiting “discovery” after her death in the first place. Promotional brochures dating from Price’s lifetime show that her prolific catalog was public knowledge throughout the industry. ASCAP, of which Price was the first African American woman member, produced these brochures and distributed them widely.

Florence Price’s ASCAP Brochure

Florence Price’s ASCAP Brochure

Why did no one offer to work with Price or her daughter to secure a legacy—the kind of legacy that G. Schirmer is now rightly pursuing? Publishers? Conductors? Instrumentalists? Even in the supposedly vaunted world of classical music, profit-seeking considerations and their deep ties to systemic discrimination often trump ethical concerns. In the heady environment of an exciting renaissance, white organizations run the risk of refusing to acknowledge black voices, especially those of black women, virtually ensuring that these voices become unsung to their posterity.

Within the complex matrix of composers, publishers, venues, performers, audiences, and critics, we must all play a role in creating a just musical community. Or we will keep repeating the same patterns of oppression.

A Classical Postscript

As it turns out, Joseph Bologne’s music also has an esteemed but spotty publication history dating from his own lifetime in the late 18th century. Famous houses like Antoine Bailleux and Jean-Georges Sieber published him alongside J.C. Bach, Luigi Boccherini, and others. After a long publication hiatus, one of the foremost scholars of black music, Dominique-René de Lerma, worked with Peer International to publish a series of Bologne’s chamber music in 1978—a full decade before music fan Mike Snell wagged his finger at New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival.

Plus ça change.

Thank you to Dr. Alisha Lola Jones and Samantha Ege for providing substantive feedback and additional sources for this essay.

1. BLM should not be confused with the Movement for Black Lives, which is a separate but occasionally overlapping organization.

2. University of York musicology Ph.D. student Samantha Ege is arguing in her dissertation that Price’s social circle did in fact offer material support for the Chicago Symphony concert once her piece became a viable option for Frederick Stock.

Political Music, Musical Politics: A Discussion Panel with Samuel Adler, Maria Grenfell, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Catherine Likhuta

A panel of people

The intersection of music and politics is perennially fascinating. Within the world of classical music, tenacious ideas about music’s aesthetic autonomy, its purported status as timeless Art-with-a-capital-A, often rub up uncomfortably with actual musical practice. How is it that Beethoven’s music of universal brotherhood could also serve as the anthem of an apartheid nation-state?

At Bowling Green State University’s 39th Annual New Music Festival last October, composers Samuel Adler, Maria Grenfell, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Catherine Likhuta sat down with me to share their thoughts about music and politics. Political music might be music that implicitly supports or explicitly opposes the status quo, music that expresses a current socio-political reality or promotes an alternative, or more broadly—to paraphrase Jacques Rancière—music that rearranges the set of perception between what is visible, thinkable, and understandable, and what is not. Music’s use as a political tool for protest, propaganda, or resistance is well documented, of course, especially the use of popular music in the 20th century. Our wide-ranging discussion touched on a number of ideas—the place of politics in contemporary classical music, the tension between political particularity and universality, the uses of programmatic music, and recent developments in the world of classical music. Few of these topics engendered easy or definitive answers, and it’s fitting that our discussion ended on a questioning note. Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity and significantly condensed.

Ryan Ebright: To what extent do you engage or have you engaged musically with political or social issues?

Catherine Likhuta: The piece of mine that was featured in the festival, Bad Neighbors, is probably my most political piece. It’s about the war in Ukraine that is still going on. The piece has two horns in a kind of fight with each other: one representing Russia and its aggression and invasion, the other representing Ukraine and its fight for freedom. My collaborator from Australia, Peter Luff, commissioned it when the war had just started in 2014. My schedule then was quite booked, so we decided to postpone it. Little did I know that when I began writing it three years later, the war would still be going strong.

Ebright: Bad Neighbors received some attention from Ukrainian and Polish media. Can you tell us about its reception?

Likhuta: A consular at the Ukrainian embassy in Australia heard about the piece through somebody in the Ukrainian community who came to the premiere. She contacted me for an interview. The day after they distributed the interview I saw the track on my SoundCloud page had hundreds of listens from all over Ukraine. Then the Polish media also distributed it, because Poles feel very close to Ukrainians in this fight. This distribution was heartwarming and important, because I wanted to share the music with people in Ukraine. Even though I left Ukraine over a decade ago, all of my family members are still there.

Aaron Jay Kernis: From about 1990 to 1995 I wrote a lot of pieces related to world events. After 9/11, I composed a piece in memory of the victims of that tragedy. More recently, my horn concerto had something to do with Obama’s farewell and his singing of the song “Amazing Grace.” But earlier on, around 1990, I was very struck by the Rodney King situation and then a series of riots that made their way through Atlanta, and the threat that similar riots were going to come to New York City. My reaction to that time made its way into my piece New Era Dance, which is actually a pretty entertaining piece but has a violent undertone. After that, my second symphony was very influenced by watching the media’s portrayal of the new weaponry that was being used in the Persian Gulf War and various mega-bombings. This element of tragedy continued in pieces like Colored Field and Lament and Prayer, which started as a reaction to genocide in Bosnia and grew into a response to the Holocaust and, more generally, the relationships between various kinds of genocide that had been perpetrated throughout the 20th century.

I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind with these big works. But they’re political in that they respond to human events. For me it’s kind of inescapable to need to respond to that kind of tragedy, and it doesn’t necessarily engender the potential of butting heads politically because they are tragedies that we’ve all witnessed and shared in in some way.

Ebright: The warfare and tragedies of the early 1990s seem to have continued in the new millennium. Do those earlier works speak to the present day?

Kernis: Even though those works came out of a specific time, for me the key political element is in their attempt to speak to universal experiences. War has always been with us and will always be with us. Bringing that reality into the arts, and bringing that into music—that’s been with us also since the 19th century or even earlier, with battle pieces from the Baroque era, the Eroica, et cetera.

Samuel Adler: I’m worried about doing something too of the moment, because the moment is here and then it’s lost. For example, I first heard Bernstein’s Mass during the Vietnam War, which we were all concerned about. Well, I just heard it again, and while there are some stunning musical moments, it’s completely dated and doesn’t have the effect that it was supposed to have. Mass was a bombshell of a piece. Today, it’s ho-hum. (The texts, not the music.) So you have to be very careful how you choose a subject.

The New York Chamber Symphony commissioned me to write a piece about 9/11, and I tried to do it so that it doesn’t just concentrate on that event, but becomes a larger expression of sorrow. I composed Stars in the Dust for the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. I was ten years old, living in Germany, when that happened. My librettist and I felt that it should be a universal statement; it’s about something that may happen to a lot of people, and it isn’t happening only at one time. We have to look at what Spinoza called “the vision of eternity” rather than the moment.

I’ve always felt that the way to get this world back on a peaceful passage is the idea of reconciliation. I was in Dallas when Kennedy was assassinated, and I wrote a piece for the symphony in that week. Because I’ve always felt that we have to bring in everybody to mourn with us at the same time, I brought in tunes that people would actually recognize in America, especially in the South, where religion is so important.

Maria Grenfell: I haven’t actually written very much political music at all. My music tends to be influenced by mythology or poetry or fine arts. I’ve written a few pieces that have been requested for specific purposes, like to calm anxiety for children and adults in hospitals and to help soothe children with mental health problems, but I wouldn’t call that political.

Ebright: You draw inspiration from a diverse array of sources for your pieces—Celtic fiddle tunes, Māori legends, Salman Rushdie’s East-West short stories. Is the way in which you incorporate various cultural sources a political act or an expression of advocacy for multiculturalism?

Grenfell: No, I just find I really enjoy the diverse influences. They inform my use of colors and harmonic materials.

Ebright: What is a piece of music that you think is effective both musically and politically?

Adler: It’s been used so much that it’s almost self-evident, but the Beethoven 9th. It has had greater influence on Europe—they’ve used it as their anthem—and again, it has a kind of universal message. I’m not sure that any other piece has had that kind of influence. But we have to be very careful thinking that we can change the world with anything. If we can change one person, that’s very important. Classical music or the classical composer is no longer what he or she was—well, it wasn’t she at that time—in Beethoven’s time. When we talk about Beethoven’s Third, we always mention that it was written for Napoleon and he tore up the dedication when Napoleon made himself emperor. Well, if I write a symphony and dedicate it to Mr. Trump and don’t like what he does and tear up the sheet, nobody gives a damn!

Grenfell: Shostakovich’s 5th symphony is a really important work. What I actually find more interesting is the 4th symphony, which was in rehearsal when an article came out that criticized Shostakovich’s opera. So he put the 4th symphony away and it wasn’t performed until after Stalin’s death. I find that fascinating.

Kernis: Certainly the 5th has had an impact on its audiences from its premiere, and what we view as the kind of coded aspect. In many of his pieces, Shostakovich somehow was able to play right on the edge between populism and art, trying to navigate how not to be shot.

Ebright: The number one goal in composing.

Kernis: It’s true! But it’s a good thing we’re not in that situation at the moment. I’m seeing younger composers who are taking the chance in many works to respond to issues of the moment. They seem far less concerned with thinking about the progressive march of modernism. One of those works, The Source, is a theatrical work by Ted Hearne, who is one of the most politically active composers I know now. It’s based on transcripts of Chelsea Manning and about her court martial, and I believe at the end of the piece there was footage—the music stopped—and there was footage of a drone strike, about a ten-minute drone strike. It had this absolute edge. We were sitting there in utter horror at the innocent people being bombed, and there was nothing the music could say to that; the music would only detract from that sensation. Hearne knew where to draw that line and how to present the musical aspect of Manning’s life and its relationship to a bombing that could not be expressed in musical terms.

Adler: I think what we’re talking about is actually communicating either by theater or by words as the most effective means of political engagement. So that it’s not only with the music, except for the mention of Shostakovich’s 5th symphony…

Kernis: But you have to know! Shostakovich’s audience knew what was going on.

Adler: True, but it doesn’t mean the same to us, so it’s not a universal kind of expression. I mean, every college orchestra now plays the 5th symphony…

Kernis: But do they know what it means?

Adler: They don’t, they don’t know what it means!

Likhuta: At the same time, as a composer of mostly programmatic music, I feel like when I’m writing programmatic music, it’s kind of like a book or a movie that I want people to experience, but by means of music. In a way it’s more timeless than a movie or book because the language is more ambiguous. Listening to Shostakovich’s symphonies when I lived in Chicago, I felt like I was watching movies or reading books about these events. Maybe I could feel them a little closer to my heart because I grew up in Soviet-era Ukraine and my parents and grandparents lived most of their lives in the Soviet Union. Every person in Ukraine at the moment has grandparents or great-grandparents who went through war and famine. And Soviet movies about war, which we all watched in Ukraine growing up, use his music, or music in that style. So I think maybe Shostakovich was closer to me because of that. I never felt that it was out of my time and that it’s not something current to me. I heard that music and I could feel—as much as one can feel having a mobile phone and food and warmth and all of that—the pain of the people who were experiencing the war.

Kernis: You have an experiential context for that, a historical context. But for people who don’t have that, without words, it’s hard to have that same involvement or understanding.

Likhuta: Absolutely. The work that I originally wanted to mention, though, was Karel Husa’s Music for Prague. I heard him talk about this piece a decade ago at Cornell. He said he didn’t choose to write this piece; this piece chose him to write it. He was in the United States when the Soviets attacked the Czech Republic and he was not allowed to go back, so he felt he had to speak up through his music. Music for Prague opens with this solo in the flute, like a birdsong, and it’s a Czech folk tune about freedom, which then gets gobbled up by the orchestra. It’s political not in the sense of Democrats versus Republicans; it’s political in the sense of fighting for freedom. I think it can speak to anyone. It doesn’t have to be of that time. It speaks to me as a Ukrainian person whose country is experiencing a war, now.

Adler: That piece is also based on the most important hymn of Czechoslovakia, so it’s as if it had words. So it’s not a piece of abstract music.

Grenfell: There’s an Australian composer, Robert Davidson, who has written quite a few pieces setting political speeches for choir. They’re very funny, and he often interpolates them with video, and sort of chops them up and has lots of loops and sequences. His most successful one used a recording of Julia Gillard, who was Australia’s first woman prime minister, when she was lectured about sexism by the then leader of the opposition, who is a very conservative politician. Her response became known as “the misogyny speech.”

Likhuta: There was one about Trump recently that finished with, [singing] “I just don’t respect her!”

Ebright: I want to switch gears briefly to think about musical politics rather than political music, per se. And I also want to end on something of an optimistic note. What is one positive change within the field of classical music that you have seen during your career?

Adler: I’m the greatest optimist you’re going to find. I feel there’s more great talent in the world of classical music that ever before. The level of our student composers is at least as high as it ever was, if not higher. I see great things happening in the next generation and the generation beyond. But to answer your question: one change, in which Aaron played a role, is the reading by professional orchestras of works by early-stage or student composers.

Kernis: Most recently, I’m very encouraged to see the issue of inequality being addressed, in terms of women conductors and composers in particular.

Grenfell: It’s very encouraging that this is being spoken about openly. It’s on the table now, particularly with women programmed in orchestral concert seasons. And I also think that the opportunity to work for a short intensive period of time with a professional orchestra is absolutely invaluable. I helped set up a program that’s been going for about 11 years now in Australia called the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Australian Composers’ School. The aim is to bridge the gap between higher education and being commissioned, which is where the worst gap is. That’s where everybody falls through the cracks unless they can leap over somehow and get their first commission. Orchestras really do need to take responsibility for bringing up the next generation of composers.

Likhuta: I also appreciate how many composition professors support young composers not only in their composing, but also by showing them what being a composer is like. That it’s not easy, but it’s not necessarily as hard as somebody would think. It’s a tricky field, and today you need to learn to be an entrepreneur, to be your own producer, your own publisher, all that. And I think it’s starting to happen more.

Ebright: So, more holistic mentorship?

Likhuta: Yeah, I think that’s important. The final thing that I want to mention is that international collaborations have become so much easier now. I do at least as much work with international collaborators as I do in Australia. We can have this much wider network than we were able to have 10 or 20 years ago.

Ebright: Are there questions from the audience?

Audience member: I have a question about Beethoven’s 9th symphony, which Professor Adler held up as the paradigm of a successful political piece. In going for so broad a theme as brotherhood (which you all seem to agree keeps music from becoming dated), did not Beethoven open himself up to having that music reappropriated by vastly differing political movements such as the Nazis and the EU and the reunification of West and East Germany? How do you navigate universality without losing specificity to the point that it can be about any kind of politics?

Kernis: Your question has me ruminating on instances where a culture or country has taken a work of art and used it for its own political ends. I can’t think of so many. Recently, certain popular songs have been used without permission in political campaigns or events. But thinking back to Germany using Beethoven’s work to promote the idea that Germany was the most advanced culture—have there been many more instances?

Ebright: Rhodesia used the “Ode to Joy” as their national anthem as an apartheid state.

Kernis: That is the perfect example of the problem—the music can be used nefariously for totalitarian purposes.

Audience member: Classical music can be built upon pillars that encompass misogyny and traditionally white European culture. As a student I have mixed feelings about studying something that is so narrow in its invention and its audience. How can we see through that structure as opposed to seeing around it?

Grenfell: I think programming is really important. There needs to be more awareness and openness of what gets programmed and where things are placed in a program. Because programs tend to fall into the same patterns over and over if there’s not a conscious decision to shape it. I think it’s good that some organizations are getting called on for not including more women or ethnically-diverse composers on their list.

Adler: But you have to be very careful not to look at the past in terms of today. It was a different time; you have to take everything historically. Things change and we have to change with them, but at the same time, you can’t reject the past. There are still great works that were written in the past that speak to us. You just can’t put our aesthetics on the past.

Audience member: What’s the difference between political music and propaganda? Is propaganda just political music that you don’t like?

Adler: [laughing] Propaganda is everything bad!

Grenfell: Maybe propaganda is the kind of music that you’re forced to write or forced to hear in a certain way, whereas political music is a choice as a composer?

Work the Work, Daily: Community-Building, Music-Making, and Conference Culture with Tenderloin Opera Company

TOC members at PRONK

It is a dreary, late-fall afternoon when I knock on the door to Diamond’s apartment, a nice duplex in a tidy neighborhood in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. She opens the door and quickly says, “Jacob, you’re not going to believe this, come look.” I walk through her living room, which is usually cozy but is now filled with twenty over-stuffed garbage bags full of clothes. They were given to her to donate to the homeless and at-risk people that are her clients at the shelter and service center where she works. As winter comes in Rhode Island, these clothes, shoes, and blankets are desperately needed. We get to her bedroom where she lifts a blanket sitting on a crate to reveal a small dog. The little black terrier with wiry hair is jumping and squeaking with excitement. “I’m watching her for a few days until she can get to her new home.”

Three years ago when I met Diamond, I do not think anyone could have imagined that she would be in this situation: housed in a good apartment doing two things she loves—fostering dogs and helping the homeless. Three years ago she was herself homeless and mourning the death of her good friend Wendy Tallo. That was when she first came to a meeting of the Tenderloin Opera Company.

Tenderloin Opera Company is a homeless advocacy music and theater group based in Providence, Rhode Island. It was founded by playwright Erik Ehn and composers Lisa Bielawa and Joshua Raoul Brody in San Francisco. When Erik transplanted to Providence, he recruited local students and homeless advocates to start a new version of the group locally. I was one of them. We kept the name, Tenderloin, to honor the neighborhood in which it was founded. Now in our ninth season, TOC comprises about a dozen core members, including folks who are currently homeless, formerly homeless, homeless advocates, students, artists, and other friends. The members of TOC compose and perform one opera each year based on stories of homelessness, abuse, addiction, hope, love, and redemption. We also perform at social and political events, protests, and marches about issues related to homelessness.

We meet weekly at Mathewson Street Methodist Church in downtown Providence. The church is a hub for homeless outreach non-profits and volunteer groups and hosts a number of free community meals every week. We meet right before the meal on Friday afternoons.

“Put your bodies in the space of someone else…It’s already a whole lot.”
-Helga Davis, New Music Gathering 2018 Keynote Address

Our meetings start with a group check-in, which is perhaps the most important part of the whole enterprise. Members share their names and how they have been doing this week. During check-in, which sometimes lasts up to half an hour, we learn who among the group has gotten housing, who is back on the street, who is sick, who in the community has passed away, who is excited about a new boyfriend (usually it’s Linda), who is doing well, who is recovering, and what is going on down the street at City Hall or the State House that affects the homeless, tenuously housed, and visibly poor populations in Rhode Island.

The rest of the session is spent working on the opera. It starts with generative writing exercises. These exercises are the genius method of Erik Ehn, and we have tried our best to keep the process since he moved away two years ago. They start very simply, with everyone getting index cards and responding to prompts, such as: “List three people you saw on your way to TOC today,” “Five signs of autumn you see on the streets,” “Who has been on your mind this week?” We then read our responses and mix them up: “Take one person you are thinking about this week, and one person someone next to you mentioned, and come up with two things they talk about together,” “Take one sign of autumn you saw, and one you heard from a friend, and make two lines that rhyme.”

Out of this simple writing process characters emerge, those characters interact in a story, that story becomes a script, we make some songs out of the script, and come out with our “opera”—one a year for the past nine years. The operas are technically more like musicals: songs mixed with spoken dialogue. The music for the songs is composed primarily by co-music director Kirsten Volness, some by me, and some with the group all together at the piano.

We have fun in Tenderloin and get to know people.
A place to meet and talk and sing.
A safe space.
My one hour of sanity!
A place to let people know what’s going on in the streets.
—Collective TOC members’ answers to the question, “What is TOC to me?”

We perform the operas each spring, and songs from all the operas (“greatest hits”) at least monthly all around Rhode Island. We all create the characters and drama together, learn the songs together, and perform together. We are always on book, and our motto is “Wrong and Strong.” However, Tenderloin Opera Company performances are some of the most expressive and challenging that I have even been a part of. The music is pop-y, but odd, complex, not what you imagine songs for untrained musicians to be. Within each song are fragments of many people’s stories strung along a main narrative. There are sometimes dance routines, sometimes live sign language translation (also courtesy of Linda), and often extended rhythm vamps, opened up for members to approach a mic and tell a story.

TOC members in rehearsal

TOC members in rehearsal

TOC works are truly “operatic” in subject matter and deal with stories derived from our members’ experiences with homelessness: loss, neglect, exploitation from landlords and politicians, and police harassment, but also love, recovery, magic, and spirituality. Homelessness is deadly, and almost all of our plays involve memorial songs we write about members and friends who have passed. Their ghosts and angels inhabit our operas, as do robots, talking dogs, half-baked superheroes, and villains who curiously resemble the local politicians, authorities, and land developers whose actions threaten the lives of our members and the character of our city.

An example of how a TOC member’s personal experiences transformed into a song is the case of founding member David Eisenberger and the song “Article 134.” The story derived from Dave’s experience as a veteran and having to deal with the unfair and dehumanizing aspects of the code of military justice and veteran neglect. Its lyrics include his stories and experiences, but also a smattering of those from other group members, including dealing with a pregnant teenage daughter, relationship drama, and a collapsing marriage.

“Work the work, daily”
—from the TOC song “Ranger Juan

For almost ten years, Tenderloin Opera Company has been effective in helping our members express themselves, find friendship and fellowship, but also find resources, services, donated goods, whatever is needed in a given week. It connects our members to a broader homeless services network, 134 Collaborative, headquartered at Mathewson Street United Methodist Church. We look out for each other, make art, and perform together.

What has allowed for this success is consistency and situating our activity within the homeless and homeless advocacy community. We meet, rehearse, and perform our operas in the place where people come to serve, eat meals, and get vital services.

TOC playing a gig at People’s Baptist Church community meal, Providence 2016

TOC playing a gig at People’s Baptist Church community meal, Providence 2016

TOC On Tour: Community Art and Conference Culture

In 2016, TOC was invited to present at the New Music Gathering hosted at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. The theme for that year’s gathering was “Community,” and we performed some songs and took part in a panel discussion that included other community arts groups from around the country.

I knew it was important to bring some TOC members who were currently experiencing homelessness or were closer to it than I and the other more privileged members were. When I asked the group, Diamond insisted that she was going.

TOC members Laurie Amat, Diamond Madsen, Wendy Thomas, and Jacob Richman at Peabody Conservatory 2016

TOC members Laurie Amat, Diamond Madsen, Wendy Thomas, and Jacob Richman at Peabody Conservatory 2016

At the time, Ruth “Diamond” Madsen was at a low point. She had been in and out of homelessness and was currently staying at Crossroads, the largest shelter and transitional housing complex in Rhode Island. Among other things, she was struggling with the loss of a good friend, Wendy Tallo, who had been found hanging from a tree in a cemetery off Broad Street, one of the most hard-up blocks in Providence. The official cause of death was suicide, though word on the street was that she was murdered. Diamond wrote a poem about it that we had set to music earlier that season. This horrific event came during a dark couple of years in which there were numerous attacks on homeless and visibly poor individuals in Rhode Island, including some TOC members.

It wasn’t easy making sure Diamond could get away. I had to talk to her case manager at Crossroads to convince them that the conference and her role as speaker and performer was legitimate, and to make sure her spot at the shelter wouldn’t be given up while she was gone. The lack of trust and leeway given to Diamond was very demoralizing.

Once that was settled, we piled four TOC members and luggage in my car and sped off south on I-95. As soon as we hit the road, there was a change in Diamond’s demeanor. She was excited, singing and dancing around in her seat. Then she quieted down and started furiously thumbing at her phone. By the time we crossed the Delaware River, Diamond had used social media to contact a number of homeless outreach organizations in Baltimore. She had scheduled time for us to visit the Franciscan Center of Baltimore, to work at the kitchen there giving out meals, sort donated coats, and perform with TOC at breakfast. She did all this in a couple of hours on her phone in the car.

We spent our week in Baltimore traveling between the marble palace of Peabody Conservatory to perform and talk about homelessness and arts outreach, and the Franciscan Center on West 23rd Street to play for homeless people, hand out coats, and share stories.

Diamond was a star at both locations. After our talk and performance at NMG, she was swarmed by new fans who listened to her share her experiences and asked nervous questions about building community through new music and art.

“What’s all this about community?…You know where I am. I’m homeless. Just come be with me and you’ll be my community.”
—Ruth “Diamond” Madsen, New Music Gathering 2016

Diamond addressing crowd at NMG 2016

Diamond addressing crowd at NMG 2016

There is a disconnection between the ease with which Diamond approaches community and the way we approach it as community arts groups at conferences—just like there is often a disconnection between our rhetoric on diversity and inclusivity in the new music community and how we actually practice our art.

I was disheartened to see that many of the same discussions (“conversations,” as we often say) we had at the 2016 New Music Gathering were repeated at the 2018 NMG in Boston, without much having changed in the intervening two years. To understand this, it is worth watching Keynote Speaker Helga Davis’s brilliant, Socratic indictment of the difference between the stated aspirations and realities of the new music community.

“If you want to know what you want, look at what you have.”
—Helga Davis quoting August Gold, NMG 2018 Keynote Address

A number of times I have been invited to speak about TOC at conferences focused on the arts and community building, yet have been asked to leave my fellow TOC community members at home—to give my “notes from the field,” I suppose. Based on my own experiences at these conferences, they seem to achieve little in terms of the broad concerns they presume to address.

However, the effect that visiting the New Music Gathering had on Diamond was profound. Since the conference almost three years ago, Diamond has been continuously housed, has been awarded internships and paid trainings, and is now working at a homeless outreach center and women’s shelter in Pawtucket, RI. She attends TOC meetings almost every week and helps fellow bandmate Wendy organize clothing donations at Mathewson Street Church where we meet. She still talks about the crabs and spiked milkshakes we had at our splurge dinner in Baltimore.

Diamond enjoying crabs

Diamond enjoying crabs

Diamond: Risky Business

…and doing “Risky Business” at our hotel in Mount Vernon, Baltimore

Things were rough for Diamond when we left. But at the New Music Gathering she saw how much people valued her and her knowledge about the homeless community, and how people from different backgrounds can come together in a group like TOC to share stories and make music. The fact that she was asked to share this information and help people at both places of high privilege and extreme need made the process even more meaningful.


What my experience with TOC at the New Music Gathering taught me was that these types of meetings can make change, but only if you let people in. What if we invited more people from different backgrounds to a conference like NMG? What if we did outreach? Volunteered as part of the conference program? Held a student instrument exchange? What if we let performers of all kinds perform their own new music in the well-heeled institutions where these things are held, and also had the conference take place in community centers, schools, churches, clubs, and homeless shelters? I believe we spend way too much time locking ourselves in our privileged spaces, looking around at the people who look just like us, and asking each other why nothing changes.

“Make something with a group of people that includes people that don’t look like you…Just the invitation will begin to open a door…We’re interested in opening the door.”
—Helga Davis, NMG 2018 Keynote Address

We need to create community art that lets people in and lets everyone grow. I think we can do this by being more mobile, flexible, and accessible. Flexible in terms of where, when, and with whom we perform. Accessible not in the terms of the art we make—some TOC performances are as complex as anything I’ve seen or performed—but in terms of cost, location, and transportation options to the venue. We in the new music community will have to give up control and come out of our comfort zones.

Here’s my advice based on my experience with the Tenderloin Opera Company for almost ten years: Show up. Be consistent. Make friends. Meet in a space that is accessible to your community (geographically, economically, handicap accessible). Keep the performing group together for more than one show. Raise money to go on trips and small tours. Diamond demonstrated to me how important and impactful these excursions can be.

Prepare for it to be hard: the structures that separate us are old, powerful, and ingrained. There will almost always be something that trips us up and reveals the privilege, difference, otherness, and walls between people that your group is working to dismantle. But that’s okay. It’s necessary. Expect to be challenged. As Davis said, “Be willing to let go of your rightness of what you think you know.” If we are not able to do that, we should stop lying to ourselves about wanting to change.

Take Better Care of Yourself By Making Small Changes

A cream coloured mug filled with coffee and the word "Begin" written on the front

These days, being a musician usually means managing many aspects of our careers: performer, educator, composer, etc. Then, each one of those inherently comes with many different job descriptions: content creator, marketer, bookkeeper, project manager, writer/blogger, graphic designer, and administrative assistant!

Many of us are doing all of those things ourselves, and it’s not easy. So it’s not surprising that it can feel hard to add healthy habits to our lives when not dropping one of the balls we’re already juggling is quite a feat.

Making lifestyle changes can feel overwhelming, especially if you tend to be an all-or-nothing kind of person. I definitely can be, and I’ve attempted many failed “life overhauls,” which of course didn’t work, because I was trying to do everything at once! It’s much more helpful to think of change as a process, and approach it patiently and incrementally, instead. (This is also a process.)

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits suggests that you think of a ridiculously small way to implement a new habit, such as flossing just one tooth, making the task so small that you can’t possibly rationalize not doing it. I admit, when I first read that, I scoffed, because how is flossing one tooth going to help with overall dental health? But while forming a habit, it’s actually not about the amount of action taken, it’s about the fact that you are consistently taking an action.

So where do we start with making changes?

If you’re an ambitious person (and I bet you are), you probably have lots of things on your list that you’re going to start “once you have time.” That can be a losing proposition, though, because rarely do things actually calm down. For me, the answer has been to schedule the things that I find most important, since urgent tasks often crowd out important tasks. But figuring out what’s important can also be a big question to answer.

I highly recommend the exercise that Megan Ihnen outlines in this article to get clearer on what your long-term goals look like and, by moving backward from there, determining how you’ll reach them. The next step is actually scheduling small actions that will move you toward each of those goalposts, because small bits/actions add up to big things. I happen to be really good at making detailed to-do lists, even broken down into small tasks. For a long time, I wondered, since I was so good at setting goals, why I wasn’t making much progress toward them. It turns out that we actually have to make time to do things in order to get them done, which can especially be challenging when there might not be a consistent routine or a “typical day” (more on that later).

You have a body

Everyone’s top priority goals are going to vary, but every single one of us has a body. Many of us view our bodies as inconveniences, at best, being annoyed about having to stop working to eat, drink water, go to the bathroom, etc. Lots of factors (being a music student, an American, a busy person) encourage us to get really good at living in our brains and ignoring our bodies. However, we have to take care of our bodies, or they will let us know via illness—and our brains certainly won’t work optimally, either!

Making friends with rest

Burnout is rampant among musicians. I hosted a Musochat last August on the topic of wellness and creativity, and nearly everyone replied that they had experienced burnout or were currently experiencing it. I certainly have, too, more than once, and last year it caused me to lose months of productive work due to anxiety (on the outside it looked like I was functioning, but I was only able to complete my work commitments each day, and was too exhausted to do much else). Now I am increasingly suspicious of the glorification of “hustling” and working all of the time, because it’s just not sustainable.

As a result, I had to renew and step up my commitment not just to self-care (I’ll get to that in a moment), but to rest. As the descendant of Midwestern farmers and a former music student (at a school where my peers were bragging about how many classes they were taking and how little sleep they were getting), I have always tended toward workaholism. This is also reinforced by our culture, which praises hard and even constant work. So, it makes sense that rest and taking time off can seem subversive!

Ironically, as I was creeping into the worst bout of anxiety and burnout that I’d had in a long while, I was simultaneously taking an online class on rest with Mara Glatzel, whose podcast Needy I also highly recommend. I know that it says something about me that I had to take a class on rest, but it also says something that I did not actually find real time for rest while taking this class! Now I better understand what my limits are, and I make sure to set boundaries on my work time. I also actually schedule rest time on my calendar.

Self-care is not just a buzzword

Self-care is not just about bubble baths and spa days (although those can be great). It’s about giving yourself what you need, which is going to look different for everyone. If you don’t know what you need, try starting by creating a five-minute daily practice during which you ask yourself what you need. I like to do this while I’m on my daily walk each morning (exercise + mental self-care: 2-for-1!)

We all really need some time each day to check in with ourselves, and introverts and highly sensitive people might need even more processing time. I’ve often viewed my own sensitivity as a weakness, since it makes me more susceptible to anxiety and depression, but it’s also a superpower. It’s what allows me to be a perceptive musician, composer, and creator. If you struggle with mental health, you are absolutely not alone—you can read more about my journey in this blog post and my episode of the Essential Omnivore podcast. There are also some great perspectives in this Musical Creativity and Mental Health series.

As I worked my way out of that period of burnout and anxiety last year, the biggest game changer was self-compassion. A lot of us tend to be really hard on ourselves, especially when it comes to being realistic about how much we can get done in a day, but we can practice being nicer to ourselves. I really like the meditations by Dr. Kristin Neff, which are free on her website and range from 5 to 25 minutes in length, so they’re easy to fit into a busy schedule.

I also recommend watching Day 2 of Angela Beeching’s Creative Productivity Challenge about negative self-talk and being more aware of our thoughts and feelings. She wisely reminds us, “It’s easy to imagine that other artists have all this figured out and that for them, creative work is a joy and ideas and solutions come easily.” The truth is that we all struggle with creative work and it is always a process, but we don’t have to feel bad about it (and if we do, that’s okay, too). Social media shows us a highlight reel of the work others are doing, without a full picture of the messy process of creating something. We don’t need to compare ourselves to an unrealistic image of only success; it isn’t helpful in any way. The longer I’ve been in my career, the more I realize that my mindset is almost the only thing that truly holds me back.

Do it motivation

Now I invite you to pick one (yes, just one!) small change that you’re going to make over the next month. Focusing on one change at a time will drastically increase your chance of successfully integrating it as a habit.

This is going to look different for everyone, but maybe your ways of taking care of your body will involve food, aerobic exercise, yoga, or taking five minutes to stretch before bed. Perhaps your ways of taking care of your mind will look like adding five minutes of meditation to your day, a morning or night self-check-in with what you need, or a mantra that you come back to throughout the day. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something that you truly feel you need, not just something you think you “should” do because of external forces.

No matter how chaotic your routine (or lack thereof) might be, there are a few things that happen every single day: waking up, eating meals, and going to bed. You can pick one of these, or something else that you always do every day, and attach your new habit to it, scheduling it right before or afterward.

Now, actually put it on your calendar, or create a repeating alert on your phone, so that it has a tangible place in your life. As Dennis Tobenski shows in his article “Pitfalls of Living the Freelance Life,” you could use a bullet journal, or whatever system works for you. He also takes time each weekend to schedule out the week, and schedules breaks and vacations, which is crucial.

Then, find a weekly time to check in with yourself about how it’s going. My weekly check-in consists of just three questions:

  • What’s working?
  • What’s not working?
  • What did I learn this week?

(I’ll be honest, when I tried to do a more extensive weekly check-in, I just stopped doing it, so don’t be afraid to keep it simple.)

This check-in is incredibly helpful because it allows and encourages me to make changes and tweaks as they are needed. If I failed to do my new habit that week, why did that happen, and what can I do differently next week? (Go back to those self-compassion exercises if you need to.) We can give ourselves permission to start and re-start things as much as we need to.

I’m wishing you success in your new habits and all of your endeavors! If you’re looking for some outside perspective on wellness as a creative person, feel free to get in touch. I offer free Virtual Office Hours in addition to coaching services.

Retaking the Stage: What Artists Can Be In Our Society

Composer Lei Liang and soprano Susan Narucki were aware they were delving into a topic of immense importance in their new chamber opera, Inheritance, which deals with guns and gun violence. So they didn’t really need a reminder of the issue’s urgency when a gunman murdered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue gathered for Shabbat morning services on October 27, the day of the opera’s third and final performance at the University of California San Diego.

“That Saturday performance was very difficult, personally,” said Narucki, who produced the opera and sang the central role of Winchester Repeating Arms Company heiress Sarah Winchester. Narucki, like Liang, is on the UCSD music faculty and they had previously collaborated in the one-woman chamber opera Cuatro Corridos, whose four stories (set by Liang, Hilda Paredes, Arlene Sierra, and Hebert Vázquez) dealt with human trafficking.

“Can art make a difference?” Narucki asked. “I have to say, when we were going onto the stage Saturday evening, I thought, ‘What can make a difference?’ There’s a part of me that felt we’ve gone so far in the direction of just not hearing each other—we’ve normalized insanity—that nothing could make a difference.”

That moment of hopelessness passed, as Narucki possesses a strong core belief in music’s transformational potential. After a moment of silence in memory of the shooting victims, conductor Steven Schick gave the downbeat and the opera opened with a percussive volley that could have been mistaken for gunshots. “I think what ends up happening, and the whole cast felt this way, is there’s a kind of intensity you give to your performance in situations like that,” she said. “It’s difficult, but it seems like it’s a cry to try to break through that wall of indifference.”

Whether the piece—with a libretto by Matt Donovan, design by Ligia Bouton, and stage direction by Cara Consilvio—succeeded on that level can only be gauged by the individuals in the audience, but there was another wall that this unusually powerful work breeched in its immediate connection with a timely, complex, and controversial political and social issue: the apparent barrier between life and new music.

“On the one hand we’re at this experimental music center [UCSD’s music department], redefining what music can be,” said Liang, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2015 for his saxophone concerto Xiaoxiang (which has its own political subtext). Like Xiaoxiang—indeed, like most of his works—Inheritance tests, and even expands, the limits of the opera’s eight-member instrumental ensemble (two clarinets, trumpet, two percussionists, guitar, harpsichord and contrabass), creating a unique and wide-ranging sonic palette that extends far beyond the mere use of harmonics and multiphonics. “You can discover a lot of new things in things we thought were old,” said Liang, who is also research artist-in-residence at UCSD’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. “It’s just the way of thinking was old, the way of playing was old.

“[On the other hand,] Susan and I share this passion that we shouldn’t think of ourselves in a box. Of course there are a lot of things that are kind of fun just because you discover something new, but they have to find their right context, their right message, their relevance to the story. With all these inventions and creating our own new music language, we cannot disassociate ourselves from the importance of what is really urgent in our society. We have to face it.”


While it’s difficult to generalize that Liang’s impulse to engage with social and political issues is shared by a growing number of composers in an increasingly polarized and politically charged environment, politics is proving to be fertile ground for composers looking to connect with an audience, and not only in chamber opera (a form Du Yun also used in her 2017 Pulitzer-winning Angel’s Bone, which offered an allegory on human trafficking) and opera (whether John Adams, who has repeatedly relied on current social and political themes, most recently in the 2017 Girls of the Golden West or David T. Little, in particular his 2016 opera JFK, but also his earlier Soldier Songs and Dog Days).

John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean and Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields both gently raise contemporary issues (climate change and the culture of coal), and both won Pulitzer Prizes (Adams in 2014; Wolfe in 2015), while younger composers such as LJ White, are dealing with issues that are no less immediate and in White’s case, particularly personal.

“There is a school of thought in contemporary classical music that music should be above everything else, that it should have a purity about it,” said White, who is on the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis. “To me, that doesn’t make sense. Everything we do in art comes from what’s around us and who we are as humans.”

White uses his own life as a metaphor. He is transitioning, and has been coming out over the last several years, which has inevitably affected his music. But even before that, he found himself interested in which musical elements signify genre. “I’ve been fascinated with the boxes we put ourselves into and how we can sort of combine signifiers from different worlds to create something that isn’t easily classifiable,” he said. “And I think that has a lot to do with the way I present myself in the world as well.

“I like my music to be a series of microdecisions, any of which could go in any direction to best convey what I’m trying to convey, the feeling or the purpose, rather than something that starts from a large decision that automatically makes a lot of your smaller decisions. That’s kind of what genre is, and also what being male or female is in a way. And that’s something else that’s charged and political, especially in the current moment.”

White’s compositions include pieces that are overtly political, such as his most recent work, Shuffled ‘Notes from “A Guide to Drag Kinging”’, based on a poem by Franny Choi and commissioned by Pushback, a new “modular contemporary music ensemble” whose mission is to advocate for groups that are “underrepresented and oppressed,” both in and outside the world of music.

I’ve had a growing frustration with the idea that my artistic practice, and my life and the lives of those in my community, in political and socio-economic terms, were separate.

“We feel that a lot of the art we have made, and we have seen others making, seems a little distant from our sociopolitical lives, and the rest of our lives, really,” said soprano Ally Smither, who co-founded the project with bassoonist Ben Roidl-Ward. (They met while students at Rice University.) “I’ve had a growing frustration with the idea that my artistic practice, and my life and the lives of those in my community, in political and socio-economic terms, were separate and they didn’t interact,” said Roidi-Ward. “I think it’s important, especially within the community and in creating new work, that the work has something to say about the world that we live in, and the world we want to live in, and the type of community we want to build.” Pushback, which formed earlier this year, has already commissioned pieces by Binna Kim, Karim Al-Zand (Songs from the Post-Truth Era), Theo Chandler (Tamora Monologues) and White, who has also just completed a work for Schick and the La Jolla Symphony, which will be premiered at UCSD on February 9, 2019.

White’s new orchestral piece for La Jolla, Community Acoustics, is inspired by phenomena in natural ecosystems where, in White’s words, “a stratification develops among species where they all kind of have a certain register that is theirs alone and that they use for their calls and communication with other members of their species. It forms this sort of interlocking registral environment that allows everybody to be heard…And scientists have observed this and seen cases where it’s disastrous when this gets disrupted.”

It doesn’t take much of a stretch to see that even nature can be political. “Maybe ten years ago, that wouldn’t have been a charged topic,” said White. “But it is now. Everything is political.” Schick, who commissioned the piece and is music director of the La Jolla Symphony, increasingly eschews the term “political music,” and in a new commissioning program he and Brenda Schick (his wife) are putting together, he’s focusing on music with “optimistic social values,” of which White’s piece is the first commission.

“I really realized that my objection to, in quotation marks, ‘political music,’ is that it is so often proscriptive,” said Schick, a faculty member at UCSD and an esteemed percussionist in addition to his activities as a conductor. “It is a statement built on a negative. ‘We can’t do this anymore.’ ‘We can’t have that.’ ‘Look how horrible this is.’ ‘Look at the problems here.’ I wouldn’t say that is the definition of political music, but I think it turns out that a lot of the music that takes on things that cross over into real life takes a remedial approach. And what I’m trying to do, and I believe this is what distinguishes my interests from at least some people, is that I see the job of music in this regard as an affirmative action toward a moral society as opposed to a punitive action toward an immoral society.”


Liang and Narucki had similar concerns. They were not inclined to make a piece with an overtly political message, but were committed to doing something on the topic of guns. “There are works that are the result of some circumstance, some commission, some external reason, but there are also works that just have to happen,” said Liang, whose own experience with guns dates back to 1989 in Tiananmen Square, when as a teenage protester, he found himself face-to-face with armed soldiers.

“This is one of those topics we have to do, especially because it is so hard,” Liang said. “It’s such a difficult topic to deal with. It’s such a black and white thing (in terms of people’s opinions). It’s so easy for people to think, before they even see it, ‘I know what the conclusion is going to be,’ and it seems people have already made up their minds. It’s so hard to find the right angle, to say, ‘No, there’s a humanity in this we must face and we must rediscover as we find ourselves in this conversation.’ I think that’s the thing that took us a while to find: what is the perfect angle to do this, a personal one for us?”

Scene from Inheritance (2018)

Inheritance (2018)
Photo by Farshid Bazmandegan

Liang had met Donovan, the librettist, while both were fellows at the American Academy in Rome, and Donovan, a poet who is director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, had been doing research on gun violence. “I’m really concerned about gun violence in this country, so it seemed like something that would be worth thinking about as a subject,” said Donovan. “But I will say I was reluctant. I was cautious from the outset about pursuing the topic because I didn’t want to write anything that would at all be didactic. I wanted to write something that would address the issue, and allow the issue to resonate for the audience, but I didn’t want to be presumptive, and write something that would be any way instructional about how this very complex issue might start to be resolved in this country.”

By chance, Donovan came across an essay about Sarah Winchester and her San Jose “mystery house,” where she moved after the death of her child and then her husband, and she renovated and expanded continually for nearly four decades. Donovan explained how that shaped the work itself:

Clearly there are some apocryphal stories that are all wound up in her legacy, but if you believe the legends, or at least take them at face value for a moment, I think what we have is a woman who is concerned about bloodshed from guns, but complicit in it in a very direct way. But then, her response to that concern, and her response to the violence that was caused by the guns [that her late husband produced and which now supported her] was to move out West and create a labyrinth from which there’s no real escape and no clear resolution.

And that for me became a rich metaphor, because I see America in Winchester. I see a lot of people, gun owners and non-gun owners alike, who are concerned about gun violence, but we are at such an impasse given how polarized the topic is, that I don’t see a clear resolution, and I don’t see anyone building a clear path toward any kind of change. So the labyrinth metaphor, it resonated with me right away and aligned with this idea this piece will be suggestive rather than instructive.

Liang and Narucki immediately embraced the idea and engaged Donovan to write a libretto and began developing the production, supported by grants from Creative Capital, the NEA, ArtPower, UCSD, and New Music USA. “It was beautiful to discover Sarah Winchester, this person who embodies the complexity of this issue,” said Liang, continuing:

The thing that moved me the most was when I went to the Winchester House, and saw she was such a wealthy person and everyone thought she was keeping some hidden wealth in a safe. It was typical of her; she had a safe within the safe. And when she died, they [her servants] rushed to get the key to the safe and discovered only two locks of hair [of her husband and her daughter]. It was such a powerful moment; it really showed what meant so much to her. It was life, it was her daughter’s life, it was her husband’s life, and she was living in this long period of grief because of loss of life. So that just made me feel there’s something we all can connect with.

It’s the humanity of it. We can let go of everything else in life, but not the ones we love. That is just something as a father, as a friend, as a son, I can relate to very, very deeply. I thought she gave us a really great opening to discover who she was, and in that process, discover what’s happened to us.

In developing the score over a period of three years, Liang said he wanted to build his own “mystery house,” his own sonic labyrinth. Within it he incorporates references to Winchester, whether in the use of the number 13 in the work’s rhythmic scheme (Winchester’s favorite number) or the inclusion of a Japanese scale, as Winchester had a close relationship with her Japanese gardener and his family.

Divided into ten scenes within a single act set in Winchester’s house, the piece juxtaposes past and present, myth and reality, the character of Sarah and three ghosts who double as a tour guide and two tourists (sung by Josué Cerón, Hillary Jean Young, and Kirsten Ashley Wiest in this production). At the end of Scene 8, the character of Sarah finally gets fed up with hearing the tour guide explain her life and her motivations and confronts him:

This, then is madness? To mourn the dead, to at least attempt to respond? To keep the hammers pounding in order to bear the dead in mind? …

Madness is not to be haunted, to ignore the dead, to act as if they’ve never been alive. Madness is to do nothing as the numbers of the dead grow.

That’s as close as Inheritance comes to making an overt political statement, but in the context of the opera, it seems an inevitable conclusion as we realize we’ve somehow normalized the “insanity” of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent men, women, and children needlessly dying on a routine basis.

Scene from Inheritance (2018)

Inheritance (2018)
Photo by Farshid Bazmandegan

“Right now, given the political climate not only in our country, in the world of culture, the world of politics and society, there’s a lot of upheaval,” Narucki said. ”I do think, no matter how much I revere and adore the works of the operatic canon, that new works that are small scale and address contemporary issues in this way, puncturing the balloon, or puncturing that wall, will end up adding more vitality to the form, and attracting new audiences.

“Hopefully, it’s actually much more. It’s not as much about attracting new audiences as it is about retaking the stage for what artists can be in our society. I feel artists in our field, in the classical field, have in some way ceded their power. Music and performance is an incredibly powerful way to connect people. We doubt that power. We doubt the power we have to move and connect, and works like this bring people together in a way that’s very unexpected. That’s what’s very interesting to me, the idea you can create community and discourse and new ways of understanding each other through pieces of art like this. We do it with film, we do it with some museum installations, we do it with popular music. Why can’t we do it with this?”

Composers Collaborate!

In the beginning of August 2018, I was in Montpelier, Vermont, preparing to give a talk to the students enrolled in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Music Composition Program. My talk was titled, “How Many Hats Can a Composer Wear Successfully?”. I looked out at my colleagues in the room. I knew what the response would be: one of beleaguered pride, the pride of a warrior who knows the score and has survived despite the odds against him or her. In that moment, I realized that I didn’t really want to talk about how many hats we wear as a badge of pride. The point I really wanted to bring home was how much we lose when we choose to write, arrange, perform, and produce in our own solitary creative bubble.

Our first instinct is to grab as much as possible of the already too-low fee for ourselves.

Early on in my career, I discovered the professional advantages of collaboration quite by accident. During the late 1990s, I was writing music for several dramatic reality TV shows when I got a request for some hip-hop music. My first thought was, “I can do that.” I knew I could, although it certainly wouldn’t be very authentic. But I did have several colleagues at the time who were more than capable of producing authentic hip-hop tracks. I made a decision that forever altered the course of my career. I brought in these colleagues to write and produce the hip-hop tracks. The reason this is so important is that as composers, especially at the beginning of our careers, most of us are, to put it plainly, broke. Our first instinct is to grab as much as possible of the already too-low fee for ourselves. After all, we have been laboring for years and have never been fairly compensated for our efforts, right? The idea of sharing the credit/fee or hiring help hasn’t crossed our minds yet. My good friend Paul Chihara has many stories of his early days in Hollywood as a film composer. In most of those stories, he talks about having to spend the entire fee on union contractors, arrangers, music editors, conductors, and players. Often, the expenses would be more than the fee. The results for Paul now include a long list of Hollywood film-scoring credits, including collaborations with the likes of Louis Malle, Arthur Penn, and—most notably—a long working relationship with Academy Award-nominated director Sydney Lumet. It was during one of those projects that we met, and Paul hired me to edit and prepare tracks for him.

Elaborating on the concept of collaboration, I’d like to share several examples that have stood the test of time.

In the not so distant past, any one of the following categories would have been considered a full-time vocation. Most of these people were composers themselves, but focused on one area of music production.

role chart of composers, lyricists, arrangers, producers, instrumentalists, and vocalists

Other related fields often not credited (except on the inner sleeves of record albums or the super tiny type on CD jackets):

Recording Engineer – Mix Engineer – Mastering Engineer

I look to the past not for sentimentality but for inspiration.

Here are several instances of truly inspiring collaborations over the years. Notably, most of these examples reach back into the past.  I believe there are several factors that contribute to this. First and foremost, the advent of digital technology was a game changer. Personally, I wasn’t able to participate in the pre-digital era of recording and producing. It was simply too expensive to work in the medium without the deep pockets of a record company.  For better and for worse, the era of digital technology levelled the playing field. Many of us were finally able to jump in and start making respectable sounding recordings. However, with the levelled field (which ultimately led to the demise of the record industry as we had known it) came a new breed of musical autocrat. I have never heard it better expressed than by Molly Sheridan who dubs it the “Absolute Great Man” syndrome. While the “Absolute Great Man” can now achieve what used to take several people to do, the loss of the collaborators and their different perspectives is, I believe, sorely felt. I look to the past not for sentimentality but for inspiration. Because although much of the music is dated, there is no argument on the high quality of the craft inherent in these examples.


It’s easy to call it a Michael Jackson effort, but the song “Thriller” was written by Rod Temperton and produced/arranged by Quincy Jones.

Let’s take a look at the track “Thriller” from the hit record album of the same name. It’s easy to call it a Michael Jackson effort and because of that, he is much revered for it. However the song “Thriller” was written by Rod Temperton and produced/arranged by Quincy Jones. To quote Alan Light from Rolling Stone October 30, 2009:

When asked today about the album Thriller, Jones points out – taking care to insist that he is not minimizing Jackson’s role – that it requires an entire brain trust to make a classic album. “Michael didn’t create Thriller,” he says. “It takes a team to make an album. He wrote four songs, and he sang his ass off, but he didn’t conceive it – that’s not how an album works.” Jones gives particular credit to the contributions of engineer Bruce Swedien and especially songwriter Rod Temperton, who had become a trusted Jones collaborator, contributing three songs for Off the Wall, including Rock With You and the title track.

Temperton had already written hits such as “Always and Forever” and “Boogie Nights” when he was in the band Heatwave during the mid to late 1970s. Quincy’s credits are too numerous to mention. But early on, he was in Elvis Presley’s backing band during his early TV appearances, played trumpet in Dizzy Gillespie’s band, and studied in the late 1950s with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen. Whew! And this doesn’t even include his film scores, among which are The Pawnbroker and In the Heat Of The Night (which earned him an Oscar for Best Original Score). Bruce Swedien, the engineer for the track, was the engineer for many Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons records, not to mention recording and mixing records by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Herbie Hancock.

Upon listening to “Thriller,” even by today’s standards, it stands out for the excellent quality of the recording, arrangement, and—most especially—Michael Jackson’s performance. The opening bass riff is probably Quincy. At least four people are credited with bringing the synthesizers to life. In our current paradigm, it would probably have been just one person putting together the entire track. The production of the Thriller album really marks a turning point in the production of popular music. Not only is this the beginning of the digital era, MTV was launched less than a year before Thriller was released. Suddenly pop music writers, producers, performers and audience members were confronted with an evolution from what had been largely an aural experience, to a hybrid aural/visual experience. Now we watch the Buggles video of “Video Killed the Radio Star” and take its truth for granted. At the time however, the very idea of the visual component becoming part of the music production process was terrifying to many composers and musicians. Many careers did not survive the transition. The generation that springs forward starting in the early 1980s, encompasses this entirely new phenomenon. The evolution of digital technology has fundamentally changed the nature of collaboration. More recent collaborations might now include Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan’s “Heartland” 1993 (written through exchanges by fax) and the Kanye West- Rihanna-Paul McCartney composition “FortyFiveSeconds”. The new level of inter-connectedness provided by the ever-evolving technology has forever altered the landscape of collaboration. Now we can trade session files in a way that makes it possible for collaboration without even being in the same country, something unimaginable in the not so distant past.

Listening to “Thriller” today, the sound is still awesome in the truest sense of the word. Given all of this combined experience, what you get is a recording of a song that stands the test of time—a true collaboration by four heavy hitters, all at the top of their game.

“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”

I recently watched the PBS American Masters interview with Carole King during which she talked about bringing in a song to a publisher when she was working in the Brill Building in Manhattan. “That’s great kid. Here’s 25 bucks,” says Carole, quoting the publisher. She went on to write dozens of songs with her husband Gerry Goffin during the ‘60s, including “Chains” (covered by the Beatles on their first UK record), “Locomotion” for their babysitter Little Eva, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” for the Monkees, and most notably, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” recorded by Aretha Franklin. Listen to this Atlantic single (preferably on vinyl or CD, but for expediency you can also experience it through this YouTube Embed below):

Here is a divine melody, a unique POV (few pop songs had been written from such an emotionally confessional female point of view up to that time), sterling production by Jerry Wexler, a pared-down precision performance by Spooner Oldham on piano, and of course Aretha in top form.  The track is a true collaboration and meeting of many top talents. Keep in mind that Aretha was only 25 years old at the time, as was Carole. Spooner was 24 and Gerry was 28.

“Mack The Knife”

Another famous collaboration is that of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill on “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” (which most people know by the title “Mack the Knife”) which was originally written for Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) in 1928. Grab a listen to an original version performed with organ accompaniment and a vocal by Brecht himself.

It’s written in an eccentric “Singspiel”-type song form, which lends itself to storytelling.

Fast-forward to 1959 and find the “big band” arrangement with a superb interpretative vocal performance by Bobby Darin. What really makes this record special is the addition of the arrangement by Richard Wess.

It’s as classic as it is unlikely during the era when rock and roll was taking over the airwaves. It was a collaboration among many talents across many years.

“The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jiveass Slippers”

Charles Mingus has always been a favorite of mine, and if you haven’t taken a deep dive into his material you might check out his 1972 record on Columbia Let My Children Hear Music—specifically “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jiveass Slippers.” When I was younger, I thought it was written and arranged/scored by Mingus. But it turns out that Sy Johnson is credited with the orchestration, transcription, and arrangement, as well as the conducting. And the ubiquitous (at the time) Teo Macero produced the record. Teo wrote, produced, and arranged for the likes of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Gato Barbieri. He later went on to produce for Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck, and Tony Bennett. This collaboration is unique in that the complexity of the composition calls for a high level of familiarity with the fusion of European classical harmony, blues, jazz, and extended song form, which gave birth to the newly emerging form of extended jazz compositions such as this one. (Mingus spent five years studying bass and composition with the principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic, Herman H. Rheinshagen, while Miles Davis attended “The Institute of Musical Art” now known as The Juilliard School). Both Sy Johnson and Teo Macero were more than up to the task. The result is a recording that takes Mingus’s composition (in the Ellingtonian tradition of “symphonic style” jazz) and elevates it to heights heretofore never achieved.

“On Broadway”

Four writers were listed on the record.

Another example is “On Broadway” by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (with kibitzing by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller). Cynthia and Barry originally wrote the song from a female point of view.  After a couple of attempts to get the song recorded, they had the chance to present it to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (their idols at the time) who were the principal writers for the Drifters. Leiber and Stoller both liked the song and gave Cynthia and Barry the chance to either rework it themselves, changing it to a male point of view, or to collaborate with them. The result was four writers listed on the record. It has been recorded and arranged multiple times—first by The Cookies in 1962 and very soon after that same year by The Crystals. The first “definitive” version was recorded in 1963 by the Drifters, with a guitar solo by budding songwriter (at the time) Phil Spector and an instrumental arrangement by Gary Sherman.

Fast forward again to 1978 when a second “definitive” version was recorded by guitar virtuoso George Benson. George’s version ended up in the movie All That Jazz and later Benson performed it with Clifford and the Rhythm Rats for the 1994 Muppets album Kermit Unpigged.

Another time-traveling collaboration suitable for “all ages.”

“Eleanor Rigby”

Most readers are likely familiar with “Eleanor Rigby,” written primarily by Paul McCartney but attributed to Lennon/McCartney. This recording was an interesting project for many reasons. It was an early example of the Beatles’ transformation from a rock and roll act to a more experimental, studio-based band. But it is George Martin’s arrangement for double string quartet that makes this recording really stand apart from the rest of the Beatles’ canon. While many previously recorded rock ballads had utilized string arrangements, this was arguably the first to feature a classical-style quartet on a song that actually rocks. This opened the door for the likes of The Moody Blues, ELO, and later Queen, Kate Bush, and Arcade Fire, to name a few. It is one of many collaborations between producer/arranger George Martin and the Beatles. It’s hard to even think about this song without imagining the staccato eighth notes pumping and driving this recording.

“God Only Knows”

Lastly, let’s consider the production and recording of Brian Wilson and Tony Asher’s “God Only Knows.” It is a stunning example of a collaboration between peers. Brian wrote the melody and then ad agency writer Tony Asher wrote the words. The tracks were performed under Brian’s direction by the now famous “wrecking crew” of top flight LA studio musicians. At the 11th hour, Brian decided to have the vocal performed by his brother Carl. According to “The Making of Pet Sounds,” an essay in the booklet notes for The Pet Sounds Sessions, Brian originally intended to sing lead vocal on “God Only Knows,” but after the instrumental portions of the song had been recorded, Brian thought Carl could impart the message better than he could.

Brian reflected in October 1966, “I gave the song to Carl because I was looking for a tenderness and a sweetness which I knew Carl had in himself as well as in his voice. He brought dignity to the song and the words, through him, became not a lyric, but words” (From “Brian Behind The Beach Boys” Hit Parader 11, Oct. 4, 1966).

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These are some great examples of what can be gained when one lets go of “Absolute Great Man” control.

In recent years there have been many outstanding collaborative efforts, especially in the field of film and TV scoring. The score composed by Wendy Malvoin and Lisa Coleman for the TV show Heroes is one of the most original-sounding and effective scores for TV I’ve heard, especially the first season. Another standout collaboration is the score by Peter Nashel and Eric Hachikian for the Netflix series Marco Polo. My collaboration with Chicago-based composer Renée Baker on the re-score of Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul screened at the Chicago Museum of Modern Art and Ebertfest in 2016; Renée’s score was performed by her Chicago Modern Orchestra Project and is outstanding for its vibrant originality and free jazz style. In the pop arena, one super standout is Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Everything Is Love. My favorite cut is “Apeshit” and the video kills it.

When we collaborate, we can also expand our audience.

So when we collaborate, not only do we create situations for a cross-pollination of musical ideas, but we can also expand our audience. A recording of one can certainly appeal to all of one’s established audience. However, collaboration among artists increases the potential and broadens that reach exponentially. I advocate for collaboration whenever possible. I have found the composer’s career to be a long, slow, and bumpy ride. It often helps to have some company at times. There is plenty of time for “solo” composing. I try to keep an open mind, and by all means possible, experiment! As Marcel Proust once commented, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” In this case, it’s “new ears”!

My Search for Ben Weber

Ben Weber was an enigma. He was a twelve tone composer whose lushly harmonic music is often described as tonal. He was a deeply serious, intellectual artist in the metaphysical mold of Schoenberg and Busoni. At the same time, he was famous in artistic circles for his impromptu, hilarious yet oddly poignant drag performances of opera performed for close friends at his West Village apartment.

Weber’s music was performed and recorded by the most distinguished conductors and performers of his day—Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, Walter Trampler, William Masselos, and Joseph Fuchs, among many others—but at the end of his life, his music was not in fashion, less often performed, and many of today’s musicians have never heard of him. Times change, fashion comes and goes, but Ben Weber’s music is timeless—and unique in the canon of 20th-century American music.

Ben Weber’s music is timeless—and unique in the canon of 20th-century American music.

I met Ben Weber in 1974, when John Cage suggested that I approach him about taking me on as a composition student.  I worked with him until his death in 1979 and after writing an article about Ben for the American Composers Alliance (in conjunction with a concert of music by their founding members, one of whom was Ben Weber), I realized that I needed to write his biography—that this was something important, and that my close connection with Ben as his good friend and his last student made me the right person to do so. I feel very fortunate that so many of Ben’s close friends and colleagues—Ned Rorem, Anahid Ajemian, George Avakian, Cho Wen Chung, Bethany Beardslee, Don Bachardy, and many others—have been willing to spend time with me sharing their memories about Ben. A good example of how moving these experiences have been for me is the several hours I spent with Ned Rorem talking about Ben. None of the acerbic quality that comes out so often when Rorem writes or talks about other composers was present in our conversation. It was filled with real love. He said that Ben was perhaps one of the only composers that he truly called a friend, and that Ben’s music “is always beautiful.”

I got to know Ben very well in the four years that I worked with him, but now, talking with so many people who knew and loved him and his music, reading his letters and researching his life and work, I’ve become even more aware of his extraordinary complexities. My book is about Ben, but it’s also very much about this journey—my search for Ben Weber.

His music is all twelve-tone based, but his New York Times obituary read “Ben Weber, Tonal Composer.”

As a composer and as a personality, Ben Weber was a unique study in contrasts. His music is all twelve-tone based, but his New York Times obituary read “Ben Weber, Tonal Composer.” As described by Ned Rorem in his article “Thinking of Ben” (first published in Christopher Street: The New Magazine; and subsequently reprinted in Rorem’s 1983 collection Setting the Tone: Essays and a Diary), “[B]y standards of cinema or sauna, Ben was not fetching in person…yet he had stance and variety and could swerve through the room with grace.” Ben famously remarked, “I’m certainly not Marilyn Monroe, but compared to George Perle, I am glamorous.” And he really was—even when I knew him in the last years of his life, not in good health, overweight, bald, almost a recluse in his dusty, dark Upper West Side apartment, but yes—still glamorous. The fascinating contrasts that Ben presented in his music and in his person are what I’ll try to describe in this article.

Ben Weber in a wig with Seymour Barab playing a cello and an unidentified woman.

Ben Weber in a wig (right) with Seymour Barab playing a cello and an unidentified woman on the left (date of photo unknown).

In the 1950s, Lazare Saminsky, the legendary composer and cantor of temple Emanuel-El in New York City, commissioned a series of choral pieces from New York composers. Ben Weber’s contribution is a setting of one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, which might stand as his artistic credo:

Only who with the dead has eaten
of the poppy that is theirs,
will never again lose
the most delicate tone.

In “About Ben Weber” (ACA Bulletin Volume 5, no. 2, 1955), Frank O’Hara writes: “Like the poems of Rilke in which we experience an open, complicated and knowing sentiment while we read, but when we have stopped reading realize that what has actually moved us is a mystery…this music informs us, and its composer, of those things which we are just able to know.”

There’s a beautiful poem about Ben by John Cage, written just after Weber’s death in 1979.  (B.W. 1916-1979 Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, no. 30, 1979) Cage thinks of Ben in his one-room garden apartment in the West Village, where he copied music for a living, cooked fabulous meals for his friends, and wrote his music. The poem ends with the lines:

A mesostic using the name WEBER

Ben moved to New York from Chicago in 1945, settling on West 11th Street in the West Village, the epicenter of New York bohemian life, where he soon became an integral part of the New York music world. Ben had a unique quality that could bring people of very different perspectives together. His personality and his music won the friendship and admiration of such diverse artists as David Diamond, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson, Paul Goodman, Frank O’Hara, and Henry Miller. It’s hard to think of another composer whose music is loved by both the arch- anti-twelve-tone composer Ned Rorem and by Milton Babbitt, the epitome of a serial composer. When Edgard Varèse heard Ben’s Bagatelles for piano, he called him up and asked to meet him; they shared many evenings at Ben’s apartment and Varèse’s student, the brilliant Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-Chung, studied autography with Ben and also became a close friend.

David Diamond, spoke about his first meeting with Ben. Ben noticed a book of German philosophy that Diamond had with him, and to David’s amazement, immediately began sharing his thoughts about the book and its meaning. David spent many evenings with Ben, talking for hours about poetry, philosophy, art, and music. And then Ben might tell a story about an encounter with the handsome repairman who came to fix the telephone!

He staged elaborate dinner parties for small groups of friends. Ben loved to shop for exotic spices in the stores near his West Village apartment, and his menus were the stuff of legend. Bethany Beardslee showed me one of his recipes that she still keeps in her recipe collection; a letter from his close friend, the avant-garde filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos says that Robert (the filmmaker Robert Beavers, Markopoulos’s long-time partner) is still talking about Ben’s shrimp curry. When I was finishing a commission for a new piece, Ben remarked that writing a piece of music is sort of like making a dinner party. For the party, you spend one day shopping and one day cooking, and the people eat it all up in an hour. When you write a piece of music, you spend two months writing it, two weeks preparing the score, and the musicians play it through in ten minutes!

For the party, you spend one day shopping and one day cooking, and the people eat it all up in an hour. When you write a piece of music, you spend two months writing it, two weeks preparing the score, and the musicians play it through in ten minutes!

Milton Babbitt, in his article “Memorial for Ben Weber” (Perspectives of New Music, vol. 17, No. 2 Spring/Summer 1979), described Ben’s dinner parties as “spirited social gatherings…lively professional meetings of performers, composers and others in or close to music, most of whom probably have seen little of each other since Ben ceased providing the place, occasion and reason.”

So many people I spoke with rhapsodized about those dinners. There’d be lots of wide-ranging talk about music, art, and poetry. Besides many composers and performers, poets such as Paul Goodman, Edwin Denby, and Frank O’Hara were frequent guests; when he was still living in Chicago, Ben attended a reading by Henry Miller and afterwards he and Miller went back to Ben’s apartment and talked until dawn. (Perhaps Miller was also a guest at one of the New York dinners.)

After dinner, Ben would disappear behind a curtain, emerge in a wig and costume and perform a scene from Salomé or Tosca. So many people that I’ve interviewed, both gay and straight—Ben didn’t just do these drag performances for his gay circle—wax poetic about these performances. Edward Field, now in his nineties and writing and speaking like someone in his twenties, is a celebrated poet and writer on gay life. As a very young man, he met Ben when they were both in residence at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in upstate New York, and he talked to me about how wonderful it was to experience these performances. He’s also written about them in his memoirs. Anahid Ajemian premiered several of Ben’s seminal pieces, including the Sonata da Camera, written for her and her sister, the legendary pianist, Maro Ajemian, and the Second String Quartet, commissioned and recorded by the Composers String Quartet, in which she played first violin. Anahid was Ben’s very close friend and she was often a guest at his dinner parties, but when I asked her to describe the drag performances, words failed her—she said they were something absolutely unique—very, very funny but at the same time, something more: in an offbeat way, a real and caring homage to the music. Robert Beavers was there when Gregory Markopoulos filmed Ben doing a drag performance for Galaxie, Markopoulos’s iconic film of collage portraits of New York artists. I talked with Robert about being there—it’s so many years ago, he said, but he so clearly remembers Ben’s performance as something unique, and so glad that it exists on film.

This wasn’t drag as performed at a gay club.  It was something very different. I think it’s apt to use that untranslatable French word, spirituel to try and evoke what they must have been like—incredibly funny; in the truest sense, witty; but on a level that conjures the sublime.

Don Bachardy in his studio holding up one of his portraits of Ben Weber.

Don Bachardy in his studio holding up one of his portraits of Ben Weber.

The painter Don Bachardy painted several beautiful portraits of Ben. He got to know Ben in the 1960s, when Ben had moved uptown and wasn’t giving parties much anymore. I talked with Don in his beautiful house in Santa Monica, overlooking the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. He sat in the same chair that he’s sitting in in the famous David Hockney portrait of Don and his life-partner, Christopher Isherwood, the British writer whose Berlin Stories inspired the musical Cabaret. The house is full of wonderful paintings by the couple’s many artist friends. Hanging in pride of place at one window is a beautiful, framed score of Ben Weber’s.

Don said that Ben was the most unique person he’d ever known.

Don said that Ben was the most unique person he’d ever known, and he and Christopher Isherwood certainly knew many singular people. He tried to describe the qualities that made Ben so unique: his combination of profound seriousness, deep melancholy, and then those sudden, unexpected moments of humor that would catch Don completely off guard—he’d be talking very seriously about music or poetry, and suddenly switch to a completely different voice, imitating some opera singer—or, in an instant, his whole expression would change and he’d take on a wildly devilish demeanor. Don regrets that he never asked Ben to do one of his drag performances for him. “He wasn’t doing them anymore, but he probably would have done one for me if I’d asked. Ben in drag would not have been like anyone else.”

A framed score of music by Ben Weber is mounted on the one of the windows in Don Bachardy's home.

A framed score of music by Ben Weber is mounted on the one of the windows in Don Bachardy’s home.

Weber’s music is of the highest seriousness, but it’s also elegant, gorgeous, effortless in its effect—and often light-hearted. Like Schoenberg, Ben certainly “heard the music of another planet.”

Ben was one of the first Americans to take up Schoenberg’s twelve-note technique, and his Bagatelles for piano from 1940 are the first published twelve-tone pieces by an American composer. Ben worked as secretary and copyist for Artur Schnabel when he first came to New York, and he told me a wonderful story that seems to relate, albeit unconsciously, to where Ben would take his twelve-tone explorations. There’s a note at the bottom of the first page of the music that says, “N.B. All of these compositions are in the twelve tone system of Arnold Schoenberg.”  When Schnabel was reading through the music, he paused as the end of the first piece and said to Ben, “But there are only eleven tones here! You should amend your note to say, ‘N.B. All of these compositions are in the twelve tone system of Arnold Schoenberg, except for the first piece which is in the eleven tone system of Ben Weber.’ ” Ben probably never made that “mistake” again, but in a humorous way, this story shines a light on his completely original and unexpected way of writing twelve-tone music that was admired by both Elliott Carter and David Diamond.

Ben didn’t adopt the twelve-tone system as a way of creating intellectual complexity or to, as Ernest Krenek notoriously put it, be “freed from the tyranny of inspiration.”  He told me that starting work on a row was like walking into a dense forest—at first it’s all a blur, and then your eye picks out a beautiful tree here, a bird over there, a hidden flower. His twelve-tone writing was an integral part of his search to enter unknown realms.

I think that’s why Frank O’Hara quotes Rimbaud’s famous line, “Je est un autre” (“I is someone else”) in his beautiful essay about Ben. Rimbaud made this strange use of the third person verb form coupled with the first person pronoun to try and explain his poetic process, and O’Hara felt that it related strongly to what he heard in Ben’s music: “There are composers springing to mind whose work cries again and again. ‘I am myself!’ but Ben Weber is not one of them… Je est un autre.” O’Hara saw that Ben, like Rimbaud (and of course like Ben’s favorite poet, Rilke) “makes himself into a seer by a long, involved, and logical derangement of all the senses. Every kind of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself; he exhausts every possible poison so that only essence remains” (from The New Yorker review of Rimbaud’s letters).

Ben constructed rows with which he could create bittersweet, unexpected harmony.

Ben constructed rows with which he could create the bittersweet, unexpected harmony that’s so much a part of the spell that he weaves with his music. Here’s the statement of the row at the opening of his Intermezzo, a piano piece that takes you on a sort of psychedelic, Brahms through the looking glass adventure.  The row is constructed in a way that allows him to resolve the piece with this beautiful—ultimately tonal—ending.

Intermezzo begins with a major third. Major and minor thirds are prominent in Ben’s music. Major thirds can feel melancholy and minor thirds, joyous. Perhaps this relates back to Brahms, one of Ben’s favorite composers. The music theorist Siegmund Levarie (with whom I studied music theory as a private student, and who was also an admirer of Ben’s music) said that Brahms was the first truly modern composer who, unlike Schubert, did not treat major keys as happy and minor keys as sad. And this is central to Ben’s music and to who he was as a person: nothing is just one thing. Everything is both/and, happy/sad, deeply serious/incredibly funny, brilliant sunlight/enveloping darkness. Even the way he morphs the 6/8 time into some sort of duple meter just before the ending of the Intermezzo seems part of this constant dichotomy.

Dolmen, commissioned by Newell Jenkins for his Clarion Orchestra, also begins with thirds—the first two notes of the row is a minor third which is spread across the full orchestra.

The tone row for Dolmen: A F# G# B E Bb C F D C# G Eb

The tone row for Ben Weber’s Dolmen.

Ben described the piece to me as an evocation of “a world without people,” and Virgil Thomson, to whom the work is dedicated, said it was “the saddest music he’d ever heard.” Ned Rorem remarked on its “disconcerting string glissandos” and Ned’s description of Ben’s melodies as “true airs in that they billow toward the sky… serpents splaying upward, evolving into birds that swoop ever higher, then curve back upon their many selves and ease to the ground” certainly applies to this strange and wonderful work. It’s also a great example of Ben’s highly contrapuntal sections that move into semi-contrapuntal and finally entirely homophonic moments: near the end of the piece, the strings divide into four and five parts each. (Ben was a great admirer of Strauss’s Metapmorphosen. We studied that work intensely in one of my lessons as I was beginning work on a piece for string orchestra. I think his love for that music and its beautifully elaborate counterpoint is evident here.) After that, repeated sixteenth-note chords begin to be heard, first interspersed with contrapuntal passages in the other instruments, and then as the very tonally based chords that conclude the music.

There’s also a lightness of touch and a sly, humorous elegance in Ben’s music. It’s very present in his 1963 Prelude and Nocturne for flute, celesta, and cello. He had used a similar combination of instruments—trombone, celesta, and cello—to very different effect in his 1952 score for the avant-garde filmmaker Willard Maas’s film poem Image in the Snow. Flute, celesta, and cello is an instrumental combination that only Ben would have conceived of and used in this way to such sublime effect.

The piece opens a window on a magical world, and the final moments of the Prelude are Ben at his most lyric, mystical, and unexpected. Then there’s the sly humor. The piece is dedicated to his friend, the poet Frank O’Hara, and Ben said that it was inspired by an evening they’d spent together. I have no idea whether Ben and Frank had a sexual connection, but I think of them at Ben’s apartment: Prelude, dinner and brilliant conversation and Nocturne, what happened after dinner. Notice the Nocturne’s unusual and evocative opening tempo, Notturnamente, and the metronome marking ♩=69. The poet Edwin Denby said to me that Ben “was the only twelve-tone composer with a sense of humor.”

And finally, Ben was a romantic in the fullest sense of the word. He loved Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, and when we studied the score at one of my lessons, he took special note of the romantic anguish that Schoenberg depicts so powerfully in the scene where King Waldemar loses his beloved. I think Ben connected with that unbearable sense of loss because he too had lost his first great love, a man killed in the Second World War, just before he was about to move to New York to live with Ben.

You can hear all of his romantic passion in his Concert Aria After Solomon (first performed by Bethany Beardslee, who, in her memoirs, credits Ben and this performance with starting her illustrious career as an interpreter of new music), especially in its final words, “This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem!”

Ben Weber opened up worlds for me, as a composer and as a human being. He was only 64 when he died, and I was shocked by his death. I never thought he’d be gone so soon.

In my search for Ben Weber, I’m finding myself.

There was so much complexity to him as a man and as an artist, and I probably couldn’t really appreciate all of it as a 22-year old. It’s a wonderful experience to be connected to him again, and to all those wonderful people who knew him. In my search for Ben Weber, I’m finding myself.

Darkness and light. Humor and mystical otherworldliness. It’s all there in the music, and in the last lines of the Rilke sonnet,

Only in the dual realm
do voices become
eternal and mild.

Ben Weber, seated at the piano, wearing a Hawaiian shirt.