Category: Analysis

On Big Questions of Creativity and Intention

or: How I learned to stop worrying and love Zuckerberg’s machine.

As with other areas in the many realms of public discourse these days, there are times when, for me, taking a gander at the old quotidian chit-chat stream on Facebook has just become unbearable.  It’s OutrageBook in these trying times, or LookAtMeWinningBook, which it’s now been for years, with a cast of players who are more or less successful in navigating the subtle side of the #winning game that varies depending on your own feed.  Once in a while, still, it’s DesperationBook, with an alarming call for help nestled in there after LookAtWhatBabyFedPuppyBook posts (that might just be my very helpful personal algorithms at work, knowing what I will definitely click on), but we’re in an era of savvy self-marketers who are constantly improving our posts Content™ and protecting our online fake persona Brand™.  Facebook is not for musings on self-harm (or even, yes, suicide, back in the day) anymore. Now we know better, somehow: that’s just not what our friends? Audience™ wants to see.

Too cynical?  Sure it is.  Also it isn’t really the point of this missive.  We each have our own way with each of these soc med platforms. Twitter has turned into Land Of Dark Thoughts Quickly Typed in recent months, for example, although I don’t deny the geniuses in our midst. But it has seemed that for the entire 2010s thus far, Facebook has been a place for composers and co. (whether to chat, laugh, share work, share opportunities, discuss musical issues, discuss politics, fight like hell) to come together.  The same is true for actors, string players, academics, doctors, and bankers, to some extent, I’m assuming.  But for composers, or for the several hundred spread over six continents whom I’m FBfriends with, at any rate, it has functioned as one of the relevant gathering places for those of us who couldn’t make it to the show last night. Our lot, as a rule, doesn’t congregate.  The quartet or troupe or surgery team needs to be in the room, together.  We work best alone, no matter what TV comedy writers have to say about the creative process, and we know that from years of trying to write with a hangover.  We don’t, en masse, otherwise come together.  Maybe this place is our water cooler.

For composers, Facebook has functioned as one of the relevant gathering places for those of us who couldn’t make it to the show last night.

For me personally, I can safely * though not proudly * say that a day going by without me checking FB has been a rarity in the last five years.  I’m a freelancer who works from home, and so in that time, my days of not leaving the house or speaking to another person (esp. while in deadline/work-trance mode) have outnumbered my no-social-media days by the dozens or hundreds.  I say, without too much embarrassment, that most of my hours are spent in solitude, never more so than in the past few years since I’ve moved to a new city.  I go on Facebook and the like to dial in.  I very much suspect that I’m not the only professional scribbler to do so.   Even so, this recent sour mood at the virtual party felt like just too much, so several weeks ago and a bit on a whim, I quit, cold-turkey style, for a full seven days.  Apps off phone, bookmarks flicked away.  I realized what an incredible habit I’d acquired, but also that after three days, I felt just fine about what I didn’t know about everyone else.  I missed #metoo and #notallmen entirely.

A lower case f (the Facebook logo) surrounded by a collection of pills and tablets.

But what to do when it was time to log back in?  I headed straight for one of my old personal standbys, SnarkBook, announcing that I was back and did you miss me and that I was so happy not to have missed anything!  Since then, I’ve not reloaded apps or pages so as to make them easy to get to, and have remained pleased with my Newly Distant Daddy involvement.  But on day two, without really giving it too much thought, I went to an old trope in terms of my posts:

A screenshot of a Facebook Post by Sean Shepherd from October 25, 2017 at 5:25pm. The full text of the post is printed directly below in the body of the article.

Here’s a composer question for composers:

Looking back on all of your work, and trying to be objective about it*, do you feel that the pieces that had some special emotional significance to you while you were writing them resulted in (objectively*) better music?

Are the ones we want to be the best really the best?

*understood as probably not possible

I find that the “composer question for composers” post pops up every few days, somewhere on my feed, although sometimes in statement form.  Generally, it’s coming from a fairly personal place for the author, although some like to rouse the rabble and say something #controversial once in a while. Although as I say, I read a lot of outrage from people who appear to agree with each other these days, so the “Beethoven(/Brahms/Mahler/Boulez) sucks” comments, being too hot to touch (even if they are about dead people who really can’t hear them) have been on the dwindle.  Instead, they range from shoptalk to the downright philosophical in terms of content (the threads that veer into style can turn into 500-comment monsoons and are just downright poisonous. Sad!).  My occasional forays into the genre seem no different.  Whether off the top of the noggin (“Just heard Copland Dickinson Songs – still genius! I’d forgotten. Had you?” or a musi-business bone-to-pick thing), or a strongly worded, fiercely grandstanding COMPOSED POST about gender and programming, I realize: Okay, yes I do want to talk about this stuff sometimes.   And whenever that seems apparent, from anyone, it seems like the group is eager to jump in.

I found the response to my composer question for composers, after a week away from AngryBook, to be unexpectedly delightful.  In addition to the many composers, those who could relate—writers, performers, and others—also joined in, almost immediately.  I asked and ran—never really offering my own thoughts—and returned after some time only find a whole world of perspective.  Over the next 24 hours, there were more than 50 comments, from the casual “Nope” to the poetic, with sprinkles of the typical self-congratulation and snark we can surely expect from any bunch of composers so gathered.  Yet, it has also dawned on me: never have I been in a seminar or lecture room where so many would speak so freely.

Never have I been in a seminar or lecture room where so many would speak so freely.

This was especially interesting to me in this case, given my hasty choice and inclusion of several words that I know very well will shut a room full of composers right up.  Words like “objective,” “best,” and “emotional” are hot, hot words amongst us, a group that would disagree as to their meaning before even getting into their usage.  Had I really formulated a Serious Question for Serious Thought And Conversation, I would have likely afforded myself the time to, well, basically dodge the question.   Aye!—there’s the rub.  Facebook isn’t the place for formal questions and stilted answers, both designed to impress our colleagues (and besides, I’m well out of grad school. * taps mic *  Is this thing on?). These words were about me—me, a composer.  Hey, you, a composer, what are your thoughts?  And hi, it’s your old pal Sean. Use all the dangerous words you want; it’s only Facebook.  Let’s communicate, right here in public.

A tasseled graduation cap atop a blue box containing a white lower case f (the Facebook logo).

“Best” in music is a danger word.  My conservatory education, which at times consisted of preposterously idiotic nuggets—such as “Brahms is the best and also Tchaikovsky is not the best”—presented as some kind of acceptable canonic knowledge, is a constant reminder for me of danger words like best.  Six minutes after my post, John Glover, who I’ve known since he was 18 and I not too much older, was on to me.  “Asking to make the ‘best’ is usually a recipe for disaster. The only thing I find consistently helpful is maintaining a feeling of softness and curiosity.”  Andrew McManus soon sought further clarification: “Do you really mean ‘the best’ piece, or ‘the most successful at accomplishing the goals of that particular work’?”

It occurred to me: yes, “best” is a dangerous word, and I don’t often use it when talking about other’s work.  (Is Daphnis Ravel’s best work? Yes. Is Gaspard Ravel’s best work? Yes. Useless, even to throw opinions around with.) But also: yes, I most definitely mean “best” when I’m talking about my own.  I have a best piece (perhaps, but not necessarily, my most significant piece), and that is how I choose to think about it.  I’m thoroughly aware that within my own body of work, I can point to “good” and “bad” moments as I choose to see them, and for the sake of my work, I most certainly apply scrutiny and criticism to everything I make.   I do let it bog me down, I do wish I could be better at the job, and I most certainly wish my best was better—I’m an optimist in the hope that my best does in fact get better.  It’s an important part of my daily working process—making “good” work to feel good about the work I make.  But I’m also old enough to see that we eventually just become more aware of our own limitations.  And yet I hear John’s message and Andrew’s context loud and clear—a little softness and curiosity could go well with all that awareness.

Predictably, though, throughout the discussion, the hotter, deeper buzzword-topic—that big one—was emotion.  Again, my minds drifts back toward my education—music and emotion; emotion and music—this could get out of hand so very quickly!  I also think of the 15 years that I sat in seminar rooms with mostly straight white men and all of my years of weekly lessons with teachers who were nearly all straight white men, and how comfortable I felt in discussing my emotional world and its connections to my attempted artmaking.  Which is to say: I was not.  Usually they, also, were not.  But I was lucky with those men. Once in while we were able to open up, and I could talk about what I was really talking about. Thank god for that.  But much more often there were other things that were easier to discuss—for Xenakis, design, for Messiaen, harmony, etc. Talking about the Greek War of Independence or a deeply held Catholicism could get messy and speculative and VERY not-objective.  Let’s look at the notes!

For a performer, dealing with emotion is an intrinsic part of one’s education. On stage, emotion will not be denied.  We each have seen all manner of trajectory in front of our eyes—from good to great to sublime, from bad to worse, general lethargy, general mania—guided simply by responding to a performer’s emotional state in live performance.  Their training in channeling the energy for the better begins as soon as they pick up a bow.  But as a general topic of interest to composers, it’s one of the (many) uncomfortable subjects we, in general, choose to leave off the syllabus.  As a result, when a composer says they are not emotionally connected to the work they make, I tend to believe them.  Emotion is for others. We’ve just been diligently putting notes on a page, by ourselves, for months. Please, anyone else, emote away!  With passion, please!

Emotion is one of the (many) uncomfortable subjects composers, in general, choose to leave off the syllabus.

On the question of a personal emotional connection to the music during composition, there were great guns in the conversation threads throughout, first from Dalit Warshaw: “I find that one’s perspective toward one’s music is constantly in flux, and that—when revisited after a respite of (even) years—new wisdoms, about one’s self, the nature of one’s writing, continually emerge… Re your question: I’ve wondered the same thing, and do tend to think it may be the case, perhaps because, when deeply in touch with one’s emotions, one is perhaps also more in touch with one’s creative intuition and inner freedom. The trick, I think, is to be like a Method actor in finding the emotional sincerity in every work one writes.”  Alan Fletcher agrees with the idea of flux over time, writing “very often the pieces I doubted most in composition reveal themselves to me as better than I thought—not always, though. And pieces I am enthusiastic about during composition come to seem too obvious, or something…. I’m not talking about the motivation for the work, just the impression I have of how well it’s going. But I do find a correlation with works written from a deep emotional impulse and works that end up satisfying me in the end.”

Reynold Tharp is acutely aware of this turbulent connection.  “My best pieces are the ones in which I had some kind of strong emotional engagement with the compositional process and the desired affective or expressive character,” he says.  “Also often they’re the pieces during which I oscillate the most between thinking they’re great and thinking they’re awful as I’m working on them. If I don’t have an emotional connection with the idea of the piece or what I feel I can do within the limits of the project or medium, it will almost always end up being a weaker piece. Of course, even the more strongly felt pieces all have their flaws too…”  John Mackey has found his balance by looking outward, writing, “I think my best two pieces are the two that I wrote about loss—but not my own. Putting myself into an empathetic place about somebody else’s loss gave me just enough distance to still approach the pieces with craft first, rather than simply emoting on the page.”

For Clare Glackin, the process is not easy to pinpoint, saying, “I think it comes down to what I call “essence”—kind of hard to define but I use this word to describe the soul of a piece—the specific mood or aura or thing that the piece is expressing that’s hard to put into words. The things I’ve written that have been most emotionally significant to me have stronger essences. And to me a stronger essence almost always equals a better piece, as long as the composer has the skill to realize their intention. Without a specific essence, the music might be decent but it is more generic and boring than it would be otherwise.”

I do believe the stakes change with the task/piece at/in hand, and Matthew Peterson’s comment resonated for me and brought the conversation back to earth a little: “I always have to like and be enthralled in some way by what I create, but it’s hard to write a funky, weird baritone sax solo ‘from the heart’ or some sort of inner investment.”  It reminded me that we can’t always be sure what we are or aren’t saying or how from the heart we really are.  I recently heard a piece for the first time in years, one I finished in 2011 in the wake of a mutually devastating breakup with a longtime boyfriend.  In no way connected in my mind at the time, the first thing that occurred to me upon hearing it again: “Whoa Nelly, that is some real Breakup Music™!”  Jefferson Friedman hit that nail on the head:  “Not to be reductive, but honestly all the best ones were about a girl.”

Are the pieces we want to be the best really the best?

And what of the answers to my million-dollar question?  Are the pieces we want to be the best really the best?  A sea of noes flooded the comments early on.  Marcos Balter went further: “Actually, my best ones are almost always the ones I composed the fastest, without thinking much of them.”  But the yeses began to balance the scales; Felipe Lara wrote that, for him, “my favorite ones of mine are the ones I work on the hardest—sort of opposite of Marcos.”  Felipe and I also share the same attending secondary fear.  If the answer is yes, that the pieces we are the most ambitious about, or attached to, confused/rattled by, are in fact for us, the (non-objective) best—is it only because we want them to be?

A group of seven rectangular box-shaped crayon sticks in different colors (from left to right: red, orange, yellow, light green, sky blue, dark blue, and purple); a white lower case f (the Facebook logo) appears on the front of the penultimate one (the one in dark blue).

Like others in ComposerBook land, I wrote the post simply because I was confronting the question myself.  I was going through something (part of a bigger story for me as I’ve struggled with blocks and with finishing “special” pieces for special occasions for several years now).  I reached out into the ether and found more perspective and commiseration (including from those I’ve barely met in person, or haven’t seen in many years) than I should have reasonably expected.  Social media, as it’s slowly morphed and grown up and changed, has guided our online behaviors as well.  This was a normal day online in 2017, yet wouldn’t have been possible even in the FB of 2009, when it was five years old.  For all the aggravation Facebook can cause, and I’m not stepping anywhere near the global/political issues that are coming into focus here, I can see that my relationship to this community of my colleagues is partially facilitated by the daily feed.  If I were pressed about it, I’d say: yes, I’m glad it’s around.

For all the aggravation Facebook can cause, I’m glad it’s around.

In the end, did I find an answer for myself?  No.  I don’t know if the pieces I truly want to be good really are good simply because that’s what I want.  However, I know that for me it’s not about what others like or don’t about it.  I definitely am okay with holding the outsider opinion on a piece of my own (and yes, many of us certainly have), whether it’s thumbs up or thumbs down.  I like the Mies van der Rohe line, “I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good.” It fits my temperament and ideas about why I should do this and not some other thing with all the remaining solitary-ish days of my life.  Best, though, is yet another category.  If we really only have one best piece, or moment, or gesture, or note in our whole lives, then the likelihood of us writing it today is low.   How relaxing—what a relief!  I’ll do as well as I can today and try (and fail) not to obsess too much about it. Then I’ll just click right here and see what’s new on Netflix…


Sean Shepherd, an occasional contributor to New Music Box since 2006, is currently in deadline/work-trance mode on a piece for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Carter’s Continuing Presence

Elliott Carter passed away on November 5th, 2012 at the age of 103. It took me several years to adjust to a musical world without Carter’s living presence. This was in part because there still was so much recent music to catch up with: Caténaires, Sound Fields, Two Controversies and a Conversation, String Trio, Tintinnabulation, and the Double Trio, constitute a highly abbreviated playlist of the musical riches of Carter’s last decade. By the 21st century, I had become so accustomed to being surprised and delighted by the freshness and daring of new Carter works from a composer well in his 90s, and then amazingly, into his 100s, that it took some time to accept that this seemingly inexhaustible musical adventure had finally come to an end. Five years after Carter has left us as a human presence, it is time to assess his continuing musical presence in the still-young 21st century.

Elliott Carter in the 20th Century

Before assessing the significance of Carter’s music in the 21st century, I will first summarize the achievements from his most innovative and influential 20th century period, from the late 1940s through the late 1970s.

Carter’s notable musical innovations center on the following techniques: metric modulation, a set-class approach to harmony, extra-musical (especially literary) conceptions of musical structure, stylistic individuation of musical parts, and simultaneous presentation of stylistically distinct musical movements. Two crucial educational experiences informed this work: Carter’s personal association with Charles Ives in the mid-1920s and a rigorous course of training with Nadia Boulanger in the early 1930s. The friendship with Ives put Carter directly in touch with an early 20th century modernist project that embraced experimentation, multiplicity, and a hybridization of “high art” and vernacular musical styles that Carter ultimately found problematic. Studies with Boulanger developed Carter’s mastery of the two fundamental organizational principles of European tonal music: harmony and counterpoint.

Before exploring what these techniques got for Carter, let’s move back before the Cello Sonata and the String Quartet No. 1, which together represent a deliberate move away from a musical style that Carter later described as deliberately simplified in order to be more appealing to general American audiences. Carter’s most crowd-pleasing effort along these lines is the Holiday Overture (1944), which fuses an American nationalist style with strong contemporary European influences, most obviously from Paul Hindemith, but with occasional Stravinskyan flourishes as well. (The influence of both Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky is felt rather more strongly in the Suite from Pocahontas of 1939.) While the language of the Holiday Overture is largely pan-diatonic, and considerably more consonant than Hindemith’s music, there are occasional flirtations with polytonality and cross rhythms that hint at the modernist direction that Carter ultimately decided to pursue.

Elliott Carter, wearing a suit, in profile (1942).

Elliott Carter in 1942.

The Holiday Overture nicely articulates a key inflection point for Carter near the middle of the 20th century, poised between populism vs. modernism, and between American nationalism vs. the European avant-garde. The compositional sequence of the Piano Sonata (1945-46), to the Cello Sonata (1948), to the String Quartet No. 1 (1951) chronicles Carter’s movement toward both a permanent embrace of Modernism in respect of the first schism, and a dynamic balance between American and European elements in respect of the second schism. As a result, many American listeners would consider Carter’s mature musical style to lean European, especially when compared with such composers as Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thompson, William Schuman, Charles Ives, or even John Cage, while European composer Pierre Boulez said that he liked Carter’s music because it sounds so “American.” In the 21st century, the question of music nationalism may seem rather trivial (or perhaps takes on new meanings), but nationalism was a question of great concern to many early to mid-20th century composers, such as Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, and Carlos Chavez, as well as many of the American composers just mentioned.

Returning to musical innovations, the technique most firmly associated with Carter is metric modulation. While Carter did not invent the technique, he employed it with much greater depth and scope than any prior composer. Metric modulation involves a redefinition of the tempo, based on metrical relationships. A simple example is shown below.

An example of a metrical modulation from triplets in 4/4 time to 8th notes in 7/8.

For the listener, there is no change in the speed of the repeated notes. However, the change of tempo allows for groupings (such as the 7/8 bar shown) that are difficult or impossible to notate at the prior tempo. This allows for fluid destabilization of a tactus, and as mentioned in the previous section. The avoidance of a constant, regular tactus is a defining feature of Carter’s post-1940s music.

Carter’s focus on set-based harmonies matures in the String Quartet No. 1, with a harmonic language that hinges on the two all-interval tetrachords, shown below. (An all-interval tetrachord provides every interval class from 0 to 6. By contrast, a whole-tone tetrachord can only provide interval classes 0, 2, 4 and 6.)

The two all interval tetrachords: 0156 (e.g. C-C#-E-F#) and 0137 (e.g. C-Db-Eb-G)

Carter’s interest in set-based harmony led him to write his Harmony Book, enumerating every possible chord in the 12-tone system. The focus on pitch sets (chords in Carter’s terminology) would have been informed by Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone method, and especially the partitioning techniques of Anton Webern. Equally plausible precedents include the fascination with new chordal sonorities exhibited by such composers as Alexander Scriabin and Franz Liszt. Carter’s work with pitch sets in the early 1950s puts him ahead of major publications on the subject, such as Howard Hanson’s Harmonic Materials of Modern Music (1960), Milton Babbitt’s  “Set Structure as a Compositional Determinant” (1961), and Alan Forte’s The Structure of Atonal Music (1973). Carter’s adoption of pitch sets as determinative of his harmonic language permanently foreclosed the quasi-tonal harmonic language of the Holiday Overture. Additionally, it gave him a powerful tool for individual and group differentiation within larger ensembles.

Carter’s use of extra-musical literary sources of inspiration motivates his concept of a musical score as a “play,” with stylistically individuated characters. Quotations from inspirational poetry preface such important orchestral scores as the Concerto for Orchestra (1969) and A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976), clearly articulating that Carter’s works are not mere technical experiments, but harbor ambitious expressive intent as well. The stylistic individuation of musical parts is most strongly introduced in the opening of the Cello Sonata, where the pianist mechanically pecks out a clock-like rhythm while the cello follows a lyric and expressive melody that floats in a different tempo from the piano. The ending of the fourth movement demonstrates that the character roles can be reversed, even though the two parts seem optimized for the inherent character of the cello (a singing instrument) and the piano (a percussion instrument). At the same time, this introduction of the idea of stylistic individuation makes a clear link to earlier classical music, going back at least as far as Mozart, whose music demonstrates a clear differentiation between melody and accompaniment lines.

Leonard Bernstein and Elliott Carter looking over a score.

Carter with Leonard Bernstein in 1971 in Philharmonic Hall during a rehearsal for a New York Philharmonic performance of the Concerto for Orchestra (photographer unknown; courtesy Elliott Carter Centenary)

Carter’s stylistic differentiation of individual parts breaks free from its classical precedents in the String Quartet No. 2 (1959), where each part is assigned its own rhythmic profile and repertory of intervals. The construction of not just differentiated lines or even differentiated types of music, but individuating each musician as a “character” in a musical play is Carter’s mature conception of instrumental differentiation that will present itself repeatedly throughout his music from the 1960s forward. The obvious predecessor in this regard is the comical character “Rollo” in Charles Ives’s String Quartet No. 2. But a key difference from Ives’s approach is Carter’s wariness of slapstick humor in music; Carter feels that it’s too facile and too easy to bring off.

Finally, the simultaneous presentation of stylistically differentiated movements extends the idea of stylistically differentiated individual parts. This strategy is first clearly and comprehensively articulated in the Concerto for Orchestra (1969). Carter then radically rethinks the spatial and formal architecture of the string quartet with his String Quartet No. 3 (1971), where different musics interpenetrate and move through each other at different speeds, styles, and densities. Carter recommends spatial separation of the two duos in performance of this quartet to further articulate the different musical streams. The superposition of different kinds of music (slow and fast) had already been heard in the String Quartet No. 1, but No. 3 applies this as a principle for structuring the entire piece. A precedent for this superposition of different musics is found in the music of Charles Ives, in such works as Central Park in the Dark and the Symphony No. 4.

What truly distinguishes Carter’s music is the intensity, passion, expressiveness, and sheer power of his musical creations.

Having surveyed Carter’s technical innovations, I must emphasize that his reputation derives not just from these innovations. After all, 20th century art was inundated with technical experiments of every kind. What truly distinguishes Carter’s music is the intensity, passion, expressiveness, and sheer power of his musical creations, which are all girdled by a commitment to compositional rigor and extreme exploration of technical possibilities. As Carter himself observed, creating one’s own language is a special prerogative of the 20th century composer. But that composer must then communicate clearly using the language that s/he created. Carter’s mature set of technical concerns clearly identifies him as a 20th century modernist. But he did not jump on every modernist bandwagon. Key 20th century musical research areas that Carter completely avoided include electronic music, aleatoric music, and microtonal music. And despite a constant concern for multiplicity, Carter studiously avoided the pastiche approach of post-modernism. Carter even more studiously avoided the fixed tempi and mechanical repetitions of minimalism. It may have taken 50 years for Carter to discover and integrate his core compositional concerns, but from that point forward, for the next 53 years, Carter could not be budged from his compositional edifice. He continued to write Elliott Carter’s music twelve years into the 21st century, a period in which the dominant compositional trends seem to be at odds with Carter’s compositional ethos.

Elliott Carter in the 21st Century

Elliott Carter sitting in the audience.

Elliott Carter at a rehearsal for Two Controversies and a Conversation during the NY Philharmonic’s Contact Series in June 2012. (Photo by Ed Yim.)

Yet Carter’s music is alive and well five years after his death in November 2012. Just in 2017, Carter’s two major publishers, Boosey & Hawkes and Associated Music, reported 52 performances of Carter’s music, 10 of them orchestral performances, including multiple performances of Carter’s 1998 opera What Next? This record of performances would be an impressive showing for a living composer. For a deceased composer, it is a serious vote of confidence in the continued relevance of the music. Many more performances are scheduled for 2018. Looking at reported performances of orchestral music from 2012-2018, there is further evidence of a sustained presence for Carter’s music, with a combined report of 127 performances of works for full orchestra. (Those performance do not include works such as Sound Fields and the Clarinet Concerto, which are for smaller forces.)

These statistics on Carter’s posthumous orchestral presence are great news of course. At the same time, I have some reservations, based on my own assessment and categorization of Carter’s orchestral music. Following our earlier discussion of Carter’s technical progress as a composer, I categorize the orchestral music up through the Minotaur Suite (1947) as Carter’s populist period. The Variations for Orchestra (1955) is a transitional work, not a populist work, but also not yet possessed of the orchestral maturity on display in the Piano Concerto completed one decade after. The period from 1964 to 1976 contains, in my view, the pinnacle of Carter’s writing for full orchestra, comprising the Piano Concerto, The Concerto for Orchestra, and A Symphony of Three Orchestras. The period from 1986 forward, starting with the Oboe Concerto, is what I consider Carter’s post-pinnacle orchestral period. While “post-pinnacle” might sound pejorative, for a composer of Carter’s rank, a descent from his pinnacle still leaves the work in a state of excellence. And to be clear, this view is restricted to the orchestral music. The main distinction I want to make here is that the three works of Carter’s orchestral pinnacle all represent “crisis” pieces, struggling to extend Carter’s language, and then express himself musically with the greatest force possible. Both the Concerto for Orchestra and A Symphony of Three Orchestras were composed within the sweet spot of Carter’s initial and most rigorous development of his primary rhythmic, formal, and harmonic innovations, especially in the superposition of multiple movements articulated by harmony, speed, and musical character. The Piano Concerto is an even more special piece, perhaps unique among Carter’s work, where he seems almost not himself, given the darkness, violence, and political despair articulated in the piece. Each of these pinnacle works would require its own essay to begin to unpack the technical and expressive force of the works; for now, I simply assert their primacy, and allow the reader to either agree with my assessment or not.

Of 127 reported orchestral performances, 21 were of Carter’s populist music, 7 of the transitional Variations for Orchestra, 2 of “pinnacle” music, and 97 of “post-pinnacle” music.

According to the above categorization, of the 127 reported orchestral performances, there were 21 performances of Carter’s populist music, 7 performances of the transitional Variations for Orchestra, 2 performances of pinnacle music (one each of the Concerto for Orchestra and A Symphony of Three Orchestras), and 97 performances of post-pinnacle music. Given that the post-pinnacle period comprises 26 years, and given that Carter’s productivity markedly increased in that period, and finally given that there is usually more interest in a composer’s more recent music, it is not surprising that the majority of performances are in the post-pinnacle period. And again, I must stress that there is wonderful orchestral music in what I am calling the post-pinnacle period. Instances (2012) has great wit, some fine and original gestures, some obsessive intensity toward the end, and a very lovely coda, with the piano speaking in single tones against the ensemble, in what might be an echo of the Woody Woodpecker-like piano notes of the Piano Concerto. But Instances is not as soul-crushing as the Piano Concerto, or as ambitiously world-building as the Concerto for Orchestra or A Symphony of Three Orchestras. Instances is a fine and elegant vehicle—a bicycle. The pinnacle orchestral works are Sherman tanks.

Those readers who share my assessment of the pinnacle orchestral works will also share my disappointment that they represent a mere two out of 127 Carter orchestral performances discussed here. In addition to the number of performances, there is an interesting story in the location of the performances. A total of 31 of the orchestral performances took place in the USA. Ten of these performances were from the populist period, four were of the transitional Variations for Orchestra, one was of the pinnacle work Concerto for Orchestra, the remaining 16 performances were of post-pinnacle works. Five of those were of Instances, all clustered in 2013, the year after the composition of the work.

The music of one of America’s most celebrated composers received well over twice as many performances in Europe as in the USA.

By contrast, 76 orchestral performances took place in Europe (including the UK), with the remaining performances taking place in South America, Australia, and Canada. Nine of the European performances were of Carter’s populist orchestral music. One pinnacle work, A Symphony of Three Orchestras, was performed, two performances of Variations for Orchestra were given, and the remaining 64 performances were of post-pinnacle works. Thus, in the six-year period starting from 2012, Carter’s final year, the music of one of America’s most celebrated composers received well over twice as many performances in Europe as in the USA. Music from Carter’s populist period comprises approximately 32 percent of the USA performances, and approximately nine percent of the European performances. These statistics speak to the well-known conservatism and risk-aversion of American orchestral programming, compared to that of Europe. Given the spirit of boldness and innovation in American musical cultural production that has given us John Cage, Steve Reich, The Sonic Arts Union, computer music, disco, and of course Elliott Carter, the general timidity of the American orchestra is a regrettable lacuna. At the same time, we should single out the 2013 Concerto for Orchestra performance given by the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, under the direction of Leon Botstein. The American Symphony Orchestra and Botstein cannot be praised highly enough for bringing challenging, seldom performed music to the public, but their project remains the exception that proves the rule in American orchestral programming.

Helen Carter, NYC Mayor Ed Koch, Elliott Carter (at podium) and Henry Geldzahler, NYC's commissioner of cultural affairs at City Hall in 1978.

Although there have been considerably more performances of Elliott Carter’s music in Europe than in the United States, Carter is one of the few composers to be officially honored by our government. In addition to being feted at the White House by Ronald Reagan as one of the first 12 recipients of National Medal of Arts in 1985, Carter was also honored in 1978 at New York City’s City Hall by then Mayor Edward I. Koch (left of Carter who is at the podium) and Henry Geldzahler, NYC’s then commissioner of cultural affairs (far right). Carter’s wife Helen (1927-1998) is standing to the left of Koch.

Carter’s Legacy

Having demonstrated the viability of Carter’s orchestral music, which is by far the most difficult instrumental medium in which a composer can achieve lasting success, there is a much more vital performance environment for Carter’s chamber and solo music, which is performed at a considerably higher rate than the orchestral music. Within this repertory, certain focal points may be predicted. For example, the five string quartets seem to be on track for canonical status, having been championed by both top generalist string quartets like the Juilliard Quartet and Pacifica Quartet, and by new music specialist quartets such as the Arditti Quartet and the JACK Quartet. Within that corpus, I would further highlight the first and third quartets as the two “crisis” pieces—the standouts in the collection that take an experimental technique to its outer limit. String Quartet No. 1 delves deeply into the problem of metric modulation as a basis for large-scale formal organization and String Quartet No. 3 attacks the problem of simultaneous unfolding of different movements, taking its textures closer to the edge of chaos than any of his music with the possible exception of the finale to the Double Concerto. Carter’s solo piano piece Caténaires has established itself as a showpiece for competitions, as beautifully demonstrated in this performance by Sean Chen. (Multiple performances of this work are easily found on YouTube.) Many other fine “musical selfies” of Carter’s solo pieces adorn YouTube, such as this dramatic reading of Figment III, performed by James Oesi.

Carter’s legacy may be found in the work of his students.

Another aspect of Carter’s legacy may be found in the work of his students. I will next consider the music of one of Carter’s most prominent students, Jeffrey Mumford, since Mumford openly and gratefully acknowledges Carter’s influence. Jeffrey Mumford first became enamored of Elliott Carter’s music during his college years, and studied privately with Carter during 1980-83. Mumford’s music shares the following general concerns with Carter’s music: multiplicity, stratification and conversations between instruments or groups of instruments, and temporal variety. One readily hears in Mumford’s instrumental writing a long-line approach to melodic invention that is distinctly “Carterian.” One also hears a fondness for simultaneous unfolding of materials at disparate tempi, along with a general avoidance of motoric rhythms (though with a bit more openness to regular rhythms than Carter). Mumford’s music exemplifies how some important elements of Carter’s compositional practice can be adopted, while others are left on the table and other non-Carterian elements enter the compositional project. Mumford intriguingly acknowledges both jazz ballads and the rich harmonies of disco as important influences. In Mumford’s cello concerto of fields unfolding . .  echoing depths of resonant light from 2015, written for Carter in memoriam, all of these elements are on display. The long, flowing, directional cello lines interspersed with double-stops and harmonics for emphasis are very Carterian. But the lush, shimmering diatonic string backings are something that Carter would have never written.

Joel Chadabe, Alvin Curran, Tod Machover, Jeffrey Mumford, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Five of the more well-known composers who studied with Elliott Carter (pictured from left to right): Joel Chadabe, Alvin Curran, Tod Machover, Jeffrey Mumford, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Despite shared musical concerns, and some similarities in musical language between Carter and Mumford, there is a dramatic element in Carter’s ethos that often leads to sudden outbursts of explosive violence in his music, which is decidedly not a part of Mumford’s musical personality. Mumford instead invests more heavily in lyricism, beauty, and lushness, resulting in a more personal, private sensibility than that of Carter’s music. I consider this private sensibility to be a quality of particular importance for 21st century classical music, and for that reason, in addition to its general excellence, I highly commend Mumford’s music to the attention of the reader.

Mumford’s lush, shimmering diatonic string backings are something that Carter would have never written.

The legacy of a composition teacher is not just in knowledge and technique imparted, but also in more intangible conveyances. Jeffrey Mumford shared the following statement regarding Elliott Carter, “His class and elegance are a gift to us all, and the legacy of the depth and intelligence of his music will live on far into the future, as successive generations discover it. Words cannot express the gift he has given me in my focus and journey as an artist. Words also cannot express how much I miss him.”

Moving Forward the 21st Century

Elliott Carter standing in front of a bookcase (1982).

Elliott Carter in 1982 in front of one of the many bookcases in his New York apartment

While Carter’s reputation is unassailable, we now live in a musical world in which Carter’s music is of the recent past, not the present, somewhat analogous to the position of Johannes Brahms’s music in the early 20th century. Fundamental aspects of new music culture are changing, where recognition as a “great composer” may take on new meanings. A few factors to consider:

1. The increasing prominence of composer/performers

The music of composer/performers tends to emphasize materiality with little room for the abstractions of modernist composers like Carter.

The composer/performer model has been a norm throughout much of classical music history. In the 20th century, a tendency toward specialization led to the non-performer/composer, and alternative hybrid models emerged, such as composer/teachers and composer/theorists, who do not perform music, or at least do not devote much focus to performance. Carter, Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, and Brian Ferneyhough are prominent exemplars of the non-performer/composer. A shift in emphasis towards performer/composers in the early 21st century has emerged, featuring musicians whose roots are as performers who then gravitated towards composition. As composers, their music seems, for lack of a better word, performative in emphasis, since they are composing for instruments on which they regularly perform. Theo Bleckmann, Todd Reynolds, Jane Rigler, Pamela Z, and Michael Lowenstern are notable exemplars. Notable 20th century precursors to this model include Robert Dick, Diamanda Galas and Joan LaBarbara. On being awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, Caroline Shaw famously remarked, “I don’t really call myself a composer.” Instead, Shaw is a multi-talented instrumentalist and vocalist who also composes music. And her music is written for performers with a directness that is in contradistinction to the modernist approach to instrumental writing. Shaw’s compositional practice is a far cry from that of Arnold Schoenberg who, when told by a prominent violinist regarding his new Violin Concerto that he would have to wait for a violinist born with six fingers, Schoenberg replied, “I can wait.” The music of composer/performers tends to emphasize the materiality of performance and sound in a directly experienced and expressed manner, with little room for the notation-based abstractions of modernist composers like Carter.

2. Radical proximity

It would seem that our culture of Internet-based music will stimulate a very different kind of musical intelligence that that of Carter.

On the internet, any music that can be uploaded as a recording is just a click away. There is a profound overload of available music, coupled with a pervasive awareness of this overload. In such a diverse, densely populated musical world, the revolutionary impact of music from the early 20th century, such as Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps or Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire seems impossible today. Classical pieces that come to prominence today seem to do so for a very short period, before disappearing from the public ear. These works do not have the subversive impact of the radical early 20th century pieces discussed above, or even radical mid-century interventions like John Cage’s 4’33”. Given that the disruptive and interventionist aspect of those early modernist works was so essential to stimulating the young Elliott Carter’s imagination, it would seem that our culture of Internet-based music will stimulate a very different kind of musical intelligence that that of Carter. Instead of those massive early 20th century cultural impacts, we now have interstitial reverberations, quiet and difficult to trace, with long tails.

3. Erosion of the high art/low art distinction

A distinction between high art music and vernacular music was a prerequisite for Carter’s music to develop as it did.

Carter’s concern for high culture doesn’t seem very possible in the early 21st century. Instead, this is an era of hybridity. Jeffery Mumford’s shared influences of Carter’s music and disco is emblematic of 21st century classical music. The composer who also has a band (even if that band is a new music ensemble) is more the rule than the exception today. This is a cultural world that is aligned with composers such as Nick Didkovsky, Missy Mazzoli, Eve Beglarian, Annie Gosfield, and Elliott Sharp. The enforcement of a distinction between high art music and vernacular music, which was essentially a prerequisite for Carter’s music to develop as it did, no longer holds much credibility. Although Carter’s ideas can continue to propagate in the internet space of hybridity, the space for single-strain incubation of high-art projects is severely diminished, compared to that of the 20th century.

Concluding Thoughts

Carter seems to have sensed some of these 21st century cultural issues surprisingly early. In a 1990 interview with Jonathan W. Bernard, discussing his state of mind in the late 1960s during the composition of Concerto for Orchestra, Carter stated, “The whole question of the time we are living in, and whether it’s the end of a period, is something that has hung over us all, I think, for a long time, and this is a very meaningful thing to me in that piece…You see, I lived through that particular period of modernism that has now somehow become either classic or God knows what, but it still is very vivid to me. The whole question of what high culture is is something that remains profoundly disturbing and perplexing.”

Carter’s magnificent creative thought patterns are no longer ours.

The beautiful thing about music is that there’s always room for new voices. We don’t have a limited amount of storage space to house statues of our musical gods, where after it fills up we need to toss out some gods to make room for new ones. Carter has earned his place in the pantheon, and will surely remain there for the foreseeable future. At the same time, we have definitively moved beyond his period of modernism, and are now in a very different cultural place. We living composers can admire and learn from Carter’s work, but the task before us now is to develop a musical culture that would seem increasingly weird, alien, disturbing, and perplexing to Carter. His magnificent creative thought patterns are no longer ours.

Elliott Carter with Igor Stravinsky at the Galerie International on Madison Avenue, NYC May 1, 1962

Elliott Carter with Igor Stravinsky at the Galerie International on Madison Avenue, NYC May 1, 1962


Throughout November 2017, NewMusicBox is marking the fifth anniversary of Elliott Carter‘s death with a series of posts exploring his life and legacy. This content is made possible with the generous support of the Amphion Foundation‘s Carter Special Projects Fund.

The Late Elliott Carter

There’s an old quip that if you’re a composer, the first five years after you die are the worst. Whether or not that’s true, a composer’s posthumous reputation does sometimes veer off surprisingly from its earlier course. In some cases, a giant is laid low; in others, interest skyrockets. Paul Hindemith was routinely spoken of in the company of Schoenberg and Stravinsky during his lifetime but has not fared well of late, while a quarter century after his death John Cage is more influential than ever. Yet the hierarchies of departed composers are fluid. In the 1920s, Harvard students joked that the exit signs at the Boston Symphony meant “this way in case of Brahms.” J. S. Bach, Schubert, Sibelius, and Mahler all have had their ups and downs, and as often as not one generation’s lion is another’s goat (and vice versa).

If you’re a composer, the first five years after you die are the worst.

Now that the fifth anniversary of Elliott Carter’s passing is upon us (he died on Nov 5, 2012), there’s been no push to rename the exit signs at Symphony Hall, but neither has there been universal canonization. The case of Elliott Carter stands apart from the usual pattern of posthumous appraisals, not least because Carter lived to within a few weeks of his 104th birthday, and kept composing almost to the end. He may be the only composer in the history of Western music to have done so. Rather than leaving us just a handful of unusual works that slot neatly into the dotage thought inevitable before the Romantics or the transcendence Adorno heard in late Beethoven, Carter wrote dozens of pieces in a wide variety of genres. If Aaron Copland’s experience of composing (or rather not composing) in old age was like the turning off of a faucet, Elliott Carter’s was like whitewater rafting. He rode an extraordinary wave of productivity in his last decades, far exceeding that of his youth and middle age. If we measure in minutes of music, the midpoint of his catalog comes out to be after his 80th birthday, and the compositions for which he is best known (the first three string quartets, the Double Concerto, Piano Concerto, and Concerto for Orchestra, even the vocal works of the 1970s) are closer to his early forays into Neoclassicism than to the “mature” work of his 90s and 100s. Carter’s unprecedented combination of longevity and productivity, together with the unflagging quality and variety of the music he produced, upends the standard narrative of a composer’s career—juvenilia; mature work; final decline or apotheosis—and leaves us with a bounty of “late music” that stretches over more than three decades.

Some of this music will be familiar to NewMusicBox readers. Most of Carter’s compositions of the 1980s, including Night Fantasies (1980) for piano, Triple Duo (1983) for the now-standard “Pierrot-plus-percussion” ensemble, and smaller pieces like the 4 Lauds (1984-1999) for solo violin and Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux (1984), for flute and clarinet, have become familiar presences on recordings and in the concert hall. Carter’s two “capstone” projects of the 1990s—the 40-minute orchestral triptych Symphonia—Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1993-96), and his one-act comic opera with Paul Griffiths What Next? (1997-98)—have had numerous performances, and excellent recordings of both are available. And a range of later works, from the perpetuum mobile Caténaires (2006) for piano, to the wind quintet Nine by Five (2009), have established themselves quickly and securely in the repertoire. But five years on, a good deal of the music of Carter’s last half-decade is still not widely known. “Fine print” editions of several scores are still in preparation, and almost a dozen late compositions await commercial recordings and widespread performance.

Carter in 2005

Carter in 2005
Photo: Malcolm Crowthers

Help has recently arrived in the form of a new release from Ondine with premiere recordings of five pieces Carter composed between 2005 and 2012. (Full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes.) The performers include Carter stalwarts such as Oliver Knussen (one of the best Carter conductors out there), pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and percussionist Colin Currie, but also more recent converts. To listen to Aimard play Carter’s last composition Epigrams with violinist Isabelle Faust (recent Gramophone “Recording of the Year” winner for her set of Mozart Violin Concertos) and cellist Jean Guihen Queyras (whose Bach suites win high praise) is to hear new music rendered as vividly as the masterpieces of the 18th or 19th centuries. No less persuasive are the accounts of five concertante works from the “aughts” and beyond: Dialogues (2003); Soundings (2005); Interventions (2007); Dialogues II (2010); and Two Controversies and a Conversation (2011). Soloist plus ensemble was an ideal medium for Carter. Its musical reflection of the individual in society aligns perfectly with his idea of counterpoint as human interaction. The newer works join an illustrious group of solo concertos for oboe, violin, clarinet, cello, piano, horn, flute, and bass clarinet. But they also introduce new relationships and modes of interaction between soloist and ensemble—from the piano’s Greek chorus-like framing of the orchestra in Soundings, to the studied indifference that the piano and orchestra pretend to have for each other in Interventions.

Such quasi-literary conceits will be familiar to long-time Carter listeners. They are the product both of Carter’s background in the liberal arts—which always counterbalanced his French conservatory training—and his engagement with contemporary poetry, which had roots going back to the 1940s but really took flight 30 years later. Carter’s 1975 cycle of six poems of Elizabeth Bishop, A Mirror on Which to Dwell, has become one of his most widely known pieces (thanks in no small part to the advocacy of Pierre Boulez), and Tempo e tempi (1998-99), on Italian poetry by Montale, Ungaretti, and Quasimodo is another favorite. In Carter’s last years he made song composition a special priority. From 2006 to 2011 he composed at least one major vocal work every year, applying the techniques he had developed in the 1970s to a kind of survey of the great modernist poetry he most admired in his youth. He set Stevens, Baudelaire, Pound, Zukofsky, Moore, Cummings, Eliot, and finally Stevens again, creating vivid yet deeply nuanced settings that animate and enrich the vastly different styles and voices at work in the poems. More than any other genre, Carter’s late vocal music is underrepresented on recordings and concerts. Although all of his late compositions have now been premiered, the rights of first recording for several late song cycles have not yet been exercised, although plans are underway. We won’t have to wait too long for these marvelous cycles to become widely available, and when they do they will no doubt find performers ready to take on their interpretive challenges and share their delights.

American composers rarely come to prominence via their orchestral music.

It is no accident that American composers rarely come to prominence via their orchestral music, and Elliott Carter was no exception. When reminded in 1994 that most of the music he composed between 1948 and 1992 is for small forces, Carter responded not by explaining his fascination with chamber music but by describing the limitations on rehearsal time imposed by American orchestras. It was only in his later years, when conductors like Boulez and Knussen, as well as Daniel Barenboim, Michael Gielen, James Levine, and David Robertson began to program his works regularly that Carter felt he had enough support to devote sustained attention to writing for orchestra. Although he is perennially labeled “uncompromising,” Carter’s hard-won experience with his Piano Concerto (1965) and Concerto for Orchestra (1969) led him to tailor his late orchestral music astutely to the needs of contemporary American orchestras. Gone are the unconventional seating plans, complexities of rhythmic notation, and thickly layered counterpoints of his orchestral music of the 1960s and ‘70s—techniques aimed at overthrowing what he once called “the orchestral brontosaurus.” Instead, Carter wrote to the orchestra’s strengths, in mischievous reimaginings of the orchestral tone poem, as he inherited it from Liszt, Berlioz, and Richard Strauss. The largest work on the new Ondine recording is Interventions—in an electrifying performance by Aimard and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Knussen conducting—and it is a sensual pleasure as well as a thrilling ride. Carter never wavered in his belief in the power of music to enlighten the complexities of human experience, but his music makes thought a joy. That his late works show off the virtuosity of contemporary orchestras to such good effect, and make such a vivid impression on audiences, should encourage their appearance on concert programs and recordings well into the future.

Carter in 2002

Carter in 2002

Likewise, the future of Carter’s chamber music seems assured. Pieces like the Cello Sonata, which once were beyond the reach of all but the most virtuosic performers, are now standard rep, appearing routinely on programs by professionals and students alike. Longtime Carter champions the Juilliard String Quartet chose Carter’s String Quartet No. 1 to take on their first tour with a new generation of members, and a wide range of quartets, including the Arditti, Brentano, Chiara, JACK, Mivos, and Pacifica quartets all have embraced Carter as well. Soloists and small groups looking for shorter works also have plenty to choose from. Surveying his 60-year career, Carter in his last years wrote dozens of “thank you” pieces, many uncommissioned, for the musicians and patrons who were his friends and colleagues. Many are short and quirky, making the category of the instrumental miniature—which Carter mostly avoided earlier in his career—something of a late specialty. In addition to two brief Fragments (both for string quartet), there are a host of short solos, duos, and trios, among them six solo Figments (two for cello; one each for double bass, viola, marimba, and oboe), and five Retracings (one each for bassoon, horn, trumpet, tuba, trombone)—each of which extracts an ensemble part from a larger piece as an instrumental solo. The modest dimensions of these pieces contain a wealth of invention and a streak of whimsical humor; like their longer siblings, they reward virtuosity and celebrate individuality.

The future of Carter’s chamber music seems assured.

Looking over all this music, it would seem both premature and false to come to any conclusions about which of Carter’s pieces will continue to resonate with the next generation of musicians and music lovers, and which ones will be cast by the wayside. What sets Carter’s music apart is its consistent focus on human experience—what it’s like to breathe in and out, be in love, lose a friend, succumb to vanity, feign indifference, become enraged or bewildered or overwhelmed, hesitate to come forward, or face death—and more often than not to contend with several of these experiences at once. Like every composer before him, Elliott Carter’s popularity has waxed and waned, and one doesn’t need to be clairvoyant to predict that it will continue to do so going forward. But I expect there will always be listeners who will recognize and respond to the fundamental humanity of Carter’s music, and ensure its future as they take it to heart.


Throughout November 2017, NewMusicBox is marking the fifth anniversary of Elliott Carter‘s death with a series of posts exploring his life and legacy. This content is made possible with the generous support of the Amphion Foundation‘s Carter Special Projects Fund.

Orientalism in American Classical Music

I’m rebellious, I’m hardworking, I’m obsessive, I’m competitive, I’m solitary, I’m sporty, I’m cerebral, and I’m passionate. These characteristics are the top reasons why I self-identify as a classical musician—these particular character traits make me highly compatible with the classical music profession. However, these adjectives aside, what I fail to mention is that I am visually perceived to be of East Asian descent. This descriptor, often conjured by others without a prompt of my own, resurfaces in association to my identity as a classical musician in the United States, over and over and over and over and over again. Being of East Asian descent bizarrely “explains” to people why I am a classical musician, usually at the expense of overlooking the personality traits that form my identity, and thus my profound compatibility with classical music. After 30 years of shrugging off this racialized identity, I feel it is finally time for me to address what I’ve grown accustomed to when making classical music while East Asian.

Being of East Asian descent bizarrely “explains” to people why I am a classical musician.

Simply put, my perceived Asianness is a reproduction of Orientalism. In this article, I will focus on three statements in particular that reproduce Orientalism upon my body, here in the West: 1) otherizing excellence (“The Chinese play with such discipline…it’s like a martial art to you.”), 2) obsessive focus on technical precision (“Oh my, you have great technique!”), and 3) marking otherness as a collaborative quality (“Our ensemble is not that white, because we have you.”).

In this article, I will be reading the three Orientalist statements specifically within U.S. classical music. This is not to say that comments like these do not occur in contexts outside of classical music—they indeed apply on a much larger scale. But since American classical music is where I have come to intimately know these types of comments, I will limit my focus to this scene.

Firstly, we must understand Orientalism as a historically racist, colonialist ideology; Orientalism as it manifests in 2017 is naive at best, racist and neo-colonial at worst. In the groundbreaking 1970 book Orientalism, Edward Said disarmingly defines “the Orient,” positioning it necessarily within a duality that ultimately has little to do with the Orient itself:

Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident.” Thus a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind,” destiny, and so on. […] The value, efficacy, strength, apparent veracity of a written statement about the Orient […] relies very little, and cannot instrumentally depend, on the Orient […] Thus all of Orientalism stands forth and away from the Orient: that Orientalism makes sense at all depends more on the West than on the Orient, and this sense is directly indebted to various Western techniques of representation that make the Orient visible, clear, ‘there’ in discourse about it. [emphasis mine]

With Orientalism defined, let’s now address each of the following statements individually and explain why they are harmful reproductions of Orientalism.

Statement #1: “The Chinese play with such discipline…it’s like a martial art to you.” When a person makes this statement, it is not intended to start a conversation about martial art. Martial art is an East Asian activity considered exotic in the West, and it is conjured precisely because it is exotically viewed. The exoticization of a commonplace human characteristic is an Orientalist notion, and like Orientalism, explains nothing about the exoticizable identity (Chinese people, martial artists) nor the exoticized element (discipline). Although discipline is indeed a desirable quality for a classical musician, this statement says nothing about discipline nor classical musicians. What it does manage to express, is two unrelated observations: 1) I notice that you are a classical musician, and 2) I notice that you are Chinese.

Statement #2: “Oh my, you have great technique!” (Great) technique is desired by all classical musicians. But, as Pablo Casals puts it, “the most perfect technique is that which is not noticed at all.” When a person states that my technique is good, as the sole observation of my playing, it puts focus on the very thing that is only good if you do not have to focus on it. Although the racial element of this comment is often not explicit, it nevertheless conjures the stereotype of a submissive Asian classical music student, exhibiting technical excellence while differing to a Western master for interpretative guidance. The prototypical manifestation of this particular type of Orientalism is the documentary film From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China (1979). In the film, violinist Isaac Stern, director Murray Lerner, and executive producer Walter Scheuer portray the Chinese classical music students as diligent, hard working, but ultimately incapable of grasping the profound essence of classical music without brief, shallow contact with a Western master. Telling enough is the most upvoted user submission on the film’s IMDb page: “scgary66” remarks on the “lack of skill development among many of the young [Chinese] musicians and the emphasis on technical skill rather than artistic interpretation.” “Scgary66” in fact proves my point: sole focus on technique, even as a compliment, diminishes the achievements of artistic interpretation. It begs the question, is it the Chinese that are focusing on technique over interpretation, or Western people in their Orientalist views of the East?

Statement #3: “Our ensemble is not that white, because we have you.” While facing occasional discrimination from stereotyping within classical music, I also have been valued for being a classical musician “of color.” This is a unique form of Orientalism because it reflects an incentive for American classical music organizations to obtain monetary funding, as well as social capital, through “achieving” racial “diversity.” I find comments of this type linked directly to multiculturalism as a prevalent, unquestioned ideology within classical music.[1] As a BIPoC, I can by no means solely represent the multitude of black, brown, and indigenous peoples that comprise this mark of identity. However, when I am valued simply for being of color (“Our ensemble isn’t that white, because we have you”), most often acting as the only person of color, I am asked to play an impossible role. This is an oversimplification of identity, and oversimplification is a form of erasure.

More broadly, the biggest flaw of valuing my otherness, whether it is about my “discipline” or “technique” or apparent affinity for “kung fu,” is that it reasserts the flawed notion, in the first place, of my otherness. I was born and raised in the United States. I’ve never been to China and I don’t speak Chinese fluently. Given my background, you can imagine the confusion, annoyance, and anger when confronted with such racially motivated comments.

Recall the things that do define my identity in classical music: rebellious, hardworking, obsessive, competitive, solitary, sporty, cerebral, and passionate. What do these words have to do with race? Not much. Does this mean race has nothing to do with my identity in classical music? Not necessarily. Each racial minority, and each person within each minority, has to come to terms with that question individually.

rwy crosshatch

Acknowledging racism in the U.S. past and present, I often struggle to not let this weigh down on my soul. But part of staying mentally healthy as a person of color in a predominantly white profession is to avoid the denial of ugly truths. The perpetuation of Orientalism is alive and well in U.S. classical music circles—whether it is through an Orientalizing of musical talent, fixating on technique, or nuanced manifestations under multiculturalism—and it needs to stop. These modern iterations of Orientalism, though slight, enable fundamental, mainstream racist practices to continue within the American classical music scene, distracting from the profound emotional and spiritual potential of the art form.

I love classical music and I love being a classical musician. The notion of race does not enable this love (as the Asian stereotype suggests), it only distracts from it. The same way I pity the audience member who can’t see anything but my (Oriental) “technique,” my (Oriental) “discipline” or my (Oriental) “affinity for kung fu” after a 2.5 hour solo piano recital of Western classical music, or the chamber partner disillusioned by multiculturalism who values me for my vague otherness, I pity any American who can’t see past their own racism to truly appreciate music.

Amongst the brutality of racism in the United States, Orientalism in classical music is a relatively small bone to pick. Nonetheless, the subtleties of this unique form of racialization help us better understand the systemic tendencies that favor white people at the expense of those who are not white. This is not meant to create divisions between white and non-white classical musicians, or white and non-white people in general, but rather to acknowledge that Orientalism, and any other similar, xenophobic ideology, has already created these divisions.

The aim of this article was simply to educate, or to borrow Paulo Freire’s term conscientização, to raise consciousness. The more conscious we are of our words and actions, the more likely we are to replace them with more humanizing gestures, in hopes of a kinder, more tolerant world.



1. I define multiculturalism as a dominant ideology that enables contemporary manifestations of Orientalism. There is nothing inherently wrong with the celebration of multiple cultures, as a literal reading of the word suggests. However, multiculturalism as a dominant, largely unquestioned ideology is problematic. In other words, it is good to be multicultural, but problematic to support multiculturalism. Multiculturalism in arts organizations is a mechanism through which racism plays out in classical music. Competing for resources (funding, audiences), American arts organizations are keenly aware of the importance of exhibiting an affinity for diversity and inclusion as concepts. However, though well intentioned, the way in which these concepts are “achieved” is deeply flawed.


Shi An Costello

Shi An Costello

Shi An Costello (世安) is a classical pianist, composer, writer, actor, and activist. They regularly write and report for Family Court Nightmares and the media/communications team at Asian Americans for Advancing Justice-Chicago; they have contributed articles to FOCI Arts, chicshifter, Riksha, and Performance Response Journal on the topics of economy, fashion, and the intersections of race and gender. As a writer, Shi An is interested in articulating politics, activism, and law as performance. As a musician, Shi An is currently on the piano faculty of New Music School in Chicago. They regularly perform in both solo and chamber settings across North America. They hold a B.M. from Columbia College magna cum laude, and an M.Mus from Schulich School of Music at McGill University. Shi An served as a visiting artist in the composition department of Boston Conservatory from 2013-14 and has run the Morton Feldman Chamber Players since 2014. His solo debut CD will be released with Blue Griffin Records in the fall of 2017, featuring preludes and fugues of J.S. Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich.

New Horizons, Old Barriers

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologists at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

In 1983, the New York Philharmonic presented two weeks of new music programming focused on a single question: “Since 1968, A New Romanticism?” The first of three major Horizons festivals, “The New Romanticism”—curated by the Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence Jacob Druckman—was a major box office hit, fueled by a wave of publicity, extensive coverage in the press, and performances of new and recent works by Druckman, David Del Tredici, John Adams, and Luciano Berio. But the significance of Horizons was not only in its examination of the emerging aesthetic trend of neo-Romanticism. Funded by the organization Meet The Composer, the festivals represented a major shift in how new music was supported in the 1980s, as composers newly embraced the orchestra, turned away from academia, and entered the classical music marketplace.

The Horizons festivals represented a major shift in how new music was supported in the 1980s, as composers newly embraced the orchestra, turned away from academia, and entered the classical music marketplace.

I’m currently in the midst of researching a book project that situates the Horizons festivals within the larger institutional landscape for American new music in the 1980s and early 1990s. When I presented some of my work in Bowling Green at the 2017 New Music Gathering, it centered on the relationship between Horizons and Bang on a Can, an institution that is central to my book. But for this essay, I’d like to shift focus to talk about what Horizons offered, and did not offer, as support for composers entering a new musical marketplace. My brain is a bit too full of information on this topic right now—I’ve spent most of my summer digging into archival collections related to Horizons and interviewing folks who participated in it—but I will try to make this less of an info dump and more of a critical analysis.

Horizons-83

Meet The Composer

The three Horizons festivals—presented by the Philharmonic in 1983, ’84, and ’86—were a key component of one of many orchestral residencies sponsored by Meet The Composer, an advocacy and granting organization established in 1974 by composer John Duffy. Beginning in 1982, MTC established a nationwide composer-in-residence program. Modeled in part after the successful collaboration between the San Francisco Symphony and John Adams, the MTC residencies aimed to, as Duffy told EAR Magazine in 1986, create “visible ways to re-introduce and re-invigorate the whole world of the composer and orchestra.” The organization’s substantial funding was representative of the Reagan-era shifts in support for the arts: it combined public support from the NEA and state councils with foundation money from the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as corporate financing from Exxon. In comparison to the present day, MTC’s imprint was huge; in 1990, The New York Times reported that it gave on average $2.5 million to composers per year; in contemporary buying power, that is more than four times the amount of grant support that New Music USA, MTC’s successor, provides annually today.

The growing presence of MTC significantly shaped the marketplace for new music in the United States and deeply informed the idea of a non-academic “market” to begin with. One of the most startling discoveries in the course of my recent research—and this may not be casual knowledge among younger readers of NewMusicBox—is that, as recently as the 1970s, American composers frequently were not paid at all for commissions. Complaints about writing music “for exposure” were likely as common in the ’70s as they are today; orchestras often got composers to write new works simply by telling them their music would be played, not that they would be financially compensated for their efforts. As an organization, MTC argued vigorously that composers deserved to be paid. The institution’s significant fundraising and financing of the orchestral program—which included a full-time salary for resident composers—provided a more widespread understanding that a commission came with money, not just a guarantee for performance.

Complaints about writing music “for exposure” were likely as common in the ’70s as they are today.

This notion extended into their advocacy work writ large: in 1984, MTC published “Commissioning Music,” a pamphlet for composers and patrons that included guidelines for potential commissioning fees; in 1989, the organization published a handbook titled “Composers in the Marketplace,” with basic information on copyright, performance, publishing, recordings, royalties, and promotion. Soon enough, major funding organizations were taking their cues from MTC; the New York State Council on the Arts’s 1990 program booklet based its commission fee guidelines off of research conducted by the organization. As composers entered the marketplace, MTC helped determine how much they would be paid.

Horizons and the New Romanticism

As part of his MTC residency with the Philharmonic, Jacob Druckman was selected to compose music for the orchestra, advise music director Zubin Mehta on programming, and supervise the large-scale Horizons festivals. For the first festival, he proposed “The New Romanticism,” a curatorial theme steeped in his belief that, since 1968, new music had embraced “sensuality, mystery, nostalgia, ecstasy, and transcendence.” It was a tagline from which the Philharmonic could easily benefit, as subscribers perhaps otherwise fearful of dissonant and disarming contemporary work might relax at the notion that it maintained some continuity with the 19th-century music that typically brought them to the concert hall. Indeed, one Philharmonic advertisement promised “[t]hree weeks that could just change your mind about the meaning of new music.” And a big and provocative theme like “The New Romanticism” was catnip for music critics: dozens of articles were published examining just what this new romanticism might be, and whether it represented a sea change from the academic serialism that was perceived (often stereotypically) as dominant in the world of American composition.

Over two weeks in June 1983, the Horizons festival boldly seized this moment, with six concerts of orchestral music, numerous premieres, several symposia, and a glossy program book. It was a box office phenomenon, with hundreds of people lining up outside Avery Fisher Hall to buy tickets on opening night. An internal memo in the Philharmonic archives noted that the festival “attracted a younger audience—a way of replenishing the audience” and that the success of the festival “OBLITERATES NOTION that no one cares about new music and there is no audience.”

It was a box office phenomenon, with hundreds of people lining up outside Avery Fisher Hall to buy tickets on opening night.

Importantly, Horizons also offered a model for young composers to enter a new orchestral marketplace. The then 23-year-old Aaron Jay Kernis was selected by the Philharmonic to have his work dream of the morning sky read by the orchestra. In front of an audience of hundreds, Mehta took Kernis to task for his tempo markings and scoring. At one point, fed up with the criticism, Kernis apparently replied, “Just read what’s there.” The audience cheered on behalf of the composer; as the tiff was more widely reported in the press, it served as a kind of parable for the newfound power and opportunity that composers might have in the American symphonic world. An internal Philharmonic memo in the wake of the ’83 festival reports that Druckman said in a meeting that “composers now see that they can write for full orchestra and expect to be performed.”

The young composers Scott Lindroth and David Lang were also hired as assistants to Druckman for preparing the ’84 and ’86 Horizons festivals, which shaped their outlooks as recent graduates from the academy. (It is not a coincidence that these composers all attended Yale, and that Druckman taught there; I’ll be addressing this connection in more detail in my book.) In a 2014 interview with me, Lindroth said of the Horizons festivals that “when composers began to realize that this too might be available to them—and that it wasn’t all about the Pierrot ensemble plus percussion—we were all very, very excited about that: there might be another way to move forward as a composer.” Horizons represented the emergence of a new kind of “middle ground”—and audience—for young composers primarily familiar with either an “uptown” world of chamber ensembles and electronic music within academia, or a “downtown” world of improvisation and DIY ensembles within alternative venues.

And although Lang was himself writing orchestral music in the mid-’80s, his takeaway from working with the Philharmonic was that this particular corner of the marketplace was not for him. He saw the orchestral world as insular and claustrophobic; as he said in a 1997 interview with Libby van Cleve as part of Yale University’s Oral History of American Music project:

It also was very demoralizing and a very good indication of how narrow the world was, and how for any composer who was saying to himself or herself, “Oh, the secret of my future will be to write one orchestra piece. Every orchestra will play it. I’ll be world famous,” it just showed how impossible, or how narrow, or how unsatisfying that experience would be.

The first Bang on a Can marathon, in 1987, was brainstormed as a direct response to Lang’s dissatisfaction with Horizons. The composer and his compatriots Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe had spent their days in the mid-’80s hanging out at dairy restaurants on the Lower East Side, drinking coffee and complaining about institutional negligence towards contemporary work, before deciding to do something about it. But even if it seemed to offer a model for everything that the scrappy Bang on a Can would attempt to avoid, Horizons did provide new institutional connections that facilitated the upstart organization’s funding: Lang cultivated a relationship with John Duffy during his work for the Philharmonic, and MTC subsequently became the earliest major financial supporter of Bang on a Can.

Lang & Druckman

The Limits of Horizons

In the 1980s, MTC’s advisory board included a significant number of female and black composers, and more diversity than many institutions today.

From my vantage point today, one of the strengths of MTC under Duffy was its broad purview in terms of who was considered a composer and the resources that they thus commanded. In the 1980s, the organization’s advisory board included a significant number of female and black composers, and more diversity than many institutions today. Duffy’s strong advocacy for underrepresented voices was confirmed in my recent interview with Tania León, who served on the MTC board and worked with the Philharmonic as a new music advisor in the early ‘90s. (I haven’t gotten a chance to transcribe this interview yet, so again, stay tuned for the book.) In a 1993 questionnaire assessing MTC’s jazz commissioning program that I found during recent archival research at New Music USA, the composer and violinist Leroy Jenkins wrote of his MTC grant that “the very audacity of the idea of writing for a classical organization…has given inspiration to me and my contemporaries.” I was also struck, at a memorial service honoring Duffy in 2016 at Roulette, that Muhal Richard Abrams, a co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, performed in his honor.

But because MTC partnered with existing institutions and established composers with their own blind spots, this push for diversity did not extend into the 1983 Horizons festival. I raise this issue because, in a recent blog post about the 2017 New Music Gathering at which I presented on my research on Horizons, the composer Inti Figgis-Vizueta pointed out the absence of diversity among conference attendees and, importantly, that very few panels addressed the systemic biases that plague the world of new music today. They suggested that “there needs to be an overhaul of our ethics to require more diverse voices in new music and that starts with each participant in our gathering truly self-criticizing and understanding their own intersections of privilege and power.” As a musicologist, I believe that such an overhaul can also benefit from telling and retelling historical moments in which underrepresented voices were silenced, and in which powerful institutions were subsequently reprimanded for the same reasons they are critiqued today.

The seven orchestras that participated in the first round of MTC residencies were free to choose their own composers: all of the composers they selected were men except for Libby Larsen, who partnered with Stephen Paulus to work with the Minnesota Orchestra, and all were white except for Robert Xavier Rodriguez, who collaborated with the Dallas Symphony. Druckman was known as a non-doctrinaire figure, and the programming of the ’83 Horizons festival was impressively catholic, bringing together distinct musical styles and a wide array of composers from Del Tredici and Adams to Wuorinen and Schuller. But even as it may have included a praiseworthy “diverse” assembly of musical idioms, diversity in terms of race and gender was almost nonexistent. Only one work by a female composer, Barbara Kolb, was presented in 1983; no works by black composers were performed. This issue was raised by the singer and author Raoul Abdul, who accused the orchestra of discrimination both at the festival and in the press; in a column in the New York Amsterdam News, he wrote that “when I asked the question ‘Where are the Black Composers?’ at the opening symposium at the Library of Performing Arts last Wednesday evening, it was greeted with hisses and boos from some of the 300 people present. Philharmonic Composer-in-Residence Jacob Druckman, who put together the festival, refused to address the question directly by saying he couldn’t include everyone. He lumped Blacks in with women and other minorities.”

Understanding the fact that Horizons did not present any works by black composers in 1983 can help us understand the mechanisms that shape how and why underrepresented voices continue to be excluded in the world of new music in the present. Given the dozens of scores that were mailed to the Philharmonic by hopeful composers—the New York Public Library’s Jacob Druckman papers include many, many letters from composers submitting their work for his examination—the composer-in-residence and the orchestra certainly had access to music by African Americans, but they did not program it. And it was an issue that the organizers were aware of beforehand: when actually planning the ’83 Horizons festival, as a document in the Philharmonic archives reveals, Druckman said in a meeting that “two areas have been of concern to Meet The Composer: getting more high-power soloists; and programming a work by one of the minimalists (Reich or Glass) and by a woman or black composer.” There is much to praise in Druckman’s visionary promise of a new Romanticism and the Philharmonic’s wholehearted embrace of contemporary music with Horizons, one that might even eclipse Alan Gilbert’s worthwhile recent efforts. But declining to properly represent the diversity of the American musical landscape was one of its failures.

press conference for Horizons

León mentioned in her interview with me that in the wake of the Abdul protest, Duffy marched over to the Philharmonic’s offices with a stack of scores by black composers to deliver to the orchestra. The second festival, titled “The New Romanticism—A Broader View,” addressed this injustice by including performances of music by George Lewis, George Walker, and Anthony Davis, as well as Diamanda Galás, Thea Musgrave, Laurie Spiegel, Joan La Barbara, and Betsy Jolas. But observers still pointed out the underrepresentation of women and black composers in the public forums that Horizons mounted. As reported by Johnny Reinhard in EAR Magazine, at an opening symposium for the festival in June 1984, an audience member asked of a panel of composers—which included Hans Werner Henze, Milton Babbitt, Roger Reynolds, Greg Sandow, and Druckman—“Why aren’t there any women represented here?”

“The response was an incredibly pregnant silence,” Reinhard wrote. The discussion continued to unfold awkwardly, as someone else asked, “What about Ornette Coleman?” As Reinhard described:

Mr. Sandow fielded the question by pointing out how interesting it is that Jazz musicians prefer to be kept separate from what was being represented on the Horizons series when New York Times music critic John Rockwell cried out, “That’s not true, Gregory!” It appears that Mr. Coleman had told him otherwise. “Maybe it’s because he’s black,” suggested Brooke Wentz timidly.

In 1983, a festival that embraced a new diversity of compositional idioms under the umbrella “The New Romanticism” neglected to include women and black composers. And in a subsequent festival that attempted to rectify this imbalance, a panel consisting of white male stakeholders could not fully account for the biases that those in the audience easily perceived. Meet The Composer and Horizons helped introduce composers to the marketplace, but this marketplace belonged to the institutional world of classical music, entrenched with long histories of racism and sexism that we must continue to fight against in the present day.


William Robin

William Robin

William Robin (@seatedovation) is an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Maryland. He completed his PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a dissertation focused on indie classical and new music in the twenty-first century United States. His research interests include American new music since the 1980s and early American hymnody. As a public musicologist, Robin contributes to the New York Times and The New Yorker, and received an ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award in 2014 for the NewMusicBox article “Shape Notes, Billings, and American Modernisms.”

Amateur Hour: Karin Rehnqvist, The City’s Choir, and the Gift that Kept Giving

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologists at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

In 1977, one year after Karin Rehnqvist arrived in Stockholm to attend the music education program at the Royal College of Music, she was given the opportunity to lead a newly formed amateur choir Stans Kör (The City’s Choir). Its members were young—the oldest was 26 years old—and Rehnqvist herself was just turning 20. She had virtually no experience leading a choir, although she had been an avid choir singer in her small hometown of Nybro since early childhood. Hardly any of the members had sung in a choir before, and no audition was required. As one former member put it, “We were a bunch of people that you randomly could have picked off the street.” Only a few members could even read music; scores were used almost exclusively for learning the text. Rehearsals were time-consuming, as Rehnqvist typically first sang or played each part on the piano, and the singers imitated her. The members were so inexperienced in following a conductor that it wasn’t even possible to perform a ritardando or an accelerando during the early months of rehearsals.

The choir’s culture set the foundation for an artistically adventurous existence.

Despite its musical shortcomings, the choir had its strengths. The choir’s culture emphasized personal engagement and support—members socialized and some, including Rehnqvist, even found their future partners in the choir—and the choir was also democratically organized, with its members taking an active part in decision-making. The choir’s culture set the foundation for an artistically adventurous existence during the fourteen years Rehnqvist led it. The group was willing to try just about anything and, as it turned out, there was a huge advantage to the tedious rote-learning approach that their lack of musical background required: by the time the members were ready to perform a piece, they had it memorized. Most of their performances came to incorporate theatrical elements and should be better understood as shows than concerts. Although a musically far-from-excellent group, the experience would have an enormous impact on Rehnqvist’s compositional output for the rest of her career. At the time, she had no idea, as her early plans did not include becoming a professional composer. She just needed a job and took advantage of an opportunity.

Karin Rehnqvist

Karin Rehnqvist conducts her own Here Is the Music! for the inauguration of the new Royal College of Music buildings in 2017. Photo by Lena Tollstoy.

Here’s a brief example of what a Stans Kör show looked and sounded like by the late ’80s. It’s from Tilt&Mara,[1] given in multiple performances in the Stockholm House of Culture (Kulturhuset) 1988–89. The first excerpt is from a romantic choral piece that’s part of virtually every Swedish choir’s repertoire, Killebukken by Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, which sets a Norwegian poem by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson about a child with a pet lamb (with the morbid ending “gain weight, mom wants you in the soup”). Sweden has a strong choral culture, encompassing church choirs, university choirs, and a few professional or semi-professional groups linked by a common aesthetic: a work like Killebukken is to be performed in a standard mixed-choir set up, standing still on a podium focusing on the intonation and the perfect, homogeneous choral sound, and of course, there’s typically no humor. Stans Kör performed it differently:

As you can hear, even after ten years in existence, the choir sounds far from perfect, but it has something else—an attitude and an artistic vision. The Tilt&Mara show attracted a larger audience than virtually any other choir in Stockholm at the time and received multiple newspaper reviews.

Another example from the same show illustrates the group’s creativity in their choice of repertoire and their ability to create stunning results with limited means. In their performance, Rehnqvist’s interpretation of Francesco Cangillo’s futuristic poem “Canzone pirotecnica” (which was intended to be performed and even includes dynamic markings, but no rhythmic notation) was enhanced by employing flashlights and stage lighting.

Such an adventurous choir attracted creative musicians over the years—not only singers, but also composers, arrangers, and instrumentalists, and several connections and ideas would stay with Rehnqvist throughout her career. (A career that’s still going strong by the way; she’s turning 60 this year and is as productive as ever, having recently completed commissions from the German contemporary music group ensemble recherche in Freiburg and the Kronos Quartet’s Fifty for the Future pedagogical commission project.) Her style has been consistent through the years, firmly anchored in Swedish folk music—an interest shared by virtually no other Swedish composer born after 1945. Her collaboration with numerous women folk singers made her adapt the style and mode of performance in an innovative manner—for example, the non-vibrato sound production and use of micro-intervals—as in her breakthrough piece Davids nimm (1984) for which she transcribed a Swedish traditional song, a polska, backwards and expanded it into a three-part composition for three women (two sopranos and one alto). She has also embraced motherhood in her work and emphasized how important her three children have been to her compositional output, including composing songs to texts by them. Other works are explicitly feminist, in particular Timpanum Songs—Herding Calls (1989) for two folk singers and percussion. In this piece she quotes misogynic Finnish proverbs about women to turn them into powerful feminist statements.[2]

Through her work with Stans Kör, she also learned to see performances as complete units—not just as arrays of pieces.

In a large number of her works—both choral works and chamber compositions, for professionals and amateurs alike—she continues the practice of staging the performances, often by very simple means, such as employing a lighting designer or requiring simple choreography or acting from the musicians. Through her work with Stans Kör, she also learned to see performances as complete units—not just as arrays of pieces. An approach she took a few times with great success was to combine existing works, add a few connecting movements, and present a staged performance. Till Ängeln med de brinnande händerna (To the Angel with the Fiery Hands, 1990–2005), for example, is a collection of choral compositions to which she added a few new pieces featuring voice and instruments. As with the Stans Kör productions, the choir had to memorize the repertoire for this almost hour-long performance. The result is visually quite striking, as in Ling Linge Logen, performed by the choir La Cappella, conducted by Karin Eklundh.

One of her most innovative works, När korpen vitnar (When the Raven Black Turns White, 2007), for folk singer and chamber group, is also semi-staged with very simple means: the instrumental ensemble has to memorize a few sections so that they can become active participants on stage, as they join together with the singer to depict the witch hunt process in Sweden during the 17th century—one in particular during which 91 people, mostly women, were decapitated and burned in the biggest peace-time execution in Sweden’s history. In this work, she connected her strong feminist strand with her interest in folk singing and folklore.

Movement 2 “Recitative for a downhearted cow” from When the Raven Black Turns White. Ulrika Bodén, voice, The Nordic Chamber Ensemble.

This piece was part of a larger outreach project, Häxbrand (Witch Fire, 2008), in which Rehnqvist collaborated with folksinger Ulrika Bodén, the Nordic Chamber Orchestra in Sundsvall, and students from Mid Sweden University. The students—who were education students and not music students—came up with ideas such as “The Witch’s Flight Theme,” which were translated into musical gesture and arranged into a complete work. The reason for engaging future teachers was to awaken their interest in music. The idea was that if art music and other cultural institutions are to reach the children in schools, teachers’ attitudes toward culture are crucial. As Rehnqvist put it, “The idea is that composition is not a divine intervention but a craft and that the teachers should take the child’s way of working.”

There is another important effect of Rehnqvist’s many years of outreach, beyond developing her own creativity: she gained a reputation as being an approachable team player, which resulted in a number of commissions, including several for children’s and girls’ choirs—especially her work with Adolf Fredrik Girls’ Choir, a choir at the Adolf Fredrik music magnet school in Stockholm—in which she was able to develop her feminist approach into an expression of girl power, as in the ironic introduction to Hörru Veckorevyn, a piece that mocks the body-image obsessions in teenage magazines: “Don’t kill love by eating chocolate, have licorice. Leaner thighs, eat algae. Do you also want a sexy ass, take a cold shower.” In her children’s opera Sötskolan (The Beauty School, 1999), the main character—eleven-year-old Bella—has to overcome demands to become well-behaved and pretty in time for her mother to remarry.

In several works, the results went beyond the theatrical and political: In the musically stunning Light of Light (2003) for girls’ choir and symphony orchestra, the clear, shimmering, perfectly-in-tune and vibrato-free choral sound set to texts from the Book of Proverbs and the Swedish hymnal contrasts the dark orchestral texture. This is simply a type of work she would not have written without her collaboration with children and young adults. In her work for children she shows that she takes them seriously; she believes they are able to deal with difficult existential questions, often about life and death.

Rehnqvist also received a large number of other engagements, such as guest lecturing and leading composition workshops with children and high school students. One such workshop, which became particularly well known, included a capstone experience of students writing for the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. These engagements were much needed since she worked exclusively as a freelance composer until 2009 when she became professor and head of composition at the Royal College of Music, a job she secured to a large extent thanks to the experience she gained through her large-scale projects and teaching outreach. During her time there, she has continued to develop the composition curriculum through projects and interaction with professional and amateur ensembles and musicians inside and outside the institution. Virtually everything the composition students produce is done with a particular ensemble and a set performance date in mind.

She didn’t have to prove herself and knew she had the skillset to write for amateurs and professionals alike.

The amateur path Rehnqvist started on became an ideal schooling in outreach and entrepreneurship. And in contrast to her generational colleagues, she was never afraid of being labeled a composer for amateurs (nor was she afraid of being labeled a feminist). On the contrary, she is proud of it. After numerous commissions from professional ensembles and international performances, she didn’t have to prove herself and knew she had the skillset to write for amateurs and professionals alike.

Given that Sweden is a country with a population of only some ten million and an extensive public network of public support for artists, it’s difficult to make meaningful comparisons between Sweden and the United States. But two of the main takeaways that could be applied to both countries are that: 1) there can be immense benefits to working outside the institutional framework of a major arts organization or a university; and 2) there should be no stigma associated with working with amateurs. Creative impulses from outside the “classical” mainstream can be liberating. In Rehnqvist’s case, her on-going collaboration with Stans Kör contributed to the development of an artistic vision tied not to virtuosity and musical perfection, but rather to accessibility and engagement. These ideals are evident throughout her career, notably in her embrace of the idea of writing for a range of specific rather than idealized performers and ensembles.

Indeed, the Rehnqvist case suggests that success feeds success and support can go both ways: composers who embrace and support their own communities can gain something incredibly valuable from it.


Per F. Broman

Per F. Broman is professor and associate dean at Bowling Green State University, College of Musical Arts. He has published extensively on Swedish music, including the chapter “New Music of Sweden” for New Music in the Nordic Countries (Pendragon Press, 2002), a monograph on composer Sven-David Sandström (Atlantis, 2012), and an article about the reception of ABBA during the 1970s (Journal of Popular Music Studies, 2005).


A shorter version of this text was originally read at the New Music Gathering at Bowling Green State University on May 7, 2017, in a session titled “Support.” It incorporates material from my forthcoming biography on Rehnqvist, published in Swedish by The Royal Academy of Music and Atlantis.


[1] The title alludes to two pieces performed, Rehnqvist’s TILT and Mara Mara Minne by Arne Mellnäs.

[2] See Rebecca Sleeman’s dissertation “Feminist Musical Aesthetic in the Choral Music of Karin Rehnqvist” (University of Iowa, 2002) and Per F. Broman, “Gender, Ideology, and Structure: Pedagogical Approaches to the Music of Karin Rehnqvist,” College Music Symposium 44 (2004): 15–27.

How to Produce Opera Outside the Opera House

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologists at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

Here’s a new music riddle of sorts:

How do you get an opera company to produce an opera that’s not really an opera?

The answer: You don’t—you produce it yourself.

In a 1989 grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts, Steve Reich explained his rationale for self-producing The Cave, his and video artist Beryl Korot’s first video opera:

We are self-producing The Cave because the unusual nature of the piece demands it. Specifically, The Cave will be a new type of documentary music theater that could not easily be produced in existing opera houses…an opera orchestra would be totally overblown, unprepared, and unsuitable to perform it.

Operatic voices would be equally unsuitable, he wrote, and “the technical demands of [the piece] would be poorly served at best if produced in existing opera houses or concert halls.” Unlike his erstwhile colleague Philip Glass, who by then had seen his operas produced by established opera houses in Amsterdam, Stuttgart, and Houston, Reich seemed to view traditional institutions as museums for relics of the operatic past, unfit for truly modern music theater. But Reich took a less extreme path than the one proposed in 1966 by Boulez; rather than blowing up the opera houses, Reich decided to avoid them entirely.

Previously, Sasha Metcalf outlined how the creation of OPERA America’s “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” initiative kick-started a flurry of operatic activity that has continued to the present. Supplemented with Rockefeller funds, many U.S. opera companies began offering commissions for new operas. But institutions have their own financial priorities and aesthetic preferences, so Reich—like many iconoclastic, entrepreneurial composers of the late 20th century—chose instead to create music outside the traditional structures of production and patronage.

To create their unorthodox opera, Reich and Korot wove together multiple threads of public and private aid. Support came in many guises: financial, artistic, logistical, emotional, to name just a few. What each of these has in common is that they arose from the personal and professional relationships that the pair had cultivated over the previous decades of their careers.

Relationships between individuals are crucial to nearly every aspect of an artistic venture.

Relationships between individuals are crucial to nearly every aspect of an artistic venture. As last year’s NewMusicBox series on community demonstrated, the act of making music—or of creating the conditions that allow for that music—is frequently communal, dependent on a network of willing participants. Networking made possible Reich and Korot’s production strategy, which relied heavily on hiring a well-connected administrator who could help them assemble a consortium of co-commissioners and solicit financial support from public foundations and private donors. (And if the term “networking” too strongly evokes images of over-eager, suit-and-tie MBAs handing out business cards, perhaps it’s more pleasant to think in collaborative terms.)

The core aesthetic concept of The Cave—combining Korot’s multiple-image video art with Reich’s work with speech melodies—came about in conversation. In June 1980, Reich lay in a hospital, recovering from shoulder surgery. When Michael Nyman stopped by for a social visit, Reich hit upon an idea for what he and Korot, who are married, would later categorize as a “documentary music video theater work”—not an opera, per se. Writing just a few months later to Betty Freeman, a longtime Los Angeles patron who would go on to commission Different Trains, Reich confided:

I…have in mind to start a H*U*G*E project that will involve live music on stage plus multiple image film….It will go back to the kind of work I was doing with tape in the 60s (like Come Out) and will be my answer to what music theatre can be.

Reich’s answer, The Cave, premiered thirteen years later at the Vienna Festival.

The title of The Cave refers to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Abraham (father to both Jews and Muslims) and his family are buried. The opera conveys the story of Abraham, his wife Sarah, her handmaid Hagar, and their sons, Ishmael and Isaac, using sacred Jewish and Islamic texts, even as it explores the contemporary relevance of these figures through interviews with Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims, and Americans. Reich and Korot synchronized the speech melodies and film footage from these interviews with live music to create a visual and aural portrait of each individual. The result is a far cry from Carmen or La bohème. Think Different Trains, but with video.

When Korot and Reich began thinking seriously about the project in the late 1980s, they decided that the scope of producing an opera exceeded what they could manage on their own. In April 1988, before they had even lined up a commission, the pair asked Renée Levine Packer to produce the opera. Although the Reich Music Foundation is listed on the program below as a co-producer, Reich has been quick to credit Levine Packer as the true (and sole) producer. “I didn’t have anything to do with the production whatsoever,” he said in a 2016 interview. “It was all produced by Renée Levine [Packer]. I did nothing except whatever she told me!”

Cave Program Page

Title page of the Vienna program booklet. Source: University at Buffalo Music Library.

Levine Packer and Reich first met in 1965 at the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY Buffalo, which Levine Packer coordinated and eventually co-directed. Later, she co-ran the CalArts Contemporary Music Festival and, more importantly, led the NEA’s nascent Inter-Arts Division. There, Levine Packer oversaw the agency’s funding for experimental, mixed media, and interdisciplinary collaborations. Her stints at SUNY Buffalo and the NEA were twin qualifications, according to Reich: “She was somebody who really knew the new music field and she knew the funding field, and she was really sympathetic to what we were doing. So, it was a natural [fit].”

Levine Packer brought to The Cave a wealth of connections to individuals and foundations. But her support cannot simply be measured in terms of how many grants she secured. Her support was also aesthetic in nature. Levine Packer has spoken enthusiastically about Reich’s music, and one of her most cherished possessions is Etty’s Rosetta, a painting by Korot. Moreover, she is drawn to the very nature of interdisciplinary collaborations. In my conversations with her, she reflected, “I knew how difficult [these collaborations] were, but I also knew how they transcended boundaries and were larger than the sum of their parts. And that was very exciting to me…I felt perfectly at home with that kind of aspiration. In fact, I loved it.” The Cave represented, in her view, “everything I tried to accomplish at the National Endowment for the Arts…a wonderful collaborative work that goes beyond the art form of either and comes out totally new.”

In lieu of relying on a single company to produce the opera, Levine Packer, Reich, and Korot created a network of co-commissioners. They began in the fall of 1988 with Klaus-Peter Kehr at Stuttgart Opera (this commission later transferred to the Vienna Festival), then quickly added Harvey Lichtenstein at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with whom Reich had worked before. Over the next four years, they assembled seven co-commissioners from Europe and the United States (listed at the top of the program above). These festivals and presenting institutions provided financial support via their commissions, but perhaps more importantly, their commitment to programming The Cave lent support to Levine Packer’s search for funding from public and private sources.

The development and production history of The Cave demonstrate that support at its most effective is inherently plural, taking multiple forms.

These sources (listed at the bottom of the program above) ranged from major foundations such as Ford and Rockefeller to music-specific organizations including Meet The Composer and private patrons like Freeman. Together, they eventually furnished around three-quarters of the $1 million or so that it cost to produce The Cave. Support was not always monetary; Levine Packer was able to acquire computer hardware from IBM for Korot and Reich thanks to connections that her husband had made during his career as an economist. Although it is easy to highlight the successes that Levine Packer, Reich, and Korot achieved in securing financial support, it risks overstating the difficulty of their endeavor and the challenges of self-production. The Cave was built on five years of sustained fundraising and networking, and Reich and Korot’s devotion to creating The Cave necessarily limited their ability to earn income from other commissions or performances. Given the irregularity of grant funds, at one point they had to borrow money from their extended family. And for every “yes” the team received from a commissioner, organization, or patron, many more said “no,” including the Kennedy Center, UCLA, University of Texas at Austin (which had at one point been a co-commissioner), the Pew and Mellon Charitable Trust Foundations, and the philanthropic wings of multinational oil companies.

Reich and Korot with the network of artists and musicians

Reich and Korot with the network of artists and musicians that brought The Cave to life.

There are many other ways in which the development of The Cave could show how support is built on personal and professional networks, but I will offer just one more example, which reveals support of an artistic kind. In selecting their collaborators, Korot and Reich tapped their networks of immediate, once-removed, and twice-removed contacts in the music and theater worlds. Their search for a director, for instance, lasted more than three years, with almost a dozen potential candidates. The director they eventually selected, Carey Perloff, had worked with David Lang and brought with her what she described as a “real aesthetic kinship.” Tod Machover connected Reich with one of his students, Ben Rubin, who created the opera’s typing instrument and served as technical advisor. Indeed, in his interview with me, Reich recalled:

Each case was pretty much a question of trying to find somebody who knew somebody…Richard Nelson had done the lighting for Sunday in the Park [with George], and I’m an old friend and huge fan of Stephen Sondheim, and particularly Sunday in the Park. And, I figured, anybody who can do Sunday in the Park is welcome in our production. We wanted people who would get the basic idea, which was that the basic theater was the video.

Networking remains just as crucial to independent opera production today as it did in the early 1990s. The most recent performances of The Cave this past March, for instance, took place only through the combined efforts of St. Louis arts organizations and faith communities, as well as the longstanding relationship between Alarm Will Sound and Reich.

Alarm Will Sound performs The Cave

Alarm Will Sound performs The Cave at the John Burroughs School in March of 2017. In addition to the performances, AWS joined with Arts & Faith St. Louis to engage the community in conversations regarding the shared histories of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

The development and production history of The Cave demonstrate that support at its most effective is inherently plural, taking multiple forms. Rubin and Nelson gave technical and artistic support, Levine Packer provided administrative and aesthetic support, Korot’s and Reich’s families offered emotional and financial support, and even Nyman and Freeman arguably presented a kind of social support. What these and other manifestations of support for new music have in common, though, is that they develop as a result of connections between and among individuals. For most readers of NewMusicBox this probably borders on being a truism, and in recognition of that I’ll counterpoint my opening new music riddle with a new music adage: it takes a network to produce an opera.


Ryan Ebright

Ryan Ebright is an instructor in musicology at Bowling Green State University. His research focuses on music for the voice, stage, and screen, with an emphasis on 20th- & 21st-century opera, minimalism, and 19th-century Lieder. His current book project, Making American Opera for the Modern Age, centers on opera in the U.S. after Einstein on the Beach. More of his work on the production history and politics of The Cave can be found in the most recent issue of American Music and in Rethinking Reich (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).

Schoenberg’s Punk Rocker:  The Radical Transformations of Dika Newlin

[Ed. Note: July 22, 2017 will be the 11th anniversary of the death of multifaceted composer, musicologist, teacher, Schoenberg disciple and punk rock singer Dika Newlin. One of Dika Newlin’s many students, University of North Texas Music Reference Librarian Donna Arnold, re-examines her mentor’s extremely unusual career trajectory and makes a case for reviving her work though it will be difficult if not impossible to do so in some instances.—FJO]

Anyone who knew her would agree: Dika Newlin (1923-2006) was one of the most brilliant, eccentric people they ever encountered.  A musical prodigy and all-around genius, she garnered attention early.  Arthur Farwell was her composition teacher when she was six years old.  At age eight she composed a piano piece, “Cradle Song,” which made such a favorable impression on conductor Vladimir Bakaleinikoff that he orchestrated it and performed it with the Cincinnati Symphony in 1935. Bakaleinikoff took a strong interest in the young composer’s development, and urged her vehemently to study with Arnold Schoenberg, although he had no connection with him.

Arranging such study would be difficult, but with her bachelor’s degree in hand by age sixteen (1939), she received vital support from her parents and others that made it possible.  Since she was so young, she was accompanied by her mother as she enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles, where Schoenberg was on the faculty; she studied composition in depth with him, and completed her Master of Arts degree in 1941. She described these early achievements and provided candid descriptions of her years with the master in her 1980 book, Schoenberg Remembered; Diaries and Recollections (1938-1976).

After her composition studies, she proceeded to earn Columbia University’s first Ph.D. in musicology under Paul Henry Lang, graduating in 1945.  Although the project she wanted to pursue was controversial at the time and far outside his bailiwick, Lang supported her research, and her ground-breaking dissertation, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, was published as a book in 1947.  As she modestly noted in Schoenberg Remembered, “it became something of a classic.”  Such spectacular achievements were just the beginning of what was, to say the least, an unusual career. Soon after, she founded Drew University’s music department in 1952.

This remarkable woman created a sensation wherever she went, but no description comes even close to conveying what it was like to see her in action. Dika (she preferred to be called by her first name) was on the faculty of the University of North Texas, then known as North Texas State University, from 1965-1973.  While there she touched many lives, bringing a bizarre mix of brilliant learned discourse and over-the-top radicalism to a student body that was very ready for her and a faculty that definitely was not.  Years later she would become even more radical by embracing punk rock.

How does someone go from being a teenaged protégé of Arnold Schoenberg’s to being a disruptive punk rocker?  That outcome was actually the culmination of a long process of radicalization.  A description of her various phases as pianist, scholar, composer, teacher, and militant iconoclast may shed some light on her bizarre transformations.

Dika studied piano with Artur Schnabel and Rudolf Serkin, and could definitely have been a full-time concert pianist had she so desired.  Instead of focusing on performance, however, she established herself as a musicologist, composer, and teacher.  Recognizing her gift with languages, Schoenberg selected her to edit fifteen of his essays, which were published as the book Style and Idea in 1950; she translated three of them from German to English to his satisfaction. She published a constant stream of scholarly articles, mainly on Schoenberg-related topics.

Not surprisingly, in her compositions she used the twelve-tone technique for many years.  The University of North Texas Music Library holds scores of seven of her pieces, one very early and the others from the middle of her career.  The early one is a trio for piano and strings, composed in July and August of 1948.  The other six are songs for solo voice and piano which were composed in 1968.  All of these works are based on twelve-tone rows.

In Schoenberg Remembered, she quoted excerpts from her diaries which hint at how she eventually came to diverge from the serial method.  Her recollections make it clear that Schoenberg had a very forceful and controlling personality, and domineered his protégés unmercifully.  Although they revered him and were anxious not to offend him, they all struggled to devise some means of breaking away and being themselves.

Dika in a Pierrot costume

Dika in her Pierrot costume

Even after Schoenberg’s death in 1951, Dika seems to have taken years to step out of his long shadow, if in fact she ever did. Although he was no longer physically present, the force of Schoenberg’s persona haunted her for the rest of her life. Dika’s branching out into multimedia, electronic, and computer music was certainly one way she could display her independence, even while speculating that the master himself might well have been interested in possibilities afforded by the new technologies, had he lived to explore them. It was in the late 1960s, a peak time for radical composers to go in new directions and do things that had never even pertained to music before, that she began to embrace an avant-garde that went far outside the bounds of the serial composers.

As Max Mathews was pioneering his use of the computer to generate musical sounds at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, Dika was one of the elite group of composers who was allowed to create computer music there in the early 1970s.  (Since I was one of her students at the time, I heard news of her work directly, although she never divulged any technical details within my hearing. It is not widely known that Mathews was inspired to use the computer to produce musical patterns when he attended a piano recital of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music that Dika performed at Drew University.)

At North Texas State University, Dika was officially a musicology professor, but she also taught composition.  She taught multimedia workshops and so-called modern harmony classes in which she actively involved her students in many controversial and unusual projects and performances.  Her faculty recitals were extravaganzas in which she premiered the computer music that she was creating at Bell Labs.  Such activities blended well with the university’s newly established program in electronic music, for its director, Merrill Ellis, had persuaded Robert Moog to build his second-ever synthesizer for him and his students. Unfortunately, however, Dika and Merrill Ellis did not get along well, and to my knowledge, never collaborated.  Nevertheless, numerous students studied with both of them, and utterly failed to care that their respective mentors were at odds.

Dika managed to offend and outrage administrators, composition faculty, and musicology faculty alike with her unvarnished iconoclasm and contempt for academic pedantry, and the more she did so, the more adamant the students were in dearly loving and admiring her. One time at a faculty meeting, the music dean was railing against improper sexual relations among faculty members and Dika wreaked havoc by jumping up and asking, in her penetrating voice, “Well, does that mean we have to go to New York to get laid?” Students still relished reports of that incident years after it had happened.

Dika Newlin outside Chilton Hall

Dika outside Chilton Hall

Stick-thin, she dressed and behaved with utmost eccentricity.  For instance, she might wear ugly, vividly colored print dresses offset by electric blue tights and tennis shoes.  Her wild, wavy hair would often be a different color than its natural dark brown.  While no one might guess it from casual observation, she was actually very shy, and although she was unfailingly kind and supportive to students, it was usually very hard to talk to her. She was uncomfortable and inept with small talk. I always felt that she was essentially quite lonely. She lived in a modest frame house near campus.  She never drove a car, so she walked everywhere she went.  She never volunteered any explanation as to why she chose not to drive, and we students were too shy to ask her about it.  She loved cats above all else, and had many.

In Denton, Texas, she became a cultural icon and folk hero not only to music students and students in general, but also to hippie radicals who were not part of the university.  They all came to her concerts, which were always packed; if someone arrived late, it was standing room only.  The novelty of her computer-generated sounds and visual imagery in the School of Music’s darkened concert hall created an all-enveloping atmosphere that kept audience members of that time spellbound.  Sometimes the works were enhanced by activities of live performers, such as members of her modern harmony class.  In contrast, some of her pieces had no computer sounds or visual imagery at all, but instead featured live performers in action.  (I was sometimes one of them, and what we were doing usually had nothing to do with music as we knew it.  I was part of an ensemble known as the Sure Why Not Group, which was often complicit in Dika’s shocking escapades.)

Most such pieces were satirical takes on Dika’s exalted reputation as a Schoenberg disciple or the meaningless pomp and pretense in musical academia.  She programmed them between computer pieces, or occasionally even next to works for traditional instruments. Perhaps the most memorable one was called Serial Music. Of course, when they saw that title on the program, audience members were expecting a twelve-tone work. Instead Dika entered the stage carrying a box of Rice Krispies and sat down at a small table. She proceeded to pour the cereal into a bowl, pour milk on it, and eat it with a spoon in front of a microphone. The snap, crackle, and pop, combined with her chewing, provided the sonic experience.

Audiences for contemporary music of the time were frequently subjected to music for tape, in which electronic sounds emitted from reel-to-reel machines, or taped electronic sounds accompanied people playing traditional instruments. Composers were trying to find their way with the trendy new electronic possibilities. Quite often such pieces were dismally boring, and audiences did not know what to do about them. Should you applaud a tape recorder?

Dika’s work entitled Tape Music was a biting satire on that situation, and I, in company with other members of the Sure Why Not Group, participated in it.  It involved her standing and tearing off pieces of cellophane tape in front of a microphone, during which we co-presenters, showing our mounting disgust, eventually stopped her by wrapping her with duct tape till she could no longer move her hands or arms.  We then led her off-stage.

After she left North Texas she took a short hiatus, and then moved on to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where from 1978-2004 she spent the rest of her career.  It was there that she joined forces with some of her students who had a punk band called Apocowlypso, and she became a familiar figure on Richmond’s punk club circuit. She had always been in touch with what her students cared about, so it is not surprising that she took an interest in their punk band. She kept me informed of these activities in the annual correspondence she and I exchanged after she left Denton. Interestingly, several of her performances are currently preserved on YouTube.  She also became involved with an alternative film maker named Michael Moore (not to be confused with the much more famous film maker of the same name), and starred in some of his very odd films and videos.  I was informed of some of those in her annual correspondence, especially the film called Murder City.

What was Dika trying to say with all of those radical performances?  There was a great gulf between her and the traditional musicologists and composers, and opponents only saw her as a useless crackpot and all-around liability.  Proponents saw her as the remarkable genius she truly was, but often went overboard in approving and applauding everything she did.  The truth is probably somewhere between those two extremes.

Dika’s wild antics might well have been her contemptuous response to the pain she felt from the lack of attention to her serious compositions. As a child prodigy and young adult she worked very hard to attract favorable attention, and as the “Cradle Song” story attests, she succeeded very well in getting it.  But after the novelty of her prodigious childhood wore off, such attention eventually dried up, and she never attained the status or received the recognition that her gifts merited.  Recently I became aware of an article in a little-known journal, American Composers Alliance Bulletin X, 4 (December 1962), in which musicologist Konrad Wolff gave a very insightful review of a number of her compositions for acoustic instruments, finding much to praise.  He provided a thorough list of her works; my searches show that by now, hardly any of them are readily accessible.  In several cases, one copy in a distant archive is the only source.  Perhaps tellingly, she began her ultra-radical phase only a few years after such obscure notice seems to have been all she would get. With her ever-more-bizarre multimedia and punk antics, Dika was showing us that she was relentlessly determined to attract attention, no matter what it took to get it.  Once she was at her most radical, it is doubtful that she cared about favorable attention anymore; she just wanted attention.  In her inimitable way, she most certainly got it.

Dika Newlin eating a sausage

Dika eating a sausage

Dika’s proponents have always looked at her through rose-colored glasses, and publicly, at least, she looked at herself that way too.  Beneath the surface, however, the reality was far more complex.  Despite her always upbeat facade, and despite her considerable accomplishments as a teacher, musicologist, and composer, there are more than a few tragic aspects to her life and career. Her demise provides an example. After an accident in which she sustained a broken arm in 2006, she was taken to a nursing home. Once there she quit eating, and died with only film maker Michael Moore and his wife to look after her at the end.  She was survived only by an elderly distant cousin and her cat, and there has apparently been no news of what happened to her estate. Sabine Feisst’s article, “Dika Newlin: 1923-2006), a Remembrance” (NewMusicBox, July 24, 2006), provides these details. If her estate was in disarray, many important treasures may have been lost.

Dika Newlin’s extant works certainly deserve to be rediscovered.  But for her multimedia pieces, it is almost certainly too late. To my knowledge, there were no video recordings of any of them.  Thus, they remain only a special and most unforgettable memory for those of us who witnessed them live or participated in them.  The University of North Texas Music Library holds sound recordings of many of them; these may be the only extant examples of her computer and multimedia music.  We shall endeavor to make them publicly available if at all possible.

A private recording of Dika Newlin’s composition Fido Flew Away from her live performance at North Texas State University (which is now the University of North Texas) on November 16, 1970.

[Ed. Note: When this article was originally published in July 2017, it stated that all the photos herein were taken by the article’s author, Donna Arnold. It has since come to our attention that all of these photos were actually taken by Dr. Theodore Albrecht. We apologize for this accidental mistake.]


Donna Arnold at the piano.

Donna Arnold (photo courtesy of the author)

Donna Arnold was once a musicology student of Dika Newlin’s at what is now the University of North Texas. Although not a 20th-century specialist, she became involved in several of Dika’s unforgettable radical performances. The long-time music reference librarian at the university’s large music research library, she enjoys answering questions on a wide variety of musical subjects for diverse local, national, and international patrons. Her eclectic research and personal musical interests, which range all the way from Schubert and 17th-century lute music to Russian choral music and classic country and bluegrass, enliven her work.

Undisciplined Music

Last month Jenna Lyle and I performed our collaboratively devised piece for moving vocalists, Grafter, at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. During the audience Q&A that followed, we were asked why we make work that involves so much physical movement for ourselves as musicians, rather than composing for dancers? A week earlier, Chicago ensemble Mocrep performed works by Carolyn Chen, Jessie Marino, Natasha Diels, and Bethany Younge at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. They were asked a similar question by a patron during their post-concert discussion. Diels and Marino responded by rhythmically swaying, bending, gesticulating in canon and finishing each other’s sentences: performing a spontaneous, real-time answer to why musicians are well suited to interpreting this material practice of being and listening together to one another’s bodies. The audience seemed simultaneously enchanted and confused. Hiero Posch, a reviewer for Cacophony magazine, wrote in response, “I was puzzled with the Q&A session afterwards. How can one hope to ask a genuine question when it is clear that the participants of the session do not treat the occasion seriously?”

Practitioners of serious music have often neglected to take their physical selves seriously.

In new music today, a focus on the body as performing subject is gaining momentum. Explorations of a performer’s physical life or subjectivity over say, traditional instrumentality or vocality, has a deep history manifest in a range of artistic streams that flow through 20th-century experimental traditions (Dada, Situationism, Fluxus, Cage, Cunningham, et al.), performance and installation art (Acconci, Moorman, Westerkamp, Cardiff, et al.), European and American art-music (Kagel, Berberian, Globokar, et al.), and opera (Stockhausen, Ashley, Lucier, et al.). Performers from theater, performance art, dance, and visual arts backgrounds have long embraced these influences. Concert music has been somewhat reluctant to get on board. Practitioners of serious music have often neglected to take their physical selves seriously as the material through which meaning is conveyed—beyond what might be required to produce the desired sounds and images for their notations, interpretations, or publicity photographs.

Most of us in the new music community would acknowledge that this situation is changing. Groups such as Ensemble Vortex, Mocrep, Defunensemble, On Structure, Ensemble Pamplemousse, Speak Percussion, Object Collection, and Ensemble Interface have developed disciplined practices that foreground the body and/or extra-musical stimuli, exploding conventional rubrics for what constitutes ensemble performance. At the most recent meeting of Darmstadt’s Summer Courses, a workshop was held called “Just beyond our instruments is the world.”

Even in the most hallowed halls of hard dots, musicians are putting aside the instruments through which we first bound ourselves to music, to see what our musically trained minds and bodies can do. This undertaking demands that performers and listeners prioritize the body, body language, and visual communication, alongside the musical values we’ve been schooled in. The methodologies and performative outcomes associated with this way of thinking used to be the purview of theater or performance art. Some might wonder why musicians should be worried about this stuff at all. Steven Takasugi posed a good question with the title of his article “Why Theatre?” (Takasugi, MusikTexte, 2016). And from under this question, more trickle out.

For those of us making forays into music that requires so much beyond what we were trained to do, shouldn’t we be getting more serious about how to get good at it (whatever that might mean)? Shouldn’t this discussion be at least as urgent as debates around the nuances of our interpretations of conventional music (which we’re presumably reasonably good at already)? As more music-identified practitioners take up residence in the interdisciplinary space between theater, dance, and sonic arts, and as the inclusion of embodied and theatrical elements become more normalized in new music, musicians must develop new criteria for evaluating our methodologies and performances. Can we faithfully execute this music using only our musical training/thinking? Should we seek to integrate learning or methods from outside of music? Do we even have the words to accurately communicate what we’re doing here?

Mocrep at the MCA

Mocrep at the MCA
Photo by Deidre Huckabay, courtesy of Cacophony magazine

What shall we call this way of working? Last year composer/performer Jennifer Walshe wrote a text for the Borealis Festival in which she outlined a manifesto for her “way of working, both in terms of composing and preparing pieces for performance.” Walshe named this practice “The New Discipline,” and listed Object Collection, James Saunders, Matthew Shlomowitz, Neele Hülcker, François Sarhan, Jessie Marino, Steven Takasugi, and Natacha Diels as examples of other composers/performers to whose work this term might be applied. “The New Discipline” as defined by Walshe is “a way for me to connect compositions which have a wide range of disparate interests but all share the common concern of being rooted in the physical, theatrical and visual, as well as musical; pieces which often invoke the extra-musical, which activate the non-cochlear [and]… in which we understand that there are people on the stage, and that these people are/have bodies.” (Walshe, 2016)

Since the publication of Walshe’s “The New Discipline: a compositional manifesto,” articles and discussions unpacking it have sprung up in academic journals (Musiktexte), on radio (BBC radio 3), at festivals (Darmstadt), on podcasts (Talking Musicology), and in the blogosphere (Danika Paskvan). Using the word “new” was bound to create some controversy. Some might say that naming the zeitgeist as it moves through the birth canal could be counterproductive—yet it does often feel necessary to have words to name things. As Matthew Shlomowitz notes, “Labels are tricky, but I think The New Discipline is a good one.” (Schlomowitz, 2016) For a great set of interviews that unpack this further, check out this blog post from Darmstadt.

Mocrep at the MCA

Mocrep at the MCA
Photo by Deidre Huckabay, courtesy of Cacophony magazine

One of the strengths of this way of working is its flexibility. This is a music that can create situations for performers and audiences that utilize both immediate experience and signification in ways absolute music cannot. Through it we can explore new corners of the interior experience of music making, community kinetics, directionality, interpersonal relationships, sexual hierarchies, the specifics of site, or references to any cultural artifact you can tie down. A recent work of Walshe’s, Training is the opposite, incorporates women’s boxing. In Carolyn Chen’s Supermarket Music, performers intone the names of products on the shelves, conducting cart-pushers through changes in speed and volume. Jenna Lyle directs four performers to ride a precarious pile of wooden boards, choreographically affecting the musical results in Plank Rodeo, and Jessie Marino’s Endless Shrimp features vocalizing, percussion-playing musicians in front of a screen showing factory production lines, pink-slime, and—of course—endless shrimp. In a music that is open to the world, virtually any topic is up for grabs. Every feeling, meaning, action, or sign becomes a potential focal point. As Walshe puts it, “While Kagel and others are clear ancestors, too much has happened since the 1970s for that term [music theatre] to work here. MTV, the Internet, Beyoncé ripping off Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Stewart Lee, Girls, style blogs and yoga classes at Darmstadt…” Whether or not the title “New Discipline” feels useful to you, as this trend/thread/practice moves towards the new music mainline, I think there’s a good argument that we’ve reached some significant evolutionary stage.

Most professional musicians have spent decades learning to compose, play, or sing. If we’re to communicate effectively in this body-forward, not exclusively cochlear art form, we have some work to do. As we retool and experiment, we unpack our entrained assumptions about our performing selves and what they can or should be able to do. Composer/performer Jessie Marino has a long checklist of questions, references, and self-assessments she applies as she develops performances of her own work that are not necessarily the typical criteria for success most musicians employ. She asks, “Where do you focus your eyes? What is the physical demeanor of the body? Does it contrast from the face? Does it contrast from the thing you are saying? Can I display gravity/anti-gravity? What is the reality I am performing in? On stage? In a tank? Outer space? Next to an Elephant? With chickens on my arms? Should I use an accent? Probably not!” This is a process of exploring and intuiting what’s important, then taking those threads in hand to make convincing choices as we prepare for, perform, and evaluate our work.

This is a process of exploring and intuiting what’s important, then taking those threads in hand to make convincing choices.

The “discipline” part of this practice is pretty important. We need to get creative and rigorous with how we organize priorities, documentation, and evaluate rehearsals and performances. Journaling, peer-feedback, video-documented rehearsal, and the honest assessment of those materials is key. Not only to improve the work but to ensure that some sincere, in-the-moment focus gets practiced into the work. Taping rehearsal lets the self-devisors amongst us leave the heavy analytical lifting to later. As Marino puts it, “Tapes don’t lie, so be honest with yourself and your collaborators.”

Like any developing field, there are practitioners who work with greater and lesser degrees of experience, sophistication, and care. After we’ve accepted that the frame around our instruments is dissolved and we’re putting in the time to experiment, we’re faced with all the problems posed by the absence of shared vocabulary, tested methodologies, and rigorous training. It isn’t at all simple. Personally, I’m in the unusual position of being a new music-focused performer whose early education was designed for a career in opera. For my peers and I, time was devoted to stagecraft, body-centric learning methods, and acting classes all with the goal that our intentions in the performative moment would have a fighting chance of being understood by the audience. As an opera singer, you spend time in the theater working adjacent to lighting designers, set designers, dramaturges, make-up artists, and directors. Being close to their expertise gives you a feel for the complex work of appointing and framing the extra-musical.

Mocrep at the MCA

Mocrep at the MCA
Photo by Deidre Huckabay, courtesy of Cacophony magazine

Every artist in this field has their own narrative of influences and trainings, which often reflect diverse experiences outside of conservatory-model performance and composition. The new music community is DIYing their extra-musical training to fit the purpose of their musical ends. To my mind this is neither a problem nor a virtue—but I have sometimes sat through performances wishing those involved had found ways to utilize existing non-musical knowledge bases or worked with expert collaborators (from dance, theater, or opera, etc). Making experimental music doesn’t require the perpetual re-invention of the wheel, only that we accept that we don’t know where it’s going.

Making experimental music doesn’t require the perpetual re-invention of the wheel, only that we accept that we don’t know where it’s going.

It will not go unnoticed that within this field there are an unusually high number of A) female-identified composers, B) composer-performers, and C) vocalists or movers. Vocal and theatrical performance spaces have traditionally been more welcoming to women than composition departments have been. For many, this music is a place to work through ideas of gender and body politics that conventionally notated music, with its historical and patriarchal baggage, may not be well-suited to accommodate. Collaborative composition and unconventional creative hierarchies flourish here. Performers can use their own bodies to try out ideas without requiring specific institutional support, and composers who want to try out what something feels like, but don’t have ready access to a company of players to experiment upon, have found this practice a boon for building experimental work sustainably.

grafter at omaha photo Alex Karjaka

Grafter at Omaha
Photo by Alex Karjaka

This discipline emphasizes “doing” or experiencing, over the kind of “reading” that is possible when following the translatable instructions of conventional Western scores. The embodied activity of performers is no longer to be glossed over, like an obligatory technology employed as a means for producing sound. This music treats the presence of embodied subjects as a considered part of the making, the thinking, the meaning, and the performative moment. As described by composer/vocalist/movement-artist Jenna Lyle, “There’s the execution of the raw material (making the sounds, doing the movements, etc.), but for me that’s meaningless if there isn’t a palpable energy of discovery and reflection, and maybe even a shared, albeit intangible bodily experience between all involved in the performance situation.” There is commitment to bringing “something off of the page to this music.

The embodied activity of performers is no longer to be glossed over, like an obligatory technology employed as a means for producing sound.

The attempt to learn completely new skills, allowing ourselves to be amateurs again, requires more than a little patience and a willingness to take joy in discovery. After so many years of training, it can be easier to convince yourself that some aspect of a piece is unimportant rather than admit it would take a long time to get right. Lyle has said that the best performers of her music have a quality of openness. “Above all,” she cautions, “don’t fear your vulnerability or your inability to accomplish something immediately. Listen and discover first. Be patient. Then analyze.”

That final step—analysis—might the hardest part of getting good at this kind of music. Musicians are trained to critique and evaluate “music” but our criteria for judging the effective communication of the bodies, lights, spaces, images, movement, and taction required for this *music* is far less well developed. As we go about solving our musical-theatrical problems, musicians should accept the challenge of ensuring the extra-musical work we do is as nuanced, connected, and effective as the stuff we’ve all been trained for. Our audience seems to want to know why musicians are performing this music. If they’re asking the question as we come off stage, perhaps we need to be more convincing while we’re on stage. Though maybe, it’s just a matter of time.

Mocrep at the MCA

Mocrep at the MCA
Photo by Deidre Huckabay, courtesy of Cacophony magazine


Thanks to Jenna Lyle, Jessie Marino and Jennifer Walshe whose interviews and correspondence contributed significantly to this article.


Jessica Aszodi

Australian vocalist Jessica Aszodi is a performer of notated and improvised music, a researcher, teacher, curator and producer of music that challenges the status quo. In her genre bounding career Jessica has premiered dozens of new pieces of notated music, performed works that have lain dormant for centuries, sung roles from the standard operatic repertoire and collaborated with a constellation of artists from the far reaches of the musical palate.

Your Computer is Listening. Are you?

Six years ago, I wrote an article stemming from a lively discussion that I had with a few friends on the work of David Cope’s artificial intelligence compositional program “Emily Howell.” My intention had been two-fold: to approach the philosophical challenges of our society accepting music originating from an extra-human source, while also attempting to discuss whether “Emily Howell’s work” met the definition of a composed piece—or if extraordinary human effort was involved in the final product.

This inquiry will take a very different approach.

We begin with the hypothesis that, due to the rate of growth and development of A.I. technology, #resistanceisfutile. Which is to say that computer-composed music is here, and the conversation needs to change.

Need proof? When I wrote the article six years ago, there were roughly two or three A.I. programs, mostly theoretical and almost exclusively confined to academic institutions. In the two weeks between agreeing to write this article and sitting at down to flesh out my notes, a new program using Google’s A.I. open platform was released. In the week and a half between writing my first draft and coming back for serious revisions, another A.I. music system was publicly announced with venture capital funding of $4 million.  The speed at which new technology in this field is developed and released is staggering, and we cannot discuss if it might change the musical landscape, but rather how we will adapt to it.

Advances in the capacity and ease of use in digitally based media have fundamentally changed the ways that creators and producers interact with audiences and each other and—in many ways—they have bridged some of the gaps between “classical” and “popular” music.

Ted Hearne introduced me to the beauty and artistic possibilities of Auto-Tune in The Source (digital processing design by Philip White). After seeing a demo of Kamala Sankaram’s virtual reality operetta The Parksville Murders, I programmed a session at OPERA America’s New Works Forum, bringing in the composer, producers (Opera on Tap), and director (Carri Ann Shim Sham) to introduce their work to presenters and producers of opera from around the country. While still a beta product, it led to a serious discussion about the capacity of new technologies to engage audiences outside of a more traditional performance space.

The Transactional Relationship 

In the tech world, A.I. is equated to the Holy Grail, “poised to reinvent computing itself.” It will not just automate processes, but continually improve upon itself, freeing the programmer and the consumer from constantly working out idiosyncrasies or bugs. It is already a part of our daily lives—including Google’s search function, Siri, and fraud detection on credit cards. The intuitive learning will be essential to mass-acceptance of self-driving cars, which will save tens of thousands of lives annually.

So why is A.I. composition not the next great innovation to revolutionize the music industry? Let’s return to the “Prostitute Metaphor” from my original article. To summarize, I argued that emotional interactions are based on a perceived understanding of shared reality, and if one side is disingenuous or misrepresenting the situation, the entire interaction has changed ex post facto. The value we give to art is mutable.

A.I.’s potential to replace human function has become a recurring theme in our culture. In the last 18 months, Westworld and Humans have each challenged their viewers to ask how comfortable they are with autonomous, human-esque machines (while Lars and the Real Girl explores the artificial constructs of relationships with people who may or may not ever have lived).

I’ll conclude this section with a point about how we want to feel a connection to people that move us, as partners and as musicians. Can A.I. do this? Should A.I. do this? And (as a segue to the next section), what does it mean when the thing that affects us—the perfectly created partner, the song or symphony that hits you a certain way—can be endlessly replicated?

Audiences are interested in a relationship with the artist, living or dead, to the point that the composer’s “brand” determines the majority of the value of the work (commissioning fees, recording deals, royalty percentages, etc.), and the “pre-discovery” work of famous creators have been sought after as important links to the creation of the magnum opus.

Supply and Demand

What can we learn about product and consumption (supply and demand) as we relate this back to composition in the 21st century?

If you don’t know JukeDeck, it’s worth checking out. It was the focal point of Alex Marshall’s January 22, 2017, New York Times article “From Jingles to Pop Hits, A.I. Is Music to Some Ears.” Start with the interface:

 Two JukeDeck screenshots--the first shows the following list of genres: piano, folk, rock, ambient, cinematic, pop, chillout, corporate, drum and bass, and synth pop; and the second shows the following list of moods: uplifting, melancholic, dark, angry, sparse, meditative, sci-fi, action, emotive, easy listening, tech, aggressive, and tropical

Doesn’t it seem like an earlier version of Spotify?

Two smartphone screenshots from an earlier version of Spotify, the first one features an album called Swagger with a shuffle play option and a list of four of the songs: "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked," "Beat The Devil's Tattoo," "No Good," and "Wicked Ones"; the second one features an album called Punk Unleashed with a shuffle play option and a list of five of the songs: "Limelight," "Near to the Wild Heart of Life," "Buddy," "Not Happy," and "Sixes and Sevens."

“Spotify is a new way of listening to music.” This was their catchphrase (see way-back machine to 6/15/11). They dropped that phrase once it became the primary way that people consume music. The curation can be taken out of the consumer’s hands—not only is it easier, but also smarter. The consumer should feel worldlier for learning about new groups and hearing new music.

The problem, at least in practice, is that this was not the outcome. The same songs keep coming up, and with prepackaged playlists for “gym,” “study,” “dim the lights,” etc., the listener does not need to engage as the music becomes a background soundtrack instead of a product to focus on.

My contention is not that the quality of music decreased, but that the changing consumption method devalues each moment of recorded sound. The immense quantity of music now available makes the pool larger, and thus the individuals (songs/tracks/works) inherently have less value.

We can’t erase the Pandora’s Box of Spotify, so it is important to focus on how consumption is changing.

A.I. Composition Commercial Pioneers

Returning to JukeDeck: what exactly are they doing and how does it compare to our old model of Emily Howell?

Emily Howell was limited (as of 2011) to the export of the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas, requiring someone to ultimately render it playable by musicians. JukeDeck is more of a full-stack service. The company has looked at the monetization and has determined that creating digital-instrument outputs in lieu of any notated music offers the immediate gratification that audiences are increasingly looking for.

I encourage you to take a look at the program and see how it creates music in different genres. Through my own exploration of the JukeDeck, I felt that the final product was something between cliché spa music and your grandparent’s attempt at dubstep, yet JukeDeck is signing on major clients (the Times article mentions Coca-Cola). While a composer might argue that the music lacks any artistic merit, at least one company with a large marketing budget has determined that they get more value out of this than they do from a living composer (acknowledging that a composer will most likely charge more than $21.99 for a lump-sum royalty buyout). So in this situation, the ease of use and cost outweigh the creative input.

The other company mentioned in the article that hopes to (eventually) monetize A.I. composition is Flow Machines, funded by the European Research Council (ERC) and coordinated by François Pachet (Sony CSL Paris – UMPC).

Flow Machines is remarkably different. Instead of creating a finished product, its intention is to be a musical contributor, generating ideas that others will then expand upon and make their own. Pachet told the Times, “Most people working on A.I. have focused on classical music, but I’ve always been convinced that composing a short, catchy melody is probably the most difficult task.” His intention seems to be to draw on the current pop music model of multiple collaborators/producers offering input on a song that often will be performed by a third party.

While that may be true, I think that the core concept might be closer to “classical music” than he thinks.

While studying at École D’Arts Americaines de Fontainebleau, I took classes in the pedagogy of Nadia Boulanger. Each week would focus on the composition of a different canonical composer. We would study each composer’s tendencies, idiosyncrasies, and quirks through a series of pieces, and were then required to write something in their style. The intention was to internalize what made them unique and inform some of our own writing, if only through expanding our musical language. As Stravinsky said, “Lesser artists borrow, greater artists steal.”

What makes Flow Machine or JukeDeck (or Emily Howell?) different from Boulanger’s methodology? Idiosyncrasies. Each student took something different from that class. They would remember, internalize, and reflect different aspects of what was taught. The intention was never to compose the next Beethoven sonata or Mahler symphony, but to allow for the opportunity to incorporate the compositional tools and techniques into a palate as the student developed. While JukeDeck excludes the human component entirely, Flow Machine removes the learning process that is fundamental to the development of a composer. In creating a shortcut for the origination of new, yet ultimately derivative ideas or idioms, composers may become less capable of making those decisions themselves. The long-term effect could be a generation of composers who cannot create – only expand upon an existing idea.

What would happen if two A.I. programs analyzed the same ten pieces with their unique neural networks and were asked to export a composite? Their output would be different, but likely more closely related than if the same were asked of two human composers. As a follow up, if the same ten pieces were run through the same program on the same day, would they export the same product? What about a week later, after the programs had internalized other materials and connections in their neural networks?

What makes Flow Machine unique is the acknowledgment of its limitations. It is the Trojan Horse of A.I. music. It argues that it won’t replace composition, but help facilitate it with big data strategies. If we were discussing any non-arts industry, it might be championed as a “disruptive innovator.” Yet this becomes a slippery slope. Once we can accept that a program can provide an artistic contribution instead of facilitating the production of an existing work, the precedent has been set. At what point might presenters begin to hire arrangers and editors in lieu of composers?

No one can effectively predict whether systems like Flow Machine will be used by classical composers to supplement their own creativity. Both recording and computer notation programs changed the way that composers compose and engage – each offering accessibility as a trade-off for some other technical element of composition.

I could foresee a future when multiple famous “collaborators” might input a series of musical ideas or suggestions into a program (i.e. playlist of favorite works), and the musically literate person becomes an editor or copyist, working in the background to make it cohesive. Does that sound far-fetched? Imagine the potential for a #SupremeCourtSymphony or #DenzelWashingtonSoundtrack. They could come on stage after the performance and discuss their “musical influences” as one might expect from any post-premiere talkback.

So what does it all mean?

In the short term, the people who make their living creating the work that is already uncredited and replicable by these programs may be in a difficult situation.

A classically trained composer who writes for standard classical outlets (symphony, opera, chamber music, etc.) will not be disadvantaged any further than they already are. Since Beethoven’s death in 1827 and the deification/canonization/historical reflection that followed, living composers have been in constant competition with their non-living counterparts, and even occasionally with their own earlier works. It will (almost) always be less expensive to perform something known than to take the risk to invest in something new. There may be situations where A.I.-composed music is ultimately used in lieu of a contemporary human creation, if only because the cost is more closely comparable to utilization of existing work, but I suspect that the priorities of audiences will not change quite as quickly in situations where music is considered a form of art.

Show me the money

I focused on JukeDeck and Flow Machine over the many other contributors to this field because they are the two with the greatest potential for monetization. (Google’s Magenta is a free-form “let’s make something great together” venture only possible with the funding of Google’s parent company Alphabet behind it, and various other smaller programs are working off of this open-source system.)

Acknowledging monetization is the key question when considering a future outside of academia. The supposed threat of A.I. music is that it might eliminate the (compensated) roles that composers play in the 21st century, and the counter-perspective is how to create more paying work for these artists.

Whether it is a performing arts organization looking to strengthen its bottom line or composers trying to support themselves through their work, acknowledging shifts in consumer priorities is essential to ensuring long-term success. We need to consider that many consumers are seeking a specific kind of experience in both their recorded and live performance that has diverged more in the last 15 years than in the preceding 50.

It is cliché, but we need more disruptive innovations in the field. Until we reach the singularity, A.I. systems will always be aggregators, culling vast quantities of existing data but limited in their ability to create anything fundamentally new.

Some of the most successful examples of projects that have tried to break out of the confines of how we traditionally perceive performance (in no particular order):

  • Hopscotch, with a group of six composers, featuring multiple storylines presented in segments via limousines, developed and produced by The Industry.
  • Ghosts of Crosstown, a site-specific collaboration between six composers, focusing on the rise and fall of an urban center, developed and produced by Opera Memphis.
  • As previously mentioned, Ted Hearne’s The Source, a searing work about Chelsea Manning and her WikiLeaks contributions, with a compiled libretto by Mark Doten. Developed and produced by Beth Morrison Projects (obligatory disclaimer – I worked on this show).
  • David Lang’s anatomy theater—an immersive experience (at the L.A. premiere, the audience ate sausages while a woman was hanged and dissected)—attempting to delve not just into a historical game of grotesque theater, but also creating the mass hysteria that surrounded it (the sheer number of people who were “unsettled” by this work seems to be an accomplishment – and once again, while I did not fully develop this show, I was a part of the initial planning at Beth Morrison Projects).

Craft is not enough. Quoting Debussy, “Works of art make rules but rules do not make works of art.” As we enter this brave new world of man versus machine, competing for revenue derived not just of brawn but increasingly of intellect, composers will ultimately be confronted—either directly or indirectly—with the need to validate their creations as something beyond that of an aggregate.

I am optimistic about the recent trend of deep discussion about who our audiences are and how we can engage them more thoroughly. My sincere hope is that we can continue to move the field forward, embracing technologies that allow creators to grow and develop new work, while finding ways to contextualize the truly magnificent history that extends back to the origins of polyphony. While I am doubtful about the reality of computer origination of ideas upending the system, I’m confident that we can learn from these technological innovations and their incorporation in our lives to understand the changes that need to be made to secure the role of contemporary classical music in the 21st century.