Category: Analysis

“Automation Divine”: Early Computer Music and the Selling of the Cold War

It was a love song—not what viewers expected, perhaps, who tuned into a July 1956 episode of Adventure Tomorrow, a science documentary program broadcast by KCOP, channel 13, out of Los Angeles. But, then again, it was a love song to a computer. Push-Button Bertha. Sweet machine. What a queen. Jack Owens, the lyricist (and, on that July 1956 episode, the performer), had taken his inspiration from the tune’s composer: a Datatron 205, the room-filling flagship computer of Pasadena-based ElectroData, Inc.

Bertha’s not demanding
Never wants your dough
Always understanding
Just flip a switch and she’ll go

Push Button Bertha score

Just that month, ElectroData had been acquired by the Burroughs Corporation; Burroughs, an adding-machine manufacturer, was buying a ready-made entry into the computer business.[1] The Datatron had been programmed by Martin L. Klein and Douglas Bolitho, a pair of engineers. (Klein also moonlighted as Adventure Tomorrow’s on-air host.) “Push-Button Bertha” wasn’t Datatron’s magnum opus, but rather one of thousands of pop-song melodies the program could spit out every hour. Its inspiration was purely statistical.

We set out to prove that if human beings could write ‘popular music’ of poor quality at the rate of a song an hour, we could write it just as bad with a computing machine, but faster.

In fact, it was a perceived deficit of inspiration that supposedly prompted the project. Klein explained: “[W]e set out to prove that if human beings could write ‘popular music’ of poor quality at the rate of a song an hour, we could write it just as bad with a computing machine, but faster.”[2] Klein and Bolitho went through the top one hundred pop songs of the year, looking for patterns. They came up with three:

1. There are between 35 and 60 different notes in a popular song.
2. A popular song has the following pattern: part A, which runs 8 measures and contains about 18 to 25 notes, part A, repeated, part B, which contains 8 measures and between 17 and 35 notes; part A, again repeated.
3. If five notes move successively in an upward direction, the sixth note is downward and vice versa.

To those principles were added three more timeworn rules:

4. Never skip more than six notes between successive notes.
5. The first note in part A is ordinarily not the second, fourth or flatted fifth note in a scale.
6. Notes with flats next move down a tone, notes with sharps next move up a tone.[3]

The six rules were then put to work via the Monte Carlo method, which had been developed around the speed and indefatigability of the newly invented computer, harnessing the wisdom of a crowd of countless, repeated probabilistic calculations. Fed a stream of random, single-digit integers (which limited the number of available notes to 10), Datatron would test each integer/note against its programmed criteria. If it met every guideline, it was stored in memory; if not, it was discarded, and the program would move on to the next integer. After a few dozen iterations, presto: another prospective hit. Or not. Klein and Bolitho never admitted the program’s rate of success; out of Datatron’s presumably thousands of drafts, only “Push-Button Bertha” saw the light of day.

Push-Button Bertha

Piano version performed by Matthew Guerrieri

Datatron 205

The song took its place in a small but growing repertoire of computational compositions. 1956 was a banner year for statistically designed, computer-generated music. A team of Harvard graduate students, including Frederick P. Brooks, Jr. (who would go on to lead the design of IBM’s famed System/360 mainframes), programmed Harvard’s Mark IV computer to electronically analyze and then generate common-meter hymn tunes. (“It took us three years to get done,” Brooks later remembered, “but we got stuff you could pass off on any choir.”[4]) Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Isaacson used the University of Illinois’ ILLIAC I machine to create a string quartet, its movements moving through music history from basic counterpoint to modern speculation; portions of the Illiac Suite were premiered on August 9, 1956, only a month after the TV debut of “Push-Button Bertha.”

“Push-Button Bertha” was putting a cloak of high-minded research around that most hallowed of American art forms: a sales pitch.

“Push-Button Bertha” was a curiosity, but it reveals something particular about the early days of computer music in the United States. The Harvard and Illinois efforts were research and experimentation that were at least nominally driven by curiosity and the prospect of expanding academic knowledge. But all three were, in part, justifications of more hard-nosed concerns. When Owens sang of Bertha never wanting your dough, he shaded the truth a bit; Bertha wanted quite a bit of dough indeed. A Datatron 205 computer cost $135,000, and that didn’t include necessities such as a control console, punched-card input and output equipment, or magnetic tape storage. Nor did it include desirable extras, such as the capability to do floating-point calculations—that alone required an additional $21,000, more, at the time, than the median price of a house in the United States.[5] The Burroughs Corporation needed to justify the price tag of its newest product line. “Push-Button Bertha” was putting a cloak of high-minded research around that most hallowed of American art forms: a sales pitch.

Adventure Tomorrow Syndication ad, 1959

Off the air, Martin Klein wasn’t employed by ElectroData or Burroughs; at the time, he worked for Rocketdyne, North American Aviation’s rocket and missile division, based in the San Fernando Valley. The Brooklyn-born Klein had initially pursued music—as a teenager, he composed and copyrighted (though did not publish) a piano-and-accordion number entitled “Squeeze-Box Stomp”—but instead took up science. He did graduate work at Boston University, earning a master’s and a Ph.D.; his master’s dissertation, especially (on methods of using optical refraction to measure the flow of air around high-speed objects—supersonic planes or missiles, say), foreshadowed his work at Rocketdyne, which was largely devoted to designing circuits to convert rocket-engine test-firing data into forms that a computer could analyze.[6]

But that hint of a performing career would eventually resurface. In 1956, Klein began to spend his weekends on television. Saturdays brought Wires and Pliers, in which Klein and his North American Aviation colleague Harry C. Morgan (with the help of electrical engineer Aram Solomonian) showed viewers how to assemble simple electronic circuits and gadgets.[7] (The show’s sponsor, the Electronic Engineering Company of California, conveniently sold kits containing the necessary components for each project.) On Sundays, Adventure Tomorrow promoted technological optimism by way of the latest advances from California’s rapidly expanding electronics and defense industries. Burroughs needed a showcase for its technology; Klein needed technology to showcase.

Klein had demonstrated a flair for technologically enhanced promotion. His first efforts with the Datatron were intended to spotlight Pierce Junior College, where Klein was an instructor. In December 1955, Klein had the computer predict the winners of New Year’s Day college football bowl games; it got four out of five correct. News reports made sure to mention that Klein was teaching computer design at Pierce, “one course of a whole program in electronics offered by the college preparing men for occupations in this industry, so vital to our country’s defense.”[8] By April, Klein, under the auspices of Pierce and backed by several electronics-industry sponsors (including ElectroData), was on the air every week. Wires and Pliers didn’t last long, but Adventure Tomorrow did. From the beginning, Adventure Tomorrow was a cheerleader for the latest military technology—“the wondrous world of missiles, jets, and atomic projects,” as a later advertisement for the program put it. It was in that spirit that Klein and Bolitho went to work extracting a bit of publicity-friendly frivolity from the Datatron 205.

If Klein knew how to engineer attention, Bolitho’s specialty was wrangling the machines. Early computers were a forest of hard-wired components, fertile ground for capricious behavior. Bolitho’s rapport with the finicky beasts was legendary. His ability to coax computers into reliability eventually led him to be tasked with leading prospective customers on tours of Burroughs’ Pasadena plant. “He had some kind of magical quality whereby he could walk up to a machine that was covered with cobwebs and dust and turn it on and that thing would work, even if it had been broken for years,” a fellow engineer remembered.[9]

Depending on his audience, Klein would oscillate between extolling computers as inhumanly infallible and comfortingly quirky. Explaining the basics of the new tools to readers of Instruments and Automation magazine, he lauded “the advantage of automatic control over control by human operators where human forces are constantly at work to disrupt the logical processes.” But, recounting the genesis of “Push-Button Bertha” for Radio Electronics—a magazine aimed more at hobbyists and amateurs—Klein struck a more whimsical note, echoing (deliberately or not) the Romantic stereotype of the sensitive, temperamental artist:

The words “electronic digital computer” immediately conjure up a picture of a forbidding, heartless device. Those of us who design computing machinery know this isn’t true. Computing machines have very human characteristics. They hate to get to work on a cold morning (we call this “sleeping sickness”). Occasionally, for unexplainable reasons, they don’t work the same problem the same way twice (we say, then, that the machine has the flu).[10]

Klein’s joke turns a little more grim knowing that, by 1961, the United States military was using no fewer than sixteen Datatron 205 computers at twelve different locations—including the Edgewood Arsenal at the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, where the technology that produced “Push-Button Bertha” was instead used to calculate simulated dispersal patterns for airborne chemical and biological weapons.[11]

Computer Music from the University of Illinois

All the composing computers, in fact, were military machines. ILLIAC, for instance, was a copy of a computer called ORDVAC, built by the University of Illinois and shipped to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds to calculate ballistics trajectories. Hiller and Isaacson had first learned their way around ILLIAC and the Monte Carlo method trying to solve the long-standing problem of determining the size of coiled polymer molecules—a problem of more than passing interest to the United States government, which funded the research as part of a program to develop and improve synthetic rubber production.[12] (It was Hiller, who had coupled his studies of chemistry at Princeton with composition lessons with Milton Babbitt, who realized the same mathematical technique could be applied to musical composition.)

Computational composition in the United States got its start, quite literally, in the off-hour downtime of the military-industrial complex.

Harvard’s Mark IV was the last in a group of computers designed by Howard Aiken. The Mark I had helped work out the design of the first atomic bombs; Marks II and III were built for the U. S. Navy. The Mark IV, which had produced all those hymn tunes, had been funded by the U. S. Air Force; it worked out guided-missile flight patterns and helped design lenses for the U-2 spy plane.[13] The Harvard computers, it turned out, ran more reliably if they were never turned off; Aiken duly assigned Peter Neumann, a music-loving graduate student, to watch over the Mark IV from Friday night until Monday morning. Student projects—hymn-tune-generation included—happened on the weekends.[14] Computational composition in the United States got its start, quite literally, in the off-hour downtime of the military-industrial complex.

For a few years, American computer-music researchers may have looked with jealousy across the Atlantic, to Paris and Cologne and the fledgling, dedicated electronic-music studios that had blossomed under the aegis of government-supported radio stations. But there are suggestions that those European efforts, too, emerged out of a nexus of technology and defense.

The origin story of the famous WDR electronic-music studio in Cologne, for instance, starts with an American visitor. In 1948, American scientist Homer Dudley visited Germany, bringing along his invention, the vocoder; the device made a crucial impression on Werner Meyer-Eppler, who would later help create the WDR studio—and whose students would include the studio’s most famous denizen, Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Bell Labs ad, 1950

Dudley was an employee of Bell Labs, one of the great 20th-century American research-and-development shops, a hive of telecommunications innovation. The vocoder had originally been developed as part of investigations into shrinking the bandwidth of telephone signals, in order that more messages might travel over the same wires. But, especially with the onset of war, the work at Bell Labs was increasingly aligned with the desires of government. The vocoder had been pressed into wartime service as the backbone of SIGSALY, the Allied system that successfully masked high-level phone conversations from German eavesdropping, and which practically introduced numerous features of the modern digital communications landscape: compression, packet-switching, electronic key encryption.[15] (The keys for SIGSALY were stretches of electronically generated random white noise, pressed onto matched pairs of phonograph records, each pair being destroyed after a single use.)

One wonders if Meyer-Eppler had been targeted for recruitment into the development of SIGSALY’s sequels; after all, so much of the WDR studio’s work seemed aligned with and adaptable to the sort of research that Bell Labs was pursuing in the wake of its wartime work. Think of one of the WDR studio’s most celebrated productions, Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge; if the work’s combination of a transmitted human voice and electronic noise recalls SIGSALY, the way it deconstructs, processes, and reassembles that voice, the way it filters the sounds through various statistical screens—it practically outlines a research program for next-generation voice and signal encryption.

At the very least, the new music triangulated Dudley’s sonic manipulation with two other innovations, the transistor and Claude Shannon’s new information theory; all three had emerged from Bell Labs, which would also birth Max Mathews’s pioneering MUSIC software—all the while pursuing numerous military and defense projects. In later years, Bell Labs would consult on the formation of IRCAM, Pierre Boulez’s hothouse of computer music in Paris.[16]

But IRCAM, envisioned as a seedbed, was instead an endpoint, at least in terms of the sort of institutional computing that, in its interstices, had provided a home for early computer music. Already the future was in view: a computer in every home, a chip in every device, casual users commandeering the sort of processing power that the builders of the UNIVACs and the ORDVACs and the Datatrons could barely imagine. (The year IRCAM finally opened, 1977, was the same year that the Apple II was introduced.) Even the output of those institutions—for instance, Max/MSP, the descendant of an IRCAM project—was destined for laptops.

The sounds of the post-war avant-garde were never far, in concept or parentage, from the technological needs of the Cold War.

Surrounded by the surfeit of computation, it is hard to imagine the scarcity that led those first computer musicians to a marriage of convenience with the military and national-security bureaucracies—a marriage convenient to both sides. But to understand that give-and-take is to understand something about the nature of music in the middle of the 20th century, the technocratic faith that came to inform so many aspects of the culture. The sounds of the post-war avant-garde were never far, in concept or parentage, from the technological needs of the Cold War.

And what of the composer of “Push-Button Bertha”? Even as it became obsolete, the Datatron 205, with its blinking console and spinning tape drives, enjoyed a long career as a prop in movies and television, lending a technologically sophisticated aura to everything from Adam West’s television Batcave to Dr. Evil’s lair in the Austin Powers movies. That, too, may have been a result of Klein and Bolitho’s public-relations stunt. Only a few months after the Adventure Tomorrow premiere of “Push-Button Bertha,” producer Sam Katzman, a veteran impresario of low-budget genre movies, gave the 205 its big-screen debut, going to the Datatron’s Pasadena factory home to film scenes for a science-fiction production called The Night the World Exploded. In the movie, the 205—mentioned prominently, by name, in dialogue and narration—is used to determine just how long before a newly discovered and volatile “Element 112” works its way to the earth’s surface and destroys the planet. The Datatron had returned from its pop-song holiday to a more familiar role for the era’s computers: calculating the end of the world.[17]

Night the World Exploded poster

1. The founder of the Burroughs Corporation, William Seward Burroughs I, was the grandfather of the Beat writer William S. Burroughs. In a 1965 interview, the younger Burroughs gave his opinion of computational art:

“INTERVIEWER: Have you done anything with computers?
BURROUGHS: I’ve not done anything, but I’ve seen some of the computer poetry. I can take one of those computer poems and then try to find correlatives of it—that is, pictures to go with it; it’s quite possible.
INTERVIEWER: Does the fact that it comes from a machine diminish its value to you?
BURROUGHS: I think that any artistic product must stand or fall on what’s there.”

(See Conrad Knickerbocker, “William Burroughs: An Interview,” The Paris Review vol. 35 (1965), p. 13-49.)

2. Martin L. Klein, “Syncopation by Automation,” Radio Electronics, vol. 28, no. 6 (June 1957), p. 36. [36-38]

3. Ibid., p. 37.

4. F. P. Brooks, A. L. Hopkins, P. G. Neumann, W. V. Wright, “An experiment in musical composition”, IRE Trans. on Electronics Computers, vol. EC-6, no. 3 (Sep. 1957). See also Grady Booch, “Oral History of Fred Brooks,” Computer History Museum Reference number: X4146.2008 (, accessed September 18, 2018).

5. Datatron prices from Tom Sawyer’s Burroughs 205 website (, accessed September 10, 2018). In 1957, the median home price was approximately $17,000, as calculated from Robert Shiller’s archive of historical home prices (, accessed September 10, 2018).

6. Martin L. Klein, The Determination of Refractive Indices of Dynamic Gaseous Media by a Scanning Grid, M.A. Thesis, Boston University (1949). Klein’s doctoral thesis was on zone plate antennae—forerunners of the modern flat versions used for HD television.

7. “TV Show Features ‘Wires and Pliers,’” Popular Electronics, vol. 4, no, 4 (April 1956), p. 37.

8. “Pierce College Teacher Picks Sports Results,” Van Nuys Valley News, January 10, 1956, p. 10.

9. Richard Waychoff, Stories about the B5000 and People Who Were There (1979), from Ed Thelen’s Antique Computers website (, accessed September 10, 2018).

10. Martin L. Klein, Harry C. Morgan, and Milton H. Aronson, Digital Techniques for Computation and Control (Instruments Publishing Co.: Pittsburgh, 1958), p. 9; Klein, “Syncopation by Automation,” p. 36.

11. For the 205’s usage within the military, see Martin H. Weik, A Third Survey of Domestic Electronic Digital Computing Systems (Public Bulletin no. 171265, U.S. Department of Commerce, Office of Technical Services, 1961), p. 145. For the 205 at Edgewood, see Arthur K. Stuempfle, “Aerosol Wars: A Short History of Defensive and Offensive Military Applications, Advances, and Challenges,” in David S. Ensor, ed., Aerosol Science and Technology: History and Reviews (RTI Press: Research Triangle Park, NC, 2011), p. 333.

12. See, for instance, F. T. Wall, L. A. Hiller, Jr., and D. J. Wheeler, “Statistical Computation of Mean Dimensions of Macromolecules. 1” The Journal of Chemical Physics, vol. 22, no. 6 (June 1954), pp. 1036-1041; F. T. Wall, R. J. Rubin and L. M. Isaacson, “Improved Statistical Method for Computing Mean Dimensions of Polymer Molecules,” The Journal of Chemical Physics, vol. 27, no. 1 (January 1957), pp. 186-188. The University of Illinois had received $135,000 from the National Science Foundation for research into synthetic rubber, the largest such grant given to a university under the NSF’s synthetic rubber program; Special Commission for Rubber Research, Recommended Future Role of the Federal Government with Respect to Research in Synthetic Rubber (National Science Foundation: Washington, D. C., December 1955), p. 9.

13. As it turned out, Aiken’s conservative design left the Mark IV significantly slower than other computers; James G. Baker, who ran the Harvard group researching automated lens design, grew frustrated with the speed of the Mark IV (and his access to it), eventually switching to an IBM mainframe at Boston University. See Donald P. Feder, “Automated Optical Design,” Applied Optics vol. 12, no. 2 (December 1963), p. 1214; Gregory W. Pedlow and Donald E. Welzenbach, The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and OXCART Programs, 1954-1974 (Central Intelligence Agency: Washington, D.C., 1992), p. 52 (declassified copy at, accessed September 12, 2018).

14. John Markoff, “When Hacking Was In its Infancy,” The New York Times, October 30, 2012.

15. For an historical and technical overview of SIGSALY, see J. V. Boone and R. R. Peterson, “SIGSALY—The Start of the Digital Revolution” (2016) (at, accessed September 17, 2018).

16. Robin Maconie has speculated on the implications of the Bell Labs connections in a pair of articles: “Stockhausen’s Electronic Studies I and II” (2015) (at, accessed September 17, 2018), and “Boulez, Information Science, and IRCAM,” Tempo vol. 71, iss. 279 (January 2017), pp. 38-50.

17. For the 205’s film and TV history, see the Burroughs B205 page at James Carter’s Starring the Computer website (, accessed September 12, 2018). The Night the World Exploded, written by Jack Natteford and Luci Ward, and directed by Fred F. Sears, was released by Columbia Pictures in 1957.

Dissing The Competition

Yet another “pay to enter” composer competition is making its annual rounds. It appeared in my inbox the other day and became part of the groggy ritual of email sorting and morning coffee reading. Scanning it, my eyes made their way through an increasingly ridiculous list of random requirements. My grogginess rapidly shifted to anger, which effectively shifted me from my deck to my desk where I could begin typing. Utter dismay at terms and conditions I’ve seen too many times before has moved me to caution any composer living on a budget about scenarios that at best are foolish ways to spend money, and at worst, are exploitive: the expensive lottery of some competitions.

Let me begin with The Moral Of The Story, and then if you’re interested, you can read the specifics that had me spit-taking my espresso. To wit:

Rather than pay fees to competitions that one is statistically unlikely to win, a composer’s efforts and money will be far better devoted to improving their bio and professional opportunities by spending money to do things like attend music conferences and new music concerts, at which they will be surrounded by professionals eager to learn about new compositions. It is ALWAYS better—and will make a composer feel better about the worth of their work—to take the initiative to introduce oneself and one’s music, instead of passively waiting around in the hope that maybe, even though the odds are always against them, they’ll “win” an opportunity.

Create opportunity. Do not wait for it to be created for you.

When people engage with you as a person, they are that much more inclined to engage with your music.

Music-making is a human, social activity. When people engage with you as a person, they are that much more inclined to engage with your music.

Beware These Competition Terms

Let me be clear: I am not vilifying this or any other such competition in particular. I don’t think that the organization mounting the one that most recently riled me up is making much money off of this, if any. And I don’t think that it’s intentionally, nefariously trying to take advantage of eager composers. Thus, I don’t find it necessary to name the competition, because I’m simply using it in this essay as an example that will open the eyes of composers to undesirable terms too often found in many similar calls.

This competition-du-jour has four categories, from which three first prize and three second prize winners will be selected. It touts a process that pays “at least” two [well known, top-flight] composers each year to be the judges for chamber works of no more than five players. Four of six winning pieces will be performed on a concert that will also be recorded.

Okay. Sounds all right, until one reads the requirements:

—The competition does not accept digital files and/or links. Instead, it requires the mailing of THREE physical scores. To submit a score, it’s required that the entrant spend what I guarantee ends up being a notable amount of money on printing, binding, packaging materials, and postal fees.

—The organization gets to keep one of the scores. So rather than receiving money in exchange for a score that cost a composer time and money to produce, the entrant is paying to have that score stored in someone’s file cabinet.

—Assuming the composer would like the other two copies of their expensive materials returned, then they must include an “appropriately stamped return package envelope for return of scores and recordings.”

—Instead of a simple mp3 upload or link, the competition insists on receiving THREE nearly-archaic physical CDs. There are many computers that no longer have CD drives. New cars haven’t had them for years and many homes no longer have them. “Compact Discs,” those round shiny things commonly seen dangling in fruit gardens to deflect pesky birds, are an artifact of a decade ago, and even then, competitions were using links to digital audio.

—The scores and CDs must be anonymous. That means a great deal of extra hassle and expense for the composer, since one can’t just grab existing materials off one’s shelf to send in.

Has the Department of Homeland Security suddenly developed a love of contemporary music?

—This international competition, based in the U.S., requires a “copy of state ID, driver’s license, birth certificate, or passport for all but Professional Division entrants.” What is this, ICE? Has the Department of Homeland Security suddenly developed a love of contemporary music? This requirement makes no sense and is highly invasive. I understand an organization’s desire to know where the composers come from, but a simple entry line for country of origin would suffice. Any further personal information should only be needed for the six cash award winners, and that’s all. I cannot stress this enough: I highly discourage anyone from sending copies of their personal identifying documents to strangers running a competition that they have not yet won.

The Math

As arcane, expensive, time consuming and frustrating as these submission terms are, the eye-opener is the total cost.

The competition has four levels that range from children (no age limit, maximum age 15), to students, to career professionals. The four awards for the young people are either $75 or $150. It will cost a student $30 to enter, in addition to the significant costs to prepare and send all the physical materials.

The two awards for the adults are $500 or $1000. However, that cash will evaporate, because the competition states that, “University and Professional finalists must be prepared to travel to the [out of state or country, for most] venue for the concert.” It does not indicate anywhere that the travel expenses will be covered.

It will cost professionals $75 to enter, in addition to the significant costs to prepare and send all the physical materials.

All in, I’ll estimate that the total outgo for this “opportunity” is a roll of the dice of about $200: the $75 fee, plus 3 printed scores (about $60), 3 CDs (about $10), packaging materials (about $10), mailing postage (roughly $16-$25), and return postage (roughly $16-$25; because a composer will want to get those shiny CDs back in order to dangle them, well, somewhere).

Across all categories, there will be just 6 winners, with only one person receiving $1000. At most, the organization will pay out a total of $3,225 in award money if all six awards are given.

The competition announcement makes it clear that “funds received are devoted exclusively to competition activities, primarily to fairly compensating world- renowned composers for ample time and effort in judging new works.”

That’s great that they are up front about this; too many competitions hide the intent for all those entry fees. I’ve been told that the judging honorarium has historically been around $1,000 or a little more. Reviewing the past competitions listed on their website, they’ve never had more than two judges. So let’s add $2400 to the organization’s expenses.

But a red flag appears with the words, “primarily to fairly compensating.” If most of an entrant’s time, utter patience, and $200 is going toward being judged by experienced composers—presumably without receiving much or any feedback from them—wouldn’t spending that same amount of time and money on one or two private lessons or professional career consultations be far more helpful to a composer?

The organization is a non-profit 501(c)(3), and touts its board and its donors on its website. While it states that most of the money is going to the judges, it’s unclear how much of the competition concert is actually paid for from the money collected from the [mostly absent, non-winning] composers’ fees.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that there are 100 entries: 60 of whom pay $30 and 40 of whom pay $75.

That’s $1800 plus $3000: $4800 of income to the competition.

The awards cost $3,225.

The two panelists cost $2400.

That’s $5,625 in expenses, not including concert expenses.

That leaves a shortfall of $825, which I’ll guess is covered by donors and, more significantly, by ticket sales, which, according to this group’s past such concerts, are at least $20 a piece, and $10 for seniors. If 250 people pay to attend the concert, and 200 pay $20 and 50 pay $10, that’s income of $4500.

The organization is outrightly asking that the submitting composers participate as investors of the competition.

The hosting organization will presumably incur concert, reception, and recording expenses. Consider this: since the organization is outrightly asking that the submitting composers participate as investors of the competition and concert whether or not they win, it would be more transparent if the organization also listed the rough expenses it plans to incur in mounting a concert of four chamber music pieces: Is the university performance venue free, like some? Is a house recording engineer included at no extra cost? Are the performers faculty musicians who aren’t asking for much?

Also note, the concert will include not six new pieces, but four: the first and second prize winners in the two younger categories will not receive either a performance or a recording, so even if they win, they will have spent all this money on a byline in their bios that benefits the competition with free publicity and legitimization from inclusion in that composer’s bio, as much as it might lend legitimacy to the young composer. The upside, however, is that those composers will avoid the stale bagels and hard boiled eggs of questionable chronology that comprise the free breakfast in the motel lobby, since it won’t be necessary for them to spend any additional money to travel.

Being Proactive

As I stated at the beginning of this essay, I don’t think that the organization is making much money off of this, and I don’t think that it’s intentionally trying to take advantage of composers. I get the impression from its website that it genuinely wants to present a concert of exciting new chamber music and recognize a few gifted composers.

An investment of time and about $200 or so would be far better spent on any number of positive things.

I do think, however, that as I wrote earlier, for most composers, rather than surrendering precious hours of one’s life piecing all these materials together, and flinging money haplessly at an anonymous and risk-drenched “opportunity,” an investment of time and about $200 or so would be far better spent on any number of positive things, such as:

—Attending a conference or concert series, etc., at which they could meet performers and conductors and generate opportunity for themselves, rather than waiting powerlessly for one that is statistically highly unlikely to ever transpire;

—Hiring a performer or two to come over to the house or use a school’s recording setup and record a piece, and have them grant permission for the composer to use the resulting recording on their website and social media;

—Purchasing software or hardware that will enable the composer to create their own excellent demos and advance their writing and production skills;

—Hosting a gathering of local music peers (pizza and beer party, etc.) to create a social environment that bolsters everyone’s connection to each other.

—Paying for private lessons or consultations from an expert who will be directly engaged with the composer’s needs.

And maybe we should add paying for therapy sessions to this useful list, to bolster composers’ self-worth and confidence so that they realize that the only artist with whom they are in competition is… the one in the mirror.

Your odds are always better when you invest in yourself and in outcomes over which you have more control!!

A Glimpse Inside The Process

I have yet to witness any winner be selected because of a resumé stuffed with Important Sounding Awards.

I have served as Chairperson and panelist for countless composer competitions and residencies over the course of the past twenty years. I have yet to witness any winner be selected because of a resumé stuffed with Important Sounding Awards. Not one. When the panelists and I looked at someone’s attached C.V., it was often just a passing glance. The composers who received these juried opportunities were selected because of one marvelous thing: the excellence and creativity of their music.

Imagine that. And keep it in mind.

There is some logic in the theory that by entering a competition, even if composers don’t win, they’re getting their work seen and heard by judges who may be impressed enough to remember their names in the future. This is, however, a remarkably passive and oblique manner by which to choose to make a professional introduction. It would be more effective to politely say hello to admired composers at a concert or conference, and in the course of oh-so-respectfully chatting with them, inquire whether they might be willing to have a look at a short piece. The odds of being met with, “yes, absolutely, please email me a link!” are by no means 100 percent, but they are guaranteed to be higher than the percentage of panelists who will remember your name from that of a hundred other composers to whom they very momentarily gave their full, coffee’d-up attention once upon a time.

Another Perspective

Without question, some composers reading this essay are thinking, “I entered a competition like this and I won, and it had a very positive effect on my career.” That’s terrific!

I’m sure those winners were aware of the slim odds, making the win that much sweeter.

I also hope that when a composer wins a competition requiring an entry fee, they understand that just like any lotto winner, their award comes from the thousands of dollars paid into the lottery by their equally hopeful peers. I don’t state this to guilt anyone: those who entered and sent in their money did so willingly and chose to spin the wheel. It’s just like playing poker: everyone antes up, everyone hopes they’ve got the winning hand, and everyone knows that at the end of the night, one person will walk away with the big pot—filled with everyone else’s money.

The analogy stops there, however, because when I ante up for a fun night of cards with friends, I’m paying not just for the hope of winning, but mostly for the experience of having a fun night of cards with friends.

I’m not sure where the “fun” or even “mildly enjoyable” part of “separating myself from $200 with the faint hope of winning” actually is.

But Wait, There’s More

Composers in academia receive pressure from administrators to provide “proof” that their music has been peer-reviewed.

During a recent conversation about the problems with many composer competitions, a friend of mine who’s a composition professor at a major U.S. university conservatory raised the touchy issue of requirements for annual academic peer review. She made several searingly accurate points about the quest for tenure, noting that composers in academia receive pressure from administrators to provide “proof” that their music has been peer-reviewed. Something as useful for a composer’s career and their ability to expand the horizons of their students— such as organizing a well-attended, recorded, and videoed concert of their works—isn’t deemed to be as “tenure worthy” in the eyes of a research institution as winning a judged competition.

The message is a sad one: composers who are professors shouldn’t spend whatever free time they have pursuing their writing careers and gaining important experiences outside of the hallowed halls of the university. They should spend their time seeking the approval of random, often powerless colleagues within a small, self-referential circle.

The concept of “publish or perish” has plenty of merit; of course an academic institution wishes for its faculty to remain relevant in the world. Yet pushing professors into the often myopic corners of competitions and questionable “publishing” deals for the sake of adding these trinkets to their resumé is misguided. Just as those shiny objects called CDs have gone the way of the buggy whip, so has the opinion that the traditional method of music publishing—via major or established companies—is the only legitimate meter of a composer’s worth. It is not. That belief is a vestige of pre-digital days.

The vast majority of composers currently pursuing their careers will never have a contract from a major publishing house. It is not because the new works lack excellence, but because those businesses can no longer afford to take on new names in a world in which it’s getting trickier to earn money off even the most established ones. This is a stark departure from the norm of previous generations of composers, many of whom serve on university faculties, and some of whom continue to push the publishing myth on their students because it was their personal reality. The not-so-new reality is that of self-publishing (either as a lone composer or as part of a collective), along with creating direct business arrangements for physical and digital distribution.

Academia must awaken to the realities of the 21st century, in which artists are in control of their own careers. When the internet allows everyone to publish and distribute their own music, and discover and build their own audiences, and subsequently reap the financial benefits of these relationships, the concept of waiting to be approved of by a panel of “experts” seems quaint at best, and professionally debilitating, at worst.

Academia must awaken to the realities of the 21st century.

Rather than encourage student and faculty composers to hold their hands out to people and circumstances beyond their control, universities should encourage them to hold their hands out to shake a lot of other hands at music and arts advocacy gatherings.

My professor friend continued with these keen observations:

—Many competitions that charge entry fees are open to every composer and every instrumentation category, thus unfairly pitting students against professionals.

—The parameters of some fee-based competitions are so broad (e.g. any instrumentation, duration, etc.) that discerning between excellent submissions is akin to comparing apples and bicycles.

In both of the above examples, it could easily be inferred that the organizations are actively trying to entice the maximum number of submissions and entrance fees, regardless of quality.

—Some competitions and calls for scores from ensembles are blatantly exploitative: they ask for pieces of a highly specific instrumentation to be written for the submission, after which the ensemble then selects the piece they wish to perform. In these instances, composers pay their money for the “honor” of writing a piece for free, work hard with the slim hope that it will be chosen, and then have the additional “honor” of giving away the sheet music.

Think very carefully before you invest your time and creative heart into composing a work specifically for the slim chance of it being accepted by musicians with whom you have no relationship. Should you choose to proceed, make certain that it’s an effort that genuinely moves your muses—especially if, like too many of these calls for scores, it’s for something along the lines of, “oboe, tuba, harp, and pipe organ.” Just how many performances and score sales of that magic combo do you believe you’ll get?

Another sketchy scenario I’ve seen and cautioned against countless times is one whereby “the winning work will be published by [a completely irrelevant, unknown, and clueless publishing company].”

Ensembles and organizations who act as though they are professional publishers do a great disservice to the composers they claim to represent.

If a composer is to assign their most valuable asset—their copyright—to another entity, they had better be certain that the recipient of their work has the wherewithal to promote and distribute that piece. Widely. Publishing is hard, constant work. It’s not—as some of these competitions and ensembles appear to believe—a casual side hobby in which simply performing a piece once or a few times, owning the sheet music, making it available to anyone who might occasionally ask for it, and sending 10% of the sales money to the composer, counts as anything worth a composer relinquishing control and income. Many ensembles and organizations who act as though they are professional publishers do a great disservice to the composers they claim to represent, because they neglect to nurture the music in the long term, nor do they nurture an ongoing relationship with the composer.

A composer must be extremely circumspect about giving their copyright to any publisher, whether established or fly-by-night. If the piece turns out to be popular—or, for instance, licensed for use in commercial media—there could be a substantial amount of income generated. Particularly before agreeing to a publishing arrangement with a competition-related entity, ask a lot of questions about how they conduct business. How often do they display at conferences? How broad is their distribution network? What kind of regular promotion do they invest in for their catalog and their composers? What are the terms to which they agree to adhere on your piece’s behalf, and will they return the copyright to you if they are in default?

Rather than jump at what looks like an important-sounding chance to be “published” by one of these competitions or calls for scores, I recommend that a composer asks that the entity instead agree to non-exclusively distribute the piece for a standard 50/50 discount. The distributor will still earn money from any sales, but the composer’s potential income from the exploitation of the work remains protected.


Finally: if a composer does choose to enter an expensive competition, he or she should always think of it not as a potential career move, but as a charitable contribution to assist in the performance and recording of the music of their peers. Remember, if there are 4 competition winners out of 100 applicants, and for the sake of argument each of the entries is pretty decent, the odds against winning are 96% (and should there be notably more than 100 applicants, well, one will need a magnifying glass to perceive the chances of winning).

Such a charitable offering is wonderful, actually: many of us often contribute to the wellbeing of others. But few in our field ever openly speak or write of these pay- to-play competitions in the frank terms of socialized subsidization. As that stormy cloud of my indignance rose to the surface in my coffee, I felt it was time to do so.

Long live charity; it’s a beautiful thing.

Just don’t confuse it with professional opportunity.


The Syncopated Stylings of Charles Wuorinen

When the arguments were over, only a few famous composers younger than Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter remained committed to old-school high modernism. Two of the best were Peter Lieberson and Charles Wuorinen. Lieberson died in 2011 at 64, Wuorinen turns 80 on June 9.

They were easy to bracket because they were friends, had a similar circle of New York City advocates, and shared something of an aesthetic trajectory inspired by the late music of Igor Stravinsky. Both Lieberson and Wuorinen had met Stravinsky in person and Vera Stravinsky asked Wuorinen to “finish” sketches from her late husband, which became his A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky.

Stravinsky had jumped into the twelve-tone pool after the passing of his rival Arnold Schoenberg, and his last great work, Requiem Canticles, is as instantly charismatic as dodecaphony has ever been. While the early works of Lieberson and Wuorinen are relentlessly esoteric products of the hardcore Babbitt school, at some point both followed Stravinsky’s lead into comparatively accessible territory. Lieberson worked on softening the lyric line, culminating in glorious song cycles for his wife Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, and Wuorinen took on the challenge of creating modernist composition informed by perceptible pulsating rhythm.

Wuorinen’s “perceptible pulsating rhythm” was a return to ragtime.

In his way, Wuorinen’s “perceptible pulsating rhythm” was a return to ragtime. Before Babbitt and Carter, American formal composition frequently contained the echo of Scott Joplin, a patron saint of Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and Leonard Bernstein.

This ragtime perspective also fit with the Stravinsky influence, as Stravinsky found syncopation a natural source for his cubist phrases. Perhaps Stravinsky’s Movements for Piano and Orchestra is close to Babbitt’s rigorous discontinuity, but much else in the Stravinsky canon has a taste of ragtime, especially after he emigrated to America. Ebony Concerto (written for the Woody Herman band) is still one of best pieces in the conventional European concert idiom scored for jazz ensemble, and Stravinsky’s late non-tonal Agon (made famous by the George Balanchine ballet) is full of syncopation.

Wynton Marsalis says of The Rite of Spring: “Stravinsky turned European music over with a backbeat. Check it out. What they thought was weird and primitive was just a Negro beat on the bass drum.” If we pressed Marsalis further, he certainly would add there’s actually no “just” about that “Negro beat.” Asking musicians who are most comfortable with the European tradition to play with a groove is dicey territory. For that matter, composers themselves have seldom allowed a drummer to make up their own part.

Film composer Howard Shore had this to say about his experience trying to find an authentic “feel” for the soundtrack for Ed Wood:

Beatnik dance music—a conga player and a bongo player. At the time I recorded the score there were no studios available in Los Angeles…We ended up going to England—I recorded the score with the London Philharmonic—and it was very fortunate that we did. The British percussionists were so square, but it was the perfect sound! The bongo player was English! He was a good player and a good musician, just a little square, a little straight. In Los Angeles, they probably would have been too hip. As soon as I heard this English guy, I thought, oh, we’re so lucky to have this guy play this bongo track.

This “a little square” place is important to the soundscape of 20th-century American formal composition. It isn’t as rhythmically profound as jazz or hip hop (or another dozen American musics); it is simply basic syncopations and polyrhythms played “correctly.” The outsized pop version is found in musical theater. Leonard Bernstein is the emperor of that uninitiated energy—West Side Story is never better than when done by a college group—but a dollop of that “naive swing” has been a factor in many good performances of American concert music from Ives onward.

To bring this back to Wuorinen: the default setting of high modernism is Very Serious Indeed. Wuorinen’s post-Stravinsky “perceptible pulsating rhythm” pieces are Very Serious, but they also ask for European-style concert musicians to drive syncopations in a reasonably straight line, or at least straight enough for Wuorinen to claim they are “a hip-swinging wing-ding” (his comment on the finale to the Third Piano Concerto).

YouTube is full of smart kids nailing difficult Wuorinen scores.

Honestly, it is as goofy as hell but remains a pleasure to listen to, especially for those who want to clear their ears out with some proper atonality once in a while. Like West Side Story, these pieces are well suited to talented college students who are reveling in their vitality: YouTube is full of smart kids nailing difficult Wuorinen scores.

For my own private 80th Wuorinen birthday celebration, I’ve been repeatedly listening to four works from the early ’80s, when he seemed to give high modernism a proper injection of “ragtime.” I imagine the composer’s smile hanging over the proceedings like a 12-tone Cheshire Cat.

A collection of Wuorinen LPs and CDs on top of a digital keyboard.

The Blue Bamboula (1980)

Wuorinen has four pieces with “Bamboula” in the title. This is a tip of the hat to Scott Joplin’s notable predecessor Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who’s once-famous “Bamboula” from 1848 is a fantasy on two Creole themes.

Commissioned by Ursula Oppens, The Blue Bamboula is, in Wuorinen’s words, “A single-movement piece in which I tried to respond to Oppens’s request that the work embody the spirit of an earlier work of mine, the Grand Bamboula of 1971.” Amusingly, a quote from Tchaikovsky is fed through the modernist meat grinder. Carla Bley told Amy Beal, “To me, the piece Blue Bamboula with Garrick Ohlsson playing it, is the best piece of piano music in the world.” At one point I had a playlist of the Ohlsson and Oppens performances in rotation. Both are beautiful. (This was before the comparatively recent Molly Morkoski issue, which is also excellent.) It didn’t take long before my ears tuned up enough that I could follow the narrative smoothly: The whole work might be seen as a move from C to D-flat, and Wuorinen even gives a few repeat signs near the end.

Admittedly, if you aren’t intrigued by the style to begin with, the surface of The Blue Bamboula may still seem incoherent. It’s possible that high modernism is mostly for fellow professionals. Steve Swallow said about Carla Bley: “She has perfect pitch and can sing the notes in the voicing of incredibly dense harmonies. I’ve heard her do this to music of Charles Wuorinen, perhaps her favorite composer.”

New York Notes (1982)

Violinist Miranda Cuckson suggested I listen to this piece, which has attained the status of a classic. There are two excellent recordings. It’s common at colleges, and was one of the earliest pieces rehearsed by the important new music group eighth blackbird. For his 60th birthday it was played by the New York New Music Ensemble at the Kaye Playhouse, and for his 75th, the composer conducted it at the Guggenheim.

New York Notes refers to New York New Music Ensemble, who commissioned the work, but it is also the title of a book by celebrated New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett: New York Notes: A Journal of Jazz, 1972-1975. I doubt Wuorinen was attempting to make a connection to Balliett, but nonetheless there are many pretty jazz chords in Wuorinen’s chamber piece. Of the Wuorinen I know, New York Notes is the closest to Peter Lieberson, who was perhaps the greatest American master of sensuous, “jazzy” atonality.

There are many pretty jazz chords in Wuorinen’s chamber piece.

Wuorinen writes, “The six members of the ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion) are all engaged in virtuoso play, but I also think of their music as comprising three duets of the related pairs of instruments, as well as six solos.” This explanation may obscure the real fun of New York Notes, which is simply that almost all fast-moving material is doubled. Usually “duets” in new music-speak means conversation and counterpoint, but not here, where “duets” literally means, “play the exact same material.”

For the first recording with New York New Music Ensemble, Daniel Druckman does a herculean job of managing all the percussion himself. On the later version with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, there are two percussionists and a few intriguing “cadenzas” from computer generated sounds.

It might be a stretch to say that New York Notes is “grooving,” but the rhythmic excitement is palpable. The phrases are usually in obvious duples like sixteenth notes and the occasional triplet. Wuorinen told Tim Page in 1989: “From my vantage point, it is a little difficult to say what’s happened—I’ve just kept on scribbling…. [but] my use of rhythm is more periodic, more regular, more intimately related to the background pulse than it used to be—which is a long, complicated, and rather pompous way of saying that the beat is clearer.”

In New York Notes, that clearer beat powers near-vamps in the low registers and near-bebop at the top, perfect for the city of jazz, subways, and skyscrapers.

Piano Concerto No. 3 (1983)

It’s a hell of a thing. Garrick Ohlsson begins with an intense toccata that barely lets up. The percussion enters, tentatively at first, then swarming the pianist. A hypnotic slow movement gently pulses away before the coruscating finale. Like New York Notes, duples and doubling are major features: The piano plays almost the whole time and various sections of the orchestra double the piano exactly, especially in the outer movements. (This must have been a real help in rehearsal!) The language is of course atonal, but there are plenty of harmonic puns: The first movement ends with G major over D minor, the last ends with G minor over D major.

As mentioned above, Wuorinen calls the finale “a hip-swinging wing-ding.” The rhythmic excitement is perfectly judged. It’s not too square, but there’s just enough “beat” to feel propulsion.

It’s interesting to compare Peter Lieberson’s Piano Concerto played by Peter Serkin from the exact same vintage. Lieberson’s harmonies speak more naturally; they are perhaps more glamorous and “Stravinskyian” in the best sense, but Wuorinen has the syncopated edge. I have tried to listen to as many of the 20th-century piano concertos as possible, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Lieberson’s First and Wuorinen’s Third are two of the best.

These composers were producing this great music on a reasonably well-lit platform. Ohlsson and Serkin were and are two beloved pianists, accompanied on record by Seji Ozawa/Boston Symphony and Herbert Blomstedt/San Francisco Symphony respectively. Lieberson’s concerto was commissioned for the Boston Symphony centennial, Wuorinen’s piece commissioned by a consortium of five orchestras. Both works were given technically insightful rave reviews by Andrew Porter in The New Yorker.

It is just barely possible that future young players will be able to put up a performance of Lieberson 1 or Wuorinen 3 as easily as Beethoven or Rachmaninoff. Time will tell.

That was then. At this point it is hard to imagine either concerto entering the general repertory, but I presume both composers were taking the long view and hoping to create music that will give at least a few people pleasure in perpetuity. The virtuosity of new music performers keeps improving (a process partially kickstarted in New York by the Group for Contemporary Music founded by Wuorinen and Harvey Sollberger in the early ’60s), and I suppose it is just barely possible that future young players will be able to put up a performance of Lieberson 1 or Wuorinen 3 as easily as Beethoven or Rachmaninoff. Time will tell. At this moment Wuorinen’s public face, a grouchy, “you kids get off my lawn” personality—a personality he seems to have had for decades, if not his whole life—has probably done harm to his status as an essential composer.

Before the performance of Brokeback Mountain this past Monday night, Miranda Cuckson quickly introduced me to Mr. Wuorinen in the foyer of Jazz at Lincoln Center. The conversation went like this:

EI: Hello! I’m a fan.

CW: (grumpy) Hello.

EI: I have the score to your Third Piano Concerto in my bag.

CW: (less grumpy) Well, that’s an antique.

EI: It seems like some of the same material is used in Spinoff.

CW: (smiling) Yes! That’s true. I totally ripped off the Concerto for Spinoff. That was the same year.

EI: Well. Thanks for all the music. You’ve written so much.

CW: (grumpy) It’s not so much. I’m 80 and there are 275 pieces. But I do work all the time.

Spinoff (1983)

Patrick Zimmerli told me about this piece in 1992, so I searched out the Speculum Musicae 15th anniversary LP.  Spinoff remains something I play for jazz students who are interested in combining modernist notes with pulsating rhythm. It’s only six minutes. For the first minute, the violin and bass sound like “normal” discontinuous modern music, but then Howard Shore’s beatnik conga enters and all bets are off. And, yes, a few of the lines are exactly the same as from the first movement of Piano Concerto No. 3.

It’s appropriate to compare Spinoff to another valuable item for jazz students, All Set by Milton Babbitt. Spinoff might be a bit dorky, but All Set is more dorky. If this admittedly subjective judgment is true, it’s because the beatnik conga in Spinoff holds the thread together more convincingly than Babbitt’s fragmented drum set notation for All Set.

Spinoff might be a bit dorky, but All Set is more dorky.

Congas star in Spinoff, but over the years Wuorinen has written for the full percussion arsenal extensively—and well. In the liner note for his mammoth Percussion Symphony, Wuorinen says he likes drums not just for clarity, but for a “very ancient, layered set of associations, reaching well back into our distant past. Thus, modernity and antiquity are pleasingly conjoined.” Daniel Druckman (who recorded New York Notes for one percussionist) has said of Wuorinen, “He’s one of the two or three most important people for us in terms of central works and stretching the limits of what the instruments can do.” (See also Tyshawn Sorey’s note below.)

The only professional recording of Spinoff remains the first by Benjamin Hudson, Donald Palma, and Joseph Passaro. It’s good (especially from Palma, who can play jazz), but upon finally looking at the score for the first time last week, I’ve realized that some of Wuorinen’s obvious syncopations could and should be articulated more clearly.

Big Spinoff is a fun amplification of the work for Alarm Will Sound, which does justice to the “finger snapping” moments in the piece. AWS Artistic Director Alan Pierson explains, “AWS got excited about the idea of arranging it years ago. The propulsive energy and driving rhythms felt like a great match for us. We actually originally proposed doing the arrangement ourselves (Stefan Freund was gonna do it) and asked Charles’s permission. But he said he wanted to do it himself! And we love the result.”

Peter Lieberson’s note to the original LP is now hard to find. After recapping Wuorinen’s relationships to Igor and Vera Stravinsky, Lieberson offers the following observation:

Spinoff is itself replete with little homages: one cannot help but hear echoes of L’Histoire du Soldat, the music from scenes one and two, with the characteristic “breathy” rhythm of the violin against the regular pizzicati of the bass acting as a refrain throughout. The ending sounds like a pitched version of L’Histoire’s and there are other smoky echoes in the congas from Ebony Concerto. Because Wuorinen’s voice is strong and recognizably his, such homages are agreeable adornments to the direct and exuberant discourse.

If I’m arguing that Spinoff is at least a little bit goofy, there’s no way to leave out Cicadas of the Sea’s excerpt of Spinoff with vocalese and hand puppets.

I have been re-listening to early ’80s Wuorinen because I’ve kept these pieces in rotation over the last 25 years. Since then, he hasn’t given up on a syncopated style—indeed, that aspect has proven perfect for several dance commissions—but among other things there has been an abundance of vocal music and an overt engagement with early European composers like Machaut and Josquin.

Opera might be the one place where a civilian can enjoy rigorous atonality.

At Rose Theater for Brokeback Mountain, there were several audience members in cowboy hats and jeans, apparently doing a kind of cosplay based on the hit movie. I hope they enjoyed the opera as much as I did. High modernism is a fabulous fit for the classic operatic themes of sex and death: indeed, I think opera might be the one place where a civilian can enjoy rigorous atonality as much as a professional. Unlike some reviewers, I didn’t find Brokeback overbearing or contrived. Indeed, there was a lightness in orchestration that suited the sparse set and simple story. There were even many comic moments… I mean, let’s face it, the meeting of cowboys and 12-tone music is already absurd and amusing. In the final analysis, I have only one criteria as to whether an opera is good: I need to be crying by the end, and Brokeback Mountain passed the test.

A common interpretation of Schoenberg’s Moses Und Aron is that Schoenberg thought of himself as the mute prophet Moses, offering the glories of 12-tone music to a society mostly deaf to his vision. When the lonely rancher in Brokeback Mountain swears fidelity to his dead lover, it was easy to imagine the last remaining high modernist Charles Wuorinen promising continued fealty to his beloved palette of uncompromising sounds.

Coda: With a canon as large as Wuorinen’s, it only makes sense that responses to his work will vary widely. On a hunch, I sent Tyshawn Sorey my piece and asked him if he found Wuorinen relevant. He replied:

“In my view, not only is Wuorinen totally relevant to me, but his works should be considered relevant for anyone who is interested in the study and presentment of contemporary music! Wuorinen’s music has a very direct relationship to my life in several ways. I’m mostly familiar with his 60’s and 70’s work, both as a performer and as a listener. Not so much his music from, say, the late 80’s up to now, except for New York Notes, which I really like. Since we’re discussing his 1980s music, it was also a wonderful experience preparing his Trombone Trio (1985) for performance by myself on tenor trombone and two other professors at William Paterson University from the New Jersey New Music Ensemble (a sub-group from the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble), but further opportunities to rehearse and perform the piece together fell through due to insanely crazy schedules. I’d still play that piece in a heartbeat if a pianist and percussionist would ever want to do it with me!

“But if you want to talk about the side of Wuorinen’s work I admire most, then I should mention being one of the percussionists in an exhilarating, life-changing performance of Ringing Changes (1969), a staple in contemporary music literature along with the incredible Percussion Symphony (1976), which as far as I’m concerned should be considered a ‘standard.” Even though the music itself is not nearly as rhythmically complex or discontinuous as his earlier pieces, these works are fascinating on every level—the last section of Ringing Changes featuring the tubular bells, for example, is probably some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard anywhere. It brought me to tears, playing the tubular bells in that section. That sound world was revolutionary for its time, and so full of life!

“It should also go without saying that I am very much in love with his earlier, more ‘rhythmically disjunct’ pieces—the ones that really did it for me were the Piano Variations, Flute Variations I & II, all of the 60s Concertos, the First Piano Sonata (Robert Miller’s performance is for me the definitive performance of this masterwork), Time’s Encomium, Arabia Felix, String Trio and the list goes on and on… And last (but certainly not least) there is my favorite composition of his, Janissary Music, which I think is one of the most virtuosic works ever to exist for one percussionist alone. The performance of this piece exemplifies a whole different kind of complexity and rigor; it’s not ‘new complexity’, and it’s not even trying to be that—it’s simply Wuorinen’s genuine compositional language. Hell, it’s new complexity done Wuorinen’s way! The percussion writing is full of extreme rigor and technical fluidity as well as some mesmerizing moments. That music truly ‘grooves’ in its own way, and doesn’t sound rhythmically ‘square’ at all! After happening upon the original CRI LP record of the piece at the William Paterson Library, I asked the genius percussionist Ray Des Roches (for whom Wuorinen composed this piece) what was it like for him to prepare this piece. He then informed me that it was so difficult to play, that it took him over a year to learn it! (This—coming from one of the most revered, pioneering figures ever to exist in the performance of contemporary music—was quite the news to hear! Des Roches’s classic recording also remains definitive!)

“I continue to listen to Wuorinen to the very present day. In fact, I was recently blasting and sort of ‘dancing’ along to one of his pieces in my car in downtown New York while waiting on a friend… folks stared, but I didn’t give a damn who was staring at me because the music excites and inspires me to move. The music is both “serious” and enjoyable, to my ears. I like to sit and read the scores, and sometimes I like to just listen and enjoy it to my heart’s content—it is totally possible to do this. Wuorinen remains a huge influence in my own work, both in terms of the rigor with which he deals with pitch selection and form, as well as the sense of melodic and rhythmic gesturing that is evidenced in all of his compositions. One of the greatest to ever do it, in my opinion!”

But What I Really Want To Do Is Direct!

Music videos are everywhere: pop artists create videos designed to go viral and to sell albums. Budding directors often cut their teeth making music videos and big names like M. Night Shyamalan, Gus Van Sant, Diane Keaton, and even Martin Scorsese have directed music videos, seemingly for fun. (It is way fun.) Formidable artistry sometimes emerges from the genre, like Beyoncé’s ingenious all-video “visual album” Lemonade, with seven directors working on the project, including herself.

Technology is no longer a barrier (even a mobile phone will do) and musicians with far smaller budgets than mega-stars are making music videos. New music folks have found their way to the medium—from cinematic works like The Lotus Eaters by Sarah Kirkland Snider featuring Shara Nova and directed by Murat Eyuboglu; to James Moore’s stunning virtuosity in his rendition of John Zorn’s The Book of Heads: Etude 33, intimately filmed by Stephen Taylor. I’d love to see even more “new music” music videos out there. Our media-saturated culture is a perfect landscape for indie musicians’ videos, and websites and social media outlets are great ways to share and promote music and artistry.

My own music video obsession began with making sure my performance work was documented, and then I moved into creating my own stand-alone music videos. (Actually, it began even before then with wanting to be a rock star and growing up with MTV, but that’s another story.) My neighbor and friend, Raul Casares, is a pro director of photography and I inadvertently apprenticed myself to him a number of years ago as we began to film my performances and music videos together. He patiently stood by as I drove the creative direction of the projects. I was hooked: the creative possibilities meshed with my aesthetic sensibilities and my lifelong adoration of film. I also love the creative control of the medium.

Misha Penton and cast inside the Silos at Sawyer Yards, Houston, Texas.

Misha Penton and cast inside the Silos at Sawyer Yards, Houston, Texas.
L-R: Misha Penton, soprano & director. Neil Ellis Orts, Michael Walsh, Sherry Cheng, voices.
Photo by D. Nickerson.

Since the release of my first music video in 2013, my work in this area has grown significantly. I’ve directed and produced four others, advanced to doing some shooting, and am now finally editing the work myself, with the last two videos being experimental new music pieces for which I also created the sound scores.

Threshold is my latest music video excursion—a work which began as a live, site-specific postopera (as musicologist Jelena Novak might say) created for The Silos at Sawyer Yards in Houston: an enormous mid-20th century rice factory, now a space offered for artistic use. It’s a labyrinthine complex of silos with a many-second sonic delay.

During the rehearsal period for the Threshold live performance, I filmed just about everything we did, either with my iPhone, my heftier Canon DSLR, or both. The process videos, dress rehearsal, and live performance documentation created an archive of material to support the work while also serving as material for stand-alone pieces. Part of what drives me to video is the unrealistic, resource-gobbling nature of contemporary music’s (too often) one-off live performance model. Creating multi-form, many-versioned projects gives the work a longer shelf life.

In the early stages of planning Threshold, I knew I wanted to create a music video as the final version of the project. I’d worked similarly on several other pieces, creating music video versions of live performance works, and I like the longevity and archival nature of media. During the rehearsal period for Threshold, when we were in the Silos space, the music video was filmed. After the live performance, the recording process began, and those audio files became the raw material for the edit and mix I created for the film’s sound score (polished and mastered by Todd Hulslander). I approached the video similarly: after filming with Raul (and Dave Nickerson), I chose all my favorite clips and created the video, adding the sound score last.

After about a year and a half of work—from conception to live performance, and finally the music video version—I now consider the Threshold project complete:

Tips & Toolkits

A music video is simultaneously an art form and a promotional tool.

I work very intuitively, and I like to think I’m pretty resourceful. I often ask myself, “What do I have at my disposal, right now?” rather than “I need seven countertenors and a goat, or I cannot realize my creative genius!” Budget is always a looming consideration, but doing a lot of the work oneself will cut that down quickly. To diminish the financial demands of making media projects, increase your technical independence overall (more on that later) and be as inventive as possible: take advantage of natural light, use interesting outdoor locations, incorporate abstract elements, and think outside the box when it comes to production.

And never underestimate the power of your mobile phone.

In addition to making creative media projects, it’s also possible to get good live performance documentation (in an intimate venue) with a smartphone mounted to a tripod—and although the resolution isn’t quite as high as still photos, video screen captures or exporting still images from the film is possible. A number of major releases have been shot mostly on mobile phones—like Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) and Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane (2018)—and many film festivals have categories for mobile phone (and music video) submissions. Enchant(ed) was made on my iPhone and filmed impromptu (and handheld) on a crazy-beautiful winter day in Colorado. (The voice-scape was created later in Logic Pro X.)

Although the arts are highly collaborative by nature, you should consider seeking grants or using resources to buy gear and software to become more self-sufficient—at least some of the time or as a choice—instead of using resources to pay for technical support to document projects or to realize creative media ideas. To put it plainly, instead of paying someone else to do it for you, invest in equipment over time and learn to use it. I’m one of those hardheaded, odd creatures who likes the experience of learning things on my own, so my tech skill set is largely self-taught. However, there are many options for upping technical expertise: local filmmaking and photography organizations usually offer classes, as do community colleges and continuing education departments at universities. Perhaps you have a friend or colleague who is into cameras and making films—as rock guitar icon Robert Fripp aphorized, “If we wish to know, breathe the air around someone who knows.”

There are many options when it comes to gear and software, and these tools effectively document live performance as well as realize creative media works.

Newbie Kit:

A smartphone and a tripod with a phone mount, and maybe one of those cool new gimbals from EVO (hand-held camera stabilizers). Many companies make clip-on lenses for mobile phones, like olloclip and AMIR. For live sound, something like a Zoom H4n is excellent.

Entry-Level DSLR Kit:

Canon EOS Rebel series or Sony Alpha a68. Both can be purchased bundled with an 18-55mm lens, plus you’ll need a tripod. I still use a Zoom H4n for live sound, so keep on keepin’ on with that little device.

Although a dedicated digital camera will increase quality and offer more creative flexibility, push your smartphone to its limit. I love my Canon dearly, but I recently upgraded to the iPhone X and it shoots gorgeous video with enhanced image stabilization.

Oh!—and for the love of all things sacred, always shoot in landscape and not portrait orientation: meaning, hold your phone horizontally so the image is wider than it is tall (like the wide rectangle of a computer, TV, movie screen, or proscenium stage). Also, keep your music videos under five minutes (don’t worry, I’ve broken that rule)—pop songs are usually around four minutes, so I say stick with broad audience appeal, and with the idea that a music video is simultaneously an art form and a promotional tool.

Video and Audio Editing Software:

Entry-level apps like iMovie (Mac) or Story Remix (PC) are pretty powerful. I’m Mac-based, but here’s one scoop on free PC video editing software. More powerful editing suites include Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere, and for audio editing I like Logic X, but there are many PC kin, some free. Home studio and pro audio recording options are beyond the scope of this article, but research recording resources in your area, like university studios or your local PBS affiliate.

External hard drives are essential because you will never have enough room for media on a laptop or on a standard computer set-up. I edited Threshold entirely on my late-2015 Macbook Air with an external hard drive (not ideal, but bless that little machine). Be forewarned: computer and external hard drives will fail at some point. Always back up full versions of your projects on two separate external drives.

I prefer Vimeo over YouTube as a distribution platform for my work because it’s ad-free, beautiful, and customizable. However, YouTube is free to use, while Vimeo charges a monthly fee for most of its plans (it does offer a free ‘Basic’ plan). Vimeo also has a number of technical advantages over YouTube, but if you’re just starting out, you may want to go with YouTube. Once your work develops in such a way that it benefits from a slick showcase, move to Vimeo.

And always credit collaborators. It’s surprising how many directors, filmmakers, and videographers are uncredited. Put all the credits and video info in the text below the video and not just at the beginning or end of the film itself. This text is search engine friendly.

My video work started when I got my first iPhone many years ago and my gear acquisition and skills built up over time. I am, by no means, a tech expert, but if you have a terrible aversion to gadgets and software, proceed with self-compassion and patience! Be resourceful, take baby steps, and make do: creativity best emerges within constraints.


The number of artists working in media is staggering, and the technical options range from guerilla filmmaking to extremely high-tech operations. Here are a few very cool artists whose work I find compelling that demonstrate this wide array of possibilities.

Jil Guyon is a performer and filmmaker whose surreal work, Widow_remix (trailer), is a collaborative project with composer Chris Becker and the voice of Helga Davis. Jil conceptualizes, directs, and edits, and Valerie Barnes is the cinematographer:

Zena Carlota’s ensemble piece, Lolow Kacha, features the kora, a traditional 21-string harp from West Africa, and was filmed in an intimate documentary-style by JJ Harris:

Nterini is a big budget music video by one of my favorite artists, Fatoumata Diawara, directed by Aida Muluneh with director of photography Daniel Girma:

And finally, animator, director, designer, and performer Miwa Matreyek composes music and collaborates with a number of musicians for her stunning multimedia live performances. Her website is a deep dive, so get comfy. Here’s a clip of her work, This World Made Itself:

Getting the Word Out

Beyond standard PR practices like social media posts, newsletters, press releases, and developing good relationships with arts writers in your community and beyond, submit your music videos to film festivals and find outlets to showcase and write about your work yourself. No one knows your work better than you. Blog about your video creation projects, trade guest posts with other writers in your area of interest, and always embed your video projects in posts.

Your website is another great way to showcase and organize work: performance history, videos, audio, and creative process writings. I love composer Caitlin Rowley’s vlogs. She is deeply honest and comprehensive about her approach. Her work with sound and performance, and her experiments with palimpsest-like hybrid journal / visual art is meticulous and fascinating. Soprano and artist-scholar Elisabeth Belgrano creates hypnotic and maze-like pages, and her iPhone and iPad voice recordings in Swedish churches and cathedrals are quite stunning. Interdisciplinary sound and performing artist Leona Jones, whose work centers “around a celebration of the hidden,” has organized her site beautifully with lots of headphone-friendly audio. My own work is organized in the Project section and Production Archives of my site.

Lastly, share the work with daring confidence: as the inimitable Dolly Parton is credited with saying, “Sometimes you just have to toot your own horn. Otherwise, nobody’ll know you’re a-comin’!”

Daphne Oram’s Sound Houses

I’ve been writing a play haunted by Daphne Oram. “Who?” many a composer or music professional has asked when I’ve confessed my current creative obsession.

British inventor and composer Daphne Oram, a pioneer of electronic music and co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic workshop, died impoverished and relatively unknown in 2003. Oram’s system of Oramics, an early form of sound synthesis developed in the late fifties, involved generating sound from drawn image. When, in 2010, a relic of the composer’s “Oramics machine,” a behemoth of a contraption designed to house multiple strands of film running through a series of scanners, was unearthed moldering in a barn in France, the composer’s legacy was exhumed. Oram experienced the beginnings of a revival of sorts, one that has been growing steadily ever since. In June 2016, Still Point, the piece Oram wrote for two orchestras and tape machine in 1948, when she was 23—thought to be the world’s first composition that manipulates electronic sounds in real time—premiered in London as part of the Southbank Centre’s Deep∞Minimalism festival to ecstatic notices 70 years after Oram composed the work. And yet, although Oram has clearly become a beacon for contemporary composers from Missy Mazzoli to Rene Orth to Anne LeBaron, the question, voiced by many a respected music colleague, keeps resounding: “Who?”

Oram has clearly become a beacon for contemporary composers from Missy Mazzoli to Rene Orth to Anne LeBaron.

Daphne’s invisibility is at the center of my new play Sound House, which runs from February 20 to March 4 at the Flea Theater in New York City, produced by New Georges as part of a repertory project entitled “Steeped in Sound.” Two research trips I made to the Daphne Oram archive at Goldsmith’s University in London fueled my work on the play, which has become not just an investigation into Oram’s sonic legacy but a meditation on the nature of trust (Daphne’s complicated relationship with her engineer) and doorbell ditching. (I found, in the archive, that Daphne was obsessed with a barrage of buzzes and bells she was convinced she had heard, and obsessively recorded all possible arrivals—no one was ever there.) Daphne’s alter ego in the play, Constance Sneed, who has come to the theater to tell us her own story involving a disappearing mother and Constance’s own struggle with invisibility, serves as the lens through which we view Daphne. Ultimately, Daphne’s and Constance’s stories bump up against each other, two parallel narratives converging at a distant vanishing point that envisions a world in which old ladies do not die alone or forgotten, trusted accomplices prove their mettle, and young women make themselves seen and heard. Oram’s pursuit of Francis Bacon’s vision of a utopian society clamorous with heretofore unknown sounds and music resonates at the core of the play, in which text, sound, and movement all function as primary modes of expression. Sound House is, I hope, a lot like Daphne’s music—visceral, strange, haunting, at times funny, a conjuring of psychic space through sound, a landscape one garners a sense of having journeyed through.

As a playwright who has, in recent years, become an opera librettist as well, writing this play and exploring it off the page, in three, perhaps even four dimensions, has been for me not just an inquiry into the various shadings and mind-bending qualities of invisibility, but an investigation into the architectonics of sound in the theatrical space; the collusion, or collision, of text and music; how it is that one composes a durational object.

Thanks to the generosity and the vision of New Georges, the company producing the play, my collaborators and I have been lucky enough to engage in a process that has involved four workshops over two years and a production rehearsal process with a sound designer frequently in the room. Sound House’s team of makers includes Debbie Saivetz (direction), Tyler Kieffer and Brandon Walcott (sound), Brendan Spieth (movement), Marsha Ginsberg (set), Kate McGee (lights), Olivera Gajic (costumes), and Christina Campanella (additional music), and actors Vicky Finney, Susanna Stahlmann, and Jim Himelsbach.

The composer’s almost hermetic relationship with the sounds she produced came from literally living with the music and her Oramics machine.

Just as Daphne’s story and her music have served as jumping-off points for my own idiosyncratic theatrical imagination, the sound designers of Sound House, Tyler Kieffer and Brandon Wolcott, have chosen to dream in to how Daphne’s music might sound to us if it were written now. The music in Sound House comes not just from Daphne, but from a wide array of sources, including composer Christina Campanella, my collaborator on Red Fly/Blue Bottle (2010), whose music for the play explores the tactility of Daphne’s sound world—the ways in which Oram coaxed sounds out of her machines—via a loping, slightly off-kilter composition created out of found sounds and Moog synthesizer. Campanella is compelled by the connection Daphne had with her music, the composer’s almost hermetic relationship with the sounds she produced, which came from literally living with the music and her Oramics machine in her studio, which was also her home, a former oast house in Kent entitled Tower Folly. Campanella’s music communicates Daphne’s sense of wonder as well as the ways in which Daphne’s sound inventions became, for Daphne, characters or companions. Campanella has also created a theme for Constance, which serves as a metaphor for the process my collaborators and I are undertaking as we venture into Daphne’s world, a journey of exploration and discovery that Constance concurrently undergoes as the play unfolds.

Susanna Stahlmann as Constance Sneed in Stephanie Fleischmann's play Sound House

Susanna Stahlmann as Constance Sneed in Stephanie Fleischmann’s Sound House.

Incorporating Campanella’s work into the mix, the sound designers are, in this case, functioning as composers. But then again, in a way, so am I. So is everyone in the room. We are, in a sense, making a piece of music, a multidimensional sonic object in which movement and sound serve as text, text becomes music, and sound carves out not only space and time, but also story. The play is replete with refrains, for instance, the buzzes and bells Daphne keeps hearing, recurring images (sonic, textual, visual) that serve as motives. Its complex and elliptical dramaturgy defies narrative logic even as it is, at least on some level, rooted in character and story. There is clearly a need to tell, an urgency to the telling—but the shape of that articulation is elusive, an open field in which anything may be possible. And yet the work demands a remarkable rigor, a precision to the carving out of its moments in terms of the integration of text, sound, and movement that I have not previously experienced, whether working on a play, a performance, or an opera.

The sound designers are functioning as composers. But then again, in a way, so am I.

Inspired by Daphne Oram’s maverick vision, her life and her music, I find myself challenging what a play can be, the narrative structures it can hold. As opposed to hewing to a more conventional narrative arc, the play’s structural underpinnings arise from the cyclical and associative patterns of thought, in turn forging a shape whose logic (or illogic) has its roots in Oram’s music, which Horace Ohm, Daphne’s fictional engineer in Sound House, describes as “the underside of a half-remembered dream, like a distant thought, coated in rime, like memory itself.”

By the time she was in her sixties, Daphne found herself reduced to putting on outdoor concerts of recorded music to make ends meet. Calling on her early experiences as a junior engineer at the BBC, she installed sound systems in the forecourts, on the rolling lawns, in the apple orchards of the great houses of Kent, curating eclectic programs for a scattering of old-age pensioners, keeping meticulous notes as she wired up these sites: “20 paces from apple to yew to cherry.”  “Daphne Oram’s Recorded Music Society” is a centerpiece of the play, which attempts to get at what my rendition of Daphne describes as “the endless ostinato that is the opposite of renown.” Daphne’s struggle to disseminate her system of Oramics to a wider audience, and for recognition as both an inventor and a composer, dogged her until the end of her life. What is the moment, the turning point that determines that a person’s dreams are not going to come about? Sifting through the clues contained in the Daphne Oram archive, musing on the trajectory of my own life and those of many gifted artists I have known, no one answer emerges. The experience of invisibility is not a linear phenomenon. Neither are the ways in which invisibility undermines a life. Daphne’s eroded hopes are not unlike the infrasonics, the low unheard frequencies that pervade the play, wearing away at Daphne’s resilience in all sorts of insidious ways. Charting the depths of the condition of invisibility from the point of view of music and its modalities is making the space for discoveries I’m not sure would have come about via more linear means.

Foregrounding sound means that the text becomes something of a scaffold—not unlike an opera libretto.

Foregrounding sound as a primary compositional tool means that the text becomes something of a scaffold—not unlike an opera libretto. How is it that writing a play like Sound House informs my work as a librettist? How does my work as a librettist inform my approach to a play such as Sound House? In many ways, the two forms and the processes fueling them are somewhat antithetical. Creating an opera libretto requires an intense amount of premeditation—outlining, problem-solving, planning, all of which transpires prior to the actual writing process. Paradoxically, I have never outlined any play I’ve ever written. Sound House is, in part, structured around the conceit of a trio of first-person testimonials. It contains many more words than any libretto I would venture to write. And yet, working in opera for the past six years has sharpened my ear, deepened my understanding of musical dramaturgy, which has clearly informed how I am making my way through this play.

Daphne Oram was obsessed with Francis Bacon’s Nova Atlantis (1624). She kept a  passage from it—“We have also Sound Houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation”—pinned to her studio wall as inspiration. My contribution to an opera, the libretto—a fashioning of text as a scaffold for music, for drama, for lived time, for inhabited space, for story—must be all about a crystalline, almost cut-throat dramaturgy. But taking this leap into the more nonlinear terrain of Daphne Oram’s and Francis Bacon’s “Sound Houses,” however, has yielded invaluable insight into the machinations, if one dares use such a word, of music making, which can’t help but inform how I approach my next opera libretto. Working on Sound House has opened up new possibilities, leaving me to ponder what a libretto that does more than simply leave space for the music might look like; and ask not just how might I best serve the composer, but how can I build structures with my texts that truly house sound?

Jim Himelsbach (as Horace Ohm, Daphne Oram’s engineer), Susanna Stahlmann as Constance Sneed, and Vicky Finney as Daphne Oram in Stephanie Fleischmann’s Sound House.

Jim Himelsbach (as Horace Ohm, Daphne Oram’s engineer), Susanna Stahlmann as Constance Sneed, and Vicky Finney as Daphne Oram in Stephanie Fleischmann’s Sound House.


On Empathy

The crimes and misdemeanors language perpetrates against music are many and various, but one offense is more insidious than most, simply for being so insignificant. It’s a preposition. In English, invariably, we listen to a piece of music. Never with a piece of music.

That little rut of syntax conceals a speed bump on what seemingly should be a musical express lane: the generation of empathy. Empathy is something music can and ought to steadily, even effortlessly create. Performing music, particularly in any sort of ensemble, large or small, exercises the muscles of empathy like no other. But even just listening to it should give empathy a boost, one would think. Name another art form that so regularly launches even its most historically, culturally, and ethnologically distant artifacts into newly immediate vitality, again and again.

Empathy is, perhaps, the most plausible of music’s utopian promises. The universality of musical communication dissolves the barriers of isolated viewpoints. We can gain direct access to perspectives and emotions far from our own experience. Music expands our ability to empathize, to sympathize, to humanize. It’s a great story. It’s a story I’ve told enough times, certainly. And, at those times—now, for instance—when empathy seems to be a dwindlingly scarce societal resource, it’s a story we like to tell with greater insistence, and confidence, and hope.

But what if it’s just that—a story? From another angle: what if there’s no way to listen to a piece of music and with a piece of music at the same time?

For the better part of a century, psychologists and similarly inclined scholars have made a particular distinction between empathy and emotional contagion. The former is defined in the usual way: having the experience of another person’s perception, perspective, emotional reaction. The latter is a little different: experiencing an emotional response simply because everyone around you is experiencing the same emotion. It’s an illusion of empathy, one conjured completely out of one’s own emotional memories.

The distinction is important in the study of musical perception. Here’s a recent explanation of the difference, by scholar Felicity Laurence:

It seems possible that when accounting for feelings of unity arising during shared musical experience, we may be confusing the impression of actually understanding and even feeling sympathetic towards one’s fellow “musickers” with what is in fact the experience of an emotional “wave.” In doing so, we are arguably conflating this “contagious” experience with the distinct and separate phenomenon of empathy. Emotional contagion is not inherently negative, and may indeed lead to, or accompany, empathic response. However, people engaged in musicking may seek specifically to engender, and then celebrate emotional contagion in order to reduce individual sovereignty and dissolve interpersonal boundaries. Even in an apparently benign concert performance, for example, we may be able to discern such manipulative behavior on the part of the performers and the corresponding mass response of their audience.

This description, at least, maintains the optimistic possibility (“may indeed”) that emotional contagion can pull the listener in the direction of true empathy. But others have not been so sure.

flamingo reflection

Photo by Pablo Garcia Saldana

The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, for instance, was a skeptic. And he came to doubt because of a now-familiar controversy—the shock of the new. In the early part of the 20th century, Ortega was wrestling with a problem: how to define modern music vis-à-vis the music of previous eras. “The problem was strictly aesthetic,” Ortega wrote, “yet I found the shortest road towards its solution started from a simple sociological phenomenon: the unpopularity of modern music.” Unlike music of the Romantic era, modern music had not met with wide popularity. And the reason for that was profound and inherent: “It is not a matter of the majority of the public not liking the new work and the minority liking it,” Ortega went on. “What happens is that the majority, the mass of the people, does not understand it.” After a century of Romanticism’s mass appeal, modernism was a rude awakening:

If the new art is not intelligible to everybody, this implies that its resources are not those generically human. It is not an art for men in general, but for a very particular class of men, who may not be of more worth than the others, but who are apparently distinct.

Hence the title of the essay: “La deshumanización del arte,” the dehumanization of art. And, like Milton Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?” (which, in some respects, Ortega anticipated by thirty years), Ortega isn’t out to demonize that dehumanization. It is what it is. And a lot of what it is has to do with how art—and music specifically—does and doesn’t engender empathy.

Romanticism, to Ortega, was popular because “people like a work of art that succeeds in involving them in the human destinies it propounds.” In the case of music, the destiny propounded was that of the composer: “Art was more or less confession.” Wagner, the adulterer, writes Tristan und Isolde, an opera about adultery, “and leaves us with no other remedy, if we wish to enjoy his work, than to become vaguely adulterous for a couple of hours.”

This seems like an empathetic response. But, upon closer examination, the music of Beethoven and Wagner is “melodrama,” and our response to it just “a contagion of feelings”:

What has the beauty of music to do with the melting mood it may engender in me? Instead of delighting in the artist’s work, we delight in our own emotions; the work has merely been the cause, the alcohol, of our pleasure… they move us to a sentimental participation which prevents our contemplating them objectively.

“[T]he perception of living reality and the perception of artistic form are, in principle, incompatible since they require a different adjustment of our vision,” Ortega insists. “An art that tries to make us see both ways at once will be a cross-eyed art.” The clarity of empathy is hopelessly blurred by reflexive emotional response: “It is no good confusing the effect of tickling with the experience of gladness.”

Ortega’s analysis is subjective, speculative criticism, but some of the ideas he turns over—especially regarding genre and empathy—have, however tentatively, been put to scientific test. In one provocative study, Shannon Clark and S. Giac Giacomantonio compared that match between subjects in late adolescence and early adulthood—across the age boundary when the psychological development of empathy is thought to settle into a mature level. Clark and Giacomantonio quizzed their subjects as to their listening preferences, classifying them according to a Musical Preference Factor Scale (MPFS) developed by Peter J. Rentfrow and Samuel D. Gosling:

Factor 1, “reflective & complex” (e.g., classical, jazz, folk, blues)

Factor 2, “intense & rebellious” (e.g., rock, alternative, heavy metal)

Factor 3, “upbeat & conventional” (e.g., country, pop, soundtracks, religious)

Factor 4, “energetic & rhythmic” (e.g., rap, soul, dance, electronica)

The result?

[I]t was shown that music genres encompassed by MPF-1 and MPF-2 are stronger in their associations with empathy than are those encompassed by MPF-3 and MPF-4. In fact, MPF-3 was negatively associated with empathy, indicating that those who have greater preferences for these genres may be lower in empathic concern. Additionally, MPF-4 was shown to have very little influence on empathy, positively or negatively, indicating that these genres of music contain little to no emotive messaging influencing empathic concern[.]

What’s more, the study hinted that “music preferences are more relevantly associated with cognitive aspects of development than affective ones.” In other words, the path to increased empathy is through thinking, not feeling. To be sure, the framework fairly smacks of unexamined stereotypes (I can think of plenty of rap music that is “reflective & complex,” and plenty of classical music that is “upbeat & conventional”). To any even slightly versatile musician, the MPFS categories (even in expanded form) can feel excessively, well, categorical. And, as with all studies of music and empathy so far, the study is far more suggestive than conclusive—the sample size is small, the data noisy. But squint your eyes, and you can just make out Ortega’s line between “objective” and “sentimental” music.

Still, Ortega’s business was philosophy, not psychology. His conception of the empathy-emotional contagion distinction was phenomenological, echoing ideas of empathy and intersubjectivity explored by Edmund Husserl and, especially, Husserl’s student Edith Stein, a fascinating thinker whose life was cut short at Auschwitz. (The philosophical consideration of empathy goes back to the Enlightenment, but it was Stein’s thesis, written at the absolute tail end of the Romantic era, that most influentially distinguished between empathy and emotional contagion.) And Ortega, it should be noted, had an ulterior motive. At the core of his analysis is his mistrust of utility. His famous Decartes-like statement of individual existence—“Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia,” I am I and my circumstances—posits existence as a contest between the self and the decisions into which the self is pushed by those circumstances. On some level, Ortega regards Romanticism as more circumstantial, more useful, than he might prefer. (Ortega’s anti-utilitarianism most shows its seams when stretched. In Ortega’s Meditations on Hunting, for example, he ends up elevating the “exemplary moral spirit” of hunting for sport over hunting for food.)

But how do you measure the utility of music, anyway? Earlier this year, I moderated a discussion panel for one of the concerts in a two-season survey of Anton Webern’s complete music, mounted by Trinity Wall Street in New York City. For a prompt, I offered a quotation from the rather contentious 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime” by the rather notorious Viennese architect Adolf Loos:

The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects.

The target of Loos’s ire was Art Nouveau and its penchant for putting decadent, decorative swirls on everything from wallpaper and furniture to ashtrays and breadboxes. But Loos was Webern’s contemporary; and it feels like this quote should have something to do with Webern’s famously stripped-down rhetoric. But what, exactly, that connection is, I’m not sure.

What was it that, perhaps, Webern considered utilitarian about music, and that previous generations had excessively ornamented? Was it the utility of musical form, and how it had been ever-more-grandly ornamented with tonal harmony? Webern’s works are formal—often scrupulously so—but without the tonal indicators of form, without the harmonic mile markers and exit signs everyone had grown accustomed to over the past three centuries. At the very least, this answer hints at how Webern’s music can be so wildly expressive while, compared to tonal music, doing so little. A piece of music isn’t expressive because it adheres to sonata form, say; sonata form is useful because it gives the nebulous quality of musical expression something to which to adhere.

But, with Ortega’s essay swimming in my head, here’s another idea. Maybe the utility of music is its communication—not what it communicates, which nobody can ever agree on, anyway, but just that it communicates with such power and directness. And the ornament? Emotional contagion.

I might like this answer even better, because it dissolves so many of the paradoxes of Webern’s reception—why it’s judged cool and inscrutable, when it’s anything but; why it’s judged austere and meager, when it’s anything but; why it’s judged impersonal and inhuman, when it’s anything but. Maybe the real resistance to Webern’s music (and a lot that followed) is that, in and of itself, it refuses to let the audience off the hook. To engage with it is to experience empathy without the cushion of emotional contagion. Real empathy, the experience of a world-view other than yours, is a far different and far less comfortable thing than a safe memory of your own emotional experience.

mirror reflection

Photo by Ali Syaaban

The whole landscape of this discussion is, admittedly, esoteric. Webern’s music is extreme. Ortega’s endpoint is a bit extreme. Academic studies of music and empathy, by nature, inhabit at least somewhat abstract spaces. (A number of investigations, for instance, have studied responses to music by autistic listeners in order to make observable effects more readily obvious.) Most of us—composers, performers, listeners—don’t live at these kind of extremes. We roam across Rentfrow and Gosling’s Music Preference Factors, mixing and matching, picking and choosing, sometimes amplifying a mood, sometimes challenging it, sometimes throwing different approaches into the blender just to see what happens. We all, at least some of the time, like to be transported into a new perspective; at the same time, we like to be guided to that place with a sense of being met halfway.

The question is whether the distance is the only thing being halved. The implication of Ortega, and Webern, and the tentative attempts to quantify such things is that, maybe, empathy and emotional contagion, rather than working hand-in-hand, as we might assume, are instead in a mutually exclusive tug-of-war. It is both a profoundly counter-intuitive idea and one that causes a surprising amount of music history to fall into logical place. And I find that just considering the idea reduces a lot of the foundation of how I think about music to sand. How would that change how we make music? What would that music sound like? How would we perform it?

Here’s another question: would we even be able to hear it?

In the introduction to the second, 1966 edition of his study Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan took the opportunity to try and clarify a tricky point: how, when a medium is superseded, the old medium becomes the “content” of the new. For example, “the ‘content’ of TV is the movie. TV is environmental and imperceptible, like all environments. We are aware only of the ‘content’ or the old environment.” Our entire historical relation to the world around us is simply an ongoing two-step between content and media:

Each new technology creates an environment that is itself regarded as corrupt and degrading. Yet the new one turns its predecessor into an art form.

The argument that atonal modernism “chased away” the audience for classical music/concert music/art music (choose your favorite flawed terminology) is practically a cliché at this point. But the bigger shift was technological. At the same time as the advent of atonality, our relationship with music was undergoing the greatest sea change in history: live performances were displaced by recorded, broadcast, or otherwise electrically and electronically mediated performances. And one can interpret McLuhan’s framework so that the primary feature of Romantic music—its flair for creating the illusion of startlingly immediate emotions—became the “content” of music once its dominant mode of consumption became electronically mediated. In other words, the phonograph, the radio, the recording studio made the emotional contagion of music the end, not the means. Considering McLuhan’s framework leads us to another counter-intuitive possibility: that, for a hundred years, the intended meaning of any piece of music has been lost in translation, its technological mediation filtering out everything but the emotional contagion.

It’s an esoteric interpretation. But it would explain a lot. It would explain why one of music history’s most zealous projects, the post-World War II determination to dismantle the legacy of Romanticism, foundered so completely. It would explain why some of the most thrilling and fascinating music of the past one hundred years, music that still can generate an electric response in the concert hall, found no traction on record or radio. And, more to the point, it would go a long way toward explaining why two generations and counting of conscious efforts to “reconnect” with audiences, of composers and performers producing music conceived in tonality and dedicated to the proposition that accessibility and clarity are fundamental to musical practice, have failed to forestall yet another political and historical moment in which our capacity for empathy has been ruthlessly and thoroughly crowded out by emotional contagion. But the notion also implies a dilemma: the music best able to engineer empathy might be that which is the hardest sell to a listener—because it is the most at odds with the way we have come to listen to music.

Like most dilemmas, it’s older than we think. The ancient Greeks were already worrying about it, forever theorizing how to channel music’s capacity for moral improvement, forever peppering those theories with observations that so much of the music that surrounded them eschewed morality for an easy emotional response. Aristotle, like so many after him, tried to square the circle with crude class distinctions, contrasting “the vulgar class composed of mechanics and laborers and other such persons” with “freemen and educated people,” resigned to the necessity of appealing to the former with “active and passionate” harmonies—since “people of each sort receive pleasure from what is naturally suited to them”—but insisting that, for education, “the ethical class of melodies and of harmonies must be employed.” (Not incidentally, this discussion takes place in the eighth and final book of Aristotle’s Politics.) But somehow I think that even Aristotle’s educated people were just as susceptible to emotional contagion as his mechanicals.

It’s not a class trait, or a national trait, or an aesthetic trait; it’s a human one. Emotion is easy; empathy is hard. We prefer listening to over listening with, a preference reinforced, perhaps, by the inescapable electronic web we’ve woven around ourselves. We keep believing that the one can lead to the other. But is that, in actuality, anything more than a feeling?

A Tool For Change: The Women Composers Database


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



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

Database filter

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

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

1. Content

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

2. Marketing Strategy

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

3. Admission Prices

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

4. Diversify Docents

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

5. Diversify Staff

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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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



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

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

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



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

Get Out There: Alternative Opportunities for Composers and Performers

Most people in the new music community are familiar with the general range of opportunities for study, work, and networking available to student or emerging composers and performers, such as the many academic conferences and other events like Tanglewood, the Atlantic Music Festival, the Aspen Music Festival, Bang on a Can’s summer program at MassMOCA, the Banff Centre, or overseas festivals like highSCORE and Cortona Sessions.

However, before you can attend these competitive opportunities, you have to be accepted to them, and the first roadblock you encounter might be the high application fee. For example, it costs $75 to be considered for a spot at Tanglewood and $75-$100 for a spot at the Atlantic Music Festival. And with many of these events, you can further expect hefty participation fees ranging into the thousands. At this price point, you will also have correspondingly hefty figures in music leading your master classes and private lessons, as well as access to many other benefits including networking and community building within the new music world.

But there are many opportunities out there for musicians and composers that are both more affordable and more accessible. Some of these are specifically designed for musicians and composers, while others more broadly cater to creatives working in multiple media.

Below is a specially curated list of 24 low-cost (or free) opportunities in the USA and Canada which you may not have heard about before, but should definitely check out. Some are priced comparably low for the resources/experiences they are offering, some are completely free, and some go beyond free and actually offer stipends.

Many of these residencies accept applications from project partners or small teams. When researching them further, keep that in mind. It can be difficult to get affordable studio space and time for a group project, whether you’re working with an ensemble or working with artists in other media—or even with folks outside of the arts. Applying to attend a residency as part of a team that you build could be your chance to work with an ecologist or horologist or volcanologist on those wild and brilliant musical ideas you’ve been keeping on the dusty back shelf.

Not all of these residencies will work for everyone—for example, for those working full-time, year-round jobs, the lengthier events will likely not be feasible. Some are more competitive during the summer (when those in academia would be able to attend) but not as competitive in the fall/winter/spring. As with all opportunities, it’s a good idea to apply to at least a handful to increase your chances. My personal ratio of success is one residency acceptance for every five or six applications. So, check these opportunities out and enrich your musical education without adding unnecessarily to your financial burden.

(Note: Take notice especially of the deadline dates, as many come soon after the publication of this article. Make sure you also visit the website of each opportunity you apply to for the most accurate and up-to-date information.)


Peer-Mentored Music Workshops

Canada has in recent years become a hub for new music workshops focused on enabling peer mentoring—that is, skill/resource/talent-sharing among emerging composers and performers. They are made possible largely by the preponderance of funding opportunities for the arts at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels in Canada, in addition to those available from private funding bodies. While these grants do often require that a certain percentage of the participants are Canadian, international applicants are still very strong contenders. For example, at the 2017 Waterloo Region Contemporary Music Sessions (see below), 50% of the participants were from outside of Canada. In other words, apply apply apply!

Montréal Contemporary Music Lab (MCML) is a ten-day performance and creation workshop exploring, celebrating, and creating bonds between performers, composers, sound artists, improvisers, and mixed/multimedia artists engaged in the act of creating new music. Formed in 2011 by seven emerging musicians in Montréal, they are a collective run entirely by and for young and emerging artists.

Deadline: March 2018 (date not posted yet)
Location: Montréal, Quebec, Canada
Application fee: $0
Residency fee: $250 CAD ($196 USD)

Toronto Creative Music Lab (TCML) is a peer-mentored, eight-day workshop for early career musicians and composers, and it’s designed to foster professional development, artistic growth, collaborative learning, and community building through workshops, rehearsals, social events, panel discussions, and performance.

Deadline: 2/1/18
Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Application fee: $0
Residency fee: $157 CAD ($123 USD)

Waterloo Region Contemporary Music Sessions (WRCMS) is a weeklong series of workshops, concerts, panels, reading sessions, and activities designed to promote and provide opportunities for emerging and early career Canadian and international performers, improvisers, and composers of contemporary music.

Deadline: 2/15/18
Location: Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
Application fee: $0
Residency fee: $395 CAD ($309 USD)


“Master” Mentoring

There aren’t many residencies built around participants receiving mentoring from a master artist while also being more affordable and open to general applicants, so there is just one residency included here in this category. I have been grateful to attend the Atlantic Center for the Arts twice and can attest to it being world-class—it offers a wonderful community, fabulous private lodging, delicious food, and fantastic resources. It also boasts a local friendly tortoise named George (the wooden walkways are elevated above the palm forest floor so he and his friends can walk around as they please). Built in the 1970s by creative visionaries and maintained with love and generous funding from local donors, there really is no experience quite like ACA.

Atlantic Center for the Arts (ACA) is an innovative nonprofit artists-in-residence program. Three “Master Artists” from different disciplines determine the requirements and basic structure of their residency, and through an online application process, they each select eight “Associate Artists” to participate in the three-week program.

Recent master artists in the field of music have included Michael Bisio, Zeena Parkins, John Gibson, Derek Bermel, Natasha Barrett, and Georg Friedrich Haas. Coming up, you can apply to spend three weeks working with composer Laura Schwendinger (apply by 1/21/18) and/or composer Maria de Alvear (apply by 5/13/18). Attend as many times as you are accepted; applications go directly to each master artist rather than to a board or jury. Individual master artists also determine both what is required in their applications and how they will run their residency, so each application is different, and each residency unique.

Deadline: Multiple deadlines throughout the year; the next one is 1/21/18.
Location: New Smyrna Beach, Florida
Application fee: $25
Residency fee: $900, but need-based partial scholarships are available.


Interdisciplinary or Collaborative

In her recent interview for the Listening to Ladies podcast, self-described New Renaissance Artist Elizabeth A. Baker emphasized the vital importance (in pursuing the goal of creative growth) of learning about the many intricate worlds of art and culture that exist outside of your specific niche. Interdisciplinary residencies are gold mines for expanding your education and getting inspiration and resources (and lifelong friends) from entirely new and unexpected directions.

ACRE (Artists’ Cooperative Residency and Exhibitions) is an artist-run non-profit based in Chicago. ACRE’s residency takes place each year outside of rural Steuben, Wisconsin. ACRE offers room and board with comfortable sleeping accommodations and chef-prepared meals for 14-day sessions. Set on 1000 acres, communal studio spaces compliment access to facilities including a recording studio and tech lab. Residents can choose to participate in studio visits with a variety of established artists, curators, and experienced educators, along with workshops, lectures, concerts, reading groups, critiques, and other programming throughout each session.

Deadline: 3/4/18
Location: Steuben, Wisconsin
Application fee: $0-$50 (cost rises as deadline approaches)
Residency fee: $600, but 40% of residents receive half-scholarships

EMPAC: The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is where the arts, sciences, and technology meet under one roof and breathe the same air. The EMPAC artist-in-residence program runs year-round. A residency may be used to explore a concept, to research the artistic or technical feasibility of a certain idea, to develop computer programs or specific hardware, develop part of a project, bring a work to full production scale, or document/record an existing work.

Deadline: Rolling
Location: Troy, New York
Application fee: $0
Residency fee: $0
Note: Residents cannot be full-time students.

Marble House Project is a multi-disciplinary artist residency program that fosters collaboration and the exchange of ideas by providing an environment for artists across disciplines to live and work side by side. With a focus on the conservation of natural resources, integration of small-scale organic food production, and the arts, residents sustain their growth by cultivating the surrounding grounds, working on their artistic vision, and forging partnerships within the community. Applications are accepted in all creative fields, including but not limited to the visual arts, writing, choreography, music composition, and performance. There are seven sessions, and each session lasts for three weeks. The residency fee includes a private bedroom, food, and studio space.

Deadline: December 2018
Location: Dorset, Vermont
Application fee: $30
Residency fee: $200
Note: Marble House offers a family-friendly session for artists attending with their children.

Omi International Center: Music Omi invites approximately a dozen musicians—composers and performers from around the globe—to come together for two and a half weeks in a unique and collaborative music-making residency program. A singular feature of the Music Omi experience is the presentation of public performances during and at the conclusion of the residency, where collaborative work can be shared with the public. Everyone accepted to Music Omi receives lodging, including a private room, and delicious meals during his or her stay.

Deadline: January 2019 (this year’s deadline was 1/2/18)
Location: Ghent, New York
Application fee: $0
Residency fee: $0


Focused Space/Time

Ample time and space to work on a project are immensely valuable resources. It is too easy to look at a successful artist from afar and call them a “genius,” while (in)conveniently forgetting the multitude of quiet hours they’ve spent honing their craft—not to mention forgetting the necessary, immense privilege required to even access those quiet hours. Historically, wealthy white cisgender men have been those most likely to find themselves with the leisure time and space to do things like compose masterpieces—servants and wives dumped the poo and arranged the households so the men could delve into their intellectual and creative pursuits.

These days we have residency models which, while still remaining inaccessible to many (including single parents, those who can’t afford to stop working at their jobs for extended periods, and those who cannot obtain financial resources to travel to a residency) have nevertheless gone some way toward opening up the quiet-time playing field to more participants.

The Anderson Center residency program is open to emerging, mid-career, and established visual artists, writers, composers, choreographers, interdisciplinary artists, performance artists, and translators. Each resident is provided room, board, and workspace for the length of the residency period in the historic Tower View Mansion.

Deadline: 2/15/18
Location: Red Wing, Minnesota
Application fee: $20
Residency fee: $0
Note: They also offer a residency specifically for the deaf community.

Art Farm Artist Residency program is for professionals, emerging or established, in all areas of the arts, humanities, and areas related: offering accommodations and studio space to pursue their art in exchange for a contribution of labor of 12 hours per week to help renovate and maintain Art Farm’s buildings and grounds, as well as other projects suited to skills and temperament.

Deadline: 3/1/18
Location: Marquette, Nebraska
Application fee: $20 (click on the “writers” category; this includes music-makers)
Residency fee: $0 + 12 hrs/week working on the farm

Avaloch Farm Music Institute provides a unique opportunity for chamber music and jazz ensembles (at any stage of development) to have the time and space to: work intensively on repertoire; prepare for recordings, concerts, or competitions; work with composers on commissions; and forge or reconnect to a group musical identity. The New Music Initiative brings together ensembles working with a composer or collaborator on new material during intensive farm-wide new music themed weeks. They will also accept ensemble/composer collaborations during weeks that are not designated as exclusively New Music Initiative times. Avaloch Farm Music Institute offers free living and studio accommodations, as well as all meals, as part of the residency.

Deadline: 3/15/18
Location: Boscawen, New Hampshire
Application fee: $75
Residency fee: $0

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts residency opportunities are open to national and international artists showing a strong professional working history. A variety of disciplines are accepted including, but not limited to, visual arts, media/new genre, performance, architecture, film/video, literature, interdisciplinary arts, music composition, and choreography. Artists-in-residence receive a $750 monthly stipend to help with materials, supplies, and living expenses while in residence. An unrestricted $500 travel stipend is also provided.

Deadline: Multiple deadlines throughout the year
Location: Omaha, Nebraska
Application fee: $40
Residency fee: $0
Note: Students are not eligible.

Blue Mountain Center, founded in 1982, provides support for writers, artists, and activists. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the center also serves as a resource for culturally based progressive movement-building. During the summer and early fall, BMC offers three month-long residency sessions. These sessions are open to creative and non-fiction writers, activists, and artists of all disciplines—including composers, filmmakers, and visual artists.

Deadline: 2/1/18
Location: Blue Mountain Lake, New York
Application fee: $25
Residency fee: $0

Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts is a non-profit organization offering time and space for artistic exploration to visual artists, writers, musicians, and composers from all backgrounds, levels of expertise, media, and genres. Residency sessions of two and four weeks are offered throughout the year, depending on availability and the applicant’s ranking in the jury process.

Deadline: 3/1/18 and 9/1/18
Location: Saratoga, Wyoming
Application fee: $40
Residency fee: $0

Djerassi Resident Artists Program offers 30-day core residencies (April-November) at no cost to the artists. National and international artists in the disciplines of media arts/new genres, visual arts, literature, choreography, and music composition are welcome. The program provides core residents with studio space, food and lodging, and local transportation.

Deadline: 3/15/18
Location: Woodside, California
Application fee: $45
Residency fee: $0
Note: Students are not eligible.

The Headlands Center for the Arts Artist-in-Residence (AIR) program awards fully sponsored residencies to approximately 45 local, national, and international artists each year. Residencies of four to ten weeks include studio space, chef-prepared meals, comfortable housing, and travel and living stipends. Artists selected for this program are at all stages in their careers and work in all media, including drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, film, video, new media, installation, fiction and nonfiction writing, poetry, dance, music, interdisciplinary, social practice, and architecture.

Deadline: June 2017
Location: Sausalito, California
Application fee: $45
Residency fee: $0
Note: Students are not eligible.

Hypatia-in-the-Woods (women only): Women in the arts, academia, and entrepreneurship may apply for a residency of from one to three weeks. Nestled on several acres of Pacific Northwest second growth forest on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, the retreat center provides an ideal setting for women to find solitude and time for their creative work.

Deadline: Multiple deadlines throughout the year; the next one is 2/15/18.
Location: Shelton, Washington
Application fee: $20
Residency fee: $0

Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts offers up to 70 juried residencies per year to working visual artists, writers, composers, and interdisciplinary artists from across the country and around the world. Residencies are available for stays of two to eight weeks. Each resident receives a $100 stipend per week, free housing, and a separate studio. The Center can house up to five artists of various disciplines at any given time.

Deadline: 3/1/18 and 9/1/18
Location: Nebraska City, Nebraska
Application fee: $35
Residency fee: $0

The MacDowell Colony provides time, space, and an inspiring environment to artists of exceptional talent. A MacDowell Fellowship, as they term their residencies, consists of exclusive use of a studio, accommodations, and three prepared meals a day for up to eight weeks.

Deadline: Multiple deadlines throughout the year; the next one is 1/15/18.
Location: Peterborough, New Hampshire
Application fee: $30
Residency fee: $0
Note: Students are not eligible.

The Millay Colony is an artists’ residency program in upstate New York offering one-month and two-week retreats to six visual artists, writers, and composers each month between April and November. Each residency includes a private bedroom and studio, as well as ample time to work in a gorgeous atmosphere.

Deadlines: 3/1/18 and 10/1/18
Location: Austerlitz, New York
Application fee: $35
Residency fee: $0

The Ucross Foundation Residency Program offers the gift of time and space to competitively selected individuals working in all artistic disciplines. The Foundation strives to provide a respectful, comfortable, and productive environment, freeing artists from the pressures and distractions of daily life. Residencies last between two and six weeks and include room, meals, and studio space.

Deadlines: 3/1/18 and 10/1/18
Location: Ucross, Wyoming
Application fee: $40
Residency fee: $0

The Wave Farm Residency Program provides artists with a valuable opportunity to concentrate on new transmission works and conduct research about the genre using the Wave Farm Study Center resource library. Transmission Art encompasses work in participatory live art or time-based art such as radio, video, light, installation, and performance, as well as a multiplicity of other practices and media, informed by an intentional use of space (often the airwaves). Wave Farm artists-in-residence receive a $700 artist stipend.

Deadlines: 2/1/18
Location: Acra, New York
Application fee: $0
Residency fee: $0
Note: Students are not eligible, but “exceptions may be made on a case-by-case basis for career artists who may have returned to school for postgraduate work.”

Wildacres Residency offers participants stays of one or two weeks in one of three comfortable cabins located 1/4 mile from the Wildacres conference center, where complimentary meals are available. The program has about 70 residencies available from April through October, and allows individuals the solitude and inspiration needed to begin or continue work on a project in their particular field.

Deadline: 1/15/18
Location: Little Switzerland, North Carolina
Application fee: $20
Residency fee: $0

Willapa Bay Artist Residency offers month-long, self-directed residencies to emerging and established artists, writers, scholars, singer/songwriters, and composers. The residency provides lodging, meals, and work space, at no cost, to six residents each month from March 1 through September 30 of the year.

Deadline: 7/31/18
Location: Ocean Park, Washington
Application fee: $30
Residency fee: $0

For searchable directories of hundreds of residencies, check out the Alliance of Artist Communities and the ResArtis Worldwide Network of Artist Residencies.

Composing for Carillon

The Carillon

The carillon is one of the most public of instruments. Situated in bell towers in the heart of public spaces, carillonneurs perform for entire communities. Though all who wander near the tower will hear the music, most will never know who it is playing the instrument. As performers hidden from view, carillonneurs strive to convince audiences that we are not machines playing the same tunes each day; we are real humans capable of expression and dynamic variation with lots of diverse repertoire.

Of approximately 600 carillons worldwide, North America is home to 185 such instruments distributed across universities, parks, churches, cities, and even mobile carillons on wheels. Though there are many kinds of bell instruments, a carillon consists of at least 23 tuned bells and is played from a keyboard that allows expression through variation of touch. The instrument is traditionally played solo, with the hands and feet, utilizing a keyboard and pedalboard that resemble a giant piano.

The carillon was born in the Low Countries of Europe about 500 years ago. The instrument emerged from medieval bell towers that originally functioned as signaling mechanisms to the local inhabitants. The bells would communicate not just the time of day, but civil and spiritual events: calls to prayer, the arrival of visitors, warnings such as the outbreak of a fire. In the early 20th century, as technical keyboard innovations began to allow for the expression of touch, the carillon began to develop as a concert instrument. Today carillonneurs perform all kinds of music on the bells: original compositions, classical arrangements, jazz standards, pop tunes, folk songs, film music—anything and everything that our public will enjoy.

Each Instrument is Unique


Carillons come in all shapes and sizes. From 23 bells to 77 bells, these instruments range from massive tower installations that house the largest tuned bells in the world to instruments that could fit in your living room. Bells cast at different foundries throughout history each have their own unique sound; some with richer overtones, some with more resonance, a longer sound, some brighter, some warmer.

Carillons come in all shapes and sizes.

Most carillons in North America are tuned to equal-temperament, but many older instruments in Europe employ the mean-tone tuning system. Though some instruments are concert pitch, keyboards will often transpose up or down to suit the height of the tower. With transposition ranging from up an octave to down a perfect fourth, the same repertoire played on two different instruments can sound vastly different.

Just as a particular concert hall will have certain characteristics, the bell tower itself and the surrounding listening space will play a key role in the sound of each instrument. While some instruments are found in the heart of bustling cities, others are in parks or suburban neighborhoods protected from traffic noise. When towers are more open and allow the bells to be visibly seen from the ground, the strike of each bell will be heard more clearly. Alternatively, sounds will blend more in closed towers where the bells are hidden from view.

Compositions for carillon are sometimes written specifically for one particular carillon, but composers can also write in a way that ensures pieces can be effective on multiple instruments.

Musical Considerations when Composing for Carillon


The unique partials, or overtones, of bells are an important consideration. Unlike traditional Western string or wind instruments, bells have a very prominent minor-third overtone. There is additionally a hum tone that sounds one octave below the strike tone. It can be helpful to compare typical bell partials to the natural harmonic series. The following graphic illustrates this comparison for a C3 bell (one octave below middle C).

Musical notation showing the partials for bells in a carillon

Bass bells are much richer in overtones than high bells. The chord C-E-G played in the bass bells will not sound like a major chord at all, but played in the upper register this chord will sound more “in tune.” Thinning out or spacing out chords can be more effective on carillon (C-G-E), especially when writing major chords. Minor chords and diminished chords, on other hand, will sound more natural in the lower registers of the instrument.

Decay of Sound

As a bell is struck, the strike tone is heard in the foreground, but this pitch decays quickly, leaving the hum tone and overtones to emerge. Once a bell is rung, there is no way to dampen the sound or silence the bell. Each bell will continue to ring as the vibrations naturally dissipate. (Though there is an adjustment mechanism on each key that will allow the carillonneur to hold the clapper against the bell after striking, thus muting the sound, most players will advise against this as it creates a rather ugly sound and is perhaps not good for the instrument.)

A walking bass line on a fast be-bop jazz standard will not come across as intended.

Larger bells will ring longer, up to about 30 seconds, before fully coming to rest. Smaller bells will not ring as long, sometimes only for a few seconds. Rapid harmonic changes in the bass will create a blurred sound; a walking bass line on a fast be-bop jazz standard, for instance, will not come across as intended.

Depending on the bell foundry, the same bell on two different carillons can have a very different decay of sound. For instance, English bells (Taylor, Gillett & Johnston) cast in the early-to-mid 20th century have a rather short decay of sound in the trebles, whereas French bells (Paccard) cast in the later half of the 20th century are exceptionally long sounding. Some repertoire is better suited to short-sounding bells or long-sounding bells.


The carillon has an incredible dynamic range, arguably more so than a piano. Through variation of touch, carillonneurs are able to strike each bell so softly that nobody can hear it, or loud enough to startle somebody walking by. Bigger bass bells have more dynamic range than small high bells. Higher bells, with less bell mass, can only reach a fraction of the volume of the bass bells. Thus, crescendos moving down the keyboard are often more effective than up the keyboard.

Composers and arrangers for the carillon like to “think upside down”; rather than give the singing melody line to the soprano, placing the melody in the bass bells, with the higher bells playing harmonic and rhythmic accompaniments, can be very effective.

The carillon has an incredible dynamic range, arguably more so than a piano.

Playing loud is easy; playing soft is more difficult. Due to the large keyfall (1.6-2.2 inches), playing a note pp will require the carillonneur to take time to prepare the note by moving the key partway down before striking. It can be very challenging or impossible to play fast and soft at the same time. (Exception: When playing repeated notes, the carillonneur can keep notes prepared and play rapid trills, tremolos, or ostinatos very quietly.)


Keeping the bass bells in balance with the treble bells is a consideration for both composers and performers. Loud passages in the bass will drown out figures in the upper register, but a passage in the high register marked ff will not sound loud without accompanying bass notes to give the power. On larger carillons especially, the dynamics will come from the bass.

It might sound preposterous that a good balance could ever be achieved, with bass bells weighing tens of thousands of pounds, and high bells as small as 10 lbs. But towers are actually designed to improve balance—by placing the bass bells lower in the tower, the sound of treble bells will carry farther when high up in the tower. In some towers, louvers are positioned in the openings of the belfry to magnify this effect. Louvers are angled slats that deflect sound down to the ground. These louvers will rein in the sound of the bass bells, placed lower in the tower, by deflecting their sound more sharply towards the ground. At the same time, the louvers will keep the sound of the small high bells from drifting up into the sky.

Still, it is important for composers to consider the balance of bass and treble bells. Even the biggest bass bell can be played pp when the performer is given time to prepare each note.

Audiences are also capable of improving their listening experience. If one is standing too close to the tower, the bass bells will often be heard too loud and the instrument will sound out of balance. The best listening areas are usually found further away from the tower. Every tower is different, so a general rule of thumb: Imagine the tower falls over on its side. Standing just beyond the range of the impact will result in a decent listening place, in addition to protecting you in case the tower does fall over!

An image of a "brozen piano," which is a keyboard attached to a set of bells that are collected in the shape of a grand piano

Of course there’s no worry about standing too close to a falling tower if you’re listening to a “Bronzen Piano,” a mobile carillon in the shape of a grand piano that was developed by Anna Maria Reverté and Koen Van Assche which can easily be transported and played anywhere.



Most compositions are written, or made playable, for four-octave carillon.

If writing for a particular carillon, it will be important to determine the exact range of the instrument, as well as to hear sound samples to determine the musical properties of the bells. Manuals typically span the full length of the keyboard, and pedals typically duplicate the bottom two octaves of the instrument. Here are several common ranges:

Musical notation showing the ranges for various carillons

Most compositions are written, or made playable, for four-octave carillon, C3 to C7, omitting the lowest C#3. Writing for this range will allow the piece to be played on most concert carillons. When writing for four and a half octaves, composers will often include substitutions for notes outside of the four-octave range, to make the piece playable on four-octave instruments.


Traditional technique asks the carillonneur to play each key with a closed fist, one note for each hand. Rapid passages of broken arpeggios that alternate hands (L-R-L-R…) are very idiomatic.

A four-note chord is easily realized with two hands and two feet. As keyboards have evolved and been made lighter over the 20th century, it has become additionally possible to play with open hands and fingers. Two notes, no more than a fourth apart, are easily playable with one hand. Passages can be difficult, though, when two-note chords are played in quick succession with one hand, especially when changes in hand position are required between the natural and chromatic keys. Clusters of three or four notes in one hand are also possible if the keys are all natural, or all chromatic.

It is possible, though unusual, to play two neighboring pedals simultaneously with one foot, provided they are both natural, or both chromatic.

Fast repeated notes are possible in the upper range with hands, but not as much in the lower range or with the pedals, as the clappers are bigger and heavier.


The keys on a carillon are much farther apart than on a piano—14 inches per octave, compared to 6.5 inches per octave. This makes rapid jumps in one hand between registers quite difficult; even jumping an octave quickly requires a lot of concentration.

Rapid jumps in one hand between registers are quite difficult.

Additionally, maintaining a large gap between the left and right hands can be challenging. Rapid independent movement in the left and right hand is best kept within two octaves between the two hands, so that the performer can better visualize both hands on the keyboard.

On larger carillons with 4.5 or more octaves, it can be difficult or impossible to play both the high register with the hands, and the lowest bass notes with the feet, at the same time. Large diagonal stretches are best kept within 3 or 4 octaves.


Carillon music is written on two staves, with the top staff for the manuals and the bottom staff for the pedals. Carillonneurs generally prefer to read the top staff in treble clef and the bottom staff in bass clef, and read 8va or 8vb beyond the third ledger line, rather than changing clef.

Rolled chords are very idiomatic to the carillon and can be noted in one of two ways:

  1. Open-handed roll

A roll with an arrow pointing up will indicate to play all the notes open-handed, sequentially from bottom to top (1-2-3…). These open-handed rolls are usually kept to three or four notes, but five or six notes are possible if the notes are all clustered together, as long as both open hands can prepare all notes simultaneously.

  1. Broken roll

A “lighting bolt” will indicate to alternate both hands with closed fists and play a broken roll. For a four-note chord, this means playing the bottom note first, then the third note, then the second, and then the fourth (1-3-2-4). A three-note chord would be played 2-1-3. Broken rolls are very idiomatic to the carillon and more traditional than the open-handed roll.

Musical notation for rolled chords on the carillon.

Tremolando, or tremolo, is another common carillon technique. Tremolos are often noted in early 20th-century Flemish compositions, to allow melodies in the upper registers to sing out over the bass. Tremolos are still used, though less frequently, in modern compositions, either to bring out melodies or for other effects. Tremolo is possible between two notes with two hands, or more notes with each hand playing a cluster. Carillonneurs can be very expressive with tremolo, with both speed and dynamic.

Carillonneurs can be very expressive with tremolo.

Additional Resources

1) The absolute best resource is to find a carillonneur that will demonstrate the keyboard and the instrument. As each carillon is unique, this is essential when writing for a particular keyboard. Most carillonneurs would be very excited to hear from composers who are interested in writing for them!

2) There are two main publishers of carillon music in North America:

The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America

American Carillon Music Editions

3) The TowerBells website has an index of all carillons (and other bell instruments) in North America, and many instruments in Europe and the rest of the world. The site can be used to generate a list of instruments by location, size, pitch, year, bell foundry, etc. A particularly useful tool is the locator that displays all the instruments on a map.

4) John Gouwens has a carillon primer available here, with several musical examples.

5) Luc Rombouts published Singing Bronze in 2014, and the book is widely considered among carillonneurs as the most valuable account of carillon history. It is available on Amazon.

This Is Why Your Audience Building Fails

How do we increase the audience for new music? This is a never-ending debate, but virtually all of the standard answers assume that we need to be more inclusive, breaking down barriers for newcomers. From “people should be allowed to clap between movements” to “our next concert celebrates the work of composers from Latin America,” the common thread is evangelical: if we make the culture of new music welcoming to a broader range of people, new audiences will be won over by the universal artistic truth of our music.

This attitude is more or less unique to new music. Sure, every struggling indie band wants to play to larger houses, but the default boundaries of the audience are predefined, usually along class or ethnic lines. Country music has never seriously attempted to break into the African-American market (despite some important black roots). Norteño music does not worry about its lack of Asian American artists. Arcade Fire has probably never tried to partner with the AARP. Even Christian rock, which is fundamentally about evangelism, flips the relationship around: music to spread belief, versus belief to spread music.

So why do we put inclusivity at the center of our audience building? I suspect it is largely a reaction to our upper-class heritage: after all, our genre wouldn’t exist without the 19th-century bourgeoisie and 20th-century academia. Through openness, we hope to convince people that we’re really not that stuffy, that our music can have a meaningful place in people’s lives even if they aren’t conservatory-trained musicians or white upper-middle-class professionals.

Greater inclusivity isn’t an audience-building strategy—it’s an audience-building outcome. For most musical genres, it is the exclusivity of the community that is the selling point.

Working toward greater diversity in new music is necessary and right. The problem is that we’re putting the cart before the horse. Greater inclusivity isn’t an audience-building strategy—it’s an audience-building outcome. Making inclusivity the focus of strategy actually hurts our efforts. All we do is muddle classical music exceptionalism with easily disproven assumptions about musical taste, in the process blinkering ourselves to certain truths about how people use music in pretty much any other context.

And what do we get for our efforts? The same small audiences of mostly white, highly educated music connoisseurs. If we truly want to cultivate both meaningful growth and meaningful diversity in new music audiences, we need to take a step back and examine how people choose the music they listen to.

Communities and Outsiders

For the vast majority of people, music is—whether for better or worse—strongly connected to tribalism. It’s sometimes hard for us to see this as musicians because we treat sounds and genres the way a chef explores varietals and cuisines, each with unique properties that can be appreciated on their own merits.

Yet very few non-musicians relate to music in this way. Usually, musical taste is intertwined with how the listener sees him- or herself in the world. People choose their music the same way they choose their favorite sports teams or their political affiliations: as a reflection of who they want to be, the beliefs they hold, where they feel they belong, and the people they associate with.

In other words, musical taste is about community building—an inclusive activity. But whenever you build a community, you also implicitly decide who isn’t welcome. Those boundaries are actually the thing that defines the community. We see this clearly in variations in average tastes along racial or ethnic lines, but it’s just as important elsewhere: comparing grey-haired orchestra donors to bluegrass festival attendees, or teenagers to their parents, for example.

For most musical genres, it is the exclusivity of the community that is the selling point. Early punk musicians weren’t trying to welcome pop music fans—they actively ridiculed them. Similarly, nobody involved in the ‘90s rave scene would have suggested toning down the bold fashion choices, drug culture, and extreme event durations in order to make the genre more accessible.

Or consider the R&B family of genres: soul, funk, Motown, hip-hop, old-school, contemporary, etcetera. These are the most popular genres in the African-American community, at least partially because these genres are theirs. They made this music, for themselves, to address the unique experiences of being black in America. Sure, other people can (and do) enjoy it, make it, and transform it to their purposes. But only because everyone acknowledges that this is fundamentally black music. When Keny Arkana raps about the struggles of the poor in Marseilles, we don’t hear the legacy of Édith Piaf or Georges Brassens or modern French pop stars. We don’t hear the Argentine roots of her parents or other South American musical traditions. What we hear is an African-American genre performed in French translation.

The video for Keny Arkana’s “La Rage,” clearly influenced by African-American music videos.

In contrast, when genres get co-opted, like rock ‘n’ roll was, like EDM was, they lose their original communities. When we hear Skrillex, we think white college kids, bro-y sales reps, or mainstream festivals like Coachella—not the queer and black house DJs from Chicago and Detroit who pioneered EDM. Similarly, when we hear Nirvana or the Grateful Dead, we don’t hear the legacy of Chuck Berry or Little Richard. As exclusivity disappears, the music ceases to be a signifier for the original group, and that group moves on to something else. Community trumps genre every time.

Expanding the Circle

Things aren’t completely that clear cut, of course. There are black opera singers, white rappers, farmers who hate country music, grandmothers who like (and perform) death metal, and suburban American teenagers who would rather listen to Alcione than Taylor Swift. In addition, a lot of people like many kinds of music, or prefer specific music in certain contexts. We thus need a portrait of musical taste that goes beyond the neolithic sense of tribalism.


The first point to note is that communities of taste, like other communities, are not mutually exclusive. There are friends you would go to the gym with, friends you’d invite over for dinner, work friends you only see at the office, and so on. Some of these groups might overlap, but they don’t need to.

Similarly with music, there is music you’d listen to in the car, music you’d make an effort to see live, dinner music, workout music, wedding music, and millions of other combinations. Again, sometimes the music for one context overlaps with another, but it doesn’t necessarily need to. As such, while people make musical taste decisions based on tribe, we all belong to many overlapping tribes, some of which use different music depending on the context.

Film is one of the clearest examples of this contextual taste at work. Why is it, for instance, that most people don’t bat an eyelash when film scores use dissonant, contemporary sounds? Because for many people, their predominant association with orchestral music is film. As I’ve written before, when uninitiated audiences describe new music with comments like “it sounds like a horror movie,” they’re not wrong: for many, that’s the only place they’ve heard these sounds. Film is where this type of music has a place in their lives, and they hear atonality as an “appropriate” musical vocabulary for the context.

In addition, film gives us—by design—a bird’s-eye view into other communities, both real and imaginary. It’s a fundamentally voyeuristic, out-of-tribe medium. We as an audience expect what we hear to be coherent with the characters on the screen or the story being told, not necessarily with our own tribal affiliations. Sure, we definitely have communities of taste when it comes to choosing which films and TV shows we watch. But once we’re watching something, we suspend our musical tastes for the sake of the narrative.

Thus, when the scenario is “generic background music,” film offers something in line with our broad societal expectations of what is appropriate for the moment—usually orchestral tropes or synthy minimalism. However, when the music is part of the story, or part of a character’s development, or otherwise meant to be a foreground element, there’s a bewildering variety of choices. From Bernard Herrmann’s memorable Hitchcock scores, to Seu Jorge’s Brazilian-inspired David Bowie covers in The Life Aquatic, to Raphael Saadiq’s “all West Coast” R&B scoring of HBO’s Insecure—anything is possible as long as it makes sense for the taste-world of the narrative.

Dealing with Outliers

Lots of people have tastes that deviate from societal norms and tribal defaults, including (obviously) most of us in new music.

All that aside, we still need to explain the outliers: the death metal grandma, the young American Brazilophile, the black opera singer… Lots of people have tastes that deviate from societal norms and tribal defaults, including (obviously) most of us in new music.

In a case like the suburban teenager, it might be as simple as curiosity and the thrill of exoticism. But when we turn to examples like the black opera singer, things get more complicated. Making a career in European classical music is incredibly hard, no matter where your ancestors come from. But black people in America also face structural challenges like systemic racism and the high cost of a good classical music education in a country where the average black family has only one-thirteenth the net worth of the average white family. Making a career in music is never easy, and it doesn’t get any easier when you try to do it outside of your tribe’s genre defaults. Yet despite the challenges, there are clearly many black musicians who have persevered and made careers for themselves in classical music. Why did they choose this path through music?


The standard explanation leans on exceptionalism: classical music is a special, universal art form that has transcended racial lines to become a shared heritage of humanity, so of course it will be attractive to black people, too. That doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, though. Rock ‘n’ roll is at least as universal. If it weren’t, Elvis Presley wouldn’t have been able to appropriate and popularize it among white Americans, and rock-based American pop wouldn’t have inspired localized versions in basically every other country in the world.

Jazz also has a stronger claim at universalism than classical music. Multiracial from its beginnings, incorporating both black and white music and musicians, then gradually broadening its reach to meaningfully include Latin American traditions and the 20th-century avant-garde—if there is any musical tradition that can claim to have transcended tribal barriers, it is jazz, not classical music. No, musical exceptionalism is not the answer.

Maybe this is an affirmative action success story then? I doubt that’s the whole explanation. Black Americans have been involved in classical music at least since the birth of the nation—a time when slavery was legal, diversity was considered detrimental to society, and polite society thought freedmen, poor rural hillbillies, and “clay eaters” were a sub-human caste of waste people not capable of culture. That environment makes for some strong barriers to overcome, and to what benefit? It would be one thing if there were no alternatives, but there have always been deep, rich African-American musical traditions—arguably deeper and richer than those of white Americans, who mostly copied Europeans until recent decades (after which they copied black Americans instead).

I asked a handful of black classical musicians for their perspectives, and their answers shed some light. Their paths through music varied, but everyone had mentors who encouraged their passion for classical music at key stages, whether a family member, a private instructor, a school teacher, or someone else. In addition, they all got deeply involved in classical music at a young age, before they had the maturity and self-awareness to fully comprehend how racism might play a role in their careers. By the time they were cognizant of these challenges, classical music was already a big part of who they were. They felt compelled to find their place within it.

W. Kamau Bell recently shared a similar story about his path into comedy in this Atlantic video.

These anecdotes provide a partial answer, but we still don’t know where the initial inspiration comes from, that generative spark that leads to an interest in a specific instrument or type of music. For example, cellist Seth Parker Woods tells me that he picked the cello because he saw it in a movie when he was five. Something about the cello and the music it made struck him powerfully enough that a couple of years later, when everyone was picking their instrument at school (he attended an arts-focused school in Houston), he thought of the movie and went straight to the cello. To this day, he remembers the film and the specific scene that inspired him. I was similarly drawn to percussion at a young age, begging my parents for a drumset, acquiescing to their bargain that “you have to do three years of piano lessons first,” and then demanding my drums as soon as I got home from the last lesson of the third year.

Nature or Nurture

There is something fundamental within certain people that leads us to specific instruments or types of music. And thanks to science, we now know pretty conclusively that part of the reason for this is genetic, although we don’t yet know a whole lot about the mechanics involved.

Now, before we go further, let’s be very clear about what genetics doesn’t do. It doesn’t preordain us biologically to become musicians, and it doesn’t say anything about differences in musical preference or ability between genders or ethnic groups. Simplistic mischaracterizations of that sort have been responsible for lots of evil in the world, and I don’t want to add to that ignominious tradition. What genetics does do, however, is provide a plausible theory for some of the musical outliers. It’s that extra nudge in what is otherwise a predominantly cultural story.

A major contributor to our understanding of music genetics is the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. Started in the late 1970s and still going today, it has tracked thousands of sets of twins who were separated at birth and raised without knowledge of each other. The goal of the study and similar ongoing efforts is to identify factors that are likely to have a genetic component. Since identical twins have identical genomes, we can rule out non-genetic factors by looking at twins who have been raised in completely different social and environmental situations.

Most twin-study findings relate to physical traits and susceptibility to disease, but the list of personality traits with a genetic component is truly jaw-dropping: the kinds of music a person finds inspiring, how likely someone is to be religious, whether s/he leans conservative or liberal, even what names a person prefers for their children and pets.

And we’re not talking about, “Oh hey, these two boomers both like classic rock, must be genetics!” No, the degree of specificity is down to the level of separated twins having the same obscure favorite songs, or the same favorite symphonies and same favorite movements within those. In the case of naming, there are multiple instances of separated twins giving their kids or pets the same exact names. Moreover, it’s not just one twin pair here and there, the occurrence of these personality overlaps is frequent enough to be statistically significant. (For more in-depth reading, I recommend Siddhartha Mukherjee’s fascinating history of genetic research.)

It would seem that our genome has a fairly powerful influence on our musical tastes. That said, the key word here is influence—scientists talk about penetrance and probability in genetics. It’s unlikely that composers have a specific gene that encodes for enjoying angular, atonal melodies. However, some combination of genes makes us more or less likely to be attracted to certain types of musical experiences, to a greater or lesser degree. That combination can act as a thumb on the scale, either reinforcing or undermining the stimuli we get from the world around us and the pressures of tribal selection.

The genetics of sexual orientation and gender identity are much better understood than those of musical taste, and we can use those to deduce what is likely going on with our musical outliers. Researchers have now definitively located gene combinations that control for sexual orientation and gender, measured their correlation in human populations, and used those insights to create gay and trans mice in the lab, on demand. In other words, science has conclusively put to rest the nonsense that LGBTQ individuals somehow “choose” to be the way they are. Variations in sexual orientation and gender identity are normal, natural, and a fundamental part of the mammalian genome, just like variations in hair color and body shape.

When it comes to homosexuality in men, the expression of a single gene called Xq28 plays the determining role in many (though not all) cases. When it comes to being trans, however, there is no single gene that dominates. Rather, a wide range of genes that control many traits can, in concert, create a spectrum of trans or nonbinary gender identities. This makes for a blurry continuum that might potentially explain everything from otherwise-cis tomboys and girly men to completely non-gender-conforming individuals and all others in between.

When it comes to the genetics of musical taste, we’re likely to be facing something similar to the trans situation, in that individuals are predisposed both toward a stronger or weaker passion for music and a more or less specific sense of what kind of musical sounds they crave. All professional musicians clearly have a greater than average predisposition for music, since nobody becomes a composer or bassoonist because they think it’s an easy way to earn a living. Likewise, certain people will be drawn strongly enough to specific sounds that they’re willing to look outside of their tribal defaults, both as listeners and performers.

Let’s reiterate, however, that genetics plays second fiddle. One hundred years ago, classical music enjoyed a much broader base of support than it does today, which suggests that tribalism is the bigger motivating factor by far. If things were otherwise, after all, musical tastes would be largely unchanging over the centuries, and I wouldn’t need to write this article.


A theory of musical taste

Mason Bates’s Mercury Soul

Enough with the theorizing. Let’s turn to two specific new music events that make sense when viewed through a tribalist lens. Both are events that I attended here in San Francisco over the past year or so, and both were explicitly designed to draw new crowds to new music.

Mason Bates’s Mercury Soul series is at one end of the spectrum. Taking place at San Francisco nightclubs, the Mercury Soul format is an evening of DJ sets interspersed with live performance by classical and new music ensembles, all curated by Mason. These types of crossover concerts were instrumental to his early career successes and led to a number of commissions, many with a similar genre fusion twist. He is now one of the most performed living American composers.

A promo video for Mercury Soul.

When Mason’s work comes up in conversation, there is often reference to blending genres, breaking down barriers, and building audiences for new music. Yet Mercury Soul is a textbook example of the evangelical trope: bringing classical music into the nightclub with the assumption that clubbers will be won over by the inherent artistic truth of our music. Given the arguments presented above, you can see that I might be skeptical.

Let’s start with even just getting into the venue. As I was paying for admission, I witnessed a group of 20-somethings in clubbing apparel peer in with confused looks. Once the bouncer explained what was happening, they left abruptly. People come to nightclubs to dance, so when these clubbers saw that the context of the nightclub was going to be taken over by some kind of classical music thing, their reaction was, “Let’s go somewhere else.” Maybe they thought the concept was weird or off-putting. Or maybe they didn’t really get it. Or maybe they thought it was a cool idea but they just wanted to go dancing that night. It doesn’t really matter, because if you can’t get them in the door, you’re not building audiences.

Wandering into the venue, I saw something I’ve never seen at a nightclub before: multiple groups of grey-haired seniors milling around. Of the younger crowd, many were people I know from the Bay Area new music scene. There were obviously attendees who were there because they were regulars, but more than half the room of what looked like 200-300 people were clearly there either for Mason or one of the ensembles who were playing.

The evening unfolded as a kind of call and response between Mason’s DJing and performances by the ensembles, often amplified. During the live music segments, people stood and watched. During the electronic music segments, they mostly did the same. People did dance, but the floor remained tame by clubbing standards, and the lengthy transitional sections between DJing and instrumentalists gave the evening a feeling of always waiting for the next thing to happen. The DJ portion lacked the non-stop, trance-inducing relentlessness that I loved back in my youthful clubbing days, yet the live music portion felt small in comparison—and low-fidelity, as it was coming through house speakers designed for recorded music. As is often the case with fusion, both experiences were diluted for the sake of putting them together. The end result didn’t feel like audiences coming together, it felt more like classical music colonizing another genre’s space.

That was my experience, but maybe it was just me? I attempted to interview Mason to get his take on the impact of Mercury Soul, but we weren’t able to coordinate schedules. However, in speaking to people who have been involved as performers, what I experienced was typical. Mercury Soul has gotten some positive buzz from the classical music press, but reactions from the non-classical press have been tepid at best, and interest in the project remains firmly rooted within traditional new music circles.

Communities of musical taste are not particularly concerned with what the actual music is, so why couldn’t a community develop around genre mashups in a nightclub?

To be fair, this doesn’t imply that the concept is doomed to failure. I could certainly see Mercury Soul evolving into a unique musical experience that has appeal beyond the simple act of genre fusion. As I’ve argued above, communities of musical taste are not particularly concerned with what the actual music is, so why couldn’t a community develop around genre mashups in a nightclub?

In other words, the music is not Mercury Soul’s problem. Rather, the problem is that Mercury Soul hasn’t tried to foster a community. Instead, it makes all the standard assumptions about audience building, which means that, best case scenario, members of the taste communities being thrown together might perceive the experience as an odd curiosity worth checking out once or twice. In the end, therefore, Mercury Soul’s true community is neither clubbers nor new music aficionados—it’s arts administrators and philanthropists desperate to attract younger audiences.


In contrast, let’s look at the San Francisco Symphony’s (SFS) SoundBox series. These events take place in one of the rehearsal rooms at Davies Symphony Hall, which is converted into a sort of warehouse party space, with multiple elevated stages, video projection screens, lounge-style seating, and a bar. The entrance is from a small rehearsal door on the back side of the building, and the room is not used for any other public performances, so everyone who is there has to come specifically for SoundBox. Initially, SFS also made a conscious decision to omit its brand entirely from the events, so most attendees were not aware of the SFS connection before they arrived.

Each program is curated by a prominent musician, many composers among them, and the repertoire is almost entirely new music, performed acoustically (or with live electronics) from a stage, as it normally would be, and accompanied by custom video projections. The performers are drawn from the SFS roster, and they present multiple short sets throughout the evening. During the sets, people sit or stand quietly and listen to the music. The rest of the time, they mill about, chat, and get drinks from the bar. When I went, there were about a dozen or two of my colleagues from the new music scene present, but the rest were people I didn’t recognize, most of them in their 20s and 30s.

Two thirds of SoundBox attendees are new each time, the vast majority are under 40, and very few are SFS subscribers.

In terms of reception, SoundBox could not be more successful. There are two performances of each show, with a maximum capacity of 400 people per evening. I spoke with a friend who works for the Symphony, and he told me that SoundBox always sells out—in one case, within 20 minutes of the tickets going on sale. And this with no marketing budget: low-cost online promotions and word of mouth are the only way they promote the events. Two thirds of SoundBox attendees are new each time, the vast majority are under 40, and very few are SFS subscribers.

Contrast the messaging of SoundBox’s promo video to that of Mercury Soul.

Unlike Mercury Soul, SoundBox starts out by defining a community: it’s a place for culturally inclined music lovers to discover new, stimulating experiences. SoundBox then presents its music as a sort of rare gem worth expending a bit of effort to unravel, in the same way a winery might offer guided tastings of rare vintages. As a result, the event ends up feeling exclusive and mysterious, as if you are part of an elite group of in-the-know art connoisseurs. Whereas so many new music events give off the desperate air of trying too hard to be cool—“Look, we perform in jeans! We don’t mind if you clap between movements!”—SoundBox doesn’t have to try. It just is cool, appealing to the same type of confident cosmopolitanism that has allowed modern art museums to draw enthusiastic crowds far in excess of most new music events.

Despite its successes in building new music audiences, however, SoundBox has failed to meet SFS’s objectives—ironically, for the same reasons as Mercury Soul. The Symphony wants SoundBox to be a sort of gateway drug, encouraging a younger crowd to attend its regular programming. Yet despite an aggressive push to market to SoundBox attendees, my contact tells me there has been virtually zero crossover from SoundBox to SFS’s other programs. To further complicate things, SoundBox is a big money loser. An audience of 800 people paying $45/ticket and buying drinks seems like a new music dream, but it doesn’t pencil out against the Symphony’s union labor commitments, which were negotiated with a much bigger orchestral venue in mind.

This is not a failure on a musical level, but it is a failure in SFS’s understanding of audience building. SoundBox met a strong and untapped demand for a sophisticated, unconventional musical experience, and it created a community of musical taste around it, quite by accident. But it’s a different community from that of the orchestral subscriber, focused on different repertoire, different people, and a different experience. The fact that it is presented by SFS is inconsequential.

It’s more than a bit ridiculous to assume that the same people who come to hear Meredith Monk in a warehouse space will be automagically attracted to a Wednesday night concert subscription of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart.

To recap, then, Mercury Soul fails to encourage 20-something clubbers to seek out new music because it doesn’t create a community of taste. On the other hand, SoundBox does create a community of taste, but it’s one that is interested in coming to hear Ashley Fure or Meredith Monk in a warehouse space. More importantly, it’s a community that has no preconceptions about how this music is supposed to fit into their lives, which allows them to deal with it on its own terms. With that context in mind, it’s more than a bit ridiculous to assume that those same people will be automagically attracted to a Wednesday night concert subscription of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart. That is a music most SoundBox attendees associate with their grandparent’s generation, performed in a venue that has strong pre-existing associations that don’t help.

Lessons Learned

We live at a time that is not especially attuned to musical creativity. All the energy spent on audience building is a reaction to that. I have a couple of friends who are professional chefs, working in our era of widespread interest in culinary innovation. When I ask them about the SF restaurant scene, they complain that too many chefs chase fame, recognition, and Michelin stars instead of developing a unique artistic voice.

As a composer, I only wish we had that problem. Yet the situation was reversed in the mid-20th century, when works like Ligeti’s Poème symphonique could get reviews in Time Magazine but culinary culture was being taken over by TV dinners, fast food, artificial flavoring, processed ingredients, and industrialized agriculture.

Whatever the reasons for the subsequent shift, our task is to find ways to bring musical creativity back to the mainstream. Looking at the problem through the lens of communities of taste offers some insights into what we might do better:

Community Before Music

People will always prioritize their taste communities ahead of your artistic innovation. That means you either need to work within an existing community, or you need to fill a need for a new community that people have been craving.

The first solution is how innovation happens in most pop genres: musicians build careers on more mainstream tastes, and some of the more successful among them eventually push the artistic envelope.

With new music, this doesn’t really work. On the one hand, the classical canon is not an ever-changing collection of new hit songs but rather an ossified catalog of standard works. On the other, the more premiere-focused world of new music is a small community—that’s the problem to begin with.

So we are left with finding untapped needs and creating new communities around them. SoundBox proves that this is possible. It’s up to us to be creative enough to uncover the solutions that work in other contexts.

Forget Universalism

Despite my critiques of classical music exceptionalism, there are good reasons why new music should endeavor to become a truly post-tribal, universal genre. Those reasons have little to do with the music itself and everything to do with the people making it.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of new music is that we attract an extremely diverse range of practitioners who are interested in synthesizing the world’s musical creativity and pushing its boundaries. What better context in which to develop a music that can engage people on an intertribal level?

That said, this is not our audience-building strategy, it’s the outcome. The way we get to universalism is to create exclusive taste communities that gradually change people’s relationships with sound. First we get them excited about the community, then we guide the community toward deeper listening.

This is similar to what is known about how to reduce racial bias in individuals. Tactics like shaming racists or extolling the virtues of diversity don’t work and can even further entrench racist attitudes in some cases. However, social science research shows that a racist’s heart can be changed on the long-term by having a meaningful, one-on-one conversation with a minority about that person’s individual experiences of racism. By the same token, to get to an inclusive, universal new music, first we need to get people to connect with our music on the personal level through exclusive taste communities that they feel a kinship with.

The MAYA Principle

Problems similar to new music’s lack of audience have been solved in the past. Famed 20th-century industrial designer Raymond Loewy provides a potential way forward through his concept of MAYA: “most advanced yet acceptable”. Loewy became famous for radically transforming the look of American industrial design, yet he was successful not just because he had good ideas, but rather because he knew how to get people warmed up to them.

One of the most famous examples is how he changed the look of trains. The locomotives of the 19th-century were not very aerodynamic, and they needed to be updated to keep up with technological advancements elsewhere in train design. In the 1930s, he began pitching ideas similar to the sleek train designs we know today, but these were very poorly received. People thought they looked too weird, and manufacturers weren’t willing to take a chance on them.

Therefore, he started creating hybrid models that resembled what people knew but with a couple of novel features added. These were successful, and he eventually transitioned back to his original concept, bit by bit, over a period of years. By that time, people had gotten used to the intermediary versions and were totally fine with his original. He repeated this process many times in his career and coined MAYA to describe it.

I think the accessibility movement in classical music has been one of the biggest arts marketing disasters of all time.

What I like most about MAYA is that the last letter stands for acceptable, not accessible. I think the accessibility movement in classical music has been one of the biggest arts marketing disasters of all time. It gives nobody what they want, dilutes the value of what we offer, and associates our music with unpleasant experiences.

Loewy got it right with acceptable. He was willing to challenge his audiences, but he realized that they needed some guidance to grapple with the concepts he was presenting. We in new music similarly need to provide guidance. That doesn’t mean we dumb down the art, it means we help people understand it, in manageable doses, while gradually bringing them deeper.

Hard is not Bad

Often in new music we are afraid to ask our audiences to push themselves. That’s a mistake. People like meaningful experiences that they have to work for. The trick is convincing them to expend the effort in the first place.

To get there, we start with the advice above: build communities, then guide people into greater depth using MAYA techniques. Miles Davis’s career illustrates this process beautifully. He didn’t start out playing hour-long, freeform trumpet solos through a wah-wah pedal; he started out identifying the need for a taste community that wasn’t bebop and wasn’t the schlocky commercialism of the big band scene. This led him toward cool jazz, where he developed a musical voice that propelled him to stardom.

After Miles had won over his community, however, he didn’t stop exploring. He expected the audience to grow along with him, and many of them did. Sure, plenty of jazz fans were critical of Miles’s forays into fusion and atonality, but he was still pulling enough of a crowd to book stadium shows. There’s no reason new music can’t do the same, but we have to be unapologetic about the artistic value of our music and demand that audiences rise to meet it.

Define Boundaries

Since new music is trying to build audiences that transcend racial and class boundaries, we need to be super clear about who we’re making music for and who we aren’t. “This music is for everybody” is not a real answer. We must explicitly exclude groups of people in order to be successful community-makers. It is my sincere hope, however, that we can find ways to be effectively exclusive without resorting to toxic historical divisions along racial and class lines.

Here’s one potential example, among many, of how that could work. I’ve argued before that the “eat your vegetables” approach to programming is dumb. There is rarely any good reason to sandwich an orchestral premiere between a Mozart symphony and a Tchaikovsky concerto. Conservative classical audiences don’t gradually come to love these new works, they just get annoyed at being tricked into sitting through a “weird” contemporary piece. New music audiences for their part are forced to sit through standard rep that they may not be particularly passionate about. Nor does this schizophrenic setup help build any new audiences—you have to be invested on one side or the other for the experience to make any sense to begin with.

So instead of trying to lump all this music together, a new music presenter might decide that audiences for common practice period music are fundamentally not the same as those drawn to Stockhausen or Glass or premieres by local composers. Armed with that definition, the presenter might then choose to create an event that would be repulsive to most orchestra subscribers but appealing to someone else, using that point of exclusion as a selling point. Thus, an exclusive community of taste is created, but without appealing to racism or other corrosive base impulses.

Big-picture questions like how people develop musical taste tend to get glossed over because they are so nebulous. But that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.

To close, I want to say a brief word about my motivations for writing this piece. Even though this is a fairly lengthy article, I’ve obviously only scratched the surface. The writing process was also lengthy and convoluted, dealing as we are with such a broad and opaque issue, and at many points I wondered if it was even possible to say something meaningful without a book-length narrative. Yet I feel that this subject is something we collectively need to wrap our heads around.

Big-picture questions like how people develop musical taste tend to get glossed over because they are so nebulous. But that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. As musicians and presenters, we make decisions based on theories of musical taste every day, whether or not we articulate our beliefs. Taste is, in a sense, the musical equivalent of macroeconomics: hard to pin down, but the foundation of everything else we do.

My hope with this piece is that we can start talking about these issues more openly, drop some of the empty rhetoric, and stop spinning our wheels on the dysfunctional approaches of the last 40 or 50 years. Paying lip service to inclusivity is not enough. If you’ve read this far, then chances are you believe like I do that new music offers the world something unique that is worth sharing as broadly as possible. We desperately need to get better at sharing it.