Category: Analysis

“World Music” in the Era of Travel Bans

Two weeks ago, a new executive order rolled out from the Trump White House designed to restrict United States entry for travelers from six Muslim-majority nations in northeast Africa and the Middle East. Legal challenges to the new order already have arisen, but the debacle of the administration’s previous effort at a “Muslim Ban” is fresh in Kinan Azmeh’s mind. The Syrian-born clarinetist, a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s polyglot Silk Road Ensemble, was on tour in Europe on January 27 when the original order provoked a ruckus of confusion and protest at America’s airports, and it appeared that even green card holders—such as Azmeh, a longtime resident of New York City—might be refused entry to their own adopted homeland.

The order met immediate pushback on multiple fronts, and Azmeh faced no unusual difficulties on his return at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Yet, while the situation caused the high drama that has become routine during the nascent Trump administration, such tension is nothing new to artists such as Azmeh. “I’ve been living here for 16 years and entering was always an issue,” says the musician, one of the prominent personalities in Morgan Neville’s documentary The Music of Strangers. “Things didn’t change since I moved to New York, which was a week before 9/11. I remember the times you had to register every time you exited the country, or coming back and being held for a few hours waiting to be questioned. A lot of people don’t know this has been happening a long time.”

The situation is an active threat to the ability of global music artists to tour the United States.

Only now it is happening with a new intensity. The situation is an active threat to the ability of global music artists to tour the United States— something that is often already complicated—and arrives, paradoxically, at a time when audiences are more easily immersed in international sounds than ever before. It seems like an opportune moment to consider the meaning and relevance of what has been called “world music,” as a global refugee crisis and a rise in nationalistic fervor in Europe, Russia, and the United States newly threatens open cultural exchange.

“I’m from the world,” says Oliver Conan, with a touch of irony, when I mention the phrase “world music” to him. “I’ve always been a part of the world.” In 2002, the musician launched Barbès, a shoebox-sized bar and performance space in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, an enterprise he shares with fellow French expatriate and frequent bandmate Vincent Douglas. Both men hail from Paris, and named their nightspot after their favorite neighborhood in the City of Light, the one notably populated with immigrants from African countries once colonized by the French. Over the years, the bar has served as an essential hub for all kinds of international sounds. On any given night, a visitor might drop in and hear The Mandingo Ambassadors, founded by guitarist Mamady “Djelike” Kouyate (a Guinean refugee who came to the United States for political asylum), or French guitarist Stephane Wrembel’s homages to Django Reinhardt. More than anything else, though, the bar has showcased a border-busting hybridization of musical traditions and innovations that leap across languages, genres, and historical eras.

Conan, as you might guess, isn’t fond of the term “world music.” Coined in the 1960s and introduced as a marketing label in the 1980s, “It was a way to display records that were not from America or an Anglophone country,” he says. “Before that, we had ‘Latin Music,’ ethnic markets. World music was a way to bring the ethnic market to the mainstream.”

Nonesuch Records, under its Explorer Series banner, began doing just that in 1967, without benefit of a one-size-fits-all category. When the project concluded in 1984, the label had released 92 Explorer titles, with field recordings of everything from Balinese and Javanese gamelan to Bulgarian village music. The scholarly, ethnographic approach veered in a more commercial direction with the launch of Putumayo Music in 1993. An offshoot of a clothing and handicraft business, the label packaged its idea of the exotic in frolicsome artwork and an easy-listening vibe that suggested a kind of crunchy nostalgia. Between those polarities of attitude and branding, the broad idea of “world music” inspired a number of record labels over the past four decades, the most notable of them closely linked with investigative musicians both famous and not-so. Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld label, founded in 1989, was higher-minded, taking a curatorial slant eclectic enough to push legends (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), fusion concepts (Afro Celt Sound System), and even all-American gospel ensembles (The Blind Boys of Alabama) to a wider audience, which was aided by Gabriel’s status as a cofounder of the WOMAD festival. David Byrne, like Gabriel a musician deeply invested in a kaleidoscopic range of sounds and traditions, launched Luaka Bop in 1988, championing once-obscure greats like Brazilian tropicália superstars Os Mutantes, reclusive Nigerian funk genius William Onyeabor, and São Paulo avant-gardist Tom Zé. Wilder and weirder, Sublime Frequencies, based in Seattle and co-founded by Sun City Girls bassist and vocalist Alan Bishop, has released more than 100 titles since 2003. The label’s focus on sources such as field recordings, radio broadcasts, and even shortwave transmissions, and its initially limited LP runs of 1,000 copies, gave it a markedly rawer vibe, with the literally ephemeral buzz of recordings such as Broken-Hearted Dragonflies: Insect Electronica from Southeast Asia or Princess Nicotine: Folk and Pop Sounds of Myanmar.

The broad idea of “world music” has inspired a number of record labels closely linked with investigative musicians.

Conan has run his own house label, Barbès Records, for several years now. It serves as a platform for several of the venue’s regular acts, cross-pollinating outfits like Slavic Soul Party—an ensemble of improvising jazz musicians who mesh Balkan brass sources with other street band traditions for raucous dance parties—and archival enthusiasms, such as Conan’s deep dive into 1970s Peruvian garage-cumbia psychedelia, and the label’s two-volume breakaway hit, The Roots of Chicha.

Such an anti-orthodox perspective renders the idea of “world music” as a signifier of undistilled folk traditions obsolete and celebrates the promiscuity of sounds migrating between cultures. “Anything I’m interested in is not authentic,” says Conan. “Any great musical genre I’ve been interested in has been the result of some crazy bastardization, whether it’s salsa or the kind of cumbia I was really into from Peru.” In the ‘90s and the aughts, the multicultural influences began to seep potently into indie rock—witness Vampire Weekend, Beirut, Dengue Fever, and others. “It’s not really world music,” Conan says, “but using the same elements that people were using in the ‘80s that were called world music. That’s one reason why the label makes no sense anymore.”

New York’s World Music Institute was founded in 1985, about the time that the phrase “world music” was becoming popular. Decades on, the organization is actively challenging the fustiness of the term through its programming. “I really try to push the boundary of what the term can mean,” says Par Neiburger, artistic director. As an example, he points to a concert with the minimalist composer Steve Reich, celebrating his 80th birthday, that took a detour from all the other events marking the occasion. “The average person doesn’t know that [Reich] spent a good amount of time in Ghana studying African music,” Neiburger says, noting that the piece Drumming was composed soon after Reich returned from West Africa. The WMI concert juxtaposed an ensemble playing traditional Ghanian music, led by Reich’s long-ago Ghanaian instructor, master drummer Gideon Alorwoyie, who is now based in Texas, and the American group Mantra Percussion, playing Drumming. Eventually, the two played simultaneously. “It became its own new composition of music in a way,” Neiburger says.

Gideon Alorwoyie bowing with Mantra Percussion and Gideon’s students from U North Texas at National Sawdust

Gideon Alorwoyie bowing with Mantra Percussion and Gideon’s students from U North Texas, at the World Music Institute show at National Sawdust on December 10, 2016. (Photo by Aleba Gartner.)

The crosstalk is organic and not really new. Neiburger cites Fela Kuti, perhaps the most singular and iconic figure to have his records filed under “world music.” The Nigerian bandleader’s Afrobeat sound was very much a hybrid, boldly influenced by James Brown’s propulsive funk. “There is only so much music out there that is purely from a non-Western culture that no way has an influence from Western culture,” says Neiburger, who looks to artists as different as the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and the Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq as exemplary, contemporary boundary pushers.

Another one might be the rising Ghanaian pop star Jojo Abot, featured last year in WMI’s annual Africa Now! showcase at the Apollo Theater. She has spent much of her life in the USA, and began her songwriting career about five years ago on the MTA, somewhere between Brooklyn and Queens. A subsequent visit home to Ghana turned into a three-year odyssey, as she discovered a contemporary music scene where techno and drum-and-bass blended with popular genres such a highlife and hiplife. The fusion resulted in new forms such as azonto, a dance craze that quickly migrated to Paris, Amsterdam, and London. “You talk to your peers in a way they can directly hear,” says Abot, whose own songs make prominent use of her jazz-diva vocal skills, buffered by beds of percussion and electronics. The new generation of artists back in Ghana are rewiring Western influences, “exploring new ways of expressing themselves.”

Ghanaian afrobeat and jazz singer-songwriter Jojo Abot performs with her band with backup vocalist Abbie Richards (left rear) at the fourth annual 'Africa Now!' presented by the Apollo Theater and World Music Institute at the Apollo Theater, New York, New York, Saturday, March 26, 2016. Photograph © 2016 Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. All rights reserved.

Ghanaian afrobeat and jazz singer-songwriter Jojo Abot performs with her band with backup vocalist Abbie Richards (left rear) at the fourth annual ‘Africa Now!’ presented by the Apollo Theater and World Music Institute at the Apollo Theater, New York, New York, Saturday, March 26, 2016. Photograph © 2016 Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Syrian-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh frames it in another way.

“I don’t really see where Bartók ends and Mozart begins,” he says, “or where Mozart ends and gypsy Romanian clarinet music begins.” The clarinet, he notes, isn’t exactly a classic Arabic instrument. “It was invented somewhere between Russia, France, and Germany. Then it traveled back east and stopped in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia but never traveled further south.” When he toured the United States a decade ago, playing the smaller towns between the coasts, the performer met with great curiosity. “People asked where Syria was,” he says, recalling how underexposed audiences also thought the clarinet must have been a Syrian instrument. “I’m the only musician they met from that country and I play the clarinet,” Azmeh explains. “Now there’s a big switch. People know where Syria is, and you get asked another kind of question. ‘Oh, do people do music in Syria?’ They know geographically where it is, but they don’t know anything about the culture.”

The way things are going, those audiences will have fewer chances to learn – at least first-hand. The digital revolution has made endless gigabytes of every music genre available for listeners at their fingertips. But flesh-and-blood encounters are imperiled.

The digital revolution has made every music genre available, but flesh-and-blood encounters are imperiled.

Neiburger has been understandably nervous about how a travel ban will impact his bookings. Of specific concern is a May concert with Omar Souleyman, a Syrian singer who has recorded 500-plus albums,  collaborated with Björk and Four Tet, and done much to bridge the traditional dance music known as dabke with contemporary electronic music. The artist, who now lives in Turkey, is such a frequent performer in the United States, you might think he resides in Brooklyn instead. “He’s performed something like 20 times,” Neiburger says. “But I don’t mean 20 performances. I mean 20 tours.”

Souleyman has a year-long visa, so ordinarily his entry into the US would not be an issue. Now, however, Neiburger says, “We’re looking at the very real chance that we’re going to have to cancel the concert.” The programmer is hopeful that a waiver clause within the executive order will be applicable to the performer. And as he’s quick to note, “It’s not a political statement. We’re just trying to bring a musician here who has performed here many times.”

Steve MacQueen, artistic director of the Flynn Center for Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont, fears an impending chill. “It’s going to hurt Americans more than it hurts other cultures,” he says. MacQueen believes the ban will even discourage artists who aren’t targeted. “Let’s say you’re Algerian. You’ll do Europe now. Go to China. There’s lots of other frontiers. It kills me to see us abdicate our position. Since World War II, the place everybody wants to play is the U.S. It’s the birthplace of all this stuff. It’s where Louis Armstrong and Elvis Presley were born. But now that seems like it’s over to me. This kind of stuff marginalizes us to the rest of the world. Why go someplace where you’re not welcome? Why go someplace where you’re going to get hassled? You don’t.”

Azmeh says he was deeply moved by the urgency of American protests against the initial travel ban. Yet he also is adamant that art not become subservient to politics. It can speak entirely on its own terms.

“Why go someplace where you’re not welcome? Why go someplace where you’re going to get hassled? You don’t.”

“I don’t think you can burden the actual art-making with lots of political slogans,” Azmeh says. “It’s not like I want to play with XYZ person because I want to cross barriers. I think, ‘There is another person, who can play beautifully, and I’d like to play with that person.’ Of course, it takes a more important role when the surrounding context suggests the opposite. It’s interesting that sometimes we have to repeat phrases that should be the standard practice. This is when you have to make your message a bit louder, and hope that it’s contagious.”

New Music Wants to Help

The recent American presidential election inspired calls to action that rippled through various communities: Muslims, Jews, women, indigenous peoples, immigrants, LGBTQ people, people of color, the disabled, educators, and social justice activists to name but a few. One of the communities that responded quickly was the new music community.

In New York, National Sawdust hosted a November 10 town hall moderated by Paola Prestini, Courtenay Casey, Daniel Felsenfeld, and Roger Bonair-Agard. In Los Angeles on November 10, the Artist Council at The Hammer Museum scrapped their agenda to “deal with the more urgent situation at hand,” asking, “What can we do? … How can we protect the vulnerable and defend rights we have come to take for granted?” On November 16, NewMusicBox published Gary Ingle’s essay on Decolonizing Our Music. In Los Angeles on November 17, Nick Norton and ArtShare hosted Understanding and Action for Artists and Thinkers: An Open Forum. This meeting asked how we as artists and musicians could help marginalized communities that would be adversely affected by the new presidency. On November 28, Andrew Norman, having won the Grawemeyer Award For Music, made strong comments about privilege to NPR’s Tom Huizenga, an important statement I’ll discuss later. And 
recently, critic Alex Ross wrote about Making Art in a Time of Rage, looking at artistic responses from Leonard Bernstein to Ted Hearne’s recent politically charged work. Maybe you heard about some of these meetings. Maybe you attended some of them.

I was fascinated and encouraged by these prospects. The new music community wants to help marginalized and vulnerable communities? This could be a potential win-win that benefits both the oppressed and our own rarefied artistic community. Let’s go.

Before we propose remedies and strategies to help the marginalized, I believe we need to take a hard look at the new music community itself. There’s a paradigmatic assumption that our activism is a response to outside forces like the new presidency, but now is an opportunity to look within. As the sayings go: Think globally, act locally; Change begins at home.

Structural and systemic issues have allowed institutional exclusion to be rigid and persistent.

As performers, educators, composers, creators, and producers of music, we typically see ourselves working for a greater good, fortunate not to have our art and labor support the war machine or aggravate climate change, for example. However, we must acknowledge that the new music community has an established history of exclusion.

Structural and systemic issues have allowed institutional exclusion to be rigid and persistent. These issues begin with education and continue through the moderation of opportunities, career development, and audience-building structures including marketing, promotion, grants, and the dissemination of information.


Structural issues begin with early education; geographic, social, and economic privilege facilitates access to music lessons, and can affect how family and cohorts encourage childhood interest in music. Developmental psychologist Steven J. Holochwost has studied inadequacies and inequalities in access to music education in the United States. Holochworst notes there are cases where proactive outreach strategies have helped young students to become more involved in music.

With sufficient interest and success as children, many of us progressed to studying music within higher education. The conservatory, a central institution of Western art music, is based upon the conservation of musical tradition and established values, principles, and systems. (The exception often proves the rule; musicologist Nadine Hubbs describes how midcentury academic advocacy of serialism, while certainly revolutionary in many ways, served to ossify exclusionary heterosexist networks and hierarchies.)

Musicologists and sociologists have studied conservatory culture and dissected its various dysfunctions, often discreetly euphemizing names of institutions and pedagogues. Bruno Nettl looked at the “Heartland University School of Music”. Henry Kingsbury looked at the “Eastern Metropolitan Conservatory of Music,” whose entrance is on or perhaps near North Street (hint, hint). Andrea Olmsted brazenly studied Juilliard; outside the rigors of socio-musicology, Juilliard was also strongly suggested in films such as Food of Love and Whiplash. While Whiplash seemed extreme to the uninitiated, what conservatory denizen has never seen a percussionist with bloody hands, a violinist with an inflamed neck rash, or a music professor who abuses students? (According to the CBC, physical injuries contribute significantly to conservatory drop out rates.)

Professional and institutional networks intentionally bear resemblance to biological hereditary hierarchies and their concomitant racial exclusions, like a line of royal descent.

Socio-musicological investigation of conservatories finds a powerful mythology of musical genealogy, the concept of mystical secrets passed from teacher to student. This in turn helps form professional and institutional networks that intentionally bear resemblance to biological hereditary hierarchies and their concomitant racial exclusions, like a line of royal descent. Furthermore, intense conservatory experiences forge connections and communities in the same way these are formed by hazing at a fraternity, a sorority, or elite athletic or military institutions. The resultant effect is a self-perpetuating exclusionary system, much like an Etonian “old boys club” with similar socio-economic consequences, transposed into the realm of music as a profession.


Prizes, awards, and competitions—particularly those on the entry-level or semi-professional end of the spectrum—do not often function as prizes and awards per se, but as a form of gatekeeping to further professional development. Consider prizes that offer an opportunity to work with an orchestra, either as a composer or concerto soloist. It’s not like contestants habitually work with an orchestra and win a statuette or purse judged upon that work. The prize is the opportunity itself.

Prizes have been widely criticized as a thinly veiled means of fundraising, and this intersects with socioeconomic concerns. For fledgling ensembles and nonprofits, having a competition is a no-brainer; when students have already spent tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, what is a mere $25-$50 entrance fee? While this can raise a little bit of money for the ensemble or nonprofit, it infrequently offers long-term nurturing; instead, it fosters expectations that maybe someone else will become interested in the winners’ work as a result of the competition.

Criticism of the competition complex has been widely restrained because the field is small and no one wants to offend colleagues or arts organizations. Bill Doerrfeld addressed ageism in composer opportunities. Dennis Báthory-Kitsz humorously mocked the system by flipping it, creating a Performing Ensemble Competition offering $1000 and the opportunity to perform his music; no travel expenses covered, and a $75 entry fee. Ben Phelps penned a poignant, tongue-in-cheek advice column, How to Win Composing:

The competition is thus the apotheosis of cultural musical expression. This is why so many average music listeners refer so religiously to such famous competitions as the Masterprize when deciding what new music they are going to like. With competitions holding such a valuable and important place in the career paths of young composers, many justifiably want to win as many as possible, so as to secure admission to more prestigious graduate schools of composition and thus win more coveted teaching positions at more prestigious universities.

Phelps’s essay does not intersect class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and marginalized communities with its savvy takedown, but its parody reveals institutional biases and prejudices couched within musical demands. (See also Frank Oteri’s interview of Wendy Carlos that discusses how academic stylistic expectations mirror prejudice and misogyny.) Strategies for winning that Phelps recommends include using crotales, nested tuplets, and having a title with parentheses, like “Inter(rupt)ions”. This parodies new music and protectionist, institutional biases.

Efforts to define “new music” frequently align with exclusionary institutional biases.

A board member of a mid-sized nonprofit talked to me about their efforts to address diversity. The board member felt her organization was trying to combat racial and gender exclusions and explained, “Well, we have a call for scores, and it’s a blind call, so all the scores are anonymous, no names or information.” A problem with this common methodology is that a savvy panel can distinguish racial and socio-economic identities in anonymous scores through the very formulae that Ben Phelps so wryly advocates. I emphasize that having a diverse board of directors is great, and anonymous scores are great, but you still have an issue with the nested tuplets. There is a lingering means of identifying educational background and insider membership even amidst efforts to be fair and unprejudiced. One might argue that the savvy panel is merely trying to ensure that selected scores appropriately exploit new directions and extended techniques. Yes, of course, but efforts to define “new music” frequently align with exclusionary institutional biases.

Locked gate with a trick

Image courtesy pbkwee

The Workplace

Issues of diversity and marginalization are complicated by career concerns: Is engagement with new music a vocation, avocation, or appreciation? (Consider Charles Ives.) Are we free from or financially dependent upon establishment structures? How does new music engage us financially as purchasers, consumers, audience members, creators, performers, and laborers?

If new music is a career either directly or tangentially, we are looking at real world issues of hiring and tenure in academia, bookings and guarantees on the concert circuit, fees and honorariums for clinicians, as well as commissions, grants, radio airplay, recording contracts, and distribution deals. These concerns can impact how we present our politics, program our concerts, or choose what ensembles to book at our venues. We will rely on existing networks in the community to determine who gets the gig.

Diversity hiring is not about creating an unfair advantage for the marginalized. It’s not necessarily about helping underserved populations or any particular candidate, but primarily about correcting deficiencies and inequalities within the hiring institution. It is not about patronizing a candidate or applicant as much it is a course correction for the institution. This likewise applies to commissioning.

If a “call for scores” only results in winners from an existing circle, something is not right.

If a “call for scores” only results in winners from an existing circle, something is not right. If you are not commissioning outside your professional network, there is little reason to have a call for scores. If you want to keep things “in house,” this is perfectly fine; there are positive benefits from cultivating ongoing relationships. Nevertheless, it benefits audiences and encourages composers when conductors and music directors take it upon themselves to research and discover talent outside of their network. While it seems counterintuitive, there may be more equitable and challenging programming with fewer calls for scores and more promotion of work originating outside existing circles.

Musicologist William Robin examines these “micro-social” circles in his dissertation, A Scene Without a Name: Indie Classical and American New Music in the Twenty-First Century. His “approach is indebted to recent studies of the politics of social relations between composers and performers of new music.” Robin writes:

My focus on institutions allows for an orientation towards the micro-social. Their creation and preservation is predicated on overlapping networks, both internally—among composers, performers, and administrators—and externally—with music critics, funding sources, and audiences.

Robin shows that micro-social circles are driving forces in the new music industrial complex and workplace today. Robin briefly looks at ageism and New York geo-centrism, but he misses opportunities to interrogate how micro-social connections might also be affected by racism, sexism, socioeconomics, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and so on. These biases and prejudices surely affect new music micro-social circles and the new music professional landscape.

Remedies and Strategies

Particularly where music intersects education and social activism, there is a growing body of published research and recommendations. Oxford University Press has published a Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education that is “concerned with ameliorating social inequities affecting marginalized or underserved children and groups.” It looks at policy reforms, emerging feminisms, ableism, gender and sexual diversity, youth in detention centers, and a myriad of other concerns in 42 chapters. This is an excellent entry point for educators in both K-12 and higher education.

When our children do not see teachers who look and live like they do, they may not envision themselves in positions as teachers, conductors, composers, and leaders themselves.

College educator Joshua Palkki wrote in a Smartmusic blog post, “Because our classrooms are a microcosm of society at large, it is worth exploring how issues of diversity and inclusion influence music education. Furthermore, when our children do not see teachers who look and live like they do, they may not envision themselves in positions as teachers, conductors, composers, and leaders themselves. If we do not provide those models, we are not fully serving our students.” Palkki recommends creating safe environments, creating community, being inclusive, aware, reaching out, and championing the stories of others.

A tweet from African American activist Kayla Reed stands out as a powerful recommendation for folks who would like to help. Reed proposes four behaviors or mindsets for people who would like to be an “ALLY”:

A- always center the impacted
L- listen & learn from those who live in the oppression
L- leverage your privilege
Y- yield the floor

I would like to look at these recommendations and translate them into concrete examples.

A: Always Center the Impacted

Throwing a benefit, fundraiser, or town hall should not be a means of self-promotion. It should not be seized as an opportunity to moderate or present oneself as an authority on social justice activism, even if such mantle may be rightfully claimed. If organizational leaders are knowledgeable or active within social justice movements, this is an opportunity to welcome impacted colleagues to lead, present, or moderate a discussion. If organizational leaders do not know impacted people, this is a great opportunity to reach out and make those connections. Activism often involves research, communication, and the building of bridges and consensus. Sometimes the best way to help is for institutional leaders to step aside and center impacted communities and colleagues.

Here’s an example of an event that went terribly wrong. The Hollywood Reporter hosted an Animation Roundtable: Seth Rogen and 6 More on Avoiding Ethnic Stereotypes and How to “Break the Mold” of Princesses. What could go wrong? Well, it was widely noted within the animation community that the impacted were not centered; the panel was made up of seven white men. Criticism appeared right away in the Huffington Post, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and on the industry site Cartoon Brew. No doubt these men were important figures in the world of animation. But the failure to center the impacted undermined the panel’s legitimacy and underscored how their films and perspectives, although well intentioned, still failed sensitivities to ethnic and gender stereotyping.

A better approach would have been to invite women and people of color who work in animation at any level to come and discuss the same subject. What are their experiences? What are their recommendations? What can they tell us about the current crop of animated films?

L: Listen & Learn from Those Who Live in the Oppression

If you’d like to help, it might be best to listen rather than reiterate your punditry. To ask how new music can help the marginalized and vulnerable begs the question: shouldn’t we be reaching out to affected people directly and asking them what they need, as opposed to soul-searching in isolation?

If you’d like to help, it might be best to listen.

Within our music community, there are a variety of existing organizations we can reach out to for advice and expertise. There’s an online community around the Africlassical blog. There’s the International Alliance for Women in Music, Women in Music, New York Women Composers Inc., and The Alliance for Women Film Composers. There are hundreds of LGBTQ choruses with an umbrella organization, GALA Choruses. There are academics studying the transgender voice. On social media, there are groups such as the National Museum of African American Music, Black Composers, African American Classical Music, and The Asian American Librettists, Composers and Lyricists Project. These groups and many others offer an entrée into a world of musicians who are already engaged in social justice concerns and have existing expertise, contacts, ideas, and strategies.

We should take care not to presume to know someone’s story, to assume how they are privileged or marginalized, without learning their history or background. Many things do not always appear on the surface: gender identity, racial identity, disability, sexual orientation, religion, immigration status, history of activism, civil disobedience, or arrest record. There are many possible intersections, and many surprises. One classic moment happened with vlogger and cultural critic Jay Smooth, founder of Ill Doctrine, in conversation with CBS commentator Nancy Giles on the subject of Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign. Giles seemed to believe that Smooth was “appropriating black mannerisms.” Smooth quipped, “I’m a rap guy,” then spelled things out for Giles, “I’m actually black, but you assumed otherwise, and this is the sort of awkwardness we can look forward to at Starbucks across America.”

We can listen and learn from many in our own community. Much of the musical avant-garde has come from radical queers, women, and people of color who have thrived outside traditional avenues of “success,” people like Julius Eastman, Pauline Oliveros, Bob Ostertag, Arthur Russell, Claude Vivier, Pamela Z, and M. Lamar, to name a few.

L: Leverage Your Privilege

We should acknowledge that those of us able to work in music are quite privileged. Even if we struggle to pay rent on a tiny apartment, we are privileged to work in a field of our choice in a rarefied community. There are ways for us to leverage our privilege.

Andrew Norman

Andrew Norman, winner of the prestigious Grawemeyer prize, spoke to Tom Huizenga of NPR and used the opportunity to address systemic racism and misogyny in new music:

This award has been given to three women out of its 30-year history. And to me that’s kind of an issue. And in all honesty, I’m a white man and I get lots of commissions and there are systemic reasons for that, reasons we should all be talking about. There are so many talented composers out there. Rather than giving me another commission, why aren’t we giving those people a commission? The canon is so overwhelmingly white and male, but we can use new music to fix that problem.

Norman, still young, has enjoyed a meteoric rise. It would have been easy for him to internalize his success and affect his own exceptionalism. The arts industrial complex has a habit of heaping awards upon the same “usual suspects” like a slowly rising conveyor belt you better jump on while you are young. A communal notion of exceptionalism encourages the idea that “new music” can “help.” These notions of exceptionalism are not unique to high art. Critic Ann Powers, in “The Problem With The Grammys Is Not A Problem We Can Fix,” notes that:

For white people, to acknowledge institutional racism is to recognize our place in it and to become prepared to move from that comfortable spot. Yet the little voice of assumed exceptionalism often convinces us that we can stay there and fight the good fight. Feeling exceptional is a privilege in itself. … Exceptionalism contradicts systematic truths and seems to solve the most deeply embedded social problems. And we all crave it. Everyone who benefits from these structures wants to believe they are natural.

Norman leveraged his privilege by speaking out on NPR. Perhaps one day he will sit on a committee himself where he can commission marginalized composers. Not all of us have the opportunity to speak on NPR, but there are other ways of leveraging privilege beyond the bully pulpit: lobbying organizations from within; writing a check; providing legal or logistical assistance to people engaged in civil disobedience; using our connections to board members and major donors to help shift commissioning and concert programming; using our connections to the media to help set agendas and shift coverage; and so on.

Y: Yield the Floor

On February 12, the Artists’ Political Action Network (APAN) held an organizing meeting in Los Angeles. Members of the Hammer Artists Council organized the meeting, but it was not held at the Hammer Museum, but at 356 S. Mission Road, a gallery space in the gentrifying Boyle Heights area. Defend Boyle Heights anti-gentrification activists picketed, interrupted, and protested the meeting with chants such as, “A gentrifying space is not a safe space.” This was an opportunity for APAN Hammer folks to yield the floor rather than counter that “gentrification” was already listed in their PowerPoint. Yielding the floor creates opportunities to listen and learn. Both groups, APAN and Defend Boyle Heights, are well positioned to do good work; afterwards, some people from either group met outside and talked, sharing concerns and ideas.

During the APAN meeting, attendees came up with a list of 150 potential subcommittee issues. These included issues like immigration rights, gerrymandering, and environmental issues, but only one issue related to the arts: diversity in gallery representation. This is one issue where a group of visual artist-activists really have especial knowledge and opportunities. It is here they could really affect change and use their connections and expertise.

My point is that if you really want to work on immigration rights or gerrymandering, for example, there are many existing groups for that, and it would be beneficial to look for people and groups already doing that work. There is nothing wrong with donating time or money directly to groups like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, or the Southern Poverty Law Center. The idea of creating a new “immigrants rights committee” to speak for others when the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and many other organizations already exist seems a little self-serving. You may have special expertise within your field that allows you to do unique work, and that is worthy of consideration.

I ask us to consider what we can do that is unique to our own knowledge and access. We have systemic racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and misogyny within our own institutions and micro-social networks. I believe that by tackling these issues within our own institutions and networks, we can affect change in a meaningful way. We should certainly partner with other organizations and build bridges to other communities in the arts and social justice worlds. But helping others demands humility and self-awareness as well.

Now I yield the floor, to you.

Jack Curtis Dubowsky

Jack Curtis Dubowsky is the author of Intersecting Film, Music, and Queerness (2016 Palgrave Macmillan), and composer of Harvey Milk: A Cantata.

“Where Is Evil?” (a reaction to anatomy theater)

Ed Note: David Lang and Mark Dion’s 75-minute anatomy theater sparked a great deal of critical commentary following the LA Opera’s world premiere performances of this Beth Morrison Projects production at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) in Los Angeles in June 2016 and again during its subsequent New York premiere at BRIC House during the PROTOTYPE Festival in January 2017. Boston-based pianist, poet, and artist manager Oni Buchanan was so deeply affected by the performance she attended in New York City that she felt compelled to add her own observations which she shares here.—FJO

The new chamber opera anatomy theater by David Lang and Mark Dion provides layer upon layer of revelation—each peeling back from the opera’s heart like the transparent mylar overlays from an old anatomy textbook.  The opera, set in early-18th century England, follows the trajectory of a young murderess, starting with her public hanging and continuing through the spectacle of her public dissection in which the parties involved hope to demonstrate “scientifically” that her evil is corporeally writ within her.

The most immediate confrontation leveled by anatomy theater upon its audience proves to be the confounding experience of witnessing outright, unflinching, center-stage misogyny.  The objectification of the female body can’t get more literal:  Lang, Dion, and director Bob McGrath position a completely naked female—a corpse, no less—as the physical (and topical) focal point of the opera, laid out on a wooden pallet in the center of the stage.  The second ghastly understanding comes from feeling the tsunamic power of abstract fear which drives the action of the opera.  However coolly cultivated the applause of the bourgeois dissection spectators, however aggressive the swagger of the showman executioner, however dispassionately objective the assessments of the so-called anatomical “specialists”—it is ultimately the all-consuming, irrational fear saturating a society of great inequality which allows the horrors of this narrative to occur, to be “justified.”  Not simply gender inequality, but vast economic inequality as well—the murderess comes from poverty.  Take one imaginative step outward to include racial and religious inequalities as well, and the picture begins to look unsettlingly familiar, as Lang and Dion fully intend.  And the alarming present-day familiarity of an opera based on outdated early 18th-century anatomical practices and spiritual beliefs leads to what might be the most disturbing, subversive act of the opera:  Lang and Dion lead the audience through a normalization process that allows us to accept atrocity incrementally until suddenly we find ourselves staring at a spotlit fully-naked, blood-drenched female corpse emptied of its central organs and about to be carted out to “the back gate” for further “auction[ing] under the moonlight.”  How did we get here?

Let me briefly pause to consider how I got here, which should also serve to contextualize my remarks that follow.  Coming from a childhood in which my exposure to television and media was drastically limited, I encountered a very steep learning curve in college where I had to cultivate—almost from nothing—the ability to access critical distance from media, and from movies in particular.  In grade school, my exposure to media consisted of one TV show per week (an honor which was bestowed upon Knight Rider), as well as the incomprehensible splurge of stringently limited Saturday morning cartoons accompanied by French toast on TV trays (Dungeons & Dragons and Ghost Busters being the high points of these sessions).  Probably since it wasn’t an animation, I experienced Knight Rider in particular with edge-of-my-seat intensity.  There was no real person called “David Hasselhoff” or any modified Pontiac Firebird Trans Am; actors and props did not exist for me.  There was only Michael Knight and KITT.  I experienced danger and surging adrenaline in real time with them, making split-second decisions, skidding around corners at top speed, and escaping impossible situations when the alternative was death.  As might be expected, I had no critical distance to understand “parody,” and when I was accidentally exposed (in first grade, in the basement of my cousins’ house during an unsupervised hour of Thanksgiving) to an extensive excerpt of a horror spoof involving a serial killer who targeted a group of cheerleaders with rhyming names (Pandemonium), I suffered nearly unendurable nightmares for the decade to follow.

Fast-forward to my first year as an undergrad, when a group of friends thought I might like to see The Piano, being a pianist myself.  Inevitably I became so immersed in the narrative, so intrinsically aligned with Ada McGrath (no idea who Holly Hunter was), that when her jealous husband axes her finger at the dramatic high point, I involuntarily let out a blood-curdling scream in the theater, not even knowing it was me who was screaming.  Over a decade later, despite plenty of “media conditioning” in the intervening years, I almost started puking inside a theater during Pan’s Labyrinth and had to walk out midway sobbing uncontrollably.

I offer this background to inform what follows.  Because what struck me as maybe the most telling barometer of how insidious and how deceptively crafted anatomy theater was—was that somehow I was able to sit through it.  A film director friend of mine texted me, “I wish I could have been there to watch you watch a woman be dissected.  That seems satisfying.”  How had this improbability come to pass, when a dentistry-obsessed cheerleader murdered with her own electric toothbrush still haunts my days?  How did David Lang and Mark Dion structure the music, pace the narrative, juxtapose the tonal shifts, overlay the absurdities and the acts of violence—how did they achieve the sleights of hand that would be necessary to enable anybody, let alone me, to stay in their seats and be both witnesses and participants in all the gore, the misogyny, the incredible injustices?  In a way, Lang and Dion deafened us all with the blaringly immediate vulgarity and loudness and ham-fisted manipulation, serving almost to distract from the actual lethal maneuvering under the surface.  I was so horrified at my ability to navigate the opera that I actually went back to a second showing to see if I could track the layers of architectural construction, the kinds of “duck and weave” moves Lang and Dion exploited, that could make such an outcome possible.

Anatomy Theater excerpt from Beth Morrison Projects on Vimeo.

SPOILER ALERT: Sarah Osborne (Peabody Southwell), the murderess at the center of the story, has committed the crime of suffocating her husband and both her children.  In a meta-move, Lang/Dion/McGrath don’t allow us, the ticket-purchasing audience, to enter the performance hall and settle in before the show.  Instead, we are led into the theater as part of the execution procession of the opera’s narrative, with the executioner roughly shoving and restraining the convicted woman along the way, bystanders jeering, and all of us coolly walking behind, amusedly participating while also scouting out our seats.  Already, Lang and Dion allow us, the audience members, to establish a nice comfortable distance.  The opera calls us out on it throughout, so we feel sufficiently accused, but never quite implicated.  Perfect, we were all put through the grinder just enough; our dues are paid.  Even Lang and Dion are winking while pointing: isn’t this a great rhetorical device?  Sarah Osborne implores us at the beginning of her confession, “Let pity move your hearts,” then describes the harrowing circumstances that led her to “extinguish” her husband and (instead of mother) “smother” each of her young children in turn.  Nevertheless, her guilt has already been decreed, and in a swift inexorable matter of minutes, a hood is muscled over her head, a noose tightened around her neck, and with a blunt shove, her motionless body swings limply before us.  How did we get here?  “Justice!  Is!  Delivered!” announces the executioner, and signals the audience to applaud, which we do.

Why isn’t the opera already over?  The main character is dead within the first five minutes. However, as the executioner Joshua Crouch (Marc Kudisch) points out, it’s not enough to convict Osborne for her “most heinous of crimes…that of being poor and desperate…that of being born a woman.”  And it’s not enough to execute her.  We aren’t finished with her yet—and not being finished, not having any kind of boundary where we can be satisfied and allow our endeavor to come to a close, is one of the most gruesome problems placed before us by Lang and Dion’s opera.  As Osborne’s painful account detailing the unjust and unbearable conditions of her life remains apparently insufficient to explain her actions, we the survivors are left looking for a more grandiose motivator, and settle upon the abstractness of “evil.”  How can we explain the presence of evil?  Where does evil come from?  Can we locate a corporeal source, a physical manifestation of this hideous motivator, that we might protect ourselves from it going forward?  If the source of evil lies in Sarah Osborne’s body, specific to the female form, how can we control that form and thereby suppress the threat of the evil that women carry within them?  Thus begins the exploration of the opera’s central aria: “Where is Evil?” as well as the breathtaking misogyny intertwined with the interrogation.

And thus opens the “dissection theater” with its “fresh quality female”!  Crouch, the executioner-turned-emcee, parades the body onto the stage, fully covered in a sheet.  He reveals the body incrementally, first unveiling the head.  We recognize Osborne—is it really her, though?  A mannequin of her?  A wax likeness?  Is there really going to be a dissection?  How is Lang going to accomplish this?  How realistic will/can it even be?  And thus begins our incremental acceptance of what follows.  Soon Crouch pulls the sheets back from Osborne’s legs, stroking them with loathsome arousal.  Is Lang really going to go there?  He just did.  Well at least the rest of her body is covered, other than her head and her legs.  Her body could be clothed, for all we know.  Crouch keeps peeking under the sheet which covers her chest, shuddering with desire and commenting on the rareness of such a young, “fresh and exemplary” female body.  Not long after, he tears off the sheet covering Osborne’s torso, revealing her to be utterly naked from the waist up, as well as from the thighs down.  Is Lang really going to go there?  He just did.  Well, her pelvic area is still covered.  “At least her pelvic area is still covered!” we think, as we recover from the shock of her upper body being completely naked and exposed before the audience.  Who auditioned for this role anyway?  Well, we haven’t ruled out the possibility that the body may still be a wax mannequin, after all.

Crouch now makes a bombastic introduction of the highly-reputed anatomist and scholar, Baron Peel (Robert Osborne), who makes his bloviating entrance by belting out, “Presently, I shall reveal (“and explicate!” interjects Crouch eagerly) the instruments necessary.”  Crouch lifts each of the “15 instruments” in turn, gesturing lewdly with each one toward the female corpse, and announcing them one by one (“The knife! The probe! Bone nippers!” Actually, to my count and re-count, there were only 14 instruments, but we were all too distracted to notice).  Classical hand-drawn anatomical illustrations are gorgeously projected across a giant scrim separating the main action of the stage from the audience (yet another dermis, yet another deflection into beauty traced artfully over brutality).  Meanwhile, the Igor-like Ambrose Strang (Timur), Peel’s assistant, has lurked onto the stage and has begun to prepare his various steel trays and buckets in the corner.  Where did HE come from?  Too late; Strang turns toward the audience and launches into the thick of the song, with himself and Crouch reverentially echoing Peel’s assertions (“Presently!…He shall reveal!”).

The absurdity and cognitive dissonance have gotten so over-the-top by this point that the audience is teetering at a breaking point.  Lang has to make an artistic decision. Does he pull back? Does he relentlessly push ahead?  What happens next defies expectation and yet is the fully logical extension of what has preceded.  Lang directs the “Presently, I shall reveal” song toward the pinnacle of campiness, of (dare I say) “gallows humor.”  The three male characters, spaced evenly across the stage, launch into a lunatic hybrid of the song, reminiscent of a cross between Pachelbel’s Canon and Madonna’s “Vogue.”  Each man is spotlit in quick succession, sings the word “Presently!” and strikes a pose, over and over, faster and faster, all in perfect 4/4 time, outlining harmonies.  Are Lang and his creative team really going to go there?  They’re going there right now.  They’re there.  We’re all laughing, kind of bemused and marveling at the same time.  This is really happening.  The body is still right there, center stage.  In an appropriately satirical stroke of luck, the performances of anatomy theater are sponsored in part by Tofurky.  How did we get here?

Now begins the dissection of the corpse, and our repugnant voyeurism alongside.  Conveniently, the pallet is raised and tilted toward the audience to make sure that all of us can rubberneck.  “Where Is Evil?”—the central song of the opera—introduces the endeavor to discover the exact physical location of evil through a thorough examination of the three major organs of Osborne’s body:  her stomach, spleen, and heart.  This whole while, the corpse has lain statuesque and pristine, a voiceless onlooker to the men’s assertions of authority and expertise.  Now back to business.  Somehow the loony, spotlit trio of “Presently” provides the momentum and disorientation needed for the audience to swallow the fact that the dissection is going forward.  We’re game.  Blood and entrails follow.  A lot of blood.  An intestine pulled out so endlessly and grotesquely that audience members are groaning and covering their eyes.  One audience member actually leaves the theater to vomit in the restroom, then returns.  Organs are removed, held up to the light, squeezed, cut into pieces, weighed, examined, “intimately interrogated.”  Peel orders Strang to “bring forth the chest riches” and the heart is cut out of Osborne’s body.  We still hope it’s a wax body, even though the glossy shine of the now blood-drenched torso appears to reveal what can only be Peabody Southwell breathing.

Without proselytizing whatsoever, without any kind of reflection among the characters (in fact, because of their lack of self-awareness), Lang and Dion examine in persuasive and grisly detail the very fine boundary between objectivity and inhumanity.  What is the distance between the physical and the spiritual, “the heart” and “the heart”?  “Let pity move your hearts,” Osborne had pleaded.  After the physical heart is removed from her body, Osborne’s corpse draws in a gasping breath and exhales the words, “My heart…”  Another gasping inhale, then “My heart…” again, exhaled in a scalar melody.  A third “My heart…” and one recognizes the melody as itself a dissection from a 2001 song of Lang’s called “i lie,” written for women’s chorus.  I am overtaken by Lang’s fascinating move to extract the vital melodic line, a coronary artery perhaps, from another body of women, and allow it to re-animate this female corpse.  Osborne gathers her breath and delivers a ravishing elegy for her heart (“This was the heart that in my youth was open”) while Strang delivers the stats: “271 grams…unblemished and without corruption.”

Inevitably, when Osborne’s stomach, spleen, and heart are found to be perfect specimens, with no evidence of evil or malformation of any kind, Peel announces that the uterus must be removed and examined, the uterus, the “very seat of hysteria…filled with animal vitality.”  He tears the remaining pelvic cloth from her body, and Osborne lies fully exposed, all her privacy literally stripped away.  Is Lang really going to go there?  He just did.  We knew from the beginning he would.  We were waiting for him to get there, we, the complicit “Gentlemen” of the paying audience.  Let’s fast-forward.  The uterus reveals only perfection, the formal “dissection theater” comes to a close without locating the physical seat of evil, all four characters sing a glorious rendition of “Where Is Evil?” this time with Peel pointing outward to specific members of the audience rather than at Osborne’s corpse: “There it is.  There.  There it is.”  Great, we get it, we already got it, and Lang/Dion use this conclusion-facade as a deceptive cadence of sorts.  Lang’s opera has come to a close, and yet, the action of the opera continues after it ends, with Crouch issuing an invitation to the Gentlemen of the audience to “meet me by the back gate” for “further inspection of the parts…that haven’t yet been removed.”

Whether we have met Crouch by the back gate or not, eventually we all wend our way home humming “Where Is Evil?” to ourselves.  The opera metastasizes through our real-time physical landscape.  Sure, there’s our complicity in participating in the narrative, but after all, it’s a piece of art, and that bait and switch was part of the show.  But at some point over the course of our homeward commute, the hitherto unidentified and most insidious journey Lang and Dion have led us on comes blistering to the surface.  Through their pacing of the putrid, excruciating action, through their measured dosages of barbarity cut with slapstick, somehow they were able to feed us the whole rank slopbucket.  Each one of us ingested it.  And that revelation of our own individual ability in the very real world—beyond our intention and our professed morality and even our full awareness—survives as the “final” (and yet ever-expanding) horror of anatomy theater.  The various processes of rationalization we yielded to begin to dawn on us.  Sure, this was a piece of art, but what else could we accept, not quite cognizant we were accepting it?  Lang and Dion take their outrageous risks pitch-perfectly, lowering our guard all the while.  Nothing dogmatic, only the actions speaking for themselves, drenched in satire, drenched in blood.  How did we get here?  How did I get here?  Moving from the dissection theater to the theater of a present world narcotized by the toxic elixir of fear and complacence, I am led by the performance to ask, “Who am I?  And what am I capable of?”

Oni Buchanan

Oni Buchanan is a poet, pianist, and the founder and director of the Ariel Artists management company. As a poet, Buchanan is the author of three poetry books to date — Must a Violence, Spring, and What Animal. Buchanan toured as a solo pianist for over a decade, and ArpaViva Recordings has just released her fifth album, Hierosgamos.

When Jazz Was Cool

He stands, primarily illuminated by the light from the screen reflecting off his trumpet. Cigarette smoke curls. It’s almost a cliché, but it’s real, and at the center is an artist who himself famously stood at a diffident point from the mainstream of society. He’s creating music on the spot that, as John Szwed wrote, “helped define the sound of film noir. It made viewers think the genre’s films had always sounded just so, with slow-walking bass beats and muted, slithering horn lines miming the characters on the screen–and underlining their emotions.”

In December 1957, Miles Davis went into Le Post Parisien Studio with film director Louis Malle and, accompanied by the rhythm section (pianist René Urtreger, bassist Pierre Michelot, and drummer Kenny Clarke) from his contemporaneous booking at a Paris nightclub—along with tenor player Barney Wilen—improvised the immaculate score for Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows). The result is some of the coolest music ever made.

Cool in ways that define and surpass the term. Yes, Miles was there at the start of the style called cool jazz, with the Birth of the Cool sessions, but Miles never played cool jazz in the manner of Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Paul Desmond, or even the proto-cool of Lester Young. Miles was cool himself beyond all music, and this moment, captured on film, is the ideal portal into this story; it’s the story of how jazz was the embodiment of the cultural idea of cool, and how that all went away.

Cool—you know it when you see it. Although it turns out to be easier to define, or at least encircle, than many other cultural concepts, not least because cool doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Like sonata form, we have the advantage of hindsight with which to analyze the past and the self-consciousness that undermines contemporary attempts at being cool.

Cool turns out to be easier to define, or at least encircle, than many other cultural concepts, not least because it doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

What was cool? Miles, Steve McQueen, Marlene Dietrich, and Humphrey Bogart all both expressed and helped create the modern idea—a combination of social stance, state of mind, and aesthetic. Cool was Hemingway’s grace under pressure, insolence toward authority and conventional wisdom, the confidence and internal equipoise to present oneself as in but not a part of society, to exploit the Man without the Man ever getting his hands on you. Cool was action rather than words, the ability to do something that people, especially men, admired, and to make it seem both easy and alluring to the opposite sex. Cool was looking good without being fancy or fussy, cool was the ultimate response to existentialism.

Cool is an American thing. Its meaning comes out of African-American culture, and it is integrated with the enduring American cultural myth of the outsider. Thematically, that myth is most prominent in the figure of the cowboy, bringing social order and justice (through violence, albeit often reluctantly) to the chaotic frontier. The cowboy was essential to the story of the spread of American civilization, but always stood outside of it—he wanted to be left alone, like Cincinnatus, or else was half chaos himself, like John Wayne in The Searchers.

Cool is an American thing.

The era of the cowboy ended in 1869, when the first transcontinental railroad was completed. The myth has never gone away, however, and it was gradually vulgarized by economics and politics into lotteries and supply-side tax cutting magical thinking. There was a time when the myth was prominently transferred from the legendary white, pastoral countryside to the multi-racial, polyglot urban setting of immigration and striving—hipsters, detectives, criminals, jazz musicians. This was the great era of cool.

The private detective became the new cowboy, Raymond Chandler’s man who walked the mean streets, disdaining authority while valuing honesty, morality, and justice, those positive qualities depending on the same sense of natural law that steered the cowboy. The private detective came out of his office, set some small disorder to right, cleaned up a mess, then retired to his sanctum.

The detective’s foe is the criminal, also an outsider, and while a vehicle for vicarious thrills, the criminal is too extreme for most to emulate, especially the urban, bourgeois movie-goer and consumer. Occupying an enticing, ambiguous, and tenuous middle ground, flirting with criminality while seeking to carve his own community out of society, was the hipster. Norman Mailer, in his 1957 essay “The White Negro,” called him “the American existentialist […] the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war … or with a slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled […] the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self. […] One is Hip or one is Square […] one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell … doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.”

As easy as it is to mock Mailer’s mysticism and his generalizations about and privileged romanticization of race relations in America, he does get at some key perceptions regarding the idea of cool in the overall culture: “In such places as Greenwich Village … the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip […] in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry. Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk. The cameos of security for the average white: mother and the home, job and the family, are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible. […] jazz … spoke across a nation, it had the communication of art even where it was watered, perverted, corrupted, and almost killed, it spoke in no matter what laundered popular way of instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond, it was indeed a communication by art because it said, ‘I feel this, and now you do too.’”

Braid that all with the purifying and regenerative power of violence in the American cultural narrative, and what Mailer identified as the hipster’s self-conscious aspiration to the concept of criminality—the romance of the outlaw without actually being Jean Genet, the idea of making one’s own rules and laws, the vicarious thrill of the criminal or anarchist in narratives. Peter Gunn, now remembered mainly for Henry Mancini’s swaggering, driving big band score, was a private detective, a figure we can also see as an embodiment of American hipster as existential hero, operating at the edge of, if not outside, the law while forming his own, if temporary, concept of order and justice.

The hipster aspired to the state of the black jazz musician, who could easily be beaten up by white cops outside the very club he was headlining, as happened to Miles Davis. The jazz musician was the soloist, creating, responding to, and communicating mood and idea in the moment, the improvisation itself—especially in bebop and after—an existential art.

TV is now enjoying a vogue of being cool, but the great era of TV cool was the 1950s. You could catch Miles and John Coltrane on TV, and jazz was all over its soundtracks. That and the movies were the mediums with the broadest and deepest reach in popular culture, and they brought jazz to millions in America and around the world. It wasn’t that they had to convert audiences into thinking jazz was cool, it was that jazz was inherently cool and hip, and movies and television used that to signify their own place on a spectrum of style, and even rebellion.

Jazz movies had jazz soundtracks, of course, and ones like The Benny Goodman Story and The Gene Krupa Story were Hollywood productions around popular figures. But other movies, important movies with lasting appeal and meaning, had jazz soundtracks, because the filmmakers needed the music to underline that the characters, elements, and themes were cutting edge.

Here is a partial list of movies with jazz soundtracks. Many of them are easy to find on all-time great lists, and certain of them remain not only satisfying but also at the forefront of aesthetic possibility: Breathless, Black Orpheus, Knife in the Water, The Hustler, La Notte, Sweet Smell of Success, Touch of Evil, On the Waterfront. Leonard Rosenman’s score for Rebel Without a Cause wasn’t jazz, but the soundtrack to the documentary The James Dean Story definitely is jazz. (It was composed by Leith Stevens, who wrote the soundtrack for The Wild One with Marlon Brando. More on him below. Some of the music was arranged by Johnny Mandel and Bill Holman, and featured trumpet solos by Chet Baker.) On television, there was Peter Gunn, 77 Sunset Strip, M Squad, The Untouchables, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and The Naked City.

Watching these movies and shows, viewers caught:

The NBC series Johnny Staccato (it ran 27 episodes from 1959 to 1960), which starred John Cassavetes as the title character, a jazz pianist who worked on the side as a private detective to make ends meet. Episodes featured the likes of Shelly Manne, Red Norvo, and Barney Kessel (all, interestingly, cool jazz players). The hip, swinging soundtrack came from Elmer Bernstein.

Before the Johnny Staccato gig, Cassevetes made his film Shadows. The story involves three siblings, two of whom are jazz musicians, all of whom are part of the Beat Generation. Charles Mingus provided the soundtrack.

Godard’s Breathless features Martial Solal’s jazz score, which alternates between swaggering big band passages and Solal, on piano, playing the insinuating theme. The protagonist Michel, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, wants to be like Humphrey Bogart, an archetype of American cool. The movie itself, and the French New Wave movement in general, stands on the shoulders of American film noir and the cool stance.

Something of a one-man planet of cool, David Amram played jazz on the French horn and was not only a pioneer of the Third Stream movement, but one of the few who successfully integrated jazz and world music into composed forms and structures. He was either a friend and/or colleague of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Davis, Mingus, Aaron Copland, Dimtri Mitropoulos, Leonard Bernstein, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Langston Hughes (a partial list). His film scores include Splendor in the Grass, The Manchurian Candidate, and Pull My Daisy (a Beat film narrated by Kerouac).

Marlon Brando, there at the dawn of cool in The Wild One, and later starring in A Streetcar Named Desire with Alex North’s score, was the lead in Last Tango in Paris (1972). Last Tango has a great, burning jazz score from Gato Barbieri. Brando is at the center of the picture below, sandwiched between Stevie Wonder and Dick Gregory. This was taken in 1978 at the end of The Longest Walk, a 3,800 mile protest March from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Muhammed Ali sits at far left, and at the far right is David Amram, perhaps catching a glimpse of cool disappearing over the cultural horizon.

A group photo from 1978 at the end of The Longest Walk, a 3,800 mile protest March from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Muhammed Ali sits at far left, and at the far right is David Amram. Marlon Brando is at the center, sandwiched between Stevie Wonder and Dick Gregory.

A group photo from 1978 at the end of The Longest Walk, a 3,800 mile protest March from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Muhammed Ali sits at far left, and at the far right is David Amram. Marlon Brando is at the center, sandwiched between Stevie Wonder and Dick Gregory.

This was pop culture with mass dissemination and appeal. More people watched John Cassevetes play the piano and solve crimes to a jazz soundtrack than ever buy a jazz record nowadays. Overseas, the French New Wave was consciously trying to create a new idea of cinema, and for that they turned to jazz. Just Roger Vadim alone used jazz for And God Created Woman, Dangerous Liaisons (that one was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers), and No Sun in Venice, with the Modern Jazz Quartet. In Poland, director Jerzy Skolimowski (who once said about movies, “There must be boxing, there must be jazz, there must be a cool guy who has a scooter and meets pretty girls, and from time to time has some reflections”) hired Krzysztof Komeda to make the jazz score for Innocent Sorcerers. Komeda, possibly the most important European jazz musician, went on to score important Polish movies in the late 1950s to mid-1960s. More than just the style of the music, it was an existential political statement, a vote for intellectual and aesthetic conscience in a totalitarian society. Jazz was not just cool, it was the sound of freedom.

Jazz is no longer popular which ensures a niche in the landscape tiny enough to be inherently cool.

Jazz still is cool, almost by default. It’s no longer popular, which ensures a niche in the landscape tiny enough to be inherently cool. Hip things are happening in the music, but it’s so under the radar that painfully un-hip squares like John Blake at CNN turn out sesquiannual complaints about how jazz lost its audience, how you can’t hum along with the tunes anymore, how jazz should be more like the smooth R&B I hear when I’m driving in my Lexus—now that’s cool!

This has been going on for some time. There’s a story about Miles being approached by a fan during the ‘60s, when his music was loping ahead of every genre and convention. “Man, I could get with you back in the ’50s, but I can’t get with what you’re doing now,” the fan said to Miles, who responded, “Well, you want me to wait for you?” This may be apocryphal, and the historical truth of it matters not compared to the thematic truth, which is that the cutting-edge proceeds to cut, trailblazers continue to show us their backs as they move forward into the unknown, and for an important period of time, the movies sought to be at the edge, and so they sought out jazz.

Jazz didn’t let down listeners or the culture, the culture let down jazz; the culture got square. Look around for something cool, there’s almost nothing left. There are certain things that are considered cool, like industrial and graphic design, but those are inextricable from materialism and consumerism, the predominant -isms of our culture, the very type of thing from which cool in the past had deliberately separated itself. There are figures in pop culture who at times impress cool upon the world at large, like George Clooney and Walt Frazier, but they move in and out with seasons and events, and are far from constant presences in our minds and in the culture as a whole. President Obama is perhaps the only true cool person left, certainly showing that quality through the years of the most frenzied racist response to his very existence.

Jazz didn’t let down listeners or the culture, the culture let down jazz; the culture got square.

Perhaps cool is turning out to be a historical curiosity. It came out of African-American culture, which has always been at the leading edge (as well as heart) of American culture, and it specifically came out of jazz, which—even when it was popular—was counterculture before there was even a mainstream popular culture, with nice vines and reefer a part of the scene for musicians and music lovers alike.

Then came WWII and a host of social changes: continued African-American migration from the South, women in the workplace (and armed forces), the GI Bill. There was money, ideas, a sense of independence, and a massive number of Americans who had been under the authoritarian command of the military and left wanting to be “free fucking agents,” in the words of Beat poet Jack Spicer. Add to that the contemporaneous rise of consumer culture and the mass culture of television to amplify it, and a handful of giant figures bestride the pop culture landscape in the form of musicians and movie stars, and you had cool as a thing to emulate and aspire to, a thing that seemed almost within reach. But with the corrosive power of water, capitalism eventually subsumes everything. A reaction to the last, decadent stages of the tail end of cool, punk was commodified immediately. “You say you want a revolution,” was used to sell Nikes, and, largely because of Steve Jobs, making money through technology became the cool thing to do. Everyone has a hoody because rich man Mark Zuckerberg has a hoody, but Mark Zuckerberg isn’t cool; wearing a hoody doesn’t make you cool. James Dean is long dead, and James Deen is a pornstar. Humphrey Bogart weeps, while Mr. and Ms. Businessperson drive down the highway in their leased luxury coupe, searching for music that rewards their own success.

In an uncool world, where does a mass audience find jazz? We don’t go to the movies anymore, the movies come to us, on demand, more and more frequently pre-packaged for an audience that seeks the comfort of their anesthetic pleasure of choice. Contemporary hipster soundtracks reflect what has happened to that social group—no longer outsiders, their lifestyle of exacting consumer choice is as conformist as it comes. Exceptions cannot help but stir a feeling of nostalgia for what has been left in the past. In the great tradition of jazz soundtracks and the brilliant political paranoia of The Manchurian Candidate and The Parallax View comes Darcy James Argue’s Real Enemies. Made to be experienced live in a theater, accompanied by a film that is a fascinating exercise in propaganda by innuendo, assertion, and insinuation, the music runs with smooth intelligence through vignettes about government mind-control experiments, the Kennedy assassination, the faked moon landing … oh, it wasn’t faked? Are you sure? Ensembles and solos make meaning out of action, trying to make sense of the bewildering flow of information. It’s not meant to please; it’s meant to seduce, exactly what coolness is supposed to do. It’s enough to warm an old hipster’s heart.

Uniquely Together: The Chicago Paradox

Old Colorful Marbles in a Glass Jar

The Ear Taxi Festival coincides almost exactly with the 100th anniversary of the publication of Carl Sandburg’s seminal collection Chicago Poems, which—while wholly unintentional—is still a neat coincidence.  Sandburg did as much as anyone to cement Chicago’s reputation as a city of rough-hewn individuals who created a great metropolis through physical labor and are justifiably proud of it, and I see Ear Taxi in a way as the musical manifestation of this: a celebration of the individual composers and performers who have created a bustling contemporary music scene and who are, if you missed the posts on social media, also proud of it.

Five years after Sandburg’s poems were published, Ben Hecht would paint the city with similar strokes in his great collection of stories, which was later published as 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago. In Hecht though, the rugged individualism of Sandburg is combined with a search for a common thread—or motif, in his words—that connects everyone he wrote about. To me, this is an impulse also present in Ear Taxi, as the festival is an attempt to bring all of the disparate styles and the whole tangled mass of creative musical energy in the city under one metaphorical roof.  This uniquely Chicago paradox has always fascinated me.  It’s a city of individuals with an entrepreneurial streak and a DIY mentality who work hard to build from the ground up, but who are also very interested in finding their shared identity.

Over the years, I’ve seen numerous attempts to codify Chicago’s various arts scenes. Whether it’s film or music summits, the Architecture Biennial, the Sonic Impact Festival, Chicago Improv Fest, Lake FX, the Chicago International Music and Movies Festival, or one of many others, the intention is to show off the entire range of any given art form happening in the city and put it in one place. As another example, a few years ago Boeing donated a large sum of money to the Elastic Arts Foundation to create, which was meant to be a one-stop shop for all live music in the city. But, though their efforts to include every performance in Chicago were nothing less than heroic, the task proved impossible as there is simply too much happening.   The quixotic attempt, however, is uniquely Chicago. One thinks immediately of architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham’s famous maxim to make no small plans.

There is something innate that causes Chicago to celebrate the individual while searching restlessly for shared identity, and I believe this has led to an unusually tolerant arts scene.

This constant search to find a shared identity among disparate individuals reminds me of a story in Plato’s Symposium.  In the work, Socrates, Aristophanes, and the boys are up late drinking and, as boys will do, they start talking about the origins of love. Aristophanes says that in the beginning humans were not individual entities but two separate people fused together which, according to him, was actually a happy arrangement. Unfortunately though, as in so many other mythological tales, we somehow offended the gods and Zeus promptly sent one of his ever-ready thunderbolts to cleave us in half. Now we spend our lives searching to be made whole again.

I believe the metaphor transcends geographic and cultural boundaries.  Chicago is a famously divided city yet there is something innate that causes it to celebrate the individual while searching restlessly for shared identity, and I believe this has led to an unusually tolerant arts scene.

The style wars did not hit Chicago as hard as in other places.  Composers in Chicago didn’t always approve of other composers, and they didn’t always believe certain directions were fruitful or had artistic merit. But when the call to unity came, it was generally heeded.  Sure, for the most part we’re still very much clumped along academic lines: if you are a composer who went to Northwestern, for example, most likely it’s Northwestern groups who play your music. But that’s natural. What’s unique about Chicago is that there is always a basic assumption that everyone, regardless of affiliation, is adding to a collective scene and that their contribution to that scene is important.

I’ve seen this tolerance firsthand numerous times, but I really put it to the test in 2004 when I created an organization called Accessible Contemporary Music. “Accessible” isn’t exactly a hip word now, but it was practically obscene back then. I got a decent amount of crap for it, naturally, but when leaders of Chicago’s new music community got together to decide how we could all best cooperate to mutual benefit, there was a seat for me at the table. I’m not entirely certain that this would have happened in another city. It’s not that Chicago is more enlightened than other places, it’s just that all voices are welcome as it continues this interesting search for a collective identity.

It’s not that Chicago is more enlightened than other places, it’s just that all voices are welcome as it continues this interesting search for a collective identity.

When we sat down in the basement of Symphony Center in 2005 to formulate what would eventually become New Music Chicago, interestingly enough most of us at that time did not know there had been a previous organization with the same name that flourished in the 1980s under the leadership of Patricia Morehead (who was also the artistic director of CUBE, Chicago’s second contemporary music ensemble) and George Flynn (whose Chicago Soundings series started at the Green Mill jazz club in the 1970s and continues today).  Ours was not a conscious attempt to resurrect the former organization, but an example of the city’s latent urge toward unity manifesting itself through us. To paraphrase Voltaire, if New Music Chicago didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent it.

Chicago in many ways is a kind of self-contained universe, a place for artists to thrive by turning inward. I believe that in many ways this is because of the vitality of the ubiquitous storefront theater scene.  If you live anywhere in the city, it’s unlikely you live more than a few blocks from a small theater.  But the small theaters get big reviews every bit as often as the Goodman or Steppenwolf do, and the small storefronts are widely considered to be the place for innovative, edgy productions. The goal isn’t to send a production to New York or London, the focus is instead on the work itself.

You can see this in the visual arts as well. Chicago’s most important art movement may be the Chicago Imagists, which includes several interestingly named sub movements like the Hairy Who, the Non-Plussed Some, and the Monster Roster.  Most of these artists never left Chicago and, as such, they created unique local styles and are kind of the epitome of a bonded group of distinct individuals.   They represent the proud Chicago tradition of loudly not caring about the goings-on in other cities, and they cite staying in Chicago as having given them the freedom to develop according to their innermost desires rather than larger trends.

So it’s not all that surprising that, as the contemporary music scene in Chicago has begun to really thrive, it has grown up along similar lines.  Though the downtown Loop was once the go-to concert destination, performances now frequently happen throughout the city, mirroring the storefront theater trend. Over the years, as new ensembles have sprung up like musical weeds, I’ve seen shows in former mansions, furniture stores, cabaret clubs, jazz clubs, empty storefronts—even an empty restaurant that had gone out of business.

Chicago may never find the unity that it’s searching for, but the search has created a unique arts scene where its individuals can flourish and be truly creative.

When Ralph Shapey moved to Chicago in 1964 his colleagues widely assumed he was moving to a contemporary music desert but, even assuming that were true at the time, it’s certainly not the case anymore. Composers and performers are moving to the city every bit as much to be part of the scene as to go to school, and those who move to the city for their studies are increasingly sticking around after they finish.  In just the last five years, the number of emails I get about new music performances has increased three-fold and it shows no sign of stopping. The range of music being performed is dizzying.

Ear Taxi is the most ambitious attempt yet to bring all of this disparate activity and unruly DIY individualism under one roof, and the audacity is something at which Sandburg, Hecht, and Burnham would have nodded approvingly—probably through a thick haze of cigar smoke.  Chicago may never find the unity that it’s searching for, but the search has created a unique arts scene where its individuals can flourish and be truly creative.

Seth Boustead

Seth Boustead is a composer, radio host, arts manager and writer, concert producer, in-demand speaker and visionary with the goal of revolutionizing how and where classical music is performed and how it is perceived by the general public.

Chicago New Music as assemblage; or, why are we doing this?

Pinned Chicago, Illinois

I realize that there is an imbedded irony in a person who lives and works in Chicago new music making this observation, but I’ll do it anyway: it seems like people outside of Chicago talk a lot about new music in Chicago. Why is this?

From my vantage point—the lives-here, works-here one—I want to guess at an answer by saying tentative things, stutter while I do so, and use the shrugging shoulders emoji at the end of what I say. I want to make a weak claim, not a strong one; I don’t want to assert that what is happening in Chicago is truly unique or mystically special or importantly revolutionary. I don’t have the expertise to be able to make such a claim (and, actually, a suspicion of expertise is a strain in a mode of artistic production here). What I want to hypothesize is that Chicago is a particularly concentrated expression of confluences in current culture, and that the evidence of this is both the explosive energy of the city’s new music community in recent years and also how hard its characteristics are to pin down. This essay (in both senses: “a piece of writing,” but also “try” or “effort”) is one of a number of attempts I’ve made to theorize Chicago new music, and inherent in these attempts is—as an axiomatic presupposition surely, an ever-present anxiety maybe—an awareness that I could be wrong. Going a bit further: my tendency to theorize, my hypothesizing impulse, my weak-claim-making, is a very Chicago-new-music-esque characteristic.

What comes to mind when I describe the character of Chicago new music are words like “provisional” and “transient”and “conditional” and “contingent” and “fragmented.”

What I want to hypothesize is that Chicago is a particularly concentrated expression of confluences in current culture.

A quintessential work of Chicago new music is something like George Lewis’s Assemblage, which he wrote for Ensemble Dal Niente (which I conduct) in 2013. It’s quintessential to Chicago new music because it was written for the Bowling Green New Music Festival by a Chicago-born improviser/scholar/composer/computer musician living in New York for a new music ensemble started ten years ago by a bunch of mostly students without jobs, composed in a style that references many other musics, and cast in a form that encourages the listener to “catch the bus and go along for the ride.” Thus, the city of Chicago is essential to the work’s creation, but its presence cannot be readily pointed to. The essence of its Chicago-ness, if one may say so, is the not-exactly-there-ness of Chicago. George was born in Chicago, cut his teeth as an experimental musician in the AACM, left to go elsewhere (Yale and Paris and San Diego and New York), has turned to notated composition only in relatively recent years. Ensemble Dal Niente (literally, “from nothing”) was initially a bunch of musicians—mostly from Michigan or Indiana or Texas or Georgia or Canada or Kentucky, and not too many of whom were actually born in Chicago—just trying to make stuff work because existing things didn’t satisfy. The Bowling Green New Music Festival is sort of close to Chicago I guess, kind of. “Both the title and the content of Assemblage refer to a type of visual artmaking that recombines and recontextualizes collections of natural and human-made objects,” writes George. Everything about the piece—its composer, the musicians for whom it was written, the form, its external references, the listener’s experience, the circumstances of its production—is provisional. It is the instantiation of the contingent, if such a thing isn’t a contradiction in terms.

To be less slippery, I buy a basic Marxian approach to culture (articulated and developed by, for instance, Adorno and other Frankfurt School theorists) that “means grasping[…] forms, styles and meanings as the products of a particular history” (to quote Terry Eagleton), as the results of a set of socio-economic conditions. It’s not merely that works tend to be about their place and time, or that composers consciously engage with political issues (say, the Eroica symphony or Shostakovich’s wartime works or John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls); it’s that every facet of culture creates the conditions for a piece of music, and this happens on many levels, including (and especially importantly) unconscious ones. We have a particular and peculiar situation in Chicago: it’s a very large city—the largest in a large region—that attracts intelligent, talented young people from this region and beyond. It has famous performing and visual arts institutions with histories of being famous. But these same institutions suffer from a certain second city-ism that makes them anxious about their own prestige and causes them to look to more famous arts institutions (in other cities) for art, and thus, they have only recently started paying close attention to the local new music scene. It doesn’t have many presenters, so the venue situation is often difficult. (Sure, there are a few staple places where you might go to sample various flavors of experimental music, and plenty of it: Experimental Sounds Studio or Elastic Arts or the Hideout, say; or famously, Constellation, for instance; this is mostly due to the hard work of an amazingly dedicated staff led by the inexhaustible Peter Margasak.) It’s hard to find funding. And while it’s not hard to make a living (it’s not as expensive as many East or West Coast metropolises), it’s hard making a living in music in Chicago. There are only a few universities and full-time orchestras, and there are a lot of people.

Chicago is simultaneously highly cosmopolitan and deeply provincial; this can be, depending on how you parse it, a painful contradiction to live in or a fruitful tension with which to engage.

Chicago is simultaneously highly cosmopolitan and deeply provincial; this can be, depending on how you parse it, a painful contradiction to live in or a fruitful tension with which to engage. Either way, these oppositions prompt the asking of a basic question: why are we doing this? Put another way, or perhaps to offer a provisional answer: if we have an intelligent community of musicians, audience members, and composers, yet the possibility of creating a sustainable, full-time career seems remote, we’d better do something that is really meaningful to us rather than exhaust ourselves chasing a phantasmagoric notion of “accessibility.” The financial stakes are often low. This is neither to promote a romanticized starving-artist mythos updated for the 21st-century US nor to suggest that well-funded art here can’t be authentic; it is to say that the fact that people here mostly aren’t either a) stringently competing for a place in a saturated PR/marketing landscape or b) doing all they can to scrounge up the most minimal, indifferent, bewildered of audiences, has a defining impact on the character, structure, and style of the art that’s made. The drive to specialize in order to compete, to niche-ify, is less urgent; people seem free to develop authentically.

This pushes a group like, say, Mocrep to play their instruments less and pursue performance art more. It pushes a group like Dal Niente in all kinds of different directions (a collaboration with Deerhoof, a portrait album of George Lewis, the performance of work by as many local composers as we can manage, plus lots of recent European music). Third Coast Percussion has begun writing pieces collaboratively, somehow finding time to do so amid a nomadic touring schedule. Spektral Quartet has made an art of the low-culture/high-culture juxtaposition with its Sampler Pack series. The Chicago Arts Initiative is a group of high school students who perform and compose collectively, founded by Dal Niente guitarist Jesse Langen. I read the work of local tape label/performance collective(?) Parlour Tapes+ as partially a non-high-culture re-imagining of the historical avant-garde (meant in Peter Burger’s sense). Chicago composers explore stylistic ideas of dizzying dissimilarity; the Northwestern doctoral composition recitals from November 2015 to May 2016 alone are a worthy dissertation topic. (If you don’t believe me, do check out the head-spinningly diverse aesthetics of David Reminick, Jenna Lyle, LJ White, Alex Temple, Chris Fisher-Lochhead, and Katie Young.) Do you find the prospect of exploring this series of links daunting? If so, welcome to my world.

[I have an impulse to put here some sort of “full disclosure” statement about who of the above are personal friends about whom I cannot be objective, but the truth is I know all of these people. This is not just okay, but actually great; I do not feign a non-existent objectivity or an impossible and undesirable disinterest.]

Eliza Brown wrote Prospect and Refuge (video here) for Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble in 2015. Here we go again: Eliza is a Chicago composer in the sense that she is from Philadelphia, teaches at DePauw in Indiana, but attended Northwestern and worked in Chicago for many years. Quince is a Chicago(ish?) group in the sense that only one of its members actually lived in Chicago at the time of this work’s writing but many of them are in Chicago often. “The result is an experimental music-theater piece, primarily intended for re-purposed or non-traditional performance venues, that depicts four private individuals meeting in a public space. The dramaturgy of the work—how it is interpreted and staged by the performers—is to be adapted according to the social history and/or function of each performance space,” says Eliza. This is a Chicago piece in multiple senses: it is written by and for Chicago musicians (“Chicago” as just described), and it has at its structural core a provisionality (can a core be provisional?). But paradoxically, it’s also just deeply structurally concerned with the place and time of its staging. This is not a work that is reproducible and commodifiable: you can’t find it in a Starbucks in Houston; rather, you might, but it would be a different piece. That Zach Moore wrote a similar piece for my DePaul School of Music group, Ensemble 20+, just months before, is telling. About the piece, “???” (Zach says, “I’m bad at titles”; I’m not sure I agree), he says:

I got into it for the obvious reason that a piece takes places at a specific time and place, and that is obviously a huge part of the piece (what the venue is like, who is there, what exterior sounds and movements are happening) yet they are somewhat uncontrollable, so to do it again would be a “different” piece. […] I don’t see reproducibility as any part of my practice. So, when I do a piece that’s performed once, I feel like it acts as a community event, more so than the premiere of “my” piece.

In March 2015, my friends Seth Brodsky and Philipp Blume held an enormous festival of the music of mathias spahlinger (spahlinger writes in militant lower-case letters) for his 70th birthday, in which I participated with my DePaul orchestra and Ensemble Dal Niente. It was a typical Chicago effort, mixing the DIY with the institutional. The Goethe Institute and the University of Chicago and DePaul University were among the kind, supportive sponsors, but we made every dollar count. The festival included an ambitious string of performances, a thoughtful symposium, and an elegant program book. This was an event that was simpatico with the experimental, make-it-work character of our new music scene; perhaps a proposed resistance to a commodified concert-going and -making, a different way of doing things expressed in the work of a composer with many years experiencing thinking about precisely that question. Says spahlinger about his doppelt bejaht (“doubly affirmed”): etudes for orchestra without conductor:

artworks too are manufactured and distributed according to the conditions of the market, and more to the point: their innermost constitution is itself dependent on the means of production, inculcated in power relations and their corresponding patterns of thinking. […]

playing instructions for doppelt bejaht were devised with the aim of focusing the musician’s attention and responsibility on the whole—a whole which, since it involves new music, can only be contradictory, open whole, changeable in itself and actually changing itself.

spahlinger is an exciting figure to me not because he’s a Famous German ComposerTM, but because he’s a person who has simply been granted the time and means to work on these various issues in depth. What drew me to him is that his life’s work does a more thorough and complete job of approaching cultural problems in our world and recent past than my own analysis does. His critiques of commodification are penetrating and moving as musical experiences.

The festival was roundly criticized in the Chicago Tribune for not having been well-enough advertised.

so, why are we doing this? music (not: is, but) can be a way to communicate (and to understand by ourselves), what we are, want to be, and will be by finding out, what is our way.

spahlinger wrote to me after the festival, in response to certain of my soul-searching queries:

you ask some first and last questions and i take this very seriously by saying: try to give yourself preliminary answers[…]

so, why are we doing this? music (not: is, but) can be a way to communicate (and to understand by ourselves), what we are, want to be, and will be by finding out, what is our way. [Author’s note: read this sentence a few more times; it’s worth your while.]

sorry, this is not very specific.

Here I feel that I have reached a satisfying conclusion; I have sketched the essence, or the rather, the process, of Chicago new music’s transient state. Yet I must say more. On the one hand, everything I write above is consonant with my experience and so deeply felt that I’ve restlessly redefined my career trajectory because I feel inspired by the exciting work I see on a daily basis. I feel that I have theorized in a nuanced, sympathetic, friendly manner the work of my colleagues. On the other hand, it’s painfully clear that there’s an awful lot I’m leaving out. I’m aware that I haven’t mentioned a number of Chicago new music organizations: Chicago Composers Orchestra, Fulcrum Point New Music Project, Eighth Blackbird, Contempo, CSO’s MusicNOW. I recognize that, even in the list of organizations I’m leaving out, still more remain left out. What I initially called “a weak claim, not a strong one,” is shown to be all the weaker. There are vast numbers of complicating factors, and only the embrace of these will give us a fleeting glimpse of the reality of the situation: that there is not a unified whole to be grasped.

Chicago new(?) music is no longer emerging, it is emerged.

I said earlier in this piece that “[famous arts] institutions […] have only recently started paying close attention to the local new music scene.” This is true. Ensemble Dal Niente, Third Coast Percussion, New Music Chicago have just entered their second decade. Those groups are no longer new; Chicago new(?) music is no longer emerging, it is emerged. Famous arts institutions are beginning to pay attention to local new music (for instance: CSO’s MusicNow, led by Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek, has commissioned Katie Young, Kyle Vegter of Manual Cinema, Marcos Balter, Sam Pluta—all current or former Chicago residents). Thus, my analysis here can also be described by all of the adjectives I initially used to describe Chicago new music: Provisional. Transient. Conditional. Contingent. Fragmented. This is a scene entering a new phase of existence, and the socio-economic circumstances will—unavoidably—alter its style, forms, media, and contents. I don’t know whether it will be for better or for worse, and I don’t know if the categories of “better” and “worse” will make sense as analytical tools. Honestly, I just have no idea what’s going to happen.

Michael Lewanski

Michael Lewanski

Chicago-based conductor, educator, and writer Michael Lewanski is conductor of Ensemble Dal Niente and assistant professor of Instrumental Ensembles at the DePaul University School of Music. He wishes to thank Deidre Huckabay for her help refining ideas in this essay.

Sounds of Futures’ Past

I am afraid of the future.

Not for myself—I likely only have a few decades left, and there’s only so much that time can bring. But I have a daughter, a little girl, and it’s quite possible she will see the turn of the next century. There is no manifestation of our ongoing, 250-year process of terraforming that I will be able to protect her from, and that terrifies me.

What will she see—that is, if there is anyone left? More than a question of what the Earth will look like, I wonder what will be left of us, what we will leave behind. The Earth will abide; civilization is the open question.

Older, lost civilizations come down to us through objects that have managed to endure and that bear information: writing, images, symbols. Our own printed paper, painted images, and sculptures are also likely to last to some extent. I’m doubtful about the lifespan of these words that I’m writing. You are able to read them because of how fundamentally cheap digital media is, but that same cheapness means they are eminently disposable—they barely even exist. They’re just ordered bits on a storage device that can be erased, destroyed, or that will eventually, simply, de-cohere.

As much as for words, this is the contemporary and burgeoning state of music. Unlike older, lost civilizations that had no means to record and preserve audio, nor a method for notating musical instruction, we have been preserving sound for 150 years, and digital audio has been accumulating like an avalanche at easily the same speed as digital words.

Then there is all the physical media: vinyl, tape, CDs. Of these, tape is the most unstable, vinyl is fairly hardy if handled delicately, and CDs are predicted to last up to, or beyond, 200 years. And there are so many other places to find recorded audio: celluloid film, video game cartridges, Speak and Spell and other toys, the Mellotron.

But these are all based on technology and need a means with which to reproduce the sound, from a cylinder player to a set of AA batteries. As the massive, and especially plastic-based, manufactured detritus of consumer society accumulates, we are likely to leave behind stores, warehouses, veritable foot hills of this stuff. Will there be a means to play recordings, and will anyone be around to hear them? Just as recordings are ghostly hauntings from the past, so too will our sounds haunt the future. But which ones? What will be the sounds of the future’s past?

Not music, but sounds. Through the thousands of years of civilization, we have developed a large-scale, consistent, and constantly developing consensus on the nature of music, and we have made music, with deliberate intention, as a basic element of human society. While all sound recordings are a document of the past, all older music, from Haydn to Hendrix, is a document to some extent, a time capsule into the epochal currents and values that were the context for that melody, that rhythm, that set of chords.

Will music, in that sense, survive, and will it be recognized as such? Between a Bach CD and a bicycle bell found in a pile of garbage by some future scavenger, which is likely to be heard? For that future human, the bell will be the music of the ancients.

Walter M. Miller Jr. thought this through in his extraordinary 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. His context was different—the apocalyptic threat in the mid-20th century was nuclear war, not environmental catastrophe—but his fundamental question was the same: what of civilization would endure in the aftermath.

His answer was that the Catholic Church would survive in some way, with a new Vatican located somewhere in North America. Within the church, a new monastic order arises, dedicated to Saint Leibowitz. Before the war, the Saint was Isidore Leibowitz, an electrical engineer working in some capacity for the government. After, he was martyred during the Great Simplification, when the survivors destroyed any bit of learning and knowledge, burning books and people alike.

The original cover for Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz published in 1960.

The original cover for Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz published in 1960.

The Order of St. Leibowitz exists to preserve as much of the past as they can find, via the medieval method of copying by hand—it is the sacred Memorabilia. Everything matters, even if it is incomprehensible:

The monks waited. It mattered not at all to them that the knowledge they saved was useless, that much of it was not really knowledge now, was as inscrutable to the monks in some instances as it would be to an illiterate wild-boy from the hills; this knowledge was empty of content, its subject matter long since gone. Still, such knowledge had a symbolic structure that was peculiar to itself, and at least the symbol-interplay could be observed. To observe the way a knowledge-system is knit together is to learn at least a minimum knowledge-of-knowledge, until someday—someday, or some century—an Integrator would come, and things would be fitted together again. So time mattered not at all. The Memorabilia was there, and it was given to them by duty to preserve, and preserve it they would if the darkness in the world last ten more centuries, or even ten thousand years.

One monk, Brother Francis, finds sacred relics, including a shopping list: “Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.” One item is a circuit diagram, which he painstakingly copies, then illuminates, as a gift to the current Pope. He has no idea what it means, nor do any of his peers, the shapes nothing but “thingamabobs,” but to Francis it is both beautiful and marvelous and it is to be maintained and carried forward into the future, a fragment of old knowledge that might yet become integrated into a new civilization.

(In the end, civilization does arise again, in great part due to the efforts of the Order. In the conclusion, which is both horrific and poignantly hopeful, the monks continue their mission, just not on this planet.)

These visions of how the past views the post-apocalyptic future have likely been with us since man first imagined what the next day might bring. Their cultural legacy has survived primarily through writing and the visual arts, and in a mis-en-abime of the medium is the message, they focus on what the painter envisions, what stories the writer thinks will be told, and what surrounds us in the present day. And so J.G. Ballard, whose first novels chillingly (and perhaps presciently) predicted civilization’s destruction coming at the hands of wind, drought, melting ice caps, and scientific disaster, saw the gnostic literature of the present and future in billboards and news magazines.

This haunting, wrenching, agonizingly complex concept of a post-apocalyptic cultural legacy has certainly existed in music for thousands of years. Fragments of Medieval music concerned with the End of Days have come down to us, and apocalyptic thought began neither in Europe nor with Christianity. But the context of that music is the Second Coming, a redemptive and transformative event. And with no means to preserve the sounds of what was the present in the 10th century, nor that advantage of a post-Cageian concept of what constitutes music, there was no thought toward what the past might sound like to those who might come after.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, those thoughts are rapidly, if inchoately, encroaching. There is more to the exponential rise in drone music than just the prevalence of technology, there is a vision floating around in the zeitgeist of a world emptied of people. As Joanna Demers writes in her book Drone and Apocalypse (Zero Books, 2015), “Apocalypse as a cataclysm draws a line between the present and the future, presence and absence. It is an emptiness, a threat or a hope of a revelation … but it is unthinkable insofar as we cannot claim to have already lived it.”

But drone music and field recordings make it easy to think about the apocalypse. There is the music of corrosion and desolation made by William Basinksi, Herbst9, Lost Trail, Patrick Emm, and Howard Stelzer. Beyond the dolorous calm of drones and the strangely comforting sounds of emptiness, the subliminal aura of vast machinery functioning without human supervision, there is in particular cases (especially Basinski) the use of decaying technology and media.

Philosophically and aesthetically, this music is a companion to the final movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 6, a narrative that contemplates nuclear annihilation and a landscape emptied of humanity. Our specific, contemporary anxieties make that movement, and the long line of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, sound like explorations of entropy.

This music is post-apocalyptic in the sense that it is music for a transformed and empty future. For what a future Brother Francis might hear, and might believe (not incorrectly) that we heard—for just what might appear to the future as the music of the past—listen to Fossil Aerosol Mining Project. Without intending, this long-standing and quasi-anonymous collective is an Order of St. Leibowitz of sound, making audio “symbolic structures” out of literal shards and fragments of civilization.

Fossil Aerosol Mining Project's earliest public release was the 1987 cassette-only Simulated Mutation.

Fossil Aerosol Mining Project’s earliest public release was the 1987 cassette-only Simulated Mutation.

The Project rose during another era with apocalyptic overtones, the Reagan-era ‘80s, the last great hurrah (one hopes) for the idea of nuclear annihilation. Robert, who founded FAMP, describes their start as just a bunch of friends exploring suburban ruins in their home state of Illinois, digging through the debris of abandoned houses, shopping malls, and movie theaters. The stuff they found—objects, images, audio-visual equipment, “fragments of open reel 1/4’ tape and 35mm film recovered from burnt out warehouses and abandoned drive-in theaters”—they assembled into visual art, video, and tape loops. They knit together symbols of the cultural past into scrapbooks of preserved knowledge, without context or critical argument.

Initially short-lived, and with only two limited edition cassettes released in the late 1980s, Robert and various new members have revisited the project through the years. Since 2004, FAMP has been remixing and reissuing old recordings and creating new ones, including re-recording previous recordings via their old found equipment in sites they previously visited, and a new CD, Revisionist History, that celebrates the 30th anniversary of their first cassette and that recontextualizes older recordings with new material. (There is also a 1988 recording of a live performance in the basement studios of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that streams at Mixcloud.)

What they collected and made at times had a conscious expression of anxieties about the present and possible future—what their official history describes as “inadvertent examples of the post-industrial, post-apocalyptic landscapes so commonly imagined in Cold War-era media. Places and desires that fostered views of modern pop mummified, and contemporary provisions made artifact. Zombie pepsis (sic) and fossil aerosols.” There are recognizable fragments, deliberately placed in some of the recordings, of audio from George Romero’s seminal zombie movie Dawn of the Dead.

Listening to their recordings is immersive, haunting, troubling—a mix of beauty, fear, and hope. There are the gauzy, warm drones, the reliable and grounding loop points, but there are also the voices.

Yes, the voices. There is the report that “Communications with Detroit have been knocked out, along with Atlanta” from Day of the Dead. There is the spoken introduction to the TV series In Search Of (“This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture …”). There are culturally familiar but unidentifiable fragments of news reports and televangelists and half-remembered movies. And then there are moments where you hear a phone ring, someone picks it up, and a man asks, “Yeah, can I listen to tape 60?” Is that an accidental archival recording from a business or a training center?

All the voices are revivified through the recordings, and the ones like the last strike deep. There is something assuringly unreal about hearing film and TV dialogue—spoken as a performance, it comes from characters who are fundamentally features of the imagination. But the men on the phone were real, and sound real. What happened to them? Are they still alive?

From their past, they speak to us. Through the sound of corrosion and decay, they speak to us. This is upsetting, because we are their future; preserved and reproduced by FAMP, they need a reintegration with broader knowledge to be understood, and we don’t have the tools, only these fragments. Like ghosts, they haunt us but we can’t understand them. (And with mass-surveillance, mass-dissemination via social media, and mass digitization, will any of our voices, accidentally archived, haunt the future?)

These are transmissions, speaking to us from the past, in what might be the mundane routines of personal and professional life. Much of what you hear on FAMP recordings was never music, but in an audio collage, it takes on the inherent qualities of music: timbre, pitch, rhythm, a developing structure through time.

This is listening in the post-apocalypse. This is a music of the future, heard in the present, and because it is made with real materials, it is as frightening as the terrifying messages from the future sent to warn the characters in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. FAMP’s recordings are broadcasts from the interior planet of cultural memory, excavations of the bunker, the sacred shopping list and circuit diagram as music. They force us to contemplate the future and the end of civilization.

Human music will survive, but who will hear it? Like emissaries from the Order of Leibowitz, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft each carry a “Golden Record,” an aluminum-jacketed, gold-plated copper disc analog recording (thoughtfully packaged with a cartridge and needle). The Golden Records contain greetings in fifty-five languages, recordings of space, human, industrial, environmental, and animal sounds, and ninety-minutes of actual music: including Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Pygmy and Aboriginal songs, Azerbaijani music, a honkyoku piece from Japan, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, and Blind Willie Johnson singing “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” If there are any creatures in the depths of the universe who can discern this essential human activity known as music, perhaps they will hear that as a fitting epitaph to the human race. But is also quite possible they will think our world sounded like Beethoven, and that the sound of factories is our music. Like the fallout shelter signs at my daughter’s elementary school (a drill I—and Robert—went through for years but that she will never experience), the inherent meaning and purpose of the materials won’t survive.

The hopeful part of the sounds of futures’ past is that while there may only be fragments of our shattered civilization 100 years from now, Fossil Aerosol Mining Project know that there will be sounds, “songs of enhanced decay and faked resurrection,” and trusts there will be someone there to listen to them.

The cover of FOMP's album The Day 1982 Contaminated 1971

One of the FOMP’s most provocatively titled recordings is The Day 1982 Contaminated 1971 which was released in 2015.

George Grella is a composer, critic, and independent scholar. He is the music editor of the Brooklyn Rail, a freelance critic for the New York Classical Review, and the author of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.

What Happens When Composers Make Opera

As part of the New York Opera Fest this past June, I led a collaborative conversation at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall featuring some of the most prolific and interesting composers, librettists, and singers working in New York’s new opera scene:

James Barry – composer
Lauren Buchter – composer
David Cote – librettist
Daniel Felsenfeld – composer
Elisabeth Halliday – singer and co-founder of Rhymes with Opera
Joan La Barbara – composer and singer
George Lam – composer and co-artistic director of Rhymes with Opera
Jessica Meyer – composer and violist
Pamela Stein Lynde – composer, singer, and founder of Stone Mason Projects
Stefan Weisman – composer
David Wolfson – composer, librettist, and music director

The idea behind the talk was to get a sense of the challenges and opportunities that composers face when they set off on their new opera project. Prior to the actual conversation, I sent a questionnaire to the participants to gauge some of the experiences they have had making new opera. I found that the initial responses in the conversation grouped together under four main ideas: collaboration, process, vision, and quality. Our conversation together was framed by these big ideas and also by the request to reference as much as possible everyone’s real experiences making work. We had a wide-ranging and light-hearted exchange buoyed by a wealth of different experiences, opinions, and attitudes.

Aaron Siegel: We’re going to jump right in and start talking about collaboration. David [Cote], you had some very interesting things to say about collaboration.  You said that the composer may not be the king that he or she was in centuries back, but they still make the project live and breathe. They have maximum impact but must have support and preparation. My question for you is: what does it mean for an opera to live and breathe?

David Cote: I think that most operas begin with a composer and a librettist, whether that’s the same person or two different people. Maybe with a producer or a commissioning person who has a particular idea or subject that they want them to write about. Who knows where it starts? Or it might just start with those two writers together.

I am working with Rob Paterson on an opera called Three Way. We’re working on the third act right now, which is set at a swinger party. It has a lot of recitative in the first ten minutes, and it has a lot of different sections to it, even though it’s only a fifty-minute opera. And then there was a whole recit section that I realized, after we worked on part of it, had to go because we had already had a bunch of recit—we already knew who these characters were, and the music needed to drive the car. So that was a case where, dramaturgically, I just cut whole pages out of the libretto because the music has to drive this now.

Daniel Felsenfeld: I’m going to just quibble with the metaphor a little bit. There’s certainly nothing you said I disagree with, but it’s performers and directors who actually make an opera live and breathe. All the writers do is put things on paper. I would say that it’s not alive until it’s on bodies.

AS: I heard some composer/performers squirming at that. Do you guys feel that way? Is that your responsibility to bring the piece to life?

Elisabeth Halliday: Yes. I appreciated the earlier point about the commissioner and the performer being one and the same. I think that often the commissioner lays the groundwork for what they’re looking for, but also can be the source of inspiration. Both the composer and the librettist, if they’re in a vacuum writing a piece for a soprano, they’re going to feel very differently than if they’re writing a piece for Pam Stein Lynde, knowing what she can do. So there’s a bit of a circular aspect to a lot of music that’s happening now: it’s commissioned, then the process, and then it’s ultimately realized by the person or the group that began the process.

Pamela Stein Lynde: Yeah, I’d agree with that as well. I think it’s really important not to let any one person in the process be at the helm all the time. In order to create something that’s an organic experience artistically for the audience, it has to be something that was created by all parties involved.

Lauren Buchter, Jessica Meyer, Pamela Stein Lynde, and David Cote at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall (June 2016)

Lauren Buchter, Jessica Meyer, Pamela Stein Lynde, and David Cote

DF: When I’m writing the operas I’ve had the luxury to write, I like to put Pam Stein Lynde’s name in the score, rather than Soprano or Soprano Two. If a composer can kind of get in touch with the idea that this is going to be performed, and that it is ultimately nothing without the people who make it happen, I think that is a really beautifully symbiotic way of approaching it.

AS: James [Barry], I’m going to ask you to chime in here. In your comments to me, you said that you thought the impact of your leadership as a composer on the overall shape of the piece was one of inspiring your collaborators, performers, your creative/technical staff, to bring the highest caliber of artistry to the production and to create an opera that resonated with them. How do you know when a piece has resonated with your co-collaborators? What does that look like? How does that look for you?

James Barry: I think we’ve all written music that we don’t feel confident about. And it just doesn’t go very well. It doesn’t feel very good. And sometimes, you come up with an idea on a project that people really take to. With Smashed, the Carrie Nation Story, that’s what I felt like. Everybody really gave one hundred percent all the time. And I think that’s where the success came from. It was kind of raunchy and had a lot of bad language. And there was also a lot of improv built into the show, so it was different every night. And I think that’s why people—this cast at least—very much enjoyed rehearsals and performing on stage.

George Lam: I just worked on this opera about Dolly Parton even though I am not a huge fan of hers, and it has been ten years in the making. One of my singers, Robert Maril, is a big Dolly Parton fan, and I had worked with Robert for a long time. I said, “All right. So what would it be like if, as a composer…” and I’m sort of being an actor in that sense, I’m sort of slipping into a character of you, Robert, and pretending that this might be a project that would be interesting. I want to write about fans of Dolly Parton. And that was the germ of it. So, to start a conversation about making a piece with asking questions, or doing oral history, or figuring out how to talk with people that are going to be the audience for this piece. I think those are the things that make me resonate more with the process, and also hopefully with the artists.

Jessica Meyer: I feel like a lot of the sounds that I’m creating usually come from what inspires the performer. For instance, I wrote a piece for Amanda Gookin of the PUBLIQuartet. When I see her on stage, she’s at her sunniest and happiest when she’s improvising and slapping the heck out of a cello. I know that when I write for her, those things need to be in here. And so the song cycles I’ve been writing for singers, I’m really starting from a place of “what text really resonates with you?” Send me poetry that you love. And then we usually find something that we’re really both excited about, that both matches the kinds of things that I usually write, and then what the singers really want to sing. And so I guess that’s when that magic vibration happens, when you’re just excited, and you can’t ignore enthusiasm. And that’s the actual nucleus of a project. It’s a great place to go.

AS: Elisabeth, you said something that I thought was very interesting. You said that while you put a crude emphasis on composer/performer collaboration, you’ve also found it important that, once you get to the production, that the composer hand the reigns over to the director. What does it mean to hand over an opera? What does that look like? How do you do it? Do you have a meeting where you hand a box of stuff to someone?

EH: Well, of course, when you think of opera that isn’t new music, all these operas that have been performed for hundreds of years, the composers are not involved because they’re dead. And everyone’s comfortable with that concept. We reinterpret operas that have been around for a while. But I think once you bring in living composers, there’s this shift that happens where I think a lot of people have an assumption that since the composer is alive, they should have sort of ultimate say over their creation. But I think often there’s a blurring of roles between composer and librettist, and then director.  Where does one end, and the other begin?

I think for us [at Rhymes with Opera] it has been a question of figuring out what works best for us. Because of course, librettists have a right to their own interpretation. And of course, composers do as well. For us it’s definitely an ongoing process, but we’re interested in working with directors. And for us that seems to mean that at some point, the vision is handed over in a box, or a Dropbox…

DC: I’m in the middle of a process right now with Rob [Paterson] doing this opera for Nashville Opera, and we had a workshop recently. It was really interesting. I feel like this idea of process and collaboration has several phases. Right now, we’re in the process of trying out a new piano vocal [score] with our cast. And when they’re like, “Oh, can I change this note here? I can hit that higher,” we’re like, “Great, okay, write it in.” Or, “That phrase is a little awkward.” “Okay, let me rewrite it.” And so you’re collaborating. You’re inspiring them. They’re inspiring you. It’s a terrific, bubbling process. But to me, it’s all leading to a point—and this is a really terrible, terrible phrase we use, and it’s very uncreative and anti-process—where the score is singer-proof and director-proof, you know? Where basically we deliver you the box, and the idea works. It has bones. And it’s not just some sort of amorphous thing that you can set wherever you want. It is what it is.

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, and Joan La Barbara at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall, June 2016

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, and Joan La Barbara

Joan La Barbara: For me, the initial impetus is what it is I’m dealing with. What’s the inspiration of the piece? How do the techniques that I have developed work into that? How much traditional singing do I want to use, as opposed to non-traditional singing? I’m also now struggling with trying to get outside the issue of just writing for myself, and trying to write for other singers. How much do I want them to be able to replicate some of my techniques? How much am I willing to move out of that situation and really write for a larger section of the vocal population? Not just the ones who can do some of the techniques that I do.

I’m in the process of writing a piece for the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. When we went into one of the first rehearsals, I came in with drawings. And Francisco Núñez, who is incredibly generous, said, “Wow!” [Laughing]. But I said, “Just relax.  This is just part of my process. I will get to the point of turning my drawings into more traditional looking notation.” Which I have done. And so that’s been a really fascinating thing for him to come to grips with. And for me to come to grips with, as a composer, that I have to create something that other people can look at and make some sense of.

AS: I guess one question for you all, but specifically for you first, Jessica, is what’s the right time for a composer to influence the direction of the piece in this process that we’ve started to discover here? Obviously there are different varieties of this. But for you at least, what’s the right time?

JM: As a violist, I’ve been part of the whole chamber opera renaissance, the black box opera thing that’s happening. And I’ve noticed that there are these moments where the music has been workshopped, the opera is just a couple days away, and there are just some things that are still not working. And people are arguing about it. But the composer isn’t really involved in that moment anymore.

And so when I started thinking about the first opera I was going to write, as I’m reading a short story, I’m already thinking of the material I want on the stage. The dance is going to go like this. People are going to go in and out. I’m already thinking this way. When I started talking to other composers, “Well, what happens when you write opera?” some said, “First someone writes, you come up with the idea, and then someone writes the libretto, and then hands it to you.” And I’m like, “What do you mean?” I feel like the composer should be part of the process all the time.

DF: Sometimes the composers are out of the process, because this is the third production of their piece and they don’t care anymore. And sometimes, there is the moment where they say, “We need to fix this. We need a new aria.” And it’s very much more like, “Go to the hotel room and write the big number.” And it is so different. This is what I love about opera: there is no opera. There’s no one thing that’s opera. There are a bunch of little strings and strands, and we are a healthy representation of just the way you kind of get around the big system.

But the point is that we are not just redefining opera. We’re up here trying to redefine the way people perform, make, sing, produce, compose, and write librettos for opera. Because it’s up for grabs. It’s the Wild West at this point.

EH: I would love to just briefly negate what I had said previously, by saying that I think something that is often lacking is the luxury of time. If we had the time, we would absolutely get your composers with your singers and your librettists, and then you bring in your director, and then the composer comes back, and then maybe the librettist comes back, and then the director comes back, and it could be this really beautiful, beautiful thing, where there is maybe no ultimate timeline and it’s just this wonderful collaboration and revision. The problem is that we have two weeks for production and day jobs. And I think that’s what’s driving this compartmentalization of roles, rather than a feeling that artistically there should be a separation between the different processes.

AS: Let’s talk a little bit about this notion of vision. It’s not meant to be one thing. Right? Someone doesn’t have a crystalline vision and then try to create it. But I think one of the things that happens when you’re working in a collaboration is there’s kind of a push and pull around what it is that you’re actually doing, right? What is it that you’re creating? What does it look like?

JLB: The difficulty is that I have to raise all the money. I have to write the grant applications. I have to find a venue. So I have to cover all bases, which is difficult. I would love to have an opera company come to me and say, “Okay, we’re going to give you a shot at doing your thing. How can we manage to support what you want to do, and your vision?” And they let me build a team, and say, “We’ll give you x amount of dollars to do it.” Boy, would I love that. That’s not the position that I’m usually in. So I’m generally in the driver’s seat, as it were. Not comfortably, but that’s what I’ve had to do.

David Cote, James Barry, and David Wolfson at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall, June 2016

David Cote, James Barry, and David Wolfson

David Wolfson: When you have a final draft, the objective is to make it reflect not necessarily a single vision, but a range of visions, so that any given group of singers and directors who looks at it will come up with new ideas. But they’re not going to be like, “Oh! Well this is a farce,” when in fact it was meant to be something else. So then I think the idea of a vision, because it has to then go through performers and directors, is probably better thought of as a range of visions. A spectrum maybe.

AS: David [Wolfson], you write that, because you write your own libretti, that for you the shape of the music is hovering in the back of your mind from the very beginning. And this is something that I can relate to, because I really feel strongly that it’s a delight as a composer to write and imagine music at the same time, and not have those things be ordered. When you have the words and you have the music in your mind, and you’re in the process of transferring them into something that other people can see and work with, what else is in there? How are you processing all the things that are interacting in your head?

DW: The most difficult part of that is translating it to a stage picture. I very much live in words and live in music, and my first attempts in this direction were very static, physically—you know, talking heads. People sitting around talking to each other. I was lucky enough to have directors work with these things and discover that there was more that could be done  than I had originally thought about. That was a big lesson for me. I’m trying to incorporate this idea into the things I’m working on now.  There are people in space, and people do things. Panelists notwithstanding, they don’t just sit around and talk to each other.

DF: I don’t want to have a vision, because that means I’m going a little crazy—like an actual vision is like a visitation. But I think my job is to have a stage vision so I have at least done due diligence in thinking this is something that can be staged. And then to either tell the director, or never tell the director, depending on the director, but hopefully it’s someone I trust.

AS: I want follow up with Stefan [Weisman] on that same point, because one of the things that he said, which relates directly, is that he actually finishes the music before any real staging has been settled. So the director and designers have carte blanche to do their work. I wondered what you thought about that?

Stefan Weisman: I’m just a composer. So I write the music, and I am okay with letting other people do their job. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a vision or don’t have an opinion. I work a lot with Dave Cote and sometimes we make something and I wonder, how is that actually going to happen? And it’s nice to see it come to life. And if I don’t think it’s working, I can say so, but I’ve been humbled many times by people saying, “What’s your role and what’s my role?” And it’s an interesting process, that kind of collaboration.

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, Joan La Barbara, Elisabeth Halliday, and George Lam at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall, June 2016

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, Joan La Barbara, Elisabeth Halliday, and George Lam.

AS: We haven’t really talked about audience tonight at all. And I think that’s fine. But I want to just touch on it a little bit here, because something that Pam said made me think about that. You said that, more or less, composers are basically performers, educators, writers, producers, multimedia artists—that’s just the nature of the beast right now. And then you said that “because these artists are multitasking, they’re doing many things, wearing many hats, that it leads to a less segmented artistic process, and ultimately a better audience experience.” I’m really interested in what you mean by that.  How does a multitasking artist, someone who’s wearing multiple hats behind the scenes, impact on the experience of the people who are there to see the work?

Pamela Stein Lynde: One of the issues that I’ve had as an audience member is having the experience dictated to me. I want to create something where the experience is a little bit more open-ended and interpretive for the audience. I feel that when you have a process that’s more organic, and you have people working in a very even way, and people doing a lot of different jobs at once, you end up with a product that’s a little bit less segmented and more organic, and maybe more sincere, because of that. I would hope, at least.

EH: Well, I know that in Rhymes with Opera’s sordid past, we’ve had one or two experiences where we’ve controlled the music, and we’ve done a concert, park and bark type event.  But we decided to get some visual artists involved, because that’s what you do in contemporary music, when you’re not having any blocking. But we didn’t have the communication between the two groups, so we sort of showed up to do our music, and they showed up to do their visuals. The two had nothing to do with one another, and the vision was lost.

What 4’33” Teaches Us

I would like to begin anecdotally. My primary activity in music, aside from performing, is educating. I teach ferociously, intrepidly, and passionately. I teach 12-month olds, 24-month olds, 3-year olds, 4-year olds, pre-teens, teens, 20-somethings, 30-somethings, 40-somethings, retirees. I teach the mentally challenged, the exceptionally gifted, undergraduate music majors, undergraduates with a hobby in music, pre-collegiate young artists, and all ages under 18 as a glorified babysitter. I teach in classrooms, in lecture halls, in concert halls, in orchestra, choir, and band rooms, in my home, in students’ homes, in public libraries, on the street, in shopping malls, and remotely via Skype or email. I teach in English, in French, in Spanish, and sometimes in two at the same time. I teach piano, guitar, dramatic theater, voice, contemporary music, ear training, sightsinging, theory, harmony and counterpoint; I teach pop music, hip hop, jazz, classical, rock, R&B, boogie woogie, or a bizarre combination of all of the above at the student’s request; I teach friends, friends of friends, colleagues, fellow students, neighbors, lovers, family, strangers; I give career advice, school advice, work advice, relationship advice, marriage advice, family advice, tentative advice, adamant advice, and refuse to give advice at all;  I teach as early as 4 a.m, and as late as 1 a.m.; I teach 12 hours straight, I travel over an hour each way to teach for 30 minutes; I teach by course syllabus, by textbook, by photocopied handouts, by total free improvisation; I teach the hearing impaired solely by visual cues, linguistically impaired solely by ear… These are all the ways I’ve taught and continue to teach—this is a window into the lifestyle and profession of education. It is a living, breathing, shifting shape that transfers thought from one body to another, in real time and in real space. The act of teaching, that is, the dynamic means of transferring knowledge, mimics the shape—a shape that is perhaps unknowable, ungraspable, and unconquerable—of knowledge itself.

This introduction was meant to astound; I begin my discussion in this way because education truly is astounding. Astounded, I will position myself behind the work of Paulo Freire, whose book Pedagogy of the Oppressed I find relevant, profound, and articulate in expressing the need for education in the ongoing struggle for liberation of the unprivileged and oppressed peoples of the world.[1] This form of education takes shape beyond the restrictive nature of a classroom; pedagogy is indeed omnipresent, and potentially omnipotent. Pedagogy as a performative gesture can ignite political action, or embody a campaign for social justice in the good, raw form of the transmission and acquisition of knowledge, if we simply make the effort of acknowledging, receiving, and reinvigorating pedagogy’s potential role.

all performative acts are pedagogical in nature, and all art says something, even when that something happens to be nothing.

I will treat John Cage and, in particular, his momentous work 4’33”, which engages the performer(s) of the score to refrain from playing their instrument(s) for the entirety of four minutes and thirty-three seconds, as a pedagogical act. Willful silence, in all its performative manifestations, will be treated as pedagogical as well.

In order to understand the premise of this essay, the reader is required to welcome the assertion that all performative acts are pedagogical in nature, and that all art says something, even when that something happens to be nothing.

All performative acts are pedagogical in nature. Paulo Freire transgresses beyond the boundaries of the classroom in his discussion of pedagogy when he begins a chapter with the sentence: “A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, [emphasis mine] reveals its fundamentally narrative character.” “At any level, inside or outside the school” is an attempt to transgress the classroom—that is, to move against and beyond the boundaries of what we properly view as education.[2]

Art is something even when it is nothing; silence is something. Cage did say, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it,” but he also said that art is a form of complaint.[3] A complaint is external negativity—an un-externalized complaint is not a complaint at all. The uttering of words or production of bodily sound is what launches a critical thought or gesture into the externalized world, thus giving birth to a complaint. As we will explore deeper through examples, silence can be employed when sound is expected, as well as subverted when one expects silence. Later in the essay, this will be referred to as subverting silence / silently subverting.[4]

4’33” is an externalization, and powerfully so, of a deliberately shared thing, even if that thing happens to be silence, even if that thing happens to be no-thing. The thing, in this context, is a classical music composition, and the willful absence of that thing—the nothing—is 4’33”. Silence in a performance of 4’33” is knowledge willfully shared, willfully externalized; in short, a complaint. Silence, too, is a form of complaint, when conventions expect sound.

Empty frame on the wall

In classical music, silence is a loud complaint against the expectation of sound. Equally so, in a climate that values and expects explication from the artist, to say nothing is a loud, theoretical critique of the desire/need for critical theory that legitimizes one’s own artwork.

In pedagogy, silence can be understood as a fundamental explicative absence. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Jacques Rancière acknowledges the role of teacher in conventional classroom education:

In short, the essential act of the master was to explicate: to disengage the simple elements of learning, and to reconcile their simplicity in principle with the factual simplicity that characterizes young and ignorant minds. To teach was to transmit learning and form minds simultaneously, by leading those minds, according to an ordered progression, from the most simple to the most complex.[5]

What happens when Rancière’s “essential act of the master” disappears? What happens when teachers—that is any individual or group of individuals who transmit knowledge (knowingly or not)—no longer explicate? Can the power of silence debunk the expectation for the (school)master’s explication? If silence and absence are powerful educational tools, what purpose will explication serve? What power structure does the need for explication promote and non-explication silently subvert? As Rancière asks, “Were the schoolmaster’s explications therefore superfluous? Or, if they weren’t, to whom and for what were they useful?”[6]

I will briefly read scripts of silence that have little to say and plenty to teach. The heroes and heroines of these performative lessons include: 1) House democrats in a moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando shooting, 2) Black Lives Matter activists at a Bernie Sanders rally, 3) Muhammad Ali’s famous protest of the Vietnam War, and 4) my personal experience as a middle school music teacher. The tenor of these tales is the notion of subverting silence / silently subverting—that is, the subversion of silence when externally imposed, and the use of silence in order to subvert the expectation of sound. These stories breathe new life into the memory of John Cage’s 4’33”, while suggesting relevant pedagogical acts we can learn from today, and use tomorrow.

Democrats (not) in the House

In this particular iteration of silence, the House conducts a moment of silence for the Orlando shooting victims. What is not fascinating is that there was indeed a moment of silence given to the Orlando shooting victims, nor was it fascinating that the House erupted in protest immediately following that silence; what is notable is what Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did and said about the event, and why they were not there for it.

Announcing his boycott of the moment of silence the day before, Jim Himes contemned “silence. That is how the leadership of the most powerful country in the world will respond to this week’s massacre of its citizens […] Silence. Not me. Not anymore. I will no longer stand here absorbing the faux concern, contrived gravity, and tepid smugness of a House complicit in the weekly bloodshed.” Nancy Pelosi offered her view, “The fact is that a moment of silence is an act of respect, and we supported that. But it is not a license to do nothing.” By refusing to be silent, Himes and Pelosi create a vocal opposition; by creating absence where presence is expected, Himes and Pelosi become more performatively present than anyone else in the House.

“[A moment of silence] is not a license to do nothing” is an intriguing statement that illuminates the complexity of silence, subversion, and their dynamic pedagogical possibilities.

Moment of “Silence”

A common Black Lives Matter protest is 4.5 minutes of silence, to represent the 4.5 hours that Michael Brown’s body lay in the street following his murder. The moment of silence is not what is fascinating here—these moments of silence for Michael Brown were held throughout the country. What is fascinating is how Marissa Janae Johnson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Seattle, and her fellow BLM activists use vocal dissent to coerce their way onto the stage and onto the microphone, only to again subvert expectation with silence. When obedience to the scheduled speaker (Bernie Sanders) was expected of them, they were most vocal. Once in control of the microphone and expected to speak, they employed silence. These events express their progression from subverting silence to silently subverting, using both presence and absence through their presence, and playing the role of non-explicative schoolmasters.

A meaningful use of breaking silence is shown in the privileged protest of anonymous hecklers. This is an iteration of 4’33” that perhaps Cage could have conceived of in his lifetime. Cage’s 4’33” originally subverted the establishment (at the time, Eurocentric, academic, classical music composition), while here at a 2015 rally, BLM Seattle’s 4 minutes and 30 seconds of silence was a subversive act against the will of the audience. It was met by hecklers that represent establishment’s response to being subverted upon, a complaint upon a complaint, art upon art. Would Cage welcome this? Here, he claims that he would simply listen to some rude bodily noise, so perhaps the answer is yes. A year ago on my blog, I was moved to transcribe the unintentional participatory performance from this particular camera perspective, in honor of John Cage and in solidarity with BLM.

The Silver Tongued Poet Exercises His Right To Remain Silent

With the recent passing of Muhammad Ali, it is more than appropriate to look back upon his legacy as a teacher through the willful silencing of his Black voice, specifically his trip to Houston, Texas, on April 28, 1967 (14 years after the premiere of 4’33”). Ali did not have to take this trip. After receiving a letter from the U.S. Army, Ali could have simply filed as a conscientious objector like many others silently did, but instead, he used his celebrity to stage an important and unforgettable lesson. Ali flew from Chicago to Houston, took all physical and mental examinations, was tormented by doctors and army personnel, only to remain silent and motionless when his name was called. His name was called many times as “Cassius Clay,” and once, finally, in desperation, as “Muhammad Ali.” Each time, Ali did not respond. Ali, a man with the most agile of bodies, remained motionless. Ali, a man with the quickest, sharpest, and most eloquent of tongues, remained silent. In that moment, his pedagogical practice transgressed words and movement, and the oppressors’ expectations of them.[7]

Me in Middle School

Now, in 2016, I taught a general music class to middle school kids at a private school in Chicago. In one class, I thought it important that they watch a performance of 4’33”. It failed miserably—the kids laughed at the performer and found nothing of value in the work. I explained to them that they were criticizing the piece before truly hearing it, so I offered them the challenge of performing 4’33” together as a group before they offer any critical feedback, and they unanimously agreed to the challenge. So, I told them we would officially begin the performance of 4’33” when I give them the cue. I set the timer for 33 seconds (the duration of the first movement), started the timer, and gave the cue to begin. Several of the students laughed and made silly noises within the first ten of those seconds, but I let the movement go on without reprimand. I then went on to the second movement, 2’40” in length, during which the students began to hit the desk loudly, throwing pencils and other small objects at one another. They were having a great time. Still, I said and did nothing to sway their sounds and actions. I then gave the last movement of 1’20”, during which the bravest of students stood up and began roaming around the classroom, sometimes running, sometimes crawling underneath the desks. One student narrated their actions to the rest of the class in a voice somewhat akin to the late Steve Irwin. At this point, six of the 15 kids left their seats, at least 10 of the 15 were audibly laughing and/or talking, and not a single one of them was looking or listening to me. This is how this performance of 4’33” came to an end.

education, elementary school, learning and people

I’ve thought a lot about that day. I thought about the willful silence on my part as the (school)master as my authority was subverted on a more and more profound level with each passing movement. I thought about the willful subversion of silence on the part of the classroom, despite their unanimous desire to take the challenge of remaining silent. And finally, I thought about $35,100—the cost of yearly tuition at that school. I thought about what these kids must have thought and felt when they laughed, talked, and threw objects across the room, during a moment we collectively agreed upon as “silence.” I wonder if some day, perhaps much much later from now, they and I will find clarity in this silent lesson. Or perhaps not. Perhaps we, as a classroom, already do understand the lesson as best we can. When the lesson willfully explicates nothing, is there anything up for regurgitation—the classical evidence of having learned? Like any performance of 4’33”, perhaps it is only the feeling and the experience itself that we can walk away with. Perhaps there is nothing to say, and I am saying it, as an educator, as a thinker, as an artist.

This sentence was written as I prepare in Chicago for the longest day of the year, and I can’t help but notice how much darkness looms around me: personally, two friends’ parents have suddenly died; citywide, a scandal erupts in the theater community by the way of misogyny and abuse; statewide, a debilitating standoff is occurring on the state budget level; and nationally, an armed civilian killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. And another more banal, neutral—yet essential—piece of news: another school year has come to a close. This is all floating in the air as these words fall upon the page.

A pedagogical approach that aims to change society will be unsettling for all. Just as teaching is a challenge, learning is an equally great challenge.

Reflecting on pedagogy, as well as current events, it is perhaps now more than ever that we need a pedagogy that is simple, direct, and a fundamentally positive influence upon society. We need a pedagogy that uproots cowardice, questions authority, and subverts the angry, oppressive, harmful acts of the privileged classes in the oligarchical role they/we currently enjoy.[8] We need a new pedagogy that responds alongside the boundless dynamism of political struggles in wealth, race, gender, and sexuality, yet endeavors to liberate the circumscribed dynamism of power, currently—and wrongfully—defined by haves and have-nots.[9] Just as 4’33” incited negative reactions from its first audiences, truly liberatory education incites resentment and anger from many of those who already enjoy full liberty. A pedagogical approach that aims to change society will be unsettling for all. Just as teaching is a challenge, learning is an equally great challenge.

I believe this pedagogy can often manifest in silence, whether it is the silent subverting of the expectation of sound, or the subverting of silence itself by creating sound when it is not desired by an oppressor/oppressive force. Learning from 4’33” as a musician, performing silence can liberate or oppress, assuage or provoke, subvert or comply—education can do all of these things too. 4’33” mimics the unknowable, ungraspable, unconquerable shifting shape of knowledge itself. Whether Cage originally meant it in this way or not, 4’33” is an open invitation to critically engage with silence as a renewable pedagogical act.

Andy Costello

Andy Costello

Dedicated to the music of living composers, Andy Costello’s solo repertoire champions works by living composers all over the world. He is currently on the piano faculty of New Music School in Chicago, and he previously served as a visiting artist for the composition department at The Boston Conservatory and as a guest artist at Time Forms / Formes Temporelles, Columbia College Chicago, Laboratoire de Musique Contemporaine de Montréal, and Scotia Chamber Music Festival.

In Spring 2014, Andy founded the Morton Feldman Chamber Players (MFCP), a non-profit organization devoted to programming the solo and chamber works of Morton Feldman in the United States and Canada. Based in Chicago, MFCP has been partnered with the Experimental Sound Studio and Iarca Gallery since the Fall of 2014.

1. The related authors and books of the type of pedagogical theory I’m particularly interested in, arguing for the liberation for the oppressed, include Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, and Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

2. I am particularly drawn to bell hooks’s definition of transgression in her work Teaching to Trangress: Education as the Practice of Freedom: “With these essays, I add my voice to the collective call for renewal and rejuvenation in our teaching practices. Urging all of us to open our minds and hearts so that we can know beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable, so that we can think and rethink, so that we can create new visions, I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions—a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom.”

3. The statement “I have nothing to say and I am saying it” is from page 109 of Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage. The notion of art as complaint comes to Cage, as far as I can tell, from Jasper Johns, whom Cage quotes as saying, “all art is either a complaint or an appeasement.” Subsequently, Cage writes a mesostic on the subject, “art is either a complaint or do something else.”

4. The baggage behind the word subversion is deep and complicated. Ali mentions on page 177 of his autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story that he was on a list of “undesirable subversives” by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The context, however, was amidst an experience with a college student, where the college student, in a particularly touching experience, encouraged Ali warmly: “See, you’re number one on the list.” (Though the list was simply in alphabetical order, as Ali noticed.) In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argues that to the oppressor, “the pursuit of full humanity” is identified as subversion, and labeling someone a subversive is a denial of the basic need of the oppressed to achieve full human potential: “Humanity is a ‘thing,’ and they possess it as an exclusive right, as inherited property. To the oppressor consciousness, the humanization of the ‘others,’ of the people, appears not as the pur­suit of full humanity, but as subversion.”

5. Quote found on page 3 in The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

6. Quote found on page 4 of The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

7. A chapter in Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body by Harvey Young deals brilliantly with the stillness and silence of Muhammad Ali in this particular event in Houston.

8. I say “they/we” to described the privileged class because I feel that I belong to this class at times, and at other times, I do not.

9. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire acknowledges oppressors for their “strictly materialistic concept of existence. For the oppressors, what is worthwhile is to have more—always more—even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing. For them, to be is to have and to be the class of the ‘haves.’” On use of the word “power,” I do believe power has potential to be a liberatory word, but when defined in terms of to be is to have, it is a destructive notion for society.

Whose Classical Music? Assumptions and Representation in Online Participatory Projects

What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

On February 12, 2016, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir posted a call for submissions to its new “virtual choir” version of George Friderich Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. The virtual choir format (first used by composer Eric Whitacre in his various “Virtual Choir” projects from 2009 to 2013), encourages participants from around the world to submit videos of themselves singing an individual part of a choral composition. Organizers then compile these individual parts into a final audio/video track to form the full choir, often accompanied by impressive animations that emphasize the projects’ remarkable accomplishment of allowing participants to “sing together” even as they do not inhabit the same physical space.

As a form of religious outreach, the Mormon Tabernacle virtual choir had clear ideological implications, many of which were easily read from its original call for participants. The project’s website explicitly encouraged the unification of Christians across denominational boundaries and featured scriptural quotation from the Book of Mormon explaining the spiritual benefits of the act of singing together. The final video—featuring footage from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir alongside clips submitted online—was released on March 13, 2016, just in time to serve its stated purpose as an Easter celebration. These factors clearly delineated the project’s boundaries, as a space meant for the involvement of Christians (and, implicitly, not for people belonging to other faith traditions) and more specifically as a site in which to assert interdenominational unity.

What I want to discuss here, in contrast, are cases in which the ideology behind the use of music derived from a Western classical tradition might not be so immediately evident. Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir performances are only a few of a number of online projects organized in roughly the past decade that use online technologies to call for general participation in classical music making. These projects range from orchestras arranging performances with interactive Twitter components to even more active roles, such as contests in which the winner has a musical composition exhibited (as in the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin’s 2013 and 2016 contests to remix Dvořák and Bruckner) or performs in some capacity themselves (as in David Lang’s 2011 competition to find a featured performer to play his piece wed at (le) poisson rouge).

Such projects often feature calls to—and claims of having achieved—more actively participatory and widespread inclusion, opening up the world of classical music to new groups that might not have had the chance to engage before. But as recent social discussions about diversity, representation, and inclusion in American mainstream culture make clear (think about critiques of the racial distribution of nominees at this year’s Grammys and Oscars, for example, as just one instance of longer term concerns), inclusivity is a tricky subject. Not everyone agrees about what it looks like or how to make it happen. And although it is difficult to start more clearly defining what inclusivity truly is, why it might be desirable, and how it might be achieved, it is an important conversation to have. In the realm of classical music in America, this need is just as strong and carries a great deal of contemporary and historical significance.[1]

Who is meant to participate, who can participate, who ends up participating, and what does their participation mean?

By taking a critical eye to the claims and hidden pitfalls of online classical music projects, I hope to advance a conversation of importance to all music descended from Western European art music traditions—today, in the 21st century, whose music is this? Or, to pose this question less polemically: Who is meant to participate, who can participate, who ends up participating, and what does their participation mean? This issue often comes up in discussions of audience outreach and anxieties about the future of classical music, and is certainly worth further consideration.

I want to be clear that I assume good intentions on the parts of project organizers, even as I critique some of the ways in which these projects are carried out and the ideologies that underlie them. These issues are difficult to navigate from an organizational perspective, and they are ones that I am sensitive to (and vulnerable myself to criticism for) as someone who organizes classical music concerts and who works as an educator in my own community. At the same time, good intentions are usually only the first step toward addressing social issues—it is also necessary to be open to criticism and to make changes.

Let’s begin with a very brief detour into the world of art history and criticism, where participation has—at least over the past twenty years or so—been the topic of some debate.

Curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud invented the term “relational aesthetics” in a series of essays later published in a book of that name, in response to a trend he observed in visual and conceptual art of the 1990s. With this term, he enthusiastically described a socially engaged approach to art, attentive to the relationship between itself and its viewers and concerned with creating works that Bourriaud characterizes as “convivial, user-friendly…festive, collective and participatory.” For example:

Rirkrit Tiravanija organizes a dinner in a collector’s home, and leaves him all the ingredients required to make a Thai soup…In a Copenhagen square, Jes Brinch and Henrik Plenge Jacobsen install an upturned bus that causes a rival riot in the city. Christine Hill works as a check-out assistant in a supermarket, organizes a weekly gym workshop in a gallery…Pierre Huyghe summons people to a casting session, makes a TV transmitter available to the public, and puts a photograph of laborers at work on view just a few yards from the building site. (Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 7–8)

As one response to Bourriaud and his supporters, art historian Claire Bishop has claimed in her book Artificial Hells that such a celebration of participation above all other characteristics of art creates two false categories: the passive, encompassing activities more commonly associated with gallery culture such as observing and contemplating; and the active, considered more hands-on, engaging, and inclusive of the audience. Bishop is concerned that this division serves to reinforce deep-seated classist perceptions in the art world, under which the upper class owns (both in a figurative sense, or intellectually, and a quite literal one) the space of the gallery. The middle class, under this model, is allowed the mental leisure and capacity to interpret and consider art, and the lower class is thought capable of only relating to art physically, rather than conceptually or aesthetically.

Class—or at least, access to resources, cultural exposure, and training, in a broad sense—is also at the root of assumptions about who belongs in the cultural sphere of Western classical music, as well as its various new music offshoots. For classical music in America today, obsessively concerned with its own seemingly dwindling capacity to speak to contemporary society, it comes perhaps as no surprise that a participatory message would be appealing. In the past eight years or so, orchestras and ensembles across the US have experimented with audience engagement over Twitter and other social media, including by encouraging audience members to live-tweet performances from inside concert halls or interact before and after concerts using particular hashtags or prompts. The Philadelphia Orchestra has developed its own app that allows audience members to follow live program notes on their phones during performances, originally pairing the service with shorter concerts at a reduced ticket price. Some have gone further still: in 2013, the Houston Symphony and local classical station KUHA sponsored an “air-conducting” contest in which participants uploaded videos of themselves conducting along to recordings of classical compositions. The winner of the competition (eventually announced as seven-year-old Jonathan Okensiuk, who had already achieved viral video fame at the age of three for a video of him conducting along to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) was given the opportunity to lead the symphony in a live concert rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Online projects open up new forms of musical participation to people who would normally take part only as audience members.

Although the social and economic issues vary by region and nation, orchestras and organizations outside of the US have also experimented with online projects that open up new forms of musical participation to people who would normally take part only as audience members. In addition to the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin remix competitions mentioned above, projects like the Tweetfonie (2014, Anhaltische Philharmonic Orchestra Dessau) and the World Online Orchestra / Open Orchestra (2013–, Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra) have allowed participants to experiment with manipulating musical materials themselves. Additionally, a number of standalone projects have explicitly aimed for international reach, even as much of their user base has eventually come from the US and Europe. These include Whitacre’s Virtual Choir (2009–2013) and the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (2009/2011).

The use of internet platforms as content generators for musical projects indisputably removes a number of restrictions to participation. Most obviously, physical distance becomes irrelevant: anyone who has technological access can participate. This raises the issue, then, of who does have access. To prepare for, record, and upload a video requires internet access in order to read the instructions, watch a conducting video, view a score or hear a recording (unless these are available to a participant offline), and eventually upload the finished recording. Even with rapidly advancing global internet connectivity, this ability cannot be universally assumed. Some countries have much wider internet availability and usage than others, and this can vary significantly depending on regional infrastructure.

And access depends on more than the ability to get online. Participants also need recording equipment that will capture audio and (usually) video to the standards of the project organizers, as well as the ability to use this equipment without disrupting or being disrupted by others and with a minimum of background noise. At an even more basic level, they have to have heard about the project in the first place, either online through a website, social network, or email list, or through an offline network (for example, as a participant in a traditional community music ensemble). They must be technologically fluent enough to go through the process of creating a video and uploading it, or they must know someone else who can assist them.

Beyond the issue of access is that of representation and inclusion. Western classical music has its own particular set of aesthetic values—simply put, it’s supposed to sound good. A particular set of musical skills is highly valued within the classical world—technical ability, intonation, and tone among them. With the exception of art music contexts that consciously reject these ideas (for example, the Portsmouth Sinfonia, whose members played instruments on which they were untrained to the best of their abilities and whose recordings now live on in viral internet infamy as “orchestra fails”), these values are generally held by classical music performers and ensembles and are required for a musical project to be commercially viable under that genre. Most of the organizations and individuals that host online classical participatory projects therefore have a great deal at stake in presenting something that fits into these aesthetics, because they participate in a system that values this type of skill both intellectually and financially.

Perhaps as a way of compensating for anxieties about not being able to offer the same standard of musical skill as a professional ensemble, online musical projects often justify their value by presenting themselves as performing a type of social work, first and foremost by claiming to increase or broaden participation in classical music traditions. The most common way of providing evidence of increased participation is by emphasizing participants’ geographic locations. This is often done implicitly in smaller projects, especially through reference in publicity materials to participants from the most unusual (or, less charitably, “exotic”) locales. In some of the largest online projects, on the other hand, geographic distribution has been more thoroughly documented and presented. Both the YouTube Symphony Orchestra and Whitacre’s Virtual Choir have emphasized the geographic distribution of their participants, albeit with some distortion. For the 2011 YTSO, ten of the live orchestra’s participants were interviewed in professionally produced “Meet the Orchestra” videos; out of ten videos, two of the members profiled were from the United States.[2] But 42 of the 101 total participants in the orchestra had their home country listed by the ensemble as the US—proportionally, twice as many as were profiled in the video series. Whitacre has emphasized details about geographic diversity for nearly all of his Virtual Choir projects. His 2011 video for Sleep, for example, opens by stating that more than 2000 performances have been submitted from 58 countries, and the names of several of these countries feature heavily in the video’s graphics. The first visible country name is Kazakhstan (0:17, 1 participant), and the names of Croatia (0:51, 1 participant), Sri Lanka (2:32 and 2:51, 3 participants), and Costa Rica (2:40, 1 participant) are prominently visible alongside countries with far more participants, such as the US, the UK, and Canada.[3] The graphics obscure the fact that 1149 videos—more than half—were submitted from the United States alone, and that 80% of the videos come from the five countries with the most submissions (US, UK, Canada, Germany, and Australia).

In other cases, organizers have emphasized aspects of participants’ identity such as physical (dis)ability—for example when Whitacre shared in an article on the Huffington Post that the Virtual Choir had allowed a legally blind participant to sing in a choir for the first time because he had never before been able to see a conductor. The very young and the very old also tend to be singled out as exceptional. The emphasis on youth in particular is striking, with younger participants often presented prominently as if to assuage common fears about aging classical music audiences. For example, a post published on the Houston Symphony blog by associate conductor Robert Franz praises seven-year-old air-conducting contest winner Jonathan Okseniuk as a modern-day (child prodigy) Mozart. Franz expresses shock about Okseniuk’s familiarity with the piece that he conducted prior to the performance (Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever”) the fact that he “not only imitated what he saw and heard, but he internalized it and understood it.” The post’s representation of Okseniuk’s conducting performance hinges entirely on presenting his musical capacity in the context of his age as particularly exceptional. It’s striking to imagine that there are very few circumstances in which it would not seem entirely offensive to make this comment about a person of any other age. But age ranges are useful for demonstrating the broadness of project boundaries, as in the current description of the Sleep Virtual Choir, which claims to include people from “all walks of life, including 9 year olds to senior citizens.”

As demonstrated in all of these cases, the desire to justify online projects through their social functions often results in seeking out “unexpected” project participants, leading to the creation publicity materials that reduce participants’ identities to the ways in which they lie outside of an imagined, presumed audience for classical music. David Lang once said in an interview that he saw his piano competition as “the ability for me to date more people.” When Lang points out that he’s going to make new friends, as when he claims in his announcement video that participation “might be a great opportunity for you to get your music seen” by his panel of expert judges (Andrew Zolinsky, Lisa Moore, Jeremy Denk, and Vicky Chow), he points out not only the insularity of his own existing music community, but a preexisting conception about who doesn’t already belong. In the case of Lang’s competition, this imagined group of people wants to belong, knows most if not all of his judges’ names, and is skilled but not particularly well connected. In other cases, the presumed Other seems to have even less exposure to the cultural and social worlds of classical music—it has to be brought to them, and who better to do it than the organizers of an online project? In all of the above cases, the implication is that online projects do important work by bringing classical music to people who haven’t gotten to experience it previously. But in all of the above cases, the oversights about the real requirements for participation and the casual assumptions made about participants arguably distract from actually carrying out the work that is claimed to be done—that is, from finding creative ways to engage new audiences in a thoughtful and responsible way.

What does this all mean for the future of participatory projects within the new music community? Does it mean that we write them off as failures of past project organizers, or that we abandon participatory models because they are necessarily flawed?

I hope not. I hope it means that composers, performers, and the teams they work with to realize participatory projects will think carefully about who they’re working to include (and who they’re not working to include)—and, importantly, that this will be reflected responsibly in the claims they make about their projects. There is often a fine line between using participatory ideals to help provide community cohesion and painting one’s project as inclusive in order to garner prestige and support while casually allowing the sociopolitical dynamics typically at play in determining cultural participation to continue as usual—but better defining that line is an important task.

Joanna Helms

Joanna Helms

Joanna Helms is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of North Carolina. Her research interests generally center around issues of dissemination, participation, and collaboration in sound and music technologies. She is currently beginning a dissertation on early electronic music and sound art at the Studio di Fonologia, a former research studio associated with Italian state radio and television network Rai.

1. The performance and values of classical music in the US have long been associated with uplift narratives and the American (European-centered) cultural elite. This can be seen in diverse instances throughout the nation’s history, from the establishment of singing schools in New England to teach the right kinds of both musical and social values, to twentieth-century classical radio programming like Walter Damrosch’s Music Appreciation Hour (1928–42), which aimed to educate its listening audiences (especially children) in “good music,” thereby elevating their cultural taste.

2. These videos (titled “Meet [orchestra member’s name]”) are still featured on the YouTube Symphony’s page and can be viewed at this link. I am grateful to Sarah Carsman for sharing her research on the YTSO (in which she points out this and several other marketing strategies) with me.

3. Statistics about participants are taken from